Walt describes how growing up in a priveleged Northern California family with a scientist father cultivated the idea that the highest pinnacle of human achievement doing was something involving ideas, research, or study.
Question: Who are you?
Stephen Walt: Stephen Walt. I’m the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Stephen Walt: I was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but left there when I was eight months old and have no memories of it; and spent virtually all of my childhood and early adulthood in Northern California. I was raised in the Bay area. I went to Stanford and then Berkeley for graduate school. So I was there until I was about 25.
My father is a physicist. He’s a nuclear physicist who then got interested in space physics. So he left the Los Alamos Laboratories and went to Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, where he spent most of his career until he retired when he was about 67 or so.
I had, I think, a remarkably privileged childhood. I mean my parents were not wealthy, but they were more than comfortable. I was from a family that, you know, put a lot of value on education even though I wasn’t much of a student in those days. And I think what I got most from that particular aspect and the aspect of having a father who was a scientist was the idea that the life of the mind was really a wonderful thing; that the most important thing in life was to find something that you really loved doing.
But secondly, if what you were doing was something involving ideas, or involving research, or involving study, that was really the highest pinnacle of human achievement. My father didn’t pound that message in; but it was the one . . . the lesson I think his own life suggested to me pretty strongly.
Question: When did political science spark your interest?
Stephen Walt: Well I’d been interested in military history when I was a little kid. So I read a lot of books on, you know, World War I and World War II. And that had always been a little bit of a hobby, not a serious hobby. And then when I went off to college, I actually originally intended to either be a historian or a biochemist; but I decided that I would start with biochemistry and see how that went, because I figured that would be easier to move to history if biochemistry didn’t pan out. And organic chemistry and I didn’t get along. So at the end of my freshman year, I decided that God did not put me on the planet to be a biochemist. I shifted to history, and the history I cared about was international history and diplomatic history. And that led rather quickly into an undergraduate major in international relations, and then graduate study in political science.
Question: Did anyone guide you in that direction?
Stephen Walt: There was one. Actually I’m sure there were a number. And I had some wonderful professors as an undergraduate who were quite inspirational. But the one moment I remember was in my junior year. I was studying overseas. I was actually at the Stanford program in Berlin. And Gordon Craig, who was a historian at Stanford – a quite distinguished historian of German history – was doing a lecture to our class about Weimar, Germany. And it was about what intellectuals had done in Weimar, Germany, which was basically to behave in a completely irresponsible way. They disengaged from politics. They started worrying more about art and other things as opposed to caring about real affairs.
And he basically said, you know, part of the reason we got the Nazis; and part of the reason we got Hitler; and part of the reason we got World War II was that the intellectuals in Weimar, Germany abdicated their social responsibility. And I was, at that point, trying to decide whether or not to go to law school or go do graduate work in political science. And I remember thinking, you know, that there was a role to . . . to play as an intellectual, but remaining engaged in politics. And that . . . I remember that being sort of the moment which I decided I was going to graduate school and not to law school.
October 8, 2007