I hadn’t thought about William Pfaff in some years. I recall meeting him a couple of times at writers’ conferences where he was the featured speaker.
He hadn’t been writing his syndicated column recently. But I always thought he crafted among the best written and wisest commentary on foreign policy. That was his specialty.
He died of a heart attack at 86 the other day. This native Iowan had made his home in Paris since 1971, The New York Times lengthy obituary noted. But it would take more than one obit to give an adequate account of Pfaff’s contribution to the debates on foreign policy.
He had been an intelligence office during the Vietnam war. So his frequent critiques of U.S. foreign policy carried a credibility the work of many others lack. Critique that policy he did. That included his many New Yorker columns about U.S. military adventures in Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Publications worldwide carried Pfaff’s syndicated columns. Many U.S. newspapers, including The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, regularly printed his thoughtful pieces. Once in a while, his writing would pop up in one of my favorite monthly publications, The New York Review of Books.
I’d call him an old-fashioned conservative. He argued in favor of restraint. He was that kind of conservative. I can’t imagine right-wing politicians liking his writing.
Pfaff could readily trace a pattern of American over-extension in recent history. That went back to the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. He called their foreign policies messianic illusions. He did make an exception of Dwight Eisenhower, who himself had warned against foreign entanglements in his farewell address to the nation.
I’m sure he didn’t think of himself as belonging in any liberal camp. To the contrary, he often dismissed what he saw as the dogma of many liberals. That’s the idea that says progress is inevitable. So history always trends toward freedom and democracy.
Recent events in the Mideast and Africa would seem to give the lie to that hope.
In person Pfaff came across as a low-key, thoughtful scholar. Nothing flashy. I liked his writing because he rejected ideology. His style was engaging. He brought a scholar’s knowledge and insight to his work. What an fine role model he was for any writer on public affairs.
I’ll always be grateful for the example this humble man set.