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James Chace (1931–2004)

James Chace, who died of a heart attack in Paris in October just a week shy of his seventy-third birthday, examined the foreign affairs of the nation with sharp insights and finely chiseled words. Newspaper obituaries referred to him as a “foreign policy thinker,” a description that sounds both vague and ponderous. In fact, he was neither. Rather he moved with a light touch and a flashing saber through the slough of muddy dissimulation in which public officials bury their actions and their purposes. In dozens of articles for magazines and newspapers—eighteen in this journal since 1981—and in nine books (not to mention a novel and a memoir) he offered uncommonly sensible insights into the way the world worked, and why the United States so often managed to confound its own interests.

What attracted him to foreign affairs, and what gave his writing both depth and grace, was that he saw it as a human drama. He had little respect for the chilly abstractions that professionals use to quantify conflict and ambition—abstractions like “national interest” and “balance of power” and “spheres of influence.” Rather he saw politics abroad as an extension of politics at home. That is to say as a theater in which greed, pride, ambition, arrogance, idealism, faith, and illusion all played their essential parts.

For him there was no such thing as a political “science,” the self-flattering label affixed by academicians in their perpetual search for certainty in the miasma of human affairs. Rather he viewed politics, foreign and domestic, as a perpetual tragicomic cavalcade of barely contained, and often dangerous, human emotions and delusions. This gave his writing a depth and an edge that are all too rare in the genre. Although fascinated by the process of making decisions, he viewed it less as crisis management than as an effort to cope with the burdens of history, arrogance, and a dangerous innocence.

Indeed he never fit easily into any conventional groove. He was a college professor who never went to graduate school, an influential foreign affairs analyst who never worked in the national security bureaucracy, a traditionalist attracted to revolutionaries, and a Yankee patriot whose great hero was an autocratic French general.

Although dubious about the claims of political “science,” he had a great respect for history. For him current events were always rooted in the actions and attitudes—sometimes inspired, sometimes bizarre, and often dangerously misguided—that fostered and sustained them. To his readers he explained the present by describing the trail that led to it. Every nation, he believed, dragged its past upon its back as it plunged eagerly, and often blindly, into a dangerously tantalizing future. For him an appreciation of how we got there was critical to an understanding—whether the issue was Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq—of how we might succeed, or at least disentangle ourselves without leaving things much worse than we found them.

Combined with this sense of history was an eagerness to be a witness to history as it unfolded. Although he worked most of his life as an editor of magazines and later as a college teacher, as well as a writer of books, he loved going out into the field to interview, to report, and to get the feel of those places whose future American policymakers were intent on deciding. He was particularly drawn to Central America, where in the 1980s the Reagan administration instigated and financed a series of proxy wars. Several of his articles, in which he brilliantly reported on politics in Nicaragua and neighboring countries, were commissioned and published by The New York Review and were incorporated into the book Endless War.

Underneath the analyst and historian there was always a romantic seeking to break free. As a young man in the 1950s he wrote for the Harvard Advocate, majored in French and Italian literature, planned to be a novelist, and believed, as he recently wrote about himself, that “writing about politics was a cop-out, a seeming loss of self.” But living in 1954 in Paris, where he had gone on a Fulbright grant to study (so he thought) Baudelaire and Delacroix, he was swept up in the great tides of political passion stirred by the disastrous French colonial war in Indochina. It was the seminal event of his intellectual life. “The opposition between art and politics that had seemed inherent at Harvard was being resolved in Paris,” he explained. The resolution was not in one or the other, but in a fusion of the two.

In his political awakening he found a hero in Charles de Gaulle, the rebel general who returned from a self-imposed exile to save the Republic and to restore the honor of France. And he might have found a model of a somewhat different sort in André Malraux, a man who combined in a remarkable life a commitment to politics, literature, and aesthetics. It was his discovery that there could be an aesthetics, if you will, of political action that drew him to writing books about Theodore Roosevelt and Dean Acheson. And it was what led him to the romantic figure whose life he had just begun to research, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Inside the political analyst there was always the man who, in his twenties, had written his bildungsroman, The Rules of the Game, and in his sixties the touching memoir, tellingly entitled What We Had, of his own family’s slow descent from gentility to poverty in a decaying New England mill town.

His tragic sense of life’s vagaries, and of how a family, like a nation, can through a series of bad judgments and illusions lose its way, helped to form his political sensibilities. This is why his witnessing of France’s humiliating retreat from empire made such an impact upon him. And it is why he was such a sensitive commentator on our own imperial follies in Vietnam, Central America, and today the Middle East.

But although he had a strong sense of the past, and returned every summer to a beach house only a few miles from where he was born, he was never entrapped by it. He did not, like Henry Adams or George Kennan, lament the past and our presumed fall from grace. He lived in this, our time. He had a historian’s realization that the past creates the present, a reporter’s keen eye for the truths concealed by rhetoric, and a novelist’s sensitivity to the passions that cloud all human judgments.

He was a skeptic but never a cynic. Although he decried the abuse of American power, he also recognized its uses. He believed that the United States had a constructive, indeed crucial, role to play in the world. In his last published words, which appeared in these pages only a few weeks ago, he wrote that for all the follies of our current adventures in the Middle East, “dangerous consequences could result from a debacle in Iraq…. Should the US, appalled by the disasters of its occupation of Iraq, disenchanted by the messianic rhetoric about remaking the world, withdraw into isolationism, the result could be all the more harmful to itself and its allies.”*

An analyst, a critic, even a romantic, he was always a patriot and a realist.

  1. *

    Empire, Anyone?,” The New York Review, October 7, 2004.

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