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Ernest Lefever
Ernest Lefever
The Irony of Virtue:  Ethics and American Power
ISBN: 0813368812
The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power
This definitive anthology is the fruit of one of America's most respected neoconservatives. Trained in Christian ethics, Ernest Lefever has been an articulate public policy advocate. Both conservatives and liberals will ignore his views at their peril.

In this first-ever anthology of his most important work, Lefever takes a bold and lively march through the second half of the twentieth century. As an acute participant-observer who cares deeply about peace, freedom, and human dignity, Lefever became a neoconservative twenty years before Irving Kristol coined the term. For this volume, Lefever selected forty of his most influential essays from some 500 published pieces. They reveal his dramatic transformation from a liberal pacifist during World War II to a humane realist.
—from the publisher's website

The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power
Program Air Date: March 22, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ernest Lefever, author of "The Irony of Virtue," in your book you talk about on your honeymoon going to see Leon Trotsky's skull. What was that about?
MR. ERNEST LEFEVER, AUTHOR, ""THE IRONY OF VIRTUE: ETHICS AND AMERICAN POWER" Ethics and American Power"): Well, I have always been a political person, and on my honeymoon to Mexico City, the one thing I wanted to see most of all is the place where Trosky--Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin's agent. And we talked our way in. A--a Russian guy came to the big iron gate, and I tried English on him; I tried German. Then my wife did French. And finally he let us in. And I said at Yale I was studying about Trotsky and--and the--and the Soviet revolution, and I'd b--like--like to see wh--the great man's library. So he showed me Trotsky's library. And on the way out, there was a window there with a little alcove, and there was the couch on which Trotsky was sleeping when they plunged the pickax into his skull.
LAMB: Who was he?
Mr. LEFEVER: Ramon in Stalinist Asia did it. And Stalin couldn't stand Trotsky because Trotsky was betraying the revolution. As Stalin and Lenin saw it, he was not tough enough. He was not violent enough. He was not willing to destroy religion and the civilization o--of the czars.
LAMB: Who was Trotsky in the first place, though? What--how did he fit in to the whole Russian scheme?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, Trotsky was one of the original revolutionaries in the--in the Soviet Union, along with Lenin and--and Stalin. And he became disenchanted, and he differed on whether they should make a evolution only in Russia or throughout the world. And then he was exiled. He went to Switzerland, other countries, and finally wound up in--in Mexico. We were told, by the way, that we're the first persons who visited Trotsky's place, other than family and friends, since the assassination and the press came in that day. And there in a little courtyard was a tombstone with a hammer and sickle on a red flag. And while we were there, we saw Mrs. Trotsky walk over a balcony as we were going out--out the courtyard.
LAMB: Now what does that do for you to visit a place like that?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, I've always wanted to visit places of great significance that had to do with the tragedies of the world, the brutalities of the world, or the redemption of the world. Consequently, I found myself wanting--maybe it's not very normal to want to see where Hitler committed suicide, but what--I went to his bunker in Berlin before it was blown up. I went to the place where Quisling was shot for betraying the Norwegian people. And I visited places like this in--in Vietnam. I wanted to enrich my own history and understanding by these vivid images.
LAMB: When did you go to Vietnam and what'd you see there?
Mr. LEFEVER: Vietnam, I was there twice in connection with research work I was doing at the Brookings Institution, and one occasion I was studying US military assistance training to the Third World. And I went throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. And then I saw--Vietnam, for example, I saw a police training school there in the Mecong Valley as we fly over--over that place. I also visited Laos on that same trip.
LAMB: You also went to Dachau.
Mr. LEFEVER: Yes, of course. That's perhaps the most important thing. As a child, I was brought up to believe that the violation of human rights was everybody's concern. It was a deeply religious pious family. I remember my mother talking about famines in China. I remember my father during the Depression, when we had very little money ourselves, sending a check to the Near East Foundation in New York for the starving Armenians. And then, much more recently, my wife and I--or at the time of the fall of Saigon, my wife and I sponsored a boat family of--of five persons, including a--a two-month-old baby.

We went to Dachau after--during my three years in Europe working for the World's YMCA to put its--itself--congratulatorily, to bind up the wounds of war, because I had been a passivist during the war. One of the first things I wanted to see is Dachau where Pastor Martin Niemoller had been held for about five years. I visited other concentration camp sites, Bar Ba Yar in--in--in Poland, and other places, to enrich my understanding of history, to give it a third and more vivid dimension.
LAMB: Is there a place you haven't been that you want to see?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, I haven't visited--visited as thoroughly as I wished in China. I've been there once only for a very brief trip. I've been to over 100 countries in various capacities. But perhaps the place I want to visit most is the United States now. I haven't seen as much of this great country as I--I would like to see.
LAMB: "The Irony of Virtue" is the name of your book.
Mr. LEFEVER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What's the source of the name?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, first of all, "The Irony of Virtue," the book, has a subtitle, "Ethics and American Power." I think I got the idea of "The Irony of Virtue" from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who spoke of the irony of America having to build nuclear war--weapons in order to deter nuclear war and in order to hold back the Soviet tyranny. Irony deals with unintended consequences. We want to do good things. "The Irony of Virtue" relates to the good people who want to make a better world but who are too Utopian or too Wilsonian to understand the agony of the world. So I think T.S. Eliot said in "Murder in the Cathedral" the worst transgression was to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I disagree. I think doing the wrong thing for the right reasons is even more serious.

For example, if the Wilsonians would have had their way during the great weekend between World War I and II, we might have had a worse world than we did. Someone has said the Wilsonians reached for Utopia and gave us hell. So the real problem in history is to acknowledge who we are, to acknowledge the reality of original sin, the ambiguity of history. I think Reinhold Niebuhr himself put it best in his book, the "Children of Light & the Children of Darkness," when he said, `Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.' And the--Madison had this same thing, `If men were angels, we would not need government, but we need a government of checks and balance--balances because men are not angels. Men have evil inclinations.' Others have said, `Every human being in his breast is living between barbarism and civilization.' In a sense, mankind is suspended between heaven and hell. Men are not God, men are not angels, and they have to struggle in this realm.
LAMB: Reinhold Niebuhr comes up throughout your entire book, his brother Richard...
Mr. LEFEVER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and I just want to ask you before I go on, is--is the Niebuhr byline in The New York Times a son?
Mr. LEFEVER: That is a nephew, Gustav Niebuhr.
LAMB: Who are these Niebuhrs?
Mr. LEFEVER: Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother Richard, the elder one, are two of the greatest theologians of this generation, perhaps of this century. They have German origins. They were Presbyterian or Calvinist. And in a cover story in Time magazine one--many years ago, the editors in their cute way said--referred to Reinhold Niebuhr as a man who made original sin popular. In his great--greatest book, Reinhold Niebuhr said man has original sin and original righteousness. He didn't say this, but I will say this that men--history can produce great saints, like St. Francis or Mother Teresa, and great demons, like Stalin and Hitler, but all of us are somewhere in between this. History is open, and we must make decisions as men.
LAMB: Where did you come in contact with them and did you know either one of them?
Mr. LEFEVER: Oh, I--I knew both very well. Richard Niebuhr was my teacher both at Yale Divinity School and then after three searing years in Europe binding up the wounds of war, as I put it, helping--returning German prisoners of war under the World's YMCA, I returned to Yale, this time for a te--PhD program in Christian philosophical ethics. And then I had Richard Niebuhr again. Reinhold Niebuhr I learned mainly through reading his books, but we had a--a correspondence spanning 20 years.

So these two men, in my view, have made a tremendous contribution to a realistic understanding of America and history. I would call them humane realists. And I, as you gather from the book, started out as a religious passivist because I was brought up in the Passivist Church of the Brethren. During college and seminary, I was active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a religious passivist organization. And I was exceedingly active in the civil rights movement working with Bayard Rustin--the late Bayard Rustin, and Jim Farmer, who recently got the Presidential Medal of Honor--Medal of Freedom. And I was very active, but during this time--during my seminary years in New Haven, those three years corresponded to my--to the three years of World War II. So I was a passivist throughout World War II. It took the hammer blows of post-war Europe, seeing the tragedy up close and vividly that transformed me from a Utopian passivist to what I call a humane realist.
LAMB: I want to go back to the beginning in just a second, but in 1981 you were nominated to be an assistant secretary of state. What happened?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, this was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. I became the fall guy for the Reagan revolution. The left--the hard left was stunned by Reagan's victory, and shortly after he was elected, my good friend Jeanne Kirkpatrick was nominated to be our ambassador at the UN, and she passed through unanimously. They hadn't caught their breath yet, but they jumped on me and accused me of all kinds of things because, as they--some of the critics said--I cared more about human rights in totalitarian societies than human rights in authoritarian societies, which, of course, was ridiculous. I had an--a human rights record second to none in this country, and as far as when I went to Europe, I worked for $10 a month and my--and my keep with the--with the World's YMCA. So they were really after me because I did not subscribe to their facile ideas; I did not sus--ab--subscribe to President Carter's views of human rights, which was to scold countries that did not come up to his hopes and expectations.
LAMB: Who led the charge against you?
Mr. LEFEVER: There were a variety of--o--of groups, all on the liberal left, which included the National Council of Churches where, ironically, I had worked for three years as an international affairs specialist in--in the '50s. But they did not like the fact that I had changed my passivist Wilsonian outlook to a more realistic outlook, and they also accused me of being too anti-Communist. I was a victim of the anti-anti-communism.
LAMB: Why did you pull out?
Mr. LEFEVER: I pulled out because--first of all, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted against me, but they also voted to take my name to the Senate floor.
LAMB: There was a Democratic Senate at the time.
Mr. LEFEVER: No, no, it was Republican.
LAMB: Was it?
Mr. LEFEVER: And Chuck Per...
LAMB: What year? Wh--what was the exact year? Was it '81?
Mr. LEFEVER: '81. And Chuck Percy was the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he turned against me from the beginning. He didn't like Reagan. And I was supported by five votes and opposed by the others. And when that happened, I called Reagan up at Camp David and told him that I would--would like to withdraw my name because it would tie up the Senate for a week--a filibuster and so on. The attack on me throughout the press was--had been going on for five months. And Oliphant, for example, in his cartoon portrayed me as a--simply as a skull and crossbones with the name Lefever down below. So there was a tremendous campaign. And I said, `I don't want to tie up the Senate with this. I would like to withdraw my name.' He says he understood, and `There will be no nomination.' He wanted to eliminate the post because it had been so abused by the--the Carter people.
LAMB: What was the impact on you of all this?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, I--I didn't enjoy the occasion. I was, in effect, `Borked' before Bob Bork, although my position was not nearly as important as a--as a Supreme Court justice. But I was saddened by the quality of debate. I was saddened by the fact--at the extent to which the predatory press could distort an issue. And I think I anticipated Bork and Clarence Thomas both because, in all three cases, roughly the same people on the other side of the cultural divide came against us for--for ideological reasons.
LAMB: Now you have how many pieces in your book?
Mr. LEFEVER: There're about 39 pieces.
LAMB: What--how--over how many years?
Mr. LEFEVER: A 50-year period. I wrote about 500 articles. And I picked those articles that I thought were most interesting. I condensed them. And one can see my pilgrimage over the last 50 years as I encounter the larger world, especially focusing on US foreign policy issues.
LAMB: Did the--the 24th chapter, the 1974 piece, titled The Elite Press and the Present Danger, do you think have anything to do with why the media may have been harsh on you in '81?
Mr. LEFEVER: Yes, that has often been suggested because I had been critical of the elite press.
LAMB: You know--for instance, here's a line, `The thesis of this essay is that recent developments in the mass press, which both reflect and exacerbate certain flaws in American society, jeopardize the future of the United States as a great and humane power.'
Mr. LEFEVER: Yes. I--I felt that the elite press, or you might even call it the mainline press or the prestige press, had been influenced by the 1960s counterculture and was betraying the values of the Founders as it yielded to the demands and anger of--of the '60s. Now I'm not saying the press was a carbon copy of the adversary culture, but enough voices in the press were that way, that those of us who were upholding what we regard as traditional values were--wer--became--became their targets.
LAMB: You mention the Freedom of Information Act, and then you go on to say that no government in history has had to operate so fully in the glare of--of critical publicity. Do you like the Freedom of Information Act? And is it good that we have this kind of glare?
Mr. LEFEVER: I think--I believe in a free press. I believe the press has a very important function, and I believe that many, perhaps most people, in the fourth estate perform their responsibility well. My criticism was always dir--directed toward those who did not exercise this responsibility correctly. I--by the way, in--in one book, I predict that the--the sameness that one saw on crucial foreign policy issues on the three networks in the old days would not be corrected until cable TV came in, and I mentioned C-SPAN there at--over 20 years ago, that this was a very important development, cable TV for diversity. So I believe in freedom of the press, but I believe equally strongly in the responsibility of the press.
LAMB: How many books have you written in your life?
Mr. LEFEVER: I have written about eight, and edited about 12 more.
LAMB: What are you doing now for a living?
Mr. LEFEVER: I've just completed sending another book in, and that will be published in the--in the fall of this year. And the title of that book will probably be "Ethics and Empire: America's Empirial Dilemma." This is an essay book, as opposed to the--the--the book you have before you, which could be properly called an anthology.
LAMB: Where did it all start? Where were you born?
Mr. LEFEVER: I was born a year and a day after World War--World War I was over, and I think that the fact of the war so being--being so close to my father, who was exempted because he had some children, and the fact of my being brought up in a passivist home, from the very start made me interested in the great issues. I was always interested in war and peace; tyranny and freedom; human suffering and humanity. These were the big issues that I was concerned about. I don't apologize for this, but I had a missionary impulse. I wanted to be a Christian missionary. I thought that would be the highest calling. Then I went on to college, and I was a passivist, as--as I said before.

And after Pearl Harbor, it was clear that I could do nothing about preventing America from going to war, so I put my energy then in the civil rights movement. And I was involved in one of the first sit-downs in this country with Bayard Rustin and James Farmer in Chicago. And I was in the movement--in the pioneering phase of the movement 12 years before Martin Luther King joined, and I sat in the back of the bus 12 years before Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus and for the same reason: to--to challenge Jim Crow, so it was Europe then that moved me away from my Wilsonian passivist moorings to what I call a realist humane position.
LAMB: Hometown.
Mr. LEFEVER: Hometown, York, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What did your mother and father do for a living?
Mr. LEFEVER: I was brought up in a middle--working-class home. My father worked at the York Corporation where he was known as the Bible-reading foreman. And he had six grades of education, but went up to calculus on his own. My mother had taught school--grade school for 10 years, and she brought us up, my four brothers and me, on the McGuffey Readers and on the Bible--the King James Bible, in which I memorized the passages in the Old and New Testament. It was a very pious home--no smoking, drinking or even card playing, no going to a store, even on Sunday. And I don't regret this background in piety. After that, I became a social action liberal during my passivist phase, and then I finally ended to what might be called a neo-conservative position.
LAMB: What's the McGuffey's Reader?
Mr. LEFEVER: McGuffey Readers were the most widely used readers in the United States in the second half of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century. They--the McGuffey six-reader is a great classic, and I wish it would be reintroduced into the schools today, because they had passages in there from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from the Founding Fathers. It was unashamedly patriotic. It was unashamedly pro-American. It was unashamedly democratic. And my mother taught from and taught us these stories. They all had morals. And when you look at today's schools, one would wonder whether a computer or being hooked up with the--the world Net is as important as the morals taught and the morals that were taught in the McGuffey Reader era.
LAMB: Your father was a Bible-reading foreman. How did they know?
Mr. LEFEVER: He had a desk. In a--as you know, air conditioning was virtually invented at--by the York Corporation. They'd been an ice machinery corporation. And the center of that complex was the machines that make the machines. And my father was in charge with that, and he had a desk, but he never wore a tie to work. He was a blue-collar worker. And during the Depression, in those days, he earned $40 a week and had eight mouths to feed on $40 a week. But, still, at the same time, he was treasurer of our local church poor fund and doled out $20 a check weeks to the poor people. My mother canned peaches in the backyard of our--we were on the edge of York, Pennsylvania--and took two-quart jars on a 7-cent streetcar ride to the poor people. We didn't know we were poor. In fact, during those days--during the Depression, my mother read about the Fresh Air children that needed to get out of the Bronx in Brooklyn. And for two summers, we had a Fresh Air child come and live with us. We didn't know we were poor. I never knew I was poor until I got to Yale. We never wanted for anything. Of course, we never had a car, never had a new bicycle. We never had a telephone. But we were, in my view, a--a happy family. And there's where my values were set.
LAMB: Your brothers, your four brothers, are they alive?
Mr. LEFEVER: Three of them are gone, regrettably. The youngest one survives. The brothers all went on to college. One went into mathematics; one into engineering; one into consumer co-ops; another into investment banking. I alone went into a low-paying profession, a professor and--and think-tank researcher.
LAMB: One of them went to jail.
Mr. LEFEVER: Yes. During World War II, I was a passivist and I also was ordained in the Church of the Brethren as a minister, and I performed a marriage ceremony for my elder brother, Tim, and the next day the FBI picked him up and took him off because he refused to go to civilian public service camp, which conscientious objectors were permitted to do. He was a more absolute conscientious objector than I, and he got a--a term in Asheville Correctional Facility.
LAMB: Where'd you go to college?
Mr. LEFEVER: I went to Elizabethtown College, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and then on to--to Yale for my two advanced degrees.
LAMB: When did you change your views? Wh--is there a moment where you went from being a passivist to--I don't know whether you--what you went to, but you...
Mr. LEFEVER: The--the moment was three years in Europe, and it was gradual. I had no `road to Damascus' experience. But when I saw the--the first time I saw the concentration camp mark on the wrist of a girl in London--I--I was first in London in England, and then three--two years in Germany--and then when I visited Dachau and I talked with churchmen who had suffered and I saw what Hitler had wrought, then I realized that the passivism I had espoused was irrelevant to dealing with such massive evil. And then I soon realized that another evil was sweeping over Europe, the evil of Soviet communism, which was attempting to take over Europe and, in fact, did take over much of Central Europe.
LAMB: What did you do during World War II?
Mr. LEFEVER: During World War II, I was a theological student at Yale.
LAMB: The whole time?
Mr. LEFEVER: I was--yes. Those three years coincided. I--we were in a moral cocoon. I was unaware of what the outside world was doing. And the faculty at Yale Divinity School at that time was half passivist and half non-passivist. And I was very active with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was known as the field director for the Connecticut Valley. And I would travel out. And I would also visit conscientious objectors who were working in mental institutions there and so on. So I was a strong passivist, and then I decided to authenticate my views, I should spend an--an equal amount of time that men were conscripted for, so I volunteered to go to Europe with the World's YMCA. And there is where the change took place.
LAMB: You at one time went to see Father Divine. Who was he and why did you go there?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, in connection with my interest in civil rights, I may have overreacted. I had many black friends, and I associated with blacks. I tried to get the black paper, The Pittsburgh Courier, into the common room at Yale Divinity School, and I had many contacts in Harlem. And I was interested in Father Divine, who was a De--Depression-era demagogue who had established a vast welfare system in New York. His restaurants were called Father Divine restaurants. He had apartment houses and so on. I once--I occasionally ate at his restaurants for 25 cents. And he got--ran into trouble with the law because of financial corruption and so forth. So he lived in Philadelphia, but he would come to New York on Sunday when they couldn't apprehend him by--by law. And I went to one of his heavens one night, and there he dispensed 200 dishes of food, and his angels were around singing, and over his head was a big neon sign that said, `Father's divine communion table.' So he was just a Depression-era demagogue who probably did more good than some contemporary demagogues like Farrakhan, for example.
LAMB: What's wrong with Mr. Farrakhan?
Mr. LEFEVER: Mist--Mr. Farrakhan, in a sense, represents the irony this book talks about. He pretends he wants to do good, and perhaps in his heart he wants to do good, but I believe he is a racist; I believe he's an anti-Semite. And I believe he has deep hostility, hidden and unacknowledged, toward--toward his country. When he goes abroad and meets with our enemies, like Qaddafi in Libya, and denounces America fromso--foreign soil, I think that is disreputable.
LAMB: You once had a private conversation with Josef Cardinal Mindszenty.
LAMB: Who was he? And wh--what--when was this?
Mr. LEFEVER: This was in June 1948. Cardinal Mindszenty was the head of the Catholic Church in Hungary. It so happens I was there--I was a stringer for a religious news service at that time and for Christian Century. It so happens that I was doing a study of religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain--Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And in Hungary I was able to get a--an appointment with him four days after the Communist regime had nationalized all the religious schools most of which were--were Catholic. So I had 45 minutes alone with him discussing the issue. And I was very impressed with--with this--this man and, as you know, he had been also imprisoned under Hitler. He was anti-totalitarian and he was then tri--I--I predicted then in a--in a letter that Cardinal Mindszenty would be tried, accused of treason, and given a very strong sentence. Unfortunately, my words came true and next January he was--that was done, and a trial publicized around the world this sad face. He had been drugged and he made this false confession and then was imprisoned. And during the later liberation, I should say, a demonstration in Budapest, he w--fled to the American legation where he stayed almost until his death.
LAMB: Now that was 50 years ago.
Mr. LEFEVER: Yeah.
LAMB: How much of that can you remember, that 45 minutes with him?
Mr. LEFEVER: Oh, I can remember it very vividly because I wrote notes down. I was alone. Even his private secretary was not permitted. And unfortunately, my German is very bad and the interview was in German. But I took notes in English and then I cleared them with his secretary so I remembered what he said. The--a principle thing he said was that the church's fight for religious rights is a much broader fight. It's the right--it's a fight for all human rights. And he want--didn't want to be construed as narrowly looking after the interests of the Catholic Church. He was a--he wanted to be thought of as being concerned about the human rights of all Hungarians, in fact, all people everywhere.
LAMB: How did you end up attending the trial of Francis Gary Powers, and who was he?
Mr. LEFEVER: I was in Moscow with my wife in 1960 on other business. Actually, I just ended my tour of duty with Senator Hubert Humphrey who wrote a letter to the proper people in Moscow saying I wanted to talk about arms control. I--he was very much concerned about that. And while I was there, I learned that the Gary Powers trial was on. And even though the American Embassy didn't want anybody to attend this trial from the Free World, all the--all the embassies observed our prohibition against that or our wish that they didn't go. We had a lot of `oomph' in those days. I nevertheless quietly went on my own. As far as I know, I was only one of three Americans there in the--in the trial. And during the intermission, it was--it was a--was really a show. I went back to where Gary Powers' parents were and I talked with the father. And he said, `What's going to happen to my son?' And I said, `They're going to be easy on your son. Do you recall when they referred to you as a peasant who never exploited anyone?' He didn't understand what that was. But I said, `Your son will probably get a brief sentence and then exchanged for an American spy.' And that is precisely what happened.
LAMB: And what had his son done that was wrong?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, his son, Gary Powers, had pilot the--piloted the U-2 plane photographing sensitive military facilities in the Soviet Union. We have been--we had been using the U-2 plane over the Soviet Union--this, of course, is before the days of satellites--and Khrushchev was very, very angry and it took years for them to develop a rocket high enough to shoot down Gary Powers, which they--which they did. Powers admitted that he was spying and then I went up in an--during the intermission and looked at the wreckage they had right there in the courtroom, saw the needle he wa--he could have committed suicide with, for example, and all the other paraphernalia, and--but he didn't commit suicide; he couldn't i--if he had wanted to. He was not tortured. In any event, soon the super--soon the U-t--U-2 plane was superceded by the satellites, which are much more accurate and safer.
LAMB: You have a forward in your book by William F. Buckley, and in there--first of all, how did you get him to write the forward?
Mr. LEFEVER: I asked him.
LAMB: Did you know him well?
Mr. LEFEVER: Not that well. I--I know him and I respect him.
LAMB: He talks about a 1988 meeting--November of 1988; he said, `I acknowledge as one of the most exciting intellectual and political moments of my life, and it was a meeting between Andre Sakharov and Dr. Edward Teller.' Why did he find it exciting, and how did you put that meeting together?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, as a president and founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center--that was founded in '76, a--a small think tank here in Washington--we ran an annual dinner honoring persons for integrity and courage in the public arena. And that evening we had honored persons like Bukofsky, Lech Walesa. That evening the honoree was Edward Teller for his--a great work. And w--I learned--I happened to be in Oregon at the time--I learned that Sakharov was going to make--be making his first American visit at that time, so I pulled all the strings I knew to get him there. And I introduced them in my hotel room, in the Washington Hilton, the one and only time these two titans ever met, both known as the father of the H-bomb in their respective countries, both great lovers of freedom, and there, for 45 minutes, I watched these two men talk. There was interpretation because Sakharov spoke in--in Russian. And then it happened at--at that dinner, Bill Buckley was the master of ceremonies, and that's how he--he met these two men.
LAMB: What did these two men actually--what had they done?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, they were both nuclear physicists, but Sakharov later fell afoul of the party and was marooned t--to Gorky, and Teller helped create the--the H-bomb. He's been one of the--the nuclear s--leading nuclear scientists, an outspoken proponent of a strong defense. He was als--also outspoken, by the way, in--in urging fr--freer exchange of scientific information. They differed on the question of SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes known as `Star Wars.' Sakharov was against it and Teller was for it, and Teller tried to persuade Sakharov in private that this was not--th--that the net effect of this initiative, strategic defense on our side, actually stabilized the nuclear relationship between the two s--superpowers. I don't think Sakharov got it in that short of--short of time. He also pointed out--Teller says, `You have been cut out of the intelligence in your own country, but your country is working very hard to ha--have precisely the same capability as we're trying.'
LAMB: Now you correct me if I'm wrong, but you are one of the few people--and I don't know what that number is, but s--we've had some here over the years--who have been inside different camps. Now you've been inside the most liberal camp, the most conservative camps. Have you found one side or the other to be more sincere once you get inside?
Mr. LEFEVER: I think it depends on--on the--in the i--on the individuals. There is a tendency of the more conservative people to be a little more realistic. A liberal, almost by definition, sees the world as he wants it to be. He has a vision of a world he wants. And there's a--there's a certain prism he looks at the world through. A conservative, on the other hand, by definition, let's conserve our values, and he's more prepared to accept the world as it is. Now there are responsible people in--in both camps. Of course, there are liberals who want to make an even better world and who acknowledge the realities. There are conservatives who are willing to ditch the evil and the corrupt in the past and want to move ahead. So I find myself getting along well with anybody who has a sense of responsibility, and s--some of them call themselves conservatives, some liberals.
LAMB: Who was your favorite liberal that you ever met, ever came in contact, ever worked with?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, maybe--maybe Hubert Humphrey.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, Hubert Humphrey was committed to human rights, as I am. He--he had a liberal vision, but he--he was also realistic. Very interesting that Hubert Humphrey, Reinhold Niebuhr and Eleanor Roosevelt were charter members for the Democrat--Americans for Democratic Action. I joined it shortly after it was founded. That was a--at that time known as a liberal Democratic organization. But it was the first organization in American history that categorically came out against totalitarianism of the left and right. So Hubert Humphrey, who was also active--not only active in human rights worldwide, but very much at home and very much interested in arms control--Hubert Humphrey said of the new civil rights law, `If this law is at anytime interpreted to include favoritism or preferences, I will eat it.' I think that Hubert Humphrey, the great liberal, would be choking today eating that law because, unfortunately, the--the vitality, the relevance and the simple rightness of civil rights has been compromised by the great civil wrong of giving certain gender and ethnic groups preference.

I guess the--the greatest heart sickness I feel is the betrayal of the genuine civil rights movement that King represented and by certain civil rights leaders in places like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. By the way, I was a member of both of those organizations back in the pioneer days.
LAMB: Now have you ever been inside a l--a conservative organization where you've said, `I--I'm just not happy here, I'm not comfortable here and I don't like these people'?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, yes. I--I'm not a--I'm not in many organizations, but I've been in--in meetings. Who was it--Orwell s--who spoke of those smelly little ideologies. When people are transfixed by an ideology, an easy answer, I'm uncomfortable whether they're from the right or from the left. I am a realist who s--sees history as a more complex and more ambiguous ar--arena than--than that. So I'm uncomfortable with the hard left. I'm uncomfortable with the hard right. I find myself comfortable--comfortable with--with Middle America, most Americans. I have no problem with Middle American morality.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. LEFEVER: I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where I've lived for--for four--40 years.
LAMB: How many children do you have?
Mr. LEFEVER: I have two sons.
LAMB: You dedicated the book to `Margaret and our grandchildren, Paris Ann, Scott David, Alexander David and Elizabeth Joy.' And wh--what do your children do?
Mr. LEFEVER: My elder son David is in investment banking in New York and my younger son is a lieutenant commander in the US Navy. He's a psychologist. At the moment, he's on the sh--the aircraft carrier George Washington in the Gulf for counseling purposes.
LAMB: Here's the--here are your four grandchildren. What kind of a world do you think they will live in, compared--now you make a reference in your book about the next century and don't think it's not gonna be like this century. Why did you say that, and what kind of world do you think they're really gonna live in?
Mr. LEFEVER: This was the most bloody century in history as far as we know. The next century will still be a--assailed by war, tyranny, bloodshed. But as far as America is concerned, I believe America has the spiritual and--and the material resources to move well into the next century as the primary international influence in the world. I refer to America as a humane superpower or a humane imperial power. And I am not to be numbered among the declinists who think we're down--going down the slippery slope. I--I remind them that it took 400 years for Rome to fall and America's not finished yet.
LAMB: You have this limerick in your book, back on the back, `God's plan made a hopeful beginning, but man spoiled his chances by sinning. We trust that the story will end in God's glory, but at present the other side's winning.' Where did you get that and why did you put it in here?
Mr. LEFEVER: I don't remember where I got it. I've tried--Bob Bork has used it. It's been in The New Yorker. I may have written it myself years ago, because I'm a--a limerick fan. But that shows that pr--I am very much concerned about the present cultural divide in America. I think we are in a cultural war, a war of values, but I'm not as pessimistic as I believe some people are. I'm not a declinist. I believe that America still has a great deal of resiliency and can play a very constructive role for a long time to come, if our leaders go back to the American idea, to the founders and what they believed.
LAMB: In the back--I'm just gonna throw a lot of names out here.
Mr. LEFEVER: Sure.
LAMB: First of all, here's who endorses your book: Richard John Newhouse, Robert Bork, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William J. Bennett, James R. Schlesinger and Lawrence M. Stratton. I guess if you looked at--odd person out in that would be Daniel Patrick Moynihan. How does he fit in that group?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, that--that's interesting. Years ago, when Moynihan was ambassador to India, he saw an article of mine which was in Orbis magazine, and he wrote me two fan letters on that article. Later on, he referred to it in a t--in--in his article, in commentary, and say it must surely be the best thing ever written on that. Now what he was--found so remarkable about the article is my ability to combine the best in Wilsonian idealism with historical realism. He felt that, and he says that in his--his--his blurb there. And so when this book came out, I reminded him of what he had said and he said he'd be glad to write a--a blurb, which he did.
LAMB: And then right--right back of that, in--in the text of the book, in the epilogue, you--you just--there's just lots of things that come at you at once, and you--you quote Malcolm Muggeridge and Billy Graham and Robert Bork.
Mr. LEFEVER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why any of those? Just what--what were they picked for?
Mr. LEFEVER: These were people who were commenting on the future of the West. Bork is regarded by some people as a declinist. He thinks we're going down. But he's not. He--and Malcolm Muggeridge is just very clever the way he says things that--he said something about--he--he's convinced that Western man was trying to abolish himself, has had these--he implied that Western man had a self-destructive urge. Now Billy Graham, naturally, as the sort of unofficial chaplain to eight presidents, is very much concerned about the current situation in America and he would be expected, as an evangelist and a Christian, to be concerned.

So I quoted them and then, in a sense, the limerick which you read rebuts them. I'm not as pessimistic as this sounds. I believe there is hope. The answer to pessimism is hope. And as--in his recent visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul had one message, `Be not afraid,' and that--and that's my message, too. I believe America can play its proper role in the world if it is not afraid.
LAMB: You also name a--a number of--of documents in history that you think are important, an--and a--Magna Carta, the Mayflower Clo--Compact, the Declaration of Independence, laws of nature and laws--and of God. Which of those do you think was the most important?
Mr. LEFEVER: In my view, the most single important political document in history is the Declaration of Independence, well, combined with the Preamble to the Constitution. Those are the two greatest documents that define the role of man and the state and place human beings, place persons in charge of their governance.
LAMB: When did you first read it?
Mr. LEFEVER: Oh, I don't know, a long, long time ago. I've always been--maybe the word `infatuated' isn't right, but I like the historical documents, I like the Founding Fathers and I particularly like James Madison.
LAMB: I noticed it, because you mentioned it earlier about Madison's belief in original sin...
Mr. LEFEVER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and you say that, `Jefferson saw the nation as innocent, purged of Old World vices.' So the difference between those men, in your opinion, is what?
Mr. LEFEVER: Jefferson was a little bit more idealistic than Madison and Hamilton. But I happen to think that Jefferson is a great man, and recent efforts to disparage him by imply--because he was a slaveholder and, presumably, had a child by one of his slaves, I think, are well beside the point. I think Jefferson was, indeed, a great man, as were most of the Founding Fathers. It was the greatest collection of humane and human intellect in history as far as I know and as far as the historical consequences are concerned. It's just a remarkable phenomenon which is impossible to explain.
LAMB: In 1984--and this is Chapter 19, in one of your articles that you wrote, in--actually, it was published in The Washington Times--in 1984, you wrote about George Orwell's "1984." You have a little bit different take on it than some. Wh--what was his real message, in your opinion?
Mr. LEFEVER: I think George Orwell's real contribution was to lay bare the evil of totalitarian states. He had some problems with Stalin agents when he was in the Spanish-American--I mean, s--Spanish War, and I think he's one of our greatest voices against totalitarianism, along with Arthur Koestler, whom I also greatly admire.
LAMB: Who was he?
Mr. LEFEVER: Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian writer who wrote about Stalin's trials--bloody trials--in Moscow in which hundreds of generals begged to be executed for their treason, which, of course, wasn't treason. So or--Koestler is a great writer, not...
LAMB: Your 48th chapter is reassessing Vietnam's legacy, and you quote George Orwell--by the way, who--where was George Orwell from and do you remember when he...
Mr. LEFEVER: He's British.
LAMB: British? You remember when--remember when he died?
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, he was--I don't know. He died within the last 10 or 15 years, I suppo...
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
Mr. LEFEVER: No. Oh, no.
LAMB: But you quote him in the Vietnam legacy chapter as saying, "Who controls the past controls the future."
Mr. LEFEVER: Well, he--he was a great philosopher. I--if you want people, I think, who have great political insight, I would list Orwell in a way with Edmund Burke, the great British statesman, and Tocqueville, the--the--the--who wrote the greatest book ever written on America, and he was French. These--these are kind of literary political heroes of mine, Tocqueville, Burke and Orwell.
LAMB: You quote LBJ as saying that ousting Diem was, quote, "the worst mistake we ever made."
Mr. LEFEVER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. LEFEVER: Roger Hilsman, who was an aide to LBJ, felt that Diem was too authoritarian. He had s--s--st--Hillsman, to some extent, had stars in his eyes and he wanted to mec--democratize Vietnam. So he headed a group that persuaded LBJ to oust this man because he was not democratic enough. And the reason LBJ--JFK ousted him--LBJ said it was the greatest mistake we ever made because it hogtied us to Vietnam's future. When we interfered that directly in the governance of our ally, whom we were trying to help defend, it robbed them of their integrity and then we became somewhat responsible. By the way, Dean Rusk, LBJ's secretary of state, also feels the same way.
LAMB: We're about out of time. How many miles have you hitchhiked in your life?
Mr. LEFEVER: In the United States, I've hitchhiked at least 30,000 miles.
LAMB: When?
Mr. LEFEVER: Some of it during the war, and that was a little difficult because here's a healthy-looking civilian, at least I hope I looked healthy--in civil--`Why isn't he in the Army?' And I recall somewhere in there that one time at a cor--corner in Kansas, when I was going to a church meeting in--in Chicago, I was the first person to arrive to hitchhike east, and 17 men in uniform arrived after I did. All those were picked up and finally I was picked up, happenly, by a--a--a charming young lady.
LAMB: What did you learn from hitchhiking?
Mr. LEFEVER: I have learned a great deal about the true American people. In the summer of '39, I hitchhiked through--through 16 s--Southern states and 16 days on $8 to learn what the South was like. I've hitchhiked abroad. When I'm abroad, I go down into coal mines. Here, I went down to coal mines. In South Africa, I visited coal mines, in England. I'm not your garden variety ivory tower academic. I like to get out there where the people are, and I think hitchhiking is one way of doing it. I've hitchhiked in Sweden, in Ghana, i--in England, Germany.
LAMB: You missed anything...
Mr. LEFEVER: Did I missed anything?
LAMB: your life that you wanted to do?
Mr. LEFEVER: Yes. I want--want to write more than I have written, and I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up in a world where there is a real chance for them to become fulfilled.
LAMB: Ernest Lefever is the author of this book, and there are 40 chapters, articles he's written over the last 50 years, "The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power." Thank you very much.
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