How I Got Here: Eliot Cohen

A conversation with
Eliot Cohen

Dec 12, 2019

Dec 12, 2019 • by Eliot Cohen

Eliot Cohen

  • Professor, Harvard University, U.S. Naval War College, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
  • Director, Gulf War Air Power Survey
  • Counselor, U.S. State Department
  • Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

In my high school yearbook, for career objective, I wrote, “To get Henry Kissinger’s job.” So let’s stipulate: I’m a failure.

Which job of Kissinger’s did you have in mind? Secretary of state? National security adviser? Harvard professor?

I was struck by the idea that you could be an intellectual and wrestle with the world of ideas and at the same time be constructively engaged in the world of action. And that didn’t abate. When I went to college, I took a course called “The Education of Henry Kissinger,” taught by Jack Montgomery and Marvin Feuer. We read Kissinger’s works and then books about him. It was quite interesting to explore the connection between ideas and practice—something I’ve wrestled with for the rest of my career.

So this precocious kid goes to college with the intention of becoming the next Henry Kissinger and takes a course of study appropriate to that.

That makes me sound more cold-bloodedly ambitious than I hope I was. I knew that I loved books. I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and there was a wonderful local library branch right near the subway stop I took to school. Every Friday, I would stop there and come back with a stack of books, and my mother would get upset because I’d begin reading the books as I was walking the mile back to the house. By college, I knew I loved the academic life, but I also desperately wanted to be engaged with the real world. The generation of teachers I had at Harvard—people like Samuel Huntington, Ernest May, James Q. Wilson, Judith Shklar—were serious intellects but also practical.

You were such a geek, you turned your undergraduate senior thesis into your first book. Who does that?

Geeks. My adviser and mentor Sam Huntington encouraged me and helped me along. The great thing about Sam was, he’d be unsparing in his criticism and unsparing in his encouragement. He was not an effusive man, but he let you know what he thought, and he was always honest.

What did you do after college?

I went directly to graduate school, also at Harvard. I got married right after graduation. I’m not sure I’d recommend that to most young people, but we’ve been extremely fortunate. I had been anxious about what to do next. Sam encouraged me to get a Ph.D. Another adviser—subsequently chairman of the department—said, “I’ll write you a letter of recommendation, but first let me tell you how terrible the academic life is and how impossible it is to get jobs.” So I took the LSAT. That nearly caused my fiancée to break off the engagement. But as it turned out, I ended up loving the academic life.

You were briefly in the military.

When I was in graduate school, I got increasingly neurotic about studying something that I would have no personal experience of, so I joined ROTC. I drilled at MIT with the undergraduates and was commissioned as a reservist. I had a brief and inglorious military career, but it was a wonderful experience in several ways.

First, military service teaches you leadership. Your priorities are your mission, your people, yourself. The person in charge eats last. Lead by example. Basic principles that stick with you throughout your whole life. But also practical things, like never be without something to write on and something to write with. Second, military service exposes you to the limits of brainpower. There is nothing quite like being lost in the woods with a dozen sleepless Harvard and MIT undergraduates with guns, and finding yourself shaking people by the lapels and shouting, “Do it!” to make you realize there’s a lot more to effectiveness than just being smart. And for me, a third thing was the opportunity of getting to work as a military assistant to Andy Marshall in the Office of Net Assessment, which turned out to be a second education.

You once said that during this era, you were taken less seriously in your uniform than out of it.

I was a second lieutenant, an anomaly at the Pentagon. I had officers stop me and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” The benefits of serving were not improved credibility but individual growth.

You’ve taught at Harvard, the Naval War College, and Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). What did you learn from each?

All three are institutions. They have been here quite a while, Harvard the longest, and they’ll be here long after I’ve gone. They embody certain values and intellectual traditions. Institutions never love you back; you have to be aware of that. But all three attract unusual loyalty and commitment.

At Harvard, I had great teachers, colleagues, and students. It was just a wonderful place to grow, particularly back then.

The Naval War College was terrific. I started teaching there when I was 29, very much a kid. I remember a grizzled old salt (who, of course, was 20 years younger than I am now) saying, “How old are you, son?” I had to teach people who were much older than me, who had much more experience of the real world—being respectful of what they knew and I didn’t, but also using such skills as I had to develop them further. Moreover, I had to do so in a military setting, fitting into that culture.

What the military respects is expertise and professionalism. If you behaved professionally to them, and you had expertise in your areas, that was enough. My students didn’t expect me to know how to drive a ship. But they did expect me to be able to guide them through a discussion of Thucydides in a way that would be useful to them. If you could do that, while actually being a kid, then you became kind of a mascot. A lot of civilian academics, particularly the products of elite schools, had trouble. They came from a wise-guy culture, with a lot of banter and putdowns, and that often comes across as patronizing and condescending. Once that happened, you lost the students, and when you lost them at the beginning of the semester, you never got them back.


The only job I ever really campaigned for was to become a professor at SAIS. I first encountered the school in the late ’70s. Bob Osgood, one of the grand old men of the place, ran a seminar together with Huntington on the utility of military force, and I was the rapporteur. I was the only graduate student in the room with a lot of heavy hitters. It was heady stuff. And so when a job there came open some years later, I applied for it, and called in all my favors with my mentors, saying, “I really want this one.” And I got it, and have lived happily ever after.


Because of its mission, which is to be a professional school of international affairs, with a faculty who can understand and interpret the world but also teach students how to change it. That’s hard, but it’s a great challenge. Johns Hopkins University has two unofficial mottoes that I love. One is “Selective excellence”: “We can’t do everything; we’re not big enough. But what we do, we do really well.” The second is “Knock yourself out”: “We don’t have a lot of money; we’re not going to give you much. But if you want to build something, knock yourself out—we won’t get in your way.” When I came here [at the end of the 1980s], I stepped into Osgood’s former chair. The Security Studies Program had been oriented toward the Cold War and was essentially defunct. I said, “I want to rebuild it and turn it into a strategic studies program.” And the school was extraordinarily supportive. Then, when I wanted to take time off to go into government, first to run the Gulf War Air Power Survey for the air force [in the 1990s] and then to be the counselor at the State Department [in the following decade], they said, “Good for you, that’s great.” To be supported and given freedom like that—I am really the luckiest academic alive.

After your early teaching, you had a brief, instructive stint in government.

I worked on the Policy Planning Staff in the Defense Department. One of my jobs there was to write a speech for then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney explaining why Senator Sam Nunn was wrong in his critique of Bush 41’s defense policy. This was just before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Nunn had given some speeches saying the administration hadn’t adjusted to the end of the Cold War, and I was told to draft Cheney’s rebuttal. I get Nunn’s speeches, and reading them, I say to myself, “You know, he’s right.” Then I realize: this is government, it’s not about the quest for the truth, you’re just a cog, so you have to write the speech. Which I did. But the internal discomfort that I felt at that told me, “You really are a professor.” In many fields, telling the truth can be a luxury and is not always the most important thing.

Soon afterward, you swore to me that you would never go back into the system, for exactly those reasons!

My self-knowledge is limited. One big difference between government and academia is that government service is not about the pursuit of truth, and you should not treat it that way. Another is that government is a collective enterprise. Our part of the academy is a much more solitary enterprise and puts a premium on in-your-face truth telling—a style that is completely dysfunctional in government. Finally, the impulse of an academic is to try to understand, while the impulse of somebody in government is to act.

I now think that ideas are really important but that they’re meaningless without implementation. I bake bread, which is a very therapeutic thing, in addition to tasting good. And I think of ideas as yeast. But if you’re going to make bread, you also need lots of flour, water, salt. And that’s just for basic breads—fancier stuff requires more. Academics tend to focus on the yeast part and often ignore the rest, which is why they frequently come a cropper when they go into government.

When I went to the State Department, my friend David Gordon, head of the Policy Planning Staff, gave me great advice. He said, “Speaking truth to power every month or two in an op-ed—that’s great. Speak truth to power every day, face-to-face, and power gets seriously pissed off.” And that’s true. It’s not enough to have the right question; you have to ask it at the right time.

And yet … in my experience, the U.S. government has a huge bias toward action to deal with whatever the headline of the day is—often ill-considered action the country would be better off avoiding. So wouldn’t you be providing a great public service inside by asking annoying basic questions like, “Hey, do we really need to do this?”

It depends. I think people in government are more sensitive than academics, who are used to having infinite time to gather information, to the fact that inaction is also an action. And particularly for the United States, inaction is a consequential decision.

Say more about refreshing security studies at SAIS.

When I took over, the Security Studies Program was all about arms control and the Cold War, which had just ended. I thought you had to go beyond recent history and tackle a broad array of issues surrounding the use of force. All of this was accelerated by the Gulf War. As the 1990s rolled on, it became clear that large technological changes were afoot that would transform the nature of military power. But I also always had an inkling that the unipolar moment wouldn’t last. So you try to prepare intellectually for future security challenges that you know are going to come but aren’t sure what they are going to be. That’s the nature of this business.

One of your great professional accomplishments, the Gulf War Air Power Survey, heralded the coming revolution in military affairs. You follow that up by creating a program that takes students to Gettysburg. Why prepare for a future of highly technological twenty-first-century combat by walking across a nineteenth-century battlefield?

Civil War soldiers had to deal with a whole array of new technologies, such as the railroad and the telegraph. The railroad transforms logistics; the telegraph transforms civil-military relations. The first Situation Room is Abraham Lincoln going to the telegraph office and getting real-time communications from commanders in the field. They also had to deal with brand new weapons, such as the rifled musket, that transformed tactics. In war, human beings make decisions under extremely difficult circumstances. Much of what you do on a staff ride is explore command, decision-making, leadership, organization. Those things are timeless. At Antietam, we ended up discussing how Robert E. Lee would cull his senior leadership ranks after every battle and what the cumulative effect of that was, and the parallels in business and elsewhere. Last year, we went to France to do a staff ride on occupation and resistance. How do people decide whether to oppose or collaborate?

You take a holistic approach to history, teaching literature and poetry along with battles in World War I, for example. How come?

One of my favorite poems is by Emily Dickinson:

     Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
     Success in Circuit lies
     Too bright for our infirm Delight
     The Truth’s superb surprise
     As Lightning to the Children eased
     With explanation kind
     The Truth must dazzle gradually
     Or every man be blind—

We don’t learn the truth all at once, and we learn different truths in different ways. My parents instilled in me a love of poetry, and through that I saw that we can gain insight and skill as observers of the world through many mediums, including fiction.

How do you define yourself professionally?

First and foremost, I’m a teacher. That’s the most important thing about me. I am a defense policy intellectual. I’d like to think of myself as a military historian. But I think it’s important to be an intellectual, plain and simple. My next book, when things settle down a bit, is going to be about Shakespeare and politics.

Aren’t there lots of books on that already?

I’ve been very fortunate to have a ringside seat for a lot of power politics, and I know a lot more from history. Shakespeare has things to say about these subjects that may not be quite as apparent to people who are literary scholars.

Your personal labels didn’t include political scientist. Do you think that field exists?

I got a degree in government, not political science. I believe in the primacy of politics and the importance of studying political institutions. I am eternally grateful to my many teachers and have learned much from political philosophy in particular. But if you pointed a gun at me and said, “Define yourself in one discipline,” I would say, “Military history.” And the reason is that I’ve concluded that political science has a lot of trouble dealing with two crucial things: contingency and personality.

You’re chugging along, about 45, midcareer, and then 9/11 changes everything. What happens then?

I was less shocked than other people were, but not so much because I had been following al Qaeda in particular. I had a conversation with a colleague afterward. He had three kids, a bit older than my four. We come back to work, and the smoke is still rising from the Pentagon, and there are jets circling overhead and National Guard troops on the streets, and he says, “How do I tell my kids that everything’s going to be okay?” I looked at him and said, “Forgive me, but that is the difference between us. I have never told my kids everything is going to be okay. In fact, my kids know that things can be pretty severely not okay. They’ve heard of Auschwitz. They know that really bad things can happen.”

You go back into government, despite having sworn off it. Why?

I was asked to serve. I was not looking to go in. I got a call asking if I’d be willing to meet with Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice, whom I knew casually. I said, “About what?” She said, “To talk about American foreign policy.” We go in, we talk about a bunch of issues, and at the end of it, she says, “I need a director of policy planning, and I need a counselor. Which one would you like to do?” I had been on the Defense Policy Board. I had supported the [Iraq] war. I had been somewhat critical, although respectfully, and had engaged in conversations with administration officials, including the president. I just felt, and my wife felt as well, that if you’re asked to serve at this level at this time, you have to do it.

It was a very satisfying experience. I’m very glad I did it. I think I did a good job. The hard part started at the very beginning. I got word that my friend Andy Bacevich’s son had been killed in Iraq. He had the same name. I’d met him once. They looked just alike. And Andy senior had been bitterly opposed to the war. So one of the first things I did was to fly to Boston for the funeral, and it was hard. And I kept young Andy Bacevich’s picture on my desk until I left office. It brought home the seriousness of everything we were doing.

Do you have regrets about Iraq?

I think anybody who was in favor of it should have regrets. But they’re complicated regrets. I do not believe in going around wearing a hair shirt and flogging yourself. I do not believe it was the biggest mistake we ever made. I think it could have turned out considerably better than it did. I think it actually did, in some ways, turn out better than people are willing to acknowledge. So I have a complicated view of it. Contingency and personality came into play—I saw how up close.

Before I went into government, I was at a meeting with the president where I think I was the first one who said, “You should put [General David] Petraeus in command.” And I think that was helpful. Once Petraeus was in [as commander of multinational forces in Iraq] and the surge was underway, there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do on Iraq. I went there quite a bit, and that was very instructive. But in truth, I did more on Afghanistan than I did on Iraq. There, I know I made a contribution. I spent a fair amount of time over there, either on my own or with Doug Lute, who was the deputy national security adviser. Pretty soon, we started coming back and telling the secretary [of defense] that things were going worse in Afghanistan than we thought.

What are your greatest career regrets, and what are you proudest of?

What I’m proudest of is teaching many generations of wonderful students. I don’t really have any large regrets. I mean, I wish I’d phrased some things differently. I would have taken a more nuanced view on Iraq than I did. When I’m in the middle of something, I’m always beating myself up about, “Am I doing a good enough job?” And of course, I’m never doing a good enough job, because I’m human. But I don’t have any big regrets. I’ve had a blessed career. I’ve been fortunate to work with great people, and I think I’ve written some things that are worth writing. I served my country. I have a wonderful family.

In the later stages of that life and career, the world seems to be heading in a different and darker direction than expected.

Yes, it’s a darker world in many ways. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and here’s what you have to understand: I grew up in the shadow of World War II. In my synagogue, all those people with thick Eastern European accents, they’d been refugees. One of my teachers in yeshiva had a number tattooed on his arm from Dachau. Others had fled Poland across the Soviet Union. My uncle married a woman who survived Belsen.

The morning after the 2016 election, my students said, “Professor Cohen, you have to talk to us about this.” I told them, “Remember what Ben Franklin said leaving the Constitutional Convention. A woman in the crowd asked him, ‘Dr. Franklin, what government have you given us?’ He replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our founders understood that this experiment was precarious, and we should, too.”

I also spoke from personal experience. My mom passed away in 2015, at 90. I thought about what she had lived through—the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, McCarthy, Korea, Vietnam, American cities going up in flames. And then I thought about my grandparents, who had lived through all those things—and also, before that, pogroms, World War I, the influenza epidemic, and more. Who said we would be allowed to get off easy? When people today wring their hands, I push back. It is a different world, much more challenging. But all that means is that we’re supposed to stand up and do something about it.

Any career advice for those just starting out?

A tip from my friend John McLaughlin: however you begin, give it your all. To a greater degree than you realize, merit gets noticed and usually (although not always) rewarded. Understand that you cannot plan a career: you will stumble into opportunities, and it is up to you to decide whether to pursue them. Find yourself a wise old bird (or two or three) in whom you can confide. You may or may not follow their advice, but having someone you can share your trials and successes with, who will listen with an understanding ear and a shrewd head, is more valuable than you can know. Last and most important, remember that you can recover from professional misjudgments, mistakes, and setbacks. But you cannot recover from throwing away your integrity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.