Friday, February 13, 2009

The Shoulders We Stand On

William Weed Kaufmann died in December. He had retired from MIT's department of Political Science twenty four years ago. He then spent time at Harvard. He was 90 when he died. Sitting in the quiet of the chapel and listening to the words spoken about him, I thought that it would have been nice if every MIT student could have heard about Dr. Kaufmann and his willingness to speak truth to power. John Deutch called it "speaking facts to power". Kaufmann served every defense secretary from 1961-1981; the list ran from Robert McNamara to Harold Brown. He was not afraid to criticize even policies he had helped formulate as he did with the notion of mutual destruction. He argued for a more nuanced policy that offered chances to step back from the edge of war. William Kaufmann was a man of courage who taught a generation of analysts who shaped American nuclear policy.

He had outlived friends as well as enemies, but his legacy gave me pause as I remembered how it had been to work with him on the Committee on Academic Performance in his last years at the Institute. He brought to the work of an involved faculty member the same kind of low key courage; he was interested in doing the right thing and it did not matter who got the credit. He wanted the facts to speak for themselves and they did.

MIT is a heady place and it has an impact on the wider world. That impact is more humane because of Bill Kaufmann and those of like mind. I see in our current community people he could relate to because they value the things he valued: virtue over visibility, right over might and a sense of realism that allowed bromides to mean something. As the chaplaincy evolves I think William Kaufmann would have been pleased.