When William Pfaff died in April 2015, his ashes were interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He had never given explicit instructions about the inscription for his final resting place, so the task of summing up his life and career fell to his son Nicholas. It was not an easy one. There was no single position or accomplishment that clearly captured Pfaff’s identity. He began his career as an editor of this magazine, going on to join the United States Army, and, during the early days of the Cold War, serve as a political-warfare officer. Then, after two decades in a think tank, he spent the last thirty-seven years of his life with no institutional affiliation, working as a columnist, a conference speaker, and even occasionally a teacher (although he considered himself particularly ill-suited for the job). Along the way he also wrote or co-wrote ten books.
If there was a common thread connecting each of these professional activities, it was his erudite foreign-affairs analysis. Yet Pfaff was no academic, never having obtained a degree beyond his BA from the University of Notre Dame. Nor was he comfortable with the word “intellectual,” which he found hollow and pretentious to the American ear. He did use a variation of the term, though, when he wrote about his sense of vocation in an essay originally published in Salmagundi and later included in 1987’s Best American Essays under the title “The Lay Intellectual: Apologia Pro Vita Sua.” If he was to be an intellectual, it was as an outsider, having undergone no official formation and taking no orders from the academic powers that be—an unconsecrated and self-motivated trafficker in ideas. “Lay intellectual” may have been the perfect phrase to capture his independent streak, but it was also far too unwieldy for a grave marker. Nicholas chose to focus on his father’s primary means of expression, his writing. Given his father’s inveterate Francophilia and long residence in Paris, the French word ultimately seemed most fitting: William Pfaff, Ecrivain, 1928–2015.
Columnists and commentators, unlike poets and novelists, are rarely read or remembered after their era. The memory of devoted readers fades and then disappears forever. The only new readers of yesterday’s analysis and debates are historians with their synthetic sweep. So while longtime Commonweal readers may remember Pfaff—his first piece appeared in this magazine in 1950 and his last almost sixty-five years later—he has largely faded from the general conversation. But for more than three decades in the pre-internet era, he was one of the most respected foreign-affairs commentators in the world. Pfaff’s columns on the op-ed page of the International Herald Tribune, the only paper that has ever had a legitimate claim to be the global paper of record, were read in boardrooms and embassies across the world. Former heads of government and future heads of state penned personal letters to him in response to his columns and books. He was a regular at Davos. And he had the privilege of writing for the greatest American magazine editors of the latter half of the twentieth century: Lewis Lapham at Harper’s, William Shawn at the New Yorker, and Robert Silvers at the New York Review of Books, among others. Pfaff corresponded with some of the greatest minds of his time—ambassadors, academics, politicians, journalists—and welcomed many of them into his sumptuous 7th-arrondissement Parisian apartment on the rue de Varenne, where he and his wife Carolyn would entertain them in style.
Örjan Berner, the Swedish ambassador to France during the 1980s and to the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse, numbered among them. Last year, Berner told me over the phone that Pfaff stood in the same company as George Kennan, the American diplomat who was the author of the United States’ Cold War containment policy. In Berner’s view, the two men were virtually unparalleled among Americans in their capacity to navigate the transatlantic divide. Berner was far from alone in his praise. In 1990, Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, wrote Pfaff a letter after reading the French translation of Barbarian Sentiments, a critique of the global superpowers’ misreading of third-world nationalist movements. The mayor expressed his hope that more Americans would follow in Pfaff’s footsteps and deepen their knowledge of European affairs, because “the key to our two democracies’ enduring relationship resides most certainly in mutual understanding.” One of Pfaff’s most intriguing correspondents was Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter. In 1991, she wrote him a letter in response to one of his International Herald Tribune columns about the CIA, confirming his analysis and informing him that he was uniquely placed to understand her own story, which she then proceeded to recount in detail.