An American in Paris

For generations of students of the U.S. role in the world, the sane and reasonable voice of William Pfaff was always a reliable one. Deeply learned in the vagaries of American and European history, he  wisely used his time abroad to warn of often alarming tendencies in U.S. domestic politics. He was especially gifted in exposing the distortions of bad ideas that would rob the country of its rightful place in world politics.

Since so many others have written of arrogance and hubris as dangerous flaws, he was hardly alone. But, like other Americans in other fields, say James Baldwin, who also used Paris to send messages about racial tensions decades earlier, Pfaff was dogged about the excesses of America's "imperial" thrusts and the overweening ambitions of both policymakers and theorists who instinctively assumed that the "American century" was providential. As he recalled the fate of other "empires", Pfaff  consistently warned of  the dangers of rampant nationalism wherever he found it in whatever region of the world he visited.

Most heretically, in ten books, numerous monographs and special articles, all posted or referenced on a well organized web site, Pfaff insisted that Americans could learn from the experience of others, notably the French in Algeria and Indochina. Writing in Argentia's pages in 2011, I praised his valedictory The Irony of Manifest Destiny, the expanded book form of an earlier special article, for its depiction of the Enlightenment as a source of many current woes which, if correctly understood, would take us well beyond the daily headlines of dysfunctional institutions and the all too familiar goals-means tensions in foreign policy analysis.

Determined to trace and refute the tenacious myths of several entrenched American world views, especially those that took hold from the Woodrow Wilson era onward, Pfaff attended conferences, interviewed a wide variety of personalities and wrote brilliantly of his encounters in syndicated columns that will continue to inspire as we try to place supposedly newer challenges like "terror" in the larger context he so painstakingly explored.

Linda B. Miller, Argentia Editorial Team, Wellesley College and Brown University

Matthew Hill