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Washington Journal: William E. Griffith -- An Appreciation

By A. Ross Johnson

Washington, 12 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- William E. Griffith, political advisor at Radio Free Europe in the 1950s and visiting scholar at the RFE/RL Research Institute in the early 1990s, died in Boston on Sept. 28.

As Ford Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1959 and Adjunct Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Bill Griffith helped train a generation of scholars on Eastern Europe and the USSR. He published widely, traveled the world as Roving Editor for The Readers Digest, organized conferences, advised governments, and was above all an outstanding teacher. He was inspiration, example, mentor, and friend to many in the field of Communist studies.

In the years when observers often saw the Communist world as uniformly black, and Soviet power as invincible, Bill Griffith discerned nuances. He was among the first to analyze the conflict between the Soviet Union and Communist China. He wrote about the conflicts among Communist states and among Communist leaderships. He understood that national interests -- and passions -- had been submerged but not suppressed by Soviet power.

Bill Griffith served as a long-time consultant to the National Security Council. He worked closely with National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter Administration. He served as special advisor to Ambassador Richard Burt in Bonn in the late 1980s.

In these government positions, Bill worked to implement policy prescriptions he and Brzezinski had jointly outlined in their seminal July 1961 article in Foreign Affairs , "Peaceful Engagement in Eastern Europe." They outlined there a positive alternative to "containment" -- passive acceptance of Soviet hegemony of Eastern Europe -- and "roll back" -- the discredited rhetorical offensive of the first Eisenhower Administration. "Peaceful engagement" signified dealing with repressive regimes while simultaneously supporting human rights, political dissidents, the sprouts of civil society, independent media, and a network of ties with the West.

Born in Remsen, New York, in 1920, Bill Griffith learned about international politics first in Germany, where he served in the American army and in the post-war American Military Government, and at Harvard University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in history. He learned about Eastern Europe, as did so many American scholars, at Radio Free Europe. As political advisor, he defined an organizational structure combining editorial autonomy of national broadcast services with American managerial oversight that was crucial to RFE's effectiveness as a surrogate broadcaster. And from the RFE experience of the 1950s -- most positive in Poland, most negative in Hungary -- came the policy impulse of peaceful engagement that was to guide American policy and define RFE/RL's mission for three decades.

It will fall to others to chronicle Bill Griffith's major contribution to Radio Free Europe and to American policy. Although urged by many, he refused to write his memoirs.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice -- if you seek his monument, look around. Bill Griffith helped shape Radio Free Europe. He helped bring about a Europe whole and free.