Sir Isaiah Berlin - 21 November 1997

In the early part of last week, as a preparation for the oncoming sessions of the United Nations Security Council, I sat down to read, without relish, about the three main toxins, the chemical or biological weapons and ingredients that Saddam Hussein is making and hiding and so far successfully protecting.

Anthrax, which with one generous spray could kill over two million city people. Botox, to destroy the nervous system of say 40,000 strollers in a giant shopping complex. And the hideous VX, the muscle paralysing gas which would kill 12,000 with a single spray.

Our reluctance to read or talk about such morbid and melodramatic things could be the ace up Mr Hussein's sleeve: his awareness that the subject is so horrible we don't want to hear about it and hope it will go away. I ought to say that I'm talking to you just before the weekend, days before many of you will be hearing these words and by then anything may have happened.

The first solution proposed by the Russians was one which would require the United States to soften its simple, ultimate demand, allow all the inspectors and destroy the stuff and seemed almost to reward Saddam with new concessions, if he would only be kind enough to let in some inspectors for a limited visit and promise they could have access to the suspect sites.

This promise, we ought to remind ourselves, was made in the treaty agreement six years ago and has been systematically broken often enough to have the United Sates lob a few missiles his way with no effect on litmus. Incidentally, the first time UN inspectors were denied access to a weapons site was five years ago.

But I want to go back to the week or more of the United Nations debates because they seemed to me to underline my point about our reluctance to face the main, ghastly fact. How else to explain the wordiness, the mechanical rhetoric, the interminable waffling that masqueraded as statesmen thinking aloud in public?

Usually when the delegates, for reasons of national self-interest, are plainly disinclined to say in front of the council what's really on their minds, it's possible to get the bolder of them to be a little franker in a television interview.

But when challenged to answer the one essential question, if Mr Hussein wouldn't give in, could there be military action – the word war is never even uttered these days – we'd hear a response like this. "Well I must say that my delegation believes, as indeed do the other concerned delegations, I'm quite sure, that we would prefer to pursue every avenue of negotiation and diplomatic consultation with a view, of course, to the peaceful settlement of this difficult issue, I might say, by all proper methods of diplomatic compromise and a mutual agreement."

And, as the old double-talk comedians used to say, also don't forget the hemdren tackling and the portis friggis.

There's no doubt that from the start, President Clinton saw the problem simply and truly. The weapons sites, laboratories and materials had to be discovered and destroyed. If not, Saddam Hussein would have to be punished by the United Nations. But, from the start, Mr Clinton's problem was that only one member of the UN Gulf War alliance, Britain, was prepared to support the United States in a military attack. The Arab world deplored the thought of it. The Russians expressly condemned it, so did the French. Even such a neutral friend as the President of Egypt thought such action inappropriate. Mr Clinton's only ray of hope came from a national survey which showed 49% of the American people willing to back a new war, 41% against and the usual, dependable 10% who didn't know, didn't want to know and didn't care.

But back then, even this ray of hope was fractured by subsequent polls, the results of which showed the pro-war majority assuming that the second Gulf War would be like the first, only more so; thousands of smart weapons that could accurately pinpoint chosen targets. Only one man, a former American assistant Secretary of State said aloud a week ago that he thought all the missile attacks of the First Gulf War and all the aerial reconnaissance developed since the Second World War would be unable to discover and destroy the weapons' underground hiding places, let alone the person of Hussein himself who has 49 scattered houses, flats, bunkers in a country eight times the area of England.

So when it was suggested that what would be needed was manpower, a great army of ground troops, the percentage of willing supporters dived way down and so by the end of the week, President Clinton faced the most excruciating hour of his presidency.

By an association which will become immediately clear, I think of a famous black day in the capital city of Connecticut, in the early 1770s, before the War of Independence, when the colonial legislature was in session and at high noon the sky darkened over into an unbroken pall of blackness, so that the delegates could barely recognise their neighbours. Many of them fell on their knees and prayed aloud for help or salvation.

One man rose, the Speaker, one Colonel Davenport. He said, "Either the day of judgement is approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for alarm. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I pray therefore that candles my be brought." It was done and they went on with their business.

But Saddam or no Saddam, I shall do my duty and try and say something vivid and worthy about a great man who has died, who was also a friend to whom I was writing when the sad word came in. The New York Times, in a splendid obituary last Friday said a great deal in its first sentence, "Sir Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian of ideas, revered for his intellect and cherished for his wit and his gift for friendship, has died in Oxford, England, following a long illness".

You have to picture a middle-sized but large, shambling man, a swarthy face, bird's-nest eyebrows, a large firm mouth and behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, dark, glaring eyes. The expression is that of a glorious Russian clown, pretending to be a stern headmaster and when his eyes twinkled and he opened that large, generous mouth, it was as if a two-minute silence had been proclaimed. All other human traffic stopped. He began to pour out a cascade of ideas, a Niagara of thoughts and images that never paused in its down-rushing volume and eloquence.

It was no surprise to learn that he wrote his essays, his books in that way, by torrential dictation. I assume he'd discovered a shorthand typist who could take down from a machine enormous, perfectly-parsed and structured sentences, spoken at the rate of about 700 words a minute, in a rolling operatic baritone with still the echo of Mother Russia.

For that's where he was brought up, the son of a timber merchant who being a prospering Jew, quickly departed from St Petersburg on the arrival of Lenin and took his ten-year-old son to London, where he went to school and then on to Oxford, where for the rest of his life he lived, he wrote "in my eyrie, far removed from the bustle of real politics and the movers and shakers you spend your life reporting".

What has this to do with America, or Letter From America? Well, true his gift for friendship was so generous and sustained that just to talk about him for no particular reason is a delight. There's just one thing I want to say about him and America. European exiles who become Englishmen very often become also, in one matter or another, more English than the English and there's one embarrassing trait, or trait in particular, they're likely to pick up more than another: the gift, which every sort of Englishman has by instinct and has to learn to conquer, the gift of condescending to America and Americans.

Isaiah Berlin had no trace of it. He'd talk to everybody, to Duke Ellington and the Duke of Devonshire and a dustman in exactly the same way. He lectured to American students as he did to British or Italian or Russian students. He once told me, after judicious thought, that the most intellectually curious, inquisitive students he ever lectured to were not at Oxford or Harvard or Cambridge but at the University of Chicago.

He had the deepest and sharpest knowledge of American government and was an almost prophetic observer of American politics. In 1952 he came over here briefly for the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential campaign. He was not greatly impressed by the Stevenson effort because he feared, way back then, that in embracing the beloved Adlai, the Democrats were betraying the radical roots planted by Roosevelt. Stevenson he called a Republican for Stevenson. It was about as acid as he could ever be.

He was a very rare type, if indeed there is such a type. A man of enormous learning, a brilliant man, who was at the same time, and always, warm and kindly, He was six months younger than me and I used to josh him about his comparative youth and ask him whenever his birthday came around, when and where we next should meet.

The last letter I had from him ended that wherever we were next to meet, arm in arm we shall march into the future. I'd hoped to have a photograph showing the starting moment of that march.

Of course it is not to be, but I see him slumping smartly off into the Elysian Fields, ready to enlighten the angels, if they can keep up with and understand a newcomer who talks 700 words to the minute.


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