Zbigniew Brzezinski Tribute

On Friday, May 26, my father, Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski passed away at the age of eighty-nine. He lived a long and impactful life. 

He came from a family of courageous Polish diplomats who saw firsthand Hitler’s brutality in Germany and stood up against it. The Nazis’ carnage and subsequent Soviet occupation prevented his family from returning to their cherished homeland, Poland. He later became a scholar in the United States who examined the structures of authoritarian regimes and empires. He was a strategist who leveraged that knowledge to help roll back the Iron Curtain.

He was a counselor to presidents, both Republican and Democratic.  As national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter he helped steer the course of the transatlantic relationship amidst a dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union, craft the Camp David Accords, and deepen US relations with China. Every US president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama called upon him for his advice and perspective on multiple issues of national security.

Many aspects of my father have been an inspiration for me. He was tenacious and willing to swim against the tide.  He advocated positions on the Vietnam War, the Middle East, Russia, and China that were often unpopular, leading to harsh criticisms—even ostracism—by many. But he took criticism in stride, always listened and never budged, unless a truly rational and logical case was presented. (That did not happen too often.)

His love of the United States and Poland was a duality that always impressed me.  Family lore has it that when the ship that brought him to North America as a child reached shore, he remained on the sea-side of the deck facing the Atlantic, looking toward Poland, as others crowded the other side, leaning to see their new home.  As a young teenager, he kept copious notes of the radio broadcasts reporting on the war, yearning for an Allied victory. And when that day came, he was shocked and saddened by the realities of the Yalta Accords. As others danced in celebration, Poles and other Central Europeans quickly recognized the cold realities of geopolitical division.

Though his family resided in Canada, my father moved to Boston after he graduated from McGill University, attained a PhD at Harvard, and chose the United States as his new home. He was impressed by the vibrancy, optimism, and values of this country, and pledged his allegiance to it. He loved the United States for the opportunities it provided to all and for what it did and could do to promote and protect peace and freedom around the world. He was loyal and committed to his adopted home to very end, but he never lost his love for his native country. That only grew and grew, evidenced in his scholarship, friendships, and numerous visits.

I was also struck by my father’s prescience. He was a prolific writer, and many books of his books generated attention and controversy. Gameplan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the US-Soviet Contest that outlined a strategy for Cold War victory.  Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century was a 1990s insight into the moral economic challenges of our current era.

My favorite remains Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Age. Published in 1970 (and dedicated to my brother, sister, and I), it projected the impact of technology and electronics on the values and societies of a post-industrial age. He theorized how technology would connect peoples and societies across the globe, generating a homogenizing dynamic that would have both positive and negative outcomes. Today, we are indeed experiencing the benefits and dangers of a communications revolution that is technology-driven and making our planet smaller and ever more interconnected for better and worse.

And he had a ferocious wit. I was recently reminded that the government of Lithuania treated him some years ago to boar hunt. He shot two boars and promptly named them Molotov and Ribbentrop. He was always weaving geopolitics and history into every aspect of his life, even his hunts and his humor!

The most important advice he shared with me and many others was that everyone should have “a cause that is greater than oneself.” He repeated this refrain frequently, and I think his life was defined by it.  He had multiple causes.  As a professor at Harvard, Columbia, and John Hopkins, he was profoundly committed to his students.  He was a tough grader and could be a harsh critic, but he sustained deep and enduring friendships with his students, always sharing counsel and promoting their careers.  As a Cold War warrior, he used his intellectual sword to fight for the freedom of the Captive Nations of Europe. When others chose to look away, he took up the cause of Chechyna, whose aspiration for independence was savagely suppressed by Moscow’s military force.

He believed that having a cause higher than oneself provides a powerful source of personal motivation, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

His family was, of course, another great focus of his life. He loved my mother, Emilie Benes, immensely. They were married for some six decades. He was the greatest supporter of her art. He was an enthusiastic father to my brother, sister, and I. He orchestrated ferocious family soccer games and led regular, mandated family walks along the New Jersey Palisades, the Virginia side of the Potomac, and in Maine’s Acadia National Park—walks that fostered strong family bonds and occurred as recently as several weeks ago. I will miss the structured family dinner discussions during which he challenged us to think critically about a wide variety of issues from the internal contradictions of communism, the role of the Catholic Church, or the latest social fad sweeping the country.  He was always full of sound and reasoned advice regarding school, careers, and our own families.

We are all profoundly saddened to have lost him. Yet, we should celebrate his boundless energy, enthusiasm, and sharp wit, and always be inspired by the legacy, lessons, and causes that he left.

Ian Brzezinski is a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. You can follow him on Twitter @IanBrzezinski.

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