Isaiah Berlin in War

Isaiah Berlin in War

Latvian-borne Oxford academic Isaiah Berlin was a intellectual fox with many talents. Berlin loved to talk, but he was an even more skilled writer and political analyst. In the summer of 1940, the Russian-speaking Berlin was appointed to a diplomatic post in Moscow – to which city he was sent via the United States.

En route, Berlin spent a night at the British embassy in Washington, where he met John Wheeler-Bennett, a staffer there who helped with British espionage in the United States. Berlin’s popularity with fellow diplomats was immediate. “He had been in America scarcely forty-eight hours but his comments on the situation would seem to betoken a lifetime of acquaintance with that country. His conversation – and he never seemed to stop talking, though he never bored us, even if we did sometimes have difficulty in understanding him – was of an effervescent brilliance and humour. He sparkled and scintillated, yet not one of us who listened to him felt that we were being overwhelmed or left out.”

Inexplicably, Berlin’s appointment to Moscow was suddenly cancelled in London. Berlin prepared to return to Britain, which he felt was his proper place in wartime. The British embassy staff, however, mobilized to retain Berlin’s powers of analysis in Washington. Wheeler-Bennett recalled: “Isaiah remained adamant in the face of our inducements.” He insisted on returning to England and Oxford. In February 1941, however, British diplomats succeeded in getting Berlin reassigned to New York and Washington, where he produced reports on American public opinion that came to the attention of Winston Churchill.

The Prime Minister was impressed and asked who wrote them. An aide, who assumed that his boss would recognize the name of so prominent an academic without further identification, told Churchill “Isaiah Berlin.” Some weeks later, aide John Colville attended a luncheon at Downing Street to which the visiting American composer Irving Berlin had been invited at Churchill’s insistence. The Prime Minister quizzed the songwriter on American politics. The musician’s answers were not up to the high standards that Churchill expected from the “Berlin” he had invited to lunch. Colville tried to end the embarrassing colloquy. He kicked the Prime Minister who promptly inquired: “What are you kicking me for?” Later, the aide noted that the story of the mix-up “got back to Isaiah Berlin who received it with ecstasy.”

The British Berlin himself was not above embarrassing American officials. Early in 1945, Berlin joined some other diplomats for a short vacation in Mexico. They returned to the United States via Laredo, Texas, where the heavily-accented Berlin was interrogated by an FBI agent who did not understand he was in the presence of a distinguished academic not adverse to delivering a history lesson.
FBI: “Where were you born?”
Berlin: “In Riga.”
FBI: “Where is that?”
Berlin: “It is a port of the Eastern Baltic.”
FBI: “Who does it belong to?”
Berlin: “My native country of Latvia, when I was born in it in 1909, was indeed part of the Russian Empire. However, during the First World War it was annexed, along with the other Baltic States, by Germany under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but only, as you doubtless recall, for a short time. At the Peace Conference the independence of these states was recognised and they remained in this happy state until re-annexed by Russia in 1940. However, they were reoccupied by the Germans in 1941.”
FBI: “Are you a German then?”
Berlin: “Certainly not. Allow me to proceed. I understand that these lands are about to be ‘liberated’. I believe that is the word, by Soviet troops. After the war is over who knows? So who knows?”
FBI: “But they are part of Russia, aren’t they?”
Berlin: “So you would think and so I personally believe, but I assure you that there is a Latvian diplomatic mission in Washington which is still in relationship with your government.”
FBI: “Now listen, are you a Soviet citizen?”
Berlin: “Certainly not. I am a subject of His Britannic Majesty, and if you will look at my passport, which you are holding in your hand, you will see that I am an official of the British Foreign Office.”
FBI: “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

Berlin’s diplomatic companion wryly noted that their delay in Laredo lasted 10 hours – half of which he attributed “to Isaiah’s sense of humour.” Berlin would later become famous for reviving the famous distinction made by Greek philosopher Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin undoubtedly knew many things.

Winston Churchill had begun World War II as a hedgehog. “We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose,” he told the British people in 1940. “We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us – nothing,”

Berlin did not expect his brief essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” to be read as heavy philosophical commentary. “I never meant it very seriously,” said Berlin. “I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.”

Isaiah Berlin was a fox. So was Winston Churchill.

Posted in Essays