Obituary: Professor William E. Griffith

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"ZBIG'S IDEA man" was how one White House aide described William E. Griffith when he worked as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Appointed in 1979 as a long-time colleague of Brzezinski (and a Democrat), Griffith was a specialist on the politics of Eastern and Central Europe and Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was one of many American professors to cross the line between academe and government. As adviser to Brzezinski, Griffith would commute to Washington once a week from his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Griffith was already well-known in US government circles. He had served as an adviser to the State Department from 1967 and, as a professor, had taught students who went on to careers as senior government officials and experts in the field. He was much sought after for his sparkling and provocative presentations at international academic conferences.

Griffith came to MIT in 1959 as a senior research associate at the Center for International Studies (which received some CIA support) and headed the Center's International Communist Project. He would remain at MIT for over 30 years until his retirement in 1990, from 1966 as Professor of Political Science. During that period he wrote or edited 11 books on Eastern European politics and international Communist affairs. He was also an adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Griffith graduated from Hamilton College in 1940 and earned a master's degree in history at Harvard University the following year. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the US Army, mainly in France and Germany, reaching the rank of first lieutenant. He was chief of the Denazification Branch of the US Military Government of Bavaria in 1947 and 1948, for which he was awarded the Commander's Cross of the German Order of Merit.

After his tour of duty in Bavaria, he returned to the United States to complete work on his PhD at Harvard, which he gained in 1950. His thesis, on the Denazification Process in the US Zone of Germany, made ample use of his own experiences.

In 1950 Griffith joined the staff of the Free Europe Committee in New York. The Committee had been established the previous year as an anti- Communist campaign group under the chairmanship of Joseph Grew. Ostensibly a private foundation, the bulk of its funds came from the CIA. The Committee oversaw Radio Free Europe, which beamed news, encouragement and propaganda into the Communist-run countries of Eastern Europe from its studios in Munich.

In 1951 Griffith moved back to Germany as chief political adviser to RFE in Munich. This was the height of the Cold War and RFE was America's major means of addressing ordinary people behind the Iron Curtain, but there was argument about how far RFE should take a stand on current events. During riots in the Polish city of Poznan in summer 1956, RFE had promoted a moderate stance, but during the Hungarian uprising later that year it had encouraged hopes of Western intervention on the side of the rebels.

Even after his move back to the US in 1958, Griffith retained strong ties with and interest in Germany (indeed, his wife was German and two of his daughters lived there). From 1985 to 1986 he was senior adviser to the United States ambassador in Bonn. After retirement from MIT in 1990 he moved to Germany for four years.

Griffith had the gift of being able to communicate his ideas to many different audiences, whether fellow academics, students, politicians or the general public. The publications he contributed to ranged from the Atlantic Monthly to the Boston Globe to the Reader's Digest.

As a historian and skilled political analyst, he could spot major historical trends long before others. At the same time he had encyclopaedic knowledge about the internal political manoeuvring in an extraordinary number of countries, not just in Eastern and Central Europe but in Asia and Africa - continents that for a time he visited nearly every year. His remarkably wide knowledge was based in part on his amazing memory and his speed-reading skills - he would routinely read four or five serious books a week.

Felix Corley

William Edgar Griffith, political scientist: born Remsen, New York 19 February 1920; Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1966-90 (Emeritus); married 1948 Ingeborg Ehrhardt (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 28 September 1998.