Michael KreponLes Gelb

Lyric of the week:

“Hark, now hear the sailors cry,
Smell the sea, and feel the sky,
Let your soul & spirit fly, into the mystic.”

— Van Morrison

Quote of the week:

“Fail alone; succeed together.” — Les Gelb

Les Gelb, who died over the weekend, had a stunning resumé. The Pentagon. Brookings. The State Department. The New York Times. The Council on Foreign Relations. He had a quick, incisive mind and was adept at synthesizing complexity into common sense. His professional life was spent working on, explaining, and convening expertise to tackle very hard problems. He witnessed policy failure on a grand scale in the Johnson administration, and experienced the highs and lows of working in the Carter administration.

Les Gelb’s origin story wasn’t too shabby, either.

I interviewed Les on July 1st for my book in progress on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control. He told me that his last name was bestowed on his father, Max, by tax collectors along the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border. The Jews living in villages in the Carpathian Mountains went by patronymics rather than last names, hardly suitable for record keeping. So the tax collectors assigned colors to be last names. Max’s new last name was Gelb — the color yellow.

One of ten children, Max Gelb showed promise. He was designated to make a new life for himself in America, thereby improving prospects for the entire family. Les told me that his father traveled to America by a circuitous route. Having no money and no facility with foreign languages, Max went to work on a ship that he thought was going to New York, but was bound for Hong Kong instead. Another ship took him to west coast of the United States, where it was quarantined. Max jumped overboard and swam ashore. He made his way eastward and settled in New Rochelle where he and his wife, another immigrant from the Czech-Hungarian border, ran a delicatessen.

Les Gelb went to college at Tufts and with the help of one of his professors, got into Harvard where he got to know Henry Kissinger and his teaching assistant, Morton Halperin. He wrote his Ph.D. on theories of alliances. Les briefly tried his hand at college teaching, then went to work for Jacob Javits, an internationally minded Republican Senator from New York. From there he was recruited by Halperin to come join him at the Pentagon. There Les delved into the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, compiling what became known as the “Pentagon Papers,” worked on policy planning, and got his feet wet on nuclear arms control.

He was one of the civilians around Robert McNamara that tried to get a handle on missile defenses and missiles carrying multiple warheads. He came back into government to help Cyrus Vance and Paul Warnke negotiate SALT II. He traveled an immense distance in just one generation from the Carpathian mountains, bearing a last name bestowed by tax collectors. Max would have been very proud.

Pin It on Pinterest