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Leslie Gelb, Son of Impoverished Immigrants Who Rose to Be US Foreign Policy Giant

Portrait of Leslie H. Gelb (1937-2019). (Photo courtesy of Council on Foreign Relations)

His was a classic example of the American Dream, a rise from a humble childhood with immigrant parents to prestigious positions within U.S. government institutions and think tanks and a reputation as one of the nation's most respected foreign policy thinkers.

In the weeks since the death last month of Leslie H. Gelb, a number of his friends and former colleagues have shared their recollections about the man and his legacy with VOA , in particular his impact on U.S. foreign policy thinking.

Gelb, best known to his friends and colleagues as "Les," was 82 when he passed away in New York City on Aug. 31.

The next day's obituaries detailed his career highlights, including his Ph.D. in government from Harvard University, his decorated service at the Defense and State departments, his work as an influential columnist at The New York Times and his decade at the helm of one of America's most prestigious think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations.

Child of immigrants

Fewer people knew that he was a child of immigrants, that his parents worked seven days a week to sustain their corner deli, never read newspapers, and counted The Bible as one of the two books they owned.

"My parents were immigrants from originally Hungary, but by the time they left it, it was the Czech Republic, today it's Ukraine," Gelb once said in an interview about his family's ancestral hometown. He described the town of Mukachevo as "this little piece of property in the far east part of the Austro-Hungarian empire up against the Carpathian Mountains."

Gelb once said his parents were "essentially uneducated immigrants, fifth-grade education," who came to America "and worked in a corner grocery store their whole lives."

Asked whether his interest in international politics was inspired by dinner table conversations, he replied that there wasn't much of a dinner table to speak of, even less of dinnertime conversations revolving around geopolitics.

"We ate at the back of the store, one at a time," he chuckled while answering the question. "My father was interested in politics, but it was not a passion."

Leslie Gelb, in a photo taken in 2006, is seen laughing with Patrick, one of his five grandsons. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Gelb family)
Leslie Gelb, in a photo taken in 2006, is seen laughing with Patrick, one of his five grandsons. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Gelb family)

'It was easier'

Tufts University, he said, was the only university that accepted him after high school. Years later, he would joke that he majored in politics and government there because "it was easier than doing anything else." He worked as a parking attendant and a dishwasher to help with college expenses.

From there, Gelb went on to obtain a master's and then a doctorate from Harvard University in the mid-1960s, studying with the likes of Stanley Hoffmann and Henry Kissinger, two of the most distinguished political scientists at the time and, by chance, European immigrants themselves.

From Harvard, Gelb came to Washington, where he first worked for Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a liberal Republican who sponsored the War Powers Act to restrict presidential powers after becoming disillusioned with the Vietnam War. Next came stints at the Pentagon and the State Department where his portfolios included negotiations with the then-Soviet Union.

At the Pentagon, Gelb was tasked with editing what later became known as the Pentagon Papers — an examination of U.S. involvement in Vietnam up to that point. One of the researchers Gelb hired to work on the project would later leak the classified document to the press, resulting in a public uproar over the policymaking processes it revealed.

Winston Lord, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and a longtime friend of Gelb, told VOA that many people assumed Gelb to be "a big dove" because of his role in drafting the Pentagon Papers.

"He wasn't," Lord said in a telephone interview. "His job was — without being partisan to lay out our record of involvement."

Gelb, he said, "wasn't one of those who felt that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were the good guys, the Americans were the bad guys; just the opposite. He was disgusted with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, but he felt he owed it to the American people to point out the mistakes that were made."

'Noble dimension'

Lord sees a connection between the forthrightness in Gelb's analysis of foreign policy records and what he describes as a "noble dimension" to Gelb's conduct as an individual.

"Many people in government suck up and fawn and praise their superiors, and then step on and beat up their staff and inferiors. He was just the opposite," Lord said.

Alexander Vershbow, a foreign service officer who worked under Gelb and who would go on to become a U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO deputy secretary general, described Gelb in an interview as "kind of my first mentor," and a man who "liked to give people a chance to prove themselves."

Vershbow said Gelb believed in a two-track Russia strategy, including both deterrence and dialogue, that, Vershbow said, he "kept with me throughout my career."

After leaving State, Gelb worked for more than 10 years as a foreign affairs and national security columnist, later an opinion-page editor, for The New York Times. In 1993, he was named as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an institution over which he presided until 2003.

Cover of Power Rules, written by Leslie Gelb (VOA/N. Liu)
Cover of Power Rules, written by Leslie Gelb (VOA/N. Liu)

In 2009, Gelb published a book on American foreign policy, "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy." He told a University of California at Berkeley audience that year that he wrote the book out of frustration with the field of political science and foreign policymaking, beginning with an ill-defined concept of "power" which he thought was neither a purely intellectual process aimed at persuasion, nor a mere physical show of force.

The United States won the Cold War, he believed, because it successfully developed allies "in Western Europe, Germany in particular, and Japan." Adding these countries' resources "to our own," he said, "we would have more than 75% of military, diplomatic and economic power in the world."

Looking forward, he urged America to continue to build strong alliances and be mindful of other countries' desires and capabilities, all the while having the courage — and wisdom — to "fail alone, succeed together."