Hill was old-fashioned as it seems old-fashioned these days to know about many things instead of having three degrees in one thing. It seems old-fashioned to focus on ideas, to view theology, poetry, or political theory as more than a pious varnish on material interests or basic prejudices. When Hill first came to Yale in the early 1990s, he was desperate for a tight doctorate. Dissertations at elite universities and the short-sighted wonkishness of Washington in the Clinton years. It was a time when the great ideological struggles seemed to be over and many in power thought that the global victory of democracy was just a matter of technocratic administration. Hill taught me and my classmates that ideology is still very important. It is true that he was a conservative, an admirer of Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan. But he taught us that studying the world through the lens of great ideas was not a partisan enterprise – it was a vital one. And it could be a lot of fun.
When I was a Hill’s student in the early 2000s, I would trudge to his attic office on Hillhouse Avenue to ask a question about the week’s reading or to consult his brain for advice. I would join the line of students waiting outside his door, cluttered in the narrow hallway, leafing through his discarded copies of Foreign Affairs or a newsletter from the National Rifle Association posted on the hall table. I wanted to see him badly, but was afraid of the first part – the part in which I sat down, he looked up and was silent until my half-prepared forays subsided and I looked around awkwardly at the bookshelves, the one with Plato, Chinese poetry , were crammed. Emerson, Du Bois, Books on Buddhism.
At Yale, Hill was a “diplomat in residence,” an invented position that allowed him to exist outside of the normal academic incentive structure that rewards scholars who publish a lot on a narrow subject and invest a minimum of time in teaching. Instead, Hill always cooked classes to learn something new or bring together books and ideas that normally don’t go together. He has taught courses on subjects ranging from ancient political philosophy and the history of Tibet to The Mississippi and Nationhood and Baseball as Grand Strategy. In one semester, his proposal for a new class entitled “The Democratic Epic” offered the following description: “Works of epic ambition which together can form a national epic sequence of meanings: Cooper to Whitman to Kerouac; Civil War, World War II, Cold War texts; Examples from science, law, music and countercultures, each examining the relationship between the self and the state in the context of democracy as the “force of history”. The readings (and recordings) ranged from “Moby Dick”. and Charles Ives’ sonatas to W.E.B. Du Bois on John Brown and Ann Douglas on Black Manhattan.
Hill’s most famous course was Studies in Grand Strategy, which he co-founded with Yale historians John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy. Skeptical progressives took a class where students were asked to read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and speak openly about how to exercise power, which must be radically conservative. But the course had no inherent policy. What was radical about Grand Strategy was its eclectic methodology, expansive curriculum of readings from very different times and places, and summer funding that supported student projects ranging from traveling to Mexico researching violence against drug cartels to researching Hadrian’s grand strategy in Rome submitted a study on “great strategies for writing the great American novel”.
As a college student, I was intrigued by Hill, that reticent man who seemed to have all the answers and a mysterious diplomatic career that he alluded to but never explained. I wanted to know where his own big strategy was coming from. What started as a few conversations and a term paper took on a life of its own, and in the end I was finished write a full biography. The research took me deep into arcane episodes of Cold War diplomacy. I have interviewed his family and friends, his admirers and his critics. I learned what a biographer needs to learn about everyone: that Hill made mistakes; that his dedication to his career came at a personal cost – and that I didn’t have to idealize him to learn from him.
An intellectual magpie from the start, Hill rummaged in his aunt’s attic for the strange book, read the encyclopedia straight through when he was 12, and got impatient with law school for being so cramped. (He graduated and then did a Masters in American Material Culture before moving to the Foreign Service.)
Hill refined his omnivorous approach in one of his first foreign service posts in Hong Kong as a China observer in the early years of the Cultural Revolution. The People’s Republic was closed to most Western diplomats, so Hill and his colleagues spent hours questioning the propaganda of rival Red Guard factions. Questioning refugees with dubious stories; Studying the nuances of official party photos (where was this official who had been in the front row last month? Was he now in the country and being reeducated by the peasants?). Hill stayed up late reading stories of Imperial Beijing, classical Chinese poetry, ancient mission reports, and treatises on regional Buddhist practices. He set out to understand China from every angle.
In the spring of 1967, the chaos on the mainland hit Hong Kong. Bloody clashes between communist rioters and police officers spilled over from Kowloon slums to more affluent neighborhoods, where residents stored buckets of water in their homes and peered through banyan trees. Hill remembered standing on the roof of the American Consulate when columns of Red Guards marched for hours around the building and Garden Hill Road. “I’ve never been bothered by such things,” he later told me. “It’s just a feeling that the world is like this.”
For me, this is what Hill captures: phlegmatic and mostly standing still and finding a way to “choose the exact mood to project,” as he later told me that a good great strategist always has to do it; Note the details, the fluttering little red books, the bloody shirts and noses, the flashy Mercedes-Benzes of Hong Kong’s best cadre on the way to the governor’s villa. Decades later in the classroom, he might draw a bold diagram to help us see the big picture, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about little things.
Over the years, he became an increasingly meticulous note-taker, recording almost verbatim reports of every conversation he participated in. During his four years at George Shultz, he produced over 20,000 notebook pages (a conscientious colleague filled a paltry 4,500). He made himself indispensable as the State Department’s chief amateur anthropologist, always producing the most believable narrative and having the power to put things into words. Taking notes, making speeches, and writing memos meant that “you became a policy maker,” he later said.
His classes resonated with a generation of students for the same reason that he was such an effective advisor to great statesmen: he taught a style of thinking, a way of noticing and understanding everything. His role in shaping some of Kissinger’s key speeches or in drafting the human rights dispute that Shultz and Reagan pursued with Mikhail Gorbachev, however, remained behind the scenes. “The basic principle is that you never look back. You continue. If you give someone a memo, never again say, “Did you look at this? What did you think of it? “He told me.” Follow-up is important, but when you find yourself in an idea-producing status or situation just throw in ideas and move on to the next problem. When something works, you will find out about it in some form. “
At a time when ubiquitous social media encourages us to think that nothing matters if we don’t document it for public consumption, and when career counselors encourage 18-year-olds to “build their brands,” Hills was a quiet trust Antidote for his students. He reminded us that if you are obsessed with getting credit (or getting retweets) you may not be able to listen as well or understand as much. He often complained that no one took good notes anymore – either in science, where glowing screens are a crutch, or in Washington, where in the years since Watergate, writing has proved to be an obstacle to “plausible denial”. The students once asked him to teach an informal course on note taking – of course, he agreed.
Hill’s obituaries describe him as “laconic”, a calm presence, an eminence grise. He was all of these things. But he would also put us in fits of laughter with dead imitations of famous statesmen (all this close observation made him a talented imitator). He loved handing out bizarrely eclectic packets at the start of class and watching us squirm as we tried to figure out the connections between a Xerox of a German romantic painting, a verse from a 4th century Chinese poem, and a Excerpted from Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” a news clip on global warming and other evidence of the human condition.
He seemed serious, and he was, but the quality that charmed Hill’s student was the same that made his analysis of world affairs so powerful: his playfulness. He took great pleasure in combining poetry with religion, children’s books, professional sports, political theory and diplomacy, and he loved nothing more than to exchange ideas with us, fellow amateurs.
Years ago, historian Richard Hofstadter identified this playfulness as a key trait of a true intellectual, as a counterbalance to the stultifying piety that is all too common in government and academia, and prevents a person from asking interesting questions. Conventional scholars and politicians might mistake a generalist like Hill for a dubious dabbler, an impractical amateur. This is a serious mistake. “When using the terms play and Playfulness, I do not intend to suggest a lack of seriousness; on the contrary, ”said Hofstadter wrote. “Anyone who has watched children or adults play will recognize that there is no contradiction between play and seriousness, and that some forms of play produce a level of heavy concentration that work does not easily produce.” Hill made us comrades in the play and took us as seriously as few professors did.
There are superficial signs that his approach isn’t that weird anymore. The Hill’s co-founded Yale course helped keep the buzzword “grand strategy” trending in academia. Programs called “Grand Strategy” emerged at other elite universities, each with its own approach to the project of training ambitious young leaders. A number of books have appeared on the subject (including Hill’s own “Great strategies, ”Published in 2010). Now that I’m a professor myself, I’m building my own humble stash of bold blackboard charts and will try to channel Hill next fall as I jointly teach a ruthlessly broad new course called People and the Cosmos. But I feel that the great strategy, as Hill understood it – fervently anti-specialist, relentless, yet mischievous – still fits uncomfortably into the political world and the academy. He had no illusions about starting a movement or changing a culture. But he achieved the goal that I think he was thinking of: he left a generation of students who do our best to notice things, think things through, and put small, sly smiles on them.