Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Samuel Huntington, Harvard Political Scientist, Dies at 81
Samuel P. Huntington was unafraid to launch his ideas onto the center of the intellectual stage, even when they sparked considerable controversy. But friends and family said they will remember the bespectacled political scientist for his gentle, reserved nature, and commitment to scholarship and education.
The preeminent scholar of national security, democratization, civil-military relations, and strategy—whose expertise touched legions of students and policymakers—died of congestive heart failure and complications related to diabetes at the age of 81 last week on Martha’s Vineyard, according to wife Nancy A. Huntington '55.
Professor Huntington, who taught at Harvard for 58 years before retiring in 2007, was a gentle, yet quietly serious, presence in the government department, where he left behind a legacy of academic integrity and commitment to undergraduate education during his tenure, colleagues said.
Though Huntington’s views sparked heated debate among international relations theorists, the strength of his ideas and methods of presentation won him popularity among students, according to long-time friend and former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Henry Rosovsky.
“He was so brilliant that you wanted to learn as much as you could from him and try to be as honest and as serious about your work as he was,” said government Professor Stephen P. Rosen ’74, a former student of Huntington’s. “He was an inspiration…he was always there for his students.”
Huntington's most famous academic treatise espoused that cultural and religious differences between the world’s major civilizations—rather than ideological disparities between political states—would be the cause of violent conflicts in a post-Cold War world.
The world's major civilizations, Huntington said, were Western, Latin American, Islamic, African, Orthodox, Hindu, Japanese, and "Sinic" (which included other East Asian cultures).
The theory drew controversy for its focus on differences between civilizations when Huntington first published it in 1993 as an article in the journal Foreign Affairs. Some at the time criticized the work for reinforcing and oversimplifying cultural divisions, though it later gained support, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks, which some pointed to as evidence of the cultural strife predicted by Huntington's theory.
In 1996, he expounded on his argument in the book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” which has been translated into 39 languages.
Huntington's most recent book, "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity," published in 2004, provoked accusations of racism for warning that a tide of Mexican immigration to the U.S. would undermine "our Anglo-Protestant culture."
“He was a scholar, first and foremost,” Mrs. Huntington said. “He knew that…there would be controversy but felt obliged to do what he thought was right and what was true.”
“He had a wonderful capacity to deal with crucial topics,” Rosovsky said of Huntington, who wrote 17 books over the course of his academic career. “In many ways, I think academic achievement is very much related to choosing the right subject, and Sam was incredibly good at that.”
Kennedy School Professor Graham T. Allison Jr. called Huntington "an outstanding teacher, a great thinker, and a valued colleague" who had the “rare capacity” for larger insights into overarching themes like democratization and military politics.
“Not just big insights but grasp of truths that have legs,” Allison added in his e-mailed statement. “Among political scientists, or indeed, all social scientists today, he had no peer competitor. Personally as well as intellectually, we miss him deeply.”
Samuel Phillips Huntington was born on April 18, 1927, in New York City, to parents steeped in the trade of words—his father was an editor and publisher, and his mother a writer.
In 1946, the precocious 18-year-old graduated with distinction from Yale College. After serving briefly in the U.S. Army, Huntington continued his education at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1951.
The year before earning his doctorate, the 23-year-old Huntington began teaching at Harvard, where he was often mistaken for an undergraduate, according to Rosovsky. Excepting the period between 1959 and 1962, when he was an associate professor of government at Columbia, Huntington taught at Harvard for 58 years, eventually becoming the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor, one of 21 prestigious professorships created by Harvard to recognize groundbreaking, interdisciplinary scholarship.
"It is difficult for me to imagine a more rewarding or enjoyable career than teaching here, particularly teaching undergraduates," Huntington wrote in a retirement letter.
Before retiring in 2007, Huntington served twice as chair of the government department, directed Harvard's Center for International Affairs from 1978 to 1989, and chaired the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies from 1996 to 2004.
In 1989, Huntington founded the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, an autonomous entity within the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs that focuses on national security and strategy issues. Though Huntington stepped down from his post as director of the Olin Institute in 2000, he continued to advise on Olin Fellowships and remained involved in the seminar program.
But Huntington’s work also took him beyond academia. In 1968, he advised then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey during his bid for the presidency. And in 1970, he co-founded Foreign Policy magazine.
In 1977 and 1978, Huntington was coordinator of security planning for the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. The following decade, Huntington served on the Presidential Commission on Long-Term Integrated Strategy.
After suffering from a stroke in 2006, Huntington entered a succession of nursing facilities in Boston. He relocated the following summer to a facility on Martha's Vineyard, where the Huntingtons had spent their summers for 40 years.
“He loved the Vineyard, loved his garden, and lived a fairly simple life,” Mrs. Huntington said, remembering her husband remark, "I can breathe again," after returning to his favored refuge after serving the Carter administration.
“I never knew him to lie; I never knew him to dissemble,” she added about her late husband, who first courted her in 1956 by inviting her to the Casablanca on Brattle Street for a beer. “He was a joy to live with.”
Samuel Huntington is survived by Mrs. Huntington; two sons, Nicholas P. Huntington ’87 and Timothy M. Huntington ’83; and four grandchildren. A private burial service will be held on Martha's Vineyard.
In the spring, a memorial service will be held at Harvard; details are pending.