As a junior at the University of Denver, Condoleezza Rice was all set to pursue a career in music, helping children appreciate Mozart and Beethoven. Then the future national security adviser to President-elect Bush took a course in international politics under a professor named Josef Korbel.
Suddenly, almost overnight, she found her vocation. "It was like love at first sight," she recalls. Prodded by Korbel, a refugee from communism, she became fascinated by the Soviet Union, and eventually decided to teach international relations herself. She describes her old professor as "one of the most central figures in my life, next to my parents."
There are few better examples of continuity in American foreign policy than the obscure international relations professor who was at once the mentor of the incoming national security adviser and the father of the outgoing secretary of state. Like Rice, Madeleine K. Albright depicts Korbel, who died in 1977, as the guiding intellectual influence on her life. "A good deal of what I did," she once told an interviewer, "I did because I wanted to be like my father."
On the surface, it is difficult to imagine two more different women than Rice and Albright, the first female national security adviser and the first female secretary of state. Rice is a Republican, Albright a Democrat. Rice is the granddaughter of an Alabama cotton farmer, Albright the granddaughter of a Czech Jewish businessman who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Rice was born in Alabama in 1954, just as the Supreme Court was desegregating American education. Albright was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, shortly before the country's dismemberment by the Nazis.
But although they belong to different generations and different political parties, Rice and Albright seem to share a similar "Korbelian" view of the world. Like their mentor, they see America as a moral beacon to the rest of the world--"the indispensable country," in Albright's words. At the same time, their ideology is tempered by pragmatism. In a 1998 interview, Rice described Korbel as a "moderate conservative" in foreign policy, a description that could apply to Albright or herself.
Under Korbel's guidance, both Albright and Rice made Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union their principal field of study, almost to the exclusion of other important regions, such as the Middle East and China. Both wrote books inspired by, and dedicated to, Korbel. Albright wrote her doctoral dissertation on the role of the press in Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia; Rice studied the relationship between the Soviet and Czechoslovak armies.
As both women have testified, Korbel was a remarkable teacher, with a gift for communicating his enthusiasm to others. But he was also an extraordinarily complicated personality: a man of great moral principle who felt it necessary to hide his Jewish background, an exuberant character forever struggling with an ingrained European pessimism, a naturally gregarious man who could be rude and high-handed.
Not the least of Korbel's contradictions was his attitude toward women wanting to make a career in foreign policy. The founder of a graduate school for international studies at the University of Denver, Korbel initially was reluctant to accept female students and professors. Over time, however, he became a champion of women such as Rice, whose father was a member of the university's faculty.
"He was nothing but supportive and insistent, even pushy, about me going into this field," said Rice, recalling how Korbel dissuaded her from becoming a lawyer and insisted she take a course in comparative communism. It was the same way with Albright, who became a foreign policy aide to Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) at the time that Rice was studying under her father. "He was as proud of her, and as aggressive about her prospects, as he was about me," Rice added.
Former associates say that Korbel's attitudes about women reflected the spirit of the times and his own difficulty in adjusting to American egalitarian ideas. According to his former graduate school deputy, Arthur Gilbert, Korbel at first was reluctant to take female graduate students because he thought "the women would not get jobs and it would not redound to the credit of the school he was trying to build." By the late '60s, however, Korbel had changed his mind. "It was like that with everything. He would take stands, and then he adjusted," Gilbert said.
A former diplomat forced to flee Czechoslovakia after the 1939 Nazi takeover, Korbel spent the war years in London, as an adviser to Eduard Benes, the exiled Czechoslovak president. His early writings suggest that he was sympathetic to left-wing, socialist ideas but, as he later put it, "I lost my faith" as a result of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe.
When the Czechoslovak Communists staged a coup in 1948, toppling a democratic government, Korbel was serving as his country's ambassador to Yugoslavia. This time, he and his family found refuge in America. They ended up in Denver, where Korbel set about trying to build an international relations school capable of competing with East Coast institutions such as Columbia, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins.
Despite his background, Korbel had little time for emigre politics. "He was not a traditional anti-communist hard-liner," recalled a University of Denver colleague, Karen Feste. "He was skeptical and hardheaded, but he was also in favor of the policy of detente [with the Soviet Union]. He was not an ideologue."
Granted U.S. citizenship in 1957, Korbel was fiercely loyal to his adopted country and was reluctant to criticize U.S. foreign policy, even when it was being assailed from all sides. He supported American intervention in Vietnam until the 1968 Tet offensive, when--together with his daughter Madeleine--he reluctantly concluded that it was time for U.S. troops to leave.
"He really saw America as a bastion of freedom in the world, in an unvarnished, very patriotic, almost unquestioning way," said Rice. She recalled Korbel's dismay on seeing television images of delegates to the 1976 Republican National Convention walking around with elephant headgear. "That kind of thing was a great embarrassment to him. He thought it beneath the dignity of a great country."
While Korbel inspired loyalty from students and associates, he also antagonized some people. One former Denver professor, Vince Davis, described him as a "control freak." Another, Ron Krieger, thought of Korbel as "very off-putting, very unctuous."
"He was obsequious to his superiors and authoritarian to his inferiors, of whom I was certainly one," Krieger said.
Rice, by contrast, has only praise for her former mentor, although she describes him as "probably more liberal on domestic politics than I was." "He was a wonderful storyteller and very attentive to his students. It was that attentiveness, plus his ability to weave larger conceptual issues around very interesting stories, that made him such a powerful teacher," she said.
Although Korbel never really achieved his ambition of creating a world-class international relations institute in the American West, his influence lives on through his two star pupils, who set out to follow in his footsteps. When Albright arrived at the United Nations as U.S. ambassador, practically the first thing she did was to take out a framed portrait of her father as a member of a U.N. mission to Kashmir in 1948 and set it up on her desk.
As for Rice, she said she might never have pursued a career in international relations had it not been for Korbel. After abandoning her plans to become a concert pianist and earning a master's degree at Notre Dame, she thought about law school. But Korbel took her aside and told her, "You are very talented, you have to become a professor."
"When I think back on that moment, I don't know if it was a subliminal message," she said, "but I had such respect and admiration for him that I took the idea seriously for the first time."