Essays - Autumn 2008

Something Called Terrorism


In a speech given at Harvard 22 years ago and never before published, Leonard Bernstein offered a warning that remains timely

By Leonard Bernstein

September 1, 2008

Introduction by Carol J. Oja and Mark Eden Horowitz

Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, is in the news this fall with a series of events and concerts that mark both his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Meanwhile, a young conductor named Alan Gilbert is poised to follow in Bernstein’s footsteps by becoming the Philharmonic’s second American-born music director. Quite unexpectedly, Gilbert turns up in events surrounding a speech Bernstein gave in 1986 on the occasion of Harvard’s 350th anniversary. Published here for the first time (although never edited by Bernstein for publication), the speech feels eerily current. It serves as a potent reminder that ours is not the only era bedeviled by terror and fear and the reaction (or over-reaction) to it.

Bernstein, a 1939 graduate of Harvard, was invited by the university to address a celebration banquet for students in the fall of 1986. Then-president Derek Bok recalls:

Since agreeing to speak, he had not been in touch with Harvard….As a result, the organizers of the banquet abandoned hope that he would appear. They had also scheduled too many other speakers with the result that the evening dragged on interminably until something like one in the morning….At some point well after the festivities had begun…Leonard unexpectedly arrived dressed in a cape and announced to me that he had only just arrived the day before from an extended trip abroad and was expecting to speak….The organizers assured him that he was definitely still on the program and would be the final speaker. By the time we reached his place in the program, however, it was past midnight.

Bernstein apparently offered the audience a choice of listening to his remarks or calling it a day. Much to his chagrin, they chose to leave. Then, Bok explains, some students led by Gilbert (whose violinist parents played under Bernstein at the Philharmonic) asked Bernstein to speak at Adams House, a Harvard dorm.

Bernstein agreed, with certain caveats: that Bok be present, along with at least 15 students and two bottles of scotch. Seventy undergraduates turned up for the speech, delivered at 2 A.M., and, as reported in The Harvard Crimson, the event lasted an hour and a half. At the conclusion of his talk, Bernstein announced with a flourish that he would forgive Bok and Harvard for publishing a book with an introduction by Bok advocating restraints on weapons technology instead of an outright freeze. Bok recalls that Bernstein made his announcement and then “enfolded me in a great (and exceptionally long) hug.”

The political climate felt none too stable in 1986, something Bernstein had just experienced firsthand during an international tour with two of his beloved orchestras—the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. Ronald Reagan was in his second term. Pan Am Flight 73 had been hijacked in Pakistan that September, after which a series of deadly terrorist bombings had taken place in Paris. Terrorist threats plagued the Israel Philharmonic’s tour, and Bernstein was “heavily guarded,” as he put it, yielding a situation where “the more protection one has, the more danger is implied.” Thus he turned his speech into a rumination on the metastatic nature of fear.

Bernstein’s notes for the speech, now housed at the Library of Congress along with the text itself, show that his message was prompted, in part, by yet another crisis of the day: revelation of a campaign of disinformation by the Reagan Administration. On October 2, 1986, while Bernstein was in Vienna, Bob Woodward broke a story in The Washington Post that the White House had “launched a secret and unusual campaign of deception to convince Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that he was about to be attacked by U.S. bombers and perhaps be ousted in a coup.” On October 9 (the day Bernstein returned from Europe and the day before the Harvard dinner), The New York Times reported Bernard Kalb’s resignation as State Department spokesman, a step taken to condemn the government’s action. A heavily annotated clipping of the Times article about Kalb, stored together with notes for the speech, shows Bernstein’s impassioned response. He underlines phrases and writes in angry capitals: ENEMIES ARE OBSOLETE. Several phrases that end up in the speech were first scrawled on that clipping.

The core of Bernstein’s message, however, was inspired by his recent performances with the Israel and Vienna orchestras. His relationship with both was long and intense. He first conducted the Israel Philharmonic in 1947, when it was called the Palestine Orchestra, and his 1986 tour with the group celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 1948 during the War of Independence and often under terrifying conditions, Bernstein conducted 35 concerts in two months. Thus when he conjures up “Hatikvah” in the speech, he is referring to the then-unofficial Israeli national anthem, which translates as “The Hope.”

Bernstein also treasured his affiliation with the Vienna Philharmonic, which began in 1966. He devoted part of the Harvard speech to justifying his recent appearance in Vienna, just months after Kurt Waldheim had been elected president. During the campaign leading up to that election, Waldheim was revealed to have been an intelligence officer for the Nazi Wehrmacht, a revelation that prompted an anti-Semitic backlash in Austria. An odd moment in Bernstein’s 2 A.M. Harvard talk came when he referred to Waldheim as “Alzheimer.” This might have been a slip, but more likely it was one of the word plays he loved to concoct.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of America's most highly-regarded orchestra conductors, a composer, educator, and a lifelong activist for world peace.

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