Something Called Terrorism

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


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.

Rather than boycotting the Vienna Philharmonic, as some called on Bernstein to do, he opted for a solution similar to his handling of Bok and the nuclear armament book: speaking up and then seeking a functional compromise. In the speech, he tells of arranging a Rosh Hashanah dinner at his hotel in Vienna for the purpose of bringing together two political enemies from a divided Austria: Franz Vranitzky, a Social Democrat who was then the country’s chancellor (thus serving in Waldheim’s government), and Bruno Kreisky, a Jew and Socialist who held that same position from 1970 to 1983. The two were at loggerheads, and Bernstein aimed for détente.

The Harvard speech and its unorthodox delivery are filled with classic Bernsteinisms, from ardent politics and noble intentions to self excuses and late-night excesses. When Alan Gilbert assumes his role at the New York Philharmonic next fall, he will need to follow his own vision. But Bernstein’s legacy of taking risks and engaging with seemingly intractable global politics provides a compelling model.

(Carol J. Oja, the William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard, is at work on a book about Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway shows. Mark Eden Horowitz, senior music specialist in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, is archivist of the library’s extensive Leonard Bernstein collection.)

Truth in a Time of War

Leonard Bernstein

By way of instant apology for the rambling remarks that follow, let me certify that I have just returned from three weeks of conducting abroad, involving eight cities in seven countries, with two different orchestras, and juggling five languages. I have come here tonight to make a report on this journey—not because anyone asked me to—(can you imagine anything more boring than a recital of maestronic statistics?)—but rather because I learned something on this tour that I want to share with you.

That would still not be sufficient reason to stand here talking about myself. The point is that what I learned I want to share with you, men and women of Harvard, which is where I learned to love learning. That’s why I’ve come back here tonight.


Okay, on to some statistics. The first two weeks of the three were devoted to a tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra—a journey that began in New York City on September 13th (you see, only moments ago!) and proceeded the following day to London, then to Munich, then Pompeii (!), Paris, Zurich, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. This whole tour was in celebration of the 50th birthday of the Israel Philharmonic—which is, in a way, even more miraculous than this three hundred and fiftieth birthday, given the perilous circumstances of the orchestra’s origin in 1936. (It was then called, humbly enough, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which is how I first came to know it, many years ago.) For this present jubilant occasion I wrote a special birthday piece for the orchestra I had known and loved so well, a piece called Jubilee Games, designed to celebrate with numerous and vociferous trumpet calls their joyous Jubilee year. Those of you who know your Leviticus will immediately understand what I’m talking about, and even those of you who don’t, but who do know your Constitution, or even the inscription on our Liberty Bell, will understand equally well the excitement and liberation of “Jubilee.”

And don’t think that Harvard wasn’t constantly chiming away in my head in consonance with this Jubilee all during the tour. You see, exactly 50 years ago, as the gods would have it, 50 beautiful autumns ago, the Israel Orchestra was born, and I entered Harvard and took up residence at Wigglesworth Hall [actually, Bernstein enrolled at Harvard in 1935, not 1936]. It was tercentenary time then; and what’s more I had just come freshly from another tercentenary, namely that of the Boston Latin School, from which I had just graduated in 1935. So bells were ringing all around me, for two solid years. And they’ve been chiming ever since, and indeed did so, loudly, on the Jubilee festival tour last month, from St. Paul’s in London to Notre Dame in Jerusalem.

It was all bells and beauty, Hatikvah in our hearts, enraptured audiences—except for one thing: security. We were, after all, the Israel Philharmonic, streaming from airport to airport, concert hall to hotel, public place to public place; we were the messengers of music (that is, beauty, therefore truth) and everywhere around us was something called terrorism. That was also a truth—not perhaps so absolute as Plato’s Aesthetic Truth, but a formidable reality nonetheless. Paris had just undergone a relentless storm of terrorist abuse, and we were en route là-bas. I need not tell you about airports—Heathrow, Leonardo da Vinci, Athens, Vienna—everybody’s favorite headlines. We were therefore heavily guarded; wherever we went there were Carabinieri, Sicherheitspolizei, La Sureté Nationale, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the charming Swiss Army. I could go nowhere without a personal bodyguard, not even for a walk down Piccadilly or the Champs Elysées. I visited the breathtaking ruins of Pompeii, after 15 or 20 years; what a joy, but again attended by a helicopter overhead, soldiers with ferocious dogs on chains, and chummy plainclothesmen in Italian silk shirts concealing stomachs of pure fatal metal. Guns. I hate guns. What a great way to see Pompeii. The next day I swam in the Bay of Sorrento, carefully cruised by two poliziotti. What fun. What was happening was that day by day, going from triumph to triumph, from one set of old friends to another, from joy to joy and sunshine to sunshine, an invisible character gradually came into being, slowly and steadily developing a special identity called The Enemy. I had never before been so aware of this metaphorical being, The Enemy; but the more protection one has, the more danger is implied; the stronger the defense, the greater must be the threat. At one point I suddenly realized that this is the way the world lives, is practiced in living—existing in terms of an enemy. It’s exactly the target that Jesus aimed at all his life, and Buddha too, and Freud; and Gandhi and Martin Luther King: trying to make this invisible creature unnecessary. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Turn that other cheek. Meditate: Is there truly an enemy, a serpent, devil, PLO terrorist, Libyan hit-man, Communist agent, Bolshevik bomber, Belfast Blackie…(why, in Belfast the blood runs in the gutters in the name of the Prince of Peace). Of course there is an enemy; reality says so. Only meditate, say the great teachers: Is there really? Or do we create him?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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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