James Baker at Princeton before and after the Cold War

Baker at Princeton

In 1949, as the United States and its western allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to “contain” Soviet expansion into Europe, James A. Baker III was a freshman at Princeton. He was, in his words, “focused more on making grades, playing tennis and rugby, and chasing girls — not necessarily in that order — than on U.S. foreign policy” (Baker p. 287).

In his memoir, Baker provides a good-natured account of his early years here. “I became a member of both Princeton’s Right Wing Club — so named because we spent much of our time using our right arms to hoist spirituous beverages — and the 21 Club, another social organization with a similar mission” (Baker p. 9). But by the time he left Princeton, Baker had produced serious work; he found his interest in history and classics and had written his senior thesis about parliamentary politics in Britain in the two preceding decades.

The Cold War would soon find him, however. Baker graduated in 1952 and immediately entered the U.S. Marine Corps’ officer training program while the Korean War was still ongoing. The Cold War would continue to shape Baker’s career, by which he was both a witness to and agent of the fall of the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991, Baker had served as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary and as Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush.

Return to Princeton

This video, documenting a talk by Baker co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School and the Class of 1993, was delivered on December 12, 1991 in Alexander Hall. Baker was then serving as Secretary of State.

Secretary Baker must have been extremely busy at the time that he gave this address.  The first Gulf War had begun and ended earlier that year, and Baker had coordinated a meeting of Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Madrid six weeks previous.

After President Harold Shapiro’s introduction (2:10), Baker begins his speech (5:10) with a rhetorical victory lap, celebrating the end of the Soviet Union and decrying the pernicious dangers of Stalinism. After all, one of the primary goals during his work for the last two administrations — the containment of Soviet communism to the point of non-existence — had been achieved. As he put it, “while nuclear war would have destroyed us physically, Stalinism would have destroyed us spiritually” (6:50).

Secretary Baker continued his speech with a discussion of the United States’ role in the fate of post-Soviet republics, noting an immediate need for humanitarian aid at the beginning of a long winter.

Imperative, Baker noted, was the control of the former Soviet Union’s vast arsenal of conventional and nuclear weapons, now under the control of a rapidly changing state apparatus. In this context, Baker discussed a $400 million appropriation from Congress to be used toward destroying the Soviet nuclear arsenal. “That’s neither charity nor aid; that’s an investment in a secure future for every American” (30:53). If not destroyed, he said, these weapons may find themselves in the hands of figures like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.

The other arena in which Americans and their allies can offer help, Baker asserted, was as models for democratization and capitalism, bringing “democracy to lands who have little knowledge of it” (18:45).

Watching this video, now twenty years later, is a reminder of the anxieties of the immediate post-Berlin Wall era, and of how, in some cases, these anxieties have endured.

Interesting note:  George Kennan, the originator of the term and philosophy of “containment,” was in the audience for this address. Kennan’s papers are also housed at the Mudd Manuscript Library.

– Maureen Callahan, Public Policy Project Archivist

This VHS tape is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 1486).

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