Y’s Men Talk

On January 3, 2013 Jonathan Fanton met with the Y’s Men to discuss his career pushing for international human rights and civil liberties at home. An article highlighting Dr. Fanton’s talk can be found here.

Y’s Men

January 3, 2013

I am delighted to meet the Y’s Men and look forward to our conversation this morning. When Bryan approached me to speak, my first instinct was to talk about human rights and international justice, passions of mine over a lifetime, especially since my time as Chair of Human Rights Watch and President of the New School. I have spoken a lot on those topics so I decided to do something here I have never done before: preview a project that may become a memoir and invite your critical reaction to some stories central to my life.

I say might become a memoir because I have not decided yet whether to proceed. What I have so far is 150 pages of vignettes, short stories about interesting people I have met and interesting historical moments I have witnessed. I want to save plenty of time for conversation so I will tell a few stories and hope you can help me discern some themes that could tie them together.

While not shy, I do not like talking about myself. I would rather listen and learn from others. But I am making an exception today because you are from Weston and Westport, my ancestral home. The Fantons came to the Weston section of Fairfield in 1680 and have been here ever since. The Aspetuck Valley Country Club is at the heart of the family farm that runs along Fanton Hill. I went to Horace Hurlbutt for Junior High School, my grandfather was first Selectman of Weston for 10 years after the war, my father was town counsel and a cousin was the resident state trooper when I was growing up. So this is home.

We did live in Trumbull for a few years after the war but came here every Sunday to visit my grandparents on Norfield Road. Let me start with a post-war story.

“My father was on the prosecution staff at the Dachau Tribunals to try German military leaders accused of war crimes.  Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated those proceedings in 1950, and suggested that the prosecution had used improper interrogation methods.  The hearings were front page news in the Bridgeport Post.  That excited some Nazi sympathizers who began sending us threatening notes.  The text made it clear the person knew where we lived, my name, and that we had a cocker spaniel.  My parents were obviously concerned and since my father was Trumbull town prosecutor, we were close to the police who would drive by the house frequently to check on us.

My mother would stand watch at her bedroom window every morning while I walked up to Main Street to get the White Line Bus to school.  One morning I just missed the bus and the car behind kindly offered me a ride.  My mother called the police and before we got to school the man was intercepted and I was taken the rest of the way by police cruiser.  The man was ultimately released with an apology.

The letters continued but less frequently until we moved to Weston in 1955.  How did this affect me, if at all?  I was worried at first, or more accurately, reflected my parents’ worry.  I am not sure I understood the danger.  But I found their worry and the limits on my movements tiresome.  As a result, I began to discount danger over the years.  That may have contributed to my sense that I am invulnerable.  While I am not foolish, I have gone to dangerous places without fear.  I feel I have a protective shield around me.  I was not afraid when seized in Prague, or going over the Tajik border with an unknown driver in the night, or picketing for civil rights on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, or walking into a shoot out in a Chicago housing project in the 1960’s while recruiting minority students at Dunbar High School.  I do not give myself high marks for courage, but rather believe that childhood episode steeled me to danger and created an ever present sense of security.

That sense of calm in a crisis was useful during the May Day demonstrations at Yale in 1970 and the Spring of unrest at the New School in 1997.  And it has enabled me to travel on human rights missions to places that others avoid around the world.”

After Hurlbutt I went to Choate and on to Yale, following my father and grandfather. After graduating in history in 1965, I worked at Yale eventually becoming Chief of Staff to President Kingman Brewster just before May Day 1970. You may recall there was a famous trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale and New Haven became ground zero for civil rights protest.

That is the backdrop for my vignette on a mentor of mine, Cyrus Vance.

“The Black Panther trial attracted a large protest on New Haven’s Central Green.  Yale spent weeks preparing for the event, and made the critical decision to keep the campus open and welcome the demonstrators.

Cyrus Vance, who had been President Johnson’s Special Representative during the Detroit riots, came to town to help President Brewster.  A former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Vance had good relations with the military and National Guard.

To draw the students away from the Green, Yale organized a dance in the Ingalls Hockey Rink.  Fortunately, the dance was a bust and not too many students showed up.  Fortunately, because someone planted a bomb in the rink and it exploded, injuring some students with flying glass, but none seriously.

For security purposes, the President’s office had been relocated from Woodbridge Hall to the Alumni House on Temple Street, also the staging ground for the campus police.  Vance, Brewster, Sam Chauncey and I were in the command post the evening of April 30.  When the police radio carried the news of the bomb the word was “we are going over to look for survivors.”  Everything was on the line: if there were deaths or serious injuries, the Brewster open door policy would be sharply criticized, especially by alumni who believed Brewster was too soft on blacks anyway.

No one spoke as we awaited word. Brewster and Vance, sitting side-by-side on a couch, looked straight ahead thinking about the options and the consequences.  After a long five minutes, word came that no one had been seriously injured.  Brewster calmly took action to notify key people and set about drafting a statement.

On another occasion, Vance was on campus for a Trustee meeting.  Trustees often met with students in the residential colleges.  Vance had been invited by Hans Frei, acting Master of Students, to speak.  We sat in the U shaped alcove off the living room with Vance at one end of the U, Frei opposite.  In front of us were folding chairs with about 50-60 students.  But not just students and some members of the New Haven Anti-War Collective had also come.

After Frei introduced Vance, paper airplanes came sailing from the audience accompanied by sound effects of dropping bombs.  Suddenly, four young people came forward in guerrilla theater style announcing: This is your life Cyprus Vance.  The allusion was to a mediation effort Vance had done on Cyprus.  The play gave an unflattering portrayal of Vance’s career in the Pentagon ending with this question, “Mr. Vance, we have tried General Westmoreland as a war criminal and sentenced him to death.  Do you think the civilian war-makers who gave him his orders should also die?”

Vance, who had sat quietly – without expression – through the skit replied simply “If you are asking do I disassociate myself from General Westmoreland the answer is I do not.”

Vance had a way of supporting the U.S. government position and also talking about mistakes in tactics, even underlying assumptions.

The next morning he and I had breakfast at 43 Hill House with President Brewster who had not known of the incident.  I told the story.  Vance said simply, “I was always surprised when people think those of us in power are either stupid or evil.  They don’t consider we might just be doing our best and be wrong.”

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were challenging times on university campuses and Brewster managed those challenges well, certainly better than Harvard, Columbia, and the University of California which had real trouble. Certainly one theme in my career has been defending free speech and encouraging all points of view to be heard. I learned at Yale that you had to work to defend free speech.

“The Yale political union had invited General William Westmoreland to speak in 1971.  A symbol of the Vietnam war, his presence roused opposition.  I made an error in judgment in thinking his talk a few days after spring break would not be disrupted.  I thought that there wouldn’t be enough time for the students to get organized.  But I hadn’t counted on the New Haven Air War Collective, a mix of students and citizens from New Haven.  While Westmoreland was having dinner at Mory’s with his hosts, his staff scouted the Law School auditorium.  They did not like what they saw and convinced Westmoreland to cancel his talk, which he did.  I fault myself on two counts: I should have taken the security threat more seriously and had a plan.  And I should have been with Westmoreland to try to persuade him to give it a try.  I did talk with him by phone, but that was not enough.

As a consequence of his cancellation, Kingman was left with a major political problem: alumni said this was a good example of how Brewster’s left wing stance had killed free speech at Yale.  I felt badly for him and understood that the episode had shaken his confidence in me.  I was determined to regain that confidence, and ever since have worked hard to try to protect the right of controversial speakers to be heard.  Westmoreland, by the way, wrote a gracious letter to Kingman apologizing for the cancellation and putting on the record my attempt to persuade him to go forward.

A group of conservative alumni smelled blood after the Westmoreland fiasco: Lux et Veritas (the Yale motto, “Light is Truth”) began to channel funds to conservative groups on campus to invite speakers sure to cause a stir.  Nobel physicist William Shockley was the next test.  He had ventured beyond his expertise to argue that Blacks were genetically inferior to Whites, an explosive issue in New Haven and at Yale.  I took this as a major challenge and an opportunity for redemption.  I put together a planning task force, including the chief of the Campus Police, Lou Cappiello, and undergraduate affairs Dean John Wilkinson.  We chose Strathcona 114 as a good venue, since the hall could be separated from the main building and the stage had escape exits directly to the outside.

I briefed Shockley in detail about our plans, assuring him of his physical safety.  I told him to expect a demonstration and asked that he take his seat when I gave him the signal.  I explained that we respected the rights of the protestors to make their point, but after five minutes or so we were prepared to remove them from the hall.  Sure enough, a few minutes into his talk about 15-20 students interrupted with calls of racist.  Shockley sat down as instructed.  The audience eventually turned on the demonstrators, who began to quiet down.  I thought we were over the hump.  Then Shockley departed from the script and got up before my signal, went to the chalkboard and wrote “Shame on Yale.”  The demonstration erupted again, this time with some support from the audience.  Shockley turned to me and said, “you failed to protect my right to speak and I am leaving.”  With that, he made his exit through the back door, leaving us with another free speech issue.  But I did not feel guilty this time: we had a plan and executed it well.  Shockley either was a coward, or mad, or perhaps had been put up to the walk out.

At the New School I was determined to create an environment where all points of view could be heard. That goal was put to the test when Yitzhak Rabin came to campus.

“Mier Kahane had been assassinated a few weeks earlier.  The Gulf War was heating up.  Not the best setting for a visit to the New School by Yitzhak Rabin.

He came to dinner at our house before and we had a good conversation.  But I was nervous because I anticipated trouble at the lecture.

I assured Rabin that we were ready for trouble and asked him to be patient if a protest erupted.  The New School had worked out a policy that balanced the right of protest with the right of the speaker to be heard.

The challenge of protecting the rights of a guest to speak had been part of my life since a failed attempt to enable William Westmoreland to speak at Yale during the 1970s.  I saw then how corrosive it could be to a university community when speakers were prevented from airing their views.  And I learned that careful planning was necessary – good intentions and lofty free speech policies would not prevail unless accompanied by steady determination.  The Westmoreland incident stiffened my spine at the New School: from the beginning, I made free speech a paramount value.

So in the ten days leading up to Rabin’s appearance the New School’s senior leadership engaged in careful planning.

But no amount of planning prevented PLO sympathizers from disrupting the event.  They were smarter than we were, buying a dozen tickets before the cut-off and placing themselves around the hall.

Rabin was only minutes into his talk when the dozen rose with signs and slogans.

The crowd, with a generous representation of the New School’s core constituency, taunted the demonstrators.  And they challenged Rabin to put them down.  “You are an Israeli general, do not be cowed.”

As Rabin argued with the demonstrators, the crowd grew unruly and I feared violence.  Rabin’s security guards, positioned behind the curtain, were ready to cancel the event.  I tried to take the podium to call out the New School’s policy as a warning, but Rabin resisted.  Each time I approached I bounced off him.

I sent a message to Rick Rogers, Secretary of the University, who was in charge of the security for the event.  I asked him to bring in the police.  He sent back a note saying the police would not come in until Rabin stopped debating the PLO.

After 45 minutes I could see the security forces were nervous, and about to intervene.

I moved back around the stage to the podium and this time Rabin gave way.  Expecting to bounce off him again, I came forward with real force.  He gave way and we nearly fell down as we embraced and staggered to the right.

Now I had the podium. What to say?  As President I didn’t think it appropriate to call in the police, so I said: “Those in charge of the event should do what they need to do.”  At that moment, three double doors flew open and a healthy contingent of New York’s finest came in and surgically removed the protesters.  No one was injured.

After the dust settled, Rabin continued his talk and a civilized question period followed.  After the event, I walked him through the New School courtyard and thanked him for his patience.  Our policy had worked, but only because he stayed the course.

Let me tell one more story that connects to free speech but also offers an insight into Robert McNamara.

Robert  McNamara appeared at the New School to promote his book In Retrospect.  Expecting some challenges from the audience, I decided to introduce McNamara myself.  So I read the book, should be a must read for any person in power.  While self-serving in some respects, it also yielded insight and expressed regrets.

I offered to filter the questions but McNamara wanted them directly from the audience.  A contrast, I thought, from Senator Edward Kennedy a few weeks before for whom I had to screen the questions.  Eventually the question McNamara expected came from an elderly lady:  “Secretary McNamara, you have taken my son from me twice.  He died in Viet Nam and now your book says the war didn’t have to happen.  His death was in vain.”

At that McNamara wept and apologized again, part of the cathartic process he was going through perhaps destined never to end.

He came back to the President’s House for dinner with trustees and donors.  He and I chatted before the general conversation, an easy exchange of views on Viet Nam but also contemporary world issues.  I could see the formidable intellect at work but also a lonely, needy figure eager to reach out and be accepted, if not forgiven.

He stayed until the last guest left – and then some.  I had to gently guide him down the front stoop and hail a cab for him on 11th Street.

He accepted my invitation to a joint appearance with Daniel Ellsberg who would be a future speaker in the series.

When Ellsberg came, I was disappointed.  I expected to like him but found him self centered and, in an odd way, careless about history and the facts.  At one point, I said, “Do you know who last sat in that chair?”  He obviously didn’t.  When I told him it was Robert McNamara, he asked to change places.  And he flatly rejected my invitation to appear with McNamara on a panel I would moderate.

Let’s move now from my time on university campuses defending free speech to my work abroad in human rights. After four years as Vice President of the University of Chicago I became President of the New School for Social Research for 17 years. The New School started in 1919 mainly as a place for adults to discuss the issues of the day. John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard           were among the founders. The 1933 President Alvin Johnson organized a rescue mission for Jewish intellectuals from Germany who founded a University in Exile at the New School. Members of the faculty revived that tradition in the 1980s working with dissident scholars in East and Central Europe. Those scholars were also human rights advocates which led me to Human Rights Watch in 1983 where I chaired the East and Central Europe Division. I worked closely with Jeri Laber, Staff Director of the Division.

Jeri also spoke truth to power.  I was amazed at the access Human Rights Watch had.  Over the years we met with Boris Yeltsin, Sali Beresha, President of Albania, Heydar Aliyev, President of Ajerbijan, Suleyman Demirel, Prime Minister of Turkey, Ion Iliescu who seized power in Romania, Zheliu Zhelev, President of Bulgaria, Vytautas Landsbergis, President of Lithuania, and, of course, Havel of Czechoslovakia.

Let me share some anecdotes from these meetings.

“When the Soviets cracked down on Baltic independence in mid-January, 1991, Jeri and I visited all three capitals.  The most traumatized was Vilnius where a violent crackdown by the police, perhaps assisted by Soviet forces, resulted in deaths and injuries.  I recall visiting a man in the hospital who had tried to face down a tank.  He lost, but was fortunate the tank did not roll completely over him.  His narrow escape was obvious from the tank tread marks on his side.  Here again was Jeri Laber in action, collecting the stories of ordinary citizens, probing for evidence that the Soviet Union had participated in the crackdown.

I vividly recall our meeting with President Landsbergis, the former music teacher propelled to power by events.  He was holed up in his office in the Parliament, surrounded by loyal troops and sandbags – which ringed the building.  The Parliament was the Center and symbol of the resistance and he was determined that it would not be stormed.  As we entered the Parliament that bitter cold night, we were struck by the warmth of the gathering of citizens in the lobby and auditoriums.  The “Bob Hope” of Lithuania was entertaining, joined by folk singers.  We joined in when the crowd sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land.”
I was impressed by Landsbergis: smart, determined, calm.  He was optimistic that the people would continue on a path to independence and that Gorbachev would not dare use much more deadly force.  Indeed, he doubted Gorbachev had given the order for the crackdown.  When I asked him what we could do to help he said with a smile and dramatic gesture: “Push Bush.”

In 1992 we traveled to Belgrade to release a report on Serbian war crimes in Vukovar.  Our efforts to meet with the government failed.  But as we were walking between appointments we went by President Milosevic’s office.  I said to Jeri, “Let’s try a Sixty Minutes tactic” by which I meant let’s try to get into the building and build a record of being rebuffed.  I took the lead in asking the guard to let us in to see the President.  No, I said, we did not have an appointment, but I was sure the President would want to hear our message from Helsinki Watch.  To our surprise we were admitted and taken to the waiting room outside Milosevic’s office.

There an aide met with us and received our report on Vukovar which was duly acknowledged by a Deputy Prime Minister in writing.  That episode was brought to the Milosevic trial as evidence that the truth of ethnic cleansing was close at hand in the President’s office.  Jeri Laber was a convincing witness.

One of my most challenging decisions was whether to meet with Heider Aliyev who had returned to power in Azerbaijan.  Aliyev had been President of Azerbaijan for thirteen years until 1987.  He had come back as President of the Parliament, retaining considerable power as his successor, Abulfez Elchibey, was weak.  We were on a tour of the Caucuses when a young Colonel in the Azerbaijan army, Surat Huseynov, began a march on Baku with the presumed intent of overthrowing Elchibey.  Elchibey fled to his native Nakhchivan.

By the time we got to Baku Aliyev had been named Acting President and Huseynov Prime Minister.  Our original mission was to confront Elchibey about abuses in the struggle with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.  We debated whether we should now see Aliyev given the ambiguous circumstances of his return to power.  In the end we decided he would likely remain in power for some time and we would have to deal with him.  But we were aware that our visit might be seen as legitimizing the “coup.”  I was surprised by how easily we secured the appointment – on 24 hour notice.  Obviously Aliyev saw the advantage for his credibility of our visit.  So for better or worse we were the first Western group to meet with him.

He was all charm, making promises of a democratic republic which would respect international law and human rights standards, including respect for the rights of minorities.  And he pledged to support the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh.  The meeting ended with a group photo he insisted upon, which made me nervous.

Aliyev walked us to a different door than we had entered through.  When I turned for a final goodbye he waved and shut the door.  We found ourselves in a small hall with another door ahead.  When we opened the door we entered a room full of journalists with the television cameras rolling.  We had been had.  My first thought as how to refer to Aliyev – I didn’t want to call him President.

So my response to the questions about the meeting began, “we have had a meeting with those who appear to be in charge at the moment.”   I then summarized our human rights message and put on the record all of the assurances Aliyev had made about democracy and human rights.  I promised that HRW would follow events in Azerbaijan and expected to hold whatever government that emerged to international standards.

It was a close call as to whether we should have risked the meeting and some dissident groups in Baku were critical of it.  But on balance I am glad we went ahead.  I almost always opt for engagement and dialogue.

One final story comes from a visit to Prague in October 1989.

The Communist government had organized a major celebration of seventy-five years of independence in Wenceslas Square, a long rectangular mall.  While the official ceremony drew only a few thousand people, later in the day Vaclav Havel’s call for an alternative demonstration filled the mall with upwards of 150,000 people.  The riot police sliced the crowd into quadrants and then squeezed them out of the mall.  Most retreated to the old town square where the police again intervened.  Much diminished remnants of the demonstration then attempted to cross the Charles Bridge, heading to the seat of government, The Castle, on the other side.  With darkness setting in, the police drew the line and began to beat and arrest people.  I took a picture of the scuffle and shortly was seized by two undercover policemen and dragged to the circle of paddy wagons.  My friend, sociologist Ivan Gabal, bravely ran alongside warning the police that I was chair of Helsinki Watch and there would be consequences if I were beaten.  The police stripped the film from my camera and released me, but not before I got a close-up look at ordinary citizens who had been badly beaten.

When the adrenalin slowed down and I began to think about the afternoon, I asked myself is this the beginning of the end for the Communist regime?  How does one know when a revolution is underway?  As an outsider, I was hardly in a position to judge, but I sensed this was a watershed moment.  Ordinary people were willing to take chances, the police were afraid to use overwhelming force.  Change was in the air.

Somewhat shaken by my encounter, I wove my way through police and crowds back to the Esplanade Hotel from which I called Rita Klimova, whom I had met through Jeri Laber, Director of Helsinki Watch.  She invited me to her house for dinner, an informal gathering of dissidents from the Charter 77 Movement.  Among those present was Jeri Dienstbier, who would be Havel’s Foreign Minister.

The conversation centered on the question I had been asking myself: was this the moment to push for a change in government?  The stakes were high: to try and fail could mean jail; not to try and miss the moment could mean years more of Communist rule.  Rita Klimova’s small apartment became action central for the Velvet Revolution with constant phone calls from fellow Charter 77 members and  a flow of written messages from those fearful of wiretapping.  I can’t recall which method Havel used, but his voice was powerful in the mix.  The net of an exhausting but exhilarating day was not a crisp conclusion but rather a bias toward believing this was the movement to press forward.  Plans were laid to keep the pressure on with follow-up demonstrations.  We now know the Velvet Revolution was underway as the government fell in 1989.

I carried my passion for Human Rights to MacArthur and moved beyond Europe to places like Africa. Responding to a call from Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, MacArthur supported a Commission of Humanitarian Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Rwanda genocide was the key inspiration.

The Commission crafted a brilliant report called The Responsibility to Protect, which articulated a new norm adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 under Kofi Annan’s leadership.  The core argument was that the essence of state sovereignty is the responsibility to protect its citizens.  Where a state is unable or unwilling to do so – or is the agent of harm – then that responsibility migrates up to the International Community.  The UN is the preferred instrument of intervention but the Report imagines that regional groups like NATO or ECOWAS can act if the UN fails in its duty.

There is more to this story, but for now let me note this is a good example of how foundations can help change paradigms that will pay huge dividends over time.

In 2002, a group of MacArthur trustees, including Lloyd Axworthy, visited the countries of the Albertine Rift to learn about MacArthur’s conservation work.

On our way to the Nyungwe Forest near the Burundi border  — a prime candidate for protected status – we detoured to visit a genocide memorial in the Village of Gikongoro[1].  The memorial was in a Catholic boarding school on a plateau.  On a high hill we could see the Catholic Church which had refused sanctuary to the Tutsi population in July 1994.  But the school took them in where they survived for a month before a raid killed almost all of the 50,000 men, women and children who had temporary safety there.  A survivor, who had sustained a machete chop to the head, passed out and was then covered by others who were killed, showed us around.  He lost his wife and children in the slaughter.

The Memorial contained 27,000 skeletons stacked in dormitory rooms.  The machete cuts to the skulls were poignant reminders to the horror of the event.  The last dorm had a UN flag over an open window, protecting the skeletons of people the UN failed to protect in life.

That day in Gikongoro erased the abstraction of genocide from my mind and my emotions.  Promoting Responsibility to Protect and international justice became firmly set as the central work of my life.  And it cemented my commitment to Africa.  The horrors of Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Central African Republic and more are of a different magnitude from the human rights issues I worked on in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the 1980’s and 90’s.  All need attention but I want to spend my energies on preventing or mitigating the worst cases.  That is why I agreed to help reorganize the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.  And that is what led me to making strengthening Africa Commission and Court a priority for MacArthur.

Preparing for this occasion has been helpful to me in seeing some of the themes that I might draw upon were I to turn this into a memoir. I would welcome your comments and questions – on what I have said or on any other topic of interest like how do big foundations decide where to give their money or what might be done to make higher education more affordable. And if time permits, at the end I can offer an encore. Your choice. Joe Lieberman, Boris Yeltsin, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter or Jesse Jackson. Choose one.


[1] For the full account see Foundations of Civil Society, Vol I, page 477.

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