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Kai Bird

Guest Speaker


    September 1, 2001 — May 1, 2002

    Professional affiliation

    Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

    Wilson Center Projects

    "J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Biography"

    Full Biography

    I came to the practice of biography-the most intimate form of history-through journalism. In February 1972, when I was barely 20 years of age, I managed to tag along with a CBS-TV crew as they drove from Calcutta to Dacca, Bangladesh. The 1971 Indo-Pakistani war had ended just six weeks earlier and I desperately wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Dacca was a city in chaos. When the local bureau chief for United Press International had to travel north for a week, he hired me to cover for him. I filed my first story a few days later, a sad piece about a team of American doctors performing abortions for scores of Bengali women who had been raped during the war. 

    In the autumn of 1973, after graduating from a small liberal arts college in the mid-West, I took off for North Yemen, armed with two Nikons and a portable Olivetti typewriter. I was delighted to learn that I was the only freelance American reporter in Yemen. Alas, it soon became apparent that my exclusive reports from Sana'a held little interest for editors in North America. I sold a few feature stories to the Chicago Daily News and the Minneapolis Tribune, but my chief outlet became Sketch, a small circulation English language news magazine published in Beirut. The editors at Sketch were prepared to pay me $50 each week for a 500 word story. Paydirt!

    Over the next few years, I traveled throughout the Middle East and South Asia, freelancing for similar publications like the Far Eastern Economic Review, Worldview Magazine, and The Nation, America's oldest and rather liberal weekly. After a brief and lackluster sojourn at Newsweek in 1977, I landed a job as the assistant editor of The Nation. For five years I labored seven days a week and typically put in twelve-hour days editing manuscripts and writing editorials. The starvation wages meant nothing to me-the work was everything. I served as the magazine's foreign editor and managed to travel abroad once a year. I wrote long essays about the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, the 1979-80 Iranian revolution and U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

    In the spring of 1981 I served as the guest foreign editor for The New Statesman in London. And then at the foolish age of 30, I decided it was time to write a book. It seemed the logical next step. Not having written a book before, I was fearless and chose to write a full-scale biography of John J. McCloy, the then reigning chairman of the American foreign policy establishment. Simon & Schuster gave me a two-year deadline. My initial intention was to write a short, journalistic account of McCloy's role as a behind-the-scenes powerbroker. But then I acquired a severe case of biographer's disease; after rummaging around in Averell Harriman's dungeon, I read thousands of pages of classified documents about all aspects of the Cold War. Later, I spent months in the various presidential libraries. Soon I was in love with the archives and couldn't stop researching. 

    Ten years later-in 1992-The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment was finally published to front-page reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post's Book World and Los Angeles Times Book Review. An 800-page book, it was out of print two years later. Undeterred, I spent another seven years writing a biography of two other sons of the American establishment. I had first encountered McGeorge Bundy-the national security adviser under Kennedy and Johnson-in 1972 when he came to my college campus. He was then basically still defending the war he had helped to craft in Vietnam. I came away from this first rendezvous angry, but also perplexed and curious to know how such an intelligent man had become so intimately associated with such a national disaster. The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms was published in 1998. The Washington Post Book World gave it a front page review-and The New York Times assigned the review to a brilliant procrastinator who turned in a 4,000 word review six months after the book's publication. So it goes. A decidedly trenchant review came from a Bundy intimate, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote that "fair-minded scholarship triumphed over evident political disapproval in his [Bird's] very good book on the Bundys." Also in 1998, I co-edited a fat anthology on Hiroshima and the 1995 Enola Gay controversy. Gore Vidal wrote that Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy "is easily the best overview of the most debated event in our stormy history." I am now co-authoring with Professor Martin Sherwin a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose own life will forever be linked to what happened at Hiroshima in 1945.

    Major Publications

    • The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
    • The Chairman: John J. McCloy / The Making of the American Establishment. Simon & Schuster, 1992.
    • Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy. Co-editor with Lawrence Lifschultz. Pamphleteer's Press, 1998.