The Ever-Expanding Definition of an “American”: A Tribute to Helmut Sonnenfeldt

I met Hal Sonnenfeldt, my Brookings colleague, in 1961, when I was CBS’s Moscow Bureau Chief, and Hal was a leading Kremlinologist at the State Department. It was, in those days, a big deal for an American Kremlinologist to visit Moscow. The Cold War was growing hot with crises brewing in Berlin and Cuba, and everything about the Soviet Union, from its shaky economy to its powerful military, was of more than passing interest to the U.S. government. For Hal, my Moscow broadcasts were important moments in his day. When he knew he would be visiting the Soviet capital, he informed me of his travel plans, and we arranged an informal meeting. With a friend, he came to our modest apartment in a modern complex of apartment houses overlooking the Moscow River. At first, Hal seemed impressed by the apartment, but when he innocently attempted to step out onto the small balcony in front of the living room, I grabbed him by the arm, screaming “Stop, stop.”  Later, having “saved” Hal from what might have been a terrible accident, I explained that the last person who tried to get a breath of fresh air on a new Soviet balcony found himself on the sidewalk down below, badly injured from the fall but alive. The balcony had collapsed under his weight. Fortunately, he fell only two flights. We were on the third floor. That was Hal’s first memorable encounter with the reality of Soviet economic progress.

He was a skeptic to begin with, so the balcony experience only confirmed his earlier belief that the Soviet system was a political abomination, from which economic progress was an uncertain outgrowth at best. He did however respect Soviet military power, but it always raised an interesting question in his mind: how can an economic system so profoundly inadequate produce missiles, tanks and bombs that worked? And because so many of them did work, it became an essential task of modern diplomacy to keep them from working—in other words, Hal was a realist who respected Soviet military power and devoted his life to making certain that the swords of both East and West remained in their sheaths.

Hal was born in Weimar, Germany, in the mid-1920’s. As a young boy, faced with the rising hatreds of Nazi antisemitism, he was sent to Great Britain, where he was a student during World War II. Baltimore was his next stop. Again, school, but with a slight southern accent. He began to adjust to being an American, a process he considered quite miraculous. The Americanization of Hal Sonnenfeldt quickly included a stint in the U.S. army, which, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, provided Hal with golden opportunities. He spoke German, and the army needed German-speakers. He was smart and ambitious, and he met other German-born Americans with stars in their eyes. One of them, Henry Kissinger, was to become a lifelong friend and colleague.

Hal returned to Baltimore, where he attended Johns Hopkins University. Shortly thereafter, he applied for an intelligence and research job at the State Department. He worked there until Richard Nixon was elected president in November, 1968 and his friend, Kissinger, was selected as Nixon’s National Security Adviser. Within days, Kissinger tapped Hal to join him at the White House, where he became one of Kissinger’s closest aides and advisers. Imagine two German-born immigrant analysts, one with a rather thick accent, working at the White House for the president of the United States!

This was probably Hal’s finest, most satisfying professional years. He was close to the ultimate seat of American power, able to influence the flow of American diplomacy. In the spring of 1972, the United States was bombing North Vietnam, and Nixon was planning an historic summit in Moscow. The betting in Washington was that the Russians would call off the summit. Nixon was ready to roll the dice. Hal worked feverishly to keep both super powers on the road to the summit, despite the bombing. He thought the Russians would proceed with the summit, and he was right.

Hal often was right about the Russians. Often we chatted about Russia and about U.S.-Soviet relations. I never abused the privilege of Hal’s friendship. When he could help me, he did. When he couldn’t, he didn’t. He was never frightened about talking to a journalist, even though his boss, President Nixon, bugged my phone, tailed me and put me on his foolish “enemies list.” Hal understood that his responsibility was to work tirelessly for the best interests of his country, and he always did.

Hal was a proud patriot. Though born in Germany, he never hated Germans, and he felt the deepest pride in his role as an American diplomat par excellence. He befriended a long succession of German diplomats and ambassadors assigned to Washington, DC. They respected Hal, he admired them. He was an extraordinary example of the expansive, all-embracing nature of American patriotism. It was my honor to have had him as a friend and a “source” for more than 50 years. He died peacefully on Sunday, November 18, 2012 after a long illness, leaving behind his beloved Marjorie and their three children.