Margaret Mead: Behind Enemy Lines
Alum, Staff Member
School of General Studies 1966
In September 1962, I began my undergraduate studies, majoring in psychology. At the same time, an ex-girlfriend of mine had just arrived to begin her graduate studies in anthropology. When she described, in glowing terms, her graduate anthropology class with Margaret Mead, the prospect of witnessing the great Mead in action fired my imagination. I pressed her to ask Mead to permit me to sit in on a session. She said she would ask, and when Mead agreed, I was thrilled. The date was set for sometime in the latter half of October 1962. However, the class was postponed at the last moment and subsequently rescheduled for a week or so later.
When we arrived, I took a seat along the wall while the grad students (eight or ten, as I recall) sat around the small, oval conference table. Mead came in, took her place at the head of the conference table, and summoned me to join the group. I was surprised that she wanted me to participate—that was more than I had bargained for.
Mead began by explaining the reason for her previous absence. She astonished us all with her account. She had traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with other anthropologists (my recollection is that it was a symposium of sorts that took place in Moscow) when, unexpectedly, the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. The impending threat of nuclear conflagration between the U.S. and the Soviet Union prevented her and others from leaving Russia.
Mead announced that she would not cover the day's scheduled lesson plan. Instead, she would discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis from her vantage point: trapped behind enemy lines, as it were, ensconced with her colleagues and Soviet hosts. She explained how the Soviet and visiting anthropologists elected to continue their meetings, though some of the prescheduled topics were supplanted by ad hoc discussions of the crisis as events unfolded. Mead's recounting of those events was intriguing.
When Mead opened discussion on how we here in America had experienced the crisis, the exchanges became increasingly interactive, lively, and compelling. The comments expressed covered a broad range of topics—individual fears, national resolve, military strategy, brinksmanship, etc.—and at times took on moral and political overtones. Mead told us of a meeting she had with President Kennedy in the White House after he took office in 1961. The youthful President was enormously popular with my generation, and I was totally enamored of him—he was my hero and role model. Her description of that meeting riveted my attention. The President had sent for her, she explained, to gain insights into the Russian character and temperament. Kennedy wanted her counsel on how best to deal with and relate to his counterpart, Khrushchev. I still recall snippets of what she said she had told the President: the Russian bear analogy is apt; they are by nature a warm, affectionate people, but would be tenacious adversaries; they would not give ground early or easily as that is a sign of weakness; they would eventually accede with dispatch if they see they can not win, but only after doggedly testing the will of an unrelenting adversary.
Kennedy wisely sought expert advice from all quarters, and I could see the influence of Mead's counsel in the President's gambit and endgame. The pithy one-liner so popular at the time (a Dean Rusk gem)—we were eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy blinked—made the point best.
The grad students' opinions ran the gamut. At one point, I was dismayed when one of them expressed harsh criticisms of Kennedy that I thought were unfair and dead wrong. As I was a visitor, I thought it best not to get embroiled in an argument, so I just listened passively and let the comments pass. Mead immediately called on me by name and asked if I agreed. It surprised me to be singled out, and I declined comment. But Mead repeated her question with emphasis. Mead's powers of observation had easily penetrated my concealed thoughts and suppressed emotions, and she was obviously challenging me to speak up. I took up her challenge, and when I had finished, she expressed agreement with what I had said. Thankfully, I had acquitted myself and then some.
Too soon, that extraordinary session came to an end, and I couldn't thank Margaret Mead enough. My dream had been to witness her in action from the sidelines, but Mead taught me to dream bigger and pulled me into the action instead. When I left and walked alone across the campus, my elation was tempered by a sense of loss as I realized my brief time with Mead was at end. But I would soon learn otherwise.
For years to come, whenever she spotted me on campus, Mead would call out, "Howard! Come! Walk with me!" I would look around and there she would be with her long Masai walking stick. Sometimes, I was far away with my back toward her as it was getting dark, and yet she would spot me. What extraordinary powers of observation she had. We would walk together and engage in lively conversations about whatever was of interest to her. She was always full of questions and especially interested in what was happening on campus—those were the 1960s—and she would repeatedly deflect my interest in what she was doing by saying, "Oh, let's not talk about me. I'm much more interested in what's happening with you." Sometimes, those chance encounters made me late for class, but I didn't care and I never bowed out early. Those were heady times, and I would not willingly forgo a golden moment.