Remembering ‘Zbig,’ a realist of the sternest school

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, in 1977 in Washington.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, in 1977 in Washington. The Washington Post

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died last week at 89, belonged to the age of political civility. Like his predecessor Henry Kissinger, he was more than a bit exotic. I knew him best not politically but as a member of his “T” list – T for tennis.

When he came from the Columbia history department to serve as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, he acquired a tennis court in northern Virginia that had belonged to a friend of mine. There, “Zbig,” as friends called him, held court – in a literal sense – on Saturday mornings.

I don’t recall just how this adventure, now four decades in the past, began. He had heard that I was a better tennis player than I actually was, and he read my newspaper, The Star. Zbig’s tennis was not distinguished, but he was fun to play with. He compensated with a characteristic scrappiness that mirrored his school of geopolitics. He was the resident anti-sentimentalist in an administration that was sometimes a bit soft at the edges.

If Zbig was a romantic about anything at all, it had to be the much-abused homeland of his ancestors. If you knew the European history that formed him, and others of Polish lineage, you understood his mocking anti-Russian attitudes. It wasn’t hostility; he was too sophisticated for that. It was more like a lofty, cosmic satire, as of an inferior political culture with a propensity for brutality and folly.

Before the peace treaties that followed World War I, historic Poland had been “partitioned” – parceled out – among three powers of that age: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Russian Poland was clumsily and often cruelly ruled for more than a century. Zbig, a rarity in the anti-historical slant of American politics, was a historical realist. His seizure of the issues stemmed from tragic precedent. In this, he resembled Kissinger, whose family had been robbed of livelihood and property and driven from Germany by Hitler’s murderous anti-semitism.

I am sure, though Zbig never said so directly, that he was shaped in substantial part by the treatment of Russian Poland – and no less by the 1939 collaboration of Hitler and Stalin in a later carving up of Poland – and even after that, by many decades of Russian oppression. So when he and his friends dissected the latest Russian follies tennis courtside on Saturday mornings, his attitudes were understandable.

Within the Carter administration, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was his nemesis. I recall one internal dispute about a U.S. aircraft carrier that had been deployed to some place displeasing to the Soviets. Vance favored clarification; Zbig thought the Russians should be left to wonder why it was where it was.

Zbig was a realist of the sternest school. I recall hearing him discuss, with clinical precision, the enduring dilemma of presidential command. The shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 still darkened the subject. The occasional reports of Soviet missile launches had invariably been false. But what if one seemed plausible? A president would have seconds, minutes at most, to decide: Retaliate or ride it out?

Sometimes, in the small talk of these Saturday morning post-tennis seminars, one learned a thing or two. I once asked if U.S. cruise missiles (then a fashionable weapon) could be programmed to twist and turn their way, even around Moscow street corners, and strike the Kremlin. “Yes,” Zbig said, not without a smile, “and we can even target them to go through a particular Kremlin window.” Perhaps, I thought, the ultimate realization of Barry Goldwater’s fantasy about “lobbing one into the Kremlin men’s room.”

But I must beware of the cliches that label him a “hawk.” Zbig defied journalistic cliches. He was, in person, a learned and thoughtful patrician, without a brutal bone in his body – and almost alone among eminent foreign policy analysts as an early and articulate foe of George W. Bush’s peripheral (and still persistent) wars. Zbig, a model of historical literacy, would have been the last to wage unprovoked war upon anyone other than Saturday foes on his tennis court.

I shall miss the memory of my tennis partner. More importantly, the nation will miss his wisdom.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.