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Seeing the World: James Chace 1931-2004 View other pieces in "The New York Times Magazine"
By Mark Danner December 26, 2004
Tags: In Memoriam Print

James Chace, B. 1931
o to Haiti!'' James Chace leaned in close, left hand grasping my upper arm, fixed me with that incomparable stare, raised his right index finger and, like some unlikely fire-and-brimstone New England preacher reincarnated in blazer and khakis, intoned portentously: ''Hear me well, young Danner: Go to Haiti!'' The mock-oracular tone, the peremptory index finger, the rumbling admonition issued from on high: it was all high theater, James's way of mocking his own intellectual authority as foreign policy guru. And as the dictator Duvalier fell and the country drifted into chaos, I did indeed ''go to Haiti!'' That trip, and the taste of political struggle I took from it, changed my life. And so did the man who made me take it.

When James Clarke Chace died in Paris on Oct. 8, a week short of his 73rd birthday, it was inevitable he would be hailed, as his obituary put it, as ''one of the country's leading foreign policy thinkers and historians.''

Chace, right, with American forces in Honduras in 1983.

Editor, teacher, writer, Chace served more than a decade as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, the authoritative journal of the Eastern establishment; taught and befriended generations of young people; and wrote a clutch of deeply influential books on the foreign policy and history of the United States. He quietly advised presidents and secretaries of state. Madeleine Albright pounced on his observation that America after the cold war had become ''the indispensable nation'' and made it the talismanic slogan of her tenure.

For all the trappings of power and influence, however, James Chace was a most unlikely ''foreign policy thinker.'' He was dismissive of grand theories and ideologies, fascinated by the loves and aspirations and conflicts of individual men and women, entranced by the rich grain of lived life. A passionate teacher and influential professor, he had never set foot in graduate school. Chace's view of his country's place in the world was drawn directly from the novel of his own life, beginning with the epic of his own family, once a wealthy and powerful clan of New England gentry, whose money vanished with the mills.

After studying French and Italian literature at Harvard, he went to Paris as a young aesthete ''to study Delacroix and Baudelaire, the relationship between art and literature,'' but instead found himself forced to discover the street drama of politics in the backwash of power in postwar Europe. In Indochina, as later in Algeria, the French were fighting brutal colonial wars, desperate, doomed struggles to hold onto ''what we had'' -- the title he would later give his beautiful memoir of the similarly nostalgic obsession with wealth and power lost that had gripped his family. He arrived in Paris as a young novelist and litterateur; he would leave for America, in time to follow his native country's own delusory and wasteful pursuit of a vanished colonial past in Southeast Asia, as a budding ''foreign policy thinker.''

When I met him in the early 80's, I was an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, taking down corrections on his galley proofs as he charged about Nicaragua and El Salvador and Honduras, dodging bullets, interviewing generals and guerrillas and generally immersing himself body and soul in the Central American wars that he would describe in an extraordinary series of articles later collected in his book Endless War. He was middle-aged, with a secure reputation as an editor and writer. But with the coming of war in Central America he had, nonetheless, gone and seen it, as he would later press me to do. I was lucky enough to be one of a half-dozen young people he adopted, befriended and taught -- happy beneficiaries of his vast talent for loyalty and for friendship.

Two decades later I am still following the Chacean dictum to ''go to Haiti!'' Haiti was my schoolhouse, the land of my transformation; it taught me about Iraq and what was doomed to happen there, just as Paris had taught James early on the lessons of Vietnam. Go to Haiti. For all the Chace loyalists, of course, for all his chosen sons, the words have a much broader meaning. To see the world, you must get close to it. You must get on the bloody plane. You must, after all, bury yourself in the world of lived life, and learn to see.

[See also Mark Danner's remarks on James Chace delivered at the Century Association, New York, November 14, 2004]


© 2022 Mark Danner