After The Air Raids

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Not quite all was routine. There was the problem of the care and management of Paul Baran. A technical sergeant in rank, Baran was one of the most brilliant and, by a wide margin, the most interesting economist I have ever known. He was currently celebrating the end of the war with the Germans by intensifying his ongoing war with the United States Army. Then thirty-five, Baran had a background that brought all security officers who looked into it to the edge of nervous collapse. Born of Polish-Jewish parents of some means at Nikolayev on the Black Sea, his father was a distinguished specialist on tuberculosis and had been an active Menshevik in his younger days. According to Paul, he was on good terms, political differences notwithstanding, with Lenin and the other old Bolsheviks. After first welcoming the October Revolution, the elder Baran moved away from it to Poland and then to Germany but returned to Russia in 1925, where he remained until his death. Paul stayed behind in Germany to complete his education, returned to Russia in 1926 to enroll in the Plekhanov Institute of Economics at Moscow, and then, after a couple of years, went back to study again at the University of Berlin. In the mid-thirties, again in Russia, he got word that he would have to be over the border by January 19, 1935. That was because, though a Communist, his acceptance of Communist discipline was very like his response to the discipline of the United States Army. In the presence of any pressure to conform, Baran’s mind turned compulsively to the most annoying possible expression of dissent.

 

In his Berlin years Baran, along with his own studies, wrote Ph.D. theses for solvent, ambitious but otherwise inadequate colleagues and worked for an advertising agency, where he gained distinction for a memorable advertisement for a male contraceptive. It showed a tombstone on which was engraved: “Here lies no one. His father used NIMS.”

In the late thirties, Baran arrived at Harvard, impressed all with his amused intelligence, and went on to serve brilliantly during the war in the OSS. This latter service was to the despair of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, more or less simultaneously with his appearance on our rolls in 1945, exposed him as a certain subversive. How could anyone with such a background be otherwise?

Baran’s war with the Army was tactically diverse. His uniform attracted immediate attention, for his stomach bulged over his belt, his pants were always being hitched up, and his shirt was only episodically inside. His hair, like his uniform, was in a constant state of disorder, and once, he said absent-mindedly, he appeared on parade in carpet slippers. He couldn’t or wouldn’t remember to call an officer “Sir” or to salute except as he might encounter one before a urinal. Least supportable of all, the average officer could not ordinarily understand what Baran was saying but could guess that the extravagantly convoluted sentences reflected adversely on his intelligence.

After the war Baran became an immensely popular professor at Stanford. Following his death in 1964, a politically motivated employee in the university administrative offices collected and released a whole packet of letters from alumni protesting Baran’s existence, along with the replies of Stanford officials expressing their honest regret that tenure and the principles of academic freedom made it impractical to fire him. In Germany that summer I followed a more discreet procedure. As recommendations from the military flowed in for punitive action on Baran—reprimand, condign punishment, release to combat duty in the Pacific, reduction to private no-class—I put them under my office blotter. At the end of the summer the blotter was raised appreciably from the desk. I then tore them all up.

That autumn Baran and I were on the same plane from Prestwick in Scotland back to the United States. In accordance with accepted practice, the ranking officer, a major, was entrusted with the personnel files of the enlisted men moving with him. A man of courage and compassion and a great admirer of Baran, he called him to his side, and using a safety razor blade on the binding that held the papers together, he removed all the condemnatory material from Baran’s file and squeezed it out a crack in the door into the Atlantic. (Planes were not then pressurized.) Baran arrived in New York with a perfect military record.