This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


Born Under A Lucky Star: Reminiscences

Reviewer: James R. Thompson

Born Under A Lucky Star: Reminiscences

By Richard F. Staar. Lanham. MD - New York - Oxford: University Press of America (4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706), 2002. xviii + 214 pages. ISBN 0-7618-2381-6. Paper.

Few academics can claim to have made the contributions to their country that have been made by Professor Richard F. Staar. As associate director of the Hoover Institution for a critical twelve years, he helped make that organization serve the Soviet-slaying purpose for which its founder had endowed it. These twelve years included the time when the Soviet Union was passing through a period of maximum vulnerability. He made the Hoover Institution the intellectual center for scholars who wished to address the question of "What is to be done about the Soviet Union?" He brought numerous scholars to the Hoover for periods of research. From just one of his federal grants he was able to provide such visiting posts for 147 scholars. It appears likely that most of the anti-Communist scholars in the United States were helped, in one way or another, by Richard Staar. A modest and retiring man, Staar was probably never recognized as the godfather of the Hoover Institution orientation which so disturbed the academic left.

As a scholar, Richard Staar represents the best. In his works he has gathered facts carefully, painstakingly, and has drawn his inferences from reality rather than theory. His knowledge of the weapons capabilities of the Soviet Union and Russia, and the persons running their military machine, is enormous. He is the American specialist on these issues. A careful and encyclopedic researcher, Staar's language ability gave him easy access to Russian, German, Czech, and Polish publications. His ability to glean from them information useful to the defense of the United States is remarkable. All of his books and papers contain extensive tabulations, easily comprehended but overwhelmingly difficult to compile. A key expert in Ed Meese's transition team for the Reagan administration, he served without remuneration of any kind, even for his travel expenses. His short list of imperatives for America at that time is given on pages 94-95 of this book.

As Ambassador for the United States (1981-1983) to the Mutual and Balanced Forces Reduction talks in Vienna, Staar brought a level of understanding and insight that was essential during this period, fraught with danger but also with opportunities for the Reagan administration. Staar's contributions were key.

This book appears as Richard F. Staar reaches his eightieth year. It is a fair retrospective of the events he has observed and his insights about the likely trajectories of what might happen given a variety of scenarios. An incredibly reserved man, Professor Staar consistently declines to give much information about his own personal history. For example, I had not known until reading this book that he is himself an American of Polish background. "Staar" sounds Dutch, and probably most of his colleagues assumed him to be a member of the WASP establishment. But Richard Staar is the son of a Polish revolutionary active in Pilsudski's underground activities who had emigrated to the United States in 1905. The elder Staar changed the family name and worked his way through university to hold faculty positions in engineering at both the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University. A true devotee of the ideals of Kosciuszko and Pilsudski, the elder Staar returned to Poland after its freedom was regained in 1920 to try and do his bit for the new republic. Richard Staar was born in Poland in 1923. The family returned to the United States in 1924. The family had a predictable academic future as the elder Staar took a faculty position at the University of Michigan in 1924. But then the mercurial father took the family back to Poland in 1936, with the goal of helping the Polish nation to progress economically.

Richard had to learn Polish from scratch. By 1937, however, his essay in commemoration of the death of "Dziadek" [Pilsudski] moved his teacher to tears. Richard found himself in 1939 as a culturally "betwixt and between" high school student in Warsaw when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in September of 1939. The family was active in smuggling Jews to freedom through Lithuania (which was still free for some months after the invasion). Richard himself participated in one trip of the underground railway and returned to Warsaw, probably thinking his family would also leave Poland while the possibility still existed. This was not to be, as the elder Staar decided the family should weather the storm and assist the cause in Poland.

Both Richard and his father were arrested by the Nazis, and it is amazing that the family survived the war. Richard spent six months in Gestapo prisons including the infamous Pawiak facility from which few emerged alive. He spent the entire war in Poland, suspected (rightly) of aiding Jews. If there was any intelligentsia effort to help this young American of Polish background, Richard Staar, scrupulously generous in acknowledging any help, does not mention it. It would appear that this young Polish American was invisible to them. Instead, the help essential to his survival was given by American Methodist missionaries, Hania and Gaither Warfield, who did so at the risk of their own lives.

Professor Staar's publication list is impressive. He has authored or edited fifteen books and countless articles. On a personal note, I read his first book, Poland, 1944-1962: The Sovietization of a Captive People, in 1963 while I was a graduate student at Princeton. The user-friendly delineation of facts which characterize all Staar's works was an enormous help in preparing penetrating questions for the Polish People's Republic ambassador, who gave a talk at Princeton arranged by the notorious Daniel Passent, then visiting scholar at the university. This was a period in which few Americans knew (or cared) what had gone on in Poland during the war and subsequently, and Staar's revelations were somewhat at variance with the blatantly fictional narrative of the ambassador.

My only criticism of the book is that the author tells us too little about himself. Staar is an incredibly interesting person, and we need to know more about him than he relates. Perhaps we need a biography to supplement his remembrances.

We have now passed to the new era of postmodernism and neoconservatism. The Hoover Institution has changed orientation under the influence of the Stanford faculty establishment. No matter. At the critical time when the Soviet Union could be brought down, the Hoover Institution, with the quiet guidance of Professor Richard Staar, showed how to get the task achieved. And the task was achieved.

Back to the September 2003 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 10/10/03