Michael Howard: A Reminiscence

December 17, 2019

Michael Eliot Howard died on Nov. 30 having just reached his 97th birthday. I first met him in October 1972 when I arrived at Oxford to do a D.Phil and was informed that he was to be my supervisor. Our last conversation was some months ago. From the start until the end, he had a huge influence on my career and how I approached the study of war.

When we first met, I knew nothing about his biography, but he appeared to me as extraordinarily grand. He was then approaching 50 and in his prime, well-established as both a scholar and a commentator. He had been awarded the Military Cross for an act of conspicuous bravery during World War II, established military history as a serious field of scholarship with a book on the Franco-Prussian war, set up the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and been present at the creation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His entry into the British establishment had followed an almost stereotypical path: an elite school (Wellington), an elite regiment (Coldstream Guards), and then an elite college at an elite university (Christ Church, Oxford). We met at his rooms at All Souls College, founded in 1438. The walls were lined with books. Copies of newly-published works and journals sat on a table waiting to be read. In the middle of the room there was a desk, busy but neat, and in one corner comfortable chairs and a settee from where he would conduct supervisions.



And there was I, 23 years old, still surprised to be at Oxford; a grammar-school boy and a bit of a lefty, wary of the upper classes, speaking with a north-eastern accent and a tendency to gabble, awkwardly Jewish, notably scruffy, whose only combat experience had come in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Michael’s memoir Captain Professor barely dwells on the war itself, about which he wrote little, but does mention its regrettable impact on American campus life during the 1960s. The only thing about me that Michael remarked upon, however, was my nationality. His response after I introduced myself was, “Good God, you’re not an American.” He was worried about a lack of Brits in the field. At the time, most of the Oxford students he came across working on contemporary issues were Americans, often Rhodes Scholars. In that respect, at least, he was pleased to see me. No doubt he could see the rough edges, but from that moment I was work in progress.

Michael was a leading historian who had contributed to the study of international relations. I had studied neither. In that first supervision, I explained that I saw myself largely as a political sociologist, and that my thesis was going to explore the role of experts in American policymaking on nuclear weapons. I was out to prove that they had not been a disinterested source of good policy. We discussed what I intended to use as sources and my concerns about the quality of library holdings on the United States. I had been alarmed a couple of days earlier when I visited Rhodes House to view its American collection, supposedly the best in Oxford, only to be told that it had not been catalogued because the United States was considered a bit “outré.” Michael listened politely and offered sensible suggestions, including pointing me to the wonderful Codrington Library at All Souls. During the meeting, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a journalist asking about the latest international crisis. Michael responded thoughtfully and knowledgeably, as far as I could tell, but with growing impatience, eventually saying, “Look, if this is going to go any longer I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge.” I thought that one day I wanted to be able to say that too.

In fact, I had already decided, even before we had met and before I had any sense of Michael as a person, that this was the sort of academic I wanted to be. A couple of days earlier, thinking that I should make an effort to get to know my new supervisor, I had bought a collection of his essays, Studies in War and Peace. I read this from beginning to end in one thrilling session, finishing in the early hours of the morning with my mind buzzing. It was an epiphany. I had just spent two years as a postgraduate and then teaching assistant at the University of York in a largely Marxist politics department. As a result, I was sure that I wasn’t a Marxist but was also convinced that I must maintain a deeply critical edge, look out for insidious power structures, and engage in heavy-duty theorizing. Now, I read one of Michael’s essays after another, beginning with the 19th century Swiss strategist Jomini, who came as complete news to me, and then the Battle of Waterloo, going through the world wars, coming to my own chosen field of nuclear strategy, and ending with problems of disarmament and issues of morality. I found my own easy assumptions about the nuclear age challenged and saw how it was possible to understand events without losing sight of wider social forces or the humanity of those involved, with all their foibles and fallibilities. I understood that this could all be achieved with a surprisingly light touch. Most importantly, I could see how war could be a fascinating field of study, undertaken without glorification or disregard for the suffering involved. It was not that I needed a new project, but I no longer viewed the one I had as an isolated case study about policymaking. I needed to understand better the policies themselves.

One question did not occur to me then, but did later: Why had I been assigned to Michael in the first place? I was not in the history faculty. The answer was that neither was Michael. When I met him, he was a higher fellow in defense studies and a member of the politics faculty. His previous post as professor of war studies at King’s College London was the result of his secession from the college’s history department. His undergraduate degree at Oxford had been in history but it was only second class. He had taken over from John Sparrow and completed a history of his regiment just after the war. From there, he was appointed to a lectureship in the history faculty at King’s. But he seized the opportunity offered by a new post in military studies set up by London university, to be hosted by King’s. This enabled him to detach himself from the history department, in which he was unhappy,  and create a new war studies department, to which he eventually was able to recruit Wolf Mendl and Brian Bond in the mid-1960s.

His move into the history faculty at Oxford from politics was sudden and took place after I had left. He was first appointed as the Chichele professor of the history of war in 1977 and, then as he was settling into that role, he became Regius professor of modern history in 1980. This put him at the top of the history profession, much to the surprise of some of his colleagues who had not even considered him a runner for the Chair. He had not worked his way through the ranks, and while he had been busying himself with issues of deterrence and arms control, the study of history had moved on from his day. But this was in an oddity of the British system, a post that was the gift of the Prime Minister. As he noted, he “was probably the only historian, at Oxford or anywhere else, of whom Margaret Thatcher… had heard.”

Among his lack of qualifications was the absence of a PhD. He had never had his own academic supervisor. His own mentor had been Basil Liddell Hart, who was the best known commentator on military matters of his time, often suspected of using military history to make a point about his preferred strategies, who had never held an academic post. Michael was one of many young scholars he encouraged, including Bob O’Neil, Paul Kennedy, and Brian Bond. In an obituary, he wrote of how Liddell Hart had sought him out. Once engaged there was no going back: “One was hooked; willingly bound in an exacting, exhausting, delightful and immensely rewarding slavery.” When he visited, Liddell Hart would be “lying in wait with a deceptively small piece of paper on which he had jotted down in his microscopic writing a few dozen topics on which he wanted information or discussion.” It was a practice that Michael followed. Even in recent years, there was always an agenda for a visit.

It is also interesting to note how he described Liddell Hart as a “Sage,” one of a diminishing breed who operated outside the university system and so avoided institutionalization. “Above all the Sage, however deeply his roots may be sunk in the expertise of a single subject, billows uncontrollably outside it.” As his obituary demonstrated, Michael’s appreciation of his mentor was not uncritical, noting with exasperation Liddell Hart’s vanity, his “almost pathetic need for praise and appreciation,” and how badly wrong he was in some of his judgments. Yet in the face of so many intractable issues in the defense field at least he had always addressed them “with intellectual rigour and moral passion.”

Whether or not Michael saw himself as a sage (and I think at times he did), there was never any doubt about his intellectual rigor, moral seriousness, and reluctance to be confined by the boundaries of his discipline. From first detaching himself from the history department at King’s to joining the Oxford faculty, a quarter of a century passed. So liberated, he could entertain a broad range of interests. At King’s, as he set himself up as a specialist in war, he was based almost adjacent to Fleet Street, then the centre of newspaper publishing in the United Kingdom. Journalists assumed that he knew about new wars as much as the old ones, and even wars to come. He felt the moral as well as the political challenge, and so he did not just dabble in contemporary affairs but engaged with them wholeheartedly. In an introduction to the volume of essays that appeared after Studies in War, he apologized for his “continuing involvement in these current controversies,” but insisted that the historian’s perspective was valuable, hoping that “a Weltanschauung [view of life] formed by a study of the past can usefully supplement the more numerous and influential analyses of current world events based on disciplines which, however rigorous in their method, suffer from a notable lack of historical data.”

This was the position to which Michael now steered me, with little resistance on my part. He accepted that I was approaching things from what was for him an unusual angle (we’d now call it constructivism) and encouraged me in my endeavors. But I was always reminded that the things that interested me had a history and that many things became a lot clearer when you paid attention to chronology and context. At the same time, I was put under no obligation to burden my thesis with earnest discussions of methodology which I could see he found boring. A decent literature review would suffice. He corrected my rough grammar (“an Oxford D.Phil is the last bastion of the English language”), told me to keep my sentences short, and scrubbed out any snide and sarcastic commentary — which he explained made far less impact than a well-argued case backed by evidence. As a work in progress, he encouraged me to smarten up (“ah, a fine combination of shirt and tie”) and got me involved in a wide range of activities at Oxford. At each stage his support was vital — for example when I needed to go to the United States for my research in 1973, I arrived armed with letters of introduction to almost everyone who mattered and could be of assistance.

He began to get me involved in wider debates — at his instigation I turned up at some closed-door meeting organized by the Foreign Office on the state of NATO, which must have been in late March 1974. The timing is based on two recollections. One was of our then-ambassador to the alliance explaining to representatives of other member states that they should not worry overmuch about the left-wing firebrand Michael Foot joining the government (as Secretary of State for Employment) because he had agreed not to get involved in security issues. This followed the surprise Labour victory in that month’s general election. The other was of being taken to one side by a senior diplomat to explain why, contrary to my mocking comments, the Portuguese dictatorship’s participation in NATO did not invalidate the alliance’s claim to speak for the “free world.” A few weeks later, the dictatorship was overthrown by a military coup as a result of the strains imposed by its colonial wars, and the U.S. government went into a panic about the new military regime’s Marxist leanings.

During those years at Oxford, I came to know some other remarkable figures, including Alastair Buchan, the first director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and, by then, the Montagu Burton professor of international relations; and Hedley Bull, visiting from Australia, who had been one of the first research associates at the institute. When Buchan died in 1976, Bull succeeded him, and then also died too young. Bull had moved away from his early interest in arms control and into international relations theory, and was stimulating company until he thought you were in error. Robert Ayson later found a reference Michael had written for Hedley: “nobody suffers fools less gladly and nobody has a more catholic definition of fools.” They ran joint seminars, with a degree of tension between the grand Brit and the chippie Aussie, that was generally productive. I have no idea what the issue was, but I remember Hedley exclaiming at one point, “Professor Howard, this will not do!”

Michael could give as good as he got. He could have a sharp temper. Many years later, he was chairing a conference session in which he lost his temper to an embarrassing extent with a member of the audience who persisted with an odd line of questioning. After a coffee break, he apologized. On another, happier, occasion a speaker he was chairing was droning on long after his allotted time. He made the fatal mistake of turning round and saying, “And if I may, Mr. Chairman, I would just like a few more minutes to conclude this point.” After a brusque “No!” from Michael, he was obliged to sit down.

I don’t recall any arguments with Michael, but there was one disagreement. I had observed in a draft chapter that the Office of National Estimates in the United States, about which I was writing, was homogeneous in its make-up — white, male and Ivy League, with no Jews or blacks. Michael considered this quite irrelevant. I argued back that the conformity of background produced conformity of opinion, but Michael was unconvinced. He was comfortable with an administrative elite that shared a common background, language, and culture, or at least he did not see it as inherently problematic. This comes through in his memoirs, where there are regular expressions of pleasure at coming across an old school-mate. It was no surprise that when I got a job in 1976 at Chatham House running a project on British foreign policy, the then head of the Foreign Office turned out to be his closest friend, Michael Palliser — also Wellington, Oxford, and the Guards.

All Souls itself was the most closed society I had ever come across. When Michael eventually invited me to dinner there, the experience hardly made me fall in love with the place. It was full of deferential servants, fine wines, and odd traditions, suffering from an absence of actual students, for which it never saw a need, as well as women. Most painfully, he sat me beside the warden, John Sparrow. The co-author of the regimental history, Sparrow was notoriously right-wing and disgracefully misogynist. I could see a playful smile on Michael’s lips as he witnessed my discomfort at listening to this man’s bigoted opinions, getting worse with each glass of red wine. I sat paralyzed, trying not to cause embarrassment by arguing back as forcefully as I wished to.

All Souls also, however, provided one of my happiest memories. Although Michael lacked a doctorate, he was awarded a D.Litt by Oxford after he submitted a body of published work. It so happened that the ceremony for his degree coincided with mine for my D.Phil and my wife’s for her law degree. I had met Judith in her first week as an undergraduate and mine as a postgraduate, so in retrospect October 1972 was quite the month for me. Michael invited not only the two of us but also our families for drinks and canapés at All Souls after the ceremony. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the setting was magnificent. None of our parents had been to university and they loved every moment.

Afterwards, Judith and I went to stay for the rest of the weekend at Michael’s home at Eastbury, near Hungerford. This consisted of two cottages and a magnificent garden suitable for long walks. At last, I was let into Michael’s private world. I made two discoveries that weekend. The first was that Michael was gay. This was not really a discovery as I had assumed it without really thinking about it. At Eastbury that weekend, there was one cottage for homosexuals and another for heterosexuals so that was clear enough. It is easy to forget that a decade had then not yet passed since homosexual acts between consenting adults had become legal. Michael and his lifelong partner, Mark James, had known each other since the 1950s and so lived with the risk of criminal prosecution. It was true that in the circles in which they moved their relationship was understood and tolerated, but one should not underestimate the degree of prejudice they faced. I was once told that Howard and Sparrow had got their commission to write the regimental history by virtue of the “Homintern.” It was not really until the later decades of his life, when it became a major theme of his memoirs, that he spoke with ease on the topic. It is perhaps of note that his final publication, not due out until next year, is a contribution to a collection of essays entitled Fighting with Pride: LGBT in the Armed Forces.

The second discovery was of his gift for mimicry. I did not know at the time of his past devotion to amateur dramatics. Sitting in the sun on his patio, there were chunks of Shakespeare and a take-off of Lytton Strachey of the Bloomsbury Set. As I only vaguely knew of the set and had never heard Strachey speak I could not vouch for the accuracy, but he created a picture of an affected, lisping aesthete that was hilarious. Thereafter, I always saw an invitation to lunch at Eastbury as something to be cherished. His friendships ranged far and wide and you could never be sure who would be there. At one memorable lunch to which Judith and I had been invited, the politician Roy Jenkins and Professor Geoffrey Best discovered that they were both writing biographies of Churchill, and so circled each other politely but cagily, trying to find out what each had on the other.

The theatrical side to his character should hardly have been a revelation. It was a feature of his lectures. He knew when to pause for dramatic effect or to make a joke. Nobody used the word ‘indeed’ like he did, always to reinforce a point. I often find myself doing the same. Indeed (there I go) the more I think about this, the more I wonder whether performance was not the thing for Michael. So much of his published output was in the first instance written for public delivery. Three of his most influential books — The Continental Commitment, War in European History, and, a personal favourite, War and the Liberal Conscience — all either began as lecture series or had key themes first tested in lectures.

The original lecture format gave Michael’s published pieces a distinctive quality. There was a deceptive simplicity. One was given enough information for the purpose of the argument but never overwhelmed with detail. There was certainly no space to spare for long disquisitions on methodology. He wrote with such authority that you could take what seemed like a bold assertion on trust, because you knew of the erudition and contemplation that was behind each paragraph. He could capture in a few sentences great swathes of history by keeping his focus, and then illuminating the argument with an appropriate quote or vignette. These days academics write articles with their professional peers in mind, loaded with footnotes, geared to being accepted by the right journals. Michael wrote essays, footnoted only when necessary, and often appearing in popular journals. He viewed writing at excessive length with as much irritation as speaking too long. There was a time — well before texting or email — when Michael was without a secretary and decided that he was wasting far too much time in letters with flowery and unnecessary beginnings and endings. His communications suddenly became brusque, the minimum of words on a postcard (“Yes. Monday. Michael.”).

When we first met in 1972, many of the most important moments in his career were still to come — the Chichele chair and the Regius professorship; years in Yale; the translation, with Peter Paret, of Clausewitz’s On War, probably now his best known work; contributions to Foreign Affairs, culminating with his prescient warning in 2002 about the risks of declaring a global war on terror. This reflected a recurrent theme: urging Americans to keep a sense of proportion and use their power with care. There were also the honors and awards. Not one for false modesty, Michael enjoyed his eminence. At a lecture for Michael’s 80th birthday, Hew Strachan assessed his contributions as a historian and his influence. As I was chairing, I invited Michael to say a few words in response. He opened, with a big smile: “Didn’t I do well!”

Yes, Michael, you did.



Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. His most recent book, with Jeff Michaels, is a revised 4th edition of The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy.

Image: King’s College London