Robert Jervis: A Remembrance
Robert Jervis was my professor, adviser, and mentor for 36 years. More significantly, over time, he became a close and valued friend. I came to think of him as my intellectual dad. I make no pretense that my experience of him was unique. I know many other colleagues and students knew him longer, and many I am sure were closer. Indeed, that is one of the most unique aspects of Jervis’ effect on the field: He had a truly remarkable ability to cultivate and connect people from disparate areas of his life — from the academy, the intelligence community, and the military — and introduce them in fun and productive ways. Even in graduate school, my joke was that it was always easy to spot another Jervis student at a conference because we are the only ones talking about the Fashoda crisis — an obscure confrontation between the British and French over the head of the Nile in 1898. This was one of Bob’s favorite examples of both “watch out, you might get what you are after” because of the headaches this control produced for Britain as well as the nature of unintended consequences because of future French overreaction to British colonial interests. Few others were as fascinated by this event, so it was like an odd secret handshake for students of Bob.
Jervis’ gift of providing and supporting a community within what is all too often a lonely profession, provides one of his many important legacies that will endure. He knew the secret of how to make discovery fun, and he wanted to let everyone else in on it.
I first met Bob in 1986. I was an undergraduate at Stanford majoring in political science. I would have double majored in psychology, but I never could get through the statistics course. I still remember my first day in Merrill Carlsmith’s class when he threw chalk across the room at people who were reading the paper prior to class. I never returned. To be honest, I hadn’t considered going to graduate school (I had a job painting houses in Hawaii all set for my time after graduation) and I had never read any of Jervis’ work. My undergrad adviser, Chip Blacker, insisted that I apply to graduate school, claiming he would never talk to me again if I didn’t. At the time, that threat proved more motivating than perhaps it should have been. Since I had no idea where to go, he told me to check out Columbia, saying that Bob Jervis was the right person for me to work with given my background and interest in psychology.
In those days before email, I called and made an appointment to talk to him on the phone. I remember he talked to me for an hour on a Saturday morning. At that time, I was young and naïve enough to not find that unusual, but I now understand it was remarkable that he invested so much of his time on an unknown person who was exploring the idea of graduate school. I went to visit Columbia and met him in person. What I remember about that meeting was his office. At the time, he had a corner office on the 13th floor with a wonderful view. Precariously stacked towers of books were littered across the floor and piled on every surface. He had to move one of these from a chair so that I had a place to sit. On more than one occasion during that meeting, he jumped up on the chair or the desk to reach a volume at the top of a shelf or large stack and burrowed into a random pile to locate a particular book. He repeated this performance in every meeting I had with him. I never could figure out how he knew where everything was, but there always appeared to be a method underneath the ostensible mess.
If anyone had told me that day that Jervis would become one of the most influential people in my life, I would have laughed out loud. Some of the best aspects of his personality — his humor, loyalty, and integrity — were not as immediately evident as the force of his intellect, which was captivating and magnetic. I don’t remember much about the content of that conversation, but I recall leaving the office and standing on the steps of the main quad, utterly terrorized at the prospect of living in New York City, but knowing that I had to study with him. Jervis’ curiosity, intellectual breadth and reach, and sheer delight at the fun of discovery were infectious. I knew that he could help make my mind an interesting place in which to live.
In my first year at Columbia, I took four classes with him. I remember being very put off when he referred to all of us by our last names, as in “Ms. McDermott.” Coming out of a psychology department at Stanford that probably spent too much time on self-analysis, I didn’t recognize this strategy as the attempt at professionalization it constituted. Rather, I saw it as a psychological mechanism of distancing. So, in a scene I can still scarcely believe today, I said to him one day that if he couldn’t call me by my first name, he shouldn’t call me anything at all. Rather than getting mad or defensive, he was openly curious and asked why? I told him that I found it emotionally distancing and at odds with establishing close working relationships across power differentials, and as someone as deeply steeped in psychology as he was, he should think about those ramifications. He looked startled, laughed and said, “I never thought about it that way. Ok, you win.” Many years later, long after I had finished my dissertation and was in my first job at Cornell, I kept calling him “Professor Jervis” out of respect. One day he told me that now that I was finished, I really should call him Bob. I was reluctant and the next time I called him Professor Jervis, I could tell he was waiting for it. With mocking seriousness, he intoned, “If you can’t call me Bob, don’t call me anything at all,” and laughed uproariously. I was mortified and could not believe he remembered. As I rushed to apologize, he cut me off with “good for the goose, good for the gander.”
The classes I took from him that first year were not only formative for me, but representative of the diversity of Jervis’ intellectual interests, which incorporated nuclear strategy, the workings of the intelligence community, and diplomatic history, among other topics. Although in essence a realist when thinking about great-power politics, he infused all his analysis with a deep understanding of human nature and an encyclopedic knowledge of the psychological literature. His most influential (although not his favorite — that was System Effects) book, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, was written during his time at University of California, Los Angeles at the apex of the cognitive revolution in psychology. Because of the time in which it was written, the late 1970s, the book reflects two critical aspects of the development of the field at the time. First, as he noted, it was possible for one person to read all the relevant articles in the field in the top-10 journals, which is what he did before writing that book. As he noted later when working on the second preface of the book, that was no longer possible because the plethora of work in the field has outstripped the ability of any one person to comprehend and integrate it all in a timely fashion. However, Jervis was able to do that in Perception, which rendered the book foundational in its application of ideas, concepts, and theories drawn from social psychology and applied to ongoing problems in international politics. Equally important, he did not just apply these ideas to anecdotal examples from history. Rather, he applied them to instances that were informed by a true diplomatic historian’s appreciation for the idiosyncratic factors that can profoundly shape outcomes for reasons that might later appear almost random to those who fail to undertake the careful excavation which enthralled Bob.
The second way in which Perception reflected its time was the emphasis on cognitive or so-called unmotivated biases. Much attention went into the role of emotion in decision-making. This was true for all the great thinkers of the time. My other dissertation adviser, Amos Tversky, similarly eschewed the power of emotion in judgment and decision-making, although for different reasons. Jervis came to recognize the problems associated with the neglect of emotion and wrote about this extensively in the new preface to the edition published in 2017.
Indeed, Jervis’ work combining psychology with political science was foundational in many ways. Prior to his work, while some had worked on individual case studies, few had really sought to undertake this integration in a systematic fashion. Although now the so-called behavioral revolution may be all the rage as experimental methods have taken wider hold of parts of economics as well as political science, Jervis’ work predated and foreshadowed the importance of individual biases on judgment and decision-making, even at the highest level. After the presidency of Donald Trump, it may appear obvious that individuals can override institutions, organizations, and norms, but the conventional wisdom in international relations theory had held the opposite. But this insight was not so clear when Jervis began his dissertation work that became The Logic of Images and its reflective bookend, Perception and Misperception in International Relations. These books were not only foundational but in many ways also definitive. I can think of few other dissertation books in our field that are still in print half a century later. Logic of Images is. Jervis often said that this work was deeply informed by that of Tom Schelling and Erving Goffman, and that may have been true, but the work added his own inimitable contributions that extended far beyond their original insights.
These two books, as well as much of Jervis’ other work, centered individual decision-makers in ways that were both original and unique in the discipline. He understood human nature in an intuitive fashion, and often used everyday examples from life, such as parenting, teaching, or dating practices, to illustrate various phenomena in great-power politics because he realized that these phenomena were not all that different in nature, even if they differed in consequence. I remember one time going on and on about some academic kerfuffle that had me quite upset. After not generating much of a response, I stopped and asked, exasperated, “Why aren’t you more angry about this?” Without missing a beat, he calmly said, “One of the good things about studying international relations is that it is hard to get worked up over anything that doesn’t leave any real blood on the floor.” That shut me up. Like so many of this other asides, it taught me an important lesson about prioritizing the things you value most.
This new preface for Perception grew out of a talk I invited him to come give at Brown as part of an interdisciplinary lecture series on political judgment and decision-making. He said he wanted to revisit the role of emotion, which was an issue and a topic that had not received much attention at the time he wrote the book, but whose importance over time had become more evident and pronounced. Bob’s interest in, and ability to, continually revise and work on improving his ideas was intrinsic to his nature. I always admired this characteristic when so many other academics are either defensive, or all too willing to simply rest on earlier accomplishments. I recall when I took his class on nuclear weapons and national security that first year of graduate school, I got an A- while another student received an A although we both wrote about his book, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy. I had written a glowing review of the book, which I still think is brilliant, and my colleague had written a blistering critique of it. Wanting to improve going forward, I went to ask him how I could do a better job next time. He told me I should not accept his work so uncritically. I said I did not think I was lacking in objectivity and that I really thought it was a great book. He smiled at me indulgently, twinkled and said, “everything can be improved, but only if you try.”
I took that lesson to heart many years later in ways I came to regret when I wrote my book, Presidential Illness, Leadership and Decision Making. I had read Jerrold Post’s book, When Illness Strikes the Leader, and had found it wanting. I called up Bob and started in on my rant about all the things that were wrong with it. He interrupted me with a skeptical tone of voice and said, “Do you think you can do better?” Without really thinking, I immediately said “Yes, absolutely.” When four years later, after many hours in the medical library at Stanford and as many in various presidential archives, I got a contract for the book from Cambridge, I called up Bob, quite chastened. I said, “That Post book is a damn fine book!” Jervis burst out laughing and said, “I didn’t really think you were going to actually go do it when I thought it would be hard to do better!”
In fact, almost every one of my books came out of an offhand comment that Bob made. I was in the audience with my graduate school compatriot, Uri Bar-Joseph, during a panel as a part of the American Political Science Association meeting on intelligence reform. In responding to someone who was suggesting wholesale reform to the American intelligence apparatus, Bob said we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and then proceeded to make an argument about how the real problem with intelligence analysis was that people only studied the failures and without comparing them to successes, it was impossible to differentiate what worked from what didn’t. Uri and I looked at each other and we both instantly knew that we had to undertake that task, resulting in a couple of articles and a book, Intelligence Success and Failure; The Human Factor.
When I was writing that book, my co-author wanted me to write a chapter on the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway that ultimately did not go into the book, but ended up as a separate article. I had a horrible writer’s block trying to tackle it, one of the worst of my life, because my father was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack, and I grew up with the nightmares he continually had over the event for my entire childhood. I called up Bob to ask him what to do about this, knowing full well it had likely never happened to him. His first response was a mischievous “Well, you can just decide not to do it!” I said I doubted I would be able to get away with that. There was a long silence, followed by a sigh, and then he said, “Well, it’s not great advice, but you are left with the Nike ad: Just do it.” And so I did. I always followed Bob’s advice. More importantly, I always went to Bob when I had an ethical dilemma I did not know how to solve. He always knew the right answer, or at least could help me puzzle through to the best thing to do. I always said Bob had more integrity in his little finger than the entire discipline had in the rest of its collective body and I stand by that assessment. I remember being stunned when I approached him with a particularly dicey problem on a couple of years ago. I started by saying I knew that I and my problem, was not his problem anymore now that I had long ago graduated, but I didn’t know where else to turn and it was serious. He listened and said, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems. Don’t you wish this was just one of those dissertation research design problems?”
Indeed, those problems were not so simple. After my first year at Columbia, it became evident that it was in my best interest to return to Stanford to complete my dissertation work with Amos Tversky since I was writing on prospect theory, a model of decision-making under conditions of risk that Amos developed in concert with Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work in 2002. There are many ways in which Bob was a superb intellectual parent, and he first showed these tendencies to me when I went to tell him I was returning to Stanford. He did not need, or expect, his students to follow in his footsteps or do the kind of work he did. Neither did he tell them what to do. However, Bob did always provide appropriate support and feedback to all his students, and many who were not even affiliated with him institutionally or personally. Most notably, he needed to be there for my oral defense and the ticket was not cheap — it was $600 in 1990 (about twice that in today’s dollars). He knew I didn’t have the money but neither university was willing to pay since it was so unusual to have someone outside your institution on your committee. Bob set it up so that he did the defense at the end of a long day reviewing the department at Berkeley so that I didn’t have to pay for the flight out. I have tried my best to pay that kind of generosity forward, because it simply cannot be paid back.
Bob always provided support, but he was never one to come after you if you didn’t send him any work. Indeed, I often went months after I returned to Stanford without communicating with him at all. But when I did send him something to read, I would always get written comments back within a couple of weeks. He did this for me until the very end of his life. One of the most poignant examples came last this past summer. I am working on a paper on Schelling with a junior colleague. No one was better equipped to read the paper than Bob, who trained with Schelling and was close to him. I knew how ill he was and hated to ask, but I wrote and asked if he might read it, begging him to say no if he was not up to it. He said he was not sure, but he would try and, in typical fashion, wrote that very afternoon saying he was printing it out and noticed a few things, offering three trenchant critiques, and then provided additional valuable comments a couple of weeks after that. I was not only grateful but extremely touched that he was willing to invest so much of his dwindling time on someone else’s work.
I could tell hundreds of great stories about Bob and the lessons he taught me. But I have to say that one of the most enduring is that he showed me a lot about how to die. At least to the outside world, he handled his illness with remarkably clear-eyed humor. When he first told us he had lung cancer, he did it with wit, “And I never smoked … not even pot!” He went on to say that at least it would keep his mind off the 2020 election. Even his obituary is a model of the kind of humor that animated his life and intellect. But even more than humor, he approached the last months of his life, at least externally to the world, with courage, dignity, and generosity. He stayed in contact with people who cared about him, and never appeared to wallow in his suffering or illness. He didn’t dwell on any long discussions of it. He accepted his diagnosis with a kind of grace I would not be able to muster. He lived his life and did his work. There was a profound lesson in that for me: If you do what you love, you don’t need to change a whole lot about how you choose to spend your time even if you know your time is limited.
The brilliant psychologist Lee Ross used to say you would make your life about your work, or you would make your work about your life. Bob had an amazing work ethic, but he loved his work. I remember when I got a job, he told me I could take the afternoon off. When I got tenure, he told me I could take the day off. And when I made full professor, he said I could take the weekend off. After that last one, I jokingly asked when I could take a week off. He said when I won the Nobel Prize or when he was dead. In the first case, everyone else would know why. In the second, he wouldn’t, so it didn’t matter! Indeed, after he died, I had to take a week off, but it was not because I wanted to. I was really not able to do much in the wake of the devastating news.
To me, Jervis exemplified someone who extracted delight and joy from the sheer curiosity and interest he experienced in his work. His objective detachment from much of what he studied, combined with his deeply amused understanding of human foibles, offered a rare insight into how people trying their best can still fail at important tasks. Jervis was quick to note that this might not be their fault, indeed they may not even be aware of the psychological proclivities that led to their various failings, and he accepted those tendencies with a detached sense of humor and irony. His recognition of human frailty was never accusatory or malicious; it was more amused and accepting. In some sense, this made people feel both seen and let off the hook simultaneously. I think partly for this reason, I almost never heard other scholars say a bad word about him personally, even on those occasions that someone might disagree with him substantively. Few tried to take his ideas down in print, most likely because that would have been extraordinarily difficult to do on the merits. Certainly, his intellectual honesty and integrity provided the most important defense against such attacks. However, he was also protected by the very thing he spent his life studying: individual character. His was sublime: gifted, generous, and joyful. We have all lost an intellectual giant. And I, and many others, have lost an irreplaceable friend.
Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received her Ph.D.(political science) and M.A. (experimental social psychology) from Stanford University and has also taught at Cornell and University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of five books, co-editor of two additional volumes, and author of over two hundred academic articles.