Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, died on May 26th at the age of 89. For many the name not only doesn't ring a bell, but is unpronounceable. The correct pronunciation is /ˈzbɪɡnjɛf bʒɛˈʒɪnski/ or zbig-nyef bzhe-zhinsky, romanized.
Anyhow, I won't elegize him because his mistake to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets prior to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan created the Taliban. (For a further look into this, watch Charlie Wilson's War, an excellent movie that discusses the increase in arms to people who eventually became enemies, and the politics behind it several years after Brzezinski and the Carter administration left office.)
As is the case for most people in powerful and important positions, Brzezinski's resume contains both acts of heroism as well as extreme mistakes whose impacts will far outlast the life and memory of the man who made them. I can't think of a worse mistake than fomenting a religiously-backed battle (in the minds of the mujahideen, anyhow) between people who should've never been trusted and the Soviets, our cold-war enemy, who only through extension and necessity made the mujahideen our temporary 'allies'.
But what about saving the world from nuclear annihilation? Found via twitter, here is a story of the man who remained calm in the face of certain death to us all:
"As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by military assistant William Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President's decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes ?. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that ? 2,200 missiles had been launched?it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system." -- Robert M. Gates. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996),114.
(NOTE: I left the '?' mistakes in purposefully, as copied.)
The part that sends chills up my spine is him sitting in bed next to his wife, who he chose not to awaken. Why panic her? Why let her know that she--and the bulk of North America, and perhaps the world--was about to die in a matter of minutes? What must have gone through his head while he waited for those confirmation phone calls? And how did he have the fortitude to wait for confirmation during the final minute?
He was a complicated and amazing person who saw the rise of Nazism, and watched his father save Jews from it. He lost out on a teaching position at Harvard to Henry Kissinger, only to eventually teach another Secretary of State, Madeline Albright.
His 89-year life was amazing, though not perfect. Zbigniew Brzezinski.