Life stories from Annette Gordon-Reed, Martin Karplus, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and many more, in the Experience series.
Though a farm boy at heart, talking politics and traveling to faraway places always fascinated Joseph Nye. When he graduated from Princeton in 1958, Nye figured he’d fulfill his military obligation in the Marines and then perhaps enter the Foreign Service. But a chance encounter with a professor in the college library led to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics. Then it was on to Harvard for a Ph.D.
More than 50 years later, Nye is one of the country’s most important scholars in American foreign policy and international relations, and among the Kennedy School’s most popular and respected teachers.
Over that long career, Nye’s intellectual curiosity has taken him to East Africa during the independence movement in the 1960s, to weighing the ethics of nuclear weapons proliferation, to gauging the rise of Japan and China as economic and political players on the world stage. He is known for coining the term “soft power” to describe an alternative that leaders and nations can use to effect political outcomes, power that works by shaping preferences rather than using economic “carrots” or military “sticks.”
Nye served in the Defense Department during the Clinton administration and in the State Department during the Carter administration. He was dean of the Kennedy School from 1995 to 2004. A Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Nye will retire from teaching in June.
Q: Tell me little bit about your growing up.
A: I grew up in a rural area in northern New Jersey, and that left me with a strong interest in outdoors and farming, and I still grow vegetables. I have three sisters. … I was the only male other than my father.
Q: Did your sisters abuse their privilege?
A: No, no. But it did give me a deep appreciation for women’s positions and women’s rights, and it’s been something that I’ve tried to think about in all the jobs I’ve held — to make sure that I provided opportunities worthy of my sisters. I think one of the things I’m proud of, when I was dean here, was starting the Women and Public Policy Program and increasing the number of women students and women faculty. So, having sisters made a difference.
My father worked in Wall Street. He had never gone to college. He went to work as a messenger and worked his way up to having a seat on the Stock Exchange [as] senior partner of a company. He always used to joke with me about the fact that it took me 10 years to get through college by the time I finished all the degrees.
Q: That world didn’t interest you?
A: It did somewhat. He would take me in to Wall Street to see the canyons and to understand what was going on in the financial world, and that may have affected my interest in politics and economics. But I was always intrigued by the politics part of it as well. At times I was tempted to follow his footsteps and join in his company, but I wanted to follow my interests and my interests were this intersection of politics and economics. My mother had gone to Smith for a year and then dropped out for financial reasons in the Depression. She’d gone to work as a secretary and that’s how my mother and father [met].
Q: What was their attitude toward education?
A: They were pretty strict. My father ran and became chairman of the local school board because he felt strongly about education, having not had that much himself. And they obviously inculcated achievement orientation. But I think probably the most interesting thing was not the pressure to get grades in school as much as dinner table conversations. The family dinner was de rigueur. Dinner was always conversations — I mean arguments. My older sisters were coming back from college and they were repeating ideas that they had learned there and they were usually arguing with my father — arguing in the best sense of the word. They would make sure to bring me into the conversations and so a lot of being able to speak up and defend your ideas and being interested in ideas grew out of the family dinner table conversations. It was a Republican household. In those days, you didn’t get to meet many Democrats if you grew up in northern New Jersey in a rural area.
Q: What kind of student were you?
A: Well, I was younger. My mother put me in school — I’m a January baby, so she could either hold me back or put me in early. That meant that the other kids were better than I was at athletics by being a little bit larger and more experienced. I also lived in a rural area where there just weren’t other kids around, so a lot of my play wasn’t part of athletic teams because there weren’t enough kids to make a team. So a lot of it was doing things outdoors and working on the farm and things like that. When I went to high school — at Morristown-Beard School, it’s now called; it was then Morristown Prep — I sort of buckled down and did well in class and played on the football team. I was the center on the football team, the guy who hikes the ball and then gets knocked down [laughter].
Q: Why there?
A: There was no high school in the township. I think there were about 500 people in the township, so you either went to Morristown, which is about six miles away, or to a private school. My parents considered sending me to Andover, where my sister and brother-in-law were teaching, but I think they felt that it would be better for me to stay around home. So I went as a day student to Morristown Prep. It was small, and being small was probably good for me. It allowed me to be a big fish in a small pond, which allowed me to develop self-confidence.
Q: Did you have any ideas about a career?
A: I didn’t have very clear career plans. Believe it or not, at one point I thought of going into the ministry, though that didn’t last very long. Then I thought about maybe going into business, because that’s what my father did. I mean it wasn’t as though I had an early clear idea that I want to be a doctor or something like that. I was just curious and I was interested in travel. Our family took a trip to Europe and then a trip to Mexico and that got me interested in other areas.