The morning of the Colin Powell lecture, I stood in line outside of Richardson Auditorium with my friend Beth. Beth takes Arabic. Last summer, she worked for a senator in Washington. She just applied to Woody Woo. She knows her Public and International Affairs.
I, on the other hand, am going to be an English major. Maybe. I haven’t taken the prerequisites, but I do really like to read. I figure that’s enough. My knowledge of current events ends in about 1997, when my history teacher stopped giving my class weekly quizzes about the front page of the New York Times. I do know enough to know that the United States is currently engaged in a War on Terror, and that we invaded Iraq last spring because some people thought that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. We caught Saddam (I still don’t understand why we call him “Saddam” instead of “Former Dictator Hussein,” but that’s for the experts to decide, I guess) and will soon bring him to justice. I figured this was all the background information I needed before attending a lecture delivered by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Bored while waiting to pass through the metal detector, I examined my ticket. It said something like, “The George F. Kennan ’25 Centennial Conference featuring U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.” ‘Who on earth is George F. Kennan?’, I asked myself. I figured he was a rich alumnus who had donated a ton of money to bring illustrious public figures to Princeton. I nudged Beth.
“Um, are we supposed to know who this guy is?” I asked. (Expected answer: “Beats me” or “Of course not!”)
“Yeah!” said Beth, sounding surprised. “He wrote the Long Telegram.”
I stared at her blankly. I thought about how when the Titanic was sinking, the guy in the telegraph booth tried unsuccessfully to solicit help from the nearby ships. I guessed that this was not “the Long Telegram” Beth was referring to.
“He basically wrote the policy of containment.” When I still showed no signs of recognition, Beth added, “Which was a really important policy during the Cold War.”
I nodded. “Ohhh, right. Of course.”
When I took European History in high school, we ran out of time before we got to the Cold War. To fill the gaps in our knowledge, my teacher handed out a sheet of Important Terms from the Cold War. “Containment” was on it. So were “glasnost” and “perestroika.” I never bothered to memorize the definitions of these terms. I was accordingly horrified when I sat down to take the AP European History exam and saw that one of the essay questions was: “Discuss the United States’ policy toward the USSR during the Cold War.” My response went something like this: “During the Cold War, the United States adopted a policy of containment combined with glasnost and perestroika toward the USSR. This strategy proved to be quite successful, as evidenced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990’s, which marked the end of communism in Europe.” The AP graders gave me a “3” for my efforts on that exam, a score that denotes “average knowledge of the subject matter.” Perhaps I should have added that David Hasselhoff performed at the celebration of the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Beth and I presented our tickets and PUIDs to a woman in an orange beret with a large pompom on top. After we took our seats, I perused the program. The page about George Kennan described containment as the base of American foreign policy toward the USSR during the Cold War, adding that “there were significant departures from Kennan’s original understanding of the term.” I was momentarily satisfied with the knowledge that I was not the only one to have misunderstood the policy of containment.
My satisfaction turned to near smugness when Secretary Powell took the stage. After the initial jokes to warm up the crowd (“It looks like the students got the cheap seats,” Powell quipped after he noticed that most of the people in the lower level of the auditorium had gray hair), Powell admitted that when he was a soldier during the Cold War, he didn’t know much about containment, either. “What was my mission?” he joked. “When the Russian army comes, stop it.” I laughed until I realized that I didn’t know what he could have been referring to. “Powell’s too young to have fought in World War II,” I thought. “And we didn’t fight the Russians in Vietnam, did we?”
It went downhill from there. Monday’s Daily Prince reported that Powell talked about how “The United States must continue to focus upon the ideals of democracy, human rights, and rule of law.” Apparently, I missed that. Beth was furiously taking notes. I was confused.
Then, all at once, things started to look up. In defending the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, Secretary Powell said, “there was no doubt in my mind … that there was no intention on his part not to have the intention for such weapons and programs.”
Ha! I elbowed Beth.
“Check out that triple negative,” I whispered.
“What?” she asked. Her blank look, I thought, must have been very similar to my expression a little while before, when she had mentioned containment.
“He just used a triple negative,” I said. “‘I have no doubt that Saddam had no intention not…’”
Beth frowned. “Right.” She turned her head back to face Colin Powell. Within a few seconds, she was scribbling notes again. I just sat back, content to know that I had just caught the Secretary of State of the United States of America in a grammar error.