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One Toke Over The Line: University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies To Grant George. W. Bush An International Service Award: Part Three of an Open Ended Series

July 17, 2013
The Korbel Family. Joseph on the left, daughter Madelaine Albright on the  far right

The Korbel Family. I think daughter Madelaine Albright is on the far right



Part One of the Series

Part Two of the Series

Part Four of the Series

Part Five of the Series

Part Six of the Series


The Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Responding to the news that the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies was going to present George W. Bush with Global Service Award, a close friend – graduate of both the University of Denver’s Law School and the Korbel School of International Studies, commented wryly – as he is apt to do:

“Poor Joseph Korbel, he is turning over in his grave for the third time. First was when his own daughter, then Secretary of State Madelaine Albright commented that the economic sanctions that the United States had imposed on Iraq was worth the 500,000 children whom it is estimated died of malnutrition and lack of medical care in the 1990s. The second time was when his protege student – one Condoleezza Rice – who in her student youth was a liberal democrat, `saw the light’ and became a neo-conservative. The third time is now, when the institute that Korbel founded would award George W. Bush with such an honor. It denigrates the school’s dignity. Sad day.”

Who was Joseph Korbel? 

Well I don’t know what Josef Korbel would have thought of having the poorest choice ever to hold the office of presidency honored by the institute he, Korbel, founded. But my hunch is George W. Bush would not have been high on Joe Korbel’s list of possible honorees. Korbel had everything Bush lacks – class, integrity, a mind, an ethical framework, one that even if it bent a little bit for reasons of practicality, never broke.

The Korbel School of International Studies was so named after its founding director, Joseph Korbel. Joseph Korbel was an émigré Czechoslovak diplomat who served as his country’s ambassador to Yugoslavia just after World War 2. When the communists took over in Czechoslovakia in 1948 – a thing that would not have been possible if not for the presence of Soviet troops in the country and Soviet meddling with the political process – Korbel was sentenced to death in absentia. He and his family were offered political asylum in the United States.

Korbel was invited to Denver, offered a professorship along with the opportunity to organize a `graduate school of international studies. This he did and what was referred to as the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS as it was often called) was launched in 1964 with Korbel as its first dean. To honor its founding dean, on May 8, 2008, in a public ceremony, the name of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies changed its name to the Korbel School of International Studies.

Unlike some of my colleagues at the Korbel School, I hardly knew Korbel. I did have one meeting with him, sometime around 1975 when he invited me to come study at what was then called GSIS, but at the time I didn’t take him up on his kind offer. Still, working at the Korbel Institute now for nearly two decades, it’s hard not knowing something about Korbel; for example he was respected by people from across the political spectrum. He had hired his faculty, it seemed, not based upon political ideology so much as on academic competency. Many of Korbel’s hire-es are still teaching at D.U. and contribute no small measure to the institute’s continued prestige. The place was – and still is – an academic powerhouse, interesting and stimulating place to teach and study.

A Gift of `Tito’s Communism’

But I have started to get to know Korbel better  by reading a book he authored, which has only enhanced my taste for more. A couple of months ago friends in a local used bookstore – one of Denver’s finest – Westside Books, handed me a copy of Tito’s Communism, Korbel’s memoir of his time in Yugoslavia, just after World War 2. Published in 1953, the book covers how Tito came to power after the war, how the Communists consolidated that power as well as offering some interesting insights concerning the split between Tito and Stalin that drove Yugoslavia out of the Communist orbit and into the embrace of the West already in the early 1950’s.

I have read and thought of Yugoslav Communism no small amount – of how it was that Tito built his political base as a leader of the resistance against the Nazis during the war, of how Yugoslav communism, unlike that of so many other Eastern European countries, was not Soviet installed, of how Tito was able to keep Yugoslavia’s conflicting ethnic groups at bay through a combination of repression and economic opportunity, and finally why and how it all splintered into the horror of ethnic animosity in spite of all that in the 1990’s as the country exploded.

From this one book – I intend to read a good deal more of his works – a sense of Korbel comes through loud and clear. A profound democrat, a very astute and careful analyst, Korbel had an eagle eye for the all of the machinations of Yugoslav communism. He didn’t miss a trick. His analysis is harsh but sober, in a word – fair. His understanding and critique of Yugoslav communism’s early years provides excellent insights into why the system collapsed some forty years late. Korbel is a fair analyst. Despite his negative experience with communism, he understood both its popular appeal and its weak underbelly. Korbel had an uncanny way of seeing beyond the surface of things. He knew what he was talking about. Printed sixty years ago, Tito’s Communism is as fresh and insightful today as it was then. More – there is very little out there that gives as penetrating and accurate an analysis of the years he spent there (1946-1948).

For all that, Korbel never became a flaming or blind anti-communist as did a number of other academic refugees from Eastern Europe who found made their homes in Colorado. Korbel supported detente with the Soviet Union until his death in 1977 and left a legacy in the Korbel School – one of the finest schools of international studies in the nation – to be proud of. A political centrist perhaps a drop or two left of center – but no more – he was primarily an analyst and a scholar. It is not so easy for Colorado – a state in the middle of the country more or less – far from the coasts and any foreign borders to have much of an international consciousness. It is precisely that awareness of the world outside of this nation that Korbel brought to the Rocky Mountain state. No small accomplishment. An archive of his writings, letters exists at the University of Denver’s new library.

The Dilemmas of financing at a private university…

To be continued tomorrow…much more to say.

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