Ruth Morgenthau; Refugee Became Presidential Adviser

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From the Boston Globe (excerpts) — 11/9/2006

Ruth Morgenthau; Refugee Became Presidential Adviser

Ruth Morgenthau planned a trip to Africa five years ago to give a speech about building peace on a continent she had studied, visited, helped, and loved for half a century.

Because she was scheduled to depart the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, she almost missed the seminar. Days later, she made it to Zambia and began her keynote address by finding shards of her life’s work in the shattering experience of the terrorist attacks.

“I hope it brings home to some of us in America that we are a world community; thus we are all sisters and brothers, all Africans, all Congolese, all Sudanese, all Sierra Leoneans, all New Yorkers, all Holocaust survivors,” she said a week later. “In the aftermath of the shock of these events, we feel more intimately connected, more urgently focused on confronting violent conflict and controlling it.”

A scholar who escaped the Nazis when she was 8, Dr. Morgenthau was a foreign policy adviser to three presidents and lent her expertise to the United Nations and the World Bank.

She helped run Pact, a nongovernmental organization that works to ease economic and political travails in struggling countries. An author and a liberal Democrat, she also ran for Congress and was an adviser to presidential campaigns.

Dr. Morgenthau, a professor emeritus at Brandeis University, died Saturday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was 75 and had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome.

“Although she was a scholar, she liked to put her ideas into practice,” said her husband, Henry Morgenthau III, as he sat amid reminders of his wife in the Cambridge home where they had entertained activists, politicians, students, and academic leaders for more than 40 years. “She was always doing something in the public sphere.”

“She was our principal adviser on Africa and sustainable development in the ’76 presidential campaign and really had an impact on President Carter’s decision to give priority to relations with Africa and development in Africa,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser. “I found her to be one of the few academics who had the capacity to apply their knowledge in a practical way that was applicable for government decision makers.”

Born in Vienna, Ruth Schachter fled Austria a few weeks after Kristallnacht. On the night of the pogram in Germany and Austria, the Nazis arrested Jews, and mobs destroyed synagogues and smashed windows in Jewish shops and homes. Boarding a train to Switzerland, she and her father, Osias Schachter, escaped on Dec. 31, 1938.

“They gambled on the fact that on New Year’s Eve the border guards would be drunk,” said her sister, Alice Schachter Barzilay of New York City.

Alice and her mother, Mizia, left Vienna later, and the four lived in England at first. They wanted to go to the United States, but because of immigration quotas and documentation problems, the family lived in Cuba for more than a year.

Decades later, Dr. Morgenthau was leaving the United Nations in New York City on a cold night when she chanced upon a demonstration commemorating Kristallnacht.

“I had been there many decades ago, as a child in Vienna, and though I had succeeded in burying the memory, it broke painfully into my consciousness,” she later wrote. “For an instant I lost my American identity, and was that Austrian child again, feeling the cruel necessities that sent my parents into flight, forty years earlier.”

In a speech two years ago, she asked, “Did my early struggles for survival impel me towards empathy with similar struggles of others, even further afield, more vulnerable, grappling with poverty and insecurity?”

“I think it had a lasting emotional effect on her life,” said her son Kramer of Los Angeles.

“She developed a lot of powerful contacts and could have used them in many ways,” said her other son, H. Ben of San Francisco. “She was determined to use that access to help people in desperate need.”

In 1940, the Schachter family settled in New York City, where Dr. Morgenthau became a top student at Hunter College High School and Barnard College. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris, received a doctorate from Oxford University, and began traveling to Africa.

A specialist on French-speaking West Africa, she was teaching at Boston University when Henry Morgenthau, then producing a public-television show, visited to be briefed for an upcoming program. “It was love at first sight,” he said.

“She was beautiful and lovable, a very strong and independent person,” he added. “She gave me a lot of strength.”

They married in 1962 and she published her doctoral dissertation two years later as “Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa.” She dedicated the book simply “To Henry.”

“For decades Henry put up with a wife who travels in Africa or across other distant boundaries numerous times a year to learn, to teach, and lead a life of social activism,” she said in the speech two years ago. “When he embraced me together with my work, Henry saved both of us from a life of solitude.”

Dr. Morgenthau taught for many years at Brandeis, where she was the Adlai Stevenson professor of international politics and had chaired the politics department. She also was founding director of the graduate program in international sustainable development.

Beginning with John F. Kennedy, she was a presidential adviser and filled the same role for Lyndon Johnson and Carter. She also was an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Paul E . Tsongas, Michael S . Dukakis, and Bill Bradley. Through the years, she served as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations and in other roles.

Her own forays into elective politics included an unsuccessful run in 1988 for a US House seat in Rhode Island, where she and her husband lived for many years while keeping their house in Cambridge. The family had also lived for briefer periods in Africa and in Israel.

“She really had a hunger for experiencing the world,” Ben said at the family’s Cambridge home while a photo slide show played on his brother’s laptop computer, chronicling their mother’s life from Austria to Africa, at the UN, and with politicians ranging from a young Edward M. Kennedy to Hillary Clinton.

Dr. Morgenthau founded Food Corps International to help alleviate hunger in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and in recent years chaired the board of Pact.

Never fond of small talk — “At the dinner table we talked about world affairs,” Kramer said — Dr. Morgenthau “was serious, but not solemn,” Sarah Newhall, Pact’s president, said at a funeral service Monday. “She was a ‘genetic optimist,’ she would always say.”

Dr. Morgenthau had two recreations,” her husband said. “One was reading detective novels; the other was shopping at Filene’s Basement. She called that her ‘hunting.’ She bought her wedding dress there.”

“My one regret is that she won’t be here anymore to teach you,” her daughter, Sarah Morgenthau Wessel of Montclair, N.J., said at Monday’s funeral, directing her comments to her own daughter and two sons. “I don’t feel that we can say goodbye, because I feel she’s in all of us.”

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