After 60 Years of Public Service, Diplomat Finally Earns His Ph.D.

May 16, 2013Bookmark and Share

Most scholars earn a Ph.D. then go on to a career in their chosen field and publish some books. Jack F. Matlock Jr. did all that, but in reverse.

Now, at 83, he has completed his dissertation in Slavic languages and literatures and is graduating from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The thesis is on the difficulties of translating the work of 19th century Russian author Nikolai Leskov into other languages.

Center left, Ambassador Matlock translating a letter from a former Russian political prisoner while flying back from Reykjavik on Air Force One following a meeting with Gorbachev in October 1986. From left are: speechwriter Anthony R. Dolan and Patrick Buchanan.
Center left, Ambassador Matlock translating a letter from a former Russian political prisoner while flying back from Reykjavik on Air Force One following a meeting with Gorbachev in October 1986. From left are: speechwriter Anthony R. Dolan and Patrick Buchanan.

It is the latest achievement for Matlock who, without his doctorate, has had an illustrious career in diplomacy as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia and later as a professor. Over the decades, Matlock has witnessed key moments in 20th century history firsthand.

After earning his master’s in Slavic languages at Columbia in 1952, he taught Russian language and literature at Dartmouth. He also prepared most of the index to an 11-volume collection of Stalin’s works. “I read his entire works, twice,” Matlock recalls.

In 1954, he began his application to the U.S. Foreign Service. One of his three interviewers voted against hiring him, believing he was too specialized. “I was all-but-dissertation back in 1953,” he said. “If I had completed my Ph.D. at the time, it is possible I would not have been appointed.”

Posted to Moscow in 1962 during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, Matlock translated a 14-page sealed letter from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presumed to be from the office of Nikita Khrushchev. “Unlike in academia, a C-minus translation on time is better than an A-plus too late,” said Matlock. In this case, there was no pressure, except, perhaps, that the fate of humanity hung in the balance.

Matlock was ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1981 to 1983 and served in cities such as Vienna, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Accra, Ghana, as well as on the staff of the National Security Council and as director of Soviet affairs at the State Department.

He attended most U.S.-Soviet summits from 1972 to 1991, from détente to glasnost. President Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to the U.S.S.R. in 1987, and he helped the president prepare for pivotal meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev by playing the role of the then-Soviet leader in mock summit meetings.

“I was limbering [Reagan] up. It was a little batting practice before going to the mound,” said Matlock, who had the opportunity to observe Gorbachev close up and noted that he did not care for Reagan’s jokes initially. “He found them a little cutting, but then he learned to parry them with his own jokes.”

In books like Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—And How to Return to Reality, Matlock challenges conventional wisdom about the relationship between the two Cold War adversaries.

For example, he maintains that the Cold War did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He argues instead that it ended in principle with Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations in December 1988, when he implicitly renounced Marxist class struggle as the basis of Soviet foreign policy.

Proficient in French, German, Russian, Czech and Swahili, Matlock was a senior research fellow at Columbia in 1991 and was later named the first Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor in the Practice of International Diplomacy from 1993 to 1996.

In 2005 he got a nudge to finish his Ph.D. from Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Russian Literature and a former head of Columbia’s Harriman Institute. They were at a memorial service for diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, a leading authority on the Soviet Union. “Jack, why don’t you just finish that degree?” Nepomnyashchy asked him. Matlock figured, “Why not? It’s 80 percent completed.”

Besides his scholarly pursuits, Matlock, who divides his time between a home in Princeton and his wife Rebecca’s family farm in Tennessee, enjoys gardening, which offers a respite from the thicket of foreign policy.

Matlock is proud of his decades of public service, and his contributions to U.S. foreign policy. “I am satisfied that I had a career that suited my interests and abilities.”

And, of course, he’s pleased with his dissertation. “It’s nice to have it finished.”

—by Gary Shapiro

From left: Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob van Haaren in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy   Two Engineers Harness Solar Power to Help Sandy Victims
Rob van Haaren and Garrett Fitzgerald built solar arrays they could tow behind them in small trailers to harvest the sun’s energy in order to bring electricity to those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Axtmayer running the New York City Marathon in 2011   Nursing Graduate Well Schooled in Cancer Care
Alfredo Axtmayer II will have a unique perspective to share with his patients when he becomes a nurse practitioner with a specialty in oncology. In 2008, when he was 27, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is now in remission.
Shaw is a pre-med student and an intern at the extended care facility for the terminally and chronically ill.   College Graduate Starts Volunteer Program to Comfort Elderly
Ashley Shaw, whose major is biology with a concentration in art history, started the “At Your Service Volunteer Program” for Columbia students at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center.
Raman left her career designing banking software in India to follow her passion for journalism.   Software Developer Combines Technology Skills With Journalism in New Dual-Degree Program
Rashmi Raman, along with three other dual-degree candidates, will become one of the first graduates of a two-year program with Columbia Engineering that aims to teach professionals the technical aspects of both digital media and news production.
This summer Mateo will begin a residency in pediatrics with a concentration in urban health and advocacy.   Medical Student Helps Build Bridges to Neighboring Community
In her last year of medical school, Camila Mateo, the daughter of two Dominican-born pediatricians, created a website to help others at the medical school better understand the community around them.
Mulhall in front of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle during a stop at a Marine Corps base in Al Anbar Province, Iraq   Brian Mulhall, From the Navy to the Law
In five years of military service in the Navy and over the past three years at Columbia Law School, Mulhall has made great use of opportunities that have landed him a job in the National Security Division at the Justice Department after he graduates in May.
Christopher Harress (JRN'13)   Royal Navy Officer Becomes Journalist
After four years and a day in the Royal Navy, Christopher Harress pursued a bachelor’s in journalism and landed an internship with the Edinburgh Evening News before being accepted to Columbia Journalism School.
Nashwa Khalil (P&S'13)   Physical Therapist Learned Benefits of Program Long Before Graduation
Nashwa Khalil knew the benefits of physical therapy long before she enrolled in the doctor of physical therapy program at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She began physical therapy as an infant after a birth injury in her left arm.

 

Top
Columbia on Facebook Columbia on Twitter Columbia on Google+ Columbia on iTunes U Columbia News RSS Columbia on YouTube

Milestones

Mathematics Professor Robert Friedman received the 2014 Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching to recognize his inspiring leadership.

National Science Foundation Career Awards were given to Roxana Geambasu, assistant professor of computer science, for a proposal to create new data protection methods for modern operating systems; and Javad Lavaei, assistant professor of electrical engineering, for research on electrical power networks.

Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi, won the 2014 Lionel Trilling Book Award for Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

The Record