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On Not Remembering Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III

28 May

 

[Prefatory Note: More than usual, I need to explain this post of an article by Vimal Patel published a few days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Given the celebrity surrounding Robert Mueller since he was appointed Special Counsel to investigate charges of criminal wrongdoings associated with the 2016 election that brought us and the world, Donald Trump, the most anomalous presidency in all of American history, yet also part of a global trend toward ‘illiberal democracies,’ which may be a polite was of describing ‘democracies’ with a soft spot for fascism. In any event, Mueller’s thesis was devoted to litigation in the World Court (more formally known as the International Court of Justice) at the Hague, initiated by Ethiopia and Liberia, to challenge the extension of apartheid to the South West Africa mandate, now Namibia. I worked at The Hague on the second phase of the case as a member of the Ethiopia/Liberia team throughout the year 1964-65, while on leave from Princeton. I will write about the case in a few days. Mueller’s paper was devoted to the first phase, the much contested question as to whether the ICJ should accept jurisdiction.

Mr. Patel’s article is concerned with what struck him and others as strange, that someone with conservative politics should choose to work with someone on the left, especially given the polarizing effects of the Vietnam debate raging on and off campus. I have lightly edited the published text for clarity.]

 

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“Robert Mueller’s Undergraduate Thesis Adviser Has a Great Memory. But He Doesn’t Remember Mueller”

By Vimal Patel, MAY 24, 2018

 

 

Robert S. Mueller III, special counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote an undergraduate thesis at Princeton U. on “Acceptance of Jurisdiction in the South West Africa Cases.”

 

 

Before Robert Mueller became a war hero, headed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and led the inquiry into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, he had another feat to accomplish.

 

The year was 1966, and he had his senior thesis to complete at Princeton University. The senior thesis is a big deal, and has been described as the defining Princeton academic experience for undergraduate seniors.

 

Mueller’s 117-page thesis was titled “Acceptance of Jurisdiction in the South West Africa Cases.” It dealt with a court case at The Hague about the extension of apartheid to a South African territory, Namibia.

In the acknowledgments section, Mueller acknowledged just one person, Richard A. Falk, “for his stimulating guidance in the preparation of this Thesis.”

 

The Chronicle tracked down Falk, who is 87, in Turkey, where he has a home along the coast. He also lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he is a research fellow in the University of California’s Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies.

 

“He must have been fairly low profile.”

 

Falk has a razor-sharp memory, and 53 years later, can recall details of the case he argued at The Hague, like the final vote count and the name of the judge who cast the tie-breaking vote. But he has no memory of Mueller.

 

However, after The Chronicle alerted him about his star student, he reread Mueller’s thesis. Falk spoke to us about Princeton in the 1960s, and what he thinks about the quality of the thesis after all these years. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Can you tell me how you were involved with the case Mueller wrote his thesis on?

 A.It was a very important case that had complicated political ramifications. It ended up to the surprise of almost everyone of being decided in favor of South Africa. I was involved with the litigation team of the governments that brought charges. The judges were split, 7 to 7, and the president of the International Court of Justice, an Australian and colonialist, Sir Percy Spender, had a second vote to break the tie, and cast it in favor of apartheid, South Africa’s position. The whole case involved whether South Africa was living up to its mandatory duties as set forth by the international community. The main question was whether extending apartheid to Namibia, then South-West Africa, was consistent with the mandate.

 So a key question was whether apartheid would be allowed in Namibia?

 A. Yes, whether South Africa was living up to its obligations [to govern Namibia] by extending apartheid to Namibia. And the South African argument was “It’s the best solution. After all, it’s what we do for our own people.” It was at the height of apartheid. And it made the international community very angry. The court’s decision actually accelerated Namibia’s process of independence, because people were so angry at the decision. It also led to the restructuring of the personnel of the court. It was an extremely controversial decision. It was a big breakthrough for the anti-apartheid campaign. That’s why the jurisdictional issue was politically interesting. That’s what Robert Mueller was obviously preoccupied with at the time. When I first got your message, it didn’t even occur to me that you were referring to this Robert Mueller, who has become a celebrity.

 You don’t have any memory of Robert Mueller?

A: Unfortunately, no. None. And I remember many of my senior-thesis students. I taught at Princeton for 40 years. You do have a quite close relationship with your senior-thesis students. It’s the big thing your last year at Princeton. You can probably text me the names of 10 others, and I would remember at least eight of them.

 That’s fascinating to me because you have an impressive ability to recall half-century-old details.

 A: I could talk about the details of the case for hours. I spent a year working on it.

Robert Mueller does strike me as sort of an unmemorable and unflashy person.

He must have been fairly low profile. I had some very right-wing students, like, for instance, Richard Perle, who became one of the lead intellectuals of the neoconservative movement. I remember him extremely well. He was there around the same period as Mueller.

 

The chair of the department of politics at Princeton was surprised that Mueller would thank you in his thesis, calling it an “odd pairing.” Mueller ended up serving in Vietnam. You questioned the legality of the war. Mueller would become a Republican. You were a controversial leftist. But yet there he was, working with you.

A: It’s an irony I suppose. I’m glad you brought this to my attention. I would have never known about my forgotten connection to this currently prominent personality who may have the fate of the nation in his hands.

What do you remember about Richard Perle?

 A: I remember lots of things some of which I am reluctant to discuss. Despite the political gap between our views, we were quite friendly. The seminars were small at the time, so you knew many of the graduate students quite well. He’s one of the few people who eventually left Princeton as a graduate student, because the department was too liberal for him. There are many arguments about what goes wrong at Princeton, but very few have ever claimed that it was too liberal as an institution.

It was more on the conservative side, as far as universities go, during this time?

Definitely. It prided itself on being conservative. And its alumni were extremely conservative. I had a lot of trouble over the years with the alumni, especially the older alumni. Princeton changed a lot in my 40 years there, and being a visible progressive faculty member I was associated with some of the changes, like bringing women into the university. And some of the more progressive political initiatives that occurred during the Vietnam period particularly. I favored most of these changes, but played very little role in bringing them about.

So having someone like Robert Mueller, who would end up serving in Vietnam and becoming a Republican, wouldn’t be out of character at Princeton in the 1960s?

Not at all. He would be a mainstream Princeton student — in the early 1960s, at least. Princeton changed during the 1960s. and he’s just about at that point where it did become briefly — I wouldn’t say radicalized — but I would say the student body became quite progressive. That’s what alarmed and angered many of the alumni at the time, particularly older alumni who wanted Princeton to remain as they had experienced it.

Would it be fair to say you were more of an anomaly than Robert Mueller at the Princeton of the sixties?

A: Oh, much more. Mueller would not be seen as an anomaly at all in that Princeton atmosphere. It was a year when there was growing tension among students about the Vietnam War. The draft was present, but there were also many pro-war students. Some students began to express the view, “Why should we risk our lives for a war that had no meaning for us?” Because I don’t remember Mueller at all, I don’t know if he expressed any views about this back then. But it was a key moment in the evolution of the political atmosphere at Princeton. It must have affected him deeply, because there was growing tension by 1966 in the university community, and since I was probably the most visible critic of the Vietnam War among the faculty he would have been well aware of this fact.

How does it feel knowing that one of the most talked about people in the United States thought so highly of you and acknowledged you in his senior thesis?

Of course, it is pleasant, and far better than the reverse. On one level, it’s amusing. I do wish my memory extended to the experience of knowing and working with him at that time. It’s one of those experiences that I didn’t appreciate at the time but later acquires a special significance.

 

Robert Mueller throughout his career seems to have earned a lot of bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans found him to be someone they could work with. And it’s interesting to me that his productive relationship with you more than half a century ago — someone with presumably wildly different views — alludes to the kind of person he would become.

A: I think that’s a good insight. From what little I know about him as a public personality, he is somebody that comes across as careful and impresses people with his professionalism. He doesn’t flaunt his ideological views the way someone like Richard Perle would have, or some of the well-known people on the right, orthe left for that matter.

Any general thoughts on his thesis?

A: I was extremely impressed with the maturity and sophistication of the analysis, which was quite unusual for someone who had not yet attended law school. Even though, from my perspective, it sided too strongly with the conservative interpretation of these complex legal issues, he did so in a judicious way and was very fair in his assessment of opposing views. These are exactly the kind of qualities you would look for in someone given this nationally sensitive role of looking into potential wrongdoing by the president of the United States.

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Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232,or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.

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