Feldman, Gerald - Oral History Interview
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Mr. Feldman was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, so SAIS was prominently featured and he became aware of it sooner than other people would have otherwise. When he started as an undergraduate, he thought he wanted to go into the exact sciences and was leaning towards physics, but he found that he was much more interested in politics and international affairs. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to go to an extracurricular physics lecture but he did find himself drawn to international discussions. When it became time to declare a major, he decided on international relations. At that time, in the ‘60s, Johns Hopkins was building a very strong international relations undergraduate major which led him toward SAIS, which had the best balance of things for his interest. He was interested in government service. Everything at Johns Hopkins was very highly theoretical…he found the same thing in classes in international relations, international politics and international economics. He was told that SAIS had quite a different approach—that is was good to have a theoretical approach, but SAIS was much more policy oriented. That’s what he found when he got there and he felt it was a very good balance. He had always had an interest in international affairs, even before he started undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins. He would watch the news, debate the news and his interest started that way. He describes himself at that time as an armchair expert on politics and international affairs. He felt like public service was what he wanted to do after graduating. Mr. Feldman was very impressed with the mix of students at SAIS and Johns Hopkins, but especially at SAIS. He says it was a very enriching experience, especially as a graduate student. He loved the mix of backgrounds and students and the idea of everyone coming together with a common interest in international affairs but from different perspectives. He also found students to be extremely intelligent and well-versed, but also quite well grounded. Students were more mature than you would expect beginning graduate students to be. He did his first year in Bologna and at that time it was typical they were taking the entire first-year class. Most students met in Bologna, though there were a few students who were in Washington, DC. In his opinion, that was a good experience in an international environment which was then, and may still be, the real institutional repository for what was then the EC and now the EU. He said there were guest professors who had been in the door as far as getting the EC started. In Bologna, he roomed with three others—an American, a Frenchman and an Ethiopian. The Frenchman went to work for an international organization—last time he heard it was with the World Health Organization. The Ethiopian went home and got caught up with revolution—he says he was a firebrand to begin with and he remembers his roommate talking about the “horrible” Haile Selassie and how the US had back him all these years. The roommate went back to Ethiopia and got caught up in the overthrow of Haile Selassie and then took on a senior government position in the following government. That government was overturned and he lost track of him since. His American roommate was John Isaacs and he’s in Washington now. What Mr. Feldman most recalls was the whole intellectual ferment taking place during the ‘60s. He remembers all the debates about the Vietnam War. He and classmates used to have debates with students from the University of Bologna who weren’t affiliated with SAIS. At the time, Nigeria was being torn apart by Civil War and he said a person he met insisted he was an Igbo—he would not admit to being Nigerian. Mr. Feldman says it was a great ferment going on at the time. The Vietnam situation caused a lot of debate and internal struggle even among students at the Bologna Center. He says that was the background against which everything seemed to be focused at the time. Vietnam was such an enormous strain on students everywhere at that time and it colored their perspective on everything. He had a low draft number and was due to get married in the summer of ’69. While he was in his final semester at SAIS, he got a draft notice. When he contacted the board, they in essence took it back. If you were in the final semester of a graduate program, you were allowed to finish, all of which had been on file. When the board finally opened the file and saw that he was in his final semester, they gave him an extension and said he would be called in the first draft call after he graduated that summer. The only way he could get a guarantee that he would be around at his wedding that summer was to buy a delayed enlistment through an army OCS program. Not too long after he finished at SAIS and got married, he ended up at Army OCS and did various forms of training. He was then shipped to Heidelberg, Germany as part of the draft which he says was not bad at all. He worked for about a year and a half for the Office of the Chief of Staff for Intelligence where the US Army Headquarters in Europe was. With the understanding that after what was thought to be a 2 year assignment, he would then be ready to go to Vietnam or Korea, what they called an unaccompanied tour, for a year, but by the time that came up, the US was already starting to draw down its forces in Vietnam and there was much less need for junior officers. They were offered a chance to discharge and he jumped at it, being discharged in Europe and then came back to the States. After that, Mr. Feldman had a very short duration job at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and kept it long enough until an opportunity opened up at the Department of Commerce in DC with some sort of a management intern-type program. He relates that they were staffing up then in what was called the Bureau of International Commerce and specifically they were creating a bureau of East-West trade to deal with trade with what was then the Soviet Union and Soviet Republics. That had been his background and what he specialized in at SAIS. He took the proficiency exam at SAIS in German and had studied German in college but took Russian his last two years as an undergraduate thinking he could continue the Russian in Bologna. He couldn’t and had to go back to German which is why he took the language requirement in German. His Russian never got as good as it should’ve been. He could read with some difficulty. But his German turned out to be pretty decent. When he was living in Heidelberg he found that he could discuss political and economic article but had trouble calling a plumber. The way the internship at the Department of Commerce was set up was that the first year you did a rotation to get a picture of different things throughout the bureau. He did one or two on the East-West trade side and got a taste of different things. He eventually ended up going to the Office of International Finance and Investment (which does not exist anymore) and he worked on international investment policy. He essentially examined the affect of US multinational corporations, what they did to the rest of the world and how they were treated. From the Department of Commerce’s perspective, he says, they were always trying to get the best treatment for US companies possible. But at the same time, they were examining both sides of the question. At the time there was the thinking that they could be a destructive force in some cases. But they found that countries that supported US corporations tended to be better off than those that didn’t. Mr. Feldman spent several years working on international investment and, because he worked in a small unit, they sort of had to break up the world. He ended up with around 82 countries, including all of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. He was not a specialist in any of the countries but just looked at the foreign investment regime in those countries. His work with African countries led him eventually to move into the unit that turned into country policy for sub-Saharan Africa. He spent the rest of his career doing sub-Saharan Africa. When he retired in 2003, he had the title of Director of the Office of Africa in International Economic Policy—a unit within the International Trade Department Administration of Commerce. Mr. Feldman never really lived in Africa but would travel there. That tweaked another interest that he has followed up on since he retired. When traveling, his schedule was such that he used to be in Africa on the weekend and could go to game parks. He used to love the game parks and they just thrilled him. When he retired he knew he wanted to do something that was nature-oriented, wildlife-oriented. He ended up volunteering on a regular basis, several days a week, at a national wildlife refuge close to where he lives called the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. That was an altogether new learning experience for him. He explains that there are around 550 wildlife refuges throughout the United States operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of Interior. The Patuxent Research Refuge is one of them and the only one with a mandate to conduct cutting edge research to conserve and expand our wildlife resources. A lot of the results of that research have been picked up by the rest of the world and by other refuge systems, state refuges and various other places. It’s something he could have studied at SAIS today with relation to climate change but at the time no one was talking about it. Mr. Feldman works in Visitor’s Services at National Wildlife Visitor’s Center, a very elaborate, modernistic center with displays. There are also hiking trails and an electric tram system with a narrated tour, which Mr. Feldman does some narrations for. Of his career, what Mr. Feldman has enjoyed the most was the opportunity to travel to sub-Saharan Africa and especially to southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, etc.). There have been a number of frustrations with these good experiences, but if it had not been for his career, he probably would not have had a chance to travel to these places. Mr. Feldman would tell current SAIS students that SAIS has it right, or at least in his experience they did. Because it was not an Ivory Tower institution, a lot of the faculty had a hand in policy issues. Two courses at SAIS made a big impression on him. One of them was a Soviet foreign policy course taught by Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who at the time was head of Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council. This was a time shortly after the Soviets had crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Mr. Feldman remembers putting together a matrix for this class about the situations the Kremlin will consider in whether them move in to crush a Nationalist’s revolt or stand by. Mr. Feldman was excited by how topical and policy-oriented that course was. Another class he didn’t fully appreciate at the time but ended up relating directly to what he did career-wise was an economics course called Foreign Trade and Economic Growth, taught by Isaiah Frank, who was a respected professor and had spent a lot of time at State Department dealing with the issues they discussed in class. Those courses showed, in Mr. Feldman’s opinion, that SAIS had the mix of policy and theory right. He says that when you get into government you change from the macro to the micro, looking at small parts and that could be very frustrating for many. He believes that if you talked to Tim Geithner, you’d find that most of Geithner’s time at SAIS was spent dealing with global issues. Mr. Feldman says that Geithner is certainly dealing with global issues now, but they’re scaled back from what he was probably discussing in class. Mr. Feldman has noticed from reading alumni magazines and bulletins that SAIS students today and Johns Hopkins students today are much more focused than they were in his time. He says they seem to be a quantum leap ahead of anything he was familiar with. He’s glad he’s not applying today because he states there’s no way he could compete—Mr. Feldman is very impressed with caliber of SAIS students. When Mr. Feldman was in government and hiring people, half the people who worked for him turned out to be SAIS students because they were much more focused, grounded and well-versed in their interviews.