A Housatonic View
By Brian Thomas
Rumors of a possible Kent connection prompted us to get in touch with Alfred W. McCoy, a distinguished historian of US foreign policy and a 1964 graduate of Kent School. His latest book will be out in September 2017. It’s called In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, and it contains several passages highlighting his time in Kent. For example, in the acknowledgements he notes:
“Whenever I write, I am reminded of a deep debt to my high school English teacher, Bob Cluett, who gave a me both a love of this craft and the skills to pursue it.”
McCoy informed us that he returned to Kent for his 50th reunion in 2014, bringing his single shell for three days of rowing on the Housatonic, down to the Bull’s Bridge dam and back, pausing to take in the countryside and think a bit. He said, “Boarding schools in general, and Kent in particular, are transformative experiences. So, yes, Kent has personal meaning for me.”
Indeed, the introduction to his book, “ever-so modestly” titled “US Global Power and Me,” spells out some of that meaning. There, he says, “I was also privileged to attend schools that trained our future leaders, allowing me to observe firsthand the ethos that shaped those at the apex of American power, their character and worldview. For five years in the 1960s, I went to a small boarding school in Kent, Connecticut, that steeled its boys through relentless hazing and rigorous training for service to the state. Admiral Draper Kauffman (class of ’29), founder of the Navy’s underwater demolition teams (forerunner of the SEALs), was the father of a classmate. Cyrus Vance (class of ’35), the future secretary of state, was a commencement speaker. Sir Richard Dearlove (class of ’63), later head of Britain’s MI-6, was a year ahead of me. Countless alumni were known to be in the CIA. Through its defining rituals, this small school tried to socialize us into a grand imperial design of the kind once espoused by East Coast elites back when America was first emerging as a world power.”
Since his time in Kent, his scholarly work has had a significant worldly impact. After earning a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history at Yale, he focused on Philippine political history and global opium trafficking. His first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (published in 1972), sparked controversy when the CIA tried to block its publication. But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic.
His more recent work on covert operations, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2006), explores the agency’s half-century history of psychological torture. A film based in part on that book, “Taxi to the Darkside,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2008. His 2012 study of this topic, Torture and Impunity, explores the political and cultural dynamics of America’s post 9/11 debate over interrogation.
The Philippines remains the major focus of his research. An investigation of President Marcos’s “fake medals,” published on page one of the New York Times (January 23, 1986) just weeks before the country’s presidential elections, contributed to the country’s transition from authoritarian rule. Analyzing the many coup attempts that followed, his 1999 book Closer Than Brothers (Yale) documents the corrosive impact of torture upon the Philippine military.
In Shadows of the American Century, he says, “Both family and school taught me that criticism was not only a right but a responsibility of citizenship. So it has been my role to observe, analyze, and, when I have something worth sharing, to write and sometimes to criticize.”
The KHS hasn’t escaped his critical eye. McCoy also said in his email, “Your message led me to your KHS website where I spent a profitable, pleasant half-hour learning a great deal about the town’s history… If you will forgive a suggestion, there seem to be two major lacunae on your coverage—the Schaghticoke people and the Kent School. Both, of course, have their complexities, but you might find a way to incorporate them into your website….” It’s a fair point, and this article is an attempt to begin filling in the gaps about the Kent School.