Q&A: Connor Pfeiffer '18 on Meeting James A. Baker III '52, a Key Figure in His JP Research

September 08, 2017
James A. Baker III and Connor Pfeiffer

History Made Real

When James A. Baker III ’52 visited campus in May, a group of Princeton students had the opportunity to meet with the former Secretary of State. It was particularly meaningful for Connor Pfeiffer ’18, who had recently finished a junior paper centered around Baker’s role in the reunification of Germany during the 1980s and ’90s. Pfeiffer spoke with PAW about his JP and his encounter with the veteran statesman.

What motivated you to write about Baker’s role in the reunification of Germany?

Since coming to Princeton, I have become increasingly fascinated by foreign policy and diplomacy. For my second junior paper in the history department, I wanted to write on modern U.S. foreign policy as a way to combine my passions for history and politics/diplomacy. My freshman writing seminar instructor, Dean Dov Grohsgal, mentioned that the Baker Papers were at Mudd Library … and suggested that I consider requesting access from Secretary Baker to use the papers for a JP. It is a closed archive, and I am the first undergraduate to look at the papers. For my project on his time as Secretary of State, the papers included memos from Baker’s aides, … handwritten notes on those memos and general notes on meetings and speeches — including Kremlin legal pads with notes from meetings with Gorbachev and notes on hotel notepads from important international summits, for instance.

Could you briefly describe the argument of your paper?

I made several main arguments in the JP. First, Baker’s career at the highest levels of American politics and experience as a lawyer uniquely positioned him to advocate effectively for U.S. policies during German unification negotiations. I then focused on specific instances during these negotiations where Baker played a key role in advancing proposals or concluding negotiations with the other powers. Finally, throughout this process Baker’s diplomatic skills helped bring hesitant allies on board with the direction of unification and convinced Soviet leaders to accept the inevitability of a unified Germany. These points also accentuate the importance of the United States in the process of German unification, running contrary to the assertion of some scholars who view this period as illustrative of declining U.S. influence in Europe.

When you met Baker, what were your initial impressions? Was there anything that surprised you?

After spending almost six months researching Secretary Baker’s life and accomplishments, Secretary Baker in person was pretty much what I had expected. His strong Texas accent was refreshing — I’m from San Antonio — and I appreciated his frank and detailed answers to our questions. …

He displayed an excellent memory of events from his time in government and the leaders he interacted with on the international stage. In particular, he is a very good listener and able to quickly respond to points, obviously an asset in diplomatic negotiations.

Did you have a chance to discuss your paper, and did he provide any additional insight?

I did not have the opportunity to discuss the specific arguments ... but Secretary Baker did commend me for writing a great paper, which really meant a lot to me.

— Interview conducted and condensed by Abhiram Karuppur ’19

Note from Connor Pfeiffer: My adviser, Professor David Bell, was instrumental to the success of my JP. For instance, he recommended early on that I focus on Baker as an actor during German unification since I had full access to his papers and needed to narrow the scope of the project. Like all of the other advice Professor Bell provided during the project, this suggestion was extremely helpful. Additionally, he always provided me with prompt and detailed feedback on ideas and drafts. Professor Bell's subject area knowledge and effectiveness as an adviser helped make this project an incredible learning experience.

Article published in Princeton Alumni Weekly.