The Memoirs of Escott Reid
by Escott Reid,
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|Warm Heart, Cool Head
by David Stafford
AS THE FIRST principal of Glendon College in Toronto in the late 1960s, Escott Reid would give an annual welcoming talk to new students. He would tell them that Glendon was not a professional school but a college devoted to liberal education. This, he used to insist,
consisted of two halves; the first meant
undergoing vigorous intellectual disci
pline so as to understand and then to
improve the world to make it a better
place in which to live; the second
involved "breaking the influence of the
world we live in and finding deliverance
from the tyranny of the immediate, the
novel, and the transitory." Those who
wanted to change society, he would add,
also needed warm compassionate hearts as
well as cool and calculating brains. Those
who went out to change society, he con
cluded, should do so with "fire in their
bellies, excitement in their eyes, and a
smile on their lips."
Reid was his own best student, and his life as recorded in these readable memoirs is eloquent testimony to the undying fire in his own belly and the unfailing commitment to intellectual rigour in his varied career; as first national secretary to the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in the 1930s, as diplomat during the golden years of Canadian diplomacy when he served, amongst other things, as high commissioner to India and ambassador to the Federal Republic of
Germany; as an officer of the World Bank; and then as founding principal of Glendon College.
To find an effective balance between passion and intellect is an achievement reached by few, and Reid seems conscious of failure. Certainly, as a diplomat, his own strong views and passionate commitment helped ensure that he did not reach the top, although he contributed significantly to the creation of the United Nations and the birth of NATO. Maverick and sometimes dogmatic views combined with considerable impatience saw to that, and Reid is quite frank in acknowledging it. For a brief period in 1948 he served as acting under-secretary of state in the Department of External Affairs, and he quotes Arnold Heeney`s double-edged assessment of his tenure. "He has managed under great pressure to restrain his natural impulses ... to carry the torch high in every direction simultaneously." Heeney told Norman Robertson, "[but] at the same time Escort is constantly pressing [Lester Pearson] for decisions with that sense of urgency which he manages to attach to so many matters of varying importance."
It took Reid several years, until after his return from the embassy in Bonn, to realize that his strengths and weaknesses as described by Heeney meant he would never be given the under-secretaryship. When he did, he resigned and went to the World Bank. But here, too, he fitted uncomfortably into a conservative institution, and when offered the chance to create a new one in the form of Glendon College he leaped at the chance. This, too, proved frustrating, as idealism clashed with fiscal, cultural, and bureaucratic reality. Dealing with university administrators and academics proved worse than coping with the red tape of government, and the student radicalism that peaked in 1968 made his task no easier. It was clearly with some relief that Reid laid down the burden of public life in 1969 and turned to writing books.
Much of what appears here has been published already in Reid`s retirement studies of NATO, the United Nations, and his experiences as high commissioner to India. The value of this volume lies in providing a broader and more comprehensive picture of Escort Reid, the public servant. Radical mandarin? Sometimes, but not always, for often Reid accepted the orthodoxies of the day, and his career as a mandarin was never fully realized. He was also a maverick and a gadfly, a former Rhodes scholar who never quite found his niche in life, being too committed to change for the ivory tower of academe yet too intellectually honest and impatient to he a careerist. This discomforting match was not always easy to live with, either for Reid or those around him. But no one ever said that compassion or the desire for change was a bedfellow of ease and complacency. Society always needs its Escort Reids