On a balmy April day in 1959, I joined with thousands of other students to listen to Fidel Castro speak from the balcony of the field house at Harvard University.
There was a nervous energy in the crowd that day. Part of it was a feeling of privilege. It's not every day that you get to hear firsthand from a man your country's leadership brands a danger to civilization. And part of it was pride, the pride you get when your university makes possible a debate on the hottest current issues.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University on Monday was the most dramatic "foreign bad guy on campus" event since '59. This time, however, my position was not in the crowd straining to see the charismatic Castro, but on the hot seat negotiating arrangements between Columbia's administration and Iran's U.N. mission.
The Iranian ambassador asked me to convey to Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, a confidential request for a renewal of last year's invitation to speak on campus. This I did, and some days later I reported back a positive response.
What went through the minds of the two presidents in agreeing to the event, and on choosing their styles of speaking, I do not know. I can only speak to my own hopes in brokering their confrontation.
First, I think face-to-face exposure to world leaders is in and of itself good education. And second, it was my hope that through listening to and observing the new bogeyman of American politics firsthand, the slide toward war that has been building in certain precincts of our executive branch and the media might be slowed. Compounding the tragedy and errors of the war in Iraq with the devastation of another Middle Eastern country would be catastrophic for all parties.
Monday's event offered a singular opportunity for the future leaders at Columbia -- and, thanks to the hullabaloo the event created, tens of thousands of other Americans via YouTube and its ilk -- to judge the words and character of President Ahmadinejad before the end of the Bush era. It was also a chance to judge the sharply challenging nature of President Bollinger's introduction.
Mr. Bollinger, a legal scholar and first-amendment expert, and Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose own country sets much tighter limits on the freedom of speech, provided an enormous audience with a case study on the value and peril inherent in one of America's most precious ideals.
But, to me, that was a sideshow. The real question was: Could listening, could openness to debate, slow the drift toward war? Could our eyes and ears help us find out who Ahmadinejad really is? The politicians and pundits who sold the war in Iraq have been trumpeting the idea that President Ahmadinejad is Hitler returned from the grave. If Hitler had been eliminated before he launched World War II, their thinking goes, 60 million lives would have been saved. Therefore, on the assumption that Ahmadinejad harbors a fanatical desire to carry out similar crimes, the only sane thing to do is to strike first.
But for most of the students I have talked to, the slight, relaxed, well-mannered Iranian who sat stolidly through President Bollinger's blistering attack, and even evinced a sense of humor, seemed little like the historical Hitler. No screaming. No fist pounding. No foaming at the mouth racism.
Yet his words were often evasive and his disclaimers of evil intentions slippery. Moreover, the record of remarks he has made to domestic audiences in Iran suggests an opportunistic trimming of rhetoric to fit the political situation.
In a meeting on Tuesday night, a guest asked Ahmadinejad what he thought of Hitler as a historical figure. He responded, not surprisingly, that Hitler was the embodiment of evil who violated all humane values. He added jocularly that he didn't look like Hitler, or speak the same language, or wear the same clothes. (Hitler had a better tailor.) But this did not allay the suspicion that he thinks similar thoughts.
As for the drift towards war, I'm not sure that it was affected. Castro's strategy of reaching out to the American people with the populist style that worked so well for him in Cuba did not ultimately succeed. On April 15, 1969, just ten days short of the second anniversary of Castro's speech at Harvard, the United States launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of Middle East History at Columbia University.