Oral History - Galbraith, J.K.



John Kenneth Galbraith OAC’31

Ontario Agricultural College, 1931

Interviewed by Ed Brubaker

August 26, 1998

B: This is an interview with Professor John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard University in Massachusets, and we’re conducting the interview at his wilderness farm near New Fame in the south part of Vermont in an area that has a lot of forests, a lot of hills, a lot of trees around it. A very, very nice recreational area. This is being conducted by Ed Brubaker for the Alumni-in-Action Programme on August 26, 1998. Professor Galbraith - you of course came from Elgin County and can you tell us what part of Elgin County and what your farm was like as you remember it ...

G: Well it was in a western part of the county - near a small metropolis called Iona Station that then had a population of - I would judge of perhaps fifteen or twenty - and my father was a livestock farmer. We had purebred shorthorn cattle and he was also engaged in various local activities - political activities. He was county auditor, township auditor - kept the books straight. He also ran a small Mutual Insurance Company, and in the United States, as I’ve often said, he would have been called the political boss. There he was just the permanent head of the Liberal Party in the constituency of West Elgin - and I use the modern language. In those days they were the Grits@. He was, I think it’s fair to say, one of the more notable figures of the community - William Archibald Galbraith.

B: And when was he born? And when did he start farming there?

G: He was born to a farm family there - in the year of Confederation - 1867. Hope I‘m right in that-.and grew up on a farm and eventually took over a farm of his own. He also had normal school education, and he taught school for a time. And it was always one of the sorrows of his life, that he hadn't continued, because he loved those years that he spent as a teacher. And I suppose, hearing him on that had something to do with my life decision to make a life in education.

B: Rather than farming?

G: I deeply disliked farming...

B: Why?

G: The incredible boredom of following a team of horses - this was before tractors - across one of those fields - lovely as that countryside might be - from early morning ‘til late afternoon, was something that I strongly felt I could do without. I was ... a year ago, in Ottawa to my great delight, I was, in spite of my American citizenship, made a member of the Order of Canada and - and at the press conference afterward a reporter asked me, “Professor Galbraith, why did you leave Canada for the United States?” And I said, “When I graduated from college I had the choice between spending my life on a farm, even here in Ontario, pleasant as that might be, or the life of a student - graduate student - and eventually a teacher at Berkeley, in California.” And I said, “The most determined Canadian, given the choice between a farm and a leisurely academic existence would have no trouble making the choice.”

B: And he accepted that?

G: They not only accepted that, but they rather applauded.

B: OK on your farm you said you had pure bred shorthorn cattle and you bred the cows and raised the calves and steers and sold the steers, did you?

G: Oh, sure . mostly sold pure bred livestock.

B: Did you?

G: People would come from all over the province and some from the United States. On rare occasions, even from Argentina, looking for cattle - for breeding stock. And we were one of the stops - one of the minor stops, I might say.

B: But you did sell some cattle to these different countries?

G: Oh, absolutely.

B: Good for you. Your Dad must have been a good cattle judge.

G: He was a good cattle judge and so - eventually was I. I was on the Ontario Agricultural College Judging Team at Chicago...

B: Were you? What year?

G: I was at Toronto and London...

B: ...in what year was that? Do you recall?...

G: Oh, it was most likely in 1930. I would have to check up to be sure. I graduated in ‘31, as I’ve said.

B: Yeh. That’s close enough. Now, you went to Guelph in 1926 after high school, and where did you take your high school?

G: In the village of Dutton which was a few miles from our place. The Dutton High School, and my high school record, like many high school students, was not especially brilliant. I started high school when I was much too young. I was only ten years old. And had difficulties settling in to the discipline of the high school. And the time I went to the high school, there wasn’t much discipline anyway.

B: O.K. but you did get through high school, and that enabled you to enter the O.A.C. in the fall of 1926?

G: That is right.

B: ...and what did you plan to take there, or what did you take?

G Oh, I took the regular course for a couple of years, as I recall. There was no specialization. Then you opted for what was called an option, and out of my farm livestock background - my farm background, I became a major in Animal Husbandry. But then, by that time, which was my junior year, I’d reached the conclusion... this was at the... mid-years of the Great Depression. But there wasn‘t much use breeding better livestock, or growing better crops. You couldn’t sell the damn stuff. The real problem of agriculture was economics, and not the technical quality of the product. So, I shifted my interest in economics, and it was that which provided the background on which I went to study agricultural economics at Berkeley. And I tell you, I have no degree in economics. My doctor’s degree is in Agricultural Economics@.

B: O.K. Like mine is in Agricultural Engineering, but - good degrees. You graduated in 1931?

G: That is right - in this - one of the sad years of the Great Depression, and I was in Berkeley until 1934, when in 1933, I was taken on to the teaching staff at Berkeley, to teach both economics and agricultural economics at Davis, California, which is now a separate university, but was then part of the Berkeley campus. And I was very happy there. Enjoyed it very much. The pay was very good - eighteen hundred dollars a year - and one day, I got a telegram from Harvard, offering me a salary of, as I recall, twenty-seven hundred a year. Extraordinary boost in pay. And I had heard that that was how you got an increase in pay. You showed a competing offer, and I was very happy at Berkeley. So I took it into the Dean, a very stalwart citizen - named Claud B. Hutchison. He read the telegram, and said, “Well you’re not worth that to us Galbraith, take it by all means’. So my lovely life at Berkeley came to an end, and I came on to Harvard.

B: Ah, let’s go back to the O.A.C. 1926, when you started. About how many would there be in your class, at that time - approximately?

G: That is a question I would have difficulty answering. The classes were relatively small, but my most calculations I say, - would say forty or fifty. Well, that might be high.

B: That’s fine. They were small classes.

G: Yep.

B: And you lived in residence?

G: I lived in residence in the old building. It was torn down. Um, what was it called?

B I think it was called the Administration Building, or Johnston Hall...

G: Johnston Hall.

B: Yeh, they called it Johnston Hall

G: That’s right ...and there was three floors there for freshmen...Lower Hunt, Upper Hunt and one which had once been the dining room, which was called Grub Alley... and I lived in Lower Hunt for a year and we got our meals in Creelman Hall..

B: Which would be quite new at that time

G: I settled in to very hard work, a discipline that I hadn’t experienced at high school, or determination. And also, very much enjoyed the work, although I’ve said many times - eventually - I was somewhat critical of the institution.

B: OK. What - why were you critical of it? I have read something about it, but I don’t know the details..

G: Well this gradually emerged as I got on in later classes, and also, when I saw the College of Agriculture at Berkeley. OAC, in those days had lagged badly in professional and technical competence. There were almost no people on the Faculty with advanced degrees. They had a somewhat obscure relationship with the Ontario Department of Agriculture, so that appointments were made in Toronto, by the Department of Agriculture, rather than for academic performance, and , by the time I graduated, I was editor of the college paper. I had become aware that this was not the best of academic solutions, and I continued that feeling when I had an opportunity to compare Guelph, with Davis, California, which had gone on to a much more scientific - a much more disciplined approach to agricultural research and agricultural instruction.

B: OK Well, that’s rather interesting, because I think the OAC has had some peaks and its had some dips since then too. And soon after the War, it started really going forward, again.

G: Oh, this was a different world entirely. I emphasize the point that anything that comes out of this interview - the Ontario Agricultural College, OAC, was a very different institution from the University of Guelph, to-day, and nobody should be reluctant to see the needed improvement, and the improvement that has occurred. What was a somewhat questionable institution has become one of the great research universities of the time.

B: I’m glad to hear you say that, now because like you I’ve very strong feelings towards the place and it’s my Alma Mater too, and tend to love it.

G: There’s always the tendencies , this has been true of the various places, that I have taught, including Berkeley, Davis, Harvard - I only spent a year at Princeton, to substitute college loyalty for college performance. As I say, this is true at Harvard and Princeton as it was true of OAC. This must always be looked upon with some suspicion.

B: OK what were the meals like? Do you remember, when you were a student there? Do you remember what tuition fee you paid, or how much you paid for room and board?

G: Yes, I’d say we ate in Creelman Hall - I think there were about ten to a table. A group of enormously industrious waitresses brought out the food and put on the table. And I’ve forgotten long since what the price was, but it was certainly modest. And I have a broad recollection of being extremely well fed. The food also, this would be impermissible, by American standards, had a prayer before every meal. We took turns giving the prayer. I was once criticized for the, by implication, it was, I remember to this day, “Good friends. Good meat. Thank God. Let’s eat.”

B: It was to the point ... but not what they thought it should be.

G: It was not thought entirely appropriate.....rightly.

B: Was Dicky Sands there? as Dean at that time?

G: Who?

B: Dicky Sands?

G: I have forgotten.

B: He maybe came later.

G: The President through much of my time, was G. I. Christie.

B: Yes.

G: There was a feeling, in the province, and among scholars at Guelph, that the university was... that the college was not fulfilling its full mission. And, so, sometime during my years there, they reached out to the United States, for a well known head of an American Experiment Station in Indiana, as I recall. That was G.I..Christie, who didn”t change the teaching much, but he was great builder. And the present centre of the university, Creelman Hall, isn”t it, was uh, part of the contribution of G.I. Chrisitie, known to the students as ‘GIC’.

B: GIC (Chuckle) is that right? I never heard that. G - I - C. The President of course, would be responsible for tearing down the old Johnston Hall, and building the new one? Ah, in the ‘30's, there, and probably other buildings around there, too?

G: I’m not sure how many others were built. But the great construction projects of that time, was the new Centre. And for a year we had sort of temporary living space in one building or another of the Horticulture Department or whatever.

B: OK do you remember any professors there, or instructors that were particularly good, or that you remember with fondness?

G: Oh, yes. I have a strong recollection of two that had a very important - were very important in my later life. They were both in the English Department. O. J. Stevenson, and McLean, I’ve forgotten what his initials were ...but he was known as ‘Chippy’.

B: Yeh. (Chuckle)

G: They reacted to my writing - went over it with great care - were sternly disciplined - disciplinarian, and encouraged me to write, and on odd subjects. I almost wrote an essay on ‘O. Henry’, who was then a significant figure in American literature, now forgotten, and that launched me on writing , to the point where, by the time I graduated, I was doing a regular column for the St. Thomas Times Journal. And had acquired a confidence, probably an over confidence in my writing skills, that has been with me ever since.

B: You’ve enjoyed writing ever since?

G: .

B: What economics courses did you take? You say you specialized in economics.

G: Economics was not a strong case there. There was, I think nobody in the Agricultural Economics Department with an advanced degree. They tried... assigned us books - textbooks. The first textbook in economics I ever read was Elee’s ‘Political Economy’ or ‘Economics’ which I read as a student there. But I have to say, that my work in economics really began when I got to California.


G: I worked - I worked for a summer, however, for the Department of Economics, making the study of rental practices in the province - all over the province. Had an automobile. Traveled from the Quebec border to Detroit - or Windsor, and wrote my thesis on that subject, which was eventually published, I think, as a paper.

B: Oh, I see.

G: But, that topic didn’t teach me much about the larger economic world. That was to come later.

B: What were most of your subjects then, if they weren’t in economics? Were they in animal husbandry, or crop...

G: ...animal husbandry, field husbandry, bee keeping, horticulture, physics, chemistry... One of the most useful courses that I ever took was in plumbing . I’ve forgotten what the right name of it was. It was known to all the students as ‘Pumps and Shit Houses’...

B: (Chuckle) Yeh...

G: ...um, and in later years, I always surprised my wife with the ability that I had to take charge of plumbing problems. In 19 47 and 1948, I was spending a year at Cambridge, which was then the great centre of Kenysian Economics in England, and the plumbing in our house - we were just married - was extremely primitive, and weak, and I took charge of that saying that I had learned at Guelph, how to fix it. And I was particularly good in that plumbing, which was known as ‘Early Norman’.

B: (Chuckle) OK. Do you remember who taught you that plumbing course?

G: Uh, I’ve forgotten...

B: I don’t know who it would be at that time... but be rather interesting if you thought about it again .

B: Professor Galbraith, you were involved in a lot of athletics on campus.

G: No. I have only the most elementary athletics skills. Because of my height - six foot eight - something more - I was thought to be a natural basketball player. And I was immediately pressed by the basketball coach, who was also a professor of Entomology – I’ve forgotten his name, but I’m sure it was quite distinguished - to turn out for basketball. It was one of the most horrible experiences I ever had, because somebody a foot shorter than I would take the ball away from me. I would work up to the board - hoop, and miss even both the board and the hoop. And, finally and the crowd would - seeing my height - seeing how bad I was, would send epithets - insults - and I finally gave it up. And I recall to this day, meeting the coach one day, and the professor one day on the campus, and he said top me “Oh Galbraith, you haven’t been turning out this year?” And I said, “No.” He said, “Well, with your height, we need you - I want to see you down at the gym tomorrow night.” I said, “I ‘m not coming.’ “What?” He said, “You’re not coming? Why not?” I had decided that this time had come when I had to take a firm decision, and I said, “Well, I just have to tell you – Professor, I don’t like the Christ-spitten game.” And he - sort of blinked and went on, and I was never asked again.

B: And you’ve never been actively involved in athletics?...

G: I’ve never been in athletics, since.

B: Yes...

G: I was always the most incompetent player, whenever anything was involved. When I - when I first went to Harvard, there were a very large number of Canadian graduate students there, at that time -, in the great tradition of William Lyon McKenzie-King - and we had two softball teams. One, believe it or not Canadian, and one American, and they had to use me because they needed nine Americans - I played on the American side by that time - but there was no doubt as to where their weakness occurred. I played first base, and most of the balls that were thrown over went on into the meadow.

B: OK. So that was not your forte - baseball and basketball and so on. Do you enjoy watching those sports to-day? On TV? Or in stadium?

G: I have a very easy answer for that. I haven’t looked at an athletic game of any sort for years. When I first arrived at Harvard, I had a sense of obligation, that I should do something to protect college spirit. So, one day, on Saturday, there was a game between Harvard and Dartmouth, and I decided that I would be full of college spirit and go to the game. It was raining. The field was muddy. They shoved each other around in a nameless way, for a couple of hours.

G: I was sitting next to some loyal and enthusiastic Harvard graduates, who were quite intoxicated, and I never knew who won the game, and I have never been to one since.

B: OK. You got - thoroughly wet, I’m sure, too.

G: I suppose so. I remember that as one of the least offensive parts of the experience.

B: OK. At college, did you get involved in many student activities, besides your newspaper activities? - any pranks or stunts, that you remember particularly?

G: Oh - I suppose there were, but they’re not strong in my mind. I remember when we were involved in various, slightly obscene activities. There was one where a flag was put up and defended by one class and sought to be brought down by another class. I participated in that. Various other things of that sort. But nothing that is strong in my memory.

B: Did you make good friends at college? That you’ve kept over the years?

G: A few yes. A close friend of mine, and a room-mate was Kenneth Deacon - who came from a very distinguished, Toronto family, and had got interested in agriculture, and became an important livestock breeder, in later years. I kept in touch with a man - a classmate by the name of Lindsay, who sort of kept the class name together, and one or two others. But I couldn’t claim to a close association, because of distance and different preoccupation. In 1941, the Roosevelt Administration put me in charge of price control in United States. And this was not exactly a job that brought you into touch with my old agricultural friends. And so it has been ever since. I had many Canadian friends. Mike Pearson, Pierre Trudeau.... I suppose there is an element of name dropping there, because they were both Prime Ministers, but I didn’t have a close association with my old classmates, I’m sorry to say.

B: Were you doing some work for those two...

G: ...I talked economics with both of them - in particular, Trudeau.

B: Where?

G: In Ottawa. I once spent a weekend in Quebec with Trudeau.

B: OK. Well, he’s certainly well known in Canada. He certainly made a big impression in his years...as Prime Minister.

G: ...I might say that, I’ve just been writing about Pearson and Trudeau. I’ve just finished a book on the political leaders that I’ve encountered over the years. And they have been given a prominent role as two of the best political leaders I’ve ever known. Canada’s been very fortunate.

B: They’re radically different. They were very different leaders.

G: But, they were both very great figures.

B: Yep. I noticed reading some place that you had a book published late of 1996, and you just said that you’re still writing a book – you’re still continuing to write and hope to publish more books?

G: Well, I take exception to that word ‘still’. What I call the ‘Still Syndrome’. This is a design - the use of that word, is a design for persuading anybody of mature age that he - he or she is over the hill, so I always rebuke anybody that uses the word ‘Still’.

B: Alright. I stand rebuked. (Chuckle) But you are working industriously?

G: Oh, sure. I’ve - earlier this year, Harvard University Press published my letters to John F. Kennedy - during the time he was in politics and in the presidency. And Holt - my old publisher Holt-Mithen is - for my birthday - going to publish a new edition of the ‘Affluent Society’, my best known book. And - some time next year, I’m publishing a book about the political figures I’ve known - from F.D.R. on - which originally was to be called, ‘Name Droppers’. But it’ll have another title, because that title has been preempted by somebody. As we speak, a book by that name has just been published and reviewed in the New York Times book review.

B: I see. OK, how many books have you published or...

G: I don’t know that .I’ve ever counted, them, but maybe twenty-five or thirty.

B: That’s a lot. And a lot of them to do with your field of economics...

G: ...- I have to say that one of the most widely read books, that I wrote - and has had a wide reception - even extending, to my surprise, to Japan - was a book, that I called ‘The Scotch’, which I wrote on my Canadian neighbourhood in Elgin County. And I wrote the book when I was in India, as ambassador, because, in that job, one had to listen to absolutely endless speeches, or do a lot of waiting for appointments and things of that sort. And I found when I was listening to a speech, that I could write, and people would think that I was taking notes. And that I wouldn’t miss anything, in a good many cases. And as I say, that book emerged. I had only to draw on my memory. It involved very - relatively little research, and was one of the best received books I ever wrote.

B: Probably dealt with a lot of people and ...

G: Was - published in British Isles, elsewhere in the world. It was a tribute to peoples’ interest in Elgin County.

B: Very good. Now you mentioned your birthday here a while ago. You’re coming up to a very significant landmark birthday very soon?

G: As we talk, I’ll be celebrating - if that is the word - my ninetieth birthday, in about six weeks - seven weeks. I don’t know that that’s something you celebrate. I think you plead regret.

B: (Chuckle) Well, not many people make it to that age and are able to keep their faculties and health and strength as you obviously have.

G: Well, I – we’ll see what happens in the next six weeks.

B: Ah, I think you’re going to go and make a good show of it. I hope you have a wonderful celebration at that time.

B: Professor Galbraith, earlier you talked about Mr. Pearson and Mr. Trudeau, and some others. What other political figures have you had contact with?

G: Well my real political life began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, F.D.R. In 1934, when I was on my way to Harvard, which I’ve already mentioned, I stopped over to see one of my old professors, who was working for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in the New Deal. And there was an absolutely wonderful situation in Washington, at that time. A great shortage of economists. So, he said I must, for the next few months - few weeks, until Harvard, go to work. They had something they needed me to do. So, I was taken on the New Deal payroll. They never asked me were I a citizen. I was still a Canadian. I was - did have to swear I was a Democrat, but I had no difficulty doing that - affirm that I was a Democrat. And that began an association with the Roosevelt Administration, which left me with the impression that F.D.R. as truly one of the great figures of the century - we have to say that. Wartime guidance in World War II depended heavily, as well as the escape from the Depression, on Franklin D. Roosevelt, as also in World War II, of course on Winston Churchill, DeGaul and a substantial role by William Lyon McKenzie-King. In the great conferences, in Quebec and off the Newfoundland shore, the three great figures were King, Churchill, Roosevelt.

B: And were you there, at that - conference...

G: No, I wasn’t. This was not something that a ‘Price Fixer’ needed to attend.

B: But, then you got involved with other political figures after that?

G: I was a very good friend of John F. Kennedy. I was - before Kennedy, I was speech writer for Adalai Stevenson. I was a - a very good friend of Lyndon Johnston, who was only two months older than I am, until we broke apart in the Vietnam War, which I opposed. One of the tragic involvements of American foreign policy. And oh, there were a few others. I was with Harry Truman in the State Department at the end of the War, although I didn’t know him well, but I was an admirer of his. And I could mention quite a few losers, too.

B: But, you wrote speeches for Adalai Stevenson, so, Mr. Eisenhower didn’t have any use for you then?

G: I don’t think he knew about me. I don’t think his perception extended to members of the Stevenson staff.

B: He was on the opposite political party, too.

G: I wasn’t open to Richard Nixon. We’re talking up here in Vermont. One of the great news stories of my life, was the release, one day, of the Nixon ‘Eemies List’. An I was prominently featured on that. And any number of people called me there in Vermont - very angry, that I had made that list and they hadn’t .

B: (Chuckle) Notoriety. (Chuckle) OK I think we are near the end, here, but one of the things I’m going to ask you, is that - Why did you choose to come to a wilderness farm - or type of farm in Vermont for a summer home, and so on with your dislike of farming in your youth?

G: My wife and I were living in New York at that time. We needed some escape from Manhattan, and one summer, roughly speaking in 1946, we borrowed the house of some friends of ours, who lived in Vermont. And my wife and I, both fell in love with this wonderful countryside. And it was - since it was all back to wilderness again, after having once been farmed, there I wasn‘t repelled by the memories of hard work on a Canadian farm, and with one exception, last year - when I had an accident and one year when I was in India – we’ve been here every summer, ever since. Vermont, like Quebec - to the north - has a wonderful aspect of, countryside.

B: And you love this place?

G: Very much,... ...I enjoy it very much.

B: And your family, they come here and join you

G: Well, this is one of the great advantages. The family come here every summer, and we see something of the family.

B: What family do you have?

G: I have three sons... and a large - and a good group of grandchildren. My oldest son is a lawyer - in Washington - with one of the great Washington Law Firms - Williams and Conway. My middle son, who is here in Vermont at the moment, is just back from the - his service as ambassador in Croatia, where he was one of the key figures settling that miserable war. And my youngest son is the continuing economist in the family. He’s a professor with the Lyndon Baines Johnston School of the University of Texas.

B: OK And your wife - where did you meet her?

G: I was a young instructor at Harvard and she was a graduate student, and one of the stern Harvard rules is, that an instructor - member of the faculty - must not make approaches to any student. But, we broke that rule, got married and we’ve been married for sixty years...or approaching our sixty-first, next month.

B: Is that right? Wow! That’s a long time, isn’t it? And she’s enjoying good health, too?

G: Oh, much better than mine.

B: Oh, is that right? Well, now, that is wonderful. OK I think, that’s fine and.....thank you very, very much...