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A talk with John Wohlstetter: Nuclear threat, Beethoven and N.Y. pizza

By Emily Havener

John Wohlstetter playing at the Marble Palace in St. Petersburg in 2017. Photos provided by John Wohlstetter.

The first thing John Wohlstetter and I talk about is pizza. He’s originally from New York City, and he’s picked up a slice or two at New York City Pizza before our interview. He tells me about his childhood pizza spot growing up in the Carnegie Hill district, Hav-a-Pizza on 86th Street, which sold slices for 20 cents. It closed when pizza was up to 75 cents a slice because the son of the owner figured out he could make more money driving a cab.

John lived in Manhattan for the first 31 years of his life, then moved to Washington, D.C., for 37 more and now finds himself in Charleston as of 2015. He is a true renaissance man, and his career is storied: trading on Wall Street, corporate law, authoring books on war and nuclear proliferation, radio appearances and columns in The Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, The Daily Caller and the National Review online, to name just a few. He is a senior fellow at two think tanks — the Discovery Institute and the Gold Institute for International Strategy. Of immediate importance to our Charleston readers, he is an amateur concert pianist who will be giving a Beethoven concert on May 21 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

“I was born in Sodom, moved to Gomorrah and now I’m in paradise,” he tells me with an air of being very pleased. “Now, the sidewalks are another matter. They’re a little bit picaresque for my taste.” I explain it’s because we don’t have any mountains, so people who enjoy hiking can come down here and feel at home.

I’ve asked him here to talk about serious topics, though, and soon enough, we move on to D.C. statehood, which he, as an American history lover, legal mind and former resident, has a clear opinion on: “D.C. statehood is, in my view, contradictory to the Constitution. If you look at the 23rd Amendment, it says the district shall never have more than one vote in the House.” States, he says, can gain and lose votes; constitutionally the district can do neither.

However, he agrees that the people living in the D.C. area are disenfranchised voters. His solution is to bring D.C. into Maryland as a county. Residents would be able to vote for Maryland’s senators and gain a seat in the House of Representatives, as well as vote for the state’s governor.

Then he tells me another thing he likes about Charleston: “You can go a week and not have a discussion about politics.” When I respond that some would say it’s a privilege, even perhaps a dereliction of duty, to go that long without discussing politics at this point in time, he disagrees.

“What do you think totalitarianism is? Everything is a political question. It’s not good to be headed in that direction.”

The Ukraine question

Of course, we talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition to his work with the Discovery and Gold institutes, John tries to produce at least one article a month — and we discuss his recent one for the Spectator entitled “Ukraine Outcomes: Promise and Peril” in which he outlines demands that must be met for Putin not to view his invasion as a victory.

John’s first trip to Russia was in 1985, where he witnessed first-hand the information control of the USSR. But he says that even though we’re seeing something new in terms of Putin’s direct threat of using tactical nuclear weapons in an ongoing conflict, the Russian president doesn’t hold enough sway over his commanders to carry out that threat.

John says the Russian military has a similar chain of command to ours in terms of deploying its nuclear arsenal. “The leader may give the order but it goes through five operational layers. Putin already would have used nuclear weapons if he could have gotten his commanders to actually fire them. I think the risk of nuclear war is as close to zero as it gets in these things.”

The other difference he sees in this conflict is that it’s being broadcast on social media — “and in this case, social media is showing how savagely the Russians fight. It’s the way they fought for a thousand years.” He says the shock of this clouds our judgment of the situation. “We can’t mirror image and project onto them how we look at these things.” He illustrates this with the story of Stalin telling Walter Bedell Smith, first chief of the CIA in 1947 and ambassador to Russia, “We are no more interested in war than you are, but we are less interested in peace and that is our advantage.”

Then John offers a powerful metaphor: “If I put it in in a slightly different context, let’s go from nations to people. We’re sitting here, and sitting over there is a psychopathic serial killer and a sociopathic professional assassin. They kill for different reasons, one by profession and one under a compulsion. Suppose we say, ‘We have our common humanity. We have common interests in peace.’ How far do you think that’s going to get with those two people? The answer is, not very.”

His assessment is that we must keep pushing Putin back so that he asks for a ceasefire, but John fears that the U.S. and other European countries will pull their support and pressure Ukraine to make a less-than-beneficial settlement so as to end the conflict sooner, and Putin will get concessions, such as additional territory in Ukraine.

“That would be a victory for Putin, which is the wrong message to send people like that,” John says. “That’s what happened in the 30s when the British and France gave up Czechoslovakia to Hitler, and he didn’t stop there.

“What NATO and the U.S. can do is increase the supply of weaponry and ammo and basically shore things up. The more they give the Ukrainians, the better chance they have. They’re fighting for their homeland and the Russians are conscripts. I didn’t know in advance how good the Ukrainian army was, let alone that they would built their own anti-ship missiles. I knew that the Russian technology had a relatively thin layer of top technology, but it turns out the systems have significant vulnerabilities.”

Although he agrees with the assessment that a no-fly zone isn’t the answer –— “No fly zone takes too much to impose. Nobody’s ever imposed one on a superpower” — he argues that President Biden, and other world leaders, have not done enough in terms of providing materiel that could have prevented the widespread destruction in Ukraine and ended the conflict in its earliest days. In addition to a misguided assessment of the nuclear threat level, this is due to fear of being seen as provocative.

“That’s a word that should be taken out of the lexicon,” John says with as much heat as I’ve heard yet in our measured conversation. “Everything the free world does that strengthens its position against the unfree world is provocative. So what?” He addresses Putin: “You just put 170,000 troops on the border and you’re telling us it’s provocative if we move some up?”

He also blames the administration for hedging its bets in hopes that Putin will assist in U.S. relations with Iran, but Biden’s recent gaffe put even that distant hope in jeopardy. “If you want this guy to help you, why are you calling him a war criminal and saying he should be put on trial? This is not the brightest idea. I was annoyed when Biden said he’s going to be tried in The Hague and all that. Win the war first; if you don’t win the war, there are not going to be any trials at all.

He has an astute assessment of the American mindset about war: “It’s because we hate war so much that we’re reluctant to get into it, and we’re up against people who don’t feel the same way, and they use our reluctance, at times, to considerable strategic advantage.”

“So let’s say we do get Putin in retreat and he calls for a ceasefire,” I respond. “Where do we go?”

“If Putin gets pushed back across the border, and even if he keeps Crimea, but especially if he loses that, he will not be in office.”

John's travels have taken him far and wide. Left, in Lyons with chef Paul Bocuse and Patricia Sagon of Washington, D.C. Above, in Israel with two members of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Love of humanity

At this point, John deliberately changes the subject: “We’ve solved all the problems. Now we need to end on an upbeat thing.” Throughout our conversation it’s become clear to me how important music is to him; he’s been playing the piano since childhood, but it was in middle adulthood that something clicked and it took on the priority it holds for him now. He tells me how much he’s looking forward to the concert he’s giving in coincidence with his 75th year: “We’re going to celebrate, two years delayed, the 250th anniversary of one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, one of the greatest creators who ever lived.”

He will be playing his three favorite sonatas by Beethoven, whom he says “brought music out of the aristocracy and sent it out to all of us.” He calls the “Ode to Joy” an expression of Beethoven’s love of humanity.

Beethoven’s eventual deafness makes him something of a kindred spirit as well; John is deaf in his right ear, although he also has perfect pitch. “Beethoven had tinnitus. It was a huge handicap, and when he practiced he had the ability to concentrate, to shut out noise.” Not only that, John says: “He had far hearing; he could hear into the future. The instruments of this day were not capable of producing this sonorities we hear in the ‘Appassionato’ today. It wasn’t till the late 80s that the modern piano was perfected. He may have been the only one of his day who could hear what his compositions really sounded like.”

Music got John through the long, isolated days of the pandemic. “I didn’t want to spend my time staring at flickering images, so I decided to double my practice time and see if I could raise my piano chops. I’m playing 100 percent better than I played two years ago.

“At the piano those first two months, it was the quietness of Walden Pond. There was no traffic, no construction cranes — and I concentrated. And the wonderful thing is, when the sounds came back, my concentration still stayed. I’m going to have a great time finishing the prep for this concert. I am so looking forward to it.”

John Wohlstetter’s 75th birthday celebration concert will be held at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on May 21 at 4 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public.


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