Skip to content ↓

MIT Prof. William E. Griffith dies at 78; Was expert on communism, Cold War

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--A memorial reception will be held on Friday, Oct. 9, at 5pm at the MIT Faculty Club for Professor Emeritus William E. Griffith of Lexington, one of the world's leading experts on communism and the politics of Eastern and Central Europe. Professor Griffith, 78, died at Massachusetts General Hospital on Sept. 28 after suffering a stroke.

Professor Griffith's international career began as a US Army officer in France and Germany during World War II, after which he served as the chief of the DeNazification Branch of the US Military Government for Bavaria from 1947-48. He was awarded the Commander's Cross of the German Order of Merit.

After his tour of duty in Bavaria, he returned to the US to complete work on a PhD in German history at Harvard, then moved back to Germany as chief political adviser to Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich from 1950-58, the height of the Cold War. RFE was the US' major source of communication with ordinary people behind the Iron Curtain.

He returned to government in 1979 as an adviser to President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a longtime colleague. Professor Griffith commuted to Washington once a week from Massachusetts to Washington and was described to the New York Times by a White House aide as "Zbig's idea man."

Professor Griffith came to MIT in 1959 as a senior research associate at the Center for International Studies and headed the Center's International Communist Project. He became a professor of political science in 1966 and was appointed the Ford International Professor of Political Science in 1972. He was also an adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Professor Griffith assumed emeritus status at MIT in 1990.

While at MIT, he wrote and/or edited 11 books and numerous articles, providing a definitive body of work on communism and the politics of Eastern Europe. His analysis of the Cold War and the ultimate thaw was highly respected and influential. He also wrote on international affairs for Readers Digest.

As a teacher, Professor Griffith trained students who went on to careers as high government officials and experts in the field. He was much sought out for his sparkling and provocative presentations at international professional conferences.

Professor Griffith's retirement from MIT in 1990 coincided with the downfall of world communism. By then, he had turned his attention to Germany, particularly West German relationships with East Germany. He served a senior adviser to the US Ambassador in Bonn from 1985-86. Upon his retirement, he moved to Germany for four years and continued to do research at MIT and in Germany. Professor Griffith's widow, Ingeborg, whom he married in 1948, is a native of Germany.

Professor Griffith, born on February 19, 1920 in Remsen, NY, received the BA in liberal arts from Hamilton College in 1940 and the MA in history from Harvard in 1941. He earned the PhD in history from Harvard in 1950.

Besides his wife, Professor Griffith is survived by two daughters, Evelyn and Dorothy, both of Munich, Germany; a son, Oliver, of Paris; and five grandchildren. A private burial service will be held on Saturday, October 10 in Remsen, NY.

Related Topics

More MIT News