American Colossus

One of the great American pioneers, Andy Grove (born Andras Grof), died last week at the age of 79. He was born a Hungarian Jew in 1937, so got to spend the years until his eighth birthday under Adolf Hitler and until eighteen under Stalin and his successors. When the Hungarian uprising of 1956 failed, in part due to Eisenhower’s unkept promise to come to their defense if they tried to escape Soviet domination, he fled to this country. As has so often been the case, Europe’s loss was our gain.

By the time he was 26, Grove had earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley and was an employee at Fairchild Semiconductor, ground zero for the coming digital revolution. Five years later, two of his Fairchild colleagues, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce, left to found Intel. Grove came along as that legendary company’s first employee. Twenty years later he had risen to become its greatest CEO, a man who bet the company’s future on the emerging microprocessor and the personal computer it would power. It was a bet he won. It made the world we now inhabit and helped make silicon Valley the center of the technical universe.

His bestseller, Only the Paranoid Survive, summed up the philosophy of a man whose biography is replete with the lesson that the only thing you can count on in business, as in life, is change and disruption. If it’s not Hitler and Stalin, it is a new technology, a new competitor, someone trying to eat your lunch or make you obsolete. What to do? See them coming and out think them, out hustle them, our perform them. And then sleep with one eye open. The next threat is brewing.

Grove is a one-man refutation of several alarming tendencies in America today. We seem increasingly complacent, cautious, timorous, embarrassed by competitive hardball, and more inclined to protect our present position than risk anything in pursuit of as better future. He, by contrast, was aggressive, bold, coolly analytical, yet perpetually on the lookout for both threats to guard against and opportunities to exploit.

He also demonstrates the idiocy of the current hatred of immigration that two-bit demagogues are whipping up. In this country, that ought to be heresy. America was created by wave after wave of refugees, from Alexander Hamilton to Andy Grove. When the demand for freedom by courageous, desperate Hungarians was crushed by Soviet tanks, 210,000 refugees risked their lives to seek a better future in the few months before the Iron Curtain descended again. Andy Grove was among them.

A massive multi-national effort was mounted to resettle them when they crossed the border into Yugoslavia and Austria. Many briefly found themselves in makeshift camps, as today happens to those fleeing murderous fanatics in Syria, but the Hungarians were soon sent on to 37 other countries willing to take them in. Within the first ten weeks, 100,000 were resettled in their new homes, with the rest to follow. The UK took 20,000, Germany and Australia 15,000 each, and others went to twelve countries in Latin American and two in Africa. The United States took the largest number, 40,000. We didn’t then worry that Grove and his fellow immigrants might be secret communists intent on our destruction. We assumed they wanted what our own ancestors had wanted when they made even more perilous crossings – shelter from the storm, a better life, and the blessings of liberty.

Admittedly we are in a more confusing time and fear an enemy that threatens us with local terror rather than thermonuclear Armageddon, but the can-do attitude that greeted Grove speaks better of that era than our present won’t-do attitude of ours. If Grove had been the only one of the 40,000 to succeed here, he alone would have made the resettlement decision a risk well taken and a huge bargain for America, creating thousands of jobs, hundreds of billions in wealth, and global supremacy in an emerging industry.

And he was not the only such refugee, the so-called 56-ers, to use the opportunity America offered them to succeed. Victor Szebehely escaped Soviet Hungary in 1947 and helped create the Apollo program. Two young movie-mad students in Budapest caught the Soviet crackdown on film and smuggled it across the border, then stayed in America to rank among the greatest Hollywood cinematographers in history. The films of Lazlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond include “Easy Rider,” “Paper Moon,” “Shampoo,” “Ghostbusters,” “Say Anything,” “Deliverance,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Deer Hunter.”

Long after tyrants and terrorists are history, refugees from them continue to enrich the country that gives them asylum. It’s been true since Hessian mercenaries decided democratic America looked better than the autocratic homeland they were serving. They came to kill us and stayed to enrich us. Today, as then, the vast majority of those who, homeless and tempest-tossed, seek our shores come in search of the golden door. We shouldn’t forget it. And the admirable life of Andy Grove is a timely reminder.

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