The visionary as a young man

In an upcoming autobiography, laconic Intel Chairman Andy Grove opens up and recalls his youth under Nazi and then communist totalitarianism--and the lessons it taught him.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
5 min read
In "Swimming Across," Intel Chairman Andy Grove describes the first 20 years of his life, during which he survived scarlet fever, World War II, the Holocaust, communist bureaucracies, the Hungarian Revolution and the boredom of army training.

"A vehicle that looked like a tank without a cover was coming to a stop right in front of our house. Russian soldiers inside the shell were manning machine guns pointed in all directions," he wrote. "One of them slowly turned toward my window. I was too petrified to move."

Although the autobiography provides a firsthand account of the political situation, Grove also explains why he switched career plans from journalism to chemistry (no editors to deal with), the benefit of a broken arm (whacking classmates in the head with the cast) and his first date (she was impressed by his ability to make and then explode nitroglycerine in class).

Q: Why did you write the book?
A: I am getting to that stage in my life where there is a lot more introspection and I have an audience for it. In 1997, I had grandchildren.

What was the cause for all the anti-Semitism mentioned in your book? Was it a deep-seated cultural issue, or was it something instilled by the political systems that were in place when you were growing up?
 You couldn't believe anything that anybody said. You couldn't believe anyone's manifestation of their beliefs because everybody was pretending for everybody else. Oh, I don't know. People have written books about the causes of anti-Semitism, and I don't think anybody has nailed it. It certainly wasn't cultural, because Hungarian Jews for the most part were very assimilated, and you couldn't tell a Hungarian Jew from a Hungarian non-Jew. Politics, if it had a role in it, had a historical role and not a contemporaneous one because Jews and non-Jews were all over the map politically.

People quickly learned how to identify themselves by this--such as when they went to gymnasium (European secondary school).
Well, Hungary is a more homogenous place than the U.S., and when I left Hungary, I could--I mean, I never tested myself a Jewish from a non-Jewish person. But when I came to the U.S., I lost that sense immediately because there are so many different looks, typical looks, ethnic backgrounds and the like. That wasn't the case in Hungary.

Your observations about the communist regimes are throughout the book. What did you hate about them the most? Was it the hypocrisy? I loved the May Day description of people just stomping by while recorded clapping played.
Nothing was what it seemed. You can pick the May Day parade as an example. You couldn't believe anything that anybody said. You couldn't believe anyone's manifestation of their beliefs because everybody was pretending for everybody else.

When this goes on year after year in all walks of life, you can't really discuss your feelings ever. You can't discuss politics in the social environment with anyone outside your immediate family. Sometimes people even turned in their immediate family. It's awful.

Were there people you knew who you thought might have been "plants" from the state police? It seemed like most of the people you encountered were outside the system.
You know, the suspicion wasn't that they were "plants" by the state police. The suspicion was that somebody, in order to curry favors, was going to pass on a comment or exaggerate a comment or make up a comment. You couldn't be too careful of danger. Keep in mind that people randomly disappeared. When you see that stuff, it sends a general fear through you.

You lived through the Hungarian Revolution. What struck me in your book was how it seemed like a fairly spontaneous affair.
There were signs and coincidences that, if one were conspiratorially minded, one might have supposed that there was some coordination: the appearance of the trucks, the appearance of the time of the demonstration. But rumors flew so fast in that place, as they always do in times like this. It was probably spontaneous.

 People have written books about the causes of anti-Semitism, and I don't think anybody has nailed it. How long did the intense, fearful period of the revolution last?
The revolution? It started October 23 (1956). The Russians came back after they first left. The revolution put the government in place. Then the Russians came back on November 4, which was a week and a half. That was the period of the revolution. But the weeks after November 4 were basically a Russian occupation.

I like how you pointed out that afterward everyone claimed to be a revolutionary, but that if everyone had fought, the Russians would have pulled back.
Oh! That was kind of a tongue-in-cheek comment. No matter how many people fought, there were a bunch of tanks in the street. The tanks ultimately would have won. It was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on all those people who claimed to have fought, and I don't think that that many people fought.

On the educational system in Hungary--it seemed far superior to what we have in the U.S. or had in the U.S.
I'm not sure. I don't think the university education was superior to what I got at City College (of New York). It was very different: more formal, less interactive, less problem-solving oriented. But my high school education was nothing to write home about. It was like a rowdy, disorganized inner-city high school.

But your friends became professors or engineers. Among your immediate friends there weren't any used-car dealers or insurance salesmen.
No, no. Wait a minute. One of them is a retired security officer. And one was an engineer and two are professors. But I also hung around for the larger part with the more scholastically minded.

Did some of the early experiences help you later on in life?
I doubt it. If you think about it, some of those incidents (from my childhood), I had some of the same characteristics as an adult. I can't pinpoint any lessons I've learned.

Do you think your experiences made you tougher or more suspicious than if you grew up in America?
I don't really know. A lot of people grew up in completely different circumstances and came up with completely different personalities. Life is not that fat and simple.

When you wrote the book, did you forget a lot of these incidents until you started writing? The time at the zoo where you and your classmates ran amok, for example.
Sure. You know what a latent print means when you develop film? The image is there, but the developing solution gives it increasing clarity and shape. As I started committing the ones that I remembered, the paper stirred up the latent prints of my memory. "Oh yeah, that happened." A lot of details were settled in my memory, but I didn't think about them.

Some of these stories I've told many times, but many of the minor ones I didn't. The zoo incident? I told that to my family a bunch of times. The nitroglycerine and the chemistry lab experiment--I didn't forget it, but I didn't think of it (until writing).

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I had to strain to think these things up. They just started to pop back into consciousness when I began to think about those particular times.