My “formative years” as a historian go back to the 1950s when I studied British history in college and then U.S. and East Asian history as a graduate student. Actually, however, it may be more correct to say that my interest in history goes back to the 1940s when the Second World War was fought and ended. Japan, where I was living, was defeated and occupied by U.S. forces. Like virtually all grade school pupils in Japan at that time, during the 1930s and beyond, history essentially consisted of what the government told us it was. When I was born in 1934, Japan was already at war with China, having invaded Manchuria and sought to expand its control over other regions of the country. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, I was in first grade, and four years later when the war ended, in fifth grade.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps in some ways because of it, conflicts of interest between the United States and China seem only likely to increase in the coming years. As conflicts of interest between these two states increase, one central question for scholars and policy-makers is the probability of different causal mechanisms whereby a conflict of interest generates a crisis and the crisis becomes a limited, conventional or even nuclear war. Another important and closely related question is which allies Washington and Beijing can count on to do what as these conflicts of interest grow. Unlike China, the United States has alliances that span the world, with formal defence commitments throughout Europe and Asia. If alliances do more than aggregate but substantially multiply U.S. power, exactly what do they bring to the table?
My becoming an international historian was, as Marxists would say, overdetermined—but nevertheless I took a long time to determine it. I did not so much decide to study international history as make a series of incremental decisions, usually driven by advice or inspiration from an intellectual mentor, that led me along that path. So even if not by design, it was no accident that I came to study international history.
As someone with my feet in two fields—labor history and diplomatic history—I’ve often felt more comfortable in the former than the latter. To labor historians, the importance of research on the international perspectives and activities of workers and labor activists has long been a given. By contrast, this proposition has been a tough sell in diplomatic history, despite the professional politeness with which my research has been greeted in this field. I first developed an interest in history during my undergraduate years at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) in the late 1970s. The History Department boasted only four members: Jerry Israel (U.S, Asia), Michael Young (European), John Heyl (European), and Paul Bushnell (U.S.). All were excellent teachers as well as active scholars. I’m thankful I was able to go to a small, private college at a time when tuition costs were still relatively low and financial aid was at its peak.
I turned seventy on April 20, 2020. There is an old saying in China: “A man seldom lives to be seventy years old.” You can’t help but sigh helplessly. It is not uncommon that old age clouds your memory. Perhaps, too, it is still too early to pass the final judgment on me. But when looking back, many things come vividly to my mind. And I frequently reflect on the road I took to become a scholar.
I think I always loved the study of history, even at New York City’s Bronx High School of Science, where one of my social studies teachers introduced me to historical revisionism by questioning in class the high opinion in which the textbooks then held President Woodrow Wilson. By the time I entered the City College of New York (CCNY) in the fall of 1962, I was already thinking, some friends tell me, about a career teaching history. I also fell in love with Political Science, which quickly became my minor.
These days, international relations (IR) and the study of war need more books that are big in ambition, asking important questions and providing sweeping answers. Unfortunately, the professional incentives in political science these days tend to steer most scholars away from writing big books. It is hard to imagine returning to the heyday of big IR books from 1976 to 1981, a period that saw the publication of an extraordinary series of path-breaking works, including Robert Jervis’ Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society, George Quester’s Offense and Defense in the International System, Richard Ned Lebow’s Between Peace and War, Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The War Trap, A. F. K. Organski’s and Jacek Kugler’s The War Ledger, Robert O. Keohane’s and Joseph Nye’s Power and Interdependence, Stephen Krasner’s Defending the National Interest, and Robert Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics, to name a few.
In retrospect I trace the sources of my research and teaching interests to Mr. Delaney’s eighth grade social studies class at Parker Junior High School in Reading, Massachusetts. Not that I was particularly interested in social studies or history in those days. Like everyone else in class, I did my best to earn the reward for good behavior our teacher promised us at the end of the year: his famous lecture on the Spaghetti Trees. I barely remember it now, because another impromptu lecture made a bigger impact. On Monday evening, 8 May 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon had announced the aerial mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam. The next day Mr. Delaney appeared in class, clearly shaken. He described the risks entailed in mining a harbor where some three dozen foreign ships were berthed, mainly from the USSR and China, in an operation that—we learned later—included a half hour of preparatory shelling from naval destroyers and a diversionary air attack on land targets. Nixon’s announcement alone had flashed Mr. Delaney back a decade to the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of escalation to nuclear war. The danger of war, and particularly the consequences of bombing, have been preoccupations of my scholarship for forty years.
I have had a somewhat unique professional career. I was born in Japan and graduated from a Japanese university. I came to the United States to study Russian history, received my Ph.D. in the United States, and taught in the United States and Japan. I acquired American citizenship. I have made numerous trips to the Soviet Union/Russia to conduct research there.
I entered Springfield College in the fall of 1963 intending to become a professional baseball player and, secondarily, a high school history teacher. Two things happened in my junior year that drastically altered my plans. First, Frank Carpenter, a former China specialist in the State Department, came to Springfield to teach Chinese and Modern European history. After taking my first test with him, our paths crossed in the student union and he said to me, “Bill, your exam is as good as I would expect of a graduate student at Stanford [where he had attended graduate school]. You should be taking a language and thinking about attending graduate school.” Second, I met and fell in love with a classmate, Pat O’Connell, a fiery redhead with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. It didn’t hurt that, despite possessing what I was told was a major league arm, my fastballs frequently hit the backstop on the fly and my curves hit the dirt before reaching home plate. I didn’t take Frank’s advice on the language, but by the end of my junior year I had decided that a life in baseball was not really what I wanted. My fondest memory of my baseball career is that, in my last at bat in my last game at Springfield, I hit a two-run triple against UMass. (Did I mention that I was REALLY slow afoot?)