“Excuse me, sir,” an aide interrupts the president. “History is here to see you.” George W. Bush perks up. “History?” The assistant explains: “He seems ready to render a judgment.” Taken aback, the chief executive asks: “What about my papers? I don’t want him snooping around my papers!” No problem. “Already locked up forever, sir. As per your orders.” This cartoon dialogue hints at what we have been doing since SHAFR’s founding, although we would substitute “historian” for “history,” “interpretation” for “judgment,” and “keep classified” for “locked up,” and we would remove the gender bias. Despite official “orders” to deny scholars access to the public record, historians have been writing imaginative and controversial works, revisiting the past with new approaches and research discoveries, reading familiar documents afresh and mining more deeply US and foreign archives. Permit me a personal pathway here to focus on just one of the significant changes in the field that has influenced and continues to influence many of us: Cold War revisionism.
Category: Formation Essay
I have so enjoyed reading this series of articles in H-Diplo by diplomatic historians on how they came to this profession. What particularly has fascinated me are the twists, turns, and chance that somewhat improbably led so many to rewarding careers in the study and teaching of the history of international affairs. I certainly fall into this category. I grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota, and was encouraged by my family to go to university. However, it was hoped that this would lead me back to a management position in the local paper mill. The school superintendent urged me to go to one of the state teachers’ colleges, but I had no intention of going into teaching at any level. My church and Boy Scouts advisors, on the other hand, steered me to Carleton College, a small private liberal arts college in southern Minnesota, which proved a very broadening experience.
I have never been one for introspection. I tend to look forward, not backward. I suppose, however, that a career in international politics is a natural choice for me, given my own family history. If not for World War II, my parents would not have met. Then, global politics became a family affair, with relatives spread across the globe—in Russia, the Middle East, and Asia. But I cannot say today how much that background made me what I am today. For that matter, I am not sure whether there is much to learn positively from my haphazard intellectual path through academia.
How did I become the American international and naval historian that I am?
I suppose it all began with stories. Bible stories on Friday afternoons at the Catholic elementary school I attended. Stories from the Book of Mormon that my grandmother told me. Stories depicted in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists’ murals at the Santa Monica Public Library where my parents parked me and my sister while they went grocery shopping. Stories discussed in my high school American history classes taught by women who held doctoral degrees in history and education. And stories that unfolded in a much more sophisticated way in lectures by my Stanford history professors in the late 1950s.
n the beginning was a name: John “Jack” Lamberton, the twin of Hugh, and one of my mother’s four brothers. They grew up in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 20s and 30s. Their father, Robert E. Lamberton, was the Republican mayor of Philadelphia at the time of his death in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the twins took different paths. Hugh became an American Field Service ambulance driver, attached to the British Eighth Army as it slogged its way up the Italian peninsula from Salerno to Udine. Jack became a tanker with the Ninth Armored Division. In early November 1944, only days after the division had been deployed in Luxembourg, he was killed by artillery fire. My curiosity from an early age about the Second World War, and the world in which my parents’ generation had come of age, began, I suspect, when I fathomed that I’d been named for Uncle Jack. I had a name to live up to. Studying, and eventually writing, history was partly a tribute to him.
I came to diplomatic history when the methods and knowledge base of my home discipline, musicology, were not quite sufficient to answer the questions I needed to ask. I am still a musicologist. But my engagement with diplomatic history, and with history more broadly, has been formative for my work. I believe, too, that musicology has insights to offer diplomatic history as well.
Becoming a historian was perhaps over-determined in my family. My father, Brian Fitzpatrick, wrote books on Australian economic and labour history; my mother Dorothy taught history; and my younger brother, David Fitzpatrick, would become a distinguished historian (of twentieth-century Ireland) in his turn. But both David and I tried at first to avoid our fate, he with mathematics and I with the violin. I was well-trained as a historian at the University of Melbourne, although I did not fully appreciate this until later in life, but what hooked me was writing my history honours essay in my fourth year. The topic was Soviet music and my question was whether, as claimed, it had in fact succeeded in overcoming the growing chasm between popular and “serious” music evident in the West. I concluded that it hadn’t, which may have been partly wrong (if a reasonable conclusion at the time), but the search for an answer fascinated me. Decades later, working in the archives of the Soviet Society for Foreign Cultural Relations (VOKS) in Moscow, I stumbled upon my own letter of enquiry to VOKS, the Soviet society for foreign cultural relations, carefully typed on a blue aerogramme and sent from Melbourne in 1960. (They answered.)
My career has been, I suppose, that of a changeling – an historian trapped in a political scientist’s body, an occasional bureaucrat and diplomat, a Dean and a pundit. My field has been that of ‘hard,’ i.e., military national security, but also military history, and some topics much further afield, to include a current project on William Shakespeare. It has been an exceptionally fulfilling and generally (although not always) a happy one. Much of it owes to good fortune, but the greatest part to all those who helped me along the way. Of all these, I will say at the outset, the important have been family – grandparents, parents, my wife, children and even grandchildren. It would be an intrusion on their privacy to say much on that score, but unquestionably they played the most important role in forming me, to include my professional career.
Growing up in 1970s Phoenix was hardly an obvious starting point for a career as a historian of Modern Europe. In formal terms of American history, Arizona was one of the newest political entities of the New World, having only acquired statehood in 1912, the last territory in the contiguous United States to do so, followed by Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. The state’s cultural identity oscillated between the poles of Texas and California, and loyalties to sports teams generally split along these lines, especially since the state only had one major sports franchise at the time. Phoenix was a fairly sleepy town through the 1970s, mostly serving as an overland stop on the way to the beaches of San Diego and Los Angeles, or a winter holiday destination for retiree ‘snow birds’ from the Midwest looking to play golf and tennis in January. Geographically and culturally, the East Coast was very far away, to say nothing of Old World Europe. Local history taught in school was provincial and colonial, pivoting on recounting the glories of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, landgrabs trumpeted as triumphant tales of Manifest Destiny. The typical diet of national(ist) history was occasionally complemented by forays into a more open-minded “world history,” usually conveyed in UNESCO-style “separate but equal” modules on Egyptian, Aztec, Greek and Roman Civilizations. I don’t remember much of it, mainly because school knowledge of history was tested exclusively through tedious multiple-choice examinations. I was able to memorize facts and dates quite easily, so that meant that I did well in history courses and probably carried on with them for that reason, with not much thought devoted to it.
This is the story of the winding path from my arrival at grad school to my dissertation and first book, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy. My hope is that a step-by-step account of my journey will serve as useful comparative data for young scholars embarking on their own paths.