When I began my first year as an undergraduate at Brown University in the mid-1990s, I never imagined that I would pursue a career as a historian. Although I had always enjoyed my history classes, I entered college planning to study chemistry and math, subjects that I had loved and excelled in during high school. At the time, I envisioned continuing my studies in a graduate program in science and eventually teaching chemistry. During my first two years of college, I enrolled in numerous math, chemistry, and physics courses. But I also took advantage of Brown’s open curriculum, which lacks general education requirements and encourages students to experiment and to broaden their worldview by taking classes in a range of subjects and departments. During my sophomore year, at the same time that I was struggling to understand Organic Chemistry and Advanced Physics, I enrolled in two history courses—Gordon Wood’s course on the American Revolution and Charles Neu’s class on the Vietnam War. Little did I know then that my experience in these two classes would change the trajectory of my life.
Category: Formation Essay
The story of the development of my professional life as a historian is like history itself: serendipitous, hard to predict, yet wedded to the times. It has depended on multiple influences and a series of fortuitous accidents. Special mentors, good friends, and generous colleagues have made a huge difference. Travel, too, has played an important role and, in some ways, still does. The inevitable questions that emerge from living among and talking to people in different cultures and societies are best approached by knowing their histories.
Although history was one of my favorite classes in high school, I chalked that up to an outstanding teacher, John Smith, who first taught me in an elective world history class (which today would be considered more of a comparative cultures class, since the textbook did not pay much attention to crossings or interconnections). I then had the good fortune of taking his U.S. history class (focused on white male political elites, in preparation for the Advanced Placement [AP] exam), and an independent study political philosophy class, which freed up time in my academic schedule for student council, which Mr. Smith advised.
For someone who has physically been much in motion with transnational teaching and research, I am struck by the extent to which my intellectual interests have been stable. I was and am a historian, specializing in the role of media, communication, and culture in international relations. The short account of my career is that I began as a scholar of propaganda in international history, and as propaganda evolved into public diplomacy so my area of study and self-description changed too. My temporal focus evolved also: World War Two became the Cold War, then post-Cold War, then contemporary policy. I have even written on issues of the future, which I enjoyed. People contradict you much less when you are talking about the future as compared to the past.
Chapter 1: By the age of twelve, I had been a refugee twice: the first time, when my family fled Chongqing (Chungking) China in late 1949 to British Hong Kong after the Communists triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT). As part of the Great Exodus from China, my parents did not follow the KMT to Taiwan after a defeated Imperial Japan was forced to release its colonial hold on the island; there, Chiang established the Republic of China under the patronage of the United States at the dawn of the Cold War. Adherents of neither the Communist Party nor the KMT, my parents were stranded with three small children in Hong Kong as stateless people because the British would not grant us formal refugee status. My father, a graduate of Peking University, had been secretary of the anti-Japanese movement in the thirties; he then worked in the wartime capital Chongqing where he managed the government bank that handled foreign exchange. My mother, a rare woman university graduate of the early twentieth century, worked as a high school teacher.
All historians are surely accidental historians. At the most basic level, the opportunity to be a historian—at least in the more conventional understanding of the term—is the consequence of multiple accidents of timing, circumstance, and unequal opportunity: success in examinations, in grant applications, and simply being in a particular place at a particular time. But, more profoundly, an engagement with History is the product of the myriad and essentially accidental influences of social background, of location and generation, and of the impulses and consequences of curiosity.
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.
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.