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?)

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Like many others, I was a child of U.S. foreign policy.  During the Second World War my mother, while a teenager, found work as a civilian secretary for the Army to help support her invalid father.  After the war, once she turned 21, the Army sent her to work at bases in occupied Japan and Okinawa.  Returning to the West Coast, she met and married a carrier pilot who flew F9Fs off the USS Essex during the Korean War.  He went into the reserves after that war and they moved to Texas.  They then both met other people, divorced, and remarried, but Texas is where I stayed, taking the last name of my adoptive father.

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Not until reading this account did I realise that I spent my entire adult life as an intellectual tourist.  School had introduced me to early modern British and European history—one of three disciplines I studied from the age of sixteen.  It afforded a first taste of historical research with an unheralded but impressive public lecture on Phillip II of Spain by John Elliott, then a rising star in the late sixties.  But, deserting textbook history in 1969, I read International Relations as part of the social sciences at the London School of Economics (LSE), in search of understanding the Vietnam War raging at the time.  Those who taught us, however, timidly refused even a conversation about the war; political activism was anathema as the LSE suffered the petty violence of anarchistic discontent.  The subject as presented to us was a milk-and-water version of behaviourist American Political Science.  The only truly original British thinker was E.H. Carr and he was in Cambridge, no longer teaching.  The focus of the degree was very limited and ultimately disappointing pursuit, I soon realised.  The “English” school—a cultural reaction to U.S. intellectual hegemony—had yet to emerge and any normative theory was music of the future.  It looked like a disastrous choice made in understandable ignorance.

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Whenever I am talking to students or now, to younger scholars, I admonish them not to use my career path as any kind of model.  It looks relatively straightforward: an undergraduate degree in history and international relations, a year off to work, a graduate degree in History, a couple of years of adjuncting, a tenure track position at small liberal arts college, then a tenure-track position at a state university focused equally on research and teaching. I’ve published at a slow but steady rate, had a couple of grants, and am privileged to co-edit Diplomatic History.  This summary appears to tell a story of the usual path of accomplishment.  But as good historians, you may already be wondering what disjunctures and detours the summary hides.

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My interest in history began during my junior year in high school, when (and yes, I am serious) I took U.S. History taught by the football coach in East Gary, Indiana.  Granted, he focused on the subject only two or three days a week during football season.  He usually devoted Monday to previewing the game on Friday, Tuesday to history, Wednesday to working on our notebooks in class (while he went to the teachers’ lounge), Thursday to history, and Friday to discussing strategy for that night’s game. Somehow, I learned enough history to like the subject.

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A group of senior scholars has been asked to write a brief essay on the critical influences on their early scholarly choices.  The task has a whiff of “fin de siècle” about it, an almost wistful sense of looking in the rear view mirror at a road well travelled to find the roads not taken.  That choice of whether to turn left or right at the fork, indeed of whether to take the road at all, starts much earlier than the why of what we chose to study in graduate school.

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A smallish town in the Virginia Appalachians might seem impossibly remote from France.  Even so, France was actively present in my home town in the 1930s and 1940s. Lexington is a college town. Two professors of French were frequent dinner guests of my parents.  My piano teacher and church choir director, another frequent dinner guest, had studied in Nadia Boulanger’s famous summer course at Fontainebleau.  A Catalan painter, Pierre Daura, had met a Virginia girl at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and married her.  Exiled from Franco’s Spain, the Dauras made their home at St.-Cirque-la Popie in the département of the Lot.  When war broke out in 1939, they resettled in the countryside near Lexington.  My father, a lawyer, helped Pierre Daura with his citizenship papers.  The Dauras were joined for a while by their brother-in-law, the better-known French painter Jean Hélion.  I still have the copy of Hélion’s memoirs that he inscribed to my mother.

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I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1973, where we lived until 1981, before moving to Butler, a working class town about 30 miles north of the city.  Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills were in the midst of closing, as was Butler’s Pullman-Standard Plant, devastating the local economy. The one uniting solace across race, class, and gender lines for the whole region was the success of Pittsburgh’s professional football and baseball franchises.  My father was an Episcopal priest and each Sunday in autumn, at the moment in the service when the congregation was invited to pray silently or aloud, someone would invariably send out a prayer for a Steelers’ victory. I have, like most others who left the region, remained a lifelong Pittsburgh sports’ fan.

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On June 1, 1968, I received both my BA diploma from Rice University with a major in history and my I-A draft card from the Selective Service.  Unforeseeable to me then was that my career as a historian and the American war in Vietnam would be thereafter interconnected.  On that beautiful spring day in Houston, Texas, I was not expecting to become a historian, and, if someone had forecast that I would eventually publish a dozen books on any subject, I would have said he or she was crazy. Like other young men in America at that time, I was keenly aware that official notice of reclassification for military induction with a half-million other Americans already in Vietnam posed some troubling possibilities.  For the moment, however, I had been admitted to law school at the University of Texas and planned to begin work on a law degree in the fall.

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Some people might know when they are in college that they want to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D.  I did not.  I thought initially after college, I would pursue campaign work, and my first job—which I started in February of my senior year—was managing a city council campaign in Boston.  We lost by a razor-thin margin that November, and if we had won, I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay.

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