Reflecting on a scholarly career that began more than a half century ago, I’m struck by the confluence of social and historical context, personal inclination, and serendipity. Unlike friends and colleagues who were part of the post-World War II baby boom, I was born just weeks before U.S. entry into the conflict. The war engaged nearly every American family in some way and profoundly shaped the world in which I grew up.
Category: Formation Essay
Many of my colleagues have contributed essays revisiting their graduate school days, full of commendations to friends and collaborators. I could do that too—and, in fact, my friends include many of the very authors of these essays—but I thought it more useful to spend this time on tools and methods. As I sit to write this, Athan Theoharis, a friend, just passed away after encountering crazy complications from a semi-routine medical procedure. That reminds me of how ephemeral we are. Also, so many of these essays concern academic careers, which is not where we all end up. As I think back on my doctoral cohort (admittedly, in international relations, or IR), not one of us ended up in academia. Some went to the State Department or other government agencies. One taught in private school. I guess he came closest to academe, but ended up at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Others went to oil companies or beltway bandits. I am a working historian. My experience shows that it is possible to train in this discipline and branch out far afield.
I was supposed to be a lawyer. That’s what my parents had told me; I was good at arguing, I liked school, and I was really interested in politics. But something went terribly wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) and my professional life took another path into political science and specifically the study of the Soviet Union and then Russia. Try as I might, by my sophomore year at the University of Toronto, I couldn’t get my mind off of the changes happening in the Soviet Union at the time (in the mid-1980s). In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and was a Soviet leader of a very different sort. He popped out of limousines to shake hands with people lining the streets of the European cities he visited, he spoke of reconstructing the Soviet system in a program he called perestroika, and he threw the doors open to Soviet society, politics, and history in the ensuing years under “glasnost” or openness. Suddenly, the Soviets seemed human, maybe even friendly, and to me as a Canadian, their weather, sports, and outdoors were familiar. No longer would we need to drill for a nuclear attack by hiding under our desks in school (true story), as Gorbachev proceeded to sign arms control and then reduction agreements with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Two-time defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked that there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Scholars and researchers aim at the known unknowns but should remain receptive to the unknown unknowns that may reveal themselves and upend the analysis. Be open to those who disagree; sometimes they are right. Reassessment is a virtue not a fault. My study of Russia, China, and Japan began with false knowns, turned toward elusive unknowns, and has required continual reassessment.
“So how do you compare women’s status in the U.S. and Japan?” Despite advance preparation, I had not anticipated this question. I froze. No, I was not defending my master’s thesis. The question was posed by an immigration officer at Milwaukee International Airport. I was returning to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after a winter break in my native Japan, and my reason for re-entry, stated in my immigration document, was graduate education in sociology and women’s studies. Before me was a female agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, her blue eyes expressionless, and her holstered handgun gleaming. At graduate school I was accustomed to handling questions under a figurative gun but never a literal one. If I gave a “wrong” answer, I wondered, would I get into trouble?
It is an honor to join my distinguished colleagues in relating my career as an historian; but it is also a daunting task to create a useful and coherent narrative of the paths I have followed.
When I arrived at UCLA as a 16-year-old undergraduate in 1973, the first Moon landing was still a vivid memory. It seemed to herald wonderful possibilities, and even in retrospect it remains an amazing achievement—something altogether new in human history. Although the astronauts who set foot on the lunar surface were nominally the heroes of the event, the space program was actually the result of a coordinated effort of many thousands of individuals whose efforts were brilliantly harnessed to achieve a common goal. If it was not the moral equivalent of war, it was pretty close.
Agency is what we seek to understand as historians: the demiurge of that disciplinary holy grail, causality. Who or what stirs the cauldron of change? When and how? When we reflect on our own lives, the elusive nature of that power becomes even more palpable. How did I become this thing, a historian of modern Britain? Did I choose it, or did it choose me? And what kind of agency does my being a historian give me?
I was born in 1948 and grew up in the north-east of England at a time when its two major industries – mining and shipbuilding – were in decline. My father had joined the Royal Navy in 1938 as a regular officer. This was quite an achievement for a working-class Jew. He served through the war as a naval aviator, including spending some tough months on the besieged island of Malta. After the war he went into business with his brothers, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. There were times when we were very short of money. My mother had shone at school but because of the war had not gone to university. These days she would undoubtedly have had a successful professional career as well as bringing up two boys. She never complained about this.
From about the time I was twelve, my father and I would stay up late during summer nights discussing politics. As an immigrant to the U.S., he focused our conversations around international relations, although I didn’t quite realize it at the time. Our talks ranged from the political to the personal. I remember clearly a common refrain. Whenever I would complain, he would reassure me that things would change. “Slowly and slowly,” he would say, it would all work out.