H-Diplo asked me to contribute to this new series about the formative years of scholars who do diplomatic and political international history. As I was thinking about my assignment, it occurred to me that I was one of the very few and privileged who grew up and studied in the Soviet Union at the end of its existence, and still stayed in the profession. We were pushed, one may say by the forces of history itself, to deal with such exciting topics as the Cold War and international relations. To explain how it happened, I have to write an autobiographical rather than an analytical essay.
Category: Formation Essay
Columbia College did not require a major when I was an undergraduate. I didn’t take my first history course until my junior year, although I had worked earlier with Peter Gay, the great scholar of modern Europe intellectual history, when he was an assistant professor in the Government Department teaching Contemporary Civilization in Columbia’s core curriculum—lots of Freud. I enjoyed the survey of American history and enrolled in a wonderful colloquium in American history my senior year—8 students, 3 professors, weekly essays.
My parents were both raised and educated in California. My father, with ABD status at UC Berkeley, was hired as an instructor in the Philosophy Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1940 but—as a Norman Thomas socialist, anti-segregationist, and pacifist—was dismissed from that job two years later. He quickly took another job teaching elementary physics to “90-day wonders” in the officer training program in Chapel Hill until the end of the war. I was born in May 1944 in Duke Hospital in nearby Durham because Chapel Hill did not yet have even a hospital, much less a medical school. One year later we moved north. With dissertation in hand, my father taught briefly at Syracuse University before teaching virtually his entire career at Northwestern University.
I start with a cliché. I was destined to be a historian of international affairs. An early memory I have is sitting on my father’s lap, while he read the evening newspaper and smoked. This would be about 1953. I was five years old. My father had spent the day in hard physical work as a cable splicer, perched high on a telephone poll. Rene Emil Rabe (1923-1982) had numerous tiny holes in his face. He would rub his face and display to me the flecks of shrapnel that had worked their way to the surface of his skin.
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.
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.