Becoming a historian of Europe was not a surprising career choice for me.  I was born into an academic family, and grew up in a world of books, foreign travel, and schools that treated European culture as the cornerstone of a proper education.  I spent a year in a British school founded under Queen Elizabeth I, and a teenage summer learning French by living with a family in Brittany.  In college, I flirted for a time with the idea of a career in journalism, and after graduation even spent a year working as a “reporter-researcher” (translation: poorly paid intern) for an opinion magazine in Washington, but when Princeton admitted me to its History Ph.D. program in 1985, I could not resist giving it a try.  I was then lucky enough to finish my Ph.D. in one of the rare years in the past half-century when the number of tenure-track jobs on offer in History exceeded the number of people receiving doctorates in the field.  I got one of those jobs and have been a History professor ever since.

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I fell in love with history in sixth grade.  As I snuck barbecue corn nuts (the least inconspicuous snack in the world) from my desk, listening to Mr. Sorum’s guest speaker weave tales of Aztec resistance to Hernando Cortés, the Mayan ball game’s ritual sacrifices, and Inca architectural prowess, I was hooked.  Later that year we reported on the political, social, and economic makeup of various countries.  I presented on Venezuela.  It was a long presentation, so long in fact that I passed out around minute 40 when discussing the importance of oil to the Venezuelan economy.  No one had warned me that locking legs for a long period of time cuts off one’s circulation.  This unfortunate fact subsequently led to a fear of public speaking.  Ironic, no?  Mrs. West in seventh and eighth grade furthered my passion for history as I wrote papers on the origins of World War I and the Battle of Gettysburg.  My U.S. AP History final paper on the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan was stupendous, though lacking in overall argument.  You can see where this is going.  I was fascinated by war, conquest, and foreign nations.  Undoubtedly my dad played a role here too as he was a History major, received an M.A. at San Francisco State, and devoured all books ever written on World War II. His love of German history, language, and the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche never quite inspired the same level of devotion in me.  Instead, I found myself drawn to French culture and expression, no doubt due to Madame Johnson’s terrifying insistence on understanding French holidays and traditions as well as perfect verb conjugation in all tenses.

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Growing up in a fast-developing peripheral section of Florence, Italy, I first learned to associate the word ‘craft’ to the construction sites surrounding our apartment building, with some architectural marvels and many genuine eyesores.  As a kid, I was generally entranced by how new shapes—some expected, some surprising—emerged from the painstaking labor of bricklayers and carpenters.  Then there were the occupants of each of those units in those three to five-story buildings, each adding their individual, conformist or peculiar touch to the interiors or balconies of those otherwise equally framed structures.  I thus try to explain to the students in my History methods class the process of writing History as a similar craft combining predictability with some unexpected turns, the general shapes and the individual ‘touches,’ or accidents—a craft perhaps more similar to the one perceived by the observer rather than by the original architect of the structure.  Pressed with questions on how I approach my own research, I tell them that it’s a bit like how famed historian William McNeill explained his seemingly “unscientific” method as a process starting with him getting curious about a problem, and “reading up on it,” then redefining the problem, which redirected his readings, “in turn further reshaping the problem” and so on, back and forth…. “until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”[1]

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Growing up in a fast-developing peripheral section of Florence, Italy, I first learned to associate the word ‘craft’ to the construction sites surrounding our apartment building, with some architectural marvels and many genuine eyesores.  As a kid, I was generally entranced by how new shapes—some expected, some surprising—emerged from the painstaking labor of bricklayers and carpenters.  Then there were the occupants of each of those units in those three to five-story buildings, each adding their individual, conformist or peculiar touch to the interiors or balconies of those otherwise equally framed structures.  I thus try to explain to the students in my History methods class the process of writing History as a similar craft combining predictability with some unexpected turns, the general shapes and the individual ‘touches,’ or accidents—a craft perhaps more similar to the one perceived by the observer rather than by the original architect of the structure.  Pressed with questions on how I approach my own research, I tell them that it’s a bit like how famed historian William McNeill explained his seemingly “unscientific” method as a process starting with him getting curious about a problem, and “reading up on it,” then redefining the problem, which redirected his readings, “in turn further reshaping the problem” and so on, back and forth…. “until it feels right, then I write it up and ship it off to the publisher.”[1]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)[1].  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.

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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.

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