I arrived in New York Harbor in the autumn of 1942 as part of a group of 100 Jewish refugee children from France. We were off-loaded furtively at night after the immigration officials made themselves scare. Once ashore we were dispersed to orphanages. I had been kicked around and was in poor health and stunted in growth. To assist in my adoption the agency assigned me a birth date commensurate with my size. It worked. I was quickly adopted by a Jewish couple who had married in 1927 and were unable to have children. They were wonderful parents and I was extraordinarily fortunate in every step of my war-time journey, especially the final one.
Category: Formation Essay
I was born of working-class, French-and-English-speaking, Catholic parents on 14 December 1941 at French Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. When they were youngsters in the late twenties at the onset of the rural economic depression, my parents, Pearl Roy and Burnett Kimball, had separately fled rural Avoyelles Parish (north of Baton Rouge) in search of a better life in the Crescent City. They later met during at a dance party of fellow and sister economic refugees in the city’s Ninth Ward. At the time, both worked at the Chase Bag Co. factory on the west bank of the Industrial Canal, which links Lake Pontchartrain with the Mississippi River. After they married, they ran a small start-up grocery in the Mid-City district but could not make a success of it. My father then went to a welding school just before U.S. entry into the Second World War and subsequently worked constructing Liberty and Victory Ships at the Poland Ave. dock on the Mississippi riverfront. He later became a union foreman for Dixie Machine Welding and Metal Works, repairing and upgrading cargo ships berthed on the river. My mother worked outside the home at varying intervals at Chase Bag Co. and Morrison Cafeteria. My grandmother, Lydia, stayed at home doing house chores, cooking, and caring for the three young children.
Chance seems to have played a very big part in the accounts of fellow historians who have been writing reflective pieces for H-Diplo on their formative years. So it has been for me. But I am aware that chance and serendipity are less likely to shape the careers of younger scholars today, for the formal and informal demands upon young scholars are much more relentless. A while ago, I gave an informal talk to a group of young female scholars, post docs and lecturers in Humanities and Social Scientists based at ETH Zurich. They were genuinely shocked that I had not paid more systematic attention to my career trajectory and ambitions. It made me rather embarrassed, but also very grateful that the cards had fallen in the unplanned way they did.
My home town in Texas has two claims to fame. Cotulla, founded in 1881 and located halfway between San Antonio and Laredo, quickly became notorious for its feuds, shootouts, and murders: it was, the El Paso Times reported five years later, “the toughest place” in the state. In due course, though, it settled down, and by 1928 when the twenty year old Lyndon B. Johnson arrived to teach in its segregated “Mexican” school, Cotulla was on the way to earning its second claim—its very own chapter in Robert Caro’s epic biography. It was, by then, a placid backwater. Or would have been if it had rained more often.
When I entered Colgate University in 1956, I arrived with the vaguest of vocational goals. In secondary school, I had picked up a love of history, in part prompted by assiduous stamp collecting, and I entered college with the nebulous aspirations (in order of preference) of being a high-school history teacher-cum-track coach, journalist, lawyer, or Protestant minister. Not long after my first term began, I set my sights on teaching on the college level, thanks in large measure to a remarkable group of professors: Rodney Mott, who could argue both sides of any Supreme Court case with equal rigor; Charles Ray Wilson, whose dynamic lectures on the Gilded Age gave me a lifelong fascination with the subject; Arnold Sio, a sociologist whose knowledge of the American past made him the peer of many in the discipline of history; and William Askew, whose excitement about Europe’s diplomatic past was contagious. (Askew loved to describe ‘secret papers’ he had found in the Italian archives).
Many years ago, when I was giving a talk in Austin, Robert Divine introduced by commenting that I had stayed with World War I while other diplomatic historians were moving forward in the twentieth century to work on World War II and the Cold War. “I guess I’m just stuck in the same rut,” was my reply. I should have gone on to explain why that was so. One reason is that I have never considered myself to be primarily a diplomatic historian. I have enjoyed studying the interaction of nations, during World War I, for example, the duel over submarine warfare, Anglo-American relations, the House-Grey Memorandum, loans to the Allies, the Armistice, and the peace negotiations. Yet I have always been more interested in the domestic roots and influences behind foreign policy. This was part of a broader interest in political history that spanned domestic and foreign affairs.
My route to becoming an academic, and more specifically, a historian of Africa, was a circuitous one. A child of the 1960s, I was raised in a family with a strong concern for social justice in the era of the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements. I joined my parents (a historian and a librarian) as they worked against racism, militarism, and poverty, and my friends who were tackling environmental destruction. Seeking a liberal arts college with a tradition of social justice activism, I found myself at Oberlin College, which had been a pioneer in the nineteenth-century anti-slavery and women’s rights movements.
It was an ordinary noontime at Berkeley in September 1964. The morning fog had burned off, so the sun was shining as we set up our modest bridge tables on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to the University of California campus. There were half a dozen of us at little tables there that day, each handing out leaflets for various causes and groups. I had volunteered to leaflet that noontime for a new play reading-aloud group that met across the street at the YWCA. Our next gathering was to read aloud a play by Kierkegaard. During my years in grad school I tried to mix my studies of politics with concerts, play readings and even field hockey.
Several currents came together to shape my career as a political scientist with a special interest in the Middle East and in American foreign policy. The first involved two moments of living abroad at a formative time in my life. Then there were a number of fine academics at Stanford and MIT in the 1960s who showed me how to bring an analytical perspective to the study of politics. Finally, I had the chance to serve twice on the staff of the National Security Council in the 1970s, dealing with complex issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Below I will briefly spell out how these three sets of experiences brought me to the point of seeing international diplomacy and politics as I do.
My father, also named Edwin E. Moise, had more influence on the way I think about history than any of the professors who were formally my teachers. He was a mathematician, but had a wide range of other interests, including history both ancient and modern. I always planned to follow him into academia, but the path I followed took some unexpected turns.