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.
Category: Formation Essay
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.
For as long as I can remember—and long before I knew there was a field called Political Science with a specialization in International Politics—I was intrigued by politics. This was due to a combination of what must have been my in-born nature, the strongly political atmosphere of New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and, perhaps most of all, “events, dear boy, events,” in the words that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used to explain to an interviewer why his policies had changed. Since I was born in 1940, my first memories were of World War II and then the Cold War. The early years of the latter led me to the question I would grapple with later in exploring deterrence and the spiral model as explanations of and prescriptions for conflict. In fact, I remember pestering my parents about what they thought the U.S. should do in response to the Soviet Union shooting down what I thought were innocent American airplanes in the late 1940’s (I would have been shocked had I been told that the Soviets were correct to label these spy missions). Needless to say, this question recurs not only in my scholarship, but, more importantly, in world politics. When I started writing this essay in late January 2020, the newspapers carried a story about the American strikes against Iranian backed militias in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for a rocket barrage that killed an American contractor. “The key question” according to the American reporter, “is whether the American counter attack can end the cycle of violence of escalate it.”
I once wrote an official history, dealing with the activities of a Canadian publicly owned and government-directed corporation. It was a late arrival in the library of World War Two official histories, researched in the early 1980s and published in 1984. It was closely related to its American and British counterparts (the field was very broadly atomic energy) and as a historian specializing in international and bureaucratic phenomena, my training and perspectives seemed to apply.