I turned seventy on April 20, 2020. There is an old saying in China: “A man seldom lives to be seventy years old.” You can’t help but sigh helplessly. It is not uncommon that old age clouds your memory. Perhaps, too, it is still too early to pass the final judgment on me. But when looking back, many things come vividly to my mind. And I frequently reflect on the road I took to become a scholar.
I think I always loved the study of history, even at New York City’s Bronx High School of Science, where one of my social studies teachers introduced me to historical revisionism by questioning in class the high opinion in which the textbooks then held President Woodrow Wilson. By the time I entered the City College of New York (CCNY) in the fall of 1962, I was already thinking, some friends tell me, about a career teaching history. I also fell in love with Political Science, which quickly became my minor.
These days, international relations (IR) and the study of war need more books that are big in ambition, asking important questions and providing sweeping answers. Unfortunately, the professional incentives in political science these days tend to steer most scholars away from writing big books. It is hard to imagine returning to the heyday of big IR books from 1976 to 1981, a period that saw the publication of an extraordinary series of path-breaking works, including Robert Jervis’ Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society, George Quester’s Offense and Defense in the International System, Richard Ned Lebow’s Between Peace and War, Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The War Trap, A. F. K. Organski’s and Jacek Kugler’s The War Ledger, Robert O. Keohane’s and Joseph Nye’s Power and Interdependence, Stephen Krasner’s Defending the National Interest, and Robert Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics, to name a few.
In retrospect I trace the sources of my research and teaching interests to Mr. Delaney’s eighth grade social studies class at Parker Junior High School in Reading, Massachusetts. Not that I was particularly interested in social studies or history in those days. Like everyone else in class, I did my best to earn the reward for good behavior our teacher promised us at the end of the year: his famous lecture on the Spaghetti Trees. I barely remember it now, because another impromptu lecture made a bigger impact. On Monday evening, 8 May 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon had announced the aerial mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam. The next day Mr. Delaney appeared in class, clearly shaken. He described the risks entailed in mining a harbor where some three dozen foreign ships were berthed, mainly from the USSR and China, in an operation that—we learned later—included a half hour of preparatory shelling from naval destroyers and a diversionary air attack on land targets. Nixon’s announcement alone had flashed Mr. Delaney back a decade to the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of escalation to nuclear war. The danger of war, and particularly the consequences of bombing, have been preoccupations of my scholarship for forty years.
I have had a somewhat unique professional career. I was born in Japan and graduated from a Japanese university. I came to the United States to study Russian history, received my Ph.D. in the United States, and taught in the United States and Japan. I acquired American citizenship. I have made numerous trips to the Soviet Union/Russia to conduct research there.
I entered Springfield College in the fall of 1963 intending to become a professional baseball player and, secondarily, a high school history teacher. Two things happened in my junior year that drastically altered my plans. First, Frank Carpenter, a former China specialist in the State Department, came to Springfield to teach Chinese and Modern European history. After taking my first test with him, our paths crossed in the student union and he said to me, “Bill, your exam is as good as I would expect of a graduate student at Stanford [where he had attended graduate school]. You should be taking a language and thinking about attending graduate school.” Second, I met and fell in love with a classmate, Pat O’Connell, a fiery redhead with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. It didn’t hurt that, despite possessing what I was told was a major league arm, my fastballs frequently hit the backstop on the fly and my curves hit the dirt before reaching home plate. I didn’t take Frank’s advice on the language, but by the end of my junior year I had decided that a life in baseball was not really what I wanted. My fondest memory of my baseball career is that, in my last at bat in my last game at Springfield, I hit a two-run triple against UMass. (Did I mention that I was REALLY slow afoot?)
Like many others, I was a child of U.S. foreign policy. During the Second World War my mother, while a teenager, found work as a civilian secretary for the Army to help support her invalid father. After the war, once she turned 21, the Army sent her to work at bases in occupied Japan and Okinawa. Returning to the West Coast, she met and married a carrier pilot who flew F9Fs off the USS Essex during the Korean War. He went into the reserves after that war and they moved to Texas. They then both met other people, divorced, and remarried, but Texas is where I stayed, taking the last name of my adoptive father.
Not until reading this account did I realise that I spent my entire adult life as an intellectual tourist. School had introduced me to early modern British and European history—one of three disciplines I studied from the age of sixteen. It afforded a first taste of historical research with an unheralded but impressive public lecture on Phillip II of Spain by John Elliott, then a rising star in the late sixties. But, deserting textbook history in 1969, I read International Relations as part of the social sciences at the London School of Economics (LSE), in search of understanding the Vietnam War raging at the time. Those who taught us, however, timidly refused even a conversation about the war; political activism was anathema as the LSE suffered the petty violence of anarchistic discontent. The subject as presented to us was a milk-and-water version of behaviourist American Political Science. The only truly original British thinker was E.H. Carr and he was in Cambridge, no longer teaching. The focus of the degree was very limited and ultimately disappointing pursuit, I soon realised. The “English” school—a cultural reaction to U.S. intellectual hegemony—had yet to emerge and any normative theory was music of the future. It looked like a disastrous choice made in understandable ignorance.
Whenever I am talking to students or now, to younger scholars, I admonish them not to use my career path as any kind of model. It looks relatively straightforward: an undergraduate degree in history and international relations, a year off to work, a graduate degree in History, a couple of years of adjuncting, a tenure track position at small liberal arts college, then a tenure-track position at a state university focused equally on research and teaching. I’ve published at a slow but steady rate, had a couple of grants, and am privileged to co-edit Diplomatic History. This summary appears to tell a story of the usual path of accomplishment. But as good historians, you may already be wondering what disjunctures and detours the summary hides.
My interest in history began during my junior year in high school, when (and yes, I am serious) I took U.S. History taught by the football coach in East Gary, Indiana. Granted, he focused on the subject only two or three days a week during football season. He usually devoted Monday to previewing the game on Friday, Tuesday to history, Wednesday to working on our notebooks in class (while he went to the teachers’ lounge), Thursday to history, and Friday to discussing strategy for that night’s game. Somehow, I learned enough history to like the subject.