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.
It might well have seemed inevitable that I would become a historian of postwar Western Europe in general and the European integration process in particular. My childhood was divided mainly between England, Italy, and Belgium, with shorter spells in France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. I was schooled in Italian, French and English. And my father had been a professional historian and then set up Brussels’ first serious think-tank in the early 1980s. I grew up in an environment where both history and the state of what was then European Community (EC) politics were constant topics of conversation, where familiarity with other European languages was assumed, and where the default method to explain most things that happened, whether world events or family developments, was to look back at the past in order to establish how we had arrived at where we were. A doctorate on some aspect of the EC’s past could only seem a logical step once I got into Oxford to read Modern History and did well enough to be able to aspire to postgraduate work.
Like most roads in life, my path to becoming what was traditionally called a ‘diplomatic historian’ was full of chances. Even my survival as a 4.5 lb. preemie born in a ‘birthing home’ in Sheridan Wyoming in 1944 was a roll of the dice. As a (female) child, raised in Billings, Montana, during the 1950s with a working father and a stay-at-home mother, I had vague aspirations with no particular goal except to go to college and see the wider world. I ended up at the University of Nebraska, a university from which my older sister, mother, two aunts, grandmother, and grandfather had graduated and was therefore touted in our family as a great school in ‘the East.’ My first clear professional interest emerged in a geology class. I asked my professor how I could become a geology major, and he laughed at the fact that I did not know women could not be geologists because only men could do the required field work. Silly me.
Why did I become an historian and an historian of France for that matter? And once an historian, why did I take on the subjects that I did? It’s not hard to put together answers to such questions, but it must be kept in mind that they are, like all historical explanations, retrospective constructions and to be regarded in just that light, not as truth, but as interpretation.
“Mr. Gardner, please come to see me in my office this afternoon at four o’clock if that is convenient.” It was mid-term time in the fall of my sophomore year at Ohio Wesleyan University. The summons was from Dr. Henry Clyde Hubbart, whose book, The Older Middle West, 1840-1880, published in 1936 had established him as the indisputable senior figure in the History Department.The course was American Constitutional History, a traditional prerequisite for law school. Normally, it was only open to seniors. I had gained admission as a sophomore through the intervention of another professor, David Jennings, who feared that Hubbart would not continue to teach in retirement. So, I was pretty nervous about this command appointment, all the more so because my exam book was the only one Hubbart had not given back during class time. What did that mean? I feared the worst.
Comments and cautions about a life committed to writing abound and have probably been with us since script was invented. Five hundred years ago, Erasmus assailed the scholarly life in a satire that sharpened the edge of truth to cutting point: “people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority… do not seem to me favoured by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years and are never satisfied.” And that is the good news. As matters progress: “their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure, premature old age and early death.” Read on, if your courage permits.
In the fall semester of 1964 I took two graduate seminars at Berkeley in the subfields of American history I was then considering as a specialty. One was in diplomatic history, taught by Visiting Professor Gerald Wheeler. He was substituting for the Department’s on-leave Armin Rappoport, whose two-semester lecture course I had taken the year before as a first-year grad student. The other was Robert Middlekauff’s seminar in colonial history, or as we would say now, British North America. That seminar was largely intellectual history simply because much of it was devoted to the works of Perry Miller. Reading Miller and participating in Middlekauff-led discussions made it clear to me that intellectual history was the path I wanted to take.
Born in 1928 in Hannover, Germany, into a Jewish family, the new restrictions on Jews meant my being kicked out of the equivalent of the fifth grade in November 1938. The family had already applied for immigration into the United States, and we went to England to await the calling up of our “Quota Numbers” under the arrangement for such cases worked out by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in addition to the famous Kindertransport. Our numbers came up in the summer of 1940, and we left for the United States on September 1.
Thirty years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the end of the Cold War was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” I recently argued that Fukuyama was basically correct: Nothing in the past three decades has cast doubt on the verdict that liberal democracy is the most successful form of government by virtually every conceivable measure, and that is not a terribly hard call.