H-Diplo Essay 211- Jeffrey P. Kimball on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars15 min read

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.

H-Diplo Essay 211

Essay Series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars
3 April 2020

Diplomatic Interloper

https://hdiplo.org/to/E211
Series Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Essay by Jeffrey P. Kimball, Miami University, Ohio, Emeritus

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.

Nine city blocks from my house was the small Alvar Street Public Library (which is still functioning), where before and during high-school I frequently went by foot or bicycle to borrow books, mostly novels. The Bywater neighborhood of the Ninth Ward was a great place for youngsters to grow up, especially for boys, who were freer to roam. Shamefully, it was also ‘racially’ segregated. The nearest African-American neighborhoods were about a three-quarter mile to the north. Aside from this tragedy, the ‘white’ population was working-class and heterogeneous English, French, German, Hispanic, Italian, Jewish, Sicilian, and Spanish. Since that time, the neighborhood has gone through the stages of white-flight to the suburbs followed later by gentrification.

My parents expected all of their children to work at paying jobs outside the home at a young age. I was a paperboy when 12 and 13 years-old, delivering the daily afternoon States newspaper and the Sunday morning Times-Picayune by bicycle to about 110 homes, as well as being responsible for weekly house-to-house collection of subscription fees. I worked a series of different jobs each summer before and into high school, as well as into college. In my final college summer break, and preceding marriage on August 31, 1963, I worked as a boilermaker’s helper on cargo ships docked on the riverfront, which paid considerably more money than bagging groceries or serving snowballs had.

Although bilingual French-and-English speakers, my parents had received only a partial grammar-school education. Because of this background, they well understood the practical value of education. Their hope and expectation, especially of my father, was that I would enter Tulane University after high school and earn an engineering degree. It was the career path that my first-cousin, my future brother-in-law, and all of my male high-school friends pursued.

The economic recession of 1956-1958, however, dashed that scenario. My father was temporally laid-off, which made payment of tuition at Tulane impossible. In retrospect, it was a fortuitous happenstance for me in the sense that it helped alter my career path away from engineering. In the autumn of 1959, I enrolled in the newly-established New Orleans branch-campus of Louisiana State University (LSUNO), later renamed the University of New Orleans (UNO), where semester tuition was only $20 ($179 in February 2020 dollars), and the public bus commute was inexpensive (25 cents or less, as I recall.) Unfortunately, that school was also racially segregated; The African-American universities were Dillard, Southern, and Xavier. Nonetheless, at LSUNO I encountered outstanding teachers of history, sociology, and literature from all over the nation, met bright students from my socioeconomic class, and learned to my surprise that I had an above-average knack for writing (there had not been much assigned writing in my high school classes).

In 1956, three years before university, I met my future wife, Linda Musmeci, at a neighborhood dance. She is the daughter of a ‘second-generation’ Sicilian-emigrant father and a French-Italian-English mother whose family had lived in New Orleans for several generations. I mention these ethnic details because in those days there was prejudice all around. Most whites had racist views about African-Americans, and among whites there were prejudiced attitudes about other whites. Many Anglos, for example, looked down on other Caucasians, such as Italians, Sicilians, and French, while most Caucasians disdained African-Americans, and African-Americans were understandably unhappy with and angry about the entire system.

Linda earned a pre-law degree at Loyola University in New Orleans and later, after our marriage and move to Oxford, Ohio, she was the Vice-President of the Ohio Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, co-founder and director of Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice, and Vice-President of the Oxford NAACP. In 1993 she was recognized by the Oxford City Council as ‘Oxford Citizen of the Year.’

My exposure to liberal arts classes at LSUNO steered me away from engineering toward a future career in teaching and writing U.S. history. Among my favorite and most influential history professors were Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Brent, Henry Friedlander, Thomas F. Harwood, and Jerah Johnson. I was also greatly influenced by professors in sociology and literature. Among the most influential history books I read during my second to fourth years at UNO were Herbert Agar’s The Price of Union, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, Edward Mead Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy, C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, Kent Robert Greenfield’s Command Decisions, and C. Van Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow.[1]

Capturing my attention, moreover, were the ‘historic’ events and developments unfolding at home and abroad: the civil rights revolution, the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, the emerging anti-nuclear weapons and women’s liberation movements, the early tragic steps of the United States into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and the beginnings of the antiwar opposition. My college years were also the time I gave up Catholicism and became a humanist-atheist.

Although I was of ‘draft’ (military-conscription) age, my university enrollment provided me with a deferment. That was not my purpose in going to university. Indeed, I naively gave little thought to the possibility of being drafted. Conscription accelerated a few years later in connection with the escalating U.S.-Vietnam War. On graduation, while I was named ‘Outstanding Graduate in Liberal Arts and History,’ the problem was that unlike an engineering degree, with my B.A. I would have to attend graduate school in order to become the professor I wanted to be. For the son of working-class parents, this was an ambitious and challenging goal. I applied to Tulane University, New York University, Wisconsin University, and Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada). Queen’s was on the list because I was then reading and influenced by the book Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society by Sydney F. Wise and Richard A. Preston.[2] Wise was a social-and-military historian on the Queen’s faculty.

I won fellowships from both Tulane and Queen’s, a scholarship from New York University, and acceptance at Wisconsin with a deferred scholarship contingent on first-semester class performance. Considering my financial status, the choice came down to Tulane and Queen’s. Steven Ambrose, my faculty adviser, counseled me to ‘get out of town’ and study at Queen’s. I took his advice, even though Queen’s had only an M.A. program in history. Linda and I married in late August 1963 and spent our ‘honeymoon’ on the 1,500-mile drive to Kingston, while pulling a small U-Haul trailer with the 1956 Oldsmobile her parents had generously given us. During our time in Kingston, we lived on my fellowship, Linda’s part-time library job, and contributions from her parents.

In Canada, we found ourselves in a more politically progressive environment with a national health-care system and an international university setting with superb professors and a smart and friendly circle of colleagues and their spouses. The Queen’s graduate-school program, like the British system, consisted entirely of seminars. Students enrolled in two seminars per semester and were required to frequently write book reviews and primary-research papers. I received my MA August of 1964. My thesis was on the history of the War of 1812, which seemed fitting at the time, given that I was in Canada and close to the U.S. border, and included research on primary sources from both Canadian and U.S. archives.

Because Queen’s did not then have a Ph.D. history program, I had to apply elsewhere. Once more, I received fellowships and scholarships from the schools to which I had previously applied for an MA, and once again I took the advice of Ambrose, who recommended I accept the Louisiana State University offer rather than Tulane’s fellowship. Whether it was the right choice remains an open question. The LSU Ph.D. course curriculum was unnecessarily burdensome, requiring too many courses and minor-subject requirements beyond the major, plus taxing teaching and grading duties as a graduate assistant, which included the grading of undergraduate exams and papers in large lecture classes of up to 200 students.

Later, as president of the history-graduate-student organization, I wrote a critique of the Ph.D. program based on national data from the American Historical Association. One of the AHA’s findings was that elite universities had less rigorous and burdensome requirements than non-elite state-funded schools. My report had a small impact on streamlining the department’s program. During this period, I often thought that I should have taken the Tulane fellowship I had been offered instead of LSU’s scholarship. Mercifully, in 1967 I won a National Defense Education Act Fellowship, which freed me of my teaching and grading duties.

Despite the burdens and bottlenecks in the program at that time, however, the LSU experience provided me a superb education and led me to where I am now. LSU professors were excellent teachers and authors. Moreover, the department chair, John Loos, and my dissertation adviser, T. Harry Williams, knew senior History Department professors at Miami University, which is named after the Miami tribe of Native Americans who originally inhabited this region of Ohio. They thus assisted me in gaining employment north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I am pleased to have moved to the North, in part because of the South’s heavy burden of racism and conservatism. Linda and I return to New Orleans once or twice a year to visit family and also enjoy the city for which we have great fondness.

My 40 years at Miami U. had its ups and downs, the latter mostly during my early years, when younger and older faculty clashed over the Vietnam War and administrative and curriculum reforms in the History Department. I was on the antiwar and curriculum-reform side and somehow managed to survive the period, write articles and books, and achieve tenure while teaching courses and seminars in U.S. survey history, Western civilization, military history, peace history, diplomatic history, the history of the U.S. Vietnam War, the popular culture of war, U.S. imperialism, nuclear history, and presidential history. With two colleagues, one from the English Department and another from the Psychology Department, I also taught an interdisciplinary course on the topic of alternatives to war, the first team-taught course at Miami. Many of the classes I taught had large enrollments of 40 to 300 students. I also trained many M.A. and Ph.D. graduate students while researching and writing my own articles and books. In the early years, I also taught U.S. and Western Civilization survey courses at the newly established Miami U. campuses in Hamilton and Middletown, each about 25 miles from Oxford.

There were a couple of periods, however, when I won research-travel grants and time-off from teaching. These included a 1995 Spring-semester Senior Research Fellowship at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, Norway and a 2001 Summer Public Policy Scholarship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Over the years, I have written four books (all on the U.S.-Vietnam War, three of which were award-winners, and the latest of which was co-authored with William Burr),[3] nineteen book-anthology chapters, twenty-seven journal articles (one of which an award winner), many book reviews in professional journals and H-Diplo, many essays and commentaries for History News Network, and served as an on-air “expert” commentator for television documentary: Sworn to Secrecy, Episode 58, Cold War: Nixon’s Secrets. The Documedia Group for The History Channel (broadcast October 30, 2001). Inspired by Ved Mehta’s 1980s articles in the New Yorker about famous British historians, I also interviewed twenty or so American diplomatic, peace, and military historians (mostly diplomatic) about their careers and scholarship; my analysis of the results was published in the journal History Teacher.[4]

It has been a good ride for my family and me, with some bumps along the road, and with the exception of the current presidential and political situation in the United States. After all these years, and even knowing the history of the nation (and of the South), one would think the situation would be better. It also saddens me to realize that it is much harder today, if not impossible, for a student from a similar background to my own to earn a Ph.D. and become a scholar.

 

Jeffrey P. Kimball is Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University and the author of books, journal articles, book chapters, essays, and reviews on foreign relations, the causes and endings of war, alternatives to war, “primitive” warfare, nuclear history, popular culture, ideology, and historiography. His books on the Vietnam War are To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of American Involvement in the Vietnam War (McGraw Hill, 1989; Temple University Press, 1990); Nixon’s Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 1998); The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (University Press of Kansas, 2004; also translated into Vietnamese and published in Hanoi by Nhan Dan Press, 2007); and, with co-author William Burr, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 2015).

 

Notes

[1] Herbert Agar, The Price of Union (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950); Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, World Publishing, 1958); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959); W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941); Edward Mead Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959); K.R. Greenfield, ed., Command Decisions (place of publication? Washington, DC: The Center of Military History-United States Army, 1968); and C. Van Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

[2] Richard A. Preston and Sydney F. Wise, Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1962).

[3] Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of American Involvement in the Vietnam War (New York: McGraw Hill, 1989; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990)—reprinted in December 2005 by Resource Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon); Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004—also translated into Vietnamese and published in Hanoi by Nhan Dan Press, 2007); Kimball, with William Burr, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1968, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015).

[4] Jeffrey Kimball, “The Influence of Ideology on Interpretive Disagreement: A Report on a Survey of Diplomatic, Military and Peace Historians on the Causes of 20th Century U.S. Wars,” The History Teacher 17 (May 1984): 356-384. I interviewed Stephen E. Ambrose, Robert F. Berkhofer, Robert A. Divine, Justus D. Doenecke, Raymond A. Esthus, Robert H. Ferrell, Lloyd C. Gardner, Eugene Genovese, Norman A. Graebner, Waldo H. Heinrichs, George C. Herring, Walter LaFeber, Thomas J. McCormick, Allan R. Millett, Forrest C. Pogue, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Ronald H. Spector, Russell F. Weigley, William A. Williams, and Joan Hoff-Wilson.