H-Diplo Essay 376- Robert J. Lieber on Learning the Scholar’s Craft23 min read

Reflecting on a scholarly career that began more than a half century ago, I’m struck by the confluence of social and historical context, personal inclination, and serendipity.  Unlike friends and colleagues who were part of the post-World War II baby boom, I was born just weeks before U.S. entry into the conflict.  The war engaged nearly every American family in some way and profoundly shaped the world in which I grew up.

H-Diplo Essay 376

Essay Series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars
12 October 2021

On Learning the Scholar’s Craft

Series Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Essay by Robert J. Lieber, Georgetown University

Reflecting on a scholarly career that began more than a half century ago, I’m struck by the confluence of social and historical context, personal inclination, and serendipity.  Unlike friends and colleagues who were part of the post-World War II baby boom, I was born just weeks before U.S. entry into the conflict.  The war engaged nearly every American family in some way and profoundly shaped the world in which I grew up.

From my youngest days, I recall sitting at the family dinner table with talk of war abroad and politics at home.  Two uncles served in the U.S. Army and Army Air Force in Europe, another escaped from Nazi Germany.  My grandparents and my father, who had been born in the Czarist Russian Empire, had had the good fortune to emigrate to Chicago in earlier years; my mother’s family in the late 1880s and my father’s in 1921.  They shared tales of what they had endured.  Only later did I come to realize just how lucky they were.  The towns from which they had emigrated saw their Jewish communities annihilated by the Nazis, as was the case in the Pajuoste Forest near Ponevezh, Lithuania in August 1941 and a month later in Kiev in the Ukraine at the Babi-Yar ravine on the very day I was born in Chicago.

Chicago of that era was a vibrant, gritty melting pot, aptly described in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.[1]  Yet it boasted immense resources: a public school system that provided avenues for upward mobility, a wealth of museums and public libraries, vibrant culture and entertainment, major universities, and big-league baseball teams.  I benefited from a family that valued reading and education and encouraged me to take advantage of those wider opportunities.

At the same time, exposure to the reality of Chicago politics and the disjuncture between it and what I was learning in my elementary school civics classes gave me an early exposure to the rough-and-tumble of real politics and whetted my desire to learn more, as did reading and learning about the emerging Cold War.  My parents (my mother was an elementary school teacher, my father an accountant and longtime business manager of the Chicago Press Club) encouraged my interest in history and politics.  I became an omnivorous reader, devouring everything I could about the American Revolution, the Civil War, early American presidents, and baseball.  In the spring of 1950, my father brought home our first TV set.  Soon after, with the outbreak of the Korean War, I became an avid viewer of a weekly U.S. Army documentary, “The Big Picture,” which was made to inform the public about the course of the war.

The ethos of the times was one of assimilation and embrace of American values.  In school we learned about the founding of the country, the Declaration of Independence, and memorized the opening lines of the Preamble to the Constitution.  The American system was widely seen in a positive light, based on its role in defeating the Axis powers and in the achievements of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, as well as postwar reconstruction and prosperity.  I imbibed those values, but at the time was also aware of ways in which reality fell short of ideals.  One very important example concerned immigration restrictions and their draconian implementation in the late 1930s and early 40s, which had dire implications for Jews who were desperate to escape the Nazis.

My parents had experienced overt anti-Semitic discrimination in the Chicago of the 1930s.  In addition, racial discrimination remained an everyday reality.  Characteristically, like many of their friends and family, my parents were strong supporters of civil rights.  In the summer of 1950, when I was eight years old, my family drove to Miami.  The route took us through the deep South, where I was stunned to see blatant racial segregation with signs for “Colored” rest rooms and other facilities.  These conflicted with what I was learning in school and also served as a reminder about the imperfections of the U.S. system of that time.

My universe widened when, at the age of 13, I entered Nicholas Senn High School, a mammoth 3400-student institution on the North side near the Lake, the best of Chicago’s public high schools and, among regional public high schools, second only to New Trier in the wealthier northern suburbs.  It benefited from a strong teaching staff, some of them Ph.Ds., who had been unable to find suitable employment during the Depression, and it offered strong programs in science, history, languages, drama, and the arts, with 80% of its graduates bound for college.  The opportunities were there, though so was the grittiness of Chicago.

Years later at a class reunion, a friend contrasted today’s ethos of febrile concern over the use of disfavored words or microaggressions, with our high school environment in which students could have their ‘feelings’ hurt every day in many ways.  We grappled with snubs and snide language, a virtual caste hierarchy of clubs, sororities, and fraternities, and the occasional fistfights.  Many teachers cared deeply about their students and sought to engage them in learning and serious intellectual efforts.  At least a few others were crude and abrupt in their interactions.  One notorious history teacher was an apologist for Germany and – barely a decade after the War — sought to minimize the Holocaust while students in her class pushed back against claims we knew to be false.

Though far from ideal, the high school experience gave me a sense of resilience, which would prove invaluable in scholarly pursuits and in later life.  It also provided lessons about the perils of procrastination.  In the fall of my senior year I received word that I was one of eighteen national merit semi-finalists, based on the results of the spring college board (SAT) exams.  Sixteen of that group had been among thirty top students selected for a semester-long cram course to prepare them for the exams.  At the time I was miffed at not being included, but I had been a good rather than great student, later graduating 40th in a class of 440.  I did, however, buckle down on my own to prepare, and when the results were announced I was one of just two students who had succeeded without being in the cram sessions.  My study habits had been inconsistent and I had preferred club sports (softball, touch-tackle football, basketball) as well as low-stakes poker games with friends.  The experience of having to prepare for the SATs on my own and then succeeding against the odds was formative.  It gave me confidence in my own abilities to compete at high academic levels and at the same time underscored the need to apply myself to my studies.

Late spring of senior year brought another lesson.  In the autumn, my father and I had taken a road trip to the University of Michigan, where I interviewed with an admissions dean.  Based on my record – and the merit semi-finalist tag – I was offered admission to the freshman honors program, but told to get my application in as soon as possible.  Alas, I procrastinated.  By the time I submitted the application, the transcript clerk at Senn had died and there were delays until her replacement took over.  Eventually, my application was rejected, even while classmates and friends who had applied earlier were accepted.  There were also rumors that the rejection might have had something to do with an informal quota of Jewish applicants from Chicago having been filled.

I had also applied to the University of Wisconsin and it was there I began my freshman year in the fall of 1959.  The redirection was fortuitous.  An older cousin of mine from Green Bay had urged me to enroll in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program (ILS), and this turned out to be a formative step in my education.  Based on ideas of the educational pioneer, Alexander Meiklejohn, ILS provided an intensified liberal arts foundation to a group of some 300 students, with a shared curriculum, small seminars, and lectures by stellar professors.  My very first class that fall was a lecture on Greek civilization by a fine classics scholar, Walter Agard.  It was an epiphany and I was hooked.  My Wisconsin experience would be transformative.  The university’s commitment to the “sifting and winnowing of ideas” made great sense to me.[2]  And the fit was not only intellectual.  The exuberant atmosphere, student politics, campus activities, and Badger football proved to be ideal, and I made full use of it all during my four years in Madison.

I chose political science as my major with history as a minor, and benefitted enormously from superb undergraduate programs in both departments.  Leon Epstein, then chair and later dean, became my mentor and later a good professional friend.  Ralph Huitt on American politics, Tom Thorsen in Political Theory, and Herb Jacob on Judicial politics taught memorable courses.  I also took William Appleman Williams on Diplomatic History, and George Mosse’s two semester course on European intellectual history, and I audited Merle Curti on American intellectual history.  John Armstrong’s year-long course on Soviet politics and foreign policy gave me a deep understanding of Stalinism, and he directed my honors thesis.  I found the logic of liberal anti-Communism compelling and it fit with my political and personal instincts.  On campus I had become active in liberal politics, including Young Democrats and Americans for Democratic Action, and in my senior year was head of a campus political party, and I sometimes engaged in lively debates both with conservatives and with hard-leftists of the Socialist Club.

Having read George Orwell’s 1984 years earlier and then been exposed to works such as The God that Failed, and Darkness at Noon I wrote a senior thesis entitled, “Russia and the Intellectuals, 1930-1941.”[3]  In it I sought to answer the question of why prominent leftist intellectuals in Europe and the U.S. had embraced Soviet Communism, despite evidence of its grim realities and ideological betrayals.  The completed thesis won me the improbably named William Jennings Bryan Award for UW’s best undergrad essay on a political subject and a prize of $100 (a not inconsiderable sum in those days), which I promptly spent in taking my roommates and our dates out to a steak dinner on State Street.

By senior year I found the idea of an academic career increasingly attractive.  The prospect of a full fellowship to graduate school also appealed.  I sought the advice of my professors, applied to Harvard, Chicago, and Yale, and received fellowship offers from all three.  Choosing among them was difficult.  I finally settled on Chicago, whose course listings seemed the most intellectually stimulating and where I was attracted by the idea of studying with Hans Morgenthau.  Two other factors also entered into my calculation.  My fiancée, who was a year behind me at Wisconsin, and I would be able to see each other on many weekends, and the Chicago offer (NDEA Title IV Fellowship) was the most generous of the awards.  What I had neglected to do, however, was visit the Chicago campus in order meet with faculty and students.

In September 1963, having rented a large apartment in Hyde Park along with three roommates, I began my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago.  By mid-autumn, I realized this was not the kind program I had hoped for.  The Department, even with its intellectual luminaries, was in a period of transition.  I found the atmosphere staid in contrast with the lively and robust Wisconsin experience.  The grad student ethos leaned toward the eminent Leo Strauss and the Straussians, and my own interests in international relations and European politics were not a good fit for the department.  None of the regular faculty taught modern Europe, and the two principal IR professors, Hans Morgenthau and Morton Kaplan shared one thing: a hearty dislike for each other.

I decided to finish out the year, completing a required “preliminary” exam in American politics and then seeking to write a master’s thesis.  I met with Morgenthau, whose lecture course I had found important and absorbing, but who as a thesis adviser seemed taciturn and unhelpful.  Seeking additional input, I turned to Kaplan, who had been assigned as the second reader.  I met with him in his office and began to explain the thesis concept I had in mind when he interrupted me.  As he put it bluntly, Morgenthau is your first reader, you are his student, I will see you when the thesis is done!  This left me adrift.  I had wanted to write on Britain and its arm’s length relationship with the European Common Market, but found myself without effective guidance.  I plunged ahead with the writing, but later abandoned the effort.

In the meantime, my fiancé and I decided to apply for the Peace Corps.  We took the exam and discussed where we might want to go after she graduated from Wisconsin and I completed my year at Chicago.  Had this plan come to fruition, we would likely have served two years abroad in a francophone country, then returned to the U.S. with law school in mind.  However, I also reapplied to Harvard.  In mid-spring, a fat envelope arrived in the mail.  It was from Harvard offering me one of their new Graduate Prize Fellowships, a full five years of support to study for the Ph.D. program.  The opportunity was too good to refuse.  We dropped our Peace Corps plans, married in June, and in August 1964, piled our modest belongings into my 1955 Chevy and headed for Cambridge.

Harvard offered an intellectual feast, and I found that I had come well prepared thanks to my undergraduate education at Madison and even the extra year of graduate seasoning at Chicago.  My adviser was Stanley Hoffmann.  I took Louis Hartz’s course in Political Theory, Henry Kissinger’s memorable year-long seminar in National Security Strategy, and Hoffmann and Laurence Wiley’s seminar on contemporary Europe, among others.  In addition, I strengthened my understanding of continental Europe with a minor in history and courses with H. Stuart Hughes on France and Peter Stansky on Britain.  Stansky’s offering, on top of the work I had done in Leon Epstein’s British politics course in Madison, gave me a strong foundation in British politics and history.

Kissinger’s course provided a gateway to the essential literature and policy debates on nuclear strategy and deterrence, but it also gave me the opening for my first scholarly publication.  For the seminar I had written a paper on the logic of France’s nuclear doctrine, using French sources.  George Quester, who was assisting Kissinger with the seminar, encouraged me to submit the paper for publication.  At his suggestion, I sent it to International Affairs at Chatham House in London.  I was elated when word came that the editors had accepted the essay.  It was published in the July 1966 issue of the journal under the title, “The French Nuclear Force: A Strategic and Political Evaluation1966.”[4]  I had now become a published author.

With the encouragement of Joseph Cooper, who was then an assistant professor teaching American government, and with a great deal of additional reading to prepare, I took the Ph.D. comprehensive exams after my third semester at Harvard.  In those days, the “generals” involved exams in four fields.  Political theory was mandatory and in my case, it along with comparative politics was covered in a written exam.  Those subjects plus American government and IR were included in a two-hour oral exam.  Those presiding were Louis Hartz, Sam Beer, Joseph Cooper, and Morton Halperin.  The exams went well and with the start of spring semester 1966, I was assigned to teach a section of Government 1.

Under the guidance of Sam Beer as my thesis mentor.  I wrote a seminar paper foreshadowing my dissertation topic on British Politics and European Unity and then, with the support of a Harvard Knox Travelling Fellowship, embarked on a year’s field research in England.  I began the autumn doing research in the clipping files at Chatham House, met periodically with the legendary Sam Finer at Manchester University, who became invaluable in providing thesis guidance, and conducted more than five dozen elite interviews with senior officials, party leaders, journalist, and others.  I also attended the major party conferences and made use of archives and libraries among key pressure groups and parties.  By the late spring, I began writing thesis chapters.  At that point, with my research materials and interview notes in hand, my wife and I decamped from our dreary rented apartment on King’s Road in London and traveled to the town of Grasse in southern France, some 10 kilometers North of Cannes.  There, we rented an apartment for several months.  I diligently wrote thesis chapters in the mornings and on many afternoons, we drove in our Volkswagen to explore the region.

We returned to Cambridge in the fall, and I resumed my position as a teaching fellow and tutor in Government.  I needed to find a professor for whom I could TA, but most of the available slots had already been spoken for.  George Quester, then head tutor, suggested that I look up Karl Deutsch, who had just moved to Harvard from his position at Yale and who might need an assistant.  I slipped a note under his office door and soon received a call inviting me to meet with him.  That opening proved invaluable.  Deutsch’s behavioral approach, emphasis on cybernetics, exploration of game theory, and sometimes idiosyncratic concepts were new to me.  I absorbed his ideas quickly while serving as the TA for some 70 students in the lecture class.  We also exchanged ideas.  I found him an unusually accessible and supportive mentor, generous with his time and in suggesting avenues for professional development and publication.

Working under Beer’s guidance, I was able to complete the thesis before the end of spring semester.  The oral exam on it was conducted by Beer and Deutsch as the two readers, and I received my Ph.D. at the Harvard commencement ceremonies in June 1968.  However, the post-Sputnik expansion of graduate education had led to a Ph.D. glut.  I had done several interviews during the academic year, but no tenure track job offers had been forthcoming.  Fortuitously, a graduate student friend, Stanley Bernstein, who had taken a position teaching constitutional law at the University of California, Davis, the year before, contacted me about an opening there.  I contacted the Political Science Department Chair, Paul Zinner.  Based on my letter, our phone conversations, and on my file which included references from my mentors, he offered me the position without an interview.

I asked Beer and Deutsch for their advice and they urged me to take the position.  As Sam pointed out, California was booming and I would have the opportunity to make the most of my teaching and research opportunities there.  As summer drew to an end, my wife and I flew to California.  UC Davis, the biological sciences MIT of the University of California, system, was rapidly expanding.  In September 1968, I walked into a lecture hall filled with 170 students and gave my introductory lecture on international relations.  My academic career had begun.

Looking back on a fifty-two-year time span as professor and scholar, I will offer just a few additional observations about the process of learning and developing the scholar’s craft.  Invoking experiences from a long career, professorships at UC Davis and then Georgetown, department chairmanships, co-founding Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization, forays at foreign policy advising in several presidential campaigns, stints at think tanks and as visiting scholar in London, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and Sciences Po in Paris, as well as visiting professorships at Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Tokyo, would render this essay unwieldy.

Instead, a word about an initial watershed in my career.  During my first year at UC Davis, well aware of the importance of “publish or perish,” I applied for support in order to turn my thesis into a book and, after initially being waitlisted, was fortunate to receive a Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).  Taking a leave of absence from UCD, I arranged to spend the year as a research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.  Meanwhile, before departing for the UK, I submitted the original manuscript to the University of California Press.  In the early autumn, I received word from the Press that two external readers had recommended publication, subject to revisions they suggested.  I immediately set to work and sent the revised manuscript to my editor a couple of months later.  In late December a telegram arrived announcing that the book had been accepted and would be published in the autumn of 1970.  The moment was pivotal.  I had crossed a watershed in my scholarly career: a tenure track job at an excellent university and now publication with a well-regarded university press.

In her essay in this H-Diplo series, Margaret MacMillan cites the importance of being open to new opportunities and new lines of research.  As my year at St. Antony’s continued, I encountered just such a moment.  As part of my arrangement at the College, I was expected to deliver a series of lectures, and with the approval of Max Beloff, head of the Politics faculty, I presented these in the spring (“Trinity”) term on the subject of contemporary IR Theory, a topic that had not previously been covered at Oxford.  Among those sitting in on the talks were post-graduate students and established scholars, including the eminent strategist Michael Howard.  During this time, an editor from the long-established British firm, Allen & Unwin, approached me about publishing the lectures as a book in what was then called the St. Antony’s series.  I readily accepted.  Theory and World Politics was published in the U.S. in 1972, with the British edition following a year later.[5]

Another fortuitous set of circumstances led to my role in co-editing or editing a half dozen well-received volumes on American Foreign Policy.  The first of these developed out of a collaboration with UC Davis faculty members, Kenneth Oye (now at MIT) and the late Donald Rothschild.  In coordination with colleagues from the East and West coast, we held meetings at UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies that resulted in publication of a book entitled, Eagle Entangled.[6]  Over the next quarter-century, this led to a series of volumes , each written to a shared conceptual framework with individual chapters prepared by leading specialists, and the word Eagle included in the title as a metaphor for America.[7]

In my own scholarly writing, I have found satisfaction in delving into a subject, answering the questions that have brought me to it, then writing about it, in papers, articles, or a book.  This often has taken me into adjacent subjects.  From my initial work on Britain and Europe, I turned more broadly to Europe and the emergent European Union.  With oil crises and regional conflicts in the 1970s and early 80s, I was drawn to in the triangle of relationships between Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East.  In turn, the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington caused me to refocus on America and the unique importance of its role.  This led to my authoring three books with Cambridge University Press, The American Era (2005), Power and Willpower in the American Future (2012), and Retreat and Its Consequences (2016).[8]  Most recently, I have been writing, Indispensable Nation, to be published in 2022 by Yale University Press.

In learning the scholar’s craft and then pursuing an academic career, I have benefited in ways that now may be far less available.  I experienced ample fellowship and research support (Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, Wilson, Council on Foreign Relations, and others), the presence of impressive role models, generous mentors, and an intellectual environment that fostered scholarly inquiry and open debate.  In today’s academic world, the ideals of pluralism and equality of opportunity are being challenged.  If there is an overall lesson to be learned, it is the importance of preserving academia as an arena for the sifting and winnowing of ideas and thus sustaining the kind of intellectual environment in which new generations of scholars are encouraged to set ambitious goals and to flourish.


Robert J. Lieber is Professor Emeritus of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, where he taught from 1982 to 2020.  His most recent book is Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  His new book, Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World, will be published by Yale University Press in 2022.



[1] James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan, (New York: Vanguard Press, 1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (New York: Vanguard Press, 1934), and Judgment Day (New York: Vanguard Press, 1935); Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March, (New York: Viking, 1953).

[2]  The phrase “sifting and winnowing” comes from a report of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents September 18, 1894, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”  See, e.g., University of Wisconsin News, “Sifting and winnowing turns 125,” https://news.wisc.edu/sifting-and-winnowing-turns-125/.

[3] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948); Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright, The God that Failed (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949).

[4] Robert J. Lieber, “The French Nuclear Force: A Strategic and Political Evaluation,” International Affairs (London), 42:4 (July 1966): 421-431.

[5] Lieber, Theory and World Politics (Cambridge: Winthrop Publishers, 1972, and London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973).

[6] Kenneth A. Oye, Donald Rothchild, Lieber, eds., Eagle Entangled: U.S. Foreign Policy in a Complex World (New York: Longman, 1979).

[7] Oye, Lieber, and Rothchild, eds., Eagle Defiant: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1980s (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983); Oye, Lieber, and Rothchild, eds., Eagle Resurgent?  The Reagan Era in American Foreign Policy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987); Oye, Lieber, and Rothchild, eds., Eagle in a New World: American Grand Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Lieber, ed., Eagle Adrift: American Foreign Policy at the End of the Century (New York: Longman, 1997); Lieber, ed., Eagle Rules?  Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the 21st Century (New York: Prentice Hall and Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2002).

[8] Lieber, The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the U.S. is Not Destined to Decline (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Lieber, Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).