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.
Why do states choose to intervene covertly in a conflict, when more overt efforts are likely to be more successful? Even more puzzling, why do states sometimes treat covert interventions as ‘open secrets,’ where states—even enemies—decide not to recognize the intervention, even when it is common knowledge? These are the critical questions Austin Carson poses in his outstanding book, Secret Wars. The answer, he argues, lies in fears of escalation. On the one hand, by intervening covertly, a state hopes to reduce the risk of escalation by keeping the intervention out of sight from hawkish publics, actors at home that might push for increased offensive action, even at the risk of catastrophic war. On the other hand, a covert intervention can be read as a sign by other states that the action will remain limited and, by keeping the intervention covert, ensure that more hawkish actors abroad will demand an escalatory response. Indeed, at times, major powers—even entrenched enemies like the United States and Soviet Union—will collude in order to keep the intervention a secret, and reduce the risk of war.
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.
In their recent article, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views of Nuclear Escalation,” Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel outline both the causes and consequences of Chinese views concerning conventional and nuclear warfare, limited or otherwise.
A group of senior scholars has been asked to write a brief essay on the critical influences on their early scholarly choices. The task has a whiff of “fin de siècle” about it, an almost wistful sense of looking in the rear view mirror at a road well travelled to find the roads not taken. That choice of whether to turn left or right at the fork, indeed of whether to take the road at all, starts much earlier than the why of what we chose to study in graduate school.
A smallish town in the Virginia Appalachians might seem impossibly remote from France. Even so, France was actively present in my home town in the 1930s and 1940s. Lexington is a college town. Two professors of French were frequent dinner guests of my parents. My piano teacher and church choir director, another frequent dinner guest, had studied in Nadia Boulanger’s famous summer course at Fontainebleau. A Catalan painter, Pierre Daura, had met a Virginia girl at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and married her. Exiled from Franco’s Spain, the Dauras made their home at St.-Cirque-la Popie in the département of the Lot. When war broke out in 1939, they resettled in the countryside near Lexington. My father, a lawyer, helped Pierre Daura with his citizenship papers. The Dauras were joined for a while by their brother-in-law, the better-known French painter Jean Hélion. I still have the copy of Hélion’s memoirs that he inscribed to my mother.
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1973, where we lived until 1981, before moving to Butler, a working class town about 30 miles north of the city. Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills were in the midst of closing, as was Butler’s Pullman-Standard Plant, devastating the local economy. The one uniting solace across race, class, and gender lines for the whole region was the success of Pittsburgh’s professional football and baseball franchises. My father was an Episcopal priest and each Sunday in autumn, at the moment in the service when the congregation was invited to pray silently or aloud, someone would invariably send out a prayer for a Steelers’ victory. I have, like most others who left the region, remained a lifelong Pittsburgh sports’ fan.
On June 1, 1968, I received both my BA diploma from Rice University with a major in history and my I-A draft card from the Selective Service. Unforeseeable to me then was that my career as a historian and the American war in Vietnam would be thereafter interconnected. On that beautiful spring day in Houston, Texas, I was not expecting to become a historian, and, if someone had forecast that I would eventually publish a dozen books on any subject, I would have said he or she was crazy. Like other young men in America at that time, I was keenly aware that official notice of reclassification for military induction with a half-million other Americans already in Vietnam posed some troubling possibilities. For the moment, however, I had been admitted to law school at the University of Texas and planned to begin work on a law degree in the fall.