All historians are surely accidental historians. At the most basic level, the opportunity to be a historian—at least in the more conventional understanding of the term—is the consequence of multiple accidents of timing, circumstance, and unequal opportunity: success in examinations, in grant applications, and simply being in a particular place at a particular time. But, more profoundly, an engagement with History is the product of the myriad and essentially accidental influences of social background, of location and generation, and of the impulses and consequences of curiosity.
My “formative years” as a historian go back to the 1950s when I studied British history in college and then U.S. and East Asian history as a graduate student. Actually, however, it may be more correct to say that my interest in history goes back to the 1940s when the Second World War was fought and ended. Japan, where I was living, was defeated and occupied by U.S. forces. Like virtually all grade school pupils in Japan at that time, during the 1930s and beyond, history essentially consisted of what the government told us it was. When I was born in 1934, Japan was already at war with China, having invaded Manchuria and sought to expand its control over other regions of the country. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, I was in first grade, and four years later when the war ended, in fifth grade.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps in some ways because of it, conflicts of interest between the United States and China seem only likely to increase in the coming years. As conflicts of interest between these two states increase, one central question for scholars and policy-makers is the probability of different causal mechanisms whereby a conflict of interest generates a crisis and the crisis becomes a limited, conventional or even nuclear war. Another important and closely related question is which allies Washington and Beijing can count on to do what as these conflicts of interest grow. Unlike China, the United States has alliances that span the world, with formal defence commitments throughout Europe and Asia. If alliances do more than aggregate but substantially multiply U.S. power, exactly what do they bring to the table?
My becoming an international historian was, as Marxists would say, overdetermined—but nevertheless I took a long time to determine it. I did not so much decide to study international history as make a series of incremental decisions, usually driven by advice or inspiration from an intellectual mentor, that led me along that path. So even if not by design, it was no accident that I came to study international history.
As someone with my feet in two fields—labor history and diplomatic history—I’ve often felt more comfortable in the former than the latter. To labor historians, the importance of research on the international perspectives and activities of workers and labor activists has long been a given. By contrast, this proposition has been a tough sell in diplomatic history, despite the professional politeness with which my research has been greeted in this field. I first developed an interest in history during my undergraduate years at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) in the late 1970s. The History Department boasted only four members: Jerry Israel (U.S, Asia), Michael Young (European), John Heyl (European), and Paul Bushnell (U.S.). All were excellent teachers as well as active scholars. I’m thankful I was able to go to a small, private college at a time when tuition costs were still relatively low and financial aid was at its peak.
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.
The repressive policies deployed by the Chinese party-state towards its Muslim population in the western region of Xinjiang has been at the forefront of international media attention. Beyond the sharp increase in the security presence in the region and the widespread use of technology-intensive policing, the extra-legal internment of 1 to 3 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups has been the most notable of these repressive policies. The so-called “Xinjiang papers,” a leak of internal Chinese documents revealed by the New York Times in 2019, have contributed to unveil the policy shift that has occurred in this region since early 2017. This tightly-written article by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee, and Emir Yazici endeavors to explain this evolution. It also stresses the transnational security dimension of these policies and aims at situating the Chinese case in the broader literature on political violence and domestic repression.
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.
There was Vietnam, of course, but one must begin with Novaya Zemlya. It was on these remote islands in the arctic northeast of Scandinavia that, in October 1961, the Soviet Union tested the biggest nuclear device ever (before or since): a massive atmospheric blast of some hundred megatons (we were told). In reality, it seems to have been fifty plus, but even at that magnitude it was more than fifteen hundred times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. I followed the fallout map in the newspapers with the keenest interest. I was eleven and more than worried. I had taken to heart my father’s solemn prediction that my generation would experience something vastly more devastating than his, in effect the end of the world in nuclear conflagration. A year later, the horrifying realism of that prediction became existentially plain in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous single moment in world history (no hyperbole). To my unspeakable relief, the crisis was resolved. Indeed, it was followed by a certain stabilization in the all-important relations between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. What with hotlines and the partial test ban treaty in 1963, the fear of nuclear obliteration subsided by degrees. So, accordingly, did my conviction that I would not live to see adulthood. The Chinese ‘deviation’ – acquisition of the bomb in 1964, increasingly savage attacks on the Soviet position—only served to underline that there was a new normality in the relationship that really mattered. By this time, it was instead the expanding struggles in the U.S. over civil rights that came to fore, along with appalling images of burning Buddhist monks in Saigon. Something new was afoot.
Nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from other military tools. The technology is familiar and yet still exotic; the ability to split nuclei and fuse them together remains one of the most extraordinary technical milestones of the last century. And the yields of nuclear explosions are orders of magnitude greater than those of conventional weapons, making the effects of a hypothetical nuclear war hard to comprehend. In a clash between nuclear-armed states, the devastation might overwhelm the value of any imaginable political goals. Such a conflict may not be unthinkable, but it is hard to think about.