I start with a cliché. I was destined to be a historian of international affairs. An early memory I have is sitting on my father’s lap, while he read the evening newspaper and smoked. This would be about 1953. I was five years old. My father had spent the day in hard physical work as a cable splicer, perched high on a telephone poll. Rene Emil Rabe (1923-1982) had numerous tiny holes in his face. He would rub his face and display to me the flecks of shrapnel that had worked their way to the surface of his skin.
Tag: formation essay
I was supposed to be a lawyer. That’s what my parents had told me; I was good at arguing, I liked school, and I was really interested in politics. But something went terribly wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) and my professional life took another path into political science and specifically the study of the Soviet Union and then Russia. Try as I might, by my sophomore year at the University of Toronto, I couldn’t get my mind off of the changes happening in the Soviet Union at the time (in the mid-1980s). In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and was a Soviet leader of a very different sort. He popped out of limousines to shake hands with people lining the streets of the European cities he visited, he spoke of reconstructing the Soviet system in a program he called perestroika, and he threw the doors open to Soviet society, politics, and history in the ensuing years under “glasnost” or openness. Suddenly, the Soviets seemed human, maybe even friendly, and to me as a Canadian, their weather, sports, and outdoors were familiar. No longer would we need to drill for a nuclear attack by hiding under our desks in school (true story), as Gorbachev proceeded to sign arms control and then reduction agreements with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Two-time defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked that there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Scholars and researchers aim at the known unknowns but should remain receptive to the unknown unknowns that may reveal themselves and upend the analysis. Be open to those who disagree; sometimes they are right. Reassessment is a virtue not a fault. My study of Russia, China, and Japan began with false knowns, turned toward elusive unknowns, and has required continual reassessment.
“So how do you compare women’s status in the U.S. and Japan?” Despite advance preparation, I had not anticipated this question. I froze. No, I was not defending my master’s thesis. The question was posed by an immigration officer at Milwaukee International Airport. I was returning to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after a winter break in my native Japan, and my reason for re-entry, stated in my immigration document, was graduate education in sociology and women’s studies. Before me was a female agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, her blue eyes expressionless, and her holstered handgun gleaming. At graduate school I was accustomed to handling questions under a figurative gun but never a literal one. If I gave a “wrong” answer, I wondered, would I get into trouble?
It is an honor to join my distinguished colleagues in relating my career as an historian; but it is also a daunting task to create a useful and coherent narrative of the paths I have followed.
“Do they do the Cold War in Utrecht?” was the first question I was asked after braving a cloud of volcanic ash to arrive at the prestigious International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War in Washington DC in April 2010. Such was my enthusiasm to join, that I took my suitcase to Amsterdam Airport on a daily basis to ensure that KLM’s crew would let me onto the first intercontinental flight that was allowed to leave the airport after the notorious eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Having barely finished my MA-degree in Comparative History, while still working as a Classics teacher at a Dutch gymnasium, I relished the opportunity to share my ideas with such Cold War icons as Odd Arne Westad, Bernd Schäfer and James Hershberg. Although most Europeans – including the entire faculty of the LSE – had not managed to cross the Atlantic, I had gone to great lengths to arrive in Washington exactly to “do the Cold War in Utrecht.” Retrospectively, that seemed a long shot – I had a Classics degree from Cambridge and had only recently embarked on a study of the Cold War – but I did it. In this essay, I will explain how.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or to focus on political theory. I think of it more as a slow drift. I grew up until 13 in Ethiopia and Botswana. My dad, a biologist, taught at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the University of Botswana, but while I had an academic parent, it never occurred to me that it would be my path too. My dad’s trajectory was part of a generational experience. He attended AAU at the height of the Ethiopian Student Moment and right before the Ethiopian revolution. In a Cold War context, he won a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship to study in the U.S., which allowed him to escape much of the repression of the 1970s. Yet, like many of his friends and colleagues, he pursued this opportunity with the intention of returning home to support the work of transforming his native land. Both his research and pedagogical preoccupations were tightly wound up with Ethiopia’s developmental project.
The story of the development of my professional life as a historian is like history itself: serendipitous, hard to predict, yet wedded to the times. It has depended on multiple influences and a series of fortuitous accidents. Special mentors, good friends, and generous colleagues have made a huge difference. Travel, too, has played an important role and, in some ways, still does. The inevitable questions that emerge from living among and talking to people in different cultures and societies are best approached by knowing their histories.
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.
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.