For someone who has physically been much in motion with transnational teaching and research, I am struck by the extent to which my intellectual interests have been stable. I was and am a historian, specializing in the role of media, communication, and culture in international relations. The short account of my career is that I began as a scholar of propaganda in international history, and as propaganda evolved into public diplomacy so my area of study and self-description changed too. My temporal focus evolved also: World War Two became the Cold War, then post-Cold War, then contemporary policy. I have even written on issues of the future, which I enjoyed. People contradict you much less when you are talking about the future as compared to the past.
Chapter 1: By the age of twelve, I had been a refugee twice: the first time, when my family fled Chongqing (Chungking) China in late 1949 to British Hong Kong after the Communists triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT). As part of the Great Exodus from China, my parents did not follow the KMT to Taiwan after a defeated Imperial Japan was forced to release its colonial hold on the island; there, Chiang established the Republic of China under the patronage of the United States at the dawn of the Cold War. Adherents of neither the Communist Party nor the KMT, my parents were stranded with three small children in Hong Kong as stateless people because the British would not grant us formal refugee status. My father, a graduate of Peking University, had been secretary of the anti-Japanese movement in the thirties; he then worked in the wartime capital Chongqing where he managed the government bank that handled foreign exchange. My mother, a rare woman university graduate of the early twentieth century, worked as a high school teacher.
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.
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.
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.
In retrospect I trace the sources of my research and teaching interests to Mr. Delaney’s eighth grade social studies class at Parker Junior High School in Reading, Massachusetts. Not that I was particularly interested in social studies or history in those days. Like everyone else in class, I did my best to earn the reward for good behavior our teacher promised us at the end of the year: his famous lecture on the Spaghetti Trees. I barely remember it now, because another impromptu lecture made a bigger impact. On Monday evening, 8 May 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon had announced the aerial mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam. The next day Mr. Delaney appeared in class, clearly shaken. He described the risks entailed in mining a harbor where some three dozen foreign ships were berthed, mainly from the USSR and China, in an operation that—we learned later—included a half hour of preparatory shelling from naval destroyers and a diversionary air attack on land targets. Nixon’s announcement alone had flashed Mr. Delaney back a decade to the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of escalation to nuclear war. The danger of war, and particularly the consequences of bombing, have been preoccupations of my scholarship for forty years.