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.
I entered Springfield College in the fall of 1963 intending to become a professional baseball player and, secondarily, a high school history teacher. Two things happened in my junior year that drastically altered my plans. First, Frank Carpenter, a former China specialist in the State Department, came to Springfield to teach Chinese and Modern European history. After taking my first test with him, our paths crossed in the student union and he said to me, “Bill, your exam is as good as I would expect of a graduate student at Stanford [where he had attended graduate school]. You should be taking a language and thinking about attending graduate school.” Second, I met and fell in love with a classmate, Pat O’Connell, a fiery redhead with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. It didn’t hurt that, despite possessing what I was told was a major league arm, my fastballs frequently hit the backstop on the fly and my curves hit the dirt before reaching home plate. I didn’t take Frank’s advice on the language, but by the end of my junior year I had decided that a life in baseball was not really what I wanted. My fondest memory of my baseball career is that, in my last at bat in my last game at Springfield, I hit a two-run triple against UMass. (Did I mention that I was REALLY slow afoot?)
Like many others, I was a child of U.S. foreign policy. During the Second World War my mother, while a teenager, found work as a civilian secretary for the Army to help support her invalid father. After the war, once she turned 21, the Army sent her to work at bases in occupied Japan and Okinawa. Returning to the West Coast, she met and married a carrier pilot who flew F9Fs off the USS Essex during the Korean War. He went into the reserves after that war and they moved to Texas. They then both met other people, divorced, and remarried, but Texas is where I stayed, taking the last name of my adoptive father.
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.
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.
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.