The Remarkable Influence of Walter LaFeber

The Remarkable Influence of Walter LaFeber

The Remarkable Influence of Walter LaFeber

The Cornell University diplomatic historian inspired generations of students—including me.


If you’ve read any of the many tributes or obituaries for the Cornell University diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber, you may have some inkling of what a remarkable individual he was. LaFeber taught at Cornell from 1959 until his retirement in 2006, which he marked with a farewell lecture to 3,000 or so former students at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater. During that period, he wrote or edited 20 books, many of which had multiple editions. (His history of the Cold War, for instance, is in its 10th printing.) LaFeber’s interests were wide-ranging. His first book, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898, published in 1963, transformed the field of the history of 19th century US foreign policy. Later, he wrote a series of books designed to provide necessary historical correctives to contemporary political debates. These include: The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective, addressed to Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty; Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, inspired by Reagan’s wars in Central America; The Clash: US-Japanese Relations Throughout History, which arose out of the trade tensions of the 1990s; and finally, on sports and globalization, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, published in 1999.

LaFeber is justly celebrated as a pioneer “revisionist historian” of the Cold War, and is widely considered a member of the “Wisconsin School”—though the truth is a bit more complicated. He did receive his PhD from the University of Wisconsin during the heyday of William Appleman Williams’s time there, and like Williams, he examined the United States as an economically driven imperialist power rather than one exclusively seeking to spread democracy. LaFeber, however, departed from most of these historians by considering ideas just as important as economic imperatives. In this way, he married the work of Richard Hofstadter to that of Williams, while adding a commitment to archival research and documentary accuracy unknown to either man. In a 2004 article in Diplomatic History entitled “Walter LaFeber: Scholar, Teacher, Intellectual,” Andrew Rotter and Frank Costiglioa surveyed LaFeber’s influence, calling his scholarship “an antidote to provincialism” and “the enemy of complacency.”

LaFeber taught an undergraduate course on the history of US foreign relations that met on Saturday mornings, an attempt to hold down enrollment. Despite a weekend call, his classes almost always ended with more than 400 students and a standing ovation after the final lecture. Students would line up for hours to speak to him during office hours, trading slots in the queue the way others exchanged beers and joints back at the dorm.

LaFeber’s career was marked by many firsts and onlys. He was the first recipient of the John M. Clark Teaching Award at Cornell. For more than 100 years, the university president had given the commencement address, but in 1976—the year of the United States bicentennial—LaFeber was invited to give it. Twenty-five years later, on September 14, 2001, the school’s president also asked him to speak to the entire university to help provide context to the events that had taken place three days earlier. His officemate, the now-deceased history professor Joel Silbey, spoke for many professors when he said he admired “the extraordinary devotion of his students. We all strive for that,” he added. “He achieves it. We’ve always considered him to be our leader and model of what we’d like to be.”

As an undergraduate, I was LaFeber’s student and mentee. I took the first half of one of his classes in person, and then prevailed on a girlfriend to make a cassette tape of every one of his lectures during the second half when I spent a semester abroad. I took his seminars, did independent studies with him, and eventually wrote my honors thesis under his guidance. He encouraged me to get my PhD in history. I was thrilled, later in my career, to be asked to deliver a lecture named after him, and by the honor he did me by blurbing my first book, published in 1992, and my most recent one, published last year.

For the past 40 years, I have tried to keep his scholarship standards in mind. But until I learned of his death, I never quite understood how formative his influence had been on my own work and others. The independent study I did in the second semester of my junior year with Walt, back in 1981, focused on the arguments over Vietnam between the pundits Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop. The history of the “punditocracy” was the topic my first book of and more Nation columns than I would like to admit. My second book, which I dedicated to Walt, was on democracy and foreign policy. Published six years later, it was inspired by LaFeber’s’s identification of what he called “the Tocqueville problem in American history.” How, he wondered, can a “democratic republic, whose vitality rests on the pursuit of individual interests with a minimum of central governmental direction, create the necessary national consensus for the conduct of an effective, and necessarily long-term, foreign policy?” This question, LaFeber noted, received little attention from historians and barely registered among the concerns of those who define the terms of US foreign policy. But it has never been worth asking more than today.

The rest of my work followed a similar pattern. Right now I am finishing one book—on the history of Israel/Palestine debate in the United States—and starting another, on the history of the impact of Jewish culture on the US and the rest of the world. Both, I find, are continuations of the work I did for my honors thesis on the foreign policy origins of Jewish neoconservatism some 40 years ago, I am even using some of the same notes, which I saved because they remind me of how hard Walt made me work to live up to his demanding expectations.

I may be an extreme case, but I am hardly alone. We have seen, in the past week, countless scholars, diplomats, politicians, editors, and publishers as well as a number of presidential advisers pay tribute to Walt’s character and influence. Among all of these, however, I want to highlight a guy you’ve probably not heard of: Andrew Weber.

Andy spent his life as a foreign service officer and in the Department of Defense. At the end of the Cold War, in his capacity as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, he traveled the world negotiating the destruction of the former Soviet empire’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capacities. He played a key role in implementing the 1991 Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act, helped to remove 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Georgia and other former Soviet socialist republics, and arranged the shutdown of the world’s largest biological weapons factory in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan. After that, President Barack Obama tapped him to be the State Department’s deputy coordinator for Ebola response. Now, he’s retired from government, working in think tanks and mentoring young people.

Andy and I were casual friends in high school and college, before losing touch, but we mostly listened to music, played poker, and (sorry, Andy) smoked pot. We certainly never discussed the history of US foreign policy. Today, I can hardly imagine anyone who has done more in an unsung fashion for the safety and security of America and the world. Upon Walt’s death, I learned from a tweet that Andy called Walt “a remarkable influence in our lives” and credited him with “inspiring me to pursue international public service.”

LaFeber’s colleague Glenn Altschuler did not exaggerate when he called him “the best thing that’s happened to Cornell in the last half century.” Walt will be missed, but he will not be gone. He lives on in his students and those they will inspire in turn to make the world a better, safer, and more comprehensible place. His memory is already a blessing.

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