Historian in the Records

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Revered diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber passed away recently.  He wrote many important books, some that influenced the public foreign policy debate.  They include: The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (1963); America, Russia, and the Cold war, 1945-1966 (1967 and then nine editions, the last of which covered the period 1945-2006); The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (1978, updated 1990); Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983, updated 1993); the overarching The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (1989, updated 1994); The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913 (1993, updated 2013); The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (1997); and Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (1999, updated 2002).  He published numerous other articles and essays.

LaFeber taught at Cornell University from 1959 to 2006.  For many years his lecture class met on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings.  The Saturday lecture usually had its fair cohort of visitors (students and parents) that dropped in to hear his legendary lectures.  Even after becoming a senior professor, he insisted on teaching undergraduates.

LaFeber was a committed and energetic historian.  As a result, he not only used the records in the National Archives, eventually he was in the records.  He served on what is now the Department of State’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation from 1971 to 1975, part of that time as chair.  The records of that committee end up in the National Archives.  LaFeber also went overseas under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA) as part of its “Volunteer Speakers” program.  Under that program, American experts travelled overseas to share their expertise with audiences abroad.   LaFeber made multiple trips to Asia.

The United States Information Service (USIS) post in Tokyo summarized a November 1975 visit this way:

Dr. LeFeber is an extremely good speaker. Articulate, concise, and provocative, he set forth stimulating analogies between US foreign policy of the 20's and the 70s. While maintaining his credible academic position, he was very supportive of US foreign policy, particularly with the US-Japanese relationship. Audience response was excellent. The discussion session was lively and right on the objectives

On the same trip, the USIS post in Singapore sent the following summary:

Cornell historian Walter La Feber spent 2 days in Singapore cogently explaining - through historical comparisons - basis and backing for American foreign policy. He stresses in precise, persuasive, and confident manner that US is bound to continue involvement in world affairs and that broad consensus between Executive, Legislative, and public applies to most major foreign policy issues. His sometimes skeptical but always keenly interested audiences-composed of govt officials, academics and military officers - responded extremely well to Dr. La Feber, who is 1st rate volunteer speaker

The USIS post in Bangkok provided this summary of an April 1976 visit.

Dr. Walter La Feber, noll professor of history at Cornell University, lectured on foreign policy before members of the political science and history faculties of Chulalongkorn and Chiang Mai Universities Nov 12 and 13. In his lectures, he contrasted US foreign policy during the immediate post WWI period with the 1970s. He portrayed the US as a responsible world power adjusting to the new political realities in Indochina and interested in the maintenance of friendly relations with Thailand. In his formal presentations and in social gatherings, Dr. La Feber served to support the post's first and third objectives regarding the resiliency of current US foreign policy and future relations with Thailand

I was among those who took multiple courses with Professor LaFeber while an undergraduate.  I can state from personal experience that the descriptions of his expertise, presentation, and demeanor are in no way an exaggeration.  They may even understate the reality.

The historical profession has lost a giant.  Walter LaFeber was a gentleman, a consummate scholar, and an inspiring teacher.  I was lucky to call him friend.

Source:  All documents come from:  Office of the Associate Directorate for Programs, Office of Program Coordination and Development, Entry P-73: VOLUNTEER SPEAKERS FILES, 1968-1981, File: La Feber, Walter 1976 (NAID 6049177), Record Group 306: Records of the United States Information Agency.