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:
On the same trip, the USIS post in Singapore sent the following summary:
The USIS post in Bangkok provided this summary of an April 1976 visit.
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.