MAY/JUN. 2006 VOLUME 108 NUMBER 6
In 1959,Walter LaFeber was a newly minted assistant professor of American history at Cornell and, at twenty-six, barely older than some of his students. One day his wife, Sandy, visited him in class. LaFeber taught from a detailed sheaf of notes, and Sandy LaFeber, who had been a speech major at Stanford, was not impressed by her husband's performance at the lectern. "You know," she said, "you're never going to get tenure here. You never looked up once."
The prediction proved inaccurate; in the succeeding forty-seven years, LaFeber improved. He put away his notes and learned to lecture from memory, the same technique that his own graduate school mentor, University of Wisconsin historian Fred Harrington '33, had employed to great effect. So successful was LaFeber that the two-semester History of American Foreign Policy course that he developed at Cornell quickly became a popular draw. At its peak more than four hundred students enrolled each semester to take in the thrice-weekly orations--held for many years in Bailey Hall to accommodate overflow crowds--that they now often recall as the highlights of their undergraduate careers. "The course became known as 'Walt,' as in, 'Are you going to see Walt today?' " recalls Andrew Tisch '71, who audited LaFeber's lectures during his undergraduate years at the Hotel school. By then Vietnam had made the foreign policy course, heretofore merely popular, officially indispensable. "The lecture was so riveting that you really went to see the professor, not the course. He was unique."
In December, LaFeber, the first Andrew and James Tisch Distinguished University Professor, held his final seminar and announced his retirement from teaching. The last class itself featured a low-key send-off--a round of applause from the gathered members of the history department staff, a cake, and a gift (a Chicago Cubs jersey) from his students. Somewhat more in keeping with LaFeber's largerthan- life stature among alumni was another event, a farewell lecture in New York City on April 25. Originally scheduled to be held at the Museum of Natural History, all 900-plus seats were snapped up four days after it was announced in February, and organizers were forced to move the show to the 2,900-seat Beacon Theater. Tisch--who endowed the chair (with his brother James '75) that has kept LaFeber teaching for an additional four years and also proposed the tribute--had an even grander venue in mind."My original idea was that he should deliver a final lecture at Carnegie Hall," he says, "but Walt wouldn't have anything to do with that."
It is the rare seventy-two-year-old history professor who can fill a Broadway house, but ever since he put away his notes four decades ago the soothing Midwestern monotone ofWalter LaFeber has proven to be a strangely powerful force.As the 1960s unspooled, the most compelling show on campus was the earnest young professor from Indiana who sat on a desk and explained why his country did the confounding things that it did. Among his exstudents are one present and one former national security advisor, Stephen Hadley '69 and Sandy Berger '67, along with a legion of prominent American historians, political theorists, and powerful policy-makers. "The students who had the good fortune to take courses from him were among the anointed in the world," says President Emeritus Dale Corson, a charter member of the Walter LaFeber admiration society. "He gives an insight that comes from the heart. It isn't just somebody standing up there talking--it's somebody standing up there talking to me."
LaFeber determinedly aw-shucks his way out of these encomiums; he's heard it all before, and will hear it all again before this year is up. "The students showed up out of fear--they were scared to death they were going to miss something that was on the exam," he says. "If I'd been talking about fourteenth-century Florence, they would not have been there, no matter how good I was. It was because I was talking about U.S. foreign policy. It was the times."
A chat with Walt LaFeber offers only the barest glimpse into the cult of personality that sprung up around perhaps the most popular and influential professor on campus. He is almost pathologically modest about that distinction, preferring to divert the praise to present and former colleagues in the history and government departments, especially the tight-knit group of prominent hires that, like LaFeber, arrived as young scholars in the late 1950s and early 1960s and "grew up together" on the Hill. "I like to think I'm a good teacher, but I'm certainly no better than a number of people in this department. And nobody in their right mind in the 1960s would have said I was a better teacher than [government professors] Allan Bloom or Ted Lowi, my God."
Lowi himself disagrees, after a fashion. "He fooled everybody," says the political scientist, who came to Cornell in 1961. "He was probably just as insecure as the rest of us."As twentysomething professors, Lowi and LaFeber shared a wall of their adjoining offices in Sibley Hall--and very different classroom styles. Lowi was known as a blustery preacher who boomed in the rich drawl of an Alabama native. The mild-mannered LaFeber spoke so softly that students in large halls needed to remain stone silent to hear him. "He had this finishing-school character--very polished, very elegant," Lowi says. "Walt has a way of combining anecdote with argument and real feeling; like me he's got that populist distrust of power. He can be just as much of a liberal as I am, but without the soapbox rhetoric. I knew when I met my match, the bastard."
Lowi recently unearthed a snapshot from the early 1960s, a faded color photo of the history/government touch football team, which occasionally took on grad students in intramural contests. ("We beat the crap out of them," Lowi says.) It is a formidable squad, at least intellectually. There's Donald Kagan, now a conservative lion at Yale, with the prominent presidential scholar Clinton Rossiter '39 under center. On the far right side of the group is the constitutional expert Walter Berns, presently a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute; LaFeber and Lowi line up, appropriately, on the left.With his vintage black-framed glasses and prominent pate, LaFeber, then about twenty-eight, appears to possess all the gridiron presence of a gangly Bob Newhart. But don't be fooled. A high school basketball star, LaFeber had good hands and a fiercely competitive spirit. "Walt's got a strong macho streak," Lowi says. "He didn't like to lose."
The office LaFeber presently inhabits is an odd two-level space in Mc- Graw Hall, with a bookcase- lined balcony and a soaring window overlooking Cayuga Lake. He shares the room with Joel Silbey, the White Professor of History Emeritus, retired from teaching since 2002 but a frequent occupant of the neighboring desk during his afternoon visits to retrieve e-mail and kvetch about baseball. LaFeber's side of the room is heaped with the artifacts of his many pursuits, scholarly and otherwise. On the wall are portraits of two of his heroes: John Quincy Adams, the poet president who warned his nation not to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," and Ernie Banks, irrepressible shortstop of the hopeless Cubs. Growing up in tiny Walkerton, Indiana, LaFeber would take the train into Chicago to Wrigley Field, and he still follows the team's tortured fortunes, making annual tips to Phoenix for spring training. "It does prepare you to teach foreign policy," he says. "I was in Arizona last week watching the Cubs play--they're just terrible-- and it reminded me again of the limitations of human nature. You'd never think you're going to go out and democratize the world with this group."
One desk away, Silbey chuckles. A Brooklyn native, he grew up a fan of the Dodgers' crosstown rivals, the Giants. "One of the things that unites us is that, in my life and in Walter's, we rooted for nothing but losers. That gives you a sense of history . . . and fate."
This isn't precisely true--LaFeber's also a Notre Dame football fan--but there is a certain fatalist streak in his scholarship. As a graduate student in the mid-1950s LaFeber was a member of the so-called "Wisconsin School" of historians who trained at the University ofWisconsin with Harrington and William Appleman Williams, the controversial Cold War revisionist and author of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. The Wisconsin School questioned the prevailing orthodoxy about the U.S. abroad and emphasized the economic roots of American foreign policy-- and its persistent, often ruinous expansionist tendencies, a theme that has been a LaFeber perennial since his first book, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898, which was adapted from his PhD dissertation on Grover Cleveland. It won the American Historical Association's Beveridge Prize in 1962, and quickly established LaFeber's bona fides as "a star in a galaxy of young historians," as the Cornell Alumni News proclaimed in a 1963 profile.
Other books and many more scholarly accolades would follow, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988 and the prestigious Bancroft Prize for 1998's The Clash, a historical overview of U.S.–Japanese relations. LaFeber was also the first recipient of the Clark undergraduate teaching award, just one reflection of the life-changing powers ascribed to his lectures and seminars by those who attended. Sandy Berger notes the existence of a bipartisan "LaFeber mafia" of former students at work in the nation's capital ("His network-- across parties--could teach our much beleaguered CIA a thing or two," he writes in an e-mail), but few talk of an influential "LaFeber School" of foreign policy thought. The prominent students he once mentored--a group that presently includes Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman '72, Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried '74, and Venezuelan ambassador William Brownfield '74--seem likely as not to disagree with his liberal revisionist take on American history. "They took everything I taught, reversed it, and ended the Cold War," LaFeber jokes, a bit ruefully.
This may be taken as evidence of LaFeber's technique of rigorous classroom non-indoctrination. In seminars, he didn't argue with students, and his own convictions were couched in such unassuming, anecdote-laden terms that even conservatives were charmed. "I didn't try to instill anything in anybody," he says. "I've never cared about having disciples. [Allan] Bloom, of course, did, but he was very convinced he was right. I'm often not." Students faced a bewilderment of viewpoints during the days when Bloom espoused his Straussian ideals while Lowi and LaFeber lobbed revisionist hand grenades about American imperial hubris back down the hall. "Some of the most interesting experiences I've had over the years have been with students who came to me after class to say, 'Professor LaFeber disagrees,' " says Silbey. "I'd explain why I said what I did and say, 'Now go back and ask LaFeber what he thinks.' "
LaFeber grins. "We were all talking across ideologies, and we'd carry on these debates through the students," he says. "We had a great time confusing them. 'Can't you people agree on anything?'"
Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, a changed political climate meant that LaFeber was as likely to face friction from the left, says Eric Alterman '82, media columnist for The Nation and an English professor at CUNY–Brooklyn College."He was a lot harsher on everybody than I wanted him to be," he says. "He didn't withdraw from tough judgments. To me, Walter represents the ur-notion of what it means to be a disinterested scholar. There's a willingness to follow the scholarship wherever it leads, even if it's in politically inconvenient directions."
Alterman, who wrote the 2003 bestseller What Liberal Media?, recalls that his 1992 book Sound & Fury, a history of the American political pundit class, developed directly from his exposure to LaFeber's classroom."I was disabused of dozens and dozens of ideas I thought I had at the time," he says. "After you take a class with Walter LaFeber, if you're honest with yourself, you can't accept any easy pieties. The people you think are the good guys are often lazy and wrong or dishonest, and you have to deal with it."
LaFeber posseses, he says, a Calvinist view of human nature, which is accompanied by an equally uncompromising work ethic. Both were forged in childhood: for a dozen years, from age eight until he graduated from Hanover College, a small Presbyterian school in southern Indiana, LaFeber labored in his father's Walkerton grocery store. "It was one of the best experiences in my life," he says. "You deal with people day in and day out, and it's very different from going to school."
The interpersonal skills he acquired behind the cash register may go some way toward explaining LaFeber's enduring popularity, even among those that don't share his politics. "The reason I had classes with hundreds of students was that I was committed to a particular point of view, so there was something there that students could either agree or disagree with, and I think they understood that if they disagreed they weren't going to fail the course," he says. This, LaFeber stresses, was a trait shared throughout the department. "If there's a common denominator, it's that we all cared about foreign policy.We acted as if this was really important-- important enough that we've essentially committed our own lives to it. That's the quickest thing a student sees."
It's a commitment that seems not to have wavered in the professional lifetime that LaFeber spent at Cornell.He says that "the last twenty years have been just as exciting as the first, in some ways more so," and raves about the drive and savvy of his current students, especially a senior seminar on post-9/11 foreign policy he taught last year that he calls "one of the best classes I've ever had."
So why retire? "I didn't want to wear out my welcome," he says. The decision to leave the classroom had been long in coming; LaFeber went on half-time fifteen years ago in order to devote his spring semesters to research, and had been planning to retire several years ago. The 2002 Tisch professorship lured him back to teaching, but heart surgery in the summer of 2003 forced a medical leave (his first and only) that cancelled fall classes that year. Now fully recovered, LaFeber chose not to renew his chair for another term. "I wanted a long, consistent period of time," he says. "You get to be a certain age, and you realize it won't be long before you're in that great library in the sky. You think you've got to use the libraries down here before you run out of time."
LaFeber has no plans to go quietly. He has a long list of scholarly chores, including an examination of the Boxer Rebellion in China and a revision of his 1967 textbook America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1966. But the project he seems most passionate about is a book of essays on 9/11 and its aftermath, a topic that has brought many of LaFeber's notions about U.S. expansionism and its historical context back into academic vogue. "One thing that really interests me is how historians after 9/11 played up people like Theodore Roosevelt and the whole idea of American empire, wrongly," he says. "They essentially prostituted the history for the sake of policy. One of my favorite phrases is, 'Behind every man on horseback is a writer with a shovel and a broom.' There were too many people with shovels and brooms after 9/11."
LaFeber's elder-statesman standing among American historians and his persistent-- and prescient--criticism of the war in Iraq have given him a second career of sorts as a public intellectual. In a 2002 op-ed in the Washington Post he warned that the Bush Administration's pre-invasion promise to seed democracy throughout the Middle East "flies in the face of everything we know about Iraqi history." More recently, he took to the same pages to blast Condoleezza Rice for a January speech that defined U.S. foreign policy as having "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," a pointed quote from Bush's second inaugural address. "Only a person ignorant of human history could seriously discuss 'ending tyranny in our world,' " LaFeber wrote. "It is rooted in a human nature that cannot be changed, only contained."
The piece was well-received by the punditocracy, which was a pleasant surprise. "If I'd done it eighteen months ago," LaFeber says, "I might have gotten death threats." The rising chorus of skepticism regarding the war, he notes, has familiar echoes. "I've been struck by how the debate has changed in the last year.We are now about where we were in 1965 on Vietnam. A lot of people feel used. And a lot of people know that they essentially suspended disbelief."
But LaFeber remains a historian, not an opinion maker; he takes the long view about his country's weakness for seeking monsters abroad. "This is just the way Americans think," he says. "The argument next time will be what it was this time. They'll say, 'Yeah,Vietnam didn't work and Iraq didn't work, but circumstances are different now.We've learned how to do it.' Or, 'We have more power now.' And there will always be enough people around who, for oil or whatever, will say, 'Let's do it, and here's the reason why.' "
He stretches his long legs and smiles wanly. As so many students recall, LaFeber never flashed anger in the classroom, even at those who didn't do the reading; histrionics were not a part of the show. He wove his stories, pulled pieces together, and, then as now, let others decide what to make of it. "As a historian or a Cubs fan, you tend to be pessimistic about these things," he says. "You're not surprised. But maybe you're disappointed that these people who are making policy didn't learn their history. Especially if some of them are from Cornell."
For more on Walter LaFeber, go to: http://LaFeber.aad.cornell.edu