Reflections on My Friend, the Late Diplomatic Historian Norman Graebner


Mr. Bornet, Ph.D. (Emory, ’39, ‘40G), is a native of Pennsylvania and a research historian with two Emory degrees, a graduate year at University of Georgia, and the history Ph.D. from Stanford University. Among his books are The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Presidency Series in 1983, Welfare in America in 1960, and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His 383 page autobiography is An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America (Talent, OR: Bornet Books, 1995). Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science from Southern Oregon University, he is 92 years old.

Here we have a historian in his early 90s writing appreciatively of one who just departed from us. We think these worthwhile ideas in a time when there is a good deal of verbal finger pointing in our profession rooted in ideology. Like others, historians are somewhere along the pathway to a Lifetime to be spent in the History Profession.

Bornet emerged from the Northeast, the South, and the West. Graebner was solidly of the Middle West while ending his career in Virginia. Clearly, here were professional lives in tandem. From both there was teaching, and each produced books throughout their lifetimes.

Graebner finally told his story in the 212 text pages of A Twentieth-Century Odyssey: Memoir of a Life in Academe. Bornet told his in the 368 pages of An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America. Graebner died in Charlottesville; Bornet lives in Ashland, Oregon. Here is a good read for those living within our widespread profession who have kept in touch with historian friends they made early on.

This short piece is not fulsome biography, tribute, summary, or even interpretation.  Asked if I would like to write something about this distinguished man, I hesitated only briefly, then I accepted the opportunity to think about my friend yet again.

He was of my generation:  We were children and youths in Prosperity and then Depression.  We served in World War II.

Some of us graduated from college a year or two after England and France squared off with Hitler.  Our studies were definitely affected by the awful events in France, England, Russia, and during the slow, costly steps the Allies took to get back on the Continent via Africa and Italy, and to the Philippines and Japan across the vast Pacific.

Sometimes the books we chose to read and the seminar papers we decided to research and write, postwar, were influenced (whether we always knew it or not) by Great Events and the Important Historical Figures who walked the stage in our day. 

We of that postwar generation of history doctoral candidates had served long and worked hard in Army, Navy, Coast Guard, or Air Force.  But for the most part we didn’t change the world perceptibly when in uniform.  Still, reading of Norman Graebner striving in 1946 to mold a new Japan into a democratic and decent place, a subject that occupies carefully drafted space in his autobiography, one does not doubt that he, at least, made some difference in the passing scene, even at his lowly officered rank.  (I know my years as Barracks Officer for Fleet Air Alameda were useful and appreciated.  In neither case were we wasting our time.)

It would be all too easy to retell here Graebner’s two pages on the use of the atomic bombs (maybe HNN will offer them in some issue).  I am in agreement with much of what he has to say.

We who graduated from college in 1939, or before, nearly always ended up wearing a uniform.  Little did we know as time passed that ultimately we were going to be rewarded by a beneficent GI Bill.  It is worth pointing out that many of us were not going to settle for that state school; no, we would head at the end for top drawer, name brand institutions (I to Stanford, he to Chicago; others—gratefully, I know—to the Ivy League).  We would even try to balance paying the bills of our expanding families with taking a bit more time to finish up our doctorates. 

We ventured to marry in our late twenties, and it is my anecdotal observation that our marriages lasted and that sometimes they were related to our scholarly accomplishments.  Norman’s first marriage was of partnership quality, and I am guessing his second (toward life’s end) also shored up his creativity.  Mine, now sixty-five years along, has been essential to everything I have achieved.

As he won those really staggering awards for being “the best” when teaching large classes at Iowa State, Illinois, and finally Virginia, with all those important things named for him, he never coasted.  Those numerous PhD candidates he directed who would prepare at least one festschrift and who would become virtually “the Graebner bunch” (my identification), who would collaborate with him, and who would consult with him  into the future, would often proceed to pursue ideas often—though not always—developed at least somewhat in concert with him.  He produced, may we happily say, a gang of creative people who are oh-so-glad they ended up with him as their faculty advisor and mentor.

I knew him best during the year when he and Stanford looked each other over—around 1950, while there was conjecture about the post of deep-rooted Thomas A. Bailey.  It was not a perfect fit, so he left Palo Alto while I stayed several years longer.

I would see him at historical gatherings:  enthusiastic, cheerful, liquid in speech, friendly in manner, with plenty of time for friendship—none of it surprised me.

Vast numbers knew him better than I did.  But when we communicated in one way or another we definitely overlooked ideology and “schools of interpretation.”  But we bypassed areas on which we solidly disagreed.

In time, we both boasted accomplishments—his were absolutely major; mine, while more diversified, were certainly much less significant to the historical literature.

If readers of this take away nothing else, I do hope they will sense the value of maintaining long acquaintances over great distances and in spite of everything.  To cling to friendship over many decades (half a century in our case); to not let politics and self-identification with different schools of thought and interpretation get in the way; and always to maintain and display high regard for one’s peers—that’s surely the right way to go inside a true profession.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 8/31/2010

I was able to find digital images in Google books that reflect my association with Dr. Graebner and provide insights into the collaborative effort that surrounds the publication of history books in the federal environment. It speaks well of Dr. Graebner's integrity as an historian that he was sought out to assist federal historians in an advisory role.


for the generous acknowledgements by the late Roger R. Trask of all who had assisted him. Roger worked in several federal history offices during the 1980s and 1990s and was my mentor during the early 1990s. It was Roger who recommended Dr. Graebner for the history advisory committee. Dr. Graebner's counsel invariably was wise and thoughtful in substance and cheerfully offered. As the old commercial said, when he spoke, people listened.

Alonzo L Hamby - 8/30/2010

What more can one say?

My own relationship with Norman Graebner was causal, intermittent, and, above all, admiring. He was a great historian who helped awaken us to the importance of realism in foreign relations. But perhaps above all he was a quintessential gentleman.

Those who think his work "dated" should try reading it. Those who knew him, even slightly, profited personally as well as intellectually.

Maarja Krusten - 8/29/2010

A lovely tribute, Dr. Bornet. Many thanks for writing it. I had the pleasure of working with Norman Graebner during the early 1990s, when he served on a history advisory panel for a federal agency in Washington. I smiled and nodded when I saw you write, "I would see him at historical gatherings: enthusiastic, cheerful, liquid in speech, friendly in manner, with plenty of time for friendship—none of it surprised me." That is exactly how I remember him. A true gentleman and scholar. I so enjoyed reading your remembrance of him. Thank you so much!