Walter LaFeber, Historian Who Dissected Diplomacy, Dies at 87Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, diplomatic history
Walter LaFeber, a Cornell University history professor and author whose unvarnished version of American diplomacy drew hundreds of students and spectators to his Saturday morning lectures, and whose acolytes went on to influence the nation’s foreign policy, died on Tuesday in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 87.
His daughter, Suzanne Kahl, confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility.
Professor LaFeber (pronounced la-FEE-ber) did not like to label himself or others, but he was widely considered to be a “moderate revisionist.” He was a disciple of the so-called Wisconsin School of diplomatic history inspired by William Appelman Williams, which challenged conventional accounts of American exceptionalism by suggesting that United States foreign policy was also motivated by imperialism.
Professor LaFeber valued the roles that institutions played in shaping history, but he never underestimated the influence of individuals. He enlivened his books and lectures by fleshing out characters from Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams to George W. Bush and even Michael Jordan. His book “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism” (1999) was about basketball as a metaphor for globalization.
While he could condemn without demonizing, he had no compunctions about exposing hypocrisy. Just before Independence Day in 1983, in response to Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s declaration that the United States would not tolerate Central American revolutionaries “shooting their way into the government,” Professor LaFeber wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “Given George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s dependence on American riflemen, it is well for Fourth of July celebrations that Mr. Shultz’s law cannot be applied retroactively.” (Mr. Shultz died last month.)
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