The Quintessential InstitutionalistHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, diplomatic history, international relations, Walter LaFeber
Donald Alexander Downs is an emeritus professor of political science and affiliate professor of law and journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author, among other books, of Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (Cornell University Press) and Free Speech and Liberal Education: A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance (CATO).
Walter LaFeber, an emeritus professor of American diplomatic history at Cornell University, died earlier this month at the age of 87. Throughout his long and distinguished career, LaFeber excelled in each of the categories that universities officially use to evaluate merit, influencing thousands of students and colleagues through the force of his scholarship, teaching, and service. Equally important, LaFeber was the quintessential institutionalist, a bulwark in defense of the university as special place of reason and open debate.
Scholarship alone would have earned LaFeber his stellar reputation. A product of the noted “Wisconsin School” led by such historians as William Appleman Williams and Fred Harvey Harrington, LaFeber emerged as a leading voice among revisionists who interpreted American diplomatic and political history more critically than had more traditional scholars. His many books influenced both scholarship and national politics, especially after the misadventures that ensued from America’s involvement in Vietnam.
He joined Cornell upon receiving his doctorate. The history department at that time shared a floor in West Sibley Hall with the equally prominent government department. The two departments took pride in hosting a diversity of perspectives while exerting an outsized influence on the public intellectual life of the campus. Students flocked to their classes and to the many public events in which they participated.
The ferment fomented in the 1960s by the war in Vietnam, racial conflicts, student alienation, and a host of other issues whetted the appetites of my generation of college students for a more critical understanding of American history and for engaged and conscientious teaching. LaFeber’s model of revisionism and his way of teaching it were perfect matches for this time of reckoning.
Yet he never wavered in his commitment to such time-tested principles as academic freedom, intellectual rigor, and the diversity of ideas and thought that naturally flows from intellectual tolerance — a commitment that transcended the politics and moral passions of the time. He bridged the gap that had widened between the generations. And he bridged ideological differences in a manner that could serve as a model for higher education today. Cornell housed many prominent conservatives and liberals in LaFeber’s earlier years, especially in that shared wing of Sibley Hall; and each side held him in high esteem. What united them was a common commitment to the university as a safe harbor in a turbulent world.
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