Marilyn Young (1937–2017)

Militarism runs deep in the United States, but historian Marilyn Young never gave up believing that it could be overcome.

Jay Godwin / Wikimedia Commons

“Our continuous task must be to make war visible, vivid, an inescapable part of the country’s self-consciousness, as inescapable a subject of study as it is a reality.” Marilyn Young, 2011

Historian and activist Marilyn B. Young died at her home in New York on February 19. A longtime professor at New York University, she was a towering figure in the history of US foreign relations, a celebrated critical historian of the Vietnam War and US intervention overseas. But her prominence as a scholar was matched by the strength of her political convictions, and by her unwavering use of her public platform to fight misogyny, US empire, and unending war.

Young’s political consciousness was sparked as a teenager in Brooklyn. She was sixteen when the funeral for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was held in her neighborhood, at the IJ Morris funeral home on Church Avenue in Brownsville. Though the chapel — the biggest in the city — held only 500 people, some 10,000 gathered there, filling the streets around the neighborhood landmark, and around Young’s apartment building.

Many of the activists who had defended the Rosenbergs were there; a ticket to the service is among WEB Du Bois’s personal papers. As the crowd swelled throughout the day, Young ventured out on to her fire escape to watch and listen, she recounted to her friend Barbara Weinstein — until her father yelled, “Get back inside! The FBI is taking pictures!” Young recalled this moment as a political awakening.

She left Brooklyn for Vassar College, among the last generation who would attend Vassar as an exclusively women’s college. She worked as a managing editor for the college newspaper, where editorials under her direction denounced the red-baiting rhetoric of the Eisenhower administration and heralded the formation of new campus groups dedicated to civil rights. Already in 1954, still her freshman year, she had an eye to the world beyond the United States, as she reported on “an increase in the number of women participating in the job of running this far-flung empire of ours.”

Young’s commitment to fighting against war was evident even in these early days, as she emphasized the message of a speaker invited to campus, printing in bold, “We must work for peace. The best brains in the country do nothing but prepare for war.” When she was invited with a group of college newspaper editors to a press conference with then Vice-President Nixon in 1956, she found herself overwhelmed at his ability to evade any real questioning. “Barring the use of objectionable language,” she wrote, “I find myself unable to articulate my disgust, my horror and my fear after seeing Nixon in action. He is shifty and he is dangerous.”

After she graduated from Vassar, she was granted a full scholarship to study at Harvard, in her own telling, “provided she learned Chinese and wrote a thesis in the field of US-East Asian relations.” Under the supervision of Ernest May and John King Fairbank, she produced a dissertation on the making of US policy toward the so-called “China market” in the late nineteenth century.

The book that resulted, The Rhetoric of Empire, published in 1968, expanded a school of thought inaugurated by William Appleman Williams that considered the material causes of US expansionism. But it also took ideology seriously to demonstrate the flaws in traditional realist thinking.

In the book’s acknowledgments, she thanked three close friends for their input: Dorothy Borg, a historian of US–China relations whose work with the Institute of Pacific Relations was targeted by McCarthy; Sara Ruddick, the feminist philosopher, whom she had befriended at Vassar, and whose work redefined the concept of mothering; and Howard Zinn, who brought the idea of “peoples’ history” to a mass audience. This was the scholarly community that Young always cultivated: those who would use their scholarship in the fight for social justice.

As the US war in Vietnam escalated, Young’s politics were sharpened, and she combined her interest in the international with a focus on the domestic — in the household sense.

She later wrote for a Vassar feminist newspaper that for so many women, “education meant the possibility of being the world’s most interesting wives and mothers.” But in the context of the growing mobilizations against the war, she wrote, “For the first time, I began to see that conflicts about class and gender on a personal level had a larger systemic expression. The name of the system was not simply capitalism, it was patriarchy as well.”

Her feminism was unrelenting and a vital part of her politics. She reclaimed the mantle of the feminist killjoy in 1979, before such a move was cool, chiding those in the movement who persisted in making sexist jokes: “You must remember that while you are just having what you consider to be a little idle and harmless fun, we are fighting for self determination and self-identity. After the feminist revolution we’ll all sit around and have a good laugh, but until then, you’ll just have to either accept our anger or our terms.”

This feminism suffused her scholarly work as she examined revolutionary moments around the world, especially in the volume Promissory Notes: Women and the Transition to Socialism, co-edited with Rayna Rapp and Sonia Kruks. The book looked critically at women’s positions in socialist and revolutionary societies in the second and third worlds, working to push these “unfinished” revolutions toward real equality.

During the Nixon presidency, Young turned her focus from China specifically to the broader contours of US empire, editing American Expansionism, a 1973 volume of revisionist and New Left historical analyses. Although the term expansionism was backward-looking, the collection announced the emergent critical consensus of a new generation of historians who no longer took their task to be unhesitating support for US foreign policy.

Over more than a century, the essays showed, US foreign policy had been directed toward the steady accretion of greater territory and a widening sphere of influence. To heal national wounds after the Civil War, imperial conquest beckoned. Further, the authors grappled with the contending and concomitant processes of “formal” and “informal” empire that characterized the moment.

It was later, with a bit more historical distance, that Young helped usher in a new approach to understanding the US war in Vietnam with a single letter, in the title of the 1990 book for which she is arguably most famous, The Vietnam Wars.

As a deeply perceptive critic of the murderous folly of US efforts in Southeast Asia, she urged recognition that the United States was not the only, or even the primary, actor. Plural, the wars were not all about US objectives and their opposition, nor was the suffering felt only by the United States. This elegant shift in perspective has become commonplace, and scholars today can no longer ignore the complexity it admitted.

Young constantly reminded us, however, that willful misunderstanding of history is a political issue, not simply a scholarly one. She recalled how, as far back as the beginning of the Lyndon Johnson administration, while an assistant professor, she could grasp what it took Robert S. McNamara, at the top of the command chain, decades to admit: Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist. The White House had access to abundant information informing them that US troops were entering a plural political situation, irreducible to the Manichaeism of Cold War hostilities.

But, she wrote in her withering way, “it made no difference.” The administration sidelined reputable social-scientific research that showed the “insurgency” in South Vietnam to be more than simply a Communist conspiracy. The problem was that such a finding did not correspond to US strategy (nor did it answer General William Westmoreland’s pressing question about the so-called “Viet Cong,” “do they believe in God?”).

In recent years, Francis M. Bator, a high-ranking Johnson administration official, considered his own experiences in light of a few decades of historiography about Vietnam. His essay concluded that expansion of the war effort was the president’s way to appeal to legislators reluctant to support his domestic agenda. In response, Young lamented, “To argue, as Bator seems to, that the only way forward domestically was to yield to mindless militarism and chauvinism is a radical indictment of the American system.”

An attraction to militarism runs deep in the United States, but Young never gave up believing that it could be overcome. Political organizing and political persuasion through careful presentation of uncomfortable truths was crucial.

To share such truths with wide audiences was therefore important to her, and doing so demonstrated her fearlessness. After Henry A. Kissinger lied during a high-profile conference on the wars in Southeast Asia, claiming in front of hundreds that the aerial bombing he coordinated in Cambodia was confined to a small five-mile strip, Young used her platform to correct him. To the gathered luminaries she read out the exact tonnage of bombs dropped, 230,516, and the number of bombing sites, 113,716. The numbers spoke for themselves.

She was also a vocal opponent of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, and helped form the group Historians Against the War, in 2003. Together with Lloyd Gardner, she edited The New American Empire in 2005, which was subtitled “A Twenty-First Century Teach-in on US Foreign Policy.” The book brought together historians and analysts of Bush’s unilateralism to unmask the interests served by US intervention — and put historical scholarship, once again, in the service of activism.

This was followed quickly by another volume, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam; Or, How Not to Learn from the Past, which skewered the bad historical analogies and unlearned lessons then shaping the debate about the ongoing war: “History is too important,” they wrote, “to be left to the manipulations of Washington think-tank theorists and their sponsors.”

Young’s convictions remained steadfast, even as her historian’s eye led her to rethink terms. In recent years, she recognized that debates around imperialism, which had been reignited by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, risked exhaustion. She turned toward even simpler terminology: war.

Since her childhood, she wrote, the United States had been at war. The invention of the “limited war,” which did not demand the mobilization of all sectors of American society and economy, nor require express and considered permission of the legislative branch, had allowed war to become unlimited.

The consequences for both the United States and the world were grave. Surveying the Cold War, she reminded us in 2012 that “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South, and Southeast Asia.” As President Obama turned toward an even more chaste form of unlimited war by drone strike, Young would suggest that perhaps the best term to describe her approach to foreign policy was simply “anti-interventionist.”

In 2011, she became the president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, publishers of the venerable, if staid, journal Diplomatic History. Only the third woman to hold the position, she was instrumental in making a historically male-dominated organization much more welcoming not only to women, but to a range of historical perspectives that had long been excluded from the field of foreign relations history — a field that, as she wrote in 2002, so often “takes America at its own word.”

The countless students she mentored, formally and informally, found her wise, generous, and always forthright. She pulled no punches, and she was as direct in a graduate seminar as she was on a public stage. As a writer and a teacher, she pushed generations of scholars to forefront the political implications of their work, imploring her fellow historians “to speak and write so that a time of war not be mistaken for peacetime, nor waging war for making peace.”

To those of us lucky enough to study with her, she was more than a mentor: she was a model, of a scholarly life lived in the pursuit of peace and justice, at home and abroad. As we take up her mantle, Young’s legacy will live on.

Donations in Marilyn Young’s honor may be made to the War Resisters League,