Cornell University Press

A Tribute to Walter LaFeber

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Walter LaFeber, an emeritus Cornell University professor of American diplomatic history, died in Ithaca on April 9 at the age of 87. His distinguished career earned him acclaim for its scholarly excellence and influence. At Cornell, he was also esteemed for his legendary teaching and dedication to Cornell as an institution. As befits a person of his intellectual honesty and stature, LaFeber’s institutional loyalty included devotion to Cornell while also letting it know when he thought it was wrong.

Professor LaFeber was a product of the Wisconsin School of diplomatic history and foreign policy, which interpreted American history through a more critical lens than more traditional models of research and commentary. This approach had a special appeal to students of my generation who were being exposed to the social and political ferment engendered by the Vietnam War and such causes as racial justice, equal rights more generally, and student alienation. But LaFeber’s excellence was also more universal, appealing to students from across the political spectrum. It also garnered respect from colleagues, regardless of their political persuasion.

But LaFeber’s excellence was also more universal, appealing to students from across the political spectrum.

When he arrived at Cornell after graduate school at Madison, the history department 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.

As a student in his American diplomatic history course in the spring of 1970, I recall rousing myself out of bed and trudging through Cornell’s famous—or infamous—hilly and often icy or rainy streets. I knew that something memorable awaited me. Always sporting a trademark coat and tie as he stood (or sometimes sat) before the many rows of students who hovered over him in the steeply graded lecture room in Ivy Hall, LaFeber memorably dissected the vicissitudes of American foreign and diplomatic policy, forsaking any support whatsoever from notes, let alone any resort to the “ums,” “you know,” or other verbal crutches to which many of us succumb. His captivating portrayals of major historical figures, actions, and materials transformed us into active observers of history’s very making. Most lecturers hope for the singular applause that might await them at the end of the semester. But LaFeber received an ovation after every single lecture. And as often as not, they were standing ovations.

I also remember LaFeber’s opposition to how Cornell dealt with the greatest crisis in Cornell’s history, the Straight takeover of 1969. Though he was a champion of racial justice, LaFeber felt compelled to publicly oppose the university’s handling of the takeover and the massive student movement that supported it because he believed that the university’s essential commitment to reasoned discourse and academic freedom had been violated. You cannot achieve liberal ends by illiberal means. In my book, Cornell University Press book, Cornell ’69, he told me, “Once you introduce any kind of element of force into the university, you compromise the institution. To me, that is totally unforgivable… I’m a relativist in terms of object and conclusion. I don’t think I am necessarily right. What I am absolutist about is the procedure you use to get there. Which means the university always has to be open and it cannot be compromised.”

Once you introduce any kind of element of force into the university, you compromise the institution. To me, that is totally unforgivable…

Several faculty members resigned from Cornell in reaction to what had transpired, including government professors Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Allan Sindler. (Historian Donald Kagan had already resigned to go to Yale, but told me that he wished he had waited to announce his resignation in order to make a stronger point.) LaFeber did not. He stayed in place to continue his support for progressive causes while standing strong for open and free discourse. His stance impacted me and many of my friends because it showed us an interpretation of events that we otherwise would have missed given campus consensus, and to take this alternative seriously. In this as in many other areas, he compelled us to stretch our minds and to think for ourselves.

And he posed a question that remains relevant to this day that is struggling with the alleged tension between free and open discourse and social justice: can any viable notion of social justice prevail in the absence of a genuine commitment to free thought, intellectual diversity, and other liberal principles?

*Featured photo: Cornell University. Credit: Emily Xie.

Cover image of Cornell ’69.
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Donald Alexander Downs, an undergraduate at Cornell during the uprising, is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism and the Glenn B. and Cleone Orr Hawkins Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His other books include More than Victims and Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.

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