June 19, 2021

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Walter LaFeber, Historian Who Dissected Diplomacy, Dies at 87

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As an undergraduate, he had been relatively comfortable with the foreign policies of Republicans like Senator Robert A. Taft and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He became more critical after he entered the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under Professor Fred Harvey Harrington and where he and two other future professors, Lloyd C. Gardner and Thomas J. McCormick, were recruited to be William Appleman Williams’s teaching assistants.

In 1955, Professor LaFeber married Sandra Gould, whom he had met at Hanover. She and their daughter survive him, along with a son, Scott; two grandsons; and a granddaughter.

After he earned his doctorate in 1959, he was hired as an assistant professor at Cornell, joining a star-studded department that also included Allan Bloom, Andrew Hacker and Theodore J. Lowi. He became a full professor in 1967 and, unlike many colleagues, continued to teach undergraduates regularly. The students in his class “History of American Foreign Relations” gave him standing ovations.

His formal dress gave him gravitas in an era of growing turmoil on campus.

“Wearing a tie to teach, for example, might signify a belief that teaching is a different and more serious enterprise than anything else he does,” Professors Rotter and Costigliola wrote in 2004. “Certainly the decision to look very different from how he sounded, to create and then confound expectation in this way, gave LaFeber a special authority of the sort often lacking in radicals in the 1960s-’70s. It was in part because of the contrast in form and substance that students paid attention.”

In 1976, Professor LaFeber was the first faculty member invited to deliver Cornell’s commencement address, and in 2002 he was named the first Andrew H. and James S. Tisch distinguished professor. In 2006, some 3,000 Cornellians filled the Beacon Theater in Manhattan to hear him deliver what was billed as his farewell lecture, titled “A Half-Century of Friends, Foreign Policy and Great Losers.”

His books include “The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898” (1963); “Creation of the American Empire: U.S. Diplomatic History” (1973); “The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective” (1978), which was credited with nudging the Senate into ratifying the treaty relinquishing the canal (National Review called its support of the treaty “predictable”); “The American Age: U.S. Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750” (1989); “America, Russia and the Cold War” (the most recent edition of which was published in 2006); and “The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, and the 1968 Election” (2005).

Professor LaFeber’s books won praise for placing American foreign policy in the context of domestic politics and the sometimes neglected agendas of other nations. He also took the long view of history, which was a prudent perspective for a fan of the Chicago Cubs, a team that before 2016 had not won a World Series since 1908.

“As someone once said,” Professor LaFeber noted, “‘Anybody can have a bad century.’”

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