In Memoriam: Marilyn B. Young

The American historical profession lost a titan on this day 14 months ago, and I lost a wonderful teacher who deeply influenced me: Marilyn B. Young. A prominent scholar of U.S.-Asian relations, she was knowledgeable yet kind and accessible to her students. It was she who introduced me to the vibrant literature on the Vietnam War and provided me early encouragement to stay on with studying history at a time when I was still contemplating whether a Ph.D. was right for me. Above all, she led by example what the role of a historian should be in society. The pair of graduate seminars I took with her rank among my most memorable N.Y.U. experience.

The first of them, in Fall 2015, was “Human Rights and ‘Humanitarian’ Interventions,” which was one of two courses — the other was on the Cold War — she routinely taught alongside Molly Nolan. We met weekly in room 604 at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, the seven-story building that’s home to the history department. They trained me to engage in fascinating historiographical debates as we read about how historians argued about the origins of human rights, before delving into such topics as torture, war crimes, genocide, humanitarian aid, as well as the transnational women’s liberation movement. We also analyzed key primary documents. Even now, these discussions continue to inform my two ongoing projects about Hong Kong, one on self-determination and the other on the Vietnamese boat people refugee crisis.

Like Marilyn’s research, the class focused predominately on war and feminism. But she was happy to accommodate my work. Knowing my preoccupation with how culture reflected political life, she recommended to me From Hanoi to Hollywood (1990), which examines the Vietnam War’s portrayal in American film. I chose to speak about charity supergroups in my class presentation and began with the founding in 1985 of U.S.A. for Africa by Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie, who produced “We Are the World” to raise money for the Ethiopian famine. I remember going off on a tangent about the song’s 25th-anniversary remake, recorded in 2010 to support Haiti after the earthquake, and I said Justin Bieber opened the new version, to which Marilyn chuckled and quipped in response: “What a decline!” It was so typical of her humor.

On several weeks, when she was going to see her grandchildren in Sunset Park, we’d walk over to the West 4th Street–Washington Square station and take the Brooklyn-bound D train together, as I headed home in Bensonhurst. She’d spare a dollar or two for any good musician who performed on the subway platform. We chatted about everything from current affairs to my research, and I’d learn just as much from her as I did in the classroom. I ended up writing my final paper on how Cantopop artists adopted the coupling of music with the human rights language in the spring of 1989 to back the Tiananmen student protests in Beijing, both financially and in spirit. Helpful comments from her and Molly later helped me develop the piece into two chapters of my senior honors thesis.

The second seminar I took with Marilyn was one she co-taught with Greg Grandin, “The American Empire and its New Left Critics,” in Spring 2016. We took William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) as a starting point not merely to illuminate the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history but, more importantly, to consider the usefulness of thinking big and writing large-scale narratives — on capitalism and slavery, for instance — to emphasize the totality of the human experience. The class was hence as much historiographical as it was a history of ideas; instead of thumbing through cutting-edge scholarship to see where the field was headed, we turned to classics from earlier generations as sources of intellectual traditions. In addition to G. W. F. Hegel, we read Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, W. E. B. Du Bois, Hannah Arendt, Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Perry Miller, and Noam Chomsky. It was difficult but rewarding.

With just five students and two professors, everything was flexible. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was then gaining serious momentum, having done well in the early Republican primaries before winning seven out of 11 states on Super Tuesday. We talked about how Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign compared it to what was unfolding before our eyes. One week covered U.S. foreign policymaking through the lens of Henry Kissinger, based on Greg’s brilliant Kissinger’s Shadow (2015), for which Marilyn wrote a blurb, and the session ended up being a workshop on how to write history prolifically and effectively as a way to respond to the present. In another week, Lloyd Gardner, a student of Williams’s, came to town and joined us to discuss his impressive work, including Killing Machine (2013) on today’s age of drone warfare.

We ditched our assigned classroom early on and met every Wednesday afternoon at either Greg’s residence in South Slope or, more often in the end, Marilyn’s classy, sixth-floor apartment at 3 Washington Square Village. I’ll never forget how she asked us what we wanted to drink during our first meeting there. “Hot coffee,” I replied without hesitation, thinking it’d be quick and easy to mix powder with boiled water, as I did in the mornings. What I didn’t expect was that she reached for a saucepan from her kitchen cupboard, turned on the stove, patiently brewed the coffee, and then poured it into a mug through a strainer, with milk and sugar on the side. She repeated these steps every time we visited, even as only one person — me — ever asked for it.

Not minding the trouble to take care of her students was so characteristic of who she was as a person; this was apparent in the smallest ways. She always forwarded me things of interest — an upcoming talk on K-pop or a recent Passport article about “the cultural turn in U.S. foreign relations history” — with a comment or two ending with her initial, “M.” Her way of appreciating my passion for Hong Kong was that when she came across a story about my hometown in the New York Times, which she read daily, she’d made sure I read it in the old-fashion way: she cut it out with a pair of scissors and handed me the clipping the next time she saw me. I’d like to think that she thought of me whenever she thought about Hong Kong, and vice versa, perhaps.

Marilyn was born on April 25, 1937, in Brooklyn, where she grew up. She attended Vassar College, then an all-women’s college, and graduated as a history major in 1957. She then accepted an anonymous grant to attend Harvard University on the condition that she learned Chinese and studied U.S.-Asian relations. Under the direction of Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank, she submitted her Ph.D. dissertation in 1963 on America’s China policy at the turn of the 20th century, around the time of the Boxer Rebellion. This work was subsequently turned into her first book, The Rhetoric of Empire (1968). Meanwhile, as a young professor at the University of Michigan, she became deeply involved in the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War and was a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars.

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In 1980, she moved to New York University where, over the next 36 years, she’d establish its women studies department, chair the history department from 1993 to 1996, and serve as co-director of the Tamiment Library’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. Her research, animated by her activism, culminated in Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 (1991), which remains, to this day, her best-known book and a seminal study of the conflict. Stemming from her unmistakable moral righteousness, it serves, like her other writing, as a living example to me that activism and scholarship don’t necessarily contradict, and can in fact often empower, each other. An autographed copy, with a short note she wrote me in December 2015, occupies a special place on my bookshelf.

She genuinely loved collaborative work, — particularly with specialists in other regions who shared her thematic interests — which is a much less common trait in the humanities than the social and natural sciences. She wrote Transforming Russia and China (1982), a comparative history of early 20th-century revolutions, with William G. Rosenberg, a fellow Harvard doctoral student and former Michigan colleague. Later in her career, she co-edited a long list of essay anthologies that pulled together many scholars for engaging dialogues: Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam (2011) and The New American Empire (2005) with Lloyd Gardner; Bombing Civilians (2010) with Yuki Tanaka; Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars (2008) with Mark Bradley; Human Rights and Revolutions (2007; 2000) with Greg Grandin, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Lynn Hunt. Marilyn also regularly offered the undergraduate course, “Asia’s Revolutions: China/India/Vietnam, 1885–1962,” with Moss Roberts of the East Asian studies department.

I respect her open-mindedness. I was, and remain, markedly more centrist than her leftism on a host of issues; for instance, she was quite critical of John F. Kennedy, whom I hold in high regard as American president. But although our politics were sometimes at odds, she was always eager to hear my views where we disagreed. Her voice still echoes all the time as I challenge my own assumptions.

When I first told her I believed the British were wrong to hand Hong Kong to China, she said she was “a little surprised” and asked me: Would you have said the same had the Kuomintang won the Chinese Civil War? In what way was the U.K. more entitled to Hong Kong than it was to India? I guess she soon figured I was neither an apologist for Chiang Kai-shek or British colonialism, as I explained to her that Hong Kong’s popular opinion overwhelmingly favored the status quo both before and after Tiananmen. “Your footnotes are very persuasive and [. . .] I can certainly understand your foreboding. In terms of civil liberties, things are indeed getting worse in H.K.,” she later wrote in the margins of one of my paper drafts. “I had also thought H.K. itself as held by lease and not outright. I stand corrected.”

Because I’d entered my master’s program in Humanities and Social Thought through the B.A.-M.A. joint program, I took both of Marilyn’s seminars in my college senior year, when I had four other courses to take per semester on top of my honors thesis. My small regret is that I didn’t always have the time to finish every reading, an unpreparedness that left me with even less insightful things to say in a room already filled with more advanced fellow students. I hope she’d forgive me for this.

I belong to her last batch of students, as she was set to retire after teaching “The American Empire and its New Left Critics.” Our last class session was an extended lunch at La Lanterna, her favorite Greenwich Village restaurant, on May 4, 2016. The main topic was what Trump’s foreign policy could look like, as he was the presumptive Republican nominee by then. It was memorable. The department’s undergraduate honors colloquium was scheduled for the following Tuesday afternoon, during which I had to present my thesis. Marilyn wasn’t advising a student, so she didn’t have to come, but I still invited her. “I’ll do my best,” she told me, citing she’d be “under grave time pressure.”

Nevertheless, I requested to speak first and was delighted to see her show up for me. But she left immediately after I spoke and didn’t stay until the very end to hear that I won the Best History Honors Thesis Prize of the year. I sent her an e-mail with the good news that night, and she congratulated me. “I wish I could have stayed to talk but I had to get home,” she wrote. “I brought into my office to show you the fancy name stamp I was given many, many years ago by the then-boyfriend of a friend. He was an artist and the name stamp is really beautiful, I think.”

Alas, I never saw her again. I rested and traveled over the summer of 2016, before returning to Hong Kong, where I campaigned for my friend Nathan Law. He went on to win the election and became, at age 23, Asia’s youngest-ever elected legislator just as I rushed to begin another busy fall term, now finally as a full-time graduate student. I don’t recall why I didn’t reach out to catch up with Marilyn. I must’ve thought that I could easily be in touch again if I ever had anything specific to consult her, or maybe I didn’t want to be intrusive as I knew she had to move out of her home and office at some point soon. It slipped my mind until February 20, 2017, when, having just concluded a two-week research trip in London, I learned on Facebook of her passing the night before. This is my big regret.

She once sent me a list of titles that she thought every history student should read before graduating from college. It contained some of the usual suspects like William Appleman Williams, Michael Rogin, and Andrew Bacevich. Michael Sherry’s In The Shadow of War (1995) and Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers (1976) were also included. But there were others I hadn’t heard of, including two books by C. Vann Woodward, an anthology of short stories by Grace Paley, an essay collection by Howard Zinn, Myra Jehlen’s study of American “liberal individualism,” plus a few more. It isn’t hard to tell her political positions from the catalog — which she never concealed anyway — but I don’t think her point was to propel me, or anyone, to replicate her thinking. Far from that. She wanted to stimulate my own thinking; and in this regard, she’s succeeding, even as she’s gone.

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Her legacy is well preserved. The department announced last year the launching of the Marilyn B. Young Research Fellowship in the History of American Foreign Relations, for which undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students are eligible to apply; this openness reflects her devotion to all students alike, her belief that one’s merit depended not on one’s qualifications on paper but one’s intellect and imagination. K.J.C.C. 607, likewise, is now renamed the Marilyn B. Young Conference Room, with a dedication wall featuring her portrait and selected book covers. I’ve since read more about her personal life from moving accounts in remembrance by her two close friends, Molly Nolan (in the History Workshop Journal) and Rebecca Karl (on H-Net). Last month, the Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties: Between Protest and Nation-Building, a big project in which she was involved along with five N.Y.U. colleagues, was published in her memory.

Her personal reflections delivered in her 2011 presidential address to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations — “I Was Thinking, as I Often Do These Days, of War,” the title of which she borrowed from a poem by C. K. Williams — is often quoted:

I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war. I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese Civil War, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II, and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace, or postwar. Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold. The shadow of war, as Michael Sherry called it [in 1995], seems not to be a shadow but entirely substantial: the substance of American history.

As Fred Logevall, another former S.H.A.F.R. president, recalled: “She taught me early in my career that, as historians, we don’t have to check our passions at the door, as long as the passion is controlled and as long as we let the evidence lead us where it wants to go.” This, too, was the single most important lesson I learned from Marilyn. Now, as I’m ready to embark on the next step in my journey as a professional historian this fall — pursuing my Ph.D. at Georgetown University to research Hong Kong and Vietnam — it’s sad to think about how an exceptional teacher who has inspired me so much will not be around to guide me along the way. But I can almost hear her tell me, as she used to, with a pat on my back, when I was consumed with the stress of my research and writing deadlines: “Oh, you’ll be fine, Jeffrey!”

Jeffrey Ngo