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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.
I first encountered LaFeber in the spring of 1970 as an inconspicuous undergraduate student in his large lecture course on American diplomacy in the 20th-century. My memory of that course remains vivid after five decades. I recall the early mornings when I managed to pull myself out of bed and trudge through Cornell’s 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 hall, LaFeber mellifluously explored and dissected the vicissitudes of American foreign and diplomatic policy, forsaking any support whatsoever from notes, let alone any resort to the “ums,” “you knows,” or other verbal crutches to which many of us succumb. Most lecturers hope for the singular applause that might await them at the end of the semester. LaFeber received an ovation after every single lecture. And as often as not, they were standing ovations.
Though the student body at Cornell tilted strongly to the left, it also appreciated excellence in the classroom regardless of political persuasion. Such well-known conservative-leaning professors as Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Werner Dannhauser had campuswide followings even though they and other popular professors often spoke against some of the tenets of liberal campus orthodoxy. LaFeber’s support for the liberal causes of the day no doubt enhanced his appeal for many students. He strongly opposed the war in Vietnam and championed racial justice along with other progressive causes. But he steadfastly and — crucially — publicly opposed what he regarded as illiberal means to attain these ends, especially when those means involved coercion and threats against the academic and intellectual freedoms that are the defining principles of universities. LeFeber’s response to the greatest conflict in Cornell’s history proves the point.
Early on the morning of Saturday, April 19, 1969, members of the Afro-American Society entered Willard Straight Hall and began clearing it of parents — it was parents’ weekend — and other visitors. The students smuggled in several rifles that were destined to become the public face of the famous crisis that ensued. In support a few days later, thousands of other students occupied Barton Hall, the huge armory-type building that dominates the middle of the campus. The “Barton Hall Community” vowed to take over other buildings if the faculty did not vote in favor of the pending demands, which included amnesty for the Straight takeover and other violations of campus rules, as well as the establishment of a version of a Black-studies program that differed from the one the faculty and administration had already authorized. Meanwhile, over one hundred armed deputies waited impatiently down the hill, ready to pounce if any further takeover happened.
To the surprise of those who did not know him well, LaFeber publicly opposed the faculty senate’s voting to accept the demands of the students who had taken over Straight Hall and Barton Hall. The faculty vote took place in the face of realistic threats of violence. Some faculty members sided with the student demands on substantive grounds, whereas others conceded to the demands out of fear of violence.
LaFeber was part of a group of faculty resisters. In a long interview we had for the 1999 book I wrote about the conflict, he told me, “What these people were doing was essentially raping the major principle of the university. 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.” In response to the faculty’s capitulation, LaFeber resigned his position as chair of the history department and played a decisive role in the movement behind the scenes that led to the resignation of James Perkins as the president of Cornell.
Several faculty members resigned from Cornell in reaction to what had transpired, including Berns, Bloom, and Allan Sindler, a liberal colleague of theirs. LaFeber did not resign from his professorship. He stayed on to continue his support for progressive causes while standing strong in defense of open and free discourse. His stance during the crisis demonstrated the importance of institutional principles and intellectual diversity. Given dominant campus sympathies, absent the stance that he and a few other prominent resisters took, students would not have been exposed to the credibility of alternative interpretations of what was at stake, and to take that position seriously. And LaFeber posed a question that remains relevant: Can social justice prevail in the absence of a genuine commitment to free thought, intellectual diversity, and liberal principles?