Walter LaFeber, 1933-2021

Tributes paid to ‘the best thing that’s happened to Cornell in the last half-century’

April 15, 2021
Walter LaFeber, pre-eminent scholarly authority on American foreign, 1933-2021 policy,

A pre-eminent scholarly authority on American foreign policy has died.

Walter LaFeber was born in Walkerton, Indiana, in 1933 and gained a first degree from Hanover College in the same state (1955). He went on to a master’s at Stanford University (1956) and a PhD on the Latin American policy of the second Cleveland administration at the University of Wisconsin (1959), before securing a position as an assistant professor at Cornell University.

Once established at Cornell, Professor LaFeber remained there for the rest of his career, being promoted to professor in 1967 and Marie Underhill Noll professor of history in 1968, eventually retiring as Andrew H. and James S. Tisch distinguished university professor emeritus in 2006. In the bicentennial year of 1976, the then president of the university, Dale Corson, broke with a century of tradition and asked someone else to deliver the annual commencement address. Professor LaFeber used the occasion to reflect on “the fundamental question in American history”, which was also “an explosive question”, namely, “Could [the] revolutionary ideas [of 1776] survive in an unrevolutionary society?”

Yet his core expertise was in American foreign policy. The author of many celebrated books such as America, Russia and the Cold War (1966), Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983), The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750 (1989) and Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (1999), Professor LaFeber was also a frequent presence in the media. Among his students who went on to play significant roles within US foreign policy were national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Eric Edelman, an undersecretary of defense.

The first person to receive Cornell’s John M. Clark Teaching Award, in 1966, Professor LaFeber was also a legendary lecturer. His two-semester course on the history of American foreign relations, delivered without notes, was hugely popular for decades, with students often bringing weekend guests along to the Saturday sessions. Nearly 3,000 people turned out for his farewell lecture at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

“Walter LaFeber was the most distinguished historian of American foreign policy in the last 60 years,” said Glenn Altschuler, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell. “Justly celebrated for his teaching and scholarship, Walt is great, truly great, in my judgement, because of the way he lives each day, unfailingly attentive to students, staff and colleagues…He is Midwestern mensch – the best thing that’s happened to Cornell in the last half-century.”

Professor LaFeber died on 9 March and is survived by his wife, Sandra Gould, two children and three grandchildren.

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