February 20, 2017– When the Federal Bureau of Investigation went after the Concerned Committee of Asian Scholars (CCAS), there was nothing of the diffidence they are showing in their supposed look-see into Russian interference in the 2016 United States election. Perhaps the FBI under James Comey plays to a different set of favorites than it did during J. Edgar Hoover’s day. Those were the times of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO and their “inquiries” into the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The motive was very definitely to chill citizens’ relations with others, simply because of their political beliefs. The CCAS was a group that opposed the Vietnam war and favored better relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China–both directions in which the-then Nixon administration was moving–but that did nothing to shield these Americans.
Marilyn B. Young was among the founding members of CCAS. I became aware of them while studying Southeast Asia at Columbia. Some Vietnam veteran friends of mine were members, and CCAS published excellent newsletters and occasional journals. They were on the cutting edge of scholarship on Asia. But that’s not what put them on the FBI’s radar scope. Their passion–and passionate opposition to the Vietnam war did that. Indeed Young, who studied at Harvard with Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank as her advisers, was squarely within the cohort. In the 1971 marches on Washington, to protest the invasion of Laos, and then “May Day,” hyped to be a more focused attempt to prevent the government from conducting business as usual, Young participated with a affinity circle that included Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, and Noam Chomsky, not to mention Fred Branfman (later of Indochina Resource Center fame), who also passed away recently and deserves being marked in his own right.
Marilyn did not just wear her beliefs on her sleeve. Decades later, having inspired generations of students at the University of Michigan and New York University (NYU), and an active member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Young was elected president of that body. In a customary SHAFR presidential address she reflected on how her studies and teaching had led her backwards and forwards, through wars past and future, until it seemed like war was less a progression than a continuation. There is no longer a discrete move from prewar, through conflict, peace, and postwar. Indeed in our last collaboration, which was a panel at a SHAFR conference a few years back, intended to draw parallels and lessons from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Marilyn presented something very much like that view.
At Harvard in the 1960s, Young examined the international side of the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion in China, where she found U.S. participation influenced by the quest for an “Open Door,” that is, freedom for American trade. It was not difficult to link those historic events with Washington’s policies pursued after World War II, and, of course, “war for oil” became a slogan attached to both Bushes and their Gulf Wars. The continuity with which Marilyn Young constructed her views was something John King Fairbank would have enjoyed. Ernie May I am less certain, but he would have appreciated Marilyn’s coherence and historicity.
It was my privilege to know Marilyn Young quite well for decades. Many times we attended conferences together, shared podiums, participated in seminars and institutes. I contributed essays to books she edited. We broke bread innumerable times in myriad places. Her raucous laugh was a delight. I did not mind at panels when she came after me from the left. I watched, distressed, as Marilyn’s health declined. Talk about war, she waged a long–and long successful–struggle against cancer. Her passing will be a sadness for diplomatic history, a loss to historians, indeed to the NYU History Department, where she was emeritus. Some time ago I decided to dedicate my next book to Marilyn, and the only thing good in all this is that I told her a couple of months ago, so she got a little pleasure from that. Marilyn, we loved you. Fair winds and following seas.