Remembering Marilyn Young — and her Vietnam War classic

The tributes to Marilyn Young following her death last week have been fulsome and much deserved. She was a talented historian. She was also an engaged observer with a keen eye for the morally significant. Her rock-solid judgment, generosity of spirit, and wry sense of humor endeared her to colleagues and students.

I came into Marilyn’s orbit very early in my career, probably mid-1968. She had just published her first book, The Rhetoric of Empire, and I was newly launched on the dissertation that became Frontier Defense and the Open Door. Then in residence at Dartmouth, she welcomed me into her home and administered the Marilyn treatment. I left feeling I had found a kindred spirit in what was then the nascent field of U.S.-China studies.

My conviction that I could trust Marilyn to both shoot straight and offer encouragement was confirmed time and again over the following decades as she vetted my project proposals and scrutinized my manuscripts. For example, her review for UNC Press of The American Ascendancy in 2005 had nice things to say, but it concluded with a withering treatment of my short draft conclusion. She reported that “it read to me like apologia [for U.S. policy] and came as a great surprise.” There followed a full page of single-spaced, rat-a-tat criticism meant to save me from what was in fact a badly formulated finale. Needless to say, I went to work on rewrites immediately grateful that she had not only spoken sharply but also laid out in helpful detail all the points needing a careful rethink.

Marilyn and I widened our range of scholarly interests over the years to include U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, American empire, and the American warfare state. Her The Vietnam Wars was always close at hand and often on my mind as I thought about ways to approach these and other topics so important in the history of the United States in the world. The book was filled with passion that showed how to make the past pertinent. She would not take the pronouncements of American officials at face value, nor would she let her readers off the hook. Because history mattered to her, she made it matter to readers. Her forcefully drawn interpretations pushed them to take a stance whether in agreement or in dissent.

Even more important in my estimate, the book offered an example of the complexity of war and set a standard of sophistication that she challenged others to met. Her Vietnam War was not just about U.S. decision-making and military strategy. It treated in generous detail the domestic consequences of the U.S. commitment. It insisted on a prominent place for the Vietnamese side with all its complexity, and it made room for the other peoples of Indochina caught up in conflict. Its astutely selected photo essay drove the point home in an unforgettable way that the people swept up in conflict supremely mattered. Now a quarter century old, the book stands as a landmark that still repays reading for its conceptual clarity and breadth as well as for its humane passion.

In both her life and her work, Marilyn Young leaves us an object lesson in what it means to take the profession of history seriously.