In Memoriam: Marilyn B. Young

Monday, February 20, 2017 - 12:45pm

From SHAFR President Mary Dudziak:

It is with great sadness that I share the news of the death of Marilyn B. Young, past president of SHAFR, influential scholar of US-Asian relations, and a powerful critic of war. Marilyn died in her sleep at home last night. She had recently ended treatment for metastatic breast cancer.


Marilyn’s work will have a lasting impact. She pioneered critical work on ongoing war -- what she called the “constancy of war and its…constant erasure.” In her 2011 Presidential Address, “'I was thinking, as I often do these days, of war’: The United States in the Twenty-First Century,” Marilyn wrote:


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 twentieth and early twenty-first 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 fifteen years ago, seems not to be a shadow but entirely substantial: the substance of American history.


It is our work as historians, she insisted, “to speak and write so that a time of war not be mistaken for peacetime, nor waging war for making peace.” The address was published in Diplomatic History.


As past president Fred Logevall put it, “she was a giant in our organization, our field, our discipline. Her scholarship on U.S.-Asian relations was hugely influential to many of us, and 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.”


Marilyn’s work explored the broad contours of war and U.S. relations with Asia. Her first book, based on her Ph.D. dissertation, was The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895–1901 (Harvard University Press, 1968). The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, (Harper Collins, 1991) won Berkshire Women’s History Prize. She also published Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggle in the 20th Century (with William Rosenberg) (Oxford University Press, 1980), and several edited collections:Bombing Civilians: A 20th Century History (with Y. Tanaka) (The New Press, 2009); Making Sense of the Vietnam War (with Mark Bradley) (Oxford University Press, 2008); Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam (with Lloyd Gardner) (The New Press, 2007); The New American Empire (with Lloyd Gardner) (The New Press, 2005); The Vietnam War: A History in Documents (with Tom Grunfeld and John Fitzgerald) (Oxford University Press, 2003); Companion to the Vietnam War (with Robert Buzzanco) (Blackwell, 2002); Human Rights and Revolutions, edited with Lynn Hunt and Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Vietnam and America (with Marvin Gettleman, Jane Franklin and Bruce Franklin) (Grove Press, 1985; rev. edition Anchor Books, 1995); Promissory Notes: Women and the Transition to Socialism (with Rayna Rapp and Sonia Kruks) (Monthly Review Press, 1983); and American Expansionism: the Critical Issues (Little Brown, 1973).


Marilyn received her doctorate from Harvard University in 1963, where she worked with Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank. She was a proud 1957 graduate of Vassar College. She taught at the University of Michigan before joining New York University in 1980, where she was a full professor in the Department of History until her retirement last year. Marilyn taught about the history of U.S. foreign policy; the politics and culture of post-war United States; the history of modern China; and the history and culture of Vietnam.


Marilyn Young will be remembered at the SHAFR annual meeting in June. You are encouraged to share your memories of Marilyn on this page.



Like so many others, I am filled with sadness at the idea of not having more time with Marilyn. Though many knew her longer and better, I think one of Marilyn's special gifts was making everyone feel as though she was there primarily to listen to them. She took such pleasure in others that I hope she knows how much pleasure she brought to us.

For the past week, I have been remembering with great fondness a road trip Marilyn and I took several years back to a manuscript workshop. She was having knee trouble and couldn't drive, so I said I'd rent a car and accompany her. Over the course of a few days, our conversation covered the Vietnam War and foreign relations (of course) and current politics (of course). She goaded me on to drive faster (even though I was cruising at an even 70) so we'd have more time for coffee and a nosh when we arrived. We stopped on the return trip and saw some of her family members. She read aloud from the conclusion of one of my current manuscripts, hoping she could help me, and commenting that in another life she could have been an editor. (I quite agree based on my work with her, including editing a book and writing manuscript reviews.) She entertained me with dramatic readings of the New York Times, from Gail Collins's column to A.O. Scott's review of "Toy Story 2." In short, the miles and the time flew. How I wish I had more of both with her.

Susan Ferber


Well, there goes any hope that 2017 will better than 2016.

I met Marilyn at the AHA's Decolonization Seminar in 2009. I was about a year from defending my dissertation, interested in everything and terrified about the future. Throughout the Seminar, Marilyn was funny and irreverent. She saw through bullshit instantly, and improved everything she touched. She made my project infinitely better. When I think back now, the thing I remember is sitting next to her in a movie theater in DC, trying to watch The Hurt Locker while she muttered loudly about warmongering. Listening to her and Jeff Byrne fight about the film afterwards was the highlight of that summer.

My funniest 'Marilyn moment' actually came a few years later. I'd flown to Lisbon to participate in a conference, and arrived bleary-eyed and delirious after an overnight flight. I got to the hotel around 9am, collected my room key (grumpily), and turned to find the elevator. And there she was: "God, you took forever, and you don't look good." That was my greeting. She told me that she was leaving Lisbon that night -- she'd been in town to deliver a lecture -- and that she wanted to visit a museum before she left. Our plans were set. We'd meet in the lobby at 11:30, get lunch nearby, and go on an adventure. "So, rest. I'll be waiting here."

I'm still not sure how she found me, but I'm very happy she did. Marilyn was prickly and kind, frighteningly smart and deeply invested in other people. I got to live in her orbit for a short time, like so many others. It wasn't long enough. "Born of the sun, [she] traveled a short while toward the sun, And left the vivid air signed with [he]r honor." Marilyn probably hated Stephen Spender's poem -- it's sappy. But I don't care.

I miss her.


Marilyn was just great. Almost no more need be said. My only regret is that I did not know her longer. Or at least known her better for a longer time. We were friendly since, well, sometime when we were both young, relatively speaking. But it was not until Marilyn became more active in SHAFR, and that was not until we elected her president, that we became close. That's on us. SHAFR was not as welcoming to women in its earlier decades. In this regard Marilyn made a big difference.

Why she did so is important and returns to my theme of greatness. That Marilyn was such a terrific scholar is part of the explanation, but only part. No less important was the kind of woman she was. Marilyn was as fun-loving as she was serious (she literally had a twinkle in her eye), she scolded because she cared, and she did things her own way because she believed in what she did. As we all know, Marilyn wore her politics on her sleeve. How could she not? She wasn't just passionate and committed. Marilyn was perhaps the most honest person I have ever known.

I will never again use the term teacher/scholar without thinking about Marilyn. The same holds true for words like activist, citizen, mentor, and perhaps most important, friend. That she's no longer with us is simply not right.


I first met Marilyn nearly 30 years ago when she commented on the very first SHAFR paper I presented. Mark Bradley was also on that panel. We were sharing our work that had come out of the newly opened archives in Hanoi, Vietnam. Marilyn was so kind, so generous, she became a friend and mentor on the spot. We then wrote together, were on panels together, we took a group of Vassar alums to Vietnam together, we traveled together to Ireland, and so much more. Marilyn was a bright shining light for me as she was for many. In October 2016, Marilyn and I joined Colonel Greg Daddis at the Air War College as keynotes on the end of the Vietnam War. Marilyn's "left" was in fine form. She burned the house down with her insights on perpetual war for perpetual peace. I miss her already and I loved her so.


I met Marilyn at a conference in 2002, and once our paths crossed a couple more times, we were pals who stayed in each other’s homes, fulminated together about the latest outrages in the news headlines or shoddiness in scholarship, chatted eagerly about movies and novels, and shared the joys (and, from my end, the frustrations) of academic life. Like so many people, I loved Marilyn’s feisty joie de vivre, her readiness to speak her mind but also listen to others, and her quickness to see the humor in any situation. One of my favorite “Marilyn moments” came when we brought her out to Vancouver, and she laughed at me for wearing blue jeans to campus. “But Marilyn,” I objected, “I wore shoes!” Mistaking Pacific Northwest slovenliness for courage, Marilyn professed merely to admire my confidence, but she also warned me of the forthcoming need to maintain a certain level of appearance, because with age, “you become invisible.” Unimaginable in Marilyn’s case, but now that I am beginning to appreciate the truth of her remark in my own life, I wear higher end blue jeans. A few years later, we were talking about literature, and she berated me for not having read The Tale of Genji. I could only mount the weak defense that I had at least read The Makioka Sisters, but I had to concede my ignorance of the classics. Time with Marilyn always meant additions to one’s reading list and some jovial prods toward self-improvement.

Marilyn was tough-minded in debate, but also extremely kind, particularly towards younger people, which was pretty much everyone in recent years. When I last saw her in spring 2015, she fretted about whether she had been too hard in an honors thesis defense on a student who was attempting to defend French counterinsurgency techniques as a legitimate response to anti-colonial violence. From her account, it seemed to me that she had approached the student with enormous respect, and gently encouraged him to appreciate the violence and folly on both sides, and to avoid a zero-sum logic of assuming that one side’s vice automatically implied the other’s virtue. Classic Marilyn stuff—a powerful message delivered with care, consideration, and a conscious effort not to exploit her own position of power.

I happened to enjoy a recent email exchange with Marilyn, in which I wrote from the road with excitement about new research and great archival finds. Marilyn said that I sounded energized, which I was, and her unreserved interest and encouragement further buoyed my spirits. My last message from Marilyn came on February 9, when she forwarded a report on climate change and environmental damage in Vietnam. On February 17, I wrote to Marilyn to invite her to a workshop in Vancouver this fall. I did not receive a response, which worried me a little, and four days later I learned the sad news that she was gone. There is a great, big, Marilyn-sized hole in my heart these days. I miss intensely her extraordinary generosity and support, and her unfailing hope that the United States, and the world, could be better than they were.