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NY Times, Mar. 10 2017
Marilyn Young, Historian Who Challenged U.S. Foreign Policy, Dies at 79
By SAM ROBERTS
Marilyn B. Young, a leftist, feminist, antiwar historian who challenged
conventional interpretations of American foreign policy, died on Feb. 19
at her home in Manhattan, where she was a longtime professor at New York
University. She was 79.
The cause was complications of breast cancer, said her son, Michael.
Professor Young’s political consciousness was rudely awakened as a
Brooklyn teenager in 1953, when she defied her father and watched from
the fire escape of her family’s East Flatbush apartment as thousands of
mourners gathered for the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had
been executed two days before at Sing Sing Prison for conspiracy to
“Get back inside,” her father yelled, a friend recalled. “The F.B.I. is
The government’s aggressive pursuit of Soviet spies and her father’s
trepidation set her on a course from which she never deviated: writing
editorials for the Vassar College newspaper against red-baiting and
favoring civil rights for blacks and political opportunities for women;
researching a doctoral thesis that re-evaluated historic United States
relations with China; and laying an anticolonial foundation for her
opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Describing the United States as “a nation dedicated to
counterrevolutionary violence,” she wrote in The New York Times Book
Review in 1971 that “the most agonizing problems of recent American
foreign policy have concerned not our ability to reach accommodation
with acknowledged big powers, but our persistent refusal to allow
revolutionary change and self-determination in smaller ones.”
In one form or another, she explained in 2012, since her childhood the
United States had been at war — “the wars were not really limited and
were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in
Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.”
She described her evolving foreign policy until then as
“anti-interventionist” — a policy she forswore, however, when it came to
advancing the causes she cared about.
She was born Marilyn Blatt on April 25, 1937, in Brooklyn to Aaron
Blatt, a postal superintendent, and the former Mollie Persoff, a school
She graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School, earned a bachelor’s
degree in history from Vassar in 1957 and received her doctorate from
Harvard. Her dissertation became, in 1968, her first book: “The Rhetoric
of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901.”
She also wrote “The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990,” published in 1991, in
which she called the conflict a revolution driven by anti-foreign
nationalism. The Cornell historian Walter LaFeber described the book as
a “deeply researched, detailed, well-written and outspoken account that
should help shape how serious people view the Vietnam wars.”
She married a fellow graduate student, Ernest P. Young. They moved to
Japan, where he was a speechwriter to the American ambassador, and then
to Ann Arbor, Mich., where both became professors at the University of
Michigan. They separated in 1976 and later divorced.
In addition to their son, Michael J. Young, the president of the New
York Film Academy, Professor Young is survived by a daughter, Dr. Lauren
Young, a psychologist; three grandchildren; and her sister, Leah
Glasser, a dean at Mount Holyoke College.
Professor Young joined the faculty of N.Y.U. in 1980. She founded its
Women Studies Department, was chairwoman of the history department from
1993 to 1996 and was co-director of the Center for the United States and
the Cold War at the Tamiment Library. In 2011, she was elected president
of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.
“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar
thinking and writing about war,” Professor Young said in her
presidential address to the organization. “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 20th and
early 21st centuries.”
“Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete:
prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “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.”
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