From the In Memoriam column of the February 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
In Memoriam: Edward L. Dreyer
Hermann Beck, February 2008
Edward L. Dreyer, professor of history at the University of Miami, died on June 29, 2007, from complications of pneumonia compounded by the belated discovery of esophageal cancer. Born in 1940 in San Diego, California, Ed Dreyer graduated from Harvard with a BA in history in 1961, later an MA, and, in 1971, his PhD with a dissertation on "The Emergence of Chu Yuan-chang, 1360–65,"
irected by John Fairbank and Lien-sheng Yang. Ed Dreyer possessed unusual language capabilities, reading Chinese, Japanese, and German with equal fluency. In an age of increasing specialization, Dreyer was one of the last of a rare breed of universally educated historians who read voraciously and had a knack for retaining what he had read, and who was conversant in many areas of history and politics—from the history of Rome to that of Latin America and from the history of literature to current political developments. His understanding of history and the humanities went well beyond his specialties in military and Asian history, and his colleagues valued and admired his vast store of knowledge, trenchant insight, and incisive comments on a vast array of issues.
During his academic career at the University of Miami between 1970 and 2007, Ed Dreyer made major scholarly contributions to the field of Chinese political and military history. His first book, Early Ming China: A Political History, 1355–1435 (Stanford, 1982) is a penetrating, in-depth political history of the dynasty's formative period. The first work in a Western language to deal with the founding stage of the Ming dynasty, it was hailed as a painstakingly researched, pioneering analysis of the early Ming, covering five major areas: warfare, the geographical basis of power, military institutions, foreign affairs, and government administration. The book also contained shrewd observations on the subsequent course of Ming history, arguing that the military and political decisions of early Ming rulers had far-reaching effects and shaped China's subsequent institutional development, in particular the downgrading of a Mongol-style military nobility in favor of a civil service recruited through an examination system.
As a historian, Dreyer always transcended narrow time frames, and his next book ventured into the 20th century. His China at War, 1901–49, published in 1995, appeared in Longman's series on modern wars. Because of the great frequency and variety of armed conflict in China in the first half of the 20th century, many historians might have believed it too risky to summarize such a broad topic in a single book. Dreyer accepted the challenge and wrote a superbly lucid summary of Chinese warfare. He emphasized that the civil war between Nationalists and Communists was decided by conventional battles between regular armies, and not the result of a distinct type of "people's war." Chiang Kai-shek's overextension into the northeast in 1945–47, rather than the mobilization of peasants, is presented as the key to communist victory. A useful text for courses on modern China and comparative military history, China at War was welcomed by reviewers as a book that would be the standard guide for Republican warfare for many years to come, indispensable not only to Chinese historians, but to military historians in general. In 2006, Dreyer completed another book published by Longman, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming, 1405–33, in which he demonstrated that Zheng He's voyages were not, as has frequently been claimed, expeditions of discovery, but military missions aimed at bringing distant states within the range of authority of the Ming tributary system. He also wrote a masterful chapter on "Military Origins of Ming China" for volume VII of the Cambridge History of China, published several articles in journals and edited collections, and wrote numerous encyclopedia articles, as well as a longer, still frequently cited piece on "The Poyang Campaign of 1363: Inland Naval Warfare in the Founding of the Ming Dynasty," in Chinese Ways in Warfare, edited by John Fairbank and Frank Kierman.
Ed Dreyer received awards and fellowships from a number of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. He was a frequent commentator on television for CNN and other news stations, especially on aspects of the Gulf and Iraq wars, and for The History Channel on Zheng He. His was also a forceful and lively presence at the University of Miami where, for many years, he was active on the faculty senate and took part, often as chair, on a great many university and college committees. Offering a wide variety of lecture courses—from surveys of East Asian and Chinese history, to courses on World War I, World War II, American military history, and during the 1980s, also German history—Dreyer was a dedicated, immensely popular, and beloved teacher. Generously allocating many hours every week to speak with students, Dreyer has taught and advised probably more students than anyone else in the College of Arts & Sciences. His death is a great loss not only for the history department, but also for the university as a whole, which loses one of its most committed, active, and knowledgeable faculty members. To many of us, Ed Dreyer was not only a superb historian, but also a rare and valued friend and colleague, a man we will miss for many years to come and one whom we will always remember.
University of Miami