In Memoriam: Arthur A. Ekirch Jr.
Lawrence S. Wittner, May 2000
From the In Memoriam column in the May 2000 Perspectives
Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., a leading scholar of American intellectual history and professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, died on February 5, 2000, of a heart attack.
Born in New York City on December 15, 1915, Ekirch was a Phi Beta Kappa student at Dartmouth College, graduating in 1937. He attended Columbia University, where he received his MA (1938) and his PhD (1943) in history. At Columbia, Ekirch studied with Merle Curti, from whom he imbibed a keen interest in the major ideas that shaped American life and with whom he maintained close ties for more than half a century.
Strongly affected by revisionist writing on World War I, Ekirch shared the disillusionment of much of his generation with that conflict and with war in general. Unlike many of his peers, though, he did not gravitate toward collective security measures in the late 1930s. With the passage of the Selective Service Act of 1940, he registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector (CO). Despite the unpopularity of his pacifist views, the onset of World War II had only a modest impact upon his life. He attended graduate school, married Dorothy Gustafson in August 1940, and fathered the first of his three children.
In late 1943, however, Ekirch was drafted and, at the beginning of 1944, was dispatched to the Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camps that had been established for COs. For the next two years, he worked as a logger in the CPS camps at Lapine, Oregon, and Kane, Pennsylvania, and as an attendant at the Rosewood State Training School for the mentally retarded, near Baltimore, Maryland. While in the camps, Ekirch somehow managed to correct the page proofs of his first book, The Idea of Progress in America, 1815–1860. Nevertheless, it was a difficult time for him. Conscripted for hard labor—without pay and far from his family—Ekirch considered himself "a political prisoner." For the rest of his life, his personality and views were deeply marked by the experience.
Released from government service in December 1945, Ekirch subsequently taught American history at Hofstra University (1946–47), American University (1947–65), and SUNY, Albany (1965–86). In 1953–54, he was a Guggenheim Fellow. In many ways, Ekirch was a model faculty member and, eventually, history department chair—hardworking and efficient. And yet, although students and colleagues respected his erudition and diligence, some did not know what to make of his unpretentious style, his iconoclastic views, and his blunt pronouncements. His unusual candor and uncompromising libertarian beliefs delighted some and dismayed others.
Ekirch was a prolific author, writing 10 books, dozens of articles, and more than 100 book reviews. The Decline of American Liberalism, his favorite and a History Book Club selection, argued that the idea of freedom began to wane in the United States with the American Revolution, thanks to the development of nationalism and, later, a mass production economy. Another well-known work of his, The Civilian and the Military, focused upon the rise of militarism over the course of American history. His Man and Nature in America, which appeared almost simultaneously with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, had a strong environmentalist flavor, for it emphasized the loss of belief in harmony between humanity and nature in the face of a drive to plunder natural resources. Overall, his writings displayed a restlessness with established verities. Characteristically, he dedicated another of his books, The American Democratic Tradition, to two earlier disturbers of national complacency: V. L. Parrington and Charles Beard.
Despite the critical bite of Ekirch's scholarship, it was never polemical. Indeed, he wrote in a lucid, straightforward style, eschewing hyperbole and pulling together a broad range of sources into a convincing thesis. His themes were grand, spanning vast sweeps of American history—a marked departure from the postwar tendency in the historical profession to focus upon ever smaller issues and ever shorter time periods. Consequently, in both viewpoint and focus, Ekirch cut against the grain of contemporary trends. Not surprisingly, it took him five years to find a publisher for The Civilian and the Military.
Ekirch's distaste for war found further expression with the establishment of the Conference on Peace Research in History (CPRH). Along with his mentor, Merle Curti, he attended the December 1963 meeting that launched the organization, which was designed to apply scholarly research to the quest for a peaceful world. The following year, CPRH became an affiliate of the AHA. For some time thereafter, Ekirch remained one of its leading figures, and in 1971, he served as the vice chair of CPRH, which was later renamed the Peace History Society.
Ekirch is survived by his wife Dorothy, his son Roger Ekirch (also a historian), and his daughters Cheryl Remley and Caryl Williams.
—Lawrence S. Wittner