Publication Date

May 1, 2017

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • United States



Historian of the United States and Warfare

Marilyn B. Young. Jay Godwin via Flickr/LBJ Library

Marilyn B. Young. Jay Godwin via Flickr/LBJ Library

Marilyn B. Young, professor of history at New York University, passed away peacefully at home on February 19, 2017, at the age of 79. She was a powerful and passionate voice, within the academy and beyond, on the importance of revealing the persistence and destruction of warfare during an age when war became normalized, yet seemed to disappear from the consciousness of everyday Americans. She made enduring contributions to scholarship on the United States and China, the Vietnam War, empire, and the long path of American military interventions.

Marilyn grew up in Brooklyn. She graduated from Vassar, then a women’s college, in 1957. Offered a full scholarship for graduate school conditioned on learning Chinese and writing her thesis on US–East Asian relations, she went to Harvard, where she worked with Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank. She joined the faculty of the Residential College at the University of Michigan and moved to the NYU history department in 1980.

Marilyn took an early interest in war. As a child, she pressed her uncle, who had served in World War II, to tell her what war was like. He answered gruffly that when returning from a bombing mission, the bombardier’s severed head had rolled around the plane all the way home. Then he ordered her to never ask him that question again. Marilyn honored her uncle’s wish but persisted in thinking about the nature and consequences of war.

Her first book, based on her dissertation, was The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895–1901 (1968). Marilyn argued that US policy toward China in the era of the Spanish-American War went beyond economic motives, turning in part on the sense of American leaders that to be a world power the United States needed a presence in Asia. The book is an early example of her great capacity to weave together international relations with domestic politics and culture.

Marilyn’s second monograph, Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggle in the Twentieth Century (1982), coauthored with Russia scholar William G. Rosenberg, emerged from a course they taught together. The book was needed, they wrote, because an American misunderstanding of revolutions made stasis instead of social change appear to be virtuous, and ignored the violence required to maintain an existing social order.

In 1991, Marilyn published her widely read and admired book The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990, which was the first book to examine the war from the Vietnamese and American perspectives together. As Christy Thornton and Stuart Schrader recently put it in Jacobin, she “helped usher in a new approach to understanding the US war in Vietnam with a single letter”—the “s” in “wars.” In these and other works, she wrote with passion, eloquence, and wit.

Marilyn was proofing galleys of The Vietnam Wars as the 1990 US war with Iraq began. The event gave the book “a new, harsher, and unwanted conclusion,” she wrote in its introduction: “war continues to be a primary instrument of American foreign policy and the call to arms a first response to international disputes.” The carnage and destructiveness for people in war zones made her angry. In March 2003, she was reviewing copy edits on “Ground Zero: Enduring War” in an edited collection, September 11 in History, just as President George W. Bush issued Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq or be attacked. Her response was a blistering postscript criticizing the Bush administration’s “puerile arrogance” for its preemptive “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad.

Marilyn enjoyed collaborating with others in scholarship and in politics. She coedited several collections of essays, including Promissory Notes: Women and the Transition to Socialism (with Rayna Rapp and Sonia Kruks, 1989); Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-­Century History (with Yuki Tanaka, 2009); two collections with Lloyd C. Gardner; and more. She was a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which opposed the Vietnam War and supported improved US relations with the People’s Republic of China, and was an active member of Historians Against War. She was awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, and received the Berkshire Women’s History Prize for The Vietnam Wars.

Marilyn was elected president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations for 2011. In her presidential address, she reflected, “I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war.” At first, it seemed “as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace, or postwar.” But eventually “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.” In response, she wrote, “our continuous task must be to make war visible, vivid, an inescapable part of the country’s self-consciousness, as inescapable a subject of study as it is a reality.”

Marilyn was tremendously generous to students and other scholars, devoting an extraordinary amount of time to writing letters and reading drafts. She made friends wherever she traveled and often held court at La Lanterna, her favorite Greenwich Village restaurant. In her final few weeks, her apartment was often like a salon, full of friends and family from near and far.

An early intellectual companion was her fellow graduate student, then husband, the historian of China Ernest P. Young. They separated in 1986 and then divorced. She is survived by her children, Lauren Young and Michael J. Young; her sisters Leah Glasser and Carole Atkins; and three grandchildren, Oliver, Jacob, and Claudia. She is also survived by generations of students, colleagues, and friends who are likely to be found—years into the future—at Marilyn’s table at La Lanterna, raising a glass in her honor.

Mary L. Dudziak
Emory University

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