Carl Parrini (1933-2016)
Scholar of US Economic Diplomacy and American Imperialism
Carl Philip Parrini, professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University, passed away on December 13, 2016, in DeKalb, Illinois, at the age of 83. From 1965 to 1998, Parrini’s absorbing lectures on US diplomatic history filled classrooms. His teaching in the lecture hall and seminar room and his writing on US economic diplomacy and American imperialism demonstrated the importance of power, economics, and ideology to interpreting US history. Parrini’s lectures provided context for those concerned about US interventions overseas that resulted from its global aspirations.
Carl Parrini was born on February 22, 1933, in Rochester, New York, to a working-class family steeped in labor politics. Encouraged by a high school vice principal to pursue a college education, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where a trade unionist brother lived. He transferred to University of Wisconsin–Madison as a history major and took courses with Fred Harvey Harrington, Howard K. Beale, and Merrill Jensen. Together with Martin J. Sklar, an undergraduate friend and history major, Parrini also participated in campaigns to defend academic freedom and integrate student housing.
Drawn to the history of American imperialism, Parrini pursued graduate studies at Madison and took Harrington’s reading and research seminars. In a cohort that included Walter LaFeber, Lloyd C. Gardner, Thomas J. McCormick, David Healey, and Robert F. Smith, Parrini learned about power and the role of interest groups and economic considerations in policy making, as well as the importance of primary sources. As a research assistant for a new professor, William A. Williams, Parrini heard his lectures on the Open Door Policy and American expansionism, which included ideas that were new to him—the seizure of Native American lands as imperialist, for example.
Williams directed Parrini’s dissertation, which he completed in 1963 and later published as Heir to Empire: United States Economic Diplomacy, 1916–1923 (1969). In this well-received book, Parrini punctured myths about US isolationism during the 1920s by finding significant policy continuity from the Wilson to the Harding presidencies. While Wilson and the Republicans disagreed on how to organize the world politically, they agreed on the necessity of creating an “economic community of interest” between the United States and other world powers on the basis of open-door rules for trade and investment. Heir to Empirealso explained how the systematic and partly successful US effort to supplant the British Empire and to resist European closed-door systems collapsed during the Great Depression.
After short-term teaching jobs at Lake Forest College, Ohio University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Parrini began a tenure-track position at Northern Illinois. There he joined a talented faculty with diverse interests and approaches, which later included his old friend Martin Sklar. Parrini quickly made his mark as a skillful graduate student teacher and dissertation director; at one point, he was responsible for supervising one-quarter of all dissertations in progress in the department. Parrini also taught the introductory survey, with consistent success.
His students remember him as a compelling and masterful instructor who shared with them his passion for history and the need to make it relevant and usable. Recounting the foibles of heads of states and diplomats, he leavened his lectures with a great sense of humor. One former student, now a professor, recalls how he modeled his lectures after Parrini’s. Another recalled how he would “sit in the back of the room in that diplomatic history class, 90 students, they’re all scribbling, hanging on every word, because they know he knows [things] they need to know, and it’s not just the facts.” His approach to teaching impressed another student who remembered Parrini disagreeing with an undergraduate’s interpretation about something, but nevertheless praising him for his courage in forming one and encouraging him to develop his thinking. What Parrini wrote about Joseph Schumpeter as the “model of the great teacher”—someone who “deliberately eschew[s] the creation of a school and so allow[s] his students to fully develop themselves intellectually”—was true of himself.
One of Parrini’s specialties was the history of economic thought, including Marx and others who wrote about the dynamics of modern capitalism, and 20th-century economists who were concerned about making capitalism work more equitably. Under his supervision, students read John Maynard Keynes, Joan Robinson, and Michal Kalecki. Some students from the mid-1970s remember fondly an off-the-books seminar that Parrini convened at his home, where they attempted to read all three volumes of Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value.
Parrini also produced innovative scholarship on the theory and practice of imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He closely studied the career of financial economist Charles A. Conant, who provided policy advice to the McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft administrations. With Sklar, he wrote a pioneering essay in the Journal of Economic History (1983) linking Conant, who developed a proto-Keynesian analysis of surplus capital, to the turn-of-the-century shift in US policy toward imperialism. His highly original essay on theories of imperialism placed Conant’s thinking in the context of a consensus, existing since before the 1930s, among socialists and nonsocialists that imperialism had economic origins. Parrini also credited Karl Kautsky’s conception of “ultra-imperialism” for anticipating cooperation among capitalist nations during the 20th century. Later, he wrote an authoritative article, “Charles A. Conant, Economic Crises and Foreign Policy, 1896–1903,” published in a Festschrift for Fred Harvey Harrington, on Conant’s thinking about economic crises and his role in devising currency-reform schemes in the Philippines and China in order to facilitate the investment of surplus capital in their markets.
To those who knew him and learned from him, Carl Parrini will be remembered with abiding gratitude and deep affection. He is survived by his cherished wife, Sandra, whom he met at Madison and to whom he was married since 1955; adored daughters Michelle and Isadora; and sorrowful students and colleagues.
With thanks to Sandra Parrini, Paul Wolman, James Livingston, Keith Haynes, Stephen Foster, and Barbara Posadas.
National Security Archive/George Washington University
Indiana State University
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