George C. Herring (1936–2022)
Historian of US Foreign Relations
George C. Herring, historian of the Vietnam War and US foreign relations, died on November 30, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky. He was 86 years old. He served as Alumni Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement in 2005.
Born in southwestern Virginia in 1936, he admitted to being a “poster boy” for the “Silent Generation,” being “apolitical, devoid of ambition and sense of purpose, floating with an uncertain tide.” After graduating from Roanoke College in 1957, he pondered careers in law and journalism but found his way into history after a two-year stint in the US Navy.
While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, he gravitated toward military and diplomatic history despite the department having no specialist. He wrote his dissertation on lend-lease, largely sparked by a fellowship where he organized the papers of Edward Stettinius, the former director of the program. He later admitted that the final product “lacked a strong thesis and placement in the literature.” Herring finished his PhD and began his first faculty position at Ohio University in 1965, the year that President Lyndon Johnson sent the first US combat forces to Vietnam.
Herring published the first of his eight books in 1972, Aid to Russia, 1941–1946: Strategy, Diplomacy, the Origins of the Cold War (Columbia Univ. Press). It received good reviews and contributed significantly to the emerging postrevisionist literature on the origins of the Cold War. He noted that his next project “was a product of the events themselves,” which centered on the divisive Vietnam War. His long-standing interest in Southeast Asia led him to teach a course on the war in 1973 that ensured the “more I learned, the more I wanted to know.”
He subsequently published America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (Wiley, 1979; 6th ed. 2019), which remains a standard for understanding US involvement in Vietnam. Herring shaped the field alongside others including Marilyn Young and Lloyd Gardner. Fredrik Logevall (Harvard Univ.) stressed “it’s a fair guess that it has taught more Americans about the war than any other book.” Herring added more to the scholarly debate on the war in Vietnam with an edited version of the negotiating volumes of the Pentagon Papers and his book LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Univ. of Texas Press, 1994).
Herring’s last major work was the magisterial From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). In a thousand pages, he challenged many preconceptions of the long durée of US foreign policy by showing extensive engagement with the world since the American Revolution. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and received strong reviews, including one that noted his “Herculean power of synthesis” that “recaptures a quarter-millennium of American foreign policy with fluidity and felicity.” It is unlikely to be surpassed by any other similar work for many years, educating scholars and the public about the US role in the world since its founding. The book also received the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations’ (SHAFR) 2008 Robert Ferrell Award for the best book in the field.
Herring served as editor of SHAFR’s journal, Diplomatic History, and as SHAFR president. He won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation and was granted membership in the Society of American Historians.
Herring was also a gifted teacher. The University of Kentucky recognized him with its Alumni Association Great Teacher Award and the Sturgill Award for Excellence in Graduate Education. In 2014, he was named to the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
But it is perhaps as a mentor that Herring will be most remembered and missed. His patience, kindness, and good humor served generations of graduate students. In Herring, they found a skilled editor and master of the narrative. They also found a good friend.
Robert K. Brigham
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