NEW YORK – “Welcome to Bailey on Broadway,” quipped Andrew H. Tisch ’71 as he introduced Prof. Walter LaFeber, history, to a crowd of almost 3,000 Cornell alumni who convened on New York City’s Beacon Theatre last night to hear the professor’s final public lecture prior to his retirement later this spring. The event, billed as “A Special Evening With Cornell’s Walter LaFeber: A Half-Century of Friends, Foreign Policy and Great Losers,” celebrated the foreign policy expert’s 47-year career on The Hill.
Calling LaFeber a “legend in his own time,” Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III made the evening’s opening remarks, adding that “scholarship and teaching are what Cornell is about, and it is rare to find both in a single teacher.”
LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, began his talk by thanking his wife, Sandy, as well as former Cornell presidents Dale Corson, Frank H.T. Rhodes, Rawlings and Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 for their contributions to Cornell. Both Rawlings and Lehman were in attendance.
He continued to thank many colleagues and alumni, adding that “Cornell alumni in a variety of ways are truly extraordinary people.”
Speaking in his trademark fashion – without prepared notes – LaFeber continued his talk by teaching generations of Cornellians about Wilsonianism and by tracing motivations behind 20th century foreign policy and the expansion of democracy.
Beginning his lesson in Revolutionary times, he joked that “the generation of the United States that knew most about democracy and how well it traveled were the founders. This was the one generation in American history when the intellectuals and politicians were the same people.”
He continued by discussing Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and pointed out that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the people in power who cared deeply about the United States were not sure that democracy traveled well. LaFeber said that this ideology changed with President Woodrow Wilson.
“When Wilson came to office in 1913, he said, ‘It would be a great irony of my presidency if I had to concern myself with foreign policy,’ because he was more interested in carrying out progressive reform at home. But of course, irony struck,” he said.
He explained that Wilson had to handle the Mexican, Chinese and Russian Revolutions, along with World War I, during his tenure as president. LaFeber concluded his remarks by mentioning the disillusionment of young American liberals, who felt that Wilson did not understand compromise and did not make the world safe for democracy as he had demanded when he spoke to Congress prior to entering WWI.
The event was initially scheduled for New York City’s Museum of Natural History but was quickly moved to a larger space to accommodate the overwhelming demand from alumni, friends and former students to attend.
After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, LaFeber came to Cornell in 1959 and joined the history department. In addition to teaching, he has authored several award-winning books that have made him a giant in the field of foreign policy, including The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898; The Clash: U.S.-Japan Relations Throughout History and Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America.