John W. Lewis, the University’s first professor of Chinese government and one of the first major China specialists who came out against the Vietnam War, died on Sept. 4 in Stanford, California. He was 86.
His daughter said Lewis, who joined Cornell in 1961 and taught at the University through 1968 before moving to Stanford, died of urothelial cancer, The New York Times reported.
Lewis co-founded the University’s international relations of East Asia and China program with Prof. David Mozingo, government, and advocated for peaceful resolutions to international conflicts during a turbulent anti-war period on campus.
“Cornell at that time was not in good shape,” he said in a 2015 oral history interview. “There were the big riots, there were guns on campus, black students had occupied Straight Hall. It was really in crisis,” he said, adding that his own government department was also under crisis.
Lewis was vice chairman and co-founder of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, which he said helped arrange the ping-pong matches between Chinese and American teams in the early 1970s that ultimately improved relations for President Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972.
Lewis himself made scores of visits to China in efforts to restore U.S. academic and governmental exchanges. His work in China was sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Inter-University Fellowship for Field Training in Chinese, which was part of the University language program at the time, The Sun reported in 1961.
That year, he told Cornell students that what was more important than the diplomatic recognition of Communist China was the recognition of the historical, social, religious and political forces at work in the nation, The Sun reported.
While teaching at Cornell, Lewis was in contact with refugees from Communist China, whom he said were motivated to flee China primarily due to political reasons over critical economic conditions. He emphasized that understanding the value and limits of political power was crucial, calling the structure of power in countries like China “seductive.”
“People in power have an exaggerated sense of their own knowledge, their own understanding,” he said. “They’re almost superhuman when they get to that level of power.”
His exposure to the limits and dangers of the power structure in Vietnam encouraged him to teach his students about how to empower people through positive leadership, emphasizing that dictatorships are “not about empowering people” but rather about empowering only the leader.
“I had a slogan that I got from the Chinese: ‘Unless your students are smarter than you are, you’re not a good teacher,’” he said in an interview. “You have to make them better than you are.”
In addition to his work with China, Lewis believed that the United States failed to take opportunities to ease tensions with North Korea — first when the Bush administration abandoned an agreement to recognize North Korea, and then when President Bush repudiated a communiqué, signed by President Clinton and North Korea leader Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, that had stopped the North’s nuclear program by declaring that Washington had “no hostile intent” toward the Capital of North Korea, Lewis said in an interview.
“So they went nuclear,” Lewis said of North Korea in the interview. “Yes, it is terrible. It’s getting worse and worse by the day.”
Siegfried Hecker, who co-founded Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation with Lewis, recalled traveling to North Korea with Lewis in 2004 during an important time in the country’s nuclear program.
“I would never have gone to North Korea without John,” Hecker said in a press release. “He had developed a relationship that allowed us to establish an effective means of communication during the times our governments were not talking.”
In March 2010, Lewis was awarded the Korea Peace Award for “efforts to support peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia” by the National Association of Korean Americans.
Lewis received an associate degree from Deep Springs College in California and graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became an R.O.T.C. cadet the day the Korean War began, The Times reported. He also served as a Navy gunnery officer after the war.
“Sometimes people should remember history,” Lewis said. “Sometimes it matters. You know, the Chinese, we had a really bad history with them.”
Quoting the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, Lewis said, “You should not let history imprison you. You should remember it, you should honor it, but you should also move forward.”