In Memoriam | The Many Legacies of Marilyn B. Young: An Essay in Remembrance

Historian Marilyn Blatt Young passed away on February 19, 2017. Professor Young was a renowned historian of America's wars in East Asia. In honor of the first anniversary of her passing, the H-Net Book Channel commissioned an essay by her colleague at New York University, Dr. Rebecca Karl. Professor Karl is a scholar of modern Chinese cultural, intellectual, and women's history. Her most recent book is The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China. Her touching remembrance of Marilyn Young was edited in collaboration with H-Asia, with special assistance from editors Ryan Dunch and Monika Lehner.  –Assistant Editor Adrienne Tyrey

Hangzhou 2005: Xueping Zhong, Lin Chun, author, Marilyn Young. Photo courtesy of the author.

Marilyn was a historian. She was a feminist historian of war and of US foreign relations. And because the United States never contained itself Marilyn’s interests too never were contained to a single geographic region or counterpart. Before we get caught up in wars and their undiplomatic relations, let me dwell for a moment on Marilyn, the feminist, and Marilyn, the New York Jew. These were intertwined, although not reducible. Marilyn was, in fact, irreducible.

Marilyn Blatt was born in 1937 and raised in Brooklyn. I don’t know a huge amount about her childhood although I do know that she and her sisters were fiercely close to one another. They grew up in one of those mid-century Brooklyn neighborhood communities, where everyone had hopes and dreams for a future not yet foretold or foreclosed. These were recent immigrants and social marginals, but they were forcing their way into the center of the worlds they chose, because they could and they had to. The neighborhood was expansive in mind while nurturing in scope; it connected organically to larger worlds, even while it was a world unto itself.

In her oft-told story, Marilyn dates the awakening of her political consciousness to when she was sixteen. Her small world encompassed an entire world on that occasion. It was the day of the funeral for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, held in her neighborhood. Over ten thousand people filled the streets around where Marilyn lived, and as the crowd swelled through the day, she ventured onto her fire escape to watch and listen. She only retreated when her father yelled at her to get back inside because the FBI was taking pictures.[1] On that day the worlds of Marilyn, the Cold War, the surveillance state, anti-Semitism, le tout radical New York, and possibilities for activist solidarity were set on a collision course.

Marilyn graduated from a Brooklyn high school in 1953 and, in the era of waning institutional Jewish quotas and still maximal structural misogyny, the political, intellectual, and social urgencies of Marilyn’s young adulthood led her to the all-women’s college of Vassar. There, being a left-leaning, political woman, an emerging feminist, and a New York Jew fit the profile just perfectly. At Vassar, from which she graduated in 1957, Marilyn was exposed to a number of currents of thought and issues; it was there that her interest in history, contemporary politics, the operations of political power, and international relations began to develop among a cohort of strong classmates—including the feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, who became a lifelong friend—and challenging teachers. It was also there that she learned to discipline her writing style, honing it into the fluid and yet sharp weapon it was to become. When she arrived at Harvard University to pursue a PhD, Marilyn was undeterred by having to learn Chinese–she went on a full scholarship mandating China as her focus–and being in classrooms with men confirmed in a certain social status and of particular political views.

NYU-Shanghai 2016: Xueping Zhong and Marilyn Young.
Photo courtesy of Miao Feng.

Despite all, Harvard in the early 1960s was roiled by antiwar, feminist, and civil rights movements. Marilyn’s politics deepened and moved leftward. Meanwhile, she met and married Ernest Young, a fellow student pursuing a degree in US-Asian relations, who was aiming for the Foreign Service and an academic career. Marilyn B. Young—as she thereafter came to be known—emerged from Harvard in 1963 with a PhD dissertation on US-Chinese relations in the period surrounding the Boxer Rebellion of the early twentieth century. Historically informed and politically prescient, Marilyn’s first book, The Rhetoric of Empire (1968), grounded the early-century US interventions into Asia (Philippines, China, etc.) not only in material expansionism but, as the title announced, in language and ideology. Demonstrating the attention to text and language that was to be a hallmark of her writing and teaching thereafter, the book was “discursive” long before the cultural turn in history made of “discourse analysis” the kind of cheapening, default-button resort Marilyn later railed against.

Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marilyn worked hard to bring US interventions in Asia into sharper academic and public focus. Organizing around the anti–Vietnam War movement, Marilyn was a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), which, among other issues, helped bring the collusion between Asian studies funding in universities and the US policy of aggression in Asia to the forefront of scholarly concern. As Marilyn was to affirm over and again (sometimes in opposition to her CCAS colleagues), there could be no divide between scholarship and politics: the two had to be integrally incorporated into intellectual work, in order for dominant structures of power and knowledge to be fought and possibly vanquished.[2]

As Marilyn devoted her time and energy to denaturalizing the US hot and cold wars in Asia, she also worked on the domestic front: the household and its relation to patriarchy and revolution. In this idiom, Promissory Notes: Women and the Transition to Socialism, co-edited with Rayna Rapp and Sonia Kruks, stands out as an original contribution to the ongoing debates in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s about the relation between socialist revolution and feminism. As Marilyn cautions there, in its focus on productive labor, socialism is just as much in league with the socioeconomic reinforcements of patriarchal domestic norms as any other social system.

Marilyn first went to China in the early 1970s. Indeed, I have on my apartment wall today two large tomb rubbings on rice paper depicting Tang Dynasty horses and their masters that she was gifted on that visit; mounted on foam boards and framed simply, these rubbings hung for years in her various dwellings in New York. Part of a “friendship” delegation—able thereby to bypass the US embargo on travel to or fraternization with China—Marilyn’s early trips to the PRC confirmed to her that socialism was not the panacea for patriarchy many had touted, and yet also that China was not the bogeyman land of “blue ants” the United States had so fearsomely conjured since 1949.

Tomb rubbings: Hanging on my wall, in remembrance of Marilyn.
Photo courtesy of the author.

As her involvement with China waxed and waned from the 1970s onwards, Marilyn extended the scope of her intellectual and political work to encompass the Nixon/ Kissinger regime and the subsequent expansions of US power across the globe. It is also true that, while she had learned enough Chinese to complete her PhD and her first book, she was never adept at the language and was quite relieved to drop all pretense of the pursuit of proficiency in it as soon as she could. In addition, by 1973, political splits within the CCAS led to her expulsion from that group;[3] and while her commitments to politics and scholarship never faltered, they took different organizational shape from then on.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marilyn had followed Ernie to Japan and other places of his employ; never the perfect diplomatic or academic wife, she nevertheless learned a good deal from these postings, even as she was raising her two young children, Lauren and Michael. She read voraciously, soaked up political knowledge, came to appreciate new cultural forms, and defiantly never learned to cook. After a brief stint at Dartmouth, in 1968, Ernie landed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Marilyn also was appointed professor at the Residential College. By 1980, Marilyn was amicably divorced and newly out as a lesbian. She moved to NYU, where she taught, albeit hugely underpaid as one of only two female faculty in History at the time, for the rest of her academic career. She lived thereafter in several apartments, always in 3 Washington Square Village, NYU’s faculty housing, where she raised her children while creating a vibrant intellectual and social life for herself and an ever-expanding group of friends and comrades. Born and raised a Brooklynite, she became a Villager as well.

During the 1980s, Marilyn became the scholar of US wars for which she is best known. This focusing of her concerns led to the enduringly relevant book, The Vietnam Wars (1991). In this elegantly written and yet devastating study, Marilyn demonstrated that the US intervention into Vietnam must be placed along a continuum of modern wars, through which Vietnamese land and lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of murderous goals deriving from others and elsewhere. Marilyn’s insistence in this book that retrieving history is a political act seems commonplace these days; almost three decades ago, it still counted as heresy.

New York, December 2016: Marilyn and Gail Hershatter
Photo courtesy of Gail Hershatter.

Marilyn followed up the Vietnam Wars book with a seemingly endless stream of articles, essays, and anthologies about Vietnam, the Korean War, Iraq, Iran, World War II, and so on. In 2003, she became a founding member of the organization Historians Against the War (meaning the Iraq War of the time), and she increasingly collaborated, fruitfully and prolifically, with scholars and activists from across the academy and antiwar social movements to produce volumes bringing together the best of new and old scholarship on the United States and its global destructions. The advent of the internet, which she embraced fully and without reservation, allowed her to share her passions with an ever-widening group of concerned people around the world.

Through all of this, Marilyn also found Italy. She found in Italy a people, a cuisine, a way of life, an urban built environment, a rural ease, a cultural past and present that she embraced, critiqued, and went back to time and again. She found a language she could almost learn; she found a second home. Marilyn was as supportive a mentor as she was a critical stylist of prose; students loved her and even her male colleagues came to appreciate her non-confrontational yet sometimes abrasive mode of institutional being. She enjoyed opera, music, wine, food, travel, adventure, movies, and mystery novels; she doted on her grandchildren; she loved her sisters, children, and friends with great passion and encompassing generosity.

Marilyn in Havana, Cuba, 1999.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Marilyn and I traveled together often. We illicitly went to Cuba in 1999; we went to China many times; we went to Italy, France, the Netherlands, England, Hong Kong, and any number of other places. Marilyn was always up for another adventure, another meal, another attempt to communicate with folks, no matter how linguistically impossible. She was a wonderful travel companion, and when her days of travel were over, I walked with her around the block in her neighborhood or down the hall in her building whenever she could or wanted. Towards the end, she dealt with the circumscribing of her space in characteristic ways: she read more, thought more, shared more, and had more visitors who could bring the outside in.

There is no simple summing up of Marilyn’s many legacies. She meant many things to many people. In the end, I remember her easy laugh, her beautiful voice, her quick wit, her rapier-sharp editorial pen, her passion about politics and the world, and her uncompromising anger at what humans could do to one another combined with her optimism about what humans might be able to do, given the right circumstances and opportunities. The contemporary moment would have tested her completely. I have no doubt that she would have risen beautifully to the challenge.

Rebecca E. Karl
History Department
New York University

New York, January 2017. Event in honor of Marilyn. With the grandboyz.
Photo courtesy of the author.


[1]. Christy Thornton and Stuart Schrader, “Marilyn Young (1937-2017),” Jacobin, February 24, 2017.

[2]. Fabio Lanza, The End of Concern: Maoist China, Activism, and Asian Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 82-83.

[3]. Lanza, The End of Concern, chap. 3.

Academic Work Influenced by Marilyn B. Young
Compiled by Rebecca Karl, with assistance from Mario del Pero, Christy Thornton, and Molly Nolan

Allen, Michael J. Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Barlow, Tani. The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Bradley, Mark. Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Carruthers, Susan L. The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

----------- Winning Hearts and Minds: British Governments, the Media, and Colonial Counter-Insurgency 1944-1960. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1995.

Chen, Jian. China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Del Pero, Mario. The Eccentric Realist: Henry Kissinger and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Dudziak, Mary L. War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Field, Thomas C. From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Goedde, Petra. GIs and Germans: Culture, Gender, and Foreign Relations, 1945-1949. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Grunfeld, T. et al, eds., The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gurman, Hannah ed. Hearts and Minds: A People’s History of Counterinsurgency. New York: The New Press, 2013.

Hershatter, Gail. Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

Hershatter, Gail & Wang Zheng, “Chinese History: A Useful Category of Gender Analysis,” The American Historical Review, Volume 113, Issue 5, 1 December 2008, Pages 1404–1421.

Kalinovsky, Artemy M. A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Kwon, Heonik. The Other Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Laderman, Scott. Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Nolan, Mary. The Transatlantic Twentieth Century: Europe and America, 1890-2010. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Robin, Ron. The Making of the Cold War Enemy: Culture and Politics in the Military-Intellectual Complex. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Simpson, Bradley. Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesia Relations, 1960-1968. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Vitalis, Robert. America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

A Marilyn B. Young Bibliography
Compiled by Monika Lehner


The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

With William G. Rosenberg. Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggle in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

American Expansionism: The Critical Issues. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Edited Volumes

With Lloyd C. Gardner, eds. Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past. New York: The New Press, 2011.

With Yuki Tanaka, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: The New Press, 2010.

With Mark Philip Bradley, eds. Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

With Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Greg Grandin, and Lynn Hunt, eds. Human Rights and Revolutions. 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

With Lloyd C. Gardner, eds. The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-In on U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: The New Press, 2005.

With John J. Fitzgerald and A. Tom Grunfeld, eds. The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

With Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

With Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds. Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War. 2nd edition. New York: Grove Press, 1995.

With Sonia Kruks and Rayna Rapp, eds. Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.

Women in China: Studies in Social Change and Feminism. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1973.

Selected Articles

Reflections on the Korean War and Its Armistice.” The Journal of Korean Studies 18, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 403-406.

Where Imperium Stumbled.” Diplomatic History 39, no. 2 (April 2015): 389-390.

The Cold War Seminars at the Tamiment Library.” American Communist History 12, no. 1 (2013): 35-38.

’I was thinking, as I often do these days, of war’: The United States in the Twenty-First Century.” Diplomatic History 36, no. 1 (January 2012): 1-15.

Reflections on the Anti-War Movement, Then and Now.” Historein 9 (2009): 67.

Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” Cold War History 6, no. 4 (November 2006): 413-424.

Now Playing: Vietnam.” OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (October 2004): 22-26.

In the Combat Zone.” Radical History Review 85 (Winter 2003): 253-264.

Korea: The Post-War War.” History Workshop Journal, no. 51 (April 2001): 112-126.