Fall Convocation Address: "Sea Change"

Robert K. Brigham, Fall Convocation, September 3, 2008

When President Hill contacted me in Dublin, Ireland with the invitation to be this Fall’s Convocation Speaker, I was honored and more than a little perplexed. Isn’t this privilege for someone far older and wiser?  Still, I humbly accepted her invitation and with the Irish Sea in front of me and the Wicklow Mountains behind me, I diligently went about writing a first draft.   

After several weeks, and several drafts, I gathered my family and read aloud. I thought the effort first rate and read with gusto. My wife, a New Englander to the core, said at my conclusion, “Oh.” My daughter gave a hearty laugh and asked if “I was for real.” “What’s wrong with this,” I asked? “It tells the students to work hard, eat right, get plenty of sleep, and try classes across the curriculum. The conclusion—with enough pluck and enough luck all your dreams will come true—is upbeat and memorable.” “Yes, memorable,” says my wife. “Dad, no one wants to hear that boring stuff,” says my daughter. And then, with the clarity of mind that can only come from being seven, she says, “Dad, tell your own truth in your own words.”

I was afraid of that. You see, my seven year old is right. I can only tell my own truth. This scares me to death. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not afraid of public speaking. No, I have given lectures all over the world, literally, and love the opportunity to exchange ideas. What terrifies me about this particular talk is the charge given to the convocation speaker—a professional autobiography—that can offer some insights to today’s Vassar students. Yes, this assignment fills me with dread.  You see, what brings me before you today as someone who has embraced a life of the mind is somewhat painful and even a little embarrassing for me. Many of my closest friends do not know what I am about to tell you.  I have wrestled with these remarks for months now, and realize that my own truth is only what I can give. So, I will do my best to tell you the story of my academic life and let you draw your own conclusions and lessons.

So, here it goes.

I first heard the word “Vietnam” in the spring of 1965. My baby sitter Vicki told me that her boyfriend was being sent to Vietnam. Every time she said the word “Vietnam,” she burst into tears. I remember vividly going to the globe in our house and seeing how far Vietnam was from New York. I figured Gary, Vicki’s boyfriend, must be afraid to fly, so I offered her several tips on what to do when you are afraid of something. At five, I was an expert on such matters. That wasn’t it, she said in between sobs.

The next time I heard the word “Vietnam” was in a judge’s chambers. An advocate for New York State Social Services was telling the judge that he was free to award custody of me to my mother because my biological mother was terminally ill with cancer and my father had died in Vietnam. I knew my mother and father were getting a divorce, but what was all this talk about another mother and father. In the car ride home, my mom explained everything to me. She told me I was adopted—something she said we had discussed before though I was not old enough to understand—and that my biological mother had been young, unmarried, pregnant, and was going to die shortly from cancer. She also told me that my name was Kevin at the time of my birth. Everything she said after that was a blur. My name was “Kevin” I remember thinking over and over. It’s funny what runs through a young person’s mind. I also remember feeling terribly sad. I had a profound sense of loss for these people I never knew. Heck, I didn’t even know my biological father’s name (and still don’t) and I missed him. It wasn’t until 35 years later that I saw my first photograph of my biological mother. Still, the heartache was there.

Over time, my secret history became the focus of my intellectual life. There is no doubt that I chased my unknown family with abandon. And, much like the next president of the United States, I seemed to focus on dreams of a father who was not present at all in my life. My family—the mother and father who raised me, cared for me, and loved me unconditionally though my blood did not run through their veins—indulged this dogged pursuit of my biology and the war. I think they understood then that someday I would find other passions.

Still, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was easy to become preoccupied with a war raging 9,000 miles away. Like many of my classmates, I became an avid reader of the major daily newspapers, and of course I watched the tragedy unfold on the nightly news. Friends and neighbors went off to Vietnam, some came back, and others did not. By the time I was ready to head off to college—exactly 30 years ago—I knew I wanted to study the Vietnam War, but had no idea how to go about it. No courses were offered on the war at my college. In fact, few courses in the history or political science departments dealt with the cold war at all. I had a college roommate who was a Vietnam veteran, but like many returning vets, he simply did not want to talk about his experience. Left with few options, then, I pursued my other interest: the great outdoors. First, I was a recreation major, yes there really was such a thing, and then I switched to geography followed by oceanography. I would have stayed with oceanography and enjoyed a life on the sea had it not been for two things: dyslexia and then there was this Vietnam thing that would not let go.

Unlike today, there was no help on my campus for somebody who had dyslexia. In addition to trouble reading and spelling, I also struggled with what is called sequential processing, and this made the chemistry and biology of oceanography particularly difficult. There were no Chris Smarts, John Longs, or Kate Susmans to help me. I had developed strategies and techniques to teach myself how to read and write, but they just could not be transferred to the science part of my brain without professional intervention and none was available to me in 1978. I should add that since coming to Vassar I have taken full advantage of the Office of Disability Services and encourage you to do the same if you have a learning disability like me.

So, oceanography was out and, of course, there was my intense and almost overbearing interest in the Vietnam War. Early in my studies, I was lucky enough to meet an outstanding teacher and mentor in the History Department who was the first to tell me about his own search for a usable past. He believed in the ability to draw lessons from the past to inform the present. His colleagues chided him for “trying to do good by doing history,” but he was convinced that the past was our only teacher and that to unravel its mysteries held out the best promise for a better today and tomorrow. That lit a fire under me. Perhaps I could do that with the Vietnam War—draw lessons from it so another such conflict could be avoided in the future and some other kid would not miss the touch of his father’s hand upon his shoulders, or the sweet caress of her mother’s voice. Of course, this was the naive belief of a college student. I hope you harbor such beliefs and never let them go. If you don’t want to save the world, or at least your part of it, we have let you down.

So, off to graduate school I went to study the Vietnam War with the dean of American historians on the war, George C. Herring. He understood my obsession, nurtured it, trained it, and gave me great focus. His steady hand prepared me for a life of the mind and Vassar. He was a mentor’s mentor, just like the kind I know you will find at Vassar. Behind me in these splendid academic robes sit some of the most dedicated and skilled people in the profession. Get to know them. Learn with them. Grow together.

As a student of the Vietnam War, I have had some remarkable, and, I will admit, terrifying experiences.  I learned the Vietnamese language and was among the first scholars allowed to do research in the archives in Hanoi. I was in Cambodia at the height of the war between government forces and the Khmer Rouge. I visited the killing fields, witnessing up-close the horror of genocide. I smuggled money to a friend’s parents in Vietnam so they could live out their last years with dignity. Along with some people I admire and respect immensely, I helped work for full diplomatic reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. That effort produced a strong friendship with Douglas Pete Peterson, a former POW and the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. My wife and I lived in Hanoi and have made over 35 trips to Vietnam, developing a deep love for its people and history. Along with David Kennett and Amanda Thornton, we took 44 Vassar students to Vietnam on the International Studies Trip, the largest student group ever to tour that country. And, as President Hill mentioned, I was involved in a critical oral history project that brought high level policy makers from the Kennedy and Johnson years to Hanoi to relive war-time decision making with their Vietnamese counterparts. That project resulted in a co-authored book with Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, and James Blight of Brown University, a book that formed the backdrop for the academy award winning documentary, “The Fog of War.”

It was precisely at this time—when I was at the top of my game if you will—that my own great sea change occurred.

One of the earliest uses of the phrase “sea change” comes from Ariel’s piercing song to Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”:

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

My sea change came with the birth of my daughter, Taylor, who was literally born under water. Since that day, we have spent countless hours together as a family sailing and swimming in Biscayne Bay, West Cork Harbor, the Irish Sea, Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay, and on the Hudson. That time together has allowed me to take a step back from the intense pursuit of the study of the Vietnam War, and to really think hard about the world we live in and my responsibility as an educator to help make some sense of it. What I have learned on the sea with my family is that we humans place too many limits on ourselves on land. We think inside the box far too often. We try to solve complicated problems with worn out solutions. And, we often tend to let others define who we are and what we can do. When you are on a large ocean in a small boat, none of that seems to matter much. It is just you, your instincts, and the problems at hand. I have been fortunate to have outstanding mentors in my life; the sea has been another mentor. Studying the Vietnam War had provided me with a way to talk about conflict and international relations. The interest started with my family, but it did not end there. As I matured intellectually, I became more and more concerned with the failure of negotiations to bring sustainable peace and the ease with which nations went to war. This became the subject of my classes and books. But, I also knew that there were other problems in the world that the Vietnam experience simply did not provide the answers to.

So at age 40, after some reflection upon the waters of the world, I started to do what we advise Vassar students to do from their first moment on campus: I started to read widely in new areas of interest and engaged new ideas across a broad spectrum of international relations. My colleagues in the History Department suffered with me as I embraced every new possible topic for teaching and research. They heard about a hundred new ideas, listening patiently and being very supportive. I wore a path out to Jim Merrell’s office. And, my research assistant, Debbie Sharnak, listened to me struggle with these issues. Eventually, my sea change led me to think in new ways about the problems we do face together, problems that you and my daughter will be confronted with in this new 21st century.  

Of course the most obvious of these problems is the war in Iraq. In the past two years, I have written two books on George Bush’s war, concluding that the United States should not use its power arbitrarily, that there is often no political corollary to America’s overwhelming military power. A mature nation, a nation with a proper sense of its own history and power, does not engage in wars of choice. It is time for the U.S. to reorient its power in the Middle East and build the framework necessary for successful statecraft. This will take years to accomplish, but I know that such change is possible and that this country needs you to bring about this kind of change. It is going to be a long walk home, but that first step is yours.

Another major crisis facing our world is global warming and environmental ruin. Accordingly, I have just begun a book about international efforts to save the world’s oceans from environmental degradation. And, who knows what tomorrow will bring? What new subjects lurk around the corner for intense scrutiny and discussion? One of the things I hope you learn at Vassar is that you never really get over deciding what your major will be. Education is a lifelong process and your interests may in fact change over time. Personal growth can be a mark a happy life. And, for those of you who are wired like I am, there is always a new cause that needs you. I will still teach and write about the Vietnam War, but it will not be all that I do or all that I am.

I believe firmly that the world’s most pressing problems—from conflict in the Middle East to HIV/AIDs, from global warming to nuclear proliferation—will only be settled through international cooperation, and that such cooperation needs liberally educated people as its foundation.

Do I have any of the answers to these difficult issues? No, most decidedly not. But I do know for certain that when solutions to the most intractable problems do come, they will not have military answers. I also know that when the solutions come some of you in this room will be involved. Perhaps you will be urged on by your own secret—or not so secret—history? Or maybe you have an inner voice propelling you forward from an unknown place? No matter what brings you here today, I have faith that you too will be passionate about your work.

If you do what I do for a living, studying the most difficult international problems, the only way you can sleep at night is to have spent the day looking into the faces of Vassar students. And, I get up every morning thinking I am the luckiest man alive; I have a wonderful family and I get to touch the future. I am so thankful I get to play a small role here at Vassar in enabling the dreams of others.

You students inspire all of us up here in robes, and we believe—in our heart of hearts we believe—that the world will be a better place because you all are in it. Now, seniors get ready to go out and make your mark. Freshmen, take advantage of all that Vassar has, especially each other.  Fair winds.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, September 3, 2008