Ian Lustick Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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Ian, welcome back to Berkeley.
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Syracuse, New York -- Upstate New York -- but I was raised in what you would have to call Northern New York, which is seventy miles north of Syracuse, near Canada, in a kind of hump at the top of New York State, a small town of about 30,000 people, which is the largest city in a radius of seventy miles. So it's not what people normally think of as New York.
And what was that city?
Watertown, New York.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?
We have a very close family. There are five siblings. My parents left Syracuse to build a home in Watertown because they wanted to get out of the rat race of Syracuse, which is kind of interesting in itself. My grandfather on one side is a farmer, very unusual for a Jew to be a farmer in Upstate New York. I remember driving up in the farm truck, actually, to move to Watertown. It was an adventure for my parents. They wanted to be close enough to the family to maintain the ties, but far enough away to be independent, start their own family. My father is a pediatrician, the first Jewish pediatrician in Watertown, with a small Jewish population, with a small synagogue. In our home, we were very much inculcated with the notion that the most important things in life were family and service to others, and the idea was to find an occupation that you loved and that would actually be a good thing to do. The siblings all went into their various professions. As it happened, none of us did go into business, but a number of us went into medicine. I'm the only one so far who is an academic, but it looks like my youngest brother may well follow in that direction.
So were there a lot of books around the house, a lot of intellectual discussion about world affairs?
Well, we used to argue a lot at the dinner table about a lot of things, and that was unusual in Watertown. I know that the Middle East would come up a lot. It was a Zionist household, not a very politicized household. My parents didn't come from backgrounds of engaged, left-wing Jewish intellectuals. These were working families, lower-middle-class, farmers, insurance salesmen, very glad not to be in Europe, and very anxious to meld into American society. But we as a family were quite intensively interested in arguing about political matters. I remember my mother and father always reading Walter Lippmann, and saying, if there was something going on with the Vietnam War, for example, "What does Lippmann say about this?" That was an important idea to me, that you could follow certain people who were articulate, who knew what was going on, who were better informed than you. It was a long time before I was ready to read the editorial pages, but I was very interested in talking to my family and arguing, and when I would write a paper in school, my father and I would always talk about it.
Do you remember any books from your youth that had an impact on you?
Well, J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, the idea that the world is not as it is purported to be, the phoniness around me, which so may young people experience. I used to be fascinated by the idea that if this were true, then the world is not the way people try to make it look. Then I'd look around at my little Jewish community and the synagogue where a hundred people would come together for a bar mitzvah, and everyone would appear to be a certain way, and I would think, there's a contradiction here. I can't imagine that this person, Morrie Shuffler, isn't what he says he is, and yet according to what I've just been reading and feeling, these people shouldn't be an exception. So how do you live in a world when you can't challenge everything that's happening, and yet somehow you know that what you're seeing is not what's actually there? I remember that as a very important, intriguing set of problems for me early on.
Where did you go to college?
Growing up in Watertown, I never had a Jewish teacher, and being Jewish was very important to us. There were orthodox rabbis; I got a pretty good Jewish education. It was almost like living in a shtetl, and I say this because there was quite a bit of anti-Semitism. I mean, I was chased and beaten up a couple times -- "You killed our God," that kind of thing, when I was a kid. I wanted to see what Jews were like. I didn't really think I knew. So I went to Brandeis University. It wasn't a choice that my parents were fully enthusiastic about, especially my father, precisely because, "You're a smart kid, you can go to a non-Jewish school." But I wanted to go and see. And it was a wonderful place, because in the sixties -- late sixties, I went in '67 -- it was very political, very intense intellectually, very high-quality students, partly because these were students who weren't being allowed in, under quotas, to the Ivy League schools.
I grew up amidst the antiwar movement at Brandeis. The Cambodia student strike was headquartered at Brandeis; the first building takeover by black students took place at Brandeis when I was there -- the Ford Hall takeover. So it was a very exciting place to be.
And how, beyond what you've just said, did that experience, that revolutionary air of the sixties, affect you long term?
It affected me long term.
I mean, when I grew up, we just loved the country, that feeling permeated Jews who were children of immigrants. All my grandparents are basically immigrants. The other thing that dominated my thinking and came out of the family was the Holocaust. Such a huge proportion of my relatives were killed or never heard from again after the Holocaust, and that was an overwhelming experience. Whatever my family was going to do, it was going to be learn the lessons of that experience, which in my mind meant you had to actually act in the world, to be vigilant against injustice. That was a commitment that came out of Watertown, and it came right into the antiwar movement. So at first I thought, like everyone else in Watertown, that we were fighting a just war to stop communism and not to commit the act of appeasement again in Southeast Asia.
It was a wrenching, wrenching experience to try to look at it the other way, from the anti- Vietnam War position. I had one uncle who would come up in '65 and '66 and argue with us, and say, "You know, the Vietnam War is not what you think it is," and my parents and I had the same reactions: "But wait a minute -- aren't we doing what we should have done to protect Czechoslovakia?" When I got to Brandeis, within three weeks ... I remember one conversation [when someone said], "Well, how would you feel if you were a peasant in South Vietnam? All those arguments don't make any sense." The march on the Pentagon occurred, and I realized very quickly, "My God, all that I've been thinking of trying to do to be vigilant about injustice is on the other side of the fence."
For a year, visits home were dominated by arguments with my family and my parents; nothing could be said in the house until they accepted an antiwar position, which they pretty quickly did. The whole family then became almost ostracized in Watertown because of that. That was a difficult thing, even within the Jewish community, that my parents were willing to argue against the war. Only twenty years later did they get apologies from some of their friends about the way they were treated.
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