Geir Lundestad Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you. Very pleased to be here.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Sulitjelma, which is a mining community inside the Arctic Circle, so I come from the very northern part of Norway. I feel that is my identity, and I have spent most of my life inside the Arctic Circle. But I have lived in Oslo now for many years. I studied in Oslo and I spent some time in the United States, obviously.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
My father was the high school principal, so we had many books in our home. I was used to having books around, reading newspapers. We were five children in the family. [At the] dinner table we discussed things and we were encouraged to pay attention to current affairs.
Did you have any teachers as a young person who influenced you in the direction of becoming a student of international politics?
Not really. I don't think any of my teachers are watching this program, but I have to confess that nobody among them really influenced me. I didn't have any good history teachers, so I take credit myself for my interest in history, and to some extent, even current affairs.
Where did you do your undergraduate work, as we call it, and then your graduate work?
I worked at the University of Oslo, but what I should add is that I was an exchange student to America in 1962 to '63, to a suburb in Minneapolis, and this certainly changed my life.
This was when you were in high school?
This was when I was in high school, so I had to do my senior year twice, first in America and then back home at my father's school. But you will remember that '62, '63, that was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October '62 made a great impression on me. It was very tense, and it was debated whether all foreign exchange students should be sent home. I rushed home from school every day to listen to Kennedy's speeches, or whatever was going on. I was already very, very interested in current affairs, international relations, but that certainly enhanced my interest tremendously, and I was fascinated by Kennedy. I became a great admirer; not so much of an admirer anymore. But I decided that international relations would be my thing.
What other impact, if any, did your stay in the United States at that young age affect your career? One of your research interests is the United States.
Yes. I became very interested in American politics. I picked up the language, which, of course, is crucially important. I came a bit late because there is still a clear Norwegian accent, as you can hear! But I get along in the English language and I think that's very important. If you want to be involved in academic debates, in America or other places, you have to know the language, and that is one of the advantages in coming from a small country. If you come from Norway you know that if you want to take part in the academic debate, you have to write in English, your English has to be good. If you come from Germany or France or Italy, you may suffer from the illusion that you are taking part in this debate if you write in your native language, but you aren't. You are on the outside.
Tell us where you did your undergraduate work and your graduate work, once you went back to Norway.
Your question is based on the American academic model, but I studied at the University of Oslo for seven years, and then I went back to the high north where I came from, to the world's northernmost university, the University of Tromso, and there I did get my Ph.D. I wrote a book on the American non-policy towards Eastern Europe, 1943 to 1947. I spent a lot of time at American archives and I was very proud when this book came out. Arthur Schlesinger reviewed the book in the New York Review of Books, and I thought this was the way it was supposed to be, that you had your books reviewed in the New York Review of Books. That was my first book and unfortunately, so far my only book that has been reviewed in the New York Review of Books.
Are you a political scientist, historian, both?
No, I was determined to become a political scientist when I started my studies at the University of Oslo and I was very happy when I did my initial political science work because I was captivated by political science. You could make grand statements about anything, it seemed. I could speak about the causes of wars and the causes of revolutions and boy, did I enjoy this! Then I would do history to support my political science. But I must say, my entire academic life collapsed, because I discovered that all the things that I had been saying based on political science were either obvious or not quite true, so my entire world collapsed and I had to try to reconstruct it over time. I'm still very interested in political science and I still have occasionally the moments of joy which I had in my initial year of political science when I thought I'd mastered everything.
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