Herring honored by peers, students and now, his College
George C. Herring '57, an internationally respected historian who taught for 36 years at the University of Kentucky, said his passion for the discipline was sparked at Roanoke College.
He grew up in an academic family in Blacksburg and credits his mother's "intense interest" in history for steering him into his chosen profession.
Herring said he was called "out of the clear, blue sky" by Roanoke College President Michael Maxey on Dec. 23 and asked if he would be the commencement speaker. He was awarded his first honorary degree, a Doctor of Laws.
"I can't think of anything more important to me than being recognized by the college I went to more than 50 years ago," he said.
Herring, 75, one of the nation's foremost experts in the Vietnam War, has served on historical advisory committees at the CIA and U.S. State Department and recently completed a volume in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States. His volume, "From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776," was published in 2008 and was a finalist for that year's National Book Critics Circle award. Since then, he's been writing shorter pieces and lecturing, from Texas to Washington, D.C.
"That big book took a long period of time and took a lot out of me," said Herring, who began the book in 1997. "But, once it was done, wow!"
In September 2010, he gave a talk on the Vietnam War at the State Department at an event attended by current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and other Cabinet-level dignitaries.
Herring has won the admiration of his peers and former students for his candor, caring and intellectual rigor. He became "the dean of the Vietnam War scholars," said Fredrik Logevall, a Cornell University historian, in a 2005 Lexington Herald-Leader article prior to Herring's retirement.
Herring, currently a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, said his interest in the Vietnam War stemmed from his early years as a professor.
After graduating from Roanoke in 1957, he served in the U.S. Navy as a "landlocked sailor" in New London, Conn., from 1958-1960. He then resumed his studies in history. He did his doctoral studies at the University of Virginia, completing his degree in 1965 and then taught for four years at the University of Ohio.
Herring said his expertise in the Vietnam War, "just sort of happened."
"At that time, the war was center stage, at least on college campuses," Herring said. "Students were keenly interested and, the more I learned, the more interested I became in documenting the war as history."
Herring began researching and writing his "America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975," now in its fourth edition, and discovered a trove of information in presidential libraries, from Truman to Eisenhower to Johnson.
Herring said he always relished teaching; enjoying the personal connection with his students and watching them progress as scholars. "It's exciting to see them get a sense of how complicated and fascinating history can be."
Later, he served on the CIA's Historical Review Panel and the State Department's Historical Advisory Committee from 1990-1996. He and others on the CIA's committee fought for access to historical documents, but Herring said they made little headway.
Herring and the other nine panel members wanted to create a system for declassifying CIA documents, dating back to the agency's inception in 1947. Instead, the CIA preferred a "very selective process" that would cast the agency in a favorable light.
While the agency did release some intelligence records and materials required under the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, Herring said "the prevailing culture was one of secrecy, and my own very limited experience made abundantly clear how deeply rooted this culture is."
His candid remarks, which he now describes at "bottled up frustration, were given in a 1997 meeting of the American Historical Association. His lecture was picked up in a New York Times article and editorial piece the following day. "It was my 15 seconds of fame," Herring joked.
His future plans include a short book at "some time" and periodic stints teaching. He recently taught a one-week summer class, "Vietnam - A Retrospective," at the Washington & Lee Alumni College.
"What was exciting is most of them had been in the service in Vietnam War, or were protesting it," Herring said. "We sort of fought the war all over again and it was very interesting."