Thomas G. Paterson

Professor Emeritus

Following Tom Paterson’s retirement from the University of Connecticut in 1997 after thirty years on the faculty, a symposium of foreign relations historians from around the country gathered in Storrs to honor the career of a truly extraordinary scholar, teacher, and builder of community. As the keynote speaker, Walter LaFeber of Cornell University, put it, 1967-97 should be understood as “The Tom Paterson Era in Foreign Relations History.” That was not an exaggeration.

Tom’s propelled the UConn History Department into the front ranks of the nation in terms of the teaching and writing of foreign relations history. Paterson’s books quickly established his reputation as an expert on the Cold War and on U.S. relations with Latin America. He published Soviet-American Confrontation (Johns Hopkins, 1973), On Every Front (Norton, 1979 and 1992), Meeting the Communist Threat (Oxford, 1988), and Contesting Castro (Oxford), 1994. Paterson also edited highly influential books, including Kennedy’s Quest for Victory (Oxford, 1989) and, with Michael Hogan, two editions of Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (Cambridge, 1991 and 2004). Along with his friend and UConn colleague, J. Garry Clifford, Paterson wrote many editions of the most widely used textbook in diplomatic history, American Foreign Relations. Similarly, he contributed the foreign relations sections to the most widely adopted U.S. history textbook, A People and a Nation.

Tom Paterson’s career brought UConn to the forefront in still other ways. He was the founding editor of the popular series Problems in American History. These books offered a selection of primary documents and scholarly analyses on a variety of topics. Always attuned to fresh thinking, Paterson through the Problems series helped introduce such new approaches as women’s history. He also founded the UConn Foreign Policy Seminar, a lecture series continuing today, that brings distinguished scholars to campus for a stimulating lecture, discussion, and dinner, all with its trademark informal atmosphere.

In 1987 Tom was elected president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). In 2000 the New England Teachers Association honored him with its Distinguished Scholar Mentor Service Award for his dedication to undergraduate teaching. Eight years later SHAFR presented him with its Norman Graebner Award, recognizing his lifetime contributions to the field.

Paterson’s reputation as a national leader in foreign relations history attracted top-flight graduate students to Storrs. He trained a host of students who went on to become highly respected scholars and teachers in their own right. One such student was Robert McMahon, who taught at the University of Florida and at Ohio State University. Years after graduating, McMahon recalled that when he had pitched to Paterson his idea of doing a dissertation on the clash between the United States and Asian nationalism, with a case study of Indonesia, Tom had encouraged him, while admitting that he knew nothing about the topic. But, Paterson had quickly added, “We could learn together.” And so they did. Another former student who would become a superb scholar and teacher was Stephen Rabe, who taught at the University of Texas, Dallas. Rabe would remember that Paterson “never once suggested a philosophical approach” to him. “Instead, his constant directive was that the best history was scholarship that raised questions about prevailing interpretations. Training graduate students was about teaching them hard questions.”

Tom Paterson received his B.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1963 and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1968. Among his many other honors, he received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships in support of his scholarship.

Soon after retiring, Tom moved to Ashland, Oregon. There he continues to informally mentor students and associate with other teacher-scholars at Southern Oregon University.

Tom Paterson’s legacy at UConn endures. He enriched the intellectual understanding of generations of undergraduates who flocked to his classes in Storrs. He generously funded the Thomas G. Paterson Prize in Foreign Relations History, awarded annually to a Department graduate student. Most importantly, Tom continues to serve as an inspiring model for students and faculty in the UConn History Department.

(Frank Costigliola, February 2023)

Professor Emeritus Thomas Paterson
Contact Information
Mailing Address241 Glenbrook Rd, U-4103, Storrs CT 06269