In memoriam: John Morton Blum

There will be a memorial service on Friday, Nov. 11, for John Morton Blum, a renowned historian of 20th-century American political history and a pivotal figure on the Yale campus during the social unrest of the late 1960s. Blum died on Oct. 17 in North Branford, Connecticut. He was 90 years old.

John Blum
John Blum, circa 1968

The service will take place at 2 p.m. in Battell Chapel, corner of College and Elm streets. All are welcome to attend.

Blum counted among his students President George W. Bush ’68, U.S. Senator John Kerry ’66, and the literary critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates ’73.

Born in New York in 1921, Blum attended Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard College. After graduating from Harvard in 1943, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy on a PC 616 in the South Pacific. “The war informed so much of what my father and his generation felt and believed and did,” notes his son Thomas Blum.

Blum returned to Harvard at the end of World War II, and in short order earned his master’s degree (1947) and doctorate (1950). Much later in his career, he returned to Cambridge as a fellow of the Harvard Corporation, serving from 1970 to 1979. In 1980 his alma mater awarded him his fourth Harvard degree, an honorary LL.D.

A member of the Yale faculty from 1957 until his retirement in 1991, Blum was a popular and influential teacher.

In an article recollecting his college years, former special counsel to President Clinton Lanny Davis ’67, LL.B ’70, recalls an encounter with George W. Bush, when the two were students at Yale. Davis noted that Bush was carrying a textbook from Blum’s history class and asked why a Republican would take a course with the avowedly liberal Blum. The future president replied: “I’ve learned more from John Blum than any other teacher I’ve had at Yale. I don’t care what his politics are, I love that course.”

Gates frequently cited Blum as his “mentor” and a transformational figure in his life, saying in a 2002 intervew: “I learned a lot about writing from John Blum, and I learned a lot about history from John Blum. It was like the laying on of the hands.”

Known particularly as a scholar of the New Deal, Blum authored or edited volumes that spanned nearly a half-century of American history, from letters and a biography of Theodore Roosevelt to the diaries of Henry Morgenthau and Henry Wallace and a study of the impact of World War II on American society and culture. Blum continued to publish and give interviews long after he retired and well into his 80s. He even took a cameo role in Woody Allen’s classic pseudo-documentary “Zelig.” In his 2004 memoir, “A Life With History,” Blum offered a unique perspective on the academic world during the political turbulence of the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights struggle.

His close friend, and former graduate student, Henry (“Sam”) Chauncey recalls Blum as a devoted and disciplined scholar, who considered administrative work a duty and public service. In the late 1960s, Blum was drafted to preside over contentious meetings of students and faculty as they debated the continued presence of ROTC at Yale. “John, who was careful, quiet and sensible beyond belief, was there to see that things didn’t get out of hand,” recalls Chauncy. When the issue finally came up for a straw vote, and Blum had to announce that there had been a tie, a gasp went around the hall — but the crowd accepted the startling outcome, surmises Chauncy, “because of John’s reputation for fairness.”

When protests over the Black Panthers trial and anti-war demonstrations threatened to erupt on campus in the early 1970s, Blum — a longtime friend and confidante of Yale President Kingman Brewster — argued successfully to keep the University open and classes continuing, a decision that has been credited with averting potentially disastrous confrontations.

“In everything, John struck a balance between keeping peace and maintaining the integrity of the institution,” adds Chauncy.

Blum is survived by his wife of 67 years, Pamela, their three children, and three grandchildren.

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