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David Fromkin, Pardee Center Founding Director, Dies at 84

Scholar’s book on the Middle East impressed critics and world leaders

David Fromkin

David Fromkin’s 1989 book on the making of today’s Middle East was a Pulitzer finalist. Photo courtesy of Pardee School of Global Studies

David Fromkin and Adil Najam differed on matters gustatory: Fromkin, a wine connoisseur, co-owned Parisian wine bars, while Najam was a teetotaler. But Najam, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, knew a keen scholar when he saw one, and Fromkin, a Pardee School professor emeritus, who died last week at age 84, was the real thing. “He had a truly vast knowledge of the world,” Najam says.

So vast, he says, that Bill Clinton reportedly ordered copies of Fromkin’s 1989 book, A Peace to End All Peace, when he was president “and made sure that everyone on his staff working on the Middle East negotiations had read it.” A bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Fromkin’s most famous work, the book traces the political contours of today’s Middle East from the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in World War I.

“It remains one of the—if not the—definitive and most readable books on the history of the modern Middle East conflict,” Najam says. “He took the craft of the scholar and the craft of the author equally seriously. That is why his work was meticulous in its scholarship but also so elegant in its narrative.”

Clinton wasn’t the only leader who found A Peace to End All Peace must-reading; then British prime minister Tony Blair said it was the most important book on the region he’d read, recalls Erik Goldstein, a Pardee School professor of international relations and of history.

Such accolades didn’t go to Fromkin’s head, says Goldstein. “He was always quietly spoken, which sometimes shielded the powerful mind at work and which is evident in the clarity and power of his writing.”

Fromkin died in New York City, where he had lived since retiring from the University in 2013. He came to BU in 1994 and in 2000 became the founding director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. His seven-year tenure set the center on its mission of conducting interdisciplinary research that leads to “long-term improvements in the human condition.”

Fromkin wrote seven books, ending with 2008’s The King and the Cowboy, the story of the secret partnership of Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII. He covered topics from Roosevelt to America’s World War II leaders and the troubles of modern political systems. William Keylor, a Pardee School international relations professor, says Kosovo Crossing, Fromkin’s 1999 book on that year’s NATO bombing of Serbia’s genocidal regime, “was a masterpiece.”

“I recall chatting with him as he was feverishly working to finish his manuscript on deadline, which he did in record time,” says Keylor. “He let slip the comment that he was writing the entire narrative in longhand—he was not an aficionado of computers or even typewriters.”

He was an aficionado of food and wine, says Keylor, who once dined with his colleague at a local restaurant that was a Fromkin favorite. “He mentioned that he had ordered a case of premier French wines and persuaded the manager to keep them in stock for him when he dined there.”

Fromkin came to BU after a career in law, business, and politics. He’d been a first lieutenant in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps in France after World War II; he prosecuted or defended more than 100 contested courts-martial. He also worked on Wall Street and advised former vice president Hubert Humphrey on foreign policy when Humphrey sought the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.

As chairman of the College of Arts & Sciences international relations department for three years in the 1990s, Fromkin designed its degree in international environmental policy, according to Goldstein, who credits Fromkin’s knowledge of history for giving him “an eye for what was of coming international relations importance, as seen by his prescient work on the Middle East and his early identification of environmental issues.”

On his retirement, Fromkin was a Pardee School professor of international relations. He’d also held faculty appointments at CAS and the School of Law. He brought Najam to BU when he was international relations department chairman. (“I was, in fact, the very last faculty member hired under his chairmanship,” Najam says.) Najam would succeed Fromkin as the center’s head, at which point Fromkin “was immensely gracious and nurturing in preparing me for that role.”

Fromkin graduated from the University of Chicago with undergraduate and law degrees. He did postgraduate study at the University of London’s Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

One Comment on David Fromkin, Pardee Center Founding Director, Dies at 84

  • Jose Artigas on 06.27.2017 at 2:02 pm

    RIP, Prof. Fromkin. Along with the other titles, “A Peace to End all Peace” is a masterpiece on war & diplomacy, & will remain an enduring achievement.

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