Gabriel Kolko, historian who skewered U.S. economic and foreign policies, dies at 81

Gabriel Kolko, a leftist historian who drew admiration and criticism for books that skewered generations of American policymaking, died May 19 at his home in Amsterdam. He was 81.

His death was announced in a statement distributed by his friends and forwarded by Eric Garris, founder of Antiwar.com, a Web site with which Dr. Kolko was associated as a writer and financial contributor. The cause could not be confirmed immediately.

Dr. Kolko was educated at institutions including Harvard University and began his career amid the cultural and political divisions of the 1960s. Mainly associated with left-wing schools of thought, he also attracted a following among libertarians, although he rejected that association, and more broadly among the contrarian-minded.

He wrote more than a dozen books, contributed to a range of publications and taught for many years at York University in Toronto. He was the sort of historian, a writer once observed in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, who tries to “wriggle out from the tortuous corridors of history the reasons why humanity behaves in certain ways, usually unwisely.”

Dr. Kolko became widely known in intellectual circles for his books “The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916” (1963) and “Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916” (1965), two volumes in which he argued that the progressive era was not nearly as progressive as was suggested in prevailing notions of history.

Government leaders had not trust-busted for the benefit of the public, he argued. Rather, they had pursued regulatory policies that ultimately benefitted big business by limiting upstart competitors and cementing industry as a powerful force in American politics.

“As new competitors sprang up, and as economic power was diffused throughout an expanding nation,” he wrote, “it became apparent to many important businessmen that only the national government could rationalize the economy.”

In later books — notably “The Politics of War” (1968), “The Limits of Power” (written with his wife, Joyce, in 1972) and “Confronting the Third World” (1988) — Dr. Kolko looked in a similarly critical fashion on U.S. foreign policy.

He wrote extensively about what he regarded as the consequences of excessive American intervention in the affairs of other countries and described the United States in “Anatomy of a War” (1985), one of several volumes he wrote on Vietnam, as “the major inheritor of the mantle of imperialism in modern history.”

In particular, he faulted policymakers for pursuing agendas that prodded “the political destinies of distant places to evolve in a manner beneficial to American . . . interests.”

His works drew the notice of historians including David Herbert Donald, who, writing in the New York Times in 1970, described Dr. Kolko as an “impressively productive scholar” but one who presented a “simplified, almost schematic version of history.”

His admirers praised what they regarded as his originality and insight. Critics pointed to what they considered the one-sided and strident nature of his arguments. Many nonetheless acknowledged his contributions to scholarship.

“This book is simultaneously original and dogmatic, perceptive and blind, clearly reasoned and clogged by ambiguity and awkward prose,” the noted historian Gaddis Smith wrote in the Times in a review of “The Politics of War.” “It is also the most important and stimulating discussion of American policy during World War II to appear in more than a decade. It cannot be ignored.”

Gabriel Morris Kolko, the son of two teachers, was born Aug. 17, 1932, in Paterson, N.J. He was a 1954 graduate of Kent State University in Ohio, where he wrote an honors thesis on socioeconomic history. He received a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1955 and a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1962.

In the late 1960s, he participated in a private tribunal in Europe — organized by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others — to investigate U.S. actions in Vietnam.

Before joining York University in 1970, Dr. Kolko taught at the University of Pennsylvania and what is now the University at Buffalo. In addition to writing for Antiwar.com, he also contributed to publications including the political journal CounterPunch.

His wife, the former Joyce Manning, whom he married in 1955, died in 2012. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Dr. Kolko defied easy categorization. Days after his death, Reason magazine posted online a letter he wrote in 1973 after the publication had included him in a list of professors whose university classes might appeal to libertarians.

“Under no circumstances should I be listed in your Registry, or thought to be in any manner a supporter of your exotic political position,” he wrote. “I have no common area of sympathy with the quaint irrelevancy called ‘free market’ economics. There has never been such a system in historical reality, and if it ever comes into being you can count on me to favor its abolition. Sincerely, Gabriel Kolko.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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