Merze Tate presentation at A Splendid Wake, November 8, 2020


Merze Tate, historian and international relations theorist, was born in rural Michigan in 1905. She attended Western Michigan, Columbia, Oxford U and the Geneva School of International Studies before completing her PhD at Radcliffe/Harvard. She was the first American American woman to attend both Western Michigan and Oxford University.

Her areas of expertise were disarmament, diplomatic history in the Pacific, and decolonization. She published several bestselling academic textbooks in these areas.

Tate began her teaching career in Indianapolis high schools, got her first college faculty appointment at Barber Scotia College in North Carolina, moved on to Bennett College for Women in my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina, where she served as department chair for four years, and transferred to Morgan State in Baltimore where she taught for one year (and where she composed the poem we will read today). In 1942 she came to Howard, where she taught for 35 years, until her retirement in 1977. Tate died in 1996. She was 91 years old.

Tate was a leading US scholar in the burgeoning field of international relations theory. Mentored and championed by Hans Morgenthau, considered by many the father of political realism in international relations theory, Tate achieved national fame as a scholar though she never received the recognition to which she should have been entitled from her colleagues and administrators at Howard University. She published several books in her specialty areas, the sales of which enabled her to endow hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships at the colleges she attended and where she taught.

Today’s poem and Merze Tate’s lasting contribution to IR theory.

Traditional IR theory is realpolitik, which is to say, simply, strong countries do what they want and weaker countries adapt, i.e., do what they must to survive.

Post WW2, theorists split among two groups, the realpolitik realists, and the liberal internationalists who believed that international and multilateral institutions like the UN and the WTO could preserve peace through the imposition of international systems with checks and balances. Later, a more 1960-ish idea purported the Democratic Peace, that modern democracies would never go to war with one another, so the goal should be to spread and support democratic governance among nations.

Tate, in the 1950’s and as a result of her studies and research, came up with a much more advanced theory for world peace, way ahead of its time, and much more applicable to the modern, networked age in which we find ourselves today. Tate’s idea was that information symmetry, preserving access to information about weapon capabilities, strategic intentions, and geopolitical aspirations, across all national boundaries, could and would prevent potential enemies from actually going to war.

Sorry for this long but necessary introduction. Here is the Merze Tate poem, found in her papers at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, that encapsulates her theory of international peace.

If I Knew You and You Knew Me

If I knew you and you knew me,
‘Tis seldom we would disagree:
But, never having yet clasped hand
Both often fail to understand
That each intends to do what’s right
And treat each other “honor bright.”
How little to complain there’d be
If I knew you and you knew me.

Then let no doubting thoughts abide
Of firm good faith on either side.
Living ourselves, let others live;
But any time you come my way,
That you will call I hope and pray;
Then face to face we each shall see
And I’ll know you and you’ll know me.

I wrote in my notes when I discovered the poem,

“Merze Tate, a political science and history professor at Howard back in the day with a Harvard PhD and a stack of best selling textbooks on diplomatic history and IR theory could have held court any day of the week with top thinkers on asymmetric information, moral hazard, and adverse selection. In her paper she left us this little poem that distills it all to its pure essence.”


My bio notes. In addition to a 21-year career as a foreign service officer, I studied international studies and diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), national security studies at the Army War College and foreign politics, international relations and the national interest as an MIT Seminar XXI fellow at MIT Center for International Studies. After retiring I changed course and completed an MSLIS (Library and Information Science) at Catholic University.

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