Jacobs, then working as a professional actor in Chicago, was on his way to perform in a production of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" when he decided he needed something to read on the long cross-town train trip.
Asst. Prof. Seth Jacobs (History): "When I tell people that story no one can ever believe it. That's why I now laugh when I talk to undergraduates who tell me they aren't sure what they want to do with their lives." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Browsing through the book, which included texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, various Supreme Court decisions, Congressional debates and other notable documents, speeches, and letters, Jacobs realized that he was largely unversed in US history.
"Here I am, 28 years old, and thinking that I didn't know anything about the history of my country," said Jacobs, who at the time held degrees in psychology and philosophy from Yale University and a master's degree in theater from DePaul University.
The revelation of that fateful train ride also came at a time when he had begun to doubt his future as an actor. Jacobs was inspired to abandon the stage and enroll in classes at the University of Illinois, then to pursue a doctorate in history and, last year, to join the Boston College faculty as a teacher of 20th-century American political and cultural history, especially the post-World War II period.
"When I tell people that story no one can ever believe it," said Jacobs, interviewed recently in his office in Hovey House. "That's why I now laugh when I talk to undergraduates who tell me they aren't sure what they want to do with their lives."
Like an actor who's been given a dream role, Jacobs has flourished in his second career. Last spring he was awarded the Stuart Bernath Article Prize by the Society of American Foreign Relations for distinguished writing in the society's journal, Diplomatic History. The prize recognized Jacob's piece titled, "Our System Demands the Supreme Being: The US Religious Revival and the 'Diem Experiment,' 1954-55," which described how religious sentiments in the United States influenced the Vietnam policy of the Eisenhower administration.
Jacobs, whose research focuses on the relationship between American domestic culture and foreign policy, is also awaiting word from a publisher on a book he has written America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Religion, Orientalism, and US Intervention in Southeast Asia, which takes a wide look at American policies toward Vietnam.
Jacobs' interest in the theater began as a child and continued into his college years. But his desire to study acting at Yale met with some parental resistance.
"My father basically told me that he wasn't going to pay for it," he said.
Jacobs wouldn't give up, and following his studies at Yale and DePaul began performing regularly in classical theater, taking roles such as McDuff in "MacBeth," Lord Capulet in "Romeo and Juliet" and Oberon and Bottom in different productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Not all of his acting was in classical theater, Jacobs adds. "I was in a really awful play called 'Clarence Darrow in Hell' where I got to play Satan. It was a lot of fun because I got to run around and break things and torture people.".
Although Jacobs may not have fit the stereotype of the starving, unemployed actor - "It isn't hard work to get if you're a big guy with a beard who can handle verse," he said with a laugh - he worried about being able to support the family he and his wife wanted to raise.
"Unless you are really, really brilliant, acting is not going to work," said Jacobs. "Maybe it's just being brutally honest, but I have to admit I just wasn't very good."
That realization, coupled with his discovery of Heffner's book, prompted Jacobs to take history courses at Illinois. On his very first day of class, Jacobs found the subject area that interested him the most, when two of his fellow students got into a heated debate about the Vietnam War.
"At the time I didn't know much about the war," said Jacobs, "But I was interested in how it stirred up these feelings."
As he continued his research, first at Illinois and then as a doctoral student at Northwestern University, Jacobs came to view the war in the context of America's mid-20th century religious revival. US policymakers of the 1950s, he says, saw the Cold War as a crusade in which Americans needed to combine with fellow Judeo-Christians against Communism, dangerous as much for its atheism as its military might.
In Jacobs' view, bias against Eastern creeds influenced US policymakers into regarding Vietnam's dominant, non-Christian religions as submissive, ethically relativistic, and incapable of resisting Communism. South Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem's Catholicism thus made him more attractive to Washington than many South Vietnamese with greater administrative experience and popular support. But supporting Diem was one of the worst foreign policy decisions of the post-World War II era, he claims.
"Diem's brutal, repressive regime alienated the South Vietnamese from their government, increased the nation's vulnerability to Communism, and ultimately drew America into the longest war in its history," Jacobs said.
So why does Vietnam still intrigue, and rankle, America?
"First of all, a lot of it has to do with the fact that we lost," said Jacobs, "but there's more to it than that." People disasgree on many basic facts of Vietnam, he said: When did the war begin? What were the goals? What went wrong?
Vietnam also stirs the emotions of a generation born well after the war ended, says Jacobs. No other historical discussion inspires his students to "stake out positions and then vigorously defend them" the way Vietnam does, according to Jacobs.
Jacobs says that in his lectures he uses quotes from as many sides of a debate as possible, and presents the facts in such a way that the students make up their own minds.
"That's how you educate. Anything else is indoctrination," he said.
Asked to compare his past and present careers, Jacobs balks at any association between the two.
"I'm not here to entertain, I'm here to inform," he said. "But I still have an ear for really good quotes."
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