The coincidence of artistic and academic talent is not uncommon in brilliant people; how to reconcile and channel those talents is often a challenge. The world is getting better acquainted with such a talent, 1950s singer-songwriter Elizabeth Converse, with the release of a new book about her life this month. Converse, who performed as “Connie,” sang self-penned solo songs with her guitar around New York City at a time that such a highly personal perspective was unusual. She was just a few years too early for the folk music revival around 1960, and she never received much recognition or a recording contract. As a result, her work only survives in archival home recordings, which were revived in radio shows in this century. Much of it is both hauntingly beautiful and wickedly funny, such as “The Witch and the Wizard.” The intriguing end to her story was her disappearance at age fifty in 1974.
Downplayed in most recent accounts of her life is her work writing for and editing academic publications on international politics. JSTOR has articles from two phases of her scholarly career, before and after her folk music recordings. In her twenties, she left Mt. Holyoke College before completing a degree to live in New York, finding work at the American Institute of Pacific Relations. She wrote articles in the institute’s Far Eastern Survey in a style that reflected the optimism both of the new American project of global hegemony, and perhaps, her own youth. As an example, in the 1951 article “Pilot Development Projects in India,” she explains and endorses US agricultural planning techniques—newly brought to India—that would lead to the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s. Most important to her were the planners’ attempts to study Indian villages, to truly understand village customs and educate the inhabitants in an effort to win their consent for changes, rather than forcing technocratic decisions on them. However, she lost her job when the institute’s staff downsized after attacks from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which accused it of being an organ of communist propaganda.
After roughly a decade living in New York and then seemingly giving up on her music career, Converse moved to Ann Arbor, where she worked in various offices of the University of Michigan. By 1964, she was the managing editor of The Journal of Conflict Resolution. In the one long essay she wrote for the journal, she reviews and analyzes the intellectual trends covered in its first twelve volumes (1957–1968). She identifies a few topics covered in JSTOR Daily’s “Security Studies: Foundations and Key Concepts” reading list, including the shift from a focus on international conflicts and nuclear war toward a focus on neocolonialism, insurgency, and more sophisticated theories about power and violence. While she acknowledges her authors were responding to the relevance of current events, particularly the Vietnam War, her own recommendations for the future of the field reflects perhaps a more mature and cynical outlook on the world compared to her earlier essays. In brief, she thinks researchers should stop treating the world as a set of political puzzles to be solved, and to acknowledge the messiness of reality. As she writes:
I have suggested what I see as phenomenological gaps in the past twelve volumes: social histories of past wars, which could be related to a sociology of war; the role of international trade and finance in international conflicts; and studies of conflict between parties of grossly unequal power, including dominance relationships which may conceal potentials for conflict. The distinction between calculation and choice, or more generally the cleft between rationalistic and psychological models for control decisions and conflict behavior, seems scientifically dysfunctional although it may originally have been useful. The search for system rules in large-scale social systems, including international ones, may be less important than trying to identify the “step-functions” which provide the conditions for those rules and which may themselves change.
Entertaining the possibility of paradoxes of value built into the human condition seems to me to suggest a different style of social-system dynamics than does the contemporary “problem-solving” approach. Among other things it suggests endless dissent; it suggests that the solution to any human conflict will eventually breed another human conflict. One need not adopt such a broad philosophy, however, to investigate the possibility of perverse relationships between social control and social violence, both within and between nations—some of which have been suggested in this paper.
And yet, her own career suffered once again from the vagaries of politics. As funding the federal government lavished on area and political studies in the 1950s and 1960s began the long process of drying up in the 1970s, she lost her job when the institute that ran The Journal of Conflict Resolution was shuttered. The journal moved to Yale University without her knowledge.
Elizabeth Converse’s Other Works
“Formosa, Private Citadel” (1949)
A chosen stronghold for retreating Nationalists, the rich island [Formosa, a.k.a. Taiwan] seems vulnerable to legal dispute, economic difficulties, and military attack.
“The United States as Trustee—I” (1949)
American trusteeship of Pacific islands has raised the issues of collective vs. unilateral security measures, of security vs. island welfare.
“The United States as Trustee—II” (1949)
Our responsibility for Micronesian welfare cannot be discharge easily. The islands are small but they represent a great UN concept.
“Administrative Merger for Papua and New Guinea” (1949)
The Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949, passed by the Australian Federal Parliament early this year, will institute a new step toward self-government for the two territories and join them in an administrative union.
“A Post-Editorial” (1972)
While I was on leave in England last fall (1971) I was asked to read and comment on a draft of Berenice Carroll’s paper, “Peace Research: The Cult of Power.” At that time I knew that the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, the taproot of this journal’s [The Journal of Conflict Resolution] existence, had been killed off by a drought in research funds and a reassertion of traditional values within the university where it had been housed. I did not know at that time that the journal itself was to be put up for auction.
That’s all (that we know) she wrote.