Vera Micheles Dean, an Expert in International Relations

Vera Micheles Dean. Photo by Barbara Sutro, Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger LibraryVera Micheles Dean. Photo by Barbara Sutro, Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library

Vera Micheles Dean ’25, PhD ’28 was a leader in international relations whose involvement in world affairs began at an early age. She fled St. Petersburg with her family during the Russian Revolution, settling with them for two years in Finland before embarking for Boston alone when she was just 16. Her family later sought refuge in London.

Already fluent in three languages—Russian, French, and English—she came to Radcliffe College as a freshman in 1921 and excelled in her courses. Perhaps the biggest impediment to achieving her bachelor’s degree was the swimming exam required before graduation: Each student had to swim from one end of the pool in Radcliffe Gymnasium to the other, and Dean had never swum in her life. By some miracle, she passed the test and graduated summa cum laude in political science. She never swam again.

With support from a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellowship, Dean went on to earn a master’s degree from Yale University. She then returned to Radcliffe for her doctoral studies in the burgeoning fields of international law and international relations. Dean conducted much of her dissertation research at the New York Public Library—women were not yet allowed into the Harvard Law School library—and following completion of her PhD, she relocated to New York City.

There she began a nearly 30-year career in the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), became an American citizen, and married the attorney William Johnson Dean. When her husband died, in 1936, leaving her a widow at age 33 with a three-year-old daughter and a yet-to-be-born son, Dean threw herself with even more vigor into her already impressive career as FPA’s director of research and editor of publications. Through her work at FPA, Dean not only supported her family, but also influenced public opinion during a time of seismic shifts in foreign affairs.

The FPA was founded on the premise that laypeople, not just elite experts, had a role to play in major foreign-policy issues—a democratic concept that greatly appealed to Dean. In Foreign Policy Reports and the Foreign Policy Bulletin, she wrote and commissioned articles to inform and persuade the public about the events of the day. And what a day it was: Dean’s tenure at the FPA saw the United States recognize the Soviet Union, turmoil in Europe and Asia in the 1930s and early 1940s, World War II and its aftermath, the founding of the United Nations, the rise of McCarthyism, and the height of the Cold War.

By the time Dean resigned from the FPA, in 1961, she already had a robust teaching career, having developed innovative programs on what she called non-Western studies following her extensive travels to Asia and Africa. Her courses focused on Asia, Latin America, and the Soviet Union and were the first of their kind at many institutions. Dean held professorships at Smith College, the University of Rochester, and New York University, where she remained until 1971.

Through it all, her heart remained at Radcliffe, where she was a founding member of the executive committee for the Bunting Institute. She seriously entertained the possibility of becoming president of Radcliffe College in 1943, after being invited by Ada Louise Comstock, who was the College’s first full-time president. Dean and her children, Elinor Dean Wilder ’56 and William J. Dean ’59, gave her papers—including manuscripts, speeches, correspondence, and the outline for an autobiography she never had time to write—to the Schlesinger Library between 1953 and 1973.

In honor of his mother, William Dean has made a planned gift to Radcliffe. “Radcliffe,” he says, “both provided an important learning experience for Mother and served as a haven for her as she made the transition from Russian refugee to becoming an American. Radcliffe played a huge role in her life.”

For more information about planned giving, please contact John Christel, Radcliffe’s liaison at the University Planned Giving Office, at 617-384-8231 or john_christel@harvard.edu.

Search Year: 
2015