James V. Compton Obituary

Author: Department of History
October 19, 2018

James V. Compton, professor emeritus of history, passed away on October 19. 

His dad was director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration program in New Jersey during the early days of the New Deal and later directed the Works Progress Administration programs in New Jersey before he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then Acting Secretary of the Navy in the cabinet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Jim met Roosevelt once, in 1940, when Jim was twelve years old and FDR was campaigning for a third term.  When FDR asked Jim what he wanted to be when he grew up, Jim replied “A Democrat!”  "I love it!" shouted and burst into laughter.  Jim always remembered the energy, the exuberant personality, and the vivid animation of Roosevelt, and Roosevelt was central to Jim's Ph.D. dissertation as well as his teaching.  

Jim received his BA from Princeton (1950) and MA from Chicago (1952), then was dismissed from a school in Arizona when he refused to sign a loyalty oath.  That experience increased his ardent criticism of McCarthyism, and he left the US for the next fifteen years.  He studied at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg, explored all of Europe — including the Soviet Union — on a motorcycle and later an MG-TF sports car, then entered University of London, School of Economics, where he received his PhD in 1964. 

He began teaching at the University of Edinburgh in 1963 and founded the North American Studies graduate program

He returned to the US in 1968, taught at Trinity College in Connecticut for a year, then came to SF State in 1969.  Students loved his insouciance and his imitations of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and they flocked to his classes on recent US history and US legal and constitutional history.  Jim loved music.  He began playing the guitar at the age of ten, then switched to the banjo after meeting Pete Seeger.  He loved to play his banjo and sing folk songs and the political ballads of the 1940s and early 950s. 

His first book, The Swastika and the Eagle:  Hitler, the United States, and the Origins of World War II (1967), was followed by America and the Origins of the Cold War (1972) and Anti-Communism in American Life Since the Second World War (1973). 

Jim later said that his decision to return to the US was a difficult one, and that he remained "quite haunted" (his term) by Edinburgh and remorseful over leaving.  When he became emeritus at SF State in 1995, he donated his personal library of 1,800 books to the University of Edinburgh and also funded an annual lecture there.