John W. Lewis, a Stanford political scientist who pioneered new ways of thinking about U.S.-China relations and launched some of the first Asian study programs in higher education, died Monday at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 86.

John W. Lewis

John W. Lewis (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Lewis was a prolific scholar and one of the preeminent China specialists of his generation. His deep commitment to using insights from academic research to inform policy deliberations and solve important problems related to international relations and security led him to establish several centers and institutes at Stanford. These institutions supported collective undertakings involving scholars and officials from all over the globe and inspired dozens of graduate students to follow Lewis’ lead to make a tangible difference toward a more peaceful world.

He founded and directed the Center for East Asian Studies from 1969 to 1970, the Northeast Asia-United States Forum on International Policy (now the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center), from 1983 to 1990, and, along with theoretical physicist Sidney Drell, co-founded Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) in 1983, serving as a co-director until 1991. Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, CISAC’s precursor, was founded by Lewis and Drell in 1970. Lewis also led CISAC’s Project on Peace and Cooperation in the Asian-Pacific Region.

Expert on Asia

Lewis, the William Haas Professor of Chinese Politics, Emeritus, and a senior fellow at CISAC and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), joined the Stanford faculty in 1968 after teaching for seven years at Cornell University, coming to campus as an expert on China at the apex of public unrest regarding the Vietnam War. As a teacher, he helped lead an interdisciplinary course on nuclear arms and disarmament and engaged in simulated arms control talks with students.

In addition to his work on China, Lewis was a pioneer in dealing with North Korea. He visited the North in 1986 and numerous times thereafter, always with the deep conviction that it was vitally important to listen and learn.  He opened doors long closed by inviting North Korean, South Korean and U.S. officials to meet at Stanford in the early 1990s, and afterwards hosted official North Korean delegations.

He was invited to visit the North Korean nuclear center at Yongbyon after the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework in 2002.  This and subsequent visits with Stanford colleagues provided virtually the only direct information on developments at the site, said Thomas Fingar, a Shorenstein APARC Fellow at FSI.

Sig Hecker, a CISAC senior fellow and the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, recalls traveling to North Korea with Lewis in January 2004, a significant time in the country’s nuclear program.

“I would never have gone to North Korea without John,” Hecker said. “He had developed a relationship that allowed us to establish an effective means of communication during the times our governments were not talking. I had worked closely with John on North Korea ever since. He was incredibly knowledgeable and had an intensity that motivated everyone around him.”

Passion for peace

Lewis was extremely active in his retirement, visiting his CISAC office in Encina Hall daily, writing books, giving lectures and archiving his materials. While recovering from a recent fall, Lewis was constantly on the phone with colleagues and continued to collaborate until he lost his ability to speak, said his daughter, Amy Tich, BA ’85.

Above all, he was an advocate of peace, education and talking with – and learning about – the nature of one’s perceived rivals, such as China and North Korea, instead of allowing misinformation and misunderstandings to spread. The word “cooperation” in the title of CISAC emanates from this belief.

How ironic, said Tich, that her father’s death came at a time when relations between the U.S. and North Korea over the North’s nuclear tests are filled with tension.

“He had amazing relationships all across Asia,” Tich said. “He believed in what he was doing to the core of his being. He wanted world peace, to save the world from nuclear war.”

John’s son, Stephen Lewis, AB ’80, MS ’80, MBA ’84, said, “He lived a remarkable life. He made enormous strides in Korean relations and Chinese relations. And he did it with a sense of humor and humility that earned him the right to push because only from pushing through issues do you get answers.”

A Renaissance scholar

Lewis was the Renaissance scholar who bridged the gap between the academic and policy worlds. In the 1970s, he was a major player in the restoration of academic exchanges with China and established ties between U.S. and Chinese academic and governmental institutions that continue today.

In the 1980s, he built enduring ties with the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Moscow that enhanced understanding and collaboration among Americans, Russians, and Chinese.  He launched a project to gather medical expertise at Stanford to deal with North Korea’s severe drug-resistant tuberculosis problem, a project that took him twice to Mongolia to explore the possibility of a regional effort against TB.

Lewis was never satisfied with simply having a problem discussed, said Fingar. He ended every meeting with assembled experts on North Korean issues with a prodding, “A useful discussion. Now, what can we do?”

Lewis helped American business executives, academics, government officials and military officers establish contacts and networks in China. He also led two congressional delegations to Asia. In recognition of his impact, Lewis was invited to serve on the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the National Academy of Sciences; the Joint Committee on Contemporary China of the Social Science Research Council; and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

The Stanford scholar also did consulting work for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress.

Born in King County, Washington, in 1930, Lewis gained his first exposure to international issues and institutions as a teenage page at the San Francisco meeting that established the United Nations. His interest in China was inspired by the stories and achievements of missionary relatives who built schools for Chinese girls. After graduating from Deep Springs College (California) in 1949, Lewis earned  his bachelor’s degree (1953), master’s degree (1958) and doctorate (1962) at UCLA. His service as a gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy (1954-1957) kindled his interest in security issues and Korea.

Publications, research

Lewis wrote and co-authored numerous influential books on Asia and international security, including Leadership in Communist China (1963); and  The United States in Vietnam (1967) (with George Kahin); and China Builds the Bomb (1988).

“John’s numerous books about Chinese decision-making regarding nuclear weapons and the Korean War were path-breaking,” said Scott Sagan, a professor of political science and senior fellow at CISAC and FSI. “His work permitted us to see behind ‘the bamboo curtain’ and understand Mao [Zedong] and his successors with more clarity than was possible before.”

Lewis received numerous letters from colleagues and former students in his final days and Tich read all of them to him. Among the praise bestowed on Lewis was his “ability to inspire in me and others profound curiosity and dedication to scholarship,” that he provided “a model of how to bring values to bear on scholarship and global citizenship,” and “[He] represented the perfect mix of academic research and real-time involvement with the world.”

CISAC co-director and FSI Senior Fellow Amy Zegart remembers Lewis’ generosity and enthusiasm.

“I can still remember knocking on John’s door as a young grad student 20 years ago and sheepishly asking if he might be willing to conduct a directed reading course with me about China’s foreign policy,” Zegart said. “He said ‘yes’ immediately. His generosity of spirit and commitment to teaching still infuse CISAC today, and will shape Stanford students for generations to come. It is a true honor to co-direct the center that John and Sid Drell created.”

Lewis is survived by Jacquelyn Lewis, his wife of 63 years; his children Stephen Lewis, Amy Tich and Cynthia Westby; and five grandchildren, Brian, BA ’15, Taryn, Kylie, Katie and Rhys.

In keeping with his life-long commitment to teaching students and training successors, the family requests that anyone wishing to honor Professor Lewis do so by contributing to the John and Jackie Lewis Fund at Stanford University, which supports funding for Stanford graduate students and postdoctoral fellows  doing research on matters related to Asia. Donations to the fund should be made out to Stanford University and sent to the John and Jackie Lewis Fund, in care of Scott Nelson, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, 616 Serra Street, Stanford, California, 94305.

In an oral history interview with the Stanford Historical Society, Lewis recounts his earlier days on campus and the impact of his career. Videos of an 80th birthday celebration for Lewis can be found here.

Media Contacts

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,

Milenko Martinovich, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-9281,