William R. Polk studied at Harvard (BA 1951, PhD 1958) and Oxford (BA 1955, MA 1959). At Harvard he helped establish the Middle Eastern Studies Center and taught history, government and Arabic literature. In 1965 he was appointed a Member of the Policy Planning Council by President Kennedy. In that capacity, he was in charge of planning American policy in most of the Islamic world and also served as director of the interdepartmental task force that helped end the Algerian war, negotiated a ceasefire between Egypt and Israel and was a member of the Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1965, he resigned from government service to become Professor of History at the University of Chicago. There he also established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and was a founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Association. In 1967, he also became President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs.
Among his books on history, world affairs and the Middle East are The United States and the Arab World (Harvard 1965, 1969, 1975, 1980, 1991); Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs (University of Chicago Press, 1997); The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century (Croom Helm and St. Martins, 1979); Polk's Folly (Doubleday, 1999, 2000); Understanding Iraq (HarperCollins 2005, 2006); The Birth of America (HarperCollins, 2006); Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (with former Senator George McGovern, Simon and Schuster, 2006) and Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla War from the American Revolution to Iraq (HarperCollins, 2007).
He has lectured at many universities and at the U.S. National War College, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, the American Foreign Policy Association, and the Soviet Academy of Sciences as well as many civic groups and universities.