He was born to a Jewish family in 1930 in Delaware, Ohio. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1950 and received his Ph.D. from the Department of Social Relations in 1958 from Harvard. While attending Ohio Wesleyan, Vogel was a member of the Beta Sigma Tau fraternity (that later merged with the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity). 
He then went to Japan for two years to study the Japanese language and conduct research interviews with middle-class families.
In 1960-1961 he was assistant professor at Yale University and from 1961-1964 a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, studying Chinese language and history. He remained at Harvard, becoming lecturer in 1964 and, in 1967, professor. He retired from teaching on June 30, 2000. Since retirement he has published a book on Deng Xiaoping and his era.
He taught at Harvard starting in 1964 and became a tenured professor in 1968. Vogel succeeded John Fairbank to become the second Director (1972-1977) of Harvard's East Asian Research Center and Second Chairman of the Council for East Asian Studies (1977-1980). He was Director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at the Center for International Affairs (1980-1987) and, since 1987, Honorary Director. He was Chairman of the undergraduate concentration in East Asian Studies from its inception in 1972 until 1991. He was Director of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies during 1973-1975 and 1995-1999. He was the first Director of the Asia Center (1997-1999). He retired from teaching in 2000.
Over a productive career, he published dozens of articles, reviews, and conference papers, major books on China, Japan, and American-East Asian Relations, and organized scholarly and policy conferences on many topics. As head of the undergraduate East Asian Studies concentration (major), he supported many students in their initial studies, and as a graduate supervisory he nurtured the careers of dozens of PhDs. From 1993 to 1995, Vogel took a two year leave from teaching and served as U.S. National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. Drawing on his original field work in Japan, he wrote Japan's New Middle Class (1963). A book based on several years of interviewing and reading materials from China, Canton Under Communism (1969), won the Harvard University Press faculty book of the year award. The Japanese edition of his book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979) is the all-time best-seller in Japan of non-fiction by a Western author. In Comeback (1988), he suggested things America might do to respond to the Japanese challenge. He spent eight months in 1987, at the invitation of the Guangdong Provincial Government, studying the progress of the province since it took the lead in economic reform in 1978. The results are reported in One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform (1989). His Reischauer Lectures were published in The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia (1991). He updated his views on Japan in Is Japan Still Number One? (2000). He has visited East Asia at least once a year since 1958 and has spent a total of over six years in Asia. He lectures often in Asia, in Chinese and Japanese. Since 2000 he has organized a series of conferences between Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars to work together to examine the China War from 1937-1945.
- A Modern Introduction to the Family (1960), with Norman W. Bell
- Japan's New Middle Class; the Salary Man and his Family in a Tokyo Suburb (1963)
- Canton under Communism; Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949-1968 (1969)
- Modern Japanese Organization and Decision-making (1975)
- Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979)
- Comeback, Case by Case : Building the Resurgence of American Business' (1985)
- Ideology and National Competitiveness: an Analysis of Nine Countries (1987)
- One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong under Reform. (1989)
- Chinese Society on the Eve of Tiananmen: The Impact of Reform. (1990), with Deborah Davis
- The Four Little Dragons: the Spread of Industrialization in East Asia (1991)
- Living with China : U.S./China Relations in the Twenty-First Century. (1997)
- Is Japan Still Number One? (2000)
- The Golden Age of the U.S.-China-Japan Triangle, 1972-1989 (2002), with Ming Yuan and Akihiko Tanaka
- China at War : Regions of China, 1937-1945 (2007), with Stephen R. Mackinnon, Diana Lary
- Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (2011) ISBN 978-0-674-05544-5
- The Park Chung Hee Era : The Transformation of South Korea (2011) ISBN 9780674058200
- Suleski, Ronald Stanley. (2005). The Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University: a Fifty Year History, 1955-2005. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 10-ISBN 097679800X/13-ISBN 9780976798002; OCLC 64140358