The mission of Harvard’s Applied History Project is to revitalize applied history by promoting the production and use of historical reasoning to clarify public and private challenges and choices. Founded by Professors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in 2016, the Applied History Project builds upon the foundation laid by Professors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt in the 1980s, reflected in their book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers

Advancing its mission, the Project sponsors the Applied History Working Group of faculty members across Harvard University to organize discussions with scholars and practitioners; supports historians and policymakers in producing Applied History; develops courses in Applied History; funds the Ernest May Fellowships in History and Policy for pre- and post-doctoral students; and holds Applied History Seminars open to the Harvard Community and the public. Harvard’s project is one of the leaders among a rapidly expanding network of universities and think tanks that are furthering the discipline of Applied History by clarifying predicaments and choices to inform better decisions.

The Project gratefully acknowledges the Stanton Foundation's generous support for its Applied History endeavors. Additionally, the Project, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, sponsors the Ernest May Fellowship in History and Policy.

 

Engaging Historians and Decisionmakers

Recent sessions of the Applied History Working Group, chaired by Graham Allison, have included (clockwise from left) former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and historians Mary Sarotte, John Lewis Gaddis, Nancy Koehn, and Niall Ferguson.

August 2, 2021

Quote of the Week

“History is not the accumulation of events of every kind which happened in the past. It is the science of human societies.” - Fustel de Coulanges, lecture from 1862 quoted in Revue de Synthese historique (1901)

(More Quotes »)



Article of the Week

“Not everyone cheered the ancient Olympic games, but the sacred games brought together rival societies” — Joel Christensen, Brandeis University, July 28, 2021

Joel Christensen explores the history of the Olympic games in ancient Greece to explore the role they played amid the war between Athens and Sparta then - and how they can play a similar one between rivalry nations today 

 

(More Articles »)

 

 

 

 

Advancing Research and Teaching

Our faculty, fellows, and affiliates contribute to the growing Applied History discipline with articles, books, course development, and seminars on work in progress.

 

Hosting Open Seminars

Join distinguished public servants and historians in conversation with Graham Allison as they illuminate today’s challenges by drawing on lessons from the past.

Clockwise from left: Margaret Macmillan, Alex Keyssar, Robert Zoellick, and Graham Allison.

Upcoming Events

The seminar series will resume in the fall. Please look for new events in September and join us. 

 

Recent Events

Carmen Reinhart – Lessons from History for the COVID Economic Recovery: Carmen Reinhart, the Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank Group, explored the rich catalog of historical analogies for today's most pressing policy challenge—economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Kennedy and Stephen Wertheim on America's Rise to Supremacy: Paul Kennedy and Stephen Wertheim discussed the latter's new book Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy to contextualize America's global role today, exploring how and why, as it prepared to enter World War II, the United States decided to lead the postwar world.

Niall Ferguson – Cold War 2.0?: Niall Ferguson, Co-Chair of the Applied History Project, discussed the utility of historical analogies for today's China challenge – and whether we truly face a new Cold War.

Jon Meacham – Healing a House Divided: Jon Meacham engaged the Applied History Working Group in a discussion exploring lessons and clues from history on the defining issue confronting the Biden Administration, how to reunite America.

Margaret MacMillan – WAR: How Conflict Shaped Us: Margaret MacMillan discussed her book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, named by the New York Times as one of its ten best books of 2020.

Robert Zoellick  America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy: Robert Zoellick, former Deputy Secretary of State and President of the World Bank, discussed his book, America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, in which he makes his case for a distinct American diplomatic tradition by examining the foreign policies of Alexander Hamilton, John Hay, Elihu Root, Woodrow Wilson, and other key U.S. statesmen. 

 

Applied History FAQs

What is Applied History?

Applied History is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogs.

- Mainstream historians begin with an event or era and attempt to provide an account of what happened and why. Applied historians begin with a current choice or predicament and analyze the historical record to provide perspective, stimulate imagination, find clues about what is likely to happen, suggest possible interventions, and assess probable consequences.

- In this sense, Applied History is derivative: dependent upon mainstream history as engineering is upon physics or medical practice on biochemistry.

 

  • Is Applied History new? No.

     - Thucydides, Leopold Von Ranke, William Langer, and Crane Brinton and others were Applied Historians.

    - Harvard’s Applied History Project celebrates the work of Paul Kennedy and John Lewis Gaddis at Yale, Michael Howard at Oxford, Margaret MacMillan and many other leaders in this cause.

    - Harvard’s Applied History Project claims no monopoly of wisdom or methodology or practice; applauds analogous efforts at other universities, think tanks, and among practitioners; and thus takes a “big tent” approach.

    - Harvard’s Applied History Project is building on the foundation laid by the late professors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt in their classic Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (1986) and the course and cases they developed.

  • What are the goals of the Applied History Project?

    As the 2016 Applied History Manifesto by Allison and Ferguson states, the aspiration of the Applied History Project at Harvard is to revitalize scholarship, teaching, and practice in Applied History. Operationally, it also calls for the creation of a Council of Historical Advisers in the White House analogous to the Council of Economic Advisers.

    - To illustrate ways in which the AH Council could add value in the current policymaking process, the Manifesto identifies seven generic tools: “assignments” a President could give his historians. For example, in response to Washington’s reflexive declaration that every new challenge—from the COVID pandemic to the rise of China—is “unprecedented,” ask: have we ever seen anything approximately like this before? If so, what, when, where? In those cases, who did what—with what consequences? A second assignment asks: if the issue presented to the policymaker today is a “snapshot” of the issue today, show the policymaker the key scenes of the “movie” that led to this point.

    - No more than others who are attempting to help decision makers understand the problems they face and choices they must make do historians pretend that they have a clear crystal ball in which they can see the future. Our claim is if their product is judged by the same standards currently used in assessing the Council of Economic Advisers’ forecasts about future economic developments, Applied Historians can add value.

  • How does the Project support and promote Applied History?

    The Applied History Working Group of faculty members across Harvard University organizes discussions with scholars and practitioners, in the past year including Margaret MacMillan, John Bew, Alex Keyssar, Jim Mattis, and John Lewis Gaddis.

    - Scholars and practitioners producing Applied History, in the past year Fredrik Logevall’s JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century and Robert Zoellick’s America in the World: A History of US Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.

    - Developing courses and curriculum in Applied History, in the past year Fred Logevall’s “US Foreign Policy in a Global Age” and Arne Westad’s “Power Shifts: Understanding Global Change Through History.”

    - Hosting and funding pre and post-doctoral students as Ernest May Fellows in History and Policy, in the past year numbering seven.

    - Holding Applied History Seminars open to the Harvard community and the public.

  • What are some recent examples of Applied History?

    Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger: Volume I: 1923-1968: The Idealist traces the education of a leader who practiced statecraft by applying history. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly shows how the analysis of precedents and analogs in 350 previous financial crises can provide insights into future financial crises and their aftermaths, in particular the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? illuminates the challenge posed by China’s meteoric rise by examining 16 cases in the last 500 years in which a rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power.

Applied History Manifesto

By Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson
October 2016

Applied history is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. Mainstream historians begin with a past event or era and attempt to provide an account of what happened and why. Applied historians begin with a current choice or predicament and attempt to analyze the historical record to provide perspective, stimulate imagination, find clues about what is likely to happen, suggest possible policy interventions, and assess probable consequences. It might be said that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering to physics. But that analogy is not quite right, as in the realm of science there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, one finds a culture of mutual contempt between practitioners and historians. Applied history is an attempt to address that.

The Applied History Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School seeks to revitalize the study and practice of history in the tradition of two twentieth century giants: the modern historian Ernest May and the leading analyst of the American presidency, Richard Neustadt. Their book Thinking in Time, published in 1986, provides the foundation on which we intend to build. An urgently needed companion volume might be titled Acting in Time. Over the past decade, particularly as one of us was engaged in research for a biography of Henry Kissinger, we shared a humbling epiphany. It has been said that most Americans live in the “United States of Amnesia.” What we had not fully appreciated is how often this includes American policy makers as well. Reflecting on a wide range of administrations, we have come to realize the crucial importance in American foreign policy making of the history deficit: the fact that key decision-makers know alarmingly little not just of other countries’ pasts, but also of their own.

Assignments

Imagine that the president had a Council of Historical Advisers as the Manifesto describes. What assignments could the Council take on? How could its responses help inform important choices facing the president? Below is a list of possible assignments with featured pieces that could serve as answers.

  • What (or who) is a current event, group, phenomenon, or individual like?

    Assignment Framework

    1. Is a current event, group, phenomenon, or individual “X” unprecedented?

    2. If not, is it an example of a larger category for which we can identify a large number of instances (e.g., financial crises, wars of attrition, tyrants)?

      • For many complex events or people, we will find that they belong to multiple categories, depending on the perspective of the analyst.

    3. If X is not unprecedented, draw from the categories you have identified to brainstorm a long list of potential analogues. Be imaginative; start with a longer rather than shorter list.

    4. For the best analogues, identify both Similarities and Differences with the present case.

      • Use the “May Method”: Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page; put “Similar” atop one column and “Different” atop the other. You should identify at least three of each.

      • Formulate leading questions to help you identify salient similarities and differences between the cases. For example, if you are comparing two armed conflicts, you might ask the following questions: “What is the relevant backstory for each conflict?” “What are the issues of contention?” “Who is fighting?” “What are their interests and goals?” “What are their capabilities?”

    5. Using similarities and differences, assess what lessons your historical comparisons may hold for the present case.

      • Assess the outcomes or consequences of the historical analogues, and consider whether similarities to the present might suggest similar outcomes or consequences.

      • In considering lessons, make sure to adequately account for differences between historical cases and the present: What specific caveats do those differences add to our analysis?

      • This assignment, when expanded to a data set, can be used to make predictions and assess track records (e.g., we can predict where oil prices are going to go next because we know, under similar conditions, what has happened before.)


        Selected Examples

        Question: What historical actors is ISIS like?

        • A “What is this like?” analysis of ISIS might give an analyst valuable perspective that could be used to answer policy questions like the following:
          • Do movements motivated by religious zealotry collapse under their own weight or require foreign intervention? If foreign intervention, how long does that intervention need to last?
          • Will decapitation work in defeating ISIS?
          • How important is international backing (and ISIS’ lack thereof) to its future prospects?
          • Can ISIS be contained?
          • Which factors make a population more or less susceptible to radicalization? What role do economic/social factors play in this process?
          • For movements that are both international and have a “home address,” which should we pay more attention to: attacking them where they are strongest or preventing proliferation of their ideology?
          • Can an organization that begins as a revolutionary terrorist group evolve over time into a respectable and stable state?
        • For a good example along these lines, see:

        Question: What can past financial crises tell us about present crises?

        Question: Many analysts consider the prospect of war between the US and China today incredible. Judging from history, how incredible is it really?

        Question: What does the historical record tell us about whether we should accommodate or "appease" the behavior of Nation X?

  • What lessons can be drawn from an historical event that are relevant to the present?

    Assignment Framework

    1. Is a current event, group, phenomenon, or individual “X” unprecedented?

    2. If not, is it an example of a larger category for which we can identify a large number of instances (e.g., financial crises, wars of attrition, tyrants)?

      • For many complex events or people, we will find that they belong to multiple categories, depending on the perspective of the analyst.

    3. If X is not unprecedented, draw from the categories you have identified to brainstorm a long list of potential analogues. Be imaginative; start with a longer rather than shorter list.

    4. For the best analogues, identify both Similarities and Differences with the present case.

      • Use the “May Method”: Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page; put “Similar” atop one column and “Different” atop the other. You should identify at least three of each.

      • Formulate leading questions to help you identify salient similarities and differences between the cases. For example, if you are comparing two armed conflicts, you might ask the following questions: “What is the relevant backstory for each conflict?” “What are the issues of contention?” “Who is fighting?” “What are their interests and goals?” “What are their capabilities?”

    5. Using similarities and differences, assess what lessons your historical comparisons may hold for the present case.

      • Assess the outcomes or consequences of the historical analogues, and consider whether similarities to the present might suggest similar outcomes or consequences.

      • In considering lessons, make sure to adequately account for differences between historical cases and the present: What specific caveats do those differences add to our analysis?

      • This assignment, when expanded to a data set, can be used to make predictions and assess track records (e.g., we can predict where oil prices are going to go next because we know, under similar conditions, what has happened before.)


        Selected Examples

        Question: What historical actors is ISIS like?

        • A “What is this like?” analysis of ISIS might give an analyst valuable perspective that could be used to answer policy questions like the following:
          • Do movements motivated by religious zealotry collapse under their own weight or require foreign intervention? If foreign intervention, how long does that intervention need to last?
          • Will decapitation work in defeating ISIS?
          • How important is international backing (and ISIS’ lack thereof) to its future prospects?
          • Can ISIS be contained?
          • Which factors make a population more or less susceptible to radicalization? What role do economic/social factors play in this process?
          • For movements that are both international and have a “home address,” which should we pay more attention to: attacking them where they are strongest or preventing proliferation of their ideology?
          • Can an organization that begins as a revolutionary terrorist group evolve over time into a respectable and stable state?
        • For a good example along these lines, see:

        Question: What can past financial crises tell us about present crises?

        Question: Many analysts consider the prospect of war between the US and China today incredible. Judging from history, how incredible is it really?

        Question: What does the historical record tell us about whether we should accommodate or "appease" the behavior of Nation X?

  • What if certain historical events had played out differently?

    Assignment Framework

    1. Consider: in a given historical event, which contingencies and decisions had the biggest roles in causing the outcome?
    2. Ask whether the case could have just as easily (or nearly as easily) turned out differently.
    3. If it could have turned out differently, what were the pivot points or tripwires that the outcome hinged on?
    4. If the result was a bad outcome, do any of these pivot points provide lessons on how not to deal with current problems? If the result was a good outcome that could have easily gone badly (e.g., the Cuban Missile Crisis), were there actions statesmen could have taken to limit risk?
    5. Does the menu of options decision-makers chose or considered in the historical case expand our palette of possible responses to a current problem or change our sense of the most important drivers in today’s case? What possibilities did historical decision-makers consider that we have not?
    6. This assignment can be done as a tabletop exercise under the heading of “Red-Teaming the Past.”

    Selected Examples

    Uses of counterfactual history

  • What would an historical leader do today?

    Assignment Framework

    1. For a given great statesman of the past, can we extract specific strands of their thought or statecraft that led to success?
      • Typically, these strands will focus on the statesmen’s ability to anticipate threats, identify/evaluate threats, devise solutions, or implement solutions in a complex political environment.

    Selected Examples

  • What's the overarching story of the state, institution, or issue at hand, and how do foreign actors understand it?

    Assignment Framework

    1. One of the best ways to understand the current behavior of nations (or people) is to place it within the narrative of a state’s (or person’s) past.
    2. Try to discern common threads between historical decisions made by a state and current ones in response to similar threats/stimuli.
      • Are there constant aspects of nation/person’s situation that make it act in a certain way? (e.g., geography, political system, economic situation)
      • Can we discern patterns of behavior between past and present? To what extent do these patterns evince flexibility in responding to changing circumstances? To what extent are they inflexible?
      • Is there an overriding ideology or philosophy governing a nation/person’s behavior? To what extent does the current moment or challenge fit into a nation/person’s historical narrative of its own identity or mission?
    3. Based on the historical record, try predicting how a given nation or leader will react to a current circumstance, and use actual events to judge the quality of your analysis.
    4. As a corollary, ask how other nations or entities understand this nation/person’s history. This may help in anticipating the actions of others when dealing with the same threat or issue.

    Selected Examples

    Chinese behavior

    • See Henry Kissinger, On China(Penguin, 2011)

    Russian behavior

    Commentary on the uses of "longue duree" history

Max Boot event

The Applied History Working Group of faculty members and affiliates across Harvard University and other institutions organizes discussions with scholars and practitioners to develop and support Applied History research and its use in policymaking.


Faculty Director

Graham Allison

  • Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Member of the Board, Belfer Center
  • Former Director, Belfer Center
  • Faculty Affiliate, Future of Diplomacy Project
     

Applied History Working Group

Applied History Team

Assistant Director

Calder Walton
 

Research Assistants

Raleigh Browne

Alyssa Resar
 

Fellows

Jieun Baek, Resident Fellow, Korea Project, Applied History Project

Anne Karalekas, Resident Fellow, Applied History Project

Wess Mitchell, Non-Resident Fellow, Applied History Project

Ernest May Fellows 2020-2021
 

This page is a repository of key resources for researchers, teachers, students, and general readers interested in Applied History. It includes both classic works and examples of the best, newest Applied History contributions. 

Article of the Week Archive

Applied History is an exercise constantly intersecting with current events. We select a relevant Article of the Week and add each to the collection below.

 

Course Syllabi

A collection of syllabi that taps into the vast repository of the Applied History Network's knowledge and teaching experience to help teachers who seek to apply history in their classrooms. 

Educators teaching Applied History courses may also be interested in the Stanton Foundation Applied History Course Development Program

  • Ernest R. May, Richard E. Neustadt, and Philip D. Zelikow, “Reasoning from History,” Fall 1996, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard College

    Much of what passes for common sense involves historical reasoning—inference from experience. Much of what passes for social science also involves historical reasoning. Futures are projected on the basis of supposed patterns or trends in the past.

    In fact, trying to state what actually happened in the past —even to you yesterday, let alone to long ago wages and prices, social conditions, or "the balance of power"—is extraordinarily tricky business. Some of the most intricate debates among philosophers concern questions of how to define, evaluate, compare, or explain historical facts.

    This course reviews some common traps in historical reasoning and suggests ways of avoiding them. It also deals with the reality that beliefs about history are often among the most powerful and tenacious beliefs shaping public debates —and that these beliefs are often conveyed more through pictures than through words. The course is thus designed to strengthen ability to analyze both particulars and contexts.

    Download Syllabus

  • Niall Ferguson, “Strategy and Crisis,” Spring 2015, Harvard College and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

    This course offers two analytical perspectives based on the study of twelve diplomatic and military crises that are frequently seen as turning points in the modern era. To contextualize each crisis, we explore what the dominant strategic theories were at the time and how they were deployed in practice in the heat of the crisis. (Think of this as a vertical, historically oriented axis of understanding.) Then we examine the linkages between crises. Are there modes of behavior or thought that are of general utility in such moments? Can strategic thought ever truly claim to be universally applicable? Did decision-makers learn and apply lessons from previous crises, and with what success? (Think of this as a horizontal, thematic axis of understanding.) At its core, the course is an argument for bringing history back into the core of strategic thought. In short, it is an exercise in applied history.

    Download Syllabus

  • Francis J. Gavin, “History, Strategy, and Statecraft,” Spring 2017, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

    What is history?  And can a better understanding of the past allow us to pursue wiser, more effective strategy and statecraft?

    There are a variety of ways to study and try to understand foreign policy and international relations. Social scientists, such as economists and political scientists, attempt to isolate variables, measure and aggregate observations, identify causality, locate generalizable trends, and develop theories for what shapes and drives international relations over time and space.  Statesman and practitioners often rely on their personal experience and training in diplomacy to understand and manage the world around them.  Historians look to the past, uncover and assess new evidence, and examine both the long and short-term causes of important global events and phenomena, focusing on their context while weighing their significance and uniqueness and arguing over their meaning.  This course aims to explore all three practices, to see when and how they overlap and inform each other, and to see if the interaction can be more fruitful, with a particular emphasis on historical study.

    The primary goal of this course is to familiarize advanced students of foreign policy and international relations with both historical methods and to develop what I call a historical sensibility. This can be challenging. The past provides few clear rules or lessons, it is often contested and controversial, and can easily be misused. History eschews forecasts, rarely isolates variables, and makes few general claims. Unlike many intellectual endeavors, there is no one shared “how to” guidebook to being a historian. Furthermore, the academic historical community has become, for reasons we will explore during the course, less explicit about their methods, assumptions, and research designs, and more ambivalent about engaging both strategy and statecraft.  For their part, policymakers and strategists often overlook the power (and perils) of historical insight to inform our understanding of the world we live in. At first glance, the busy decision-maker may find little of immediate value or promise by engaging history.  The relationship between these communities can be awkward, even strained.  This is, to my view, less than optimal. Historians, strategists, and statesman can and should do more to engage each other.  This course will explore how historical knowledge and historical skills can be used to better understand policy (with a focus on U.S. national and international security) and lead to more thoughtful discussion and debate about the pressing global challenges we face.  It will also suggest how historians can better sensitize themselves to the realities decision-makers face.

    Download Syllabus

  • Francis J. Gavin, Hal Brands, and James Steinberg, “Kissinger Seminar: History, Strategy, and American Statecraft,” Fall 2017, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)]

    What are the major patterns in the history of American strategy and statecraft? How has the United States handled key diplomatic and military crises in the past? What challenges have the most important American statespeople faced, and what strategies did they develop to advance U.S. interests? What lessons do their experiences hold for leaders today and in the future?

    This course is structured around an effort to answer these questions. This course is part 1 of 2 of the new Henry A. Kissinger Center curriculum in history, strategy, and statecraft; it provides students with an introduction to issues of strategy, war, and diplomacy, framed against the history of U.S. foreign policy. The course will begin with a discussion of the nature of strategy and statecraft, and of how history can help us understand these issues. The bulk of the course will explore American statecraft and strategy by looking at the policies and personalities of important American leaders, from Washington through Obama. We will examine the range of factors that went into their strategy and statecraft, including personal and political history, ideas, beliefs, and traditions in American foreign relations, and the pressing challenges of the day. Our hope is that this course will help students generate basic principles and guidelines that can be used to improve American approaches to strategy, war, and diplomacy in the years to come. The second part of this course (offered in the spring semester) will encourage students to apply these principles to the particular foreign policy challenges the United States confronts today.

    Download Syllabus

  • Paul Kennedy, “Military History of the West Since 1500,” Fall 2017, Yale University

    A study of the military history of the West since 1500, with particular emphasis upon the relationship between armies and navies on the one hand, and technology, economics and geography, and the rise of the modern nation-state on the other. The lectures covering the period after 1900 will also focus upon air power and sea power in their varied manifestations, as well as looking at recent developments in asymmetrical warfare. HIST 221/GLBL 281 provides a foundation lecture course for Yale Air Force/ROTC and Navy/ROTC students.

    Download Syllabus

  • Nancy Koehn, “Power and Glory in Turbulent Times: The History of Leadership From Henry V to Steve Jobs,” Spring 2017, Harvard Business School

    This course offers students the opportunity to explore the lives and work of a number of fascinating men and women, who led organizations, countries, and movements during periods of widespread disruption. The course aims to understand the values these individuals lived by, the decisions they reached, —including the strategies they pursued, and the tradeoffs they faced as they created widespread power in companies, nations, and communities.  It also focuses on the impact that each of these individuals had and how this impact was related to their respective missions. Particular attention is paid to the lessons these leaders offer for men and women today who want to make a real, positive difference in the world.

    The class also covers the life journeys of these people, including their evolution as human beings. Throughout the semester, students are encouraged to examine the choices the leaders made, the paths they traveled—including the mistakes and failures they experienced—the missions they nurtured, and the larger stage on which these people acted.  In looking closely at the agency of individuals who have exerted lasting influence, students are challenged to consider their own agency, along with their ambitions, deepest values, and ideas about leadership.

    Download Syllabus

  • Fredrik Logevall, “U.S. Foreign Policy in A Global Age,” Spring 2016, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard College

    History is central to IGA 217, “US Foreign Policy in a Global Age.” The course examines key points in American foreign policy over the past century, starting with intervention in World War I and ending with several class sessions on developments under Obama and now Trump. On day one I acknowledge that historical training confers no automatic insight in the sphere of public affairs, that history is as likely to be misused as to provide lessons, and that it sometimes resists efforts to become “applied.” I also insist, however, on the importance of cultivating a historical sensibility, and I tell the students that history can and should serve as a basis for effective, conscientious policymaking; in turn, effective, conscientious policymaking should be based on historical awareness and reflection. The course then proceeds from that basis. Emphasis is on discussion of assigned readings as well as group presentations. There is one simulation (I plan to add a second one next time), on LBJ’s decision to Americanize the war in Vietnam in 1965. Counterfactuals come into play at various points, and we give due consideration to the often-close connection between domestic politics and foreign policy in recent US history.

    Download Syllabus

  • David Moss, “History of American Democracy,” Fall 2015, Harvard Business School and Harvard College

    Today we often hear that American democracy is broken—but what does a healthy democracy look like? How has American democratic governance functioned in the past, and how has it changed over time? This course approaches American history with these questions in mind. Utilizing the case method, each class session revolves around a dedicated case study that introduces students to a critical episode in the history of American democracy, from the Constitutional Convention to Citizens United. Vigorous class discussions encourage students to challenge each other’s assumptions about democratic values and practices, and to draw their own conclusions about what “democracy” means in America.

    Together, the cases explore the development of democratic ideas, institutions, and practices in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present. The limited scope of the decision point featured in each case (such as how a special commission appointed by Theodore Roosevelt should respond to a major labor dispute in the anthracite coal industry in 1902) does not imply that the cases simply report on narrow historical episodes. Rather, each case frames a core decision within a broader historical context (such as the broader history of industrial-labor relations in the U.S.), which may span decades or even centuries. Being historical in nature, the cases address decisions that have already been made, but many of the themes they raise are ones that continue to resonate today. Indeed, in wrestling with these historical cases, students inevitably think in new ways about the challenges facing the nation’s democracy now, and what sorts of changes and reforms may be needed going forward.

    Download Syllabus

  • Anand Toprani, “Strategy and War” and “Strategy and Policy,” November 2016-February 2017 and February 2017-June 2017, U.S. Naval War College

    The student body at the U.S. Naval War College is comprised of U.S. military officers from each of the services, U.S. government civilians, and international officers. The Strategy & Policy Department teaches two core courses -- the intermediate-level Strategy & War course, which is designed for mid-career officers holding the rank of O-4 (Lieutenant Commanders/Majors) who are preparing to hold positions of command; and the senior-level Strategy & Policy course, which is designed for officers at the rank of O-5 and O-6 (Commanders/Captains/Colonels) who have already held positions of senior leadership. Both courses use historical case studies ranging from Antiquity to the present to illustrate the relevance of several course themes including the interrelationship of policy, strategy, and operations. We supplement these case studies with readings from a variety of military theorists, including Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Mao Zedong. The Strategy & War course has a thematic focus on military strategy in wartime, specifically the strategic effects of military operations, and evaluates the reasons why nations are either successful or unsuccessful at waging war. The Strategy & Policy course deals with grand strategy writ large and considers broader issues such as the nature of long-term competitions, the rise and fall of great powers, and the construction, preservation, and decline of world orders. Neither course is strictly speaking a history course. Rather, we follow Clausewitz's admonition to practice critical analysis, which includes gathering and evaluating historical facts, establishing the origins/root causes of key events, and most importantly asking whether alternative courses of action were available to military and civilian leaders. Ultimately, both courses aim to give students a nuanced appreciation of the utility of military force as an instrument of national power, while impressing upon them that tactical and operational skill offer no guarantee of enduring strategic success.

    Download Syllabus

  • Odd Arne Westad, “Power Shifts: Understanding Global Change through History,” Fall 2017, Harvard Kennedy School

    Nobody can understand the present without a keen understanding of the past. After all, history is all we have to go on in providing the resources for making sense of the world we live in. Successful policymakers often understand this and turn a view of the past to their advantage in interpreting the present. They understand how any good strategy is grounded in a sound view of history.

    History and historical methodologies can give policymakers a keener appreciation of what is possible to do, but also of what must be avoided and what needs to be changed. History is mainly about change; relentless, often confusing processes, over which individuals, communities, and even states seemingly have little say. But by studying change at key points in human history, we can prepare ourselves better for taking charge of our future, and for promoting or steering change when needed.

    This class looks at major shifts in history from European and Asian antiquity up to today. It looks at power in all its dimensions – material, demographic, technological, ideological, military, or religious – and shows how it has influenced and been influenced by major transformations in global history. Our aim is to better identify the key causes of power shifts, but also to get an impression of the fickleness of established orders in times of tectonic change.

    We have prepared twelve new cases specifically for this class. They range from the Peloponnesian War and the origins of Islamic empires up to the invasion of Iraq and US-China relations today. Through these cases we want to discuss the different dimensions of power and how they shift over time. We also want to look comparatively at how leaders have initiated, steered, or responded to power shifts. The purpose of the cases is to illuminate how people in the past have reacted to major change and how their choices may help us understand the tools and options that are at our disposal when making critical decisions.

    Download Syllabus

Bibliography

  • A collection of notable books dealing with the value and uses of history

     

    • Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner: A New Philosophy of History (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995)
    • David Armitage and Jo Guldi: The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)
    • Marc Bloch: The Historian’s Craft (New York: Knopf, 1953)
    • Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri: The Power of the Past (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2016)
    • E.H. Carr: What is History? (New York: Knopf, 1962)
    • R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939)
    • R.G. Collingwood: The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946)
    • Will Durant: The Lessons of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968)
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson: “History” (1841)
    • Richard Evans: In Defense of History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999)
    • Niall Ferguson: Kissinger: The Idealist (New York: Penguin, 2015)
    • Niall Ferguson: Virtual History (New York: Basic Books, 1999)
    • David Hackett Fischer: Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970)
    • John Lewis Gaddis: The Landscape of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
    • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837)
    • Herodotus: The History (440 BC)
    • Robert Hutchings and Jeremi Suri, Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)
    • Charles Hill: Grand Strategies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
    • Yuen Foong Khong: Analogies at War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992)
    • Henry Kissinger: Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994)
    • Henry Kissinger: On China (New York: Penguin, 2011)
    • Linda Kulman: Teaching Common Sense: The Grand Strategy Program at Yale University (Westport: Prospecta Press, 2016)
    • Margaret MacMillan: The Uses and Abuses of History (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008)
    • Ernest May: “Lessons” from the Past (London: Oxford University Press, 1973)
    • Ernest May and Richard Neustadt: Thinking in Time (New York: Free Press, 1986)
    • Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire (100s BC)
    • Leon Pompa: Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel, and Vico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
    • Paul Ricoeur: Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
    • Arthur Schlesinger: War and the American Presidency (New York: Norton, 2004)
    • Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (400s BC)
    • Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)
    • Stephen Vaughan (ed.), The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985).
    • Giambattista Vico: The First New Science (1725)
    • Gordon Wood: The Purpose of the Past (New York: Penguin, 2008)

     

     

Notable Quotes

Our frequently updated collection of insightful quotations on the uses of history by noted historians, philosophers, writers, political leaders, and policymakers.


The Applied History Project, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, sponsors the Ernest May Fellowship in History and Policy. This fellowship honors the late Ernest R. May, who was the Charles Warren Professor of American History, a member of the Belfer Center’s board of directors, and a seminal Applied Historian.

About the May Fellowship

The May Fellowship aims to help build the next generation of scholars who will bring professional history to bear on strategic studies and major issues of international affairs. The program supports resident pre- and post-doctoral historians, who are expected to complete a book, monograph, or other significant publication during their period of residence.

Fellows are also expected to devote some portion of their time to collaborative endeavors, as arranged by the project director. These arrangements include monthly seminars in which the Fellows receive feedback on works-in-progress from faculty and peers.

The Fellowships include ten-month stipends of either 44,000 USD (for postdoctoral or advanced research fellows) or 34,000 USD (for predoctoral fellows). Postdoctoral fellows who have received their Ph.D. within the past five years are benefits-eligible; predoctoral fellows and postdoctoral fellows who received their Ph.D. more than five years ago will receive full or partial reimbursement for health insurance premiums.

The Ernest May Fellows are housed within the International Security Program and participate in the activities of the Center as part of the International Security Program, while also taking part in the life of the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project. Fellows will have access to most Harvard University libraries and facilities. Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs, and Niall Ferguson, Belfer Center Senior Faculty Fellow, serve as the points of contact and mentors for the fellows.

See more information about eligibility and application requirements here.

Harvard’s Applied History Project participates in an Applied History Network spanning 50 institutions around the world. These institutions collaborate to advance the discipline of Applied History, including the development of research, teaching, grant, and other opportunities. The following is a current list, updated monthly.

 

Stanton Foundation Launches $10,000 Prize Contest on Reuniting America

The Stanton Foundation is launching a contest to reward what it judges the best Applied History essay that both clarifies the challenge of reuniting America and identifies initiatives the U.S. government or others could take to address it. Essays of 1,000 to 5,000 words, drawing from the history of the U.S. or other nations, will be welcome. An advisory panel including historians from Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and the University of Chicago will assist in screening. The top entry, as judged by the Foundation, will win $10,000, and up to two runners-up (if judged worthy of recognition) will win $5,000. The contest will close on July 4, 2021, and prize winners will be announced on July 14, 2021. For more information, click here.
 

Call for Papers: Civil War and Intervention Conference

The Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, the LBJ Presidential Library, and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin are seeking papers for an upcoming conference, “Civil War and Intervention: U.S. Foreign Policy in International Perspective.” The conference will take place in person on February 18-19, 2022 at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. Proposals are welcome from scholars and graduate students in history and political science who are working on any topic related to the question of U.S. intervention in a foreign civil war. The proposal deadline is May 28, 2021. For more information, click here.
 

Call for Papers: Inman Award on Intelligence and National Security

The Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin is accepting papers for a competition recognizing graduate and undergraduate research on topics related to intelligence and national security. The winner will receive a $5,000 prize and two semifinalists will receive $2,500 prizes. There is no prescribed topic, format, or length, but papers will be judged on the basis of academic rigor, clear presentation, creativity, and the potential to contribute positively to the U.S. intelligence community. The submission deadline is June 30, 2021. For more information, click here.
 

Call for Papers: Journal of Applied History

The Journal of Applied History, published by Brill, welcomes articles on a wide range of subjects using an Applied History approach. Information about the journal and how to submit an article is available here
 

Cambridge Center for Geopolitics Seeks Postdoctoral Research Associate

The Center for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge invites applications for a postdoctoral Research Associate position on the geopolitics of the Baltic Sea Region, past and present, with special reference to Britain’s role in the region. The Research Associate will conduct research, help run the Baltic Geopolitics Program, and teach an MPhil course on Britain and the geopolitics of the Baltic Sea Region with Brendan Simms (Director, Center for Geopolitics and Professor of the History of European International Relations, University of Cambridge). The application deadline is June 9, 2021. For more information, click here.
 

Naval War College Seeks Postdoctoral Fellow

The Strategy & Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College is accepting applications for a postdoctoral teaching and research fellowship. The fellowship is an anticipated vacancy for a one-year appointment and can be renewed for a second year. The fellow will teach two seminars of a Strategy & War course during the winter trimester, and during other terms will be expected to conduct original research and participate in the intellectual life of the department and college. The application deadline is June 4, 2021. For more information, click here.

The Applied History Project gratefully acknowledges the Stanton Foundation's generous support.

Stanton Foundation Prize Contest: Applying History to Help Reunite America

The Stanton Foundation believes historians can play a vital role in helping reunite our deeply divided nation. To that end, the Foundation is launching a contest to reward what it judges the best Applied History essay that both clarifies the challenge of reuniting America and identifies initiatives the U.S. government or others could take to address it.

Essays of 1,000 to 5,000 words, drawing from the history of the U.S. or other nations, will be welcome. Submissions may be new, unpublished pieces or previously published articles, including from a collection of articles or selections from previously published books. Please note that in keeping with the Foundation’s charter, the essay must be non-partisan.

An advisory panel including historians from the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and the University of Chicago will assist in screening. The top entry, as judged by the Foundation, will win $10,000, and up to two runners-up (if judged worthy of recognition) will win $5,000.

The contest will close on July 4, 2021, and prize winners will be announced on July 14, 2021. For more information, please visit the Stanton Foundation website.


Stanton Foundation Prize Contest: Applying History to Clarify the COVID-19 Challenge

In early April 2020, the American Historical Association issued a call for historians to apply their skills to help illuminate the challenge COVID-19 poses to our nation and the world. As the AHA Council wrote: “Historians can…play an important role by providing context, in this case shedding light on the history of pandemics and the utility of that history to policy formation and public culture.”

To reinforce and support this call to action, the Stanton Foundation launched a weekly contest to identify and reward what it judged the best new Applied History article or op-ed that illuminated the COVID-19 crisis. An advisory panel from the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center assisted in the screening process. Winning articles illuminated current challenges and policy choices by analyzing the historical record, especially precedents and analogues.

Each week’s winner received a $1,000 prize. An additional $2,500 prize was awarded for the best overall from the contest period. A $5,000 Grand Prize was awarded for the best article/op-ed published between January 1 and June 30, 2020.

The weekly contest ended on June 26, 2020. For more information, please visit the Stanton Foundation COVID-19 contest website.

Prize Winners:


Stanton Foundation Applied History Course Development Program

Harvard's Applied History Project collaborates with the Stanton Foundation's Applied History Program. The Foundation has created a program to provide grants of up to $50,000 for tenured and tenure-track faculty to develop new Applied History courses for undergraduates or first-year graduate students.

Follow Applied History on Twitter


For more information about the Applied History Project, please contact Raleigh Browne, Research Assistant, at rbrowne@hks.harvard.edu.