Welcome to the online hub for the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Applied History is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. 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.

Intended to be a resource for professional historians, analysts, and the wider public interested in applied history, this website provides a curated selection of exemplary applied history, a basic bibliography, and a catalog of quotations and insights on the topic by historical scholars and statesmen. It also offers an in-progress list of “assignments” a president might give a White House Council of Historical Advisers (as Professors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson have proposed). We encourage readers to contribute with suggestions of good online applied historical analyses, recommendations for additional assignments and frameworks, or remarks that contest views posted here.

In the earliest days of historical writing in Ancient Greece and Rome, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and others viewed history as a vital teacher for statesmen. Into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical knowledge maintained a central place in strategy and statesmanship, inspiring such leaders as Bismarck and Churchill. In more recent times, however, the history-policy relationship has atrophied. Today, policymakers too often retreat to facile historical analogies, while historians become more and more distrustful of policymakers’ misuse of their craft.

The Belfer Center’s Applied History Project aims to address what Niall Ferguson has called the “history deficit” in policymaking. The Project takes a “big tent” approach to vitalizing Applied History in the Academy, and to promoting its use in government, business, and other sectors of society.

Our Project Includes:

  • A Faculty Working Group made up of professors from Harvard University and the surrounding area which meets regularly to discuss topics in applied historical analysis.
  • The Ernest May Fellowship at the Belfer Center, which supports students who employ history in the study of strategy and major issues in international affairs.
  • Support for professors at the Harvard Kennedy School who teach policymaking in historical context.

Establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers Now

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.

Speaking about his book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross recently noted that “almost no administration’s leading figures know the history of what we have done in the Middle East.” Neither do they know the history of the region itself. In 2003, when President George Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein and replace his regime with an elected government that represented the majority of Iraqis, he did not appear to appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of this choice would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran. Indeed, in attempting to explain the consequences of this fateful choice, one of the leaders from the region is reported to have told President Bush that if he cut down the tallest tree in the region (Saddam), he should not be surprised when he found the second tallest tree towering over the others.

The problem is by no means limited to the Middle East or to Bush. The Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to recognize the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine left it blind to the predictable consequences of European Union initiatives in late 2013 and early 2014 to lead Ukraine down a path to membership in the EU and, in time, NATO. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Obama told the editor of the New Yorker in an interview published in January 2014, referring to one of the great applied historians of the early Cold War. Within two months Russia had annexed Crimea.

Even more remarkable, however, is the apparent ignorance of the Republican candidate for the presidency of the historical significance of his own foreign policy mantra, “America First.”

While this history deficit is only one of the weaknesses in the foreign policy of recent administrations of both parties, it is one that is more amenable to repair than most. Yet to address this deficit it is not enough for a president occasionally to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

We urge the candidates currently running for president to announce now that, if elected, they will establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers analogous to the Council of Economic Advisers established after World War II. Several eminent historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations: the checkered record of U.S. foreign policy since 1977 suggests that, in failing to do so, Carter and Reagan missed a great opportunity. We suggest this council’s charter begin with Thucydides’ observation that “events of future history will be of the same nature—or nearly so—as the history of the past, so long as men are men.” While applied historians will never be clairvoyants with an unclouded crystal ball, we agree with Winston Churchill that “the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” The next president’s charge to this council should be to provide historical perspectives on contemporary problems.

Imagine that President Obama had such a council today. What assignments could he give them? How could their responses help inform choices he now faces?

Start with the most intractable issue the president and his national security team have been debating recently: What to do about ISIS? He could ask his applied historians whether or not we have even seen anything like this before, and if so, which precedents seem most similar? He could ask further what happened in those cases, and thus, what clues they offer about what might happen in this one. We infer from recent statements that the administration tends to see ISIS as essentially a new version of al-Qaeda, and the goal of policy is to decapitate it, as al-Qaeda was decapitated with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. But there is good reason to believe that ISIS is quite different in structure from al-Qaeda and may in fact be a classic acephalous network.

Our initial search for precedents and analogues for ISIS includes 50 prior cases of similarly brutal, fanatical, purpose-driven groups, including the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution. Deciding which characteristics of ISIS we consider most salient—for example, its revolutionary politics or its religious millenarianism—helps us to narrow this list to the most instructive analogues. A systematic study of these other cases could help steer the president away from a potentially erroneous equation of ISIS with its most recent forerunner.

That this kind of approach can be invaluable is illustrated by the U.S. government’s response to the Great Recession of 2008. That September saw the biggest shock to the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. In 24 hours, the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted, credit swaps among major banks froze, and the shock spread almost instantly to international markets. In the words of then-Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, “the ‘system-wide’ crisis was more severe and unpredictable than any in our lifetimes.” For that reason, historical knowledge of earlier financial crises—and particularly the Great Depression that began in 1929—was at a premium. It was sheer good luck that the chairman of the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2014 was also a serious student of economic history. As Ben Bernanke wrote in his 2015 memoir, “understanding what was happening in the context of history proved invaluable” because “the crisis of 2007-2009 was best understood as a descendant of the classic financial panics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” The specter that haunted Bernanke most was the Great Depression of 1929. While some criticized his “obsession” with the post-1929 depression, there can be no doubt about his commitment not to repeat the mistakes that contributed to that catastrophe.

In a 2010 speech, Bernanke identified lessons from the Great Depression for policy makers today: “First, economic prosperity depends on financial stability; second, policy makers must respond forcefully, creatively, and decisively to severe financial crises; third, crises that are international in scope require an international response.” Bernanke’s Fed acted decisively, inventing unprecedented initiatives that stretched— if not exceeded—the Fed’s legal powers, such as purchasing not only bonds issued by the federal government but also mortgage-backed and other securities in what was called “quantitative easing.” The speed of the Fed’s international initiatives to backstop other central banks and persuade them to collaborate in cutting short- term interest rates so as to enhance stability can also be traced back to Bernanke’s knowledge of mistakes made in the Great Depression. Although the recent crisis took place in a radically different financial and economic context, Bernanke wrote in the conclusion of his memoir, “it rhymed with past panics.”

Just as the financial storm was gathering, our colleagues Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff were just completing a decade of research during which they had assembled a database of 350 financial crises over the past eight centuries. Their book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly explicitly analyzed “precedents and analogues” with a view to illuminating current events. In testimony to Congress and a series of op-eds in late 2008 and early 2009, they argued that recessions caused by financial crises tend to persist for much longer than business-cycle recessions. Indeed, they opined that the “current crisis could mean stunted U.S. growth for at least five to seven more years,” and that it would leave behind a legacy of significantly higher public debt. Though hotly contested at the time by those who claimed that monetary and fiscal stimulus would achieve a rapid “v-shaped” recovery, their historically derived insights have proven prescient.

While Western economies stagnated, China continued its meteoric growth and increasingly realized its ability to reap geopolitical benefits from its newfound financial power. Will China’s rise result in war with the United States? In a chapter written for the 2009 volume Power and Restraint, Ernest May offered an instructive demonstration of how the analysis of analogues and precedents can provide clues about “alternative patterns that might play out in U.S.-Chinese relationships.” To do this, he considered “experience at the turn of the century and in the 1920s that can be instructive in suggesting some of the processes that engendered enmity or friendship across national boundaries.” Specifically, he compared and contrasted interactions between Britain and two rising powers: Germany on the one hand, and the United States on the other. Britain and Germany, he notes, could have remained at peace since they “were essentially similar in culture, values, and institutions.” “Why,” then, “did the next two decades see Britain and Germany instead become enemies?” “Why did Britain not react to America’s challenges as to those from Germany?”

May’s analysis is subtle and nuanced, as it always was. In the first case, he concluded that “most of the blame has to go to Germany and its willful ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II.” Indeed, he argued that “the central reason for Germany’s self- destructive behavior was that the kaiser and his ministers were preoccupied with their own domestic politics.” “Wilhelm and his ministers found it useful—almost necessary—to have trouble abroad in order to maintain quiet at home.” Reflecting on the consequences, he drew a telling lesson for China: “the example of Imperial Germany clearly warns how dangerous it can be for a rising power to use foreign policy as a means of satisfying domestic political needs.”

In contrast, by finding ways to accommodate a rising United States, Britain demonstrated “how a great nation can benefit from swallowing its pride and being guided by long-term calculations of interest, both international and domestic.” In the shaping of British foreign policy, “a chain of British decision-makers calculated coldly that the cost of resisting American pretentions would be too high.” May thus applauded the British government’s wise choice “to make a virtue of necessity and to yield to the Americans in every dispute with as good grace as was permitted.” When a Liberal government came to power in 1906, British policy culminated in the new Foreign Secretary’s declaration that “the pursuit and maintenance of American friendship was and would be a ‘cardinal policy’ of the United Kingdom.”

As one of us has argued, another analogy for the U.S.-China relationship can be found as early as the tensions between ancient Athens and Sparta. As the Athenian historian Thucydides explained brilliantly in his account of the Peloponnesian War, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” The Thucydides Trap—the inevitable structural stress that occurs when a rapidly rising power threatens to displace a ruling power—serves as the best framework available for thinking about U.S.-China relations today and in the years ahead. One of us has led a team of researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center that reviewed the leading historical accounts of the last 500 years and identified 16 cases when this occurred. In 12 of those cases, the outcome was war. The study represents one possible answer a Council of Historical Advisers could give to the president if he asked whether or not precedents exist for the current U.S.-China relationship.

To be sure, as Ernest May repeatedly reminded students and policy makers alike, historical analogies are easy to get wrong. Amateur analogies were commonplace in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, ranging from the then-president’s own comparison with Pearl Harbor to the even worse parallels drawn by some members of his administration between Saddam Hussein and the leaders of the World War II Axis powers. To guard against such errors, May counseled that when considering a historical analogy, one should always follow a simple procedure: put the analogy as the headline on a sheet of paper; draw a straight line down the middle of the page; write “similar” at the top of one column and “different” at the top of the other; and then set to work. If you are unable to list at least three points of similarity and three of difference, then you should consult a historian.

To apply this “May Method” amid the flurry of analogizing on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, one of us compared challenges facing U.S. and Chinese leaders today with those faced by European leaders in 1914. That analysis highlighted seven salient similarities as well as seven instructive differences, and concluded that “the probability of war between the United States and China in the decade ahead is higher than I imagined before examining the analogy—but still unlikely. Indeed, if statesmen in both countries reflect on what happened a century ago, perspective and insights from this past can be applied now to make risks of war even lower.”

As the most consequential modern practitioner of applied history, Henry Kissinger, put it, “History is not a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims.” History “illuminates the consequences of actions in comparable situations.” But—and here is the art that requires both imagination and judgment— for it to do so, “each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

“Is it unprecedented?” is just one of a number of questions or assignments that we propose the president could give his or her Council of Historical Advisers. Others include:

• What lessons of statecraft from a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge? (What would X have done?)

• What is the significance of a historical anniversary for the present (a common topic for presidential speeches)?

• What is the relevant history of the state, institution, or issue at hand?

• What if some action had not been taken (the kind of question too seldom asked after a policy failure)?

• Grand strategic questions like “Can the United States avoid decline?”

• Speculative questions about seemingly improbable future scenarios.

Most presidents have a favorite predecessor. In developing his strategy for meeting Iran’s nuclear challenge, President Obama is reported to have reflected on WWKD? (What would Kennedy do?) His choice of an “ugly deal” to stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program rather than the bombing of its uranium enrichment plants (as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he might) or acquiescing in an Iranian fait accompli (as some of his advisers thought inevitable) had some parallels with Kennedy’s choices in the Cuban Missile Crisis to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev rather than risk an invasion of Cuba or learn to live with Soviet missiles off the Florida coast. Two key points were that the successful deal in 1962 was based on secret negotiations with Moscow—even though that unsettled some American allies—and that there was a middle ground between complete capitulation and nuclear war.

A third type of assignment the president could give his historians would be to take the anniversary of a major historical event as an occasion to reflect on current challenges. The ongoing centennial of World War I has provided leaders with an important opportunity to speak about its significance. Despite the fact that a general European war seemed to many contemporaries unthinkable, and despite the fact that the economies of Britain and Germany were so heavily interdependent, war broke out and proved impossible to end by diplomatic means. When it ended four years later with the disintegration of the Central Powers, more than ten million men had lost their lives prematurely, and Europe had been severely weakened.

In the decade before this war, the major governments had made a series of commitments to each other that created what Kissinger has called a “diplomatic doomsday machine.” As the strategic competition between the United States and China in the South and East China Seas intensifies, applied historians could usefully carry out a serious review of U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and others that might one day function as a modern-day equivalent.

A fourth type of assignment suitable for the president’s historians would be to determine the relevant history of the state, institution, or issue at hand, and how foreign counterparts understand that history. In dealing with foreign nations, we should never forget Henry Kissinger’s observation that “history is the memory of states” and that “for nations, history plays the role that character confers on human beings.” Learning the history of other nations, and honing the skills of historical enquiry in general, can help to promote cultural empathy. As Sir Michael Howard argued thirty-five years ago, any proper historical education must teach its students “how to step outside their own cultural skins and enter the minds of others; the minds not only of our own forebears, enormously valuable though this is, but of those of our contemporaries who have inherited a different experience from the past.” Unfortunately, many of our elites can be, as Sir Michael put it, “people often of masterful intelligence, trained usually in law or economics or perhaps in political science, who have led their governments into disastrous decisions and miscalculations because they have no awareness whatsoever of the historical background, the cultural universe, of the foreign societies with which they have to deal.” We cannot understand the decisions of key players in foreign nations without grasping how they themselves understand their nation’s history, for, in Sir Michael’s words, “all we believe about the present depends on what we believe about the past.”

Therefore, in preparing to engage China’s leaders, what might the next president ask his or her council? A useful starting assignment would be: How does Xi Jinping understand the arc of Chinese history and his role in China’s future? Does he see his mission simply as rounding out China’s economic development and restoring it to its historically “normal” role as the biggest country in the world after its “century of humiliation?” If so, we could expect to see the emergence of a richer and more confident China, but probably embedded in a “status quo” system still fundamentally shaped by U.S. power and institutions. Or does he also seek to revise the international order by displacing the United States as the predominant Asian and perhaps global power in the foreseeable future? In answering this assignment, the applied historians could draw on the recorded wisdom of a man who perhaps understood the worldview and historical consciousness of China’s leaders better than anyone: the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee—whom every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, including Xi, has called a “mentor”—argued that “the size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance,” and that China “wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.” When asked if China’s leaders wish to supplant the United States, Lee responded: “Of course. Why not? How could [the Chinese] not aspire to be number one in Asia and, in time, the world?”

One clear example of how the history deficit can be dangerous becomes apparent when considering America’s dealings in the Middle East. If the president who takes office in 2017 were preparing to engage the leaders of Israel and the leading Arab nations on the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, what might he or she ask the applied historians? A good start would be to ask them what have been the most significant U.S. policies and actions in the region in recent decades and how key players in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran interpret and remember those decisions. As Dennis Ross has noted, while U.S. leaders are usually ignorant of our previous actions in the Middle East, “those in the region know the history very well.” How does the experience they have inherited from the past differ from ours? What lessons have they drawn from U.S. behavior?

A fifth type of assignment for applied historians is to pose and answer “what if?” questions designed to analyze past decision-making. Addressing such questions requires disciplined counterfactual reasoning. While many mainstream historians have voiced reservations about counterfactual analysis, this method lies at the heart of every historical account. As one of us argued in Virtual History, “it is a logical necessity when asking questions about causation to pose ‘but for’ questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if our supposed cause had been absent.”

When assessing the relative importance of various possible causes of World War I, historians make judgments about what would have happened in the absence of these factors. Methods developed for doing this systematically can be employed by applied historians in considering current policy choices. Thus, President Obama’s successor could ask his Council of Historical Advisers to replay 2013. What if Obama had opted to enforce the “red line” in Syria against the Assad regime, rather than delegating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria to the Russian government? And what if, in January 2014, the EU had not offered Ukraine an economic association agreement that was clearly designed to pull Kiev westward? Would President Putin still have intervened militarily in Ukraine?

A sixth kind of question for the Council of Historical Advisers would be of a fundamentally strategic nature. Is the United States in irreversible decline? Can it overcome the challenges facing it to lead a new “American century,” or will the coming decades see the steady erosion of American power? Applied historians would begin by noting the recurring streak in American political culture of what Sam Huntington labeled “declinism.” Many people were convinced that the United States was being overtaken by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and 1960s, or by Japan in the 1980s. But in none of the earlier cases had the majority of Americans lost faith in the American Dream: the belief that if one works hard and plays by the rules, one’s children will have more opportunities and a higher standard of living than their parents. In the past generation, as middle-class incomes have stagnated, that belief has been eroded. Bismarck defined a statesman as “a politician who thinks of his grandchildren.” It is unclear whether the current American political system would allow such a statesman to enact the farsighted policies required to address the growing problem of intergeneration inequity—or indeed to be elected in the first place. The current generation is the first in the history of the United States to have asked, in essence, “What have our children and grandchildren ever done for us?” A truly visionary president would revive the importance of our posterity as the most important constituent of a well-governed republic.

Finally, a more speculative assignment, but still a vital one, would be to ask the council: “What unlikely but possible strategic upheavals might we face in the medium-term?”

• Will ISIS buy or steal a nuclear weapon?

• Will Chinese and Japanese forces clash in the East China Sea, sparking a wider war?

• Will the Saudi royal family be deposed?

• Will the European Union disintegrate?

• Will Russia invade a Baltic state? While some of these scenarios may seem far-fetched, recall this time six years ago: How many pundits would have predicted the timing or speed of the Arab Spring, or that Syria would now lie in ruins? Two and a half years ago, how many believed it probable that Vladimir Putin would invade Crimea, that his proxies would shoot down a Dutch airliner, or that he would commit combat forces to Syria?

Of course, building future scenarios is part of what intelligence agencies do. Yet, currently, historians play a very small part in this process. Applied historians do not have crystal balls. But they do have certain advantages over those who would try to answer such questions with models and regression analysis. They know that dramatic events that were dismissed as implausible before the fact are in hindsight frequently described as inevitable. Their study of previous sharp discontinuities encourages a “historical sensibility” that is attuned to the long-term rhythms, strategic surprise, and daring coups de main that run through history.

This historical sensibility can prove invaluable. One applied historian, now well- known for discerning and profiting from long-term historical cycles in markets, developed so much of an historical sensibility while writing a doctoral dissertation on the relationship between commodities and the grand strategy of the British Empire that he was able to anticipate Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait’s oil fields, a full two years before Saddam made his move.

For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject, often by social scientists offering spuriously hard certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous applied history to close America’s history deficit. Not only do we want to see it incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside the economic expertise that has so long been seen as indispensable to the executive branch. We also want to see it develop as a discipline in its own right in our universities, beginning at Harvard.

Harvard’s Applied History Project is taking a “big tent” approach to revitalizing applied history in the academy and promoting its use in government, business, and other sectors of society. We stake no claim to inventing the concept: indeed, we trace its origins back at least to Thucydides and acknowledge that it had been a major strand in mainstream history until recent decades. We make no claim to exclusivity: indeed, we applaud colleagues—and mentors—such as Sir Michael Howard of Oxford or Paul Kennedy of Yale, whose contributions in this domain we celebrate and hope to emulate.

We encourage journalists to ask candidates for the presidency how they intend to eliminate the history deficit in American policy making. The slogan “America First” has a bad history. A better slogan—which has no past to speak of in the United States—might be “History First.”

Imagine that the president had a Council of Historical Advisers. 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 accomodate 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. Analyze the historical case for its relevant backstory, the actors concerned, and the circumstances statesmen confronted.
    2. If the given historical case required a major decision or several decisions, how did decision-makers handle them?
      • Which different strategic options did they consider?
      • Why did they choose the options that they chose?
      • Which complicating factors did they have to consider?
      • Can we imagine ways in which the problem could have been better addressed?
      • Which lessons can we draw either from their failure or their success that are generally applicable?
    3. Can we think of particular instances in today’s geopolitical climate where these lessons might be applicable?
      • Drawing on the May Method, which similarities and differences between historical case and present ones could affect the level of relevance or usefulness? How does this affect our confidence in applying those historical lessons to the present?

    Selected Examples

    Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

    Lessons of WWI

    Lessons from arms control treaties

    Lessons from American experience of war in Middle East

  • 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

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

“The events of future history … will be of the same nature—or nearly so—as the history of the past, so long as men are men.”

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, (431 B.C.E.)

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, (431 B.C.E.)

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, (431 B.C.E.)

"History is a strange teacher. It never repeats itself exactly, but you ignore its general lessons at your peril."

Madeline K. Albright, "The Role of the United States in Central Europe" (1991)

"Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abuent studia in mores: studies pass into the characters."

Francis Bacon, "Of Studies" in Bacon's Essays (ed. 1892)

"What I suspect is that memory of past and anticipation of future events work together, go hand in hand as it were in a friendly way, without disputing over priority and leadership."

Carl Becker, "Every Man his Own Historian," Address to American Historical Association (1931)

"The true use and scope of all Histories ought to tend to no other purpose, than a true Narration of what is done, or hath beene achieved either in Forraigne or Domesticke affaires; with a domest Application (for present use) to caution us in things Offensive, and excite us to the management of imployments in themselves generous, and worthy of imitation."

Richard Braithwait, A Survey of History (1651)

"The best of prophets of the future is the past."

Lord Byron, "What is Poetry?-The feeling of a Former world and Future. Thought Second." in Byron’s Journal (1/28/1821)

"In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind."

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

"History...may be called, more generally still, the Message, verbal or written, which all Mankind delivers to every man."

Thomas Carlyle, "On History Again" in Fraser's Magazine (1833)

"the Present in the living sum-total of the whole Past."

Thomas Carlyle, "Characteristics" (1831)

"The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward."

Winston Churchill, Quoted in Churchill By Himself

“The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.”

Winston Churchill, Cited in Richard Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words, 1958

“Study history, study history—in history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”

Winston Churchill, Advice given to James Humes, 1953

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."

Marcus Tullius Cicero, M. Tulli Ciceronis Orator Ad M. Brutum (46 B.C.) [Hubbell, trans.]

“Study the past if you would define the future.”


"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)

"History is a vast early warning system."

Norman Cousins, Cited in The Harper Book of Quotations Revised Edition (1993)

"If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation."

Lord John Dalberg-Acton, "Inaugural lecture on the study of history" (1895)

"In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present."

John Dos Passos, The Ground We Stand On: Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed, 1941

"I have no expectation that any man will read history aright, who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense than what he is doing today."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History" (1841)

"The past is never dead; it’s not even past."

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, (1951)

"What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it." 

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philisophy of History (1832) [Nisbet, trans.]

"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past."

Patrick Henry, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech (3/23/1775)

"A page of history is worth a volume of logic."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, New York Trust v. Eisner, 256 US 345, 349 (1921).

"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them."

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)

"The very concept of history implies the scholar and the reader. Without a generation of civilized people to study history, to preserve records, to absorb its lessons and relate to our own problems, history, too, would lose its meaning."

George F. Kennan, WNET TV program, “US Soviet Relations, the first 50 years,” 17 April 1984.

“There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and a cumulative vision of the future.”

John F. Kennedy, “JFK On Our Nation’s Memory,” American Heritage, 1962

"I believe as a general proposition that the best preparation for government is to study philosophy or political theory and history because it trains your thinking and forces you to examine your assumptions."

Henry Kissinger, "A Conversation with Herny Kissinger" (Harvard University, 4/11/2012)

"For nations, history plays the role that character confers on human beings."

Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014)

"History teaches all things, including the future."

Alphonse de Lamartine, History of the French Revolution of 1848 (1849)

"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results."  

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XLIII (1532)

"Potentially, history is an enormously rich resource for people who govern."

Ernest May, "Lessons" of the Past (1973)

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."

Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" (1852)


"The future can never look exactly like the past. Usually, it should not. But past conditions can offer clues to future possibilities."

Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time (1986)

"History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

David McCullough, Cited in Harold Klawans, Life, Death and In Between (1992)

"Guizot calls history analysis; Thierry calls it narrative; I call it resurrection."

Jules Michelet, Cited in A History of Historical Writing Volume II (1942)

"Mankind possesses no better guide to conduct than the knowledge of the past…The study of history is at once an education in the truest sense and a training for a political career, and that the most infallible, indeed the only method of learning how to bear with dignity the vicissitudes of Fortune is to be reminded of the disasters suffered by others."

Polybius, Rise of the Roman Empire, Book 1, Introduction [Scott-Kilvert, trans.] (Around 120 BC)

"In a word, we may gather out of history a policy no less wise than eternal; by the comparison and application of other men’s fore-passed miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings."

Sir Walter Raleigh, "Preface," The History of the World (1614)

"When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905)


"The historian is a prophet looking backwards."

Friedrich Schlegel, Athenäum, volume 1, part 2, pg. 20 (1798-1800)

"There can be no question that generalizations about the past, defective as they may be, are possible – and that they can strengthen the capacity of statesmen to deal with the future."

Arthur Schlesinger, War and the American Presidency (2004)


"He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer's booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once."

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer: Studies in Pessimism (ed. 2004)

"What is past is prologue."

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (c. 1610-1612), Act II, scene 1, line 253.

"History is philosophy teaching by example and also by warning."

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Lord Bolingbroke, "Letter II: Concerning the true use and advantages of it," Letters on the Study and the Use of History (1752)

"My purpose is not to relate at length every motion, but only such as were conspicuous for excellence or notorious for infamy. This I regard as history's highest function, to let no worthy action be un-commemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds."

Cornelius Tacitus, Annals, Book 3, Chapter 65 (117 A.D.) [Church and Brodribb, trans.]


"The wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to authors of memoirs, is sadly denied to practicing politicians."

Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (1995)

"The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

Harry S. Truman, Quoted in Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman (1974)

"We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."

Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

"[History helps us] foresee the Events of things, perceive their Causes, and by remembring those Evils that are past, provide Remedies against those which are coming upon us."

Degory Wheare, Method and Order of Reading both Civil and Ecclesiastical Histories (1635)

"History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future."

Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (1961)


"History does not repeat itself in the same way each time, but certain trends and consequences are constants."

Lee Kuan Yew, Quoted in Blackwill and Harris, War By Other Means (2016)


"If you do not know history, you think short term. If you know history, you think medium and long term."

Lee Kuan Yew, Quoted in Blackwill and Harris, War By Other Means (2016)


"History does not repeat itself in the same way each time, but certain trends and consequences are constants."

Lee Kuan Yew, Quoted in Blackwill and Harris, War By Other Means (2016)

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Applied History is an exercise constantly involving current events, and on this page you will find a frequently updated selection of recent news articles and analyses incorporating historical thinking.

Global or Long-Term Focus

“Donald Trump’s New World Order”

Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group (American Interest, 11/21/16)

“Thinking Historically: A Guide for Strategy and Statecraft”

Francis J. Gavin (War on the Rocks, 11/17/16)

“Learning from Past Counterterrorism Eras”

Daniel Byman (Lawfare, 11/14/16)

"Déclassé: Nothing New Under the Sun"

Harold James (American Interest, 9/23/16)

“Understanding Hitler’s anti-Semitism”
Edward Delman, Interview with Timothy Snyder, (The Atlantic, 9/9/15)

“Back to the future: World politics edition”
Stephen Walt, Member, Applied History Working Group (Foreign Policy, 7/8/15)

“What if counterfactuals never existed?”
Cass Sunstein, Member, Applied History Working Group (New Republic, 9/20/14)

“2014 is not 1931”
Peter Beinart, (The Atlantic, 9/8/14)

“Just how likely is another world war?”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Co-Director, Applied History Working Group, (The Atlantic, 7/30/14)

“Turning points”
Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group, (The New York Times, 11/30/12)

“A Time to appease”
Paul Kennedy, (The National Interest, 7/8/10)

"The case for historical advisers in government"

Yoav Tenembaum, (History & Policy, 10/10/09)

“Foreign Policy: Munich versus Vietnam”
Robert Kaplan, (The Atlantic, 5/2007)


Historical Statesmanship

“We need Richard Holbrooke more than ever”
Fredrik Logevall (Member, Applied History Working Group) and Gordon Goldstein, (Politico Magazine, 12/6/15)

“The Key to Henry Kissinger’s success”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The Atlantic, 11/27/15)

“The meaning of Kissinger”
Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group (Foreign Affairs, 9/10/15)

“The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy today”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (Foreign Affairs, 7/8/12)


American Politics

“Will Trump Play Spy vs. Spy?”

Evan Thomas (New York Times, 12/19/16)

“Andrew Jackson’s Lessons for Donald Trump”

Jon Meacham (TIME, 12/7/16)

“Donald Trump is the American Machiavelli”

David Ignatius (Washington Post, 11/10/16)

“Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt”

George Packer (New Yorker, 10/31/16)

“America’s First ‘Rigged’ Presidential Election”

James Traub (Wall Street Journal, 10/28/16)

"Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?"

Fredrik Logevall (Member, Applied History Working Group) and Kenneth Osgood, (New York Times, 8/29/16)

"The Case for Extreme Immigrant Vetting"

George Borjas, (Politico Magazine, 8/17/16)

"The College Formerly Known as Yale"

Roger Kimball, (Wall Street Journal, 8/8/16)

"A Teachable Moment for Two Students of Presidential History"

Jane Seagrave (Vineyard Gazette, 8/4/16)

"The Democrats place a big bet on America’s virtues"

Fareed Zakaria, (Washington Post, 7/28/16)

"Paranoid Republidents for Trump"

Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group, (Boston Globe, 7/25/16)

“The Trump-Berlusconi syndrome”
Roger Cohen, (The New York Times, 3/14/16)

“Can Washington’s most interesting egghead save the Senate?”
Molly Ball, (The Atlantic, 11/3/15)

“The Donald: Trumped by history?”
John Ashford, (The Hill, 9/8/15)

“Can we finally get an AUMF right?”
Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk, (Politico Magazine, 2/11/15)



“Trump Should Read India’s Playbook for Taunting China”

Jeff Smith (Foreign Policy, 12/20/16

“75 years ago, what if Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor?”

Ishaan Tharoor (Washington Post, 12/7/16)

“The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China headed for war?”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The Atlantic, 9/24/15)

“Speak softly and carry a big ship”
James Holmes, (Foreign Affairs, 2/11/15)

“US naval history offers clues to China’s intent”
Jamil Anderlini, (Financial Times, 1/27/15)

“China’s leaders draw lessons from war of ‘humiliation’
Chris Buckley, (The New York Times Sinosphere, 7/28/14)



"Putin goes full Orwell"

George Will (Washington Post, 9/14/16)

“Stop swooning over Putin”
Fareed Zakaria, (Washington Post, 10/15/15)

“U.S.-Russia Relations: What would Henry Kissinger do?”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The National Interest, 9/28/15)

“Russia and America: Towards a new détente”
Leslie Gelb, (The National Interest, 6/9/15)

“Russia rewrites history of the Prague Spring”
Tony Barber, (Financial Times, 6/3/15)

“Russia and America: Stumbling to War”
Graham T. Allison, Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The National Interest, 4/20/15)

“When sanctions lead to war”
Paul Saunders, (The New York Times, 8/21/14)

“Finlandization is not a solution for Ukraine”
James Kirchick, (American Interest, 7/27/14)

“A Finland model for Ukraine?”
David Ignatius, (Washington Post, 5/20/14)



“Europe’s Populist Surge”

Cas Mudde (Foreign Affairs, November/December issue)

"The euro crisis and the French Revolution"

Matthew C. Klein (Financial Times, 9/28/16)

"The Terrorist Past Has a Message for the Terrorist Present"

Max Boot, (The Wall Street Journal, 7/27/16)

“Dense fog in the channel”
Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group, (The Boston Globe, 5/30/16)



“Financial panic or slow burn?”
Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group, (The Boston Globe, 2/15/16)

“The Pitfalls of external dependence: Greece, 1829-2015”
Carmen Reinhart (Member, Applied History Working Group) and Christoph Trebesch, (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Fall 2015 Conference)

“Lessons for Greece: Forcible currency conversions from 1982 to 2015”
Carmen Reinhart, Member, Applied History Working Group (Vox, 7/9/15)


Middle East

“A Westphalian Peace for the Middle East”

Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton (Foreign Affairs, 10/10/16)

“Five peace agreements to use as guides for a post-Islamic State Middle East”
David Ignatius, (Washington Post, 11/19/15)

“ISIS as revolutionary state”
Stephen Walt, Member, Applied History Working Group (Foreign Affairs, 11/12/15)

“Syria will be the next Vietnam-style war if Obama doesn’t learn from history”
Erik Goepner and A. Trevor Thrall, (Guardian, 11/6/15)

“Assessing an Iran deal: 5 Big Lessons from History”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The National Interest, 7/7/15)

“From Calvin to the Caliphate”
John M. Owen IV, (Foreign Affairs, 4/5/15)

“The Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War?”
Martin Zapfe, (International Relations and Security Network, 3/30/15)

“Will Syria be Obama’s Vietnam?”
Fredrik Logevall (Member, Applied History Working Group) and Gordon Goldstein, (The New York Times, 10/7/14)

“The New Thirty-Years War”
Richard Haass, (Project Syndicate, 7/21/14)

“What would JFK have done about Iran?”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group (CNN, 11/22/13)


Latin America

“Fidel Castro at Harvard: How history might have changed”
Graham T. Allison, Co-Director, Belfer Center; Chair, Applied History Working Group, (The Boston Globe, 4/22/15)


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)
  • 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)
  • Giambattista Vico: The First New Science (1725)
  • Gordon Wood: The Purpose of the Past (New York: Penguin, 2008)

A collection of articles that our project's curators identify as being most valuable to the Applied History discipline.

Week of March 13, 2017

“Killing a Program That Brings History to Life”

Drew Gilpin Faust (New York Times, 3/9/17)

President Faust defends the National Endowment for the Humanities in face of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the NEH, an organization that, as Faust argues, “nurtures our national soul” and “challenges us to reflect on our identities as citizens and as human beings, to ask profound questions about origins, legacies and meaning, to contemplate where we are going as individuals and as a society and why.”


Week of March 6, 2017

“Some Celtics didn't make it to the White House in 1984”

Dan Shaughnessy (Boston Globe, 3/7/17)

Amidst the whooping and hollering about the “unprecedented,” “unheard of,” and “shocking” decision by some Patriots players not to go to Trump’s White House, Shaughnessy points out that this is not new, not unprecedented, and not such a big deal. 


Week of February 27, 2017

“Trump Embraces ‘Enemy of the People,’ a Phrase With a Fraught History”

Andrew Higgins (New York Times, 2/26/17)

Higgins explores how the term “enemy of the people,” which President Trump used recently to describe the press, has troubling origins stretching from the French Revolution to Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet Union.


Week of February 20, 2017

“Where History is Being Made”

David Brooks (New York Times, 2/7/17)

Noting that “James and Deborah Fallows have always moved to where history is being made,” Brooks asks the “Fallows Question:” “If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?”


Week of February 13, 2017

“The Jacksonian Revolt”

Walter Russell Mead (Foreign Affairs, 3-4/17)

Mead argues that “the distinctively American populism Trump espouses is rooted in the thought and culture of the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson.”


Week of February 6, 2017

“When robots take jobs, workers deserve compensation”

John Thornhill (Financial Times, 12/27/16)

Pointing out that London’s ferrymen of the 16th century were compensated as new infrastructure disrupted their industry, Thornhill argues that workers displaced by technology today should also be provided some form of material support.


Week of January 30, 2017

“What’s Next for Steve Bannon and the Crisis in American Life”

David Kaiser (TIME, 2/3/17)

Kaiser recalls being interviewed by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon for a documentary made in 2009 titled “Generation Zero,” which was largely based on a theory of cyclical history laid out in the 1990s by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their two books, Generations and The Fourth Turning.


Week of January 23, 2017

“George Washington’s Farewell Warning”

John Avlon (Politico Magazine, 1/10/17)

Avlon remembers George Washington as “our only truly independent president,” whose farewell address “hearkens back to an age when distrust of political divisions was perhaps higher than it is now—and offers a solution to what ails us today.”


Week of January 16, 2017

“Is Trump’s rage at US intelligence unprecedented?”

Calder Walton, Member, Applied History Working Group (Prospect, 1/12/17)

Walton offers three presidential precedents for Trump’s rocky relationship with the intelligence community.


Week of January 9, 2017

“Into the world of 2017: Can we muddle through?”

Paul Kennedy (Tribune Content Agency, 12/26/16)

In Kennedy’s estimation, 2017 presents many dangers, but perhaps the West can “muddle through” as did Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s British empire in the 1890s.


Week of January 2, 2017

“2016's parallels with the revolutions of 1848”

Andrew Roberts (BBC, 12/20/16)

Roberts argues that “the nearest historical equivalent for the year 2016 is 1848, when a series of revolutions broke out one after the other, many of which were similar to each other but each of which was also subtly different, according to local circumstances.”


Week of December 26, 2016

“Trump Should Read India’s Playbook for Taunting China”

Jeff M. Smith (Foreign Policy, 12/20/16)

Smith points out that India has “poked” at China’s One-China Policy for years without ruining its relations with Beijing—a history offering clues for President-elect Trump.


Week of December 19, 2016

“Will Trump Play Spy vs. Spy?”

Evan Thomas (New York Times, 12/19/16)

Thomas details how the history of presidential “attempts to outflank or bully the bureaucracy” of American foreign policy and intelligence agencies “usually end badly.”


Week of December 12, 2016

“Andrew Jackson’s Lessons for Donald Trump”

Jon Meacham (TIME, 12/7/16)

Meacham considers Andrew Jackson as an analogue for President-elect Donald Trump, offering lessons from the seventh president’s fiery, populist political career—one that was also marked by a shrewd, restrained governing style.


Week of December 5, 2016

“75 years ago, what if Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor?”

Ishaan Tharoor (Washington Post, 12/7/16)

Tharoor reflects on the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the key decisions that led to the Japanese aerial raid. He argues that even without Pearl Harbor, U.S.-Japan conflict it would have been “quite likely that the two sides would have still clashed.”


Week of November 28, 2016

“Europe’s Populist Surge”

Cas Mudde (Foreign Affairs, November/December issue)

Mudde traces the origins of contemporary European populism to the 1960s.


Week of November 21, 2016

“Donald Trump’s New World Order”

Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group (American Interest, 11/21/16)

Ferguson details how President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy could be shaped by the recommendations of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.


Week November 14, 2016

“Thinking Historically: A Guide for Strategy and Statecraft”

Francis J. Gavin (War on the Rocks, 11/17/16)

Gavin describes how a “historical sensibility” can prove invaluable in the conduct of strategy and statecraft.


Week of November 7, 2016

“Donald Trump is the American Machiavelli”

David Ignatius (Washington Post, 11/10/16)

Ignatius argues that Donald Trump shares many of Machiavelli’s traits and instincts.


Week of October 31, 2016

“Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt”

George Packer (New Yorker, 10/31/16)

Packer offers a narrative analysis of the white working class’ decline in American society over the past 30 years, and explains how their grievances have shaped modern American populism.


Week of October 24, 2016

“America’s First ‘Rigged’ Presidential Election”

James Traub (Wall Street Journal, 10/28/16)

Traub illuminates the presidential election of 1824, in which Andrew Jackson decried that his opponent John Quincy Adams stole the election with his “Corrupt Bargain” with Henry Clay.


Week of October 17, 2016

“Learning from Past Counterterrorism Eras”

Daniel Byman (Lawfare, 11/14/16)

Byman examines several historical iterations of terrorism, including anarchist, anti-colonial, and state sponsored attacks.


Week of October 10, 2016

“A Westphalian Peace for the Middle East”

Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton (Foreign Affairs, 10/10/16)

Axworthy and Milton suggest that the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended Europe’s bloody and sectarian Thirty Years’ War, could serve as a model for order in the Middle East today.


Week of October 3, 2016

“Paranoid Republidents for Trump”

Niall Ferguson, Co-Director, Applied History Working Group (Boston Globe, 7/25/16)

Ferguson argues that Donald Trump skillfully has made use of what Richard Hofstadter more than 50 years ago called “The paranoid style in American politics.”


Week of September 26, 2016

"The euro crisis and the French Revolution"

Matthew C. Klein (Financial Times, 9/28/16)

Klein argues that a misunderstanding of the French Revolution may have contributed to poor French policymaking in the European Union today.


Week of September 19, 2016

"Déclassé: Nothing New Under the Sun"

Harold James (American Interest, 9/23/16)

James asserts that today's age of inequality and populism is nothing new, and explores answers to the question, "Can modern politicians learn from other historical instances how to cushion the economic blows of today’s technoglobalist disruptions?"


Week of September 12, 2016

"Putin goes full Orwell"

George Will (Washington Post, 9/14/16)

Will analyzes Vladimir Putin's troubling embrace of "post-factual politics."


Week of September 5, 2016

"A Teachable Moment for Two Students of Presidential History"

Jane Seagrave (Vineyard Gazette, 8/4/16)

Two noted presidential historians David Mccullough and Evan Thomas offer their take on the current race for the White House.


Week of August 29, 2016

"Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?"

Fredrik Logevall (Member, Applied History Working Group) and Kenneth Osgood, (New York Times, 8/29/16)

Logevall and Osgood offer a timely diagnosis of political history's decline in American colleges and universities, arguing for the field's revival. As they put it, "[k]nowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy 'lessons of the past.'"