Applied History Project

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. 

 

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.

February 6, 2023

Quote of the Week

“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, March 23, 1775.

(More Quotes »)



Article of the Week

This is Not 1943: How Putin Twists the History of World War II”—George Packer, The Atlantic, February 3, 2023.

Putin's distortions of World War II history are meant “to connect the past war to the present one, and in doing so to rouse Russian pride and warn his enemies of their coming doom.” George Packer warns of the pitfalls in using analogies.

(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: Fiona Hill, Paul Kennedy, Robert Zoellick, and Graham Allison.

Upcoming Events

More Applied History events coming soon.

 

Recent Events

Nathaniel L. Moir – Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare: Moir, Associate of the Applied History Project, joined Fredrik Logevall (Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume on Vietnam Embers of War) to discuss his new book Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare, which blends history and biography to challenge the traditional mode of thinking about the Vietnam War.

Victory at Sea: Paul Kennedy on How Naval Power Reshaped the WorldFocusing on his new book Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II, Paul Kennedy (J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, Yale University) explored how the great navies of WWII turned the globe upside down between 1936 and 1946—and what lessons this decade offers for the modern world.

Hal Brands – The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today: Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, discussed his new book The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today, which looks to the 20th century for lessons in how America can succeed in modern great-power competition. 

Niall Ferguson – Doom: The Politics of CatastropheThe Applied History Project's Co-Chair Niall Ferguson discussed his acclaimed new volume Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, a sweeping reflection on lessons learned from past successes—and failures—in crisis management. This project was born during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, and offers an illuminating vision for a post-COVID world.

Fiona Hill — There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century: Fiona Hill, former deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, shared her new memoir, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century. Hill spoke both about her personal journey from an impoverished English town to the White House, and about the tense state of affairs between Russia and the United States today.

Mary Elise Sarotte and Robert Zoellick — Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War StalemateMary Elise Sarotte presented her deeply researched new volume, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. In conversation with Robert Zoellick, one of the policymakers most deeply involved in post-Cold War diplomacy, Sarotte explored how the march toward NATO expansion in the 1990s laid the foundation for frosty US-Russia relations in the 21st century.

Fareed Zakaria – Lessons for Building Back Better: Zakaria’s candid assessments of the policies advocated over recent decades—and their impacts for good and ill—are bracing. Because we are little distanced from these events, Zakaria's assessments provide only a first draft of history—but they are a powerful demonstration of how even recent history can illuminate current choices.

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 Assistant

Peter Gaber

Fellows

Anne Karalekas, Resident Fellow, Applied History Project

Wess Mitchell, Non-Resident Fellow, Applied History Project

Ernest May Fellows 2022-2023

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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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 Axson 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 48,000 USD (for postdoctoral or advanced research fellows) or 38,000 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.

 

Please check back soon for more opportunities.

 

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
 

 

 

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 launched 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.

An advisory panel including historians from the Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and the University of Chicago assisted in screening. The top entry, as judged by the Foundation, won $10,000, and two runners-up won $5,000.

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

Prize winners:

  • Grand prize: Tony Craig, “‘...for peace comes dropping slow.’ Lessons from the middle in Northern Ireland’s peace process.”
     

    The Foundation determined that this essay best achieves the aims of the contest by drawing meaningful lessons from Northern Ireland’s peace process:

    “Those often derided as idealists or peaceniks (or business owners, clergy, sportspeople) are seen in the context of their wider societal intersections, offering more practical alternative perspectives than are usually realized. This essay seeks to highlight simply the margins of these groups’ contributions to peace in Northern Ireland both before and after 1998 in order to make one consider the potential of how similar actions can be promoted in civil society.”

    As members of the advisory panel noted, this essay “offers some of the most nuanced analysis of a specific historical analogy and artfully applies it to the present moment.”

    Tony Craig is associate professor in Modern History at Staffordshire University. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge.
     

  • Runners-up: 

    Aroop Mukharji, “Unity through Education: How America Can Heal its Wounds by Learning from its Past”

    The Foundation awards this essay a runner-up prize for its reflection on the similarities and differences between the challenge America faces today and the turmoil of the 1890s and early 1900s, and a compelling argument that “the turn of the century offers us one big idea to help… public education.”

    “A robust educational system undergirds progress, stability, and unity. Learning from the successes and failures of one of the most ambitious Progressive Era programs present us with one path forward.”

    Aroop Mukharji is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He received his PhD from Harvard Kennedy School, where he is an associate in the Applied History Project.


    **
     

    Matthijs Tieleman, “Lessons from the 18th-century Dutch Republic”

    The Foundation awards this essay a runner-up prize for its illuminating analysis of the similarities between the 18th century Dutch Republic and contemporary America, and although likely a longer-term remedy, its recommendation that “practically, citizens should be encouraged to envision themselves on a larger political canvass than just Democrat, Republican, or even independent.”

    “The history of the Netherlands serves as both a warning and an opportunity for the United States in its current polarized state. The Dutch lesson is that there is a way to achieve reconciliation and deal with the divisions that naturally arise in any society: the embrace of political pluralism.”

    Matthijs Tieleman is a historian and postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University. He received his PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

    **

    The Stanton Foundation would also like to recognize the submission it received from Katherine C. Epstein, “The Purple Pill: Charlottesville in Retrospect and Prospect.” While the essay does not identify a specific historical analogy, the Foundation agrees with the Selection Committee’s observation that “this piece offers a beautifully written meditation on the role of applied history and historians in healing the divisions between Americans.”


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.

Applying History to Illuminate Ukraine Crisis

The eruption of war in Ukraine—combined with Vladimir Putin’s dubious appeals to history to legitimize the assault—has swept away scholars’ hesitation to recognize the value of Applied History. With history now at the center of international politics, pundits, scholars, and policymakers alike have turned to the past to understand the origins of Putin’s act of aggression.

Applied History is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. While we cannot highlight all of the many commentaries plying this method toward the Ukraine crisis, see below for a select list of relevant works—including many by affiliates of the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project—organized by the key questions they can help policymakers answer. Indeed, it is clear that Applied History helps answer many of the questions relevant to decisions being made now, but also the questions leaders wish they could have answered before war broke out.

  • How should the US understand and respond to its tense relationship with modern Russia?

    • Fiona Hill, “The Kremlin’s Strange Victory,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2021.
      • Contrary to many Western expectations, Russia hasn’t become “more like us” since the end of the Cold War. Instead, the US has become more like Russia as populism, cronyism, and corruption have eroded the vitality of US democracy.
      • With Russian foreign policy driven primarily by Putin’s insecurities, the Cold War model of deterrence and limited engagement is no longer viable. Instead, our primary objective must be to make the US resilient against Russian opportunities to exploit our domestic divisions.
         
    • Graham Allison, “Good News from the Russian Front,” National Interest, December 24, 2021.
      • Despite enormous risks of nuclear proliferation when the Soviet Union collapsed, not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside the control of Russian authorities. The cooperation and strategic imagination evident in this success—such as in the Nunn-Lugar legislation—offer a promising precedent for tackling modern issues in the US-Russia relationship.
         
    • Mary Sarotte, “I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era.” New York Times, March 1, 2022.
      • The Cold War inculcated habits of engagement, deterrence, and deconfliction between the US and the Soviet Union. In the thirty years since the USSR collapsed, those habits have atrophied, making the war in Ukraine a potentially dangerous flashpoint for Western and Russian policymakers who have forgotten the lessons of the past.
  • Why is Putin so focused on Ukraine, and why now?

    • Fiona Hill, “Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It,” New York Times, January 24, 2022.
      • Putin is a master at manufacturing crises that can only end in a “win” for him; his maneuvers around Ukraine have put the Biden administration on the defensive, and he hopes to force agreement on a new security deal which will “evict the United States from Europe.”
      • Putin’s timing is not coincidental. He is obsessed with history, and he “believes that the United States is currently in the same predicament as Russia was after the Soviet collapse: grievously weakened at home and in retreat abroad.”
         
    • Sergey Radchenko, “Moscow Musings on Brinksmanship from Stalin to Putin,” War on the Rocks, February 22, 2022.
      • The behavior of Soviet leaders like Stalin and Khrushchev shows that seemingly irrational risks taken by Russia are not, after all, irrational. They are simply large, necessary risks in accordance with a distinctive understanding of Russia’s core interests.
      • The vastly diverging worldviews of the US and Russia mean that reason cannot bridge the gap between two sides—so the two players turn to force instead.
      • Injured pride plays a major role in Russian decisions today—including the impulse to give the Americans “a little of their own medicine,” prodding them at a time of national weakness to test their credibility and commitments.
      • As the US-China rivalry increasingly dominates global affairs, Putin is determined to claw back some of the influence in Eastern Europe that Soviet leaders took for granted.
  • What role does history play in Putin’s thinking on Ukraine?

    • Mary Sarotte, “Russia, Ukraine and the 30-year quest for a post-Soviet order,” Financial Times, February 25, 2022.
      • The war in Ukraine marks the end of the “post-Cold War order,” but the seeds of this conflict were sown even as the USSR was crumbling. Muddled US policy on NATO expansion in the 1990s created new grievances among former Soviet states not admitted to the alliance—and in Russian leaders like Putin, who resented encroaching Western influence on their borders.
         
    • Timothy Snyder, “Putin’s denial of Ukrainian statehood carries dark historical echoes,” Financial Times, February 23, 2022.
      • The Ukrainian identity has deep historical roots separate from Soviet or Russian influence; its growth was fostered over many years by people ethnically and linguistically Ukrainian.
      • Putin’s assault on Ukraine is based on a twisted understanding of Ukrainian history which argues that there is no Ukraine—but instead, only a part of Russia which is destined to be controlled by Russians.
         
    • Chris Miller, “Why Is Putin at War Again? Because He Keeps Winning.New York Times, February 25, 2022.
      • Russia’s military successes over the past fifteen years (in Georgia, Crimea, and Syria) demonstrate that the Russian military is a modern and threatening fighting force, capable of achieving political gains for Putin when he is willing to deploy limited force.
         
    • Niall Ferguson, “Joe Biden Has Only Days to Avoid Becoming Jimmy Carter,” Bloomberg, February 27, 2022.
      • Russian leaders who lose wars rarely survive for much longer; Putin knows this, and will be willing to ramp up violence against Ukrainian civilians to save his own skin.
  • Will Russia invade Ukraine?

    • Niall Ferguson, “Putin’s Ukrainian War Is About Making Vladimir Great Again,” Bloomberg, January 2, 2022.
      • Putin’s historical model in the Ukraine crisis is Tsar Peter the Great, who routed the powerful Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in Ukraine. Putin is bent on recovering the rising glory reminiscent of Peter’s Russia—and will therefore invade Ukraine, regardless of what threats the West makes.
      • Even though Russia’s economy is relatively small, consider that the Axis Powers’ GDPs in 1939, added together, barely equaled US GDP; it is not necessary to be an economic “Goliath” to start a war.
         
    • Natia Seskuria, “Russia Is Reenacting Its Georgia Playbook in Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, February 22, 2022.
      • Putin’s devious tactics in the 2008 invasion of Georgia—such as conducting military “exercises” nearby, falsely announcing a withdrawal of forces just before attacking, and pushing disinformation about “genocide” against ethnic Russians—demonstrate that his moves around Ukraine are pretext for a larger attack.
  • When will Russia invade Ukraine?

    • Graham Allison, “Opportunity for Diplomacy: No Russian Attack Before February 20,” National Interest, February 4, 2022.
      • Over the last fifteen years, Xi and Putin have cultivated a deep and consequential relationship, with cooperation ranging across military, diplomatic, and economic levels. Putin would not dare endanger this strategic relationship by invading Ukraine before February 20—the date of the closing ceremony for Xi’s carefully staged 2022 Beijing Olympics.
  • Will Russia be successful in subjugating Ukraine?

    • Casey Michel, “The Lesson Stalin Could Teach Putin About Invading a Neighbor,” Politico, February 14, 2022.
      • Stalin manufactured an excuse for war against Finland in 1939, staging a false flag attack which was barely credible as an act of Finnish aggression, given Finland’s miniscule size in comparison to the USSR. A massive Soviet assault on Finland, anticipated to capture Helsinki in a matter of days, failed miserably as the Finns put up a brave fight to preserve Finnish independence; after months of war, Stalin succeeded in taking only nine percent of Finnish territory—and Putin can expect a similarly difficult fight in Ukraine, which is ten times larger than 1939 Finland and resentful of Russia’s recent incursions.
      • A failed invasion of Ukraine, as it did in Finland, may push Ukrainians away from Russia and deeper into engagement with the West.
  • How should the US respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

    • Niall Ferguson, “Joe Biden Has Only Days to Avoid Becoming Jimmy Carter,” Bloomberg, February 27, 2022.
      • Kissinger’s tactics in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 offer a playbook for Biden on Ukraine: ensure the Ukrainians receive enough US arms to avert defeat, seize the diplomatic initiative to ensure that the US will be the broker of any negotiated peace, and be willing to use nuclear saber-rattling to intimidate Moscow.
         
    • Niall Ferguson, “The Fates of Ukraine and Putin Turn on 7 Forces of History,” Bloomberg, March 9, 2022.
      • The elevation of US nuclear forces to Defcon 3 during the Yom Kippur War successfully deterred the Soviets from sending troops to aid their Arab allies against Israel; the Biden administration should not let modern Russian nuclear threats pass unanswered, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness.
         
    • Edward Luce, “Biden should use cold war handbook to stop Putin’s Ukraine threat,” Financial Times, February 11, 2022.
      • The Carter administration successfully averted an invasion of Poland in 1980 as Soviet troops massed on the eastern Polish border. Although Putin is far stronger today than the Soviets in 1980—and although China was newly friendly to the US after normalizing relations in 1979—Biden can draw lessons from how the US government threatened dramatic economic consequences and convinced Brezhnev that an invasion of Poland would be too costly.
         
    • Chris Miller, “Why Is Putin at War Again? Because He Keeps Winning.New York Times, February 25, 2022.
      • The West must address its unforced error of allowing Russia to outpace it militarily in Eastern Europe, taking steps such as increasing military spending—rather than simply relying on soft power and economic influence.
         
    • Mike Pietrucha and Mike Benitez, “The Dangerous Allure of the No-Fly Zone,” War on the Rocks, March 4, 2022.
      • The history of no-fly zones imposed in Iraq, Kosovo, and Bosnia demonstrates that this tool is not the surgical, low-risk option many have pushed for in Ukraine; advanced weapons technology makes no-fly zones exceedingly difficult and dangerous for the party fielding aircraft.
      • Russian airpower has not yet posed a major threat to Ukraine; for this reason (and because a no-fly zone may inadvertently escalate the conflict), a no-fly zone is an inappropriate tool for the West to deploy.
         
    • America returns to containment to deal with Russia and China,” Economist, March 14, 2022.
      • George Kennan’s theory of containment is experiencing a rapid revival in Western capitals, and the US refusal to militarily confront Russia in Ukraine reiterates that containment must often operate by indirect or non-violent means.
      • The dual threat of China and Russia requires a nuanced US strategy for the coming years; isolating and pressuring Russia may pay dividends by incentivizing China to distance itself from Putin.
  • Will sanctions stop Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

    • Nicholas Mulder, “How America Learn to Love (Ineffective) Sanctions,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2022.
      • Truly effective sanctions are not “peaceful” tools: they are modeled on the economic blockade imposed against the Central Powers in World War I, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
      • Sanctions are rarely effective tools on their own, especially against large, strong states capable of weathering their effects.
      • Economic pressure via sanctions can backfire by stoking nationalist resentment, causing such pain that the targeted populations succumb to chaos, or goading the targeted state into outright war.
         
    • Paul Kennedy, “The Limits of Sanctions, From Abyssinia to Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2022.
      • From the interwar history of sanctions as an alternative tool to war, it is clear that sanctions are far more effective against small, nearly powerless states—and rarely effective against large, powerful states with authoritarian leaders who can mobilize all national assets to counteract the effect of sanctions.
      • Sanctions will similarly be ineffective if they are mild and intended “to show disapproval rather than to punish”; if there are large financial or commercial loopholes in the sanctions; or if a great power steps in to supply or purchase from the targeted state.
      • Sanctions may backfire by encouraging authoritarian leaders to develop economic independence from an integrated global system.
         
    • Niall Ferguson, “The Fates of Ukraine and Putin Turn on 7 Forces of History,” Bloomberg, March 9, 2022.
      • As in World War I, when the Allied nations imposed a blockade on Germany, sanctions will not be enough on their own to stop Putin—especially for a nation like Russia which, in the Soviet past, demonstrated its capacity for autarky.
  • What role will China play in the Ukraine crisis?

    • Sergey Radchenko, “Sergey Radchenko, an expert on Russia’s foreign relations, writes on its evolving friendship with China,” Economist, February 15, 2022.
      • During the Cold War, the USSR expected deference from China as the “junior partner” in the Sino-Soviet alliance, which ultimately proved fatal since Mao was unwilling to defer; Xi has learned this strategic lesson and treats his junior partner, Putin, virtually as an equal—meaning that their flexible, anti-Western alignment will likely endure for some time.
         
    • Graham Allison, “Ukraine Crisis: Will China Have Putin’s Back?National Interest, February 25, 2022.
      • If China chooses to align itself with Russia and the invasion of Ukraine, it faces the prospect of a Cold War-like alliance of Western and Asian powers aligned against it; the Chinese government will also be put in the uncomfortable position of defending a blatant violation of its own principles of “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
      • Nevertheless, Xi’s carefully crafted partnership with Putin is operationally significant for both countries. When push comes to shove, China will have Putin’s back.
  • What are the broader implications of a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

    • Niall Ferguson, “Investors Are Often the First Casualties of War,” Bloomberg, February 20, 2022.
      • Major wars in the past have dramatically impacted financial markets, but we have forgotten this history based on the lesser impacts of smaller conflicts like the Gulf War, the wars in the Balkans, and the Russian annexation of Crimea, which have been overshadowed by monetary expansions that followed the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
      • War in Ukraine would be far more impactful than even the Afghanistan or Iraq War, primarily because of the dramatic consequences of Western sanctions on Russia. Even more consequential, Russian success in conquering Ukraine could drive China to attack Taiwan—with dire financial consequences, should China win (and unseat the US dollar as a safe and strong investment) or should the US come to Taiwan’s aid (and begin a massive international war).
         
    • Niall Ferguson, “The Fates of Ukraine and Putin Turn on 7 Forces of History,” Bloomberg, March 9, 2022.
      • Popular fervor in support of independence movements—whether Britons rallying in support of the Greeks in the 1820s or Americans cheering on Ukraine today—has little effect on the outcome of a war; its only effect is to pressure political leaders to take action.
      • History repeatedly demonstrates that war is the most common cause of spiking inflation—and the war in Ukraine comes atop extant inflation driven by excessive stimulus in 2021.
         
    • Sarah Bidgood, “A New Nuclear Arms Race Is a Real Possibility,” Foreign Policy, March 15, 2022.
      • The Cuban Missile Crisis profoundly affected nuclear arms control for decades by instilling deep mistrust between Washington and Moscow, sparking progress on arms control ideas which had already been proposed, and inciting a rapid increase in both American and Soviet nuclear stockpiles. Given the paltry efforts at arms control between the US and Russia in recent years, the Ukraine crisis may further chill prospects for nuclear arms control.

Book Reviews from our Applied History Newsletter

December 2022 Book Reviews

  • Kagan Reexamines U.S. Reluctance to Assume the Role of a Great Power

    In 1919, British diplomat Harold Nicolson described the United States as “‘the ghost at all our feasts.’” Robert Kagan (Stephen and Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow, Project on International Order and Strategy, Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution) has written The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941, exploring four decades during which the United States, despite its comparative, even dominant, economic strength, chose to remain mostly distant from international power politics. Paul Kennedy (J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, Director of International Security Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, Yale University) writes in the Wall Street Journal, that Kagan’s work “is a professional historian’s product through and through, sharply focused on its period and supported by amazingly detailed endnotes, plus a huge bibliography.” Further, Kennedy states, “Mr. Kagan’s account is probably the most comprehensive, and most impressive, recent analysis we have of how Americans regarded the outside world and its own place in it during those four critical decades.” The strength of the book – “neither strictly a diplomatic history nor an analysis of the unfolding of American grand strategy (if it ever had one) in those unusual years” – lies with both the details of presidential decision-making and official actions and “even greater analysis of the swirls of U.S. public opinion, the arguments of the press and pundits, the evidence in Gallup polls, and the ever-important actions of senators and congressmen.” Kagan argues that “Only when all these elements are taken together… can one see the way the American mind was going.” Contributing to the country’s disposition to avoid international entanglements were “very strong public strains of antisemitism, fears of Communism, a loathing of Wall Street and a deep suspicion of British and French imperialism.” “Yet,” as Kennedy states, “America was not completely isolationist, and its leaders did not intend to be taken for granted…It was bigger than anyone else; it couldn’t be intimidated, and if America were compelled to take military action abroad, no one – isolationist or interventionist – imagined that it could be defeated. America was unique and America was unpredictable.” Economic strength set the country apart. While France, Germany, Britain, and Italy dominated the stage of international power politics, “throughout the period—not just as World War II came to an end—American economic power was vastly bigger than anyone else’s. In the market-crash year of 1929, for example, America’s GDP was more than three times as large as Germany’s or Britain’s, and more than seven times bigger than that of Japan’s.” As the rumbles of war began in Asia and Europe in the 1930’s, the United States remained uninvolved. In contrast to the U.S. stance since the end of World War II, “Back then, even though America had the economic muscle, it didn’t want to use it to enforce its vision of the world. This left everyone else wanting to know what it might do.” Kagan argues that “the American populace would have it no other way.” Not until Pearl Harbor did the country unleash its economic might, and “Far from being the ghost at the feast, America demanded the central position at the councils of power.”  Kennedy credits Kagan with avoiding “‘lessons’” about appeasement or to argue that the U.S. should have acted differently,” while cautiously exploring an alternative post-1919 world order, had the United States joined with other democracies. Kennedy writes, “Mr. Kagan’s arguments are not new, as his references to existing literature show; he simply puts things together better and more thoroughly than most. He pays generous tribute to Zara Steiner’s brilliant book, ‘The Triumph in the Dark’ (2010) and to John A. Thompson’s shrewd study ‘A Sense of Power’ (2015). Neither the nation’s policymakers nor its public had any fear of defeat, or even of invasion, these scholars argue. The only question was whether America would ever feel the need to enter distant conflicts and sort them out.” Concluding, Kennedy offers this historical perspective, “Probably no other people since the Romans in the age of Augustus had felt so secure and unperturbed about the outside world. Now, when America wields its power like Rome across the globe, its leaders are not nearly so sanguine.”

  • Costigliola Delineates Kennan’s Separate Worlds

    Like the tumultuous years of the Cold War, the life and work of George F. Kennan, one of the era’s defining figures, remains a rich reservoir for Applied Historians. A new full-scale biography, Kennan: A Life Between Worlds by Frank Costigliola (Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, University of Connecticut) examines the diplomat, historian, and public intellectual who is most closely identified with the doctrine of containment, only to become its critic as the policy, initially focused on advancing the West’s economic and political objectives, gave way to militarizing the competition with the Soviet Union. Fredrik Logevall (Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs and Professor of History, Harvard University) writes in Foreign Affairs, “This transformation in Kennan’s thinking is especially resonant today, in an era that many analysts are calling the early stages of yet another cold war, with U.S.-Russian relations in a deep freeze and China playing the role of an assertive Soviet Union. If the analogy is correct, then it bears asking: How did Kennan’s thinking change? And does his evolution hold lessons for his successors as they forge policy for a new era of conflict?” Of Costigliola’s work, Logevall states, “It is an absorbing, skillfully wrought, at times frustrating book, more than half of which is focused on the diplomat’s youth and early career. Costigliola’s unmatched familiarity with the diaries is on full display, and although he does not shy away from quoting from some of their more unsavory parts, his overall assessment is sympathetic.” Kennan’s formative years were defined by his “passion for pre-revolutionary Russia and its culture” and by his time as a junior Foreign Service officer in the late 1920s and early 1930s, serving in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Moscow, a period when he learned the Russian language, began developing his world view, and “worked to the point of exhaustion to establish himself as the premier Soviet expert in the Foreign Service.” Early on, Kennan’s feelings about the Russian people as “warm and generous” were distinct from his opinions of Marxist-Leninist ideology and Russian communism, which he speculated “was headed toward ultimate disintegration, on account of its disregard for individual expression, spirituality, and human diversity.” His view of Western capitalism was equally critical, “it was characterized by systemic overproduction, crass materialism, and destructive individualism. He disliked and distrusted the ‘rough and tumble’ of his own country’s democracy and longed for rule by an ‘intelligent, determined, ruling minority.’” Other than a brief Washington assignment in 1942, he remained in Europe during the war, with posts in Berlin and Lisbon. Rejecting the possibility of long-term cooperation with the Soviet Union, he favored defined spheres of influence on the European continent. To Costigliola’s assertion that the Cold War “need not have happened and, having broken out, need not have lasted as long as it did,” Logevall responds, “The argument is less novel than the book implies, but the author is certainly correct that “‘the story of Kennan’s life demands that we rethink the Cold War as an era of possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy, not the inevitable series of confrontations and crises we came to see.’” On Kennan’s evolving perspective, Logevall suggests that the narrative arc—his apparent lack of awareness of the deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations and shifting policy views as early as the fall of 1945; his objection to the expansive commitment, real and implied, of the Truman Doctrine in 1947; and his reversal in 1948 from having opposed negotiations with the Soviet Union to advocating them—would have benefited from broader discussion of the historical context against which Kennan’s thinking was playing out. Kennan left his position as director of the State Department’s newly created Policy Planning Staff in 1950, having become critical of “the militarization of containment and the apparent abandonment of diplomacy in Truman’s Soviet policy” and, in the process, became marginalized as he advocated negotiations with the Soviet Union. Subsequently, he served twice as ambassador, briefly in Moscow in 1952, and a longer stint in Yugoslavia under President John F. Kennedy.

    During the following fifty years, based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Kennan pursued his second career as an historian and public intellectual. “Costigliola is consistently fascinating here, even if he is less interested in Kennan’s writings and policy analysis than in his deep and deepening alienation from modern society and his strenuous efforts to curate his legacy.” The fascinations rest with Kennan’s psyche and preoccupations. Logevall summarizes, despite the accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received from President George H.W. Bush, “More and more as the years passed, Kennan felt underappreciated… On more days than not, he was a Cassandra, despairing at the state of the world and his place in it, worried about how he would be remembered.” He did not take satisfaction from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather, he was frustrated that the Cold War went on so long and concerned that “Washington risked inciting Russian nationalism and militarism with its support for NATO expansion into former Soviet domains.” At age 98 he publicly opposed the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. “The history of U.S. foreign relations, he told the press, showed that although ‘you may start a war with certain things on your mind…in the end you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.’” Societal issues both engaged and provoked him. The abuses of industrialization and urbanization and the need to restore “‘the proper relationship between Man and Nature’” led him to become an early proponent of environmental protection. “And all the while, his antimodernism showed a retrograde side, as he looked askance at feminism, gay rights, and his country’s increasing ethnic and racial diversity.” Democracy was a continuing source of skepticism and despair. “That American democracy was in its essence a messy, fractious, pluralistic enterprise, with hard bargaining based on mutual concessions and with noisy interest groups jockeying for influence, he never fully grasped.” In his conclusion Logevall answers a question he posed at the outset, assessing Kennan’s contribution to both the past and the present: “What he did understand was diplomacy and statecraft…He was not always consistent; he got some things wrong. But as a critic of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, in the Cold War and beyond, Kennan had few if any peers. For he grasped realities that have lost none of their potency in the almost two decades since his death—about the limits of power, about the certainty of unintended consequences in war-making, about the prime importance of using good-faith diplomacy with adversaries to advance U.S. strategic interests. Understanding the growth and projection of American power over the past century and its proper use in this one, it may truly be said, means understanding this “‘life between worlds.’”

  • Wehrman Credits Smallpox Inoculations with Winning the American Revolution

    The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution (Johns Hopkins, 2022) by Andrew M. Wehrman (Associate Professor of History, Central Michigan University) “weaves together dozens of individual stories and their layered historical contexts to provide a fascinating account of smallpox in America, from colonial times through the early republic,” writes Mark G. Spencer (Professor of History, Brock University) in the Wall Street Journal. The title of the book draws from the words of historian Bernard Bailyn, “who wrote that the Revolution originated in, and then thrived on, the ‘contagion of liberty.’” Themes of public reaction to inoculation, access across demographic and racial groups, and political freedom thread through Wehrman’s narrative and resonate today. Smallpox, highly contagious and deadly, “was one of the 18th century’s most feared diseases, affecting cities around the world and ravaging early American urban centers in recurring waves.” In Europe, a century before, “a procedure of inoculation had emerged that involved taking a small amount of pus from an infected person and injecting it into a healthy person’s arm. If successful, the procedure would produce a mild case of the disease from which the patient would survive, immunity intact.” But, like today, inoculation provoked controversy, including debates in newspapers and in colonial town meetings. In Philadelphia in 1736, Benjamin Franklin, then in his newspaper publisher phase, issued a statement dispelling the rumors that his son had died from inoculation. “The truth was that the boy had contracted the disease naturally,” states Spencer. Franklin, who supported inoculation, “long regretted bitterly” that, although it had been his intention to have his son inoculated, he had not arranged for the preventative in time. As Americans developed alternative approaches to creating immunity, including mercury as a component of inoculation, debates erupted about universal inoculation versus private elective options with associated concerns about cost barriers. The central event in Wehrman’s narrative occurs during the Revolutionary War. George Washington, who had contracted smallpox as a young man and recovered, first resisted “wide-scale inoculation of his army, fearing ‘an uncontrollable epidemic.’” His decision to order inoculations, states Spencer, “came only after Washington’s soldiers, officers and doctors demanded it,” and “His actions ‘signaled that the leadership of this new country would answer to its people.’” Quoting Wehrman, “‘widespread acceptance of inoculation had been forged in the same fire as the Revolution, steeped in its language, and animated by the same popular political participation.’” However, for African-Americans of the period, “who were by and large denied access to inoculation, ‘their pursuit of freedom required them to brave fast-spreading natural smallpox.’ They died by the thousands.” The 19th century brought the introduction of cowpox vaccination to America, which eliminated the need for isolation since the vaccinated were not contagious. Nonetheless, Wehrman asserts, “‘the Revolutionary War was won only by conquering smallpox first’ and that doing so was a communal effort.”  Spencer concludes, “For Mr. Wehrman, there remains unfinished business. ‘The American Revolution’… ‘will only be achieved with equality in health, and that requires an ongoing, all-in public effort to spread the contagion of liberty.’”

  • Gingeras Tells a Different Story on the Making of Atatürk’s Turkey

    Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Ottoman Empire, the once expansive, seven-hundred-year-old colossus that had encompassed the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, making way for the creation of the new nation state of Turkey. In his Daily Telegraph (London) review of The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1922 by Ryan Gingeras (Professor, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School), Noel Malcolm (Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford) writes, “The popular view of what happened in Turkey in 1922 is that the effete old order, personified by the Sultan and his courtier-politicians and defended only by reactionaries, was finally swept aside, as the modernizers and secularisers, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, took over. This was the moment when Atatürk’s huge programme of Westernizing reforms could finally get under way, dragging Turkey into the 20th century.” The purpose of the book, Malcolm continues, “is to show just how appallingly complex the political situation was in Turkey in the years after the war, and thus how impossible it was for anyone to form a clear, feasible plan of what sort of a country it could or should become.” The complexities originated more than a century before. By the mid-nineteenth century the former colossus had diminished, the result of nationalist movements and rival colonial ambitions. During this period, “huge numbers of Muslim refugees had poured into the Turkish heartland…many, expelled from their homelands by Christian forces, brought with them a new hostility towards Christians—including the Greeks, Armenians and Christian Arabs of the Turkish heartland itself. If those Christians had at first embraced the idea of a multi-religion Ottoman national identity, they soon had fewer and fewer reasons to stick with it.” During World War I the sultanate sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In defeat, Istanbul was occupied by the Allies. The following year the allies allowed the Greek army to seize Smyrna (Izmir), an ancient Greek territory, but also a strategically located Aegean port, stirring Turkish nationalism. Under the leadership of Atatürk, a former Ottoman commander, the nationalists gathered an army to regain control of the area. Fighting continued when the nationalists rejected the Treaty of Sèvres, which provided for an independent Armenia and an autonomous Kurdistan in addition to assigning France and Britain mandates for the empire’s main Arab provinces. Finally, an armistice was signed in 1922, the sultanate was abolished, and the allies recognized Turkey’s independence. Malcolm concludes, “Ryan Gingeras tells this story as clearly as the density of developments will allow; he takes an evenhanded approach to each issue, while never making light of the horrendous tally of human suffering that emerges on every side. Turks have long been treated to an over-simplified account of their modern history. This book teaches the beginning of wisdom, which is that most human history, as it actually happened, was a terrible, bewildering mess.” A recurring lesson for Applied Historians.

November 2022 Reviews

  • Miller’s Chip War Wins Acclaim, Including FT’s Best Business Book of 2022

    Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller (Associate Professor of International History, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University), an account of the global battle for semiconductor supremacy, has earned high praise across broad readership categories. The Financial Times named it the Best Business of Book of 2022. In making the announcement, “Roula Khalaf, editor of the FT and chair of the book award judging panel, said, “‘The fight for semiconductors and the quest for supply chain resilience are among the biggest economic and business stories of our time and will be for much of the near future.’” Both The New Yorker and The Economist included Chip War on their lists of the best non-fiction books for the year. As of this writing, it is the #1 Best Seller in National and International Security on Amazon. As Chris noted in the November 14 meeting of the Applied History Working Group, the book, in its essence, is in essence Applied History. It began as a study of the technology dimension of the Cold War. It grew to argue that “semiconductors have defined the world we live in, determining the shape of international politics, the structure of the world economy, and the balance of military power.” Writing In the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan (contributing writer at Wired and author) termed the book “a non-fiction thriller.” She summarizes the story arc, beginning in mid-1950’s Silicon Valley, “the ancestral home of semiconductors,” through decades of intersecting dynamics between technology and great power rivalry, to the present global dependency on Taiwan’s chip production and the consequent geopolitical risks. In between, we learn about key figures and sharp turns of events: The prediction by George E. Moore, an early Valley electronics engineer who later ran Intel, “…that the number of transistors that an engineer could cram on a chip of silicon would double about every two years…Sixty years ago, four transistors could fit on a chip. Today some 11.8 billion can.”  In the 1960’s the Soviet Union’s refusal to give Soviet scientists the freedom to “pursue their own passions” doomed their effort to compete in the chip game. Europe’s failure to grasp the importance of transistors in the same period was somewhat remedied two decades later by the Netherlands’ “breakthrough in chip engineering, with the invention of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, a heart-stoppingly precise technology that continued to shrink transistors when the progress of miniaturization temporarily stalled.” Akio Morita, who “pioneered the use of chips in consumer economics” and Sony, the company he cofounded, became major forces in propelling the postwar revival of the Japanese economy, “chiefly by selling products like the Walkman to American markets.” And, “In what would prove a terrible error,” after Morris Chang, a leader of Texas Instruments’ advances in chip-making since 1958, was passed over for the position of C.E.O in the early 80’s, he accepted the Taiwanese Government’s invitation and “established TSMC [Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] as a set of fabs [semiconductor fabrication plants] only -- making chips for other companies and no finished electronics.” Chang’s strategy allowed TSMC to “focus on increasing efficiency in the fabs, while working with the biggest chip designers, particularly Apple.” TSMC is now the world’s largest producer of semiconductors, the main supplier for large tech-companies, and, along with a few other producers, a linchpin in the global supply chain. As to the future, “Then there is China.”  Miller observed that China has been spending more money importing chips than it is spending on oil, the result of President Xi Jinping’s decision to attempt the creation of an essentially autonomous semiconductor industry, much as he “created a full-fledged authoritarian internet by building dupes of American tech companies like Google and Facebook (while banning the originals), and by allowing others into China only if they submit to its censorship policies.” Today, Heffernan writes, “Xi Jinping’s China has failed … to grab its expected share of the chip market,” now producing “15 percent of the world’s silicon chips, according to Miller’s statistics, compared to Japan’s 17 percent and Taiwan’s whopping 41 percent. With massive government investment, China is seeking to increase its self-sufficiency and market share – while the United States has also committed to increasing domestic production with the Chips Act. Amid the intensifying global competition between China and the U.S., new TSMC and Samsung Electronics factories in Arizona and Texas are statements of America’s partnerships with Taiwan and South Korea. Heffernan writes, “As “‘Chip War’” makes clear, the clash of resounding arms between autocracy and democracy is powered by silicon chips. In this clash, Taiwan is currently the unlikely epicenter of technology, global economics and China’s high-stakes rivalry with the West.” She concludes, “If any book can make general audiences [understand] the silicon age – and finally recognize how it rivals the atomic age for drama and import – “‘Chip War’” is it.

  • Meacham Writes a Lincoln for Our Times

    As biographer, public intellectual, and more recently, Presidential adviser, Jon Meacham has long been both an advocate and practitioner of Applied History. His new book, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, “offers an account of the life of the United States’ 16th president that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times,” writes John Fabian Witt (Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law, Yale University Law School) in the Washington Post. Meacham, an adherent of American exceptionalism, “aims to recraft a usable mythology of Lincoln for political leaders in the 21st century, when dissension and loose talk of civil war have returned.” Meacham not only frames an Applied History analogy; he does the work of an Applied Historian. Slavery and Lincoln’s tortuous efforts to find a way forward lie at the center of Meacham’s story and with it “rebellion by a White national minority chafing against the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to equality for all people. Lincoln’s experience reverberates into our own era of anxious White voters and new threats of insurrection.” According to Witt, “Two big ideas about Lincoln and politics animate the book. The first is that statecraft, when practiced as Lincoln practiced it, is a noble art.” Meacham “aims to persuade us that leadership in a democracy is a distinctive and indispensable moral enterprise – a kind of high-wire act of pragmatic compromise on the one hand and moral principle on the other.” Lincoln was firmly opposed to the extension of slavery into the Western states. But, quoting Meacham, he was “‘not a full-time reformer but an office-seeker,’ not ‘a preacher but a politician.’” This meant that he played to the prejudices of those whose votes he was seeking. For example, “When he described slavery’s wrongfulness, he focused on its threat to White voters and their families,” believing that it was easier to convince a large segment of the population that slavery was “‘a baleful evil to them…than to possess them with the idea that it is a cruel wrong to the enslaved.’” Despite his deep conviction that slavery was wrong, he “disappointed abolitionists time and again. He deferred emancipation until the third year of the war, and even then he relied on military necessity rather than the justice of the thing as the basis for his decision.” The second theme in Meacham’s work “is the vitality of religious faith as a guiding force in politics, even and perhaps especially in moments of acute pressure.” Like other biographers, Meacham accepts Lincoln’s view of himself “as an actor in a providential drama,” and the book “captures the religious framework with which Lincoln approached the most difficult decisions of his presidency.” Having decided on emancipation in the summer of 1862 and having received conflicting guidance from religious leaders, he vowed to use the outcome of the Battle of Antietam as “an indication of Divine will.” After the Union army held off Robert E. Lee’s massive assault with casualties that remain the largest loss of life in a single day in American military history, “Lincoln read the grim victory as a sign” and issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days later. While Witt acknowledges that “The belief that God has chosen a nation to carry forward the plan of history has been a dangerous tenet for millennia,” he states that Meacham “makes a good case for Lincoln’s calculus of noble compromise.” In closing, Witt poses the essential question for “our forbidding 21st century wilderness.” He asks, “Can Lincoln do the work that Meacham sets for him?” His answer, “Faced with such challenges, we owe it to one another to pray we do our best. And that is Meacham’s deadly serious point.”

  • Gage Reassesses and Reinterprets J. Edgar Hoover

    G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century is, as its title suggests, a work of both biography and history, by Beverly Gage (professor of history and American studies, Yale University). The book reveals the complexities of a man reviled and assesses his life and work in the political and bureaucratic context of nearly fifty years, during which he served eight presidents, four Democrats and four Republicans. Of her subject, Gage writes, “‘We cannot know our own story without understanding his, in all its high aspiration and terrible cruelty, and in its many human contradictions.’” The first new biography of Hoover in nearly three decades, the book is also the first with access to previously classified sources, including material from the Verona project’s decryption of Soviet cable traffic and Hoover’s office logs, appointment books, and other confidential files. As Kai Bird (Historian and Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography), writing in the Washington Post, notes, “This new material is simply stunning, and Gage uses it to write a highly nuanced – sometimes even sympathetic – account of the man.” The contradictions abound. “Hoover was a racist who spent much of his career trying to break the Ku Klux Klan. He believed that bringing Southern lynch mobs to justice would shore up faith in federal power. By the 1940s, he had become “‘the darling of the New Deal establishment.’” Bird also notes, “Hoover thought of Richard Nixon as a personal friend and political soul mate, but he hated John Birchers and Second Amendment absolutists.” While Gage humanizes Hoover, she is also “relentless in her judgments” of his excesses, including the wiretapping campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. and the COINTELPRO counterintelligence program, designed to infiltrate and disrupt the Communist Party in the United States, which over a period of fifteen years metastasized to target civil rights groups, anti-Vietnam protesters, feminist organizers, and others deemed subversive. However, Hoover was, “No loose cannon.” Presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson authorized his activities, and “he regularly briefed the White House and Congress on COINTELPRO.” Bird writes, “Hoover’s highest ideal was the nonpartisan public servant, dedicated to burnishing the notion that the federal government was a force for good. And yet by the ‘60’s, Gage shows, Hoover’s reactionary instincts prevailed, and his actions helped to sow distrust of the federal government from both the right and the left.”

    Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai (Non-Fiction Book Critic, New York Times) summarizes Gage’s rejection of Hoover as an F.B.I. director operating outside White House and Justice Department boundaries, “by casting him as a “‘rogue actor’”…we neglect to see Hoover for who he really was—less an outsider to the so-called postwar consensus than an integral part of it.”  Szalai continues, “This book doesn’t rescue Hoover’s reputation but instead complicates it, deepening our understanding of him and by extension, the country he served.” Hoover began his government career at the F.B.I.’s precursor, the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 and “imposed ‘a culture of technical skill, professionalism, and nonpartisan administration,’ while never entirely abandoning the prejudices that were familiar to him.” She notes, “part of what makes ‘G-Man’ such a fascinating book is how much attention Gage pays to Hoover’s other side – that of the consummate bureaucrat who was determined to modernize and professionalize the F.B.I.” For most of his career he was a popular figure. It was not until the early 70’s that Hoover became the caricature that has lingered in historical memory. However, the revelations of COINTELPRO in 1971 shattered his centrist liberal admirers, “seeing themselves as innocents duped by a conniving schemer who had run amok.” Soon thereafter, as post-Watergate emotions ran high, the Church Committee revelations of the FBI’s illegal break-ins or “‘black bag jobs’” further hardened opinions against him. Szalai concludes, “This is a humanizing biography, but I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic one – as Gage shows, Hoover accrued too much power and racked up too many abuses for him to be worthy of that. What she provides instead is an acknowledgement of the complexities that made Hoover who he was, while also charting the turbulent currents that eventually swept him aside.”
     

  • Paul Delineates Daniel Webster’s Nationalism

    In the decades of bitter division preceding the Civil War, the struggle between regionalism, created by the forces of slavery, and nationalism left the premise of the Union open to question and with it, interpretations of the Constitution.  During this period, Daniel Webster was the most passionate and influential proponent of political unity. Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism by Joel Richard Paul (Professor of Constitutional and International Law, University of California Hastings College of the Law) “describes the extraordinary political ascent of the man who was known as the ‘Godlike Daniel’ and widely hailed as America’s greatest orator. Webster’s career also serves as the armature for Mr. Paul’s analysis of the forces that shaped American nationalism during the first half of the 19th century,” states Fergus M. Bordewich (Writer, Historian and Editor) in the Wall Street Journal. A brilliant attorney who made his mark in Massachusetts, Webster became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. Senator for nineteen years, and later, twice served as Secretary of State under John Tyler in the 1840s and Millard Fillmore in the early 1850s. “Whigs such as Webster generally believed that government should act to spur commerce, public education, the growth of capital, and modern transportation by road and rail. Whigs in the North tended to disfavor slavery, although they held that the federal government lacked the constitutional power to interfere with it where it existed.”  In Paul’s book, two dramatic events, the Nullification Crisis and the Fugitive Slave Act, define Webster amid the political turbulence of his time. In 1832 John C. Calhoun, Democrat of South Carolina, then vice president under Andrew Jackson, opposed the federal imposition of tariffs in 1828 and 1832, arguing that the Constitution gave the states a right to block or “nullify” the enforcement of federal law. Paul credits Webster “with persuading President Jackson that the Constitution had formed a single, indivisible nation, not just a loose conglomeration of states. He also persuaded Jackson that secession – which South Carolinians were contemplating in response to tariffs they opposed – was nothing less than treason.” Webster’s “titanic 30,000- word speech in the Senate, decrying South Carolina’s actions as a prelude to national disintegration … [he] concluded with one of the most famous epigrams in American history: “‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.’” For Webster, Bordewich writes, “Liberty…couldn’t be separated from the fact of political union: Without union, liberty would wither. It was a principle that, a generation later, Webster’s political heir Abraham Lincoln would lead the nation to war to protect.” That same principle led Webster to support the key measure of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring that slaves be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state. Primarily the work of Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, the Compromise admitted California to the United States as a “free” state but allowed some newly acquired territories to decide on slavery for themselves. Webster declared his support in another thunderous speech in the Senate with a less lofty rhetorical plea, “‘Let us not be pygmies in a case that calls for men!’” Although Webster had long opposed slavery, Bordewich states, he “understood his commitment to the Compromise of 1850 as a moral act: He believed that acquiescing to Southern demands would save the Union – and it did for a while.” The Compromise slowed a secession movement in some Southern states. Turning to Webster’s service as Secretary of State, Bordewich comments, “He was a creative (if somewhat unscrupulous) diplomat.” His “dizzying maneuvers” prevented war with Britain over the remote northern region of Maine, claimed by both nations. He also aspired to the Presidency. However, “Webster concluded that he must fall on his sword for the union’s preservation, knowing that his position would end his career in elective office…Webster’s role in the compromise doesn’t look like a profile in courage through a present-day lens. But in the context of his own time, that’s just what it was.” For Applied Historians, Webster illuminates another lesson, albeit a searing one, in the hard choices between moral issues and pragmatic solutions.

  • Clark On Three Who Took Command of the Battlefield and the Stage

    The principles of military leadership and those who lead continue to generate fascination and the search for lessons. Three of the men who defined the history of World War II are the subjects of The Commanders: The Leadership Journeys of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Erwin Rommel by Lloyd Clark (Senior Academic, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst). Their decisive battles took them from North Africa in the early years of the war and later, to Northern Europe. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan W. Jordan (Author) states that “Mr. Clark fixes his focus on the intersection of personality and military leadership …Details such as teaching styles, sense of theater and interactions with soldiers create wonderful three-dimensional models of the war’s iconic leaders.” Each an individualist, with memorable personal signatures -- “Montgomery’s beret, Rommel’s leather trenchcoat, and Patton’s ivory-handled pistols and clusters of brass stars” – they all relished the spotlight.  Commenting on Clark’s portrayal of Montgomery’s disposition for confrontation and Patton’s unrelenting pursuit of “movement and destruction,” Clark writes, “Whether Montgomery or Patton gave Eisenhower more headaches is a debate that may never be settled.” Rommel emerges as “the tragic figure.” His struggle in Normandy was “a set-piece battle against enemies who outnumbered him at sea, on land and in the air” and his “forced suicide cut short what might have been an epic struggle against Montgomery and Patton.” Clark concludes with a broader perspective, “Other senior commanders performed brilliantly, and Mr. Clark’s trio should be judged within the larger context of the war’s leadership structure. Without a cadre of team players like Gen. Bradley, British Gen. Miles Dempsey and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, individualists like Patton, Montgomery, and Rommel wouldn’t have had the platform they needed to shine.” A lesson for both military history and for Applied Historians.

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For more information about the Applied History Project, please contact Peter Gaber, Research Assistant, at pgaber@hks.harvard.edu.

 

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