This page includes, in addition to news about historians, news about political scientists, economists, law professors, and others who write about history. For a comprehensive list of historians' obituaries, go here.
James Varney, in the New Orleans Times Picayune (Aug. 27, 2004):
In recent weeks, the University of New Orleans scholar has emerged as a central figure in the highly partisan debate about Democratic candidate John Kerry's actions in combat during the Vietnam War. Brinkley's writings about Kerry -- in particular his biography "Tour of Duty," which was made with Kerry's cooperation -- have been cited by both the senator's opponents and supporters.
In a wide-ranging interview in the soaring lobby of his Uptown home, Brinkley said the dual use of his successful book is proof of his objectivity. Everything he has written and said to date, he insisted, has been based on the historical record.
"I'm not worried about it being seen as a campaign vehicle for Kerry," Brinkley said of the book. "I'm sympathetic to Kerry in his 20's, and it's no secret I think he would make a first-rate president. But my book has caused Kerry pain, too. The fact it's out may not have helped him. I mean, 'Unfit for Command' might not exist without it."
Brinkley's reference was to the nation's current No. 1 best seller, a book put out by an anti-Kerry group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Veterans group essentially has declared war on Kerry in television advertisements and interviews, as well as in the book. In interviews, some of the group's leaders have said the publication of Brinkley's "Tour of Duty" was a galvanizing force in their campaign.
The Swift Boat veterans' charges are unfair, Brinkley said. He said he finds them no more credible than those leveled by Democrats that President Bush skirted his National Guard duties during the Vietnam War.
He has taken a more public stance in the current controversy because he is familiar with the historical record, Brinkley said. He is proud of "Tour of Duty," the first of his many books to become a national best seller. He said some of his public defense of the work has been launched to protect his own scholarship, not to defend a candidate he supports or who, Brinkley said, brought attention on himself by making his Vietnam experience a centerpiece of his campaign.
"It's true Kerry has brought on this fight," Brinkley said. "But I was looking for a story about Vietnam, and I think I struck the right story. What's made me angry is false accusations made against Kerry's military record, which, because I know the record, I feel I must respond to even if I risk appearing like Kerry's surrogate in the process."
But Brinkley's open admiration and support for Kerry have raised questions about his objectivity as an academic historian. The American Historical Association warns its members to be wary when venturing into politics, saying those who do so "may face a choice of priorities between professionalism and partisanship."
Professors at UNO are not permitted to take blatantly partisan positions while wearing their school robes, said Rick Barton, the university's vice chancellor of academic affairs. Asked if he thought Brinkley had crossed that line, Barton said, "I can't say if he has or not, but I trust him not to. There are two roles he's playing here, and he needs to be careful with that."
He has been careful, Brinkley said. While he did not dispute being one of several hosts for a Kerry fund-raiser in February 2003, he said his speech at a Kerry rally in New Orleans in March has been misinterpreted. In fact, Brinkley was pushed onstage because Kerry was late, and he wound up talking about how the swift boats used in Vietnam were comparable to the Higgins landing craft that were manufactured in New Orleans during World War II and used to tremendous effect during the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
Curt Guyette, in Metro Times (Detroit) (Aug. 25, 2004):
Like the history that he teaches, Juan Coles emergence as a 21st century media phenomenon is the product of convergence. Geopolitics and technology and professional pursuits have combined to transform a once-obscure university professor into an analyst hundreds of thousands of people are turning to as an alternative source of information regarding the war in Iraq.
There was a time not long ago when the opinion pieces Cole submitted to magazines and newspapers would go unpublished. No one had much interest in the insights being offered by this University of Michigan history professor who made study of the Middle East and its religions his specialty.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Americas subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the evolution of the Internet have changed all that. Now, instead of specialized journals and books little noticed outside the margins of academia, Coles writings can be found on the pages of The Guardian, San Jose Mercury News, and The Nation, and in Web publications such as Salon. Hes featured frequently in the electronic media, appearing on CNN, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and National Public Radio.
His Web log, or blog, Informed Comment (juancole.com), has received as many as 250,000 hits a month; last week, the online journal Slate cited it as a must-read for those interested in the Middle East. The phone at his Ann Arbor home rings constantly with journalists seeking his expertise. And in April, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Juan Cole and his opinions on Iraq have become a hot commodity. On his blog, he draws information daily from a variety of sources, collecting disparate pieces of a complicated puzzle and placing them together to form a coherent picture.
A 51-year-old specialist in Islamic studies who has lived all over the Muslim world, Cole began getting peppered with questions from colleagues on various e-mail lists he subscribed to following Sept. 11. As the author of more than a half-dozen books about Middle Eastern religious sects and the regions social and political movements, he brought a perspective few Westerners could match.
Because I was familiar with the terrain from which al Qaeda developed, he says, people would ask questions about what was going on and I would try to answer them. My answers were thought well of by my colleagues. My responses would get forwarded very widely. Frankly, I began getting fan mail from places like Denmark. Obviously, there was a lot of interest in what I had to say. People were trying to make sense of the situation.
Cole relates his trajectory in a matter-of-fact way, with no trace of a braggart in his tone.
As Cole points out, e-mails, by nature, are ephemeral. You send them and they are gone. And they have a relatively narrow audience.
By the winter of 2001-02, however, blogging as a phenomenon was beginning to take off, and Cole, who describes himself as very wired, was there at the start, ready to ride that technological wave as it began to form.
It was, at that point, a relatively minor sort of thing, he explains, nothing more than a hobby. The Iraq war came in the spring of 2003, and he began focusing attention on that. Still, his blog remained relatively obscure. That all changed the following year when, following the capture of Saddam, a huge pilgrimage from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala took place. There were thousands and thousands of people flagellating themselves and chanting, and the American media and the American public suddenly said, Who are these people?
With one of his specialties being the modern history of Shiite Islam, Cole could answer those questions. Because of his presence on the Internet, journalists, for the first time, began to take notice and turned to him and his Web page as a resource.
A flurry of media appearances occurred, and his blog began gaining wider notice. The site, which would get just a few hundred hits each month when first begun, steadily attracted more readers.
Early on in the war, when optimism ran rampant, Cole saw much reason for concern. Able to read several Middle Eastern languages, he was able to monitor news accounts and opinion pieces from the region online, which, along with his previous studies, provided a depth and breadth of insight few others could match.
This was something I could not have been able to do in 1990, or even 1995, says Cole about the availability of Middle Eastern news reports on the Internet. I could get a level of texture and detail that you could never get from the Western press.
In fact, he contends, from his desk in Ann Arbor he can obtain a more thorough review of what is going on in Iraq than most observers on the ground.
By the summer of 2003, Cole had gained a reputation as a dark pessimist at a time when many observers were still expecting victorious troops to be greeted with nothing more dangerous than flower bouquets being lobbed at them.
As time went on, though, I began getting the reputation of being remarkably prescient, he says....
He worries that offering pointed commentary could damage his academic credibility, but at this point he feels a moral obligation to point out the very bad foreign policy mistakes the United States continues to commit.
The fate of my country is in the balance, says Cole. That is more important than objectivity.
Cole gives the American media mixed marks for its coverage of the war....
... March 13 would mark the culmination of Kerry's Vietnam War career. With three Purple Hearts, he became eligible for reassignment. Within three weeks, he was out of Vietnam and headed home after a truncated four-month combat tour.
As commander of PCF-94, Kerry was responsible for ferrying a group of Chinese Vietnamese mercenaries, known as Nung, eight miles up the Bay Hap River, and then five miles up the winding Dong Cung Canal to suspected Vietcong villages. His passengers included Rassmann, the Special Forces officer, who had run into Kerry at a party a couple of weeks before and remembered him as "a tall, skinny guy with this humongous jaw."
The expedition began to go wrong soon after they inserted the Nung troops into a deserted village off the Dong Cung Canal. As the mercenaries searched from house to house, Rassmann recalled, one reached for a cloth bag at the base of a coconut tree and was blown to pieces. It was a booby trap. Kerry, who arrived on the scene soon after, helped wrap the body in a poncho and drag it back to the boat, diving into a ditch when he thought he was under fire.
"I never want to see anything like it again," Kerry wrote later. "What was left was human, and yet it wasn't -- a person had been there only a few moments earlier and . . . now it was a horrible mass of torn flesh and broken bones."
In "Tour of Duty," these thoughts are attributed to a "diary" kept by Kerry. But the endnotes to Brinkley's book say that Kerry "did not keep diaries in these weeks in February and March 1969 when the fighting was most intense." In the acknowledgments to his book, Brinkley suggests that he took at least some of the passages from an unfinished book proposal Kerry prepared sometime after November 1971, more than two years after he had returned home from Vietnam.
In his book, Brinkley writes that a skipper who remains friendly to Kerry, Skip Barker, took part in the March 13 raid. But there is no documentary evidence of Barker's participation. Barker could not be reached for comment.
Brinkley, who is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, did not reply to messages left with his office, publisher and cell phone. The Kerry campaign has refused to make available Kerry's journals and other writings to The Post, saying the senator remains bound by an exclusivity agreement with Brinkley. A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan, said he did not know when Kerry wrote down his reminiscences....
It was encouraging to note that the Senate, as well as many archivists, has questions on why Governor Carlin was asked to resign as Archivist of the United States. Hopefully, the Senate Committee will follow through on Senator Levins suggestion that the White House be asked specifically about the reasons behind their request for Carlins resignation.
My overall impressions of the hearing were that the Committee seemed to find Allen Weinstein very impressive. They were quick to assure him that their questions on the nature of his nomination did not reflect on their opinions of him. Except for Senator Durbins questions on the conflict the EO 13233 presents for Weinsteins commitment to access to records, the questions he received were not difficult and did not press him to make a great statement on any one issue. Several topics were noted in the Senators opening statements, but few were actually addressed in their questions to Weinstein. Specifically, the ERA was addressed in only two questions and only to the point of making sure Weinstein did not know anything about the potential vendors for the project, grants were not mentioned at all, and the Presidential Records Act conflict with EO 13233 received the greatest treatment. But, given the six-minute time limit for each Senator, could anything of depth really have been addressed?
As for the candidate himself, is Allen Weinstein a commanding presence? In essence, he is a soft-spoken, older man. He lacks a certain charisma and presence that may be necessary to defend and argue for the needed funding for NARA from Congress. During the hearing he made reference more than once to not having received briefing materials on certain topics, which brings up the question just how well informed is he about the National Archives? It seemed that knowledge he could have gleamed from NARAs web site, such as information on NARAs strategic plan and goals, the Electronic Records Archives, and EO 13233, had not been a part of his pre-hearing briefing materials. I was left with the impression that we, first year archives students, may be better informed on these issues from course readings and assignments than the man that could lead NARA. Perhaps, if given more time and asked broader questions, Weinsteins knowledge on these topics would have become clear. The hearing simply brought Allen Weinsteins ability to be an inspiring future leader for the National Archives into question.
Edward Tenner, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Aug. 13, 2004):
[Edward Tenner is a senior research associate at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. He is the author of Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) and Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996).]
"Mentor Is Now Portrayed as Monster," read the New York Times headline. It referred to a hockey coach and agent, whose reputation for making stars had continued to attract young would-be pros and their parents despite charges of abusive techniques.
The piece reminded me of other accusations made two years ago in the more genteel world of British academe. An article about the late British historian Sir John Plumb had astounded me as the only candidly negative memorial to a prominent scholar I had ever read. With admirers in the royal family itself, Plumb had been not only a world-famous scholar but also one of the great mentors of his profession. I had always admired him for the outstanding students whose careers he had launched. He also was hailed as a courageous defender of fairness; in an article about the historian and author Simon Schama, I had read of Plumb's battle against what he considered the injusticeof examiners who were refusing his pupil first-class honors.
But in an"alternative appreciation" originally published in Historically Speaking, the newsletter of the Boston-based Historical Society,in April 2002 and reprinted in the Times Higher Education Supplement, a former student, Jeremy Black, now a professor of history at the University of Exeter, unveiled another and less flattering aspect of Plumb's work. Black was responding to what he considered one-sided tributes by Plumb's protégés. His article could not be dismissed as a mere outlet for the bitterness of Plumb's hidebound academic enemies. Black asserted that Richard Cobb, an Oxford professor of French history renowned for his sagas of the ordinary French people of the old regime and the revolution, was among those who called Plumb"evil," and Cobb was as idiosyncratic and anti-establishment as an Oxford scholar could be.
Plumb was not just a leading historian of patronage but a vigorous dispenser thereof, Black argued, and what his students no doubt perceived only as steadfast advocacy appeared to some colleagues as strong-arm tactics. An Ivy League department head recalled to Black the"extraordinary pressure" he had encountered to hire a Plumb student. Plumb did not hesitate to use his position as a college master to intimidate a young scholar who had written an adverse review of a protégé's work, warning him over dinner that"this was not the way to secure a career at Cambridge." At a dinner with Black, Plumb also disparaged another former student while boasting of his success in placing him."Others were abused, damaged, and harmed," Black concluded. There was a"malignity" in Plumb's methods.
Whose picture is more accurate, Black's crafty don (in both senses of the word) or the grateful disciples' generous exemplar? The answer may be unknowable, but it raises a far larger issue. The ideal of the mentor has been extolled in business, academe, government, the military, and the professions for decades. I see merit in it, too. But I'm also disturbed that it nearly always is presented as a good in its own right; too rarely are its origins and ethical ambiguities examined. Having had mentors, I can understand both sides of the story....
If David Irving had not decided to sue an obscure American academic and Penguin Books for allegedly defaming him, his reputation as a historian might, at least to the uninformed, have survived a little longer.
He did not have the academic credentials now normally required of professional historians and he was not an academic, but he had over the years won the grudging respect of academics for the stamina and assiduity with which he worked in the archives to produce material not seen before.
Writers as eminent as Sir Winston Churchill's biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, military historian Sir Michael Howard, and Hugh Trevor- Roper, author of the brilliant classic work on the last days of Adolf Hitler, had all been prepared to praise him for the energy with which he conducted his research.
Since the 1960s, Irving has been prolific. He has concentrated on the central figures or events of World War 2, producing large volumes on the bombing of Dresden, and on Goering, Goebbels, Churchill, Rommel and Hitler.
For all his energy, however, there have been doubts from the beginning about the conclusions he drew from his research.
In one of his earliest books, about a British convoy taking supplies to Murmansk in northern Russia during World War 2, he accused a British officer of cowardice leading to the destruction of the convoy.
A court found that this was a gross libel, and awarded damages against him of 40,000, a huge sum at the time.
In the late 1970s, he published Hitler's War, a "revisionist" work which set out to distance Hitler from responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust.
Reviewing it for the London Sunday Times, Hugh Trevor-Roper conceded that the work had some merit, but he crushingly concluded that Irving was not to be trusted.
"We can never quite be sure, and when he is most original, we are least likely to be sure."
He found that Irving wrote with a "consistent bias".
Scott Morris, in the WSJ (Aug. 12, 2004):
Arguably the most influential work of American history is Charles A. Beard's"An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States," published in 1913. Beard's thesis--that our country was born of base economic self-interest and not idealism--became Holy Writ for many historians and social thinkers, launching a quasi-Marxist critique of the entire American project that persists, in certain corners of the academy, to this day.
If the critique has lost its force--and, luckily, it has--much of the credit belongs to Forrest McDonald, the historian who first took on Beard's analysis. He has now written"Recovering the Past," a bright memoir that illuminates the craft of the historian and provides a spirited account of Mr. McDonald's long-running battle against the unthinking leftist bias that plagues his profession.
A small-town boy, Mr. McDonald attended the University of Texas, where he caught fire intellectually. At 21, he produced a 272-page master's thesis on Beard's"Economic Interpretation," the scope of which amazed his professors. Mr. McDonald now believes this youthful work to be"stunningly puerile," but the audacity of it, combined with Mr. McDonald's careful research, would become the hallmarks of his career....
Susanna Rustin, in the Guardian (July 31, 2004):
On November 11 1944, Paul Fussell woke up surrounded by corp-ses. Drafted into the American infantry 18 months before, he had been in France just a few weeks and this was his first night in the line. "Until that moment," he writes in his memoir Doing Battle (1996), "the only dead people I'd seen had been Mother's parents." But now, in the forest where he had been ordered to rest after a botched attack, there were "dozens of German boys in greenish grey uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces."
The horrors inflicted by and on ground troops, Fussell believes, are almost never acknowledged. "American readers needed someone to tell them what war was really like," he says, "because by the 1970s the romanticising of the second world war had already begun. And so I tried to cut away parts of it - tell them what a trench smelt like and what dead GIs smelt like and so forth."
For his friend Edmund Keeley, a retired Princeton English professor, Fussell's classic literary study, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), is without question his most important work. In it, he set out his stall, emphasising tactical errors and blunders, drawing the reader's attention to the hordes of terrified, disgusted deserters. He described the everyday texture of life at the front, from freezing cold, rats, lice and terrible food, to horrific mutilations and murders. But what distinguished the book from other critical accounts of the world wars, or of Vietnam, was its literary emphasis. "I think he was the first to see the connection between those various wars and the way they were described and who was doing the describing," says Keeley. "Style, how you use words, how you use rhetoric, can end up being a kind of symbol of how a whole generation is thinking."
Fussell showed that the British were masters of a euphemistic diction whereby,
in wartime, friends became "comrades", danger was "peril",
to die was "to perish" and the dead were "the fallen" or
"the dust". He suggested that to call the killing fields of the Somme
a "battle" was "to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim
and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning". In the work
of the soldier-poets and memoirists who were the focus of his research, Fussell
discovered a series of ironic contrasts. Poppies and roses, symbols of blood
and passion spent, were reminders too of a pre-war pastoral idyll. Sunrises
and sunsets, moments of ritualised terror in the trenches as soldiers were required
to "stand-to", became, in the poems, ripe with moral and religious
Historian Robert Caro is most widely known for sharp critiques of politicians, especially President Lyndon B. Johnson.
So it was a little surprising when Caro appeared on the podium of the Democratic convention on Tuesday evening to give a gracious introduction of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"His brother President John F. Kennedy wrote a famous book, 'Profiles in Courage.' Edward Kennedy's decades in the United States Senate -- his four decades in the Senate -- have been a profile in courage," Caro said. "If you're a historian, you realize as you look back over the long sweep of American history, how few individuals have left a mark on that history that will endure."
Caro's appearance was a sharp departure from the usual procession of politicians and interest group officials who have addressed the delegates. The speaking slots are usually doled out in accordance with the political calculus of the day: what message the party wants to send, which constituency groups it wants to woo, which party honchos simply must be allowed to speak.
An aide to Kennedy said that the senator had grown fond of Caro's work on the history of the Senate and wanted to highlight that story at the convention. Caro rejected suggestions that his speech was partisan, noting that it focused on the history of the chamber and Kennedy's role and made no mention of either Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) or President Bush.
Caro said he wrote the speech with only minimal changes from Kennedy's office and that he would not have given a partisan speech if he had been asked. "No way," he said in an interview.