Director, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and
Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, July 2007- Current
Among my favorite anecdotes involves a weird and nerdy coincidence. In February 1984, not too long out of College, I made my first visit to what was then called the Public Record Office in Kew, outside London. As I awaited the train at the end of my day, I noticed that the evening newspapers carried the headline"Andropov dies." The Soviet leadership had reached a point where it was as decrepit as the Soviet economy. That was my last trip to the PRO for a little over a year.
My next visit came on March 10, 1985. Sure enough as I reached the train station to catch the tube home, I saw the headline of the newspaper lying on the platform:"Chernenko Dies." I don't know what possessed me, but I then burst into laughter that I know the other passengers found unsettling and distinctly disrespectful to the dead. Thereafter I used to kid that Gorbachev's friends were asking me never to return to the PRO. It would be mischievous to now claim that because I never returned to the PRO, the Cold War ended and, well, you know the rest. But I did go back to the PRO plenty of times and, of course, and fortunately Mr. Gorbachev is still with us.
By Timothy J. Naftali
About Timothy J. Naftali"Masterful.... Blind Spot is an excellent reminder of the value of unbiased scholarship in an environment of poisonous political partisanship." -- The New Republic review of"Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism"
Professor of American History, joint appointment in the Women's Studies program,
The Pennsylvania State University (PSU)
Although in the abstract I agree with the premise that all writing is autobiographical, years of deep thought haven't yet allowed me to make the link in the case of my own work. I seem to be drawn, in my historical writing, to violent young men with serious problems with authority and/or borderline sociopathic tendencies. Urban volunteer firemen who regularly get into street battles with gang members and other firemen, filibusters and their supporters who attempt to invade neighboring countries for fun and profit, Gold Rush travelers who raise the American flag in Panama in the 1850s, and now Mexican-American War soldiers. Not only do I not see myself in them, I wouldn't even like to have them over for dinner (except to mine them for research purposes, of course).
While my work has focused on the evolution of masculine norms in antebellum America, it wasn't my original intent to study gender. After my dissertation adviser died four months into my first year of graduate school, I stumbled through classes and comps, less focused on history than on my outsider status as a Southern Californian at Harvard, unable to accept the reality that winter boots, tights, and heavy overcoats were not optional in January. I started looking at urban volunteer firemen, a group of rowdy men who protected antebellum America's cities from the constant threat of fire without pay, after reading an account of their working-class republican ethos. I must admit I was attracted to a group that proudly proclaimed their own social norms and found a way to command respect from the emerging middle class whose property their protected. After compiling a database of firemen and their occupations (like a good social historian), I was, I admit, shocked and dismayed to find that a substantial portion of these"working-class" firemen were actually merchants and clerks. This was when I began to play around with the idea that what bound these men together was not working-class ideology, but some vision of manhood that was, in its own way, equally radical and deviant and important to those who proclaimed it.
A number of San Francisco volunteer firemen left their firehouses in the 1850s to follow the adventurer William Walker, first to Sonora Mexico, and then to Nicaragua, so I followed them into the filibustering project. I found the same celebration of martial masculinity in the ports of Central America and at urban public meetings in support of filibusters like Walker and Narciso Lopez (who repeatedly tried to take over Cuba). Most of the filibusters got their initial taste for imperial adventuring in Mexico in 1847, so now I find myself in their company once again, reading letters from somewhat under-socialized men who have an investment in the physical domination of those they consider their inferiors. I find my undergraduates have less of a problem understanding these guys than I might have imagined before entering the world of Big Ten football.
By Amy S. Greenberg
About Amy S. Greenberg
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies Department (2007-2008);
Assistant Professor of History, University of North Carolina-Charlotte (August 2004-Present).
Growing up in Istanbul, I always found it awkward to read the"Welcome to Asia" and"Welcome to Europe" signs at the two ends of the less-than-a mile long suspension bridge over the Bosporus waters. These innocent looking continental demarcation signs meant very little to the millions of commuters, supposedly moving between continents every day. In high school, we were taught that Turkey is an important bridge between East and West, as well as Asia and Europe. I remember one time joking with friends that we needed to tidy up our ties and jackets while crossing the bridge from the Asian to the European side of the city, sarcastically reflecting predominant judgments associated with the two continents. I would have never predicted that I would later spend years during my graduate study examining the history and politics of the historical construct of Asia and Europe (or East and West) and its impact. And ironically, but not unsurprisingly, while I was trying to historicize these civilizational and continental categories, stereotyped civilizational identities (think clash of civilization thesis...) embellished with new political and cultural inflections gained popularity in public discourse.
My undergraduate years coincided with exciting debates on Eurocentrism and post-modernism in Istanbul college classrooms and coffeehouses. It was in a senior seminar paper on Jürgen Habermas' critique of anti-modern thinking that I first remember arguing for a more global history of modernity and world order. My plan was to go either to China or Japan to have a non-Eurocentric comparative look at the question of the West and how Asian intellectuals have debated the universality of modernity in the last two centuries. But, to my frustration, the visiting Japanese professor whose guide to Istanbul I had become and who I hoped to study with in Japan told me not to come to the Far East, Tokyo, but to go to the Far West, to a university in America, if I was that interested in non-Eurocentric perspectives on global history.
Only after my first semester at Harvard did I realize the wisdom of his advice. History departments at many American research universities have experts covering all the regions of the world, with ideally half of the faculty teaching non-Western fields. This intellectual presence not only provides perspectives into the different regional histories, it also allows for important insights into world and global history. Of course, I also made it to Japan where I spent two years learning Japanese and searching archives and bookstores. Looking back, I had a wonderful time during the eight years of my graduate school education, having a chance not only to immerse myself in East Asian and Middle Eastern histories, but to learn a lot about the modern histories of Africa, the Americas and Europe. I became addicted to the 4 pm seminars, accompanied by coffee or tea and cookies, though I had to limit my attendance to 2 seminars a week to be able to finish my dissertation and keep my weight.
By the end of my graduate school years, I had become optimistic about the scholarly integrity and public mission of the historical profession. The events of and developments after September 11, 2001 did not change my confidence in my discipline. Yet, many of the achievements of my colleagues in dispelling historically rooted prejudices and misunderstandings among different societies were swept away by a flood of reasserted popular stereotypes about anti-Western Muslims and imperialist crusading Westerners. The 'us vs. them' dichotomy as well as the 'what went wrong?' and 'why do they hate us?' questions forced many in the academic community to take a stand. The increased public interest in answers, explanations and lessons from the past in order to understand the current situation better has affected my research as well as my teaching.
Last summer, a leading European politician sympathetic to Turkey's potential membership in the European Union suggested that the Istanbul Municipality remove the"Welcome to Asia" sign on the bridge over the Bosporus, arguing that the sign and its implication of the"Asian" side of Turkey would weaken Turkey's case in the European Union. Despite my awareness of the Eurocentric constructedness of these continental borders, I realized that I would not be happy to see the “Welcome to Asia” sign go away, at least not in this way. My admittedly idealist internationalism makes me want to hold on to this feeble continental tie between Istanbul, Calcutta and Tokyo. After all, our problem is not in the borders, or continental imaginations themselves, but in the value judgments and political projects vested in them. I could not help but smile when I saw the welcome signs on both sides of the Bosporus bridge during my last visit to Istanbul.
By Cemil Aydin
About Cemil Aydin