Gates Interns with the NH Department of Environmental Services


Recently, History and English double-major Ginger Gates ’17 (Pembroke, NH) was profiled in the Saint Anselm Crier because of her summer internship at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

One Thing after Another took advantage of this opportunity to ask Gates a few questions about her experiences over the summer

Q: One Thing After Another understands you interned with the NH Department of Environmental Services in Concord, NH this summer. What drew you to that internship?

A: I think it’s important for students and young people to be aware and well-informed about the environmental issues that the state and country as a whole face. I saw this internship as a crucial opportunity to learn more about the state of New Hampshire’s environmental concerns and to help address them in any way that I could. The NHDES Groundwater and Drinking Water Bureau’s archive of rules and regulations date back to the late 1800s; it was my job to organize these rules and create an online matrix of each rule and its different versions. This project combined two of my passions: history and law. From reading the rules alone, you can see distinct shifts in attitudes about water conservation and water safety. A state’s laws and regulations can really tell you a lot about what that state values. New Hampshire values its great outdoors, its lakes and mountains, and its bright fall foliage. Especially during this period of extreme drought, it’s important to understand the rules and why they are in place so that individuals and businesses can do their part in conserving water.

Q: How did your major in history and the skills you’ve learned in that major help you in this internship?

A: As a history major, one of the most important skills I’ve learned is how to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely. While interviewing for this position, my employers were impressed by my ability to communicate well and effectively. Studying history has taught me to evaluate and solve problems efficiently. Because of the nature of my internship, I was given a lot of freedom to change how I approached creating the matrix. There were many times when these problem-solving skills were helpful in creating a clear, user-friendly, and accessible document.

Q: This must have been an interesting summer to work for that agency, given two key water issues happening in the state—extreme drought and ground water contamination with volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Were you working on anything related to these issues?

A: I wasn’t directly working on these issues, but when water safety and level is affected, everyone is affected. When my boss gave me opportunities to shadow fieldwork, it was evident how detrimental this summer’s drought has been. Lake Massabesic, the reservoir that supplies drinking water for the Manchester area, has dropped four feet over the summer to a level that hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. Many private well systems in the southern part of the state have gone dry in the past months. We take for granted how accessible water is, and when it’s not readily available, that entirely changes your perspective and how you go about your daily routine.

Q: Did you have an interest in environmental issues before this internship?

A: Yes. The problems of the environment are everyone’s problems. Regardless of whether or not climate change has been caused by human action, the issue remains. It is truly the most pressing concern my generation faces now and in the next fifty years.

Q: What benefits did you get from your internship?

A: As in all internships that require interacting with others, my communication and writing skills developed throughout the summer. The NHDES is a large and diverse office, and the people I worked with were a joy to get know, which makes any internship or job much more pleasant. Learning about individual water systems, how vital water is to our everyday lives, and how important the laws and regulations that govern water use and water filtration really gave me a new perspective on water use and enforcement. Only fifty years ago water filtration was just a few metal screens of varying size and a chemical treatment. We can thank the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act for the strict regulations that are now in place.

I’ve always been interested in pursuing a law degree after graduation, and this internship strengthened that desire. I had never thought of going into environmental law until this summer, but seeing how vital our natural resources are to our entire lives, it’s something I have an interest in.

Q: You are a senior this year. What are you most looking forward to in your last year at Saint Anselm College?

A: I’m really looking forward to completing my thesis—not only to have it done and not have to worry about it anymore, but to have a cohesive and substantial piece of writing to show future employers or schools.

I’ve developed a new appreciation for the beauty of nature, so I’m really looking forward to seeing this campus move through all the seasons, especially autumn. Hopefully the foliage will still be as colorful, despite the drought!

For the past four years, I’ve really developed great relationships with professors and fellow students. I’m looking forward to continuing to build those relationships and learning as much as I can before I’ve completed my undergraduate degree. There’s a lot to look forward to in the future, so I’m excited to see what it holds.


Assessing Historians against Trump


Yes, it’s time for Trump yet again! Back in July 2016, Historians against Trump (HAT) produced “An Open Letter to the American People” in which they enunciated their objections to Donald Trump and articulated the special role historians ought to play in opposing Trump’s candidacy.

This open letter elicited a sharp response in the New York Times Sunday Review from Stanley Fish, the legal scholar and prominent literary theorist best known, perhaps, for developing reader-response theory:

As indicated by the History News Network, scholars have assumed different positions on this dispute between HAT and Fish:

What is the proper role of historians in relation to a Trump candidacy?

One Thing after Another does not wish to recapitulate HAT’s entire argument in detail, but to generalize, it seems to revolve around the following points. First, Donald Trump’s candidacy presents an “exceptional challenge . . . to civil society.” Second, historians are especially well positioned to recognize this challenge, partly because of their knowledge of the past and partly because of skills they have developed in assessing documentary evidence. Third, the “lessons of history” compel historians to speak out against Trump. Fourth, historians have a special role to play in educating the public so that it is better capable of protecting civil society and resisting the appeals of people like Trump.

Fish contests the view that historians are especially qualified to assess Trump or somehow inoculate society against political charlatanism. As he puts it,

while disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.

Fish is adamant that history does not produce objective truths in general, and historians acting as historians should not confuse their political opinions with facts.

The dispute over HAT, then, is not really about Donald Trump (Fish claims his disagreement with HAT is not inspired by support for Trump). Rather, it concerns a) what role historians should play in public political discourse and b) on what basis they should play that role. At the risk of sounding a bit wishy-washy, One Thing after Another thinks HAT has overreached while Fish’s view of history’s jurisdiction is too narrow.

Fish and others have charged that HAT has assigned a privileged position to the discipline of history. HAT, of course, does not explicitly claim that historians are better than anybody else, and there is some justice in David Schlitt’s claim that Fish has engaged in a “bad-faith reading” of HAT’s letter.

The introduction to HAT’s letter, however, does seem to imply that historians possess special insights derived from the unique nature of their discipline that allow them to understand the challenges presented by Trump better than anybody else. They “recognize . . . ominous precedents,” they “understand” the consequences of the ugly side of politics (e.g. “the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating”), and, most important of all, they know the “lessons of history.”

One Thing after Another will leave to one side the question of whether HAT thinks the discipline of history should assume a particularly distinguished role in opposing Trump. First, while they sail close to the wind on this issue, they don’t explicitly come out and say that history is primus inter pares among disciplines in this particular case. And, second, if they did, such a position would be unsupportable. Many other fields have important contributions to make on this question (take economics, for example):

What interests One Thing after Another more is HAT’s claims about “precedents” and the “lessons of history.” “As historians,” HAT claims, “we recognize . . . the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.”  What exactly are these precedents, and what do they signify? We are none the wiser upon finishing the letter. For a missive written by a collection of historians on behalf of historians, this piece is curiously bare of references to the past (there are some links buried in the text, but nothing particularly sophisticated).  If HAT intends to take a leading role in educating the public, it needs to do better than that. The only clue HAT provides explain its reference to precedents is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally in 1941. The problem is that Donald Trump is not Charles Lindbergh, and the United States in 2016 is not the United States in 1941.

HAT cannot loosely refer to precedents without explaining them—otherwise, how can we scrutinize the group’s argument? Use of the word “precedent” suggests an analogy is being made, but HAT must actually produce the analogy so we can measure its soundness. We cannot take analogies for granted; as this blog has repeated many times before, historical analogy is a very tricky art. To name one particularly pertinent example, over the last year, historians and others have referred to a wide variety of historical figures in an attempt to locate someone who resembles Trump. Is he like Andrew Jackson? William Jennings Bryan? Huey Long? Joe McCarthy? Nelson Rockefeller? George Wallace? Pat Buchanan? Is he a Mussolini in the making? Or is he sui generis? So long as we cannot fix on a particular person, it is hard to claim that we have established a definitive precedent, let alone “lessons of history.”

An intimation of what HAT means, perhaps, comes from Renate Bridenthal who signed the letter and defended it in the New York Times:

She writes:

As a historian of Germany, I found our letter much too mild. Historians are responsible for the collective memory of peoples, and just like individuals with memories of past trauma, we are obliged to shout “stop!” when we see familiar signs of coming disaster.

The suggestion is that, at worst, Trump is like the Fascists and Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s. The degree to which this analogy works is debatable, and we have discussed this point on One Thing after Another some months ago:

More important, does a knowledge of 1930s Germany give one a good sense of what Trump will do or how his policies will play out? Not only is Trump different from Hitler in many ways, but the United States in 2016 is quite different from Germany in the 1930s. In this context, One Thing after Another recalls George Orwell’s observations in The Road to Wigan Pier about what British fascism could possibly look like should it take hold of that country:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of [Oswald] Mosley [the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s] and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people.

Orwell argued that Fascism would not be about jackboots and uniforms as it had been in Italy or Germany; in Britain, it would come dressed in tweed. In other words, events in Italy and Germany were of limited utility in determining what would happen in Britain (where Fascism did not succeed). Precedent and analogy can only serve our purposes if the two things being compared are clearly similar. That is, of course, unless one uses the word “precedent” in a most general way (e.g. thoughtlessness, lying, xenophobia, and disrespect for the law will lead to stupid, unethical, bad, and criminal policy). If that’s how HAT means to use the word “precedent,” then we are not discussing some special or precise insight that only people with doctorates in History possess. Rather, we are discussing something that any person with a modicum of sense might figure out on his or her own.

As for the “lessons of history” (an expression that no academic historian has ever uttered in One Thing after Another’s hearing), there are serious problems with this concept. Fish has a point when he takes HAT to task for using these words which make history sound objective, definitive, static, and monolithic. As even undergraduates will tell you, history is a representation of the past grounded in an interpretation of primary source documents. Interpretations vary according to the way different historians understand the world which is why the field is characterized by debate. Not only that, as the concerns of historians evolve over time, the questions they bring to the documents also shift. For these reasons, history is contested and constantly changing. Under these circumstances, how does one produce “lessons of history,” especially when historians respect every event as unique?

Although HAT get some things wrong, that doesn’t mean that Fish gets everything right. Fish has a narrow view of the historian’s proper sphere. He writes that historians’

disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. . . . It’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

This blog is all in favor of preventing the discipline from overreaching itself, and One Thing after Another would feel uncomfortable if historians sought to become political leaders, guides, seers, and gurus. While they should do something less than these tasks, they should do something more than answer discipline-specific questions. Historians have much to contribute as the nation and the state confront important questions. For sure, the discipline will not provide definitive answers (or lessons), but it can hone our judgments and allow us to approach problems in a careful and methodical manner. This blog is reminded of The Economist’s special report on the Arab world (“The War Within,” May 14, 2016). This extended and interesting rumination on the instability and divisions that plague that part of the world—in which we are so interested today—is well illuminated by its understanding of history. That being the case, it seems to this blog that there is a public space beyond the boundaries of the discipline that historians ought to fill, but they ought to be judicious in filling it.

CFP Jimmy Carter and the “Year of the Evangelicals” Reconsidered

CFP  Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered
April 6-8, 2017
New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Saint Anselm College
Manchester, New Hampshire

In 1976 Newsweek magazine borrowed a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaimed that year the “Year of the Evangelicals.”  Both presidential candidates – Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter – claimed to be “born again” Christians, a claim made by one third of all Americans; and significant proportions of Protestants and Catholics told Gallup’s pollsters that the Bible should be taken literally, a marker of conservative evangelical Christianity.  This phenomenon caught journalists by surprise, and they struggled to understand this new segment of the electorate, beginning at the top with the candidacy of Jimmy Carter. The election of 1976 brought evangelicals back into the political arena. While many of these people supported Carter’s candidacy and made the difference in his election, the ways in which they influenced public life quickly extended beyond Carter and the Democratic Party.  It also marked evangelicals’ movement from the margins of intellectual and cultural life into the mainstream. Indeed, they soon became a political and cultural force.

Some forty years later, with financial support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Saint Anselm College and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire, will host a conference in honor of that Newsweek cover story and presidential election. The conference, “Jimmy Carter and ‘The Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered” aims to assess both the scholarly and popular significance of the return to public life of American evangelicals.  While the Newsweek cover story provides the initial starting point, this conference aims to explore the phenomenon of evangelicals and politics more broadly.

Conference organizers seek individual paper proposals or proposals for an entire panel that analyze evangelicalism in light of its contributions to public life both in and since 1976.  In many ways, scholarship on late twentieth-century evangelicalism and the rise of the Religious Right has matured.  But there are still questions to be answered and new interpretations to be offered.  The following research questions point to potential areas for proposals, but this list is not exhaustive and proposals that address other questions or re-imagine conventional interpretations will be welcomed.

First, with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s and 1980s, the progressive evangelicalism in the Newsweek article was relegated to minority status in the political world.  Why is that and what happened to its political influence in the late 20th century?

Second, in the Newsweek story, Foy Valentine, leader of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, called the label “evangelical” a “Yankee” word.  What made southern Protestant Christianity different from the rest of the nation (and why was it not necessarily “evangelical”)?

Third, African Americans are not often included in the category “evangelical” – especially in the political sense that characterized Newsweek’s story. What about African-American evangelicals?  Where do they fit in evangelicalism’s conventional historical narrative?

Fourth, what has been evangelicals’ influence on popular culture and intellectual life since their return to public life in the 1970s?

Fifth, where are we now?  Has evangelicalism’s influence on American politics diminished in the twenty-first century?

Sixth, what about the mainstream press’s treatment of evangelicals and politics?  What impact did the Newsweek cover story and the election of 1976 have on journalists?

Finally, what was the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals during this period?

Individual paper proposals should include a 250-word abstract, a brief (1-page) CV, and contact information (including email address).  Panel proposals should include a 500-word abstract, with brief (1-page) CVs for all participants and contact information for the panel organizer.

Direct proposals and any questions to Andrew Moore (

Deadline for submissions is November 15, 2016.

Burkart Back from Study Abroad in Italy

Jonathan Burkart

Last semester three history majors spent time abroad. One went to Germany and another explored Britain. History major Jonathan Burkart ’18 (Brooklyn, CT) went to Orvieto, Italy. One Thing after Another was curious about how his background in history influenced his encounter with the ancient Etruscans, the Romans, the medieval city-state, and modern Italy. We asked Jonathan about his experiences abroad as well as his thoughts about internships and careers.

Q: How did you come to be a history major? What inspired or influenced that choice?

A: History has always been my favorite subject. Since elementary school, I would soak up every piece of history in literature, my classes, and when visiting museums or parks with my family. I am lucky enough to have had a long list of exceptional teachers who helped increase my interest through fascinating classes and a genuine commitment to their students. My passion for history never abated, so it was a natural choice to major in it.

Q: You spent all of last spring semester in Orvieto, Italy as part of a Saint Anselm College study abroad program. What were your classes and experiences like?

A: It’s hard to summarize three extraordinary months in a few sentences. . . . I loved every minute of my study abroad experience. Perhaps the most incredible feature was our Chiavi class. In Chiavi (which translates to “keys”), we read about different parts of Italy’s history, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and then we would take a trip to Florence to see and “unlock” the history and culture. Orvieto and Italy are so rich in history, from ancient times to recent events, that practically every street showcases beautiful, culturally important elements that, when pieced together over a semester, create a breathtaking tapestry that speaks of history more eloquently than any single class could ever hope to. Our education came from talking with locals and from experiencing history first-hand.

Q: Did you find your background in European history affected how you experienced the semester abroad?

A: Before I studied in Orvieto, I took a Modern European course and a War and Revolution class, and both prepared me for Italian history very well. I have studied European history throughout my college and high school careers, but it was incredible to see my textbook pages come to life when walking through the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. My history classes affected my study abroad experience in that they enhanced my appreciation of every trip we made. Simply being in Italy is phenomenal, but comprehending the depth of walking on 2000-year-old cobblestones made the trip indescribably amazing.

Q: What are you looking forward to during this school year?

A: Catching up with friends that I haven’t seen since fall semester of last year and resuming classes probably top the chart of things I’m looking forward to this year, but Davison food is in a close third place.

Q: You often attend Admissions Open Houses as a history major, which we really appreciate. What do you say to high school students who are thinking about a history major but aren’t sure yet?

A: When I attend the Admissions Open Houses, the first question I get from prospective students is always, “But what if I don’t want to teach?” I think one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding history majors is that you can only become a teacher after college. While that is definitely an excellent option, there are more applications for a history major than you might think. While looking for an internship next semester, I discovered that the FBI is looking for history majors. The critical skills of researching and being able to present your information in a cogent, comprehensive manner is important for a large number of jobs, which is why I recommend taking history classes to anyone unsure of what he or she may want to do for a living. You never know, you just might discover a hidden passion while you’re at it.

The SAC History Department Blog Celebrates 101 Posts

101 Dalmatians

Last week, One Thing after Another, the Saint Anselm College History Department blog, published its 101st post. “Why celebrate 101 posts?” you might ask. “Why not 100”? First, 101 has a certain symmetry that 100 does not. Second, 101 has been a “thing” since 101 Dalmatians. Third, we forgot to write something after the 100th post was published. We cover up our mistakes with specious rationalizations (see the first two reasons); that is the way we roll.

In any event, we at One Thing after Another thought that you might like to see the stats behind the blog in the same manner that, say, Toto exposed the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. How many people read the blog, who are they, and what are they interested in?

Our very first post, which announced the launching the blog, was published on March 21, 2014. It featured an old newsreel that showed the launching of the battleship USS Missouri back in 1944 (as an analogy to the launching of our blog, you see). That video, which we found on YouTube, has since been taken down, so we suppose a little maintenance is required there.

That post obtained all of 20 views. At the time of writing (August 28, 2016), the blog has been viewed 16,628 times by 11,098 distinct visitors. That’s roughly 160 views and 110 viewers per post, on average.

These averages conceal wild fluctuations from post to post. The “Very Short Reviews” series is, apparently, not widely read. The record for the least popular post is shared by a review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life and one of Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe (both with a paltry 6 views).

We’re sorry to say, however, that Very Short Reviews will remain with us because Professor Dubrulle finds that writing them is the only way he can remember what he read over the summer.

Fortunately for Professor Dubrulle, he is also the author of the most popular post on the blog as well. “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Slavery and the 1.6%” has been viewed 1,811 times since it was published on February 5, 2016. That day witnessed the heaviest traffic on the blog ever, with 509 views.

One Thing after Another’s most popular post about a person was published back in May 2014, and featured Justin Eckilson ’14, who had just graduated and won the History Department Award, the Fr. Stephen E. Parent, OSB Award, Delta Epsilon Sigma, Tau Chapter, and the Chancellor’s Medal for highest GPA in the graduating class. That post earned 815 views.

Who reads One Thing after Another? The short answer is Americans. They account for 13,963 of the 16,628 views. Not surprisingly, English speaking -nations are well represented among the countries with the most views on the blog: the United Kingdom (633), Canada (252), Brazil (143), Germany (179), Australia (163), and France (163). We don’t know why New Zealand is not more fascinated with One Thing after Another.

We do know who is not fascinated with the blog—at least in 2016. In South America, no one from Paraguay, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana has visited. Nobody from any Central American country between Mexico and Costa Rica has visited. Somebody from every European country has looked at least at one page on One Thing or Another—except for Belarus and Macedonia. In East Asia, only the Cambodians, Laotians, and Mongolians have refused to visit. In Micronesia, it’s the folks from Papua New Guinea who are missing out. The blog does not have a good track record in the Middle East and Central Asia: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbajian, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are all missing from the visit column. Africa is very underrepresented—in this case, it is easier to list the countries that had visitors than to single out countries where one has visited: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.

But who is reading what on the blog? The statistics are not as helpful here, but we think we can make some educated guesses. Alumni, students, parents, and friends of the college tend to read our pieces about professors, students, and alums. It is probably for this reason that posts on people are not as popular as our essays on history. The Britons, Canadians, Brazilians, Germans, Australians, and French (as well as most Americans for that matter) who read our blog do not have any connection to the college and can’t be expected to show much interest in the people there, illustrious as they may be. But we are happy to see that this large audience is interested in the historical questions that this blog takes on from week to week.

What One Thing after Another finds most exciting and intriguing is that the blog has a substantial amount of traffic day in and day out, even when it has not published anything new for some time. For example, on August 28, 2016, 20 people from 3 countries (the United States, Australia, and, yes, New Zealand) visited the blog and notched 25 views. These visitors looked at 7 different pages. As long as people keeping coming, we’ll keep publishing.

From Professor and Student to Professional Colleagues:  Malachy McCarthy, OSB and Nancy McGovern ’82

McCarthy and and McGovern

In the Fall of 1980, the Saint Anselm College History Department offered its first course in a practical approach to applying history. Applied History, designed by Professor Frank Mason and Malachy McCarthy, OSB attracted eight students: Julie Carmelo, Mike Duffy, Carol Flanagan, Barbara Flynn, Ellen Lynch, Nancy McGovern, Mary Quinn, and Lori Skeates.

In this course, Malachy McCarthy taught the principles of archival theory while Frank Mason dealt with oral history. During the second semester, many of the students took advantage of an internship opportunity with a local history organization.

Thirty-five years later, Nancy McGovern continues her work in archives as the manager in charge of digital preservation at MIT Libraries in Cambridge. She came back to Saint Anselm College in 2013 to share her expertise with students in Public History, the updated version of the course she took in 1980. Malachy McCarthy is now the Province Archivist for the Claretian Missionaries USA-Canada Province in Chicago. He still teaches archival principles and practice, educating future Catholic religious archivists.

In August 2016, at the annual convention of the Society of American Archivists in Atlanta, Nancy McGovern accepted the mantle of President of the Society and will lead SAA over the next year. Teacher and student were reunited as professional colleagues at the conference after 35 years.

Faculty often wonder what becomes of each student we have had in class. We know that many go on to very successful careers and lives.  Some make it to the top of their profession, like Nancy. If you haven’t taken a moment to let your former professors know what you are currently up to, please do.  We would love to know.

Ixnay on the Council of Historical Advisers to the President

Obama's Cabinet

In an article entitled “Don’t Know Much about History,” which appears in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison (a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) and Niall Ferguson (the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Hoover Fellow) have resurrected the call for a Council of Historical Advisers to the President.

One Thing after Another is all about making historically informed decisions, and this blog relishes the kind of influence that might accrue to historians (but only up to a point). However, the arguments Allison and Ferguson present on behalf of this initiative are problematic and seem to show a mistaken understanding of history’s true power or jurisdiction.

Allison and Ferguson lament that “for too long, history has been disparaged as a ‘soft’ subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty.” What they would like to see is a “new and rigorous ‘applied history’—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogies.” Through these means, applied historians would “find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences.” Practitioners of this history could provide the President and his Cabinet with the advice on which sound policy could be framed. Allison and Ferguson argue that if historians had counseled President George W. Bush in 2003, he might have realized that regime change in Iraq would probably lead to a Shiite regime beholden to Iran. They also claim that if President Barrack Obama had understood more about the history of Russia’s relationship to the Ukraine, he would have handled Russia’s annexation of the Crimea better.

These examples seem ill-chosen. It would not have required a historian to make the kind of judgments that Allison and Ferguson would have preferred to see in both cases. Even more questionable and significant, though, is Allison and Ferguson’s faith in history’s ability to provide definitive answers to contemporary problems. Unfortunately, when it comes to worthwhile questions, history is only occasionally definitive; more frequently, it is a running conversation or debate among historians that may have a tendency toward an answer. History, after all, is a part of the humanities. Allison and Ferguson envision a situation where applied history would be to mainstream history what medical practice is to biochemistry or what engineering is to physics. The analogy is instructive. Biochemistry and physics are natural sciences. For sure, these fields are characterized by debate, and their models of the natural world are constantly revised to account for various anomalies. Nonetheless, biochemists and physicists can speak with more confidence and exactness about a host of phenomena in their fields than a historian can in his. Yes, historians deal in facts, and in history there are wrong answers. But historians do not and cannot establish historical theories that bear some resemblance to scientific theories—largely because historians cannot isolate the effects of each independent variable in an experiment that can be reproduced. It is for this very reason that in many previous posts, One Thing after Another has inveighed against the careless and over-frequent use of historical analogies. Events across time are usually too dissimilar to do the work of replicated experiments.

The kinds of questions that Allison and Ferguson propose sending to such their council also do not inspire much confidence that they fully appreciate this point about historical analogies. For example, they ask: “As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?” One Thing after Another is not really sure how the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality was dangerous to the peace in 1914. It is sure, however, that questions such as this one are based on mistaken premises:

The short answer is that the causes of war in Europe in 1914 (let alone the circumstances of that time and place) are not really comparable to the potential causes of war in Asia in 2016.

Or what about when Allison and Feguson propose posing “what if?” questions to this council, such as: “What if Obama had enforced his ‘red line’ against the Assad regime, rather than working with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons? Was this decision, as critics maintain, the biggest error of his presidency? Or was it, as he insists, one of his best calls?” It is hard to see what historians bring to the table in assessing this moment from the very recent past, unless Allison and Ferguson have a particular historical analogy in mind. This suggested question probably comes from Ferguson who is a big proponent of counterfactual history and even edited a collection of essays entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997). Such exercises are useful in pointing out that developments in the past were often contingent and not determined. However, counterfactual claims in history are impossible to prove, and they are uncertain ground from which to issue strong judgments of policy.

Finally, Allison and Ferguson suggest a whopper of a question for the council to tackle: “Is the U.S. in decline?” On its face, this issue is not necessarily one for historians to study (it does not have a historical dimension). If Allison and Ferguson believe they can use historical analogies to crack this nut, it is hard to see what state or empire from the past they propose employing for the purpose. Assyria? Rome? Spain? Austria-Hungary? Britain? All of these comparisons present huge challenges. This question of decline does bring Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) to mind. Kennedy was an ambitious historian who sought to gain entry into policymaking with this book. In other words, Kennedy did the kind of applied history that Allison and Ferguson recommend. While The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was influential in its time and had the appearance of a magisterial work, it aged fairly quickly, its findings were not always useful, and its predictions were not necessarily fulfilled.

At this point, one may ask, if a council of historians cannot offer us much help through a new “applied history,” what’s the point of studying history? One Thing after Another responds (patiently, since it has been over this point before in previous posts) that history does not provide precise answers about questions arising from our immediate predicaments. At most, it helps us understand how certain situations came to be. In general, though, it should hone our judgment, provide insight into human nature, inspire empathy, and inform (but not determine) our decisions. Such an answer might be too “soft” for ambitious historians, but it is important that they do not promise too much, overreach, and bring unwarranted discredit on the discipline when they cannot deliver.