Month: August 2016

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.

Professor Moore Wins Grant from Luce Foundation

Carter and Moore

Professor Andy Moore recently landed a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to host the conference, “Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered.” Recently, One Thing after Another asked Professor Moore about the conference, the Luce Foundation, and Jimmy Carter.

Q: What is the Henry Luce Foundation?

A: Henry Luce was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and in 1936 he established the Henry Luce Foundation to honor his parents who had been missionaries to China. According to its website, the Foundation “seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities.” This grant came from the Foundation’s Theology program.

Q: What is the purpose of the grant that you won?

A: I was awarded the grant to host an academic conference. The conference commemorates the 40th anniversary of a Newsweek magazine cover story about the appearance of evangelical Christians in public life. Newsweek borrowed a recent phrase from pollster George Gallup and labeled 1976 the “Year of the Evangelicals.” That issue appeared on October 25, 1976. I had hoped to schedule the conference for the 40th anniversary, but the timing is not going to work out. The best we can do is the spring 2017 semester, and January, February, and March are too unpredictable weather-wise. So the conference will take place April 6, 7, and 8.

Q: Besides the Luce Foundation, have you received other support?

A: Yes. Both the History and Politics Departments are contributing money, and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and the office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs are covering what the Luce Foundation grant does not. Conferences are not cheap, and I am grateful for everyone’s support.

Q: Do you know yet who will be participating in the conference?

A: Not entirely. Soon I will formally announce the conference and invite historians, political scientists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, and journalism scholars to participate (what academics call a ‘call for papers’). I have received a few commitments from some prominent historians. Notably, Randall Balmer will deliver the conference opening keynote address. He is the Dartmouth Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College and the author of many books—most recently, a biography of Jimmy Carter called Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. That lecture will also be the College’s Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Distinguished Lecture. There are a few other historians—from as far away as Britain—who are committed also. The Newsweek religion editor who wrote the original story—Kenneth Woodward—also has expressed an interest in participating, and I am hopeful we can pull that off as well.

Q: Why was the Newsweek article on the Year of the Evangelicals” so important?

A: A bit of history helps here. After the infamous Scopes Trial in 1925, fundamentalist Protestant Christians gradually removed themselves from public life. They concentrated on building their own institutions—churches, schools, missionary societies, etc.—so that they essentially ended up talking to each other and not trying to influence politics or public policy or change the culture. In the years after World War II, some of those people decided they needed to stop isolating themselves and start trying to engage the world around them. They decided they had something to offer to public debate, including politics and culture. They thought of themselves as “evangelicals,” and their desire to engage with outsiders intellectually and culturally distinguished them from fundamentalists. By 1976 they were becoming enough of a recognizable voting bloc that both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter believed it would benefit them to be identified as “born again” Christians. The Newsweek cover story marked a realization of those evangelicals’ growing public influence. The story had sort of a “gee whiz, who knew there were these people out there. Isn’t this fascinating?” feel to it.

Q: And why was Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency so significant in the context of the evangelical movement?

A: Carter knew those people were out there, because he was one of them. He talked about being born again himself, and his life story—raised Southern Baptist, he was active in his church as a deacon and Sunday School teacher—resonated with those evangelicals. He spoke their language, and for their part it was exciting to have one of their own be running for president. However, he made some missteps—like granting an interview to Playboy magazine—and squandered some of that good will in the weeks leading up to the election. Still, he garnered enough evangelical support to win, and the election of 1976 does mark their re-entry into public life as a recognizable voting bloc. To be sure, by 1980, most of those evangelicals gave up on him in favor of Ronald Reagan.

Q: How did you get interested in Jimmy Carter?

A: Several years ago I had finished writing a book on Catholics in the post-World War II American South, and I was looking around for my next research topic. I was asked by an editor at Louisiana State University Press if I was interested in writing a biography of someone. I chose Carter. I was raised Southern Baptist myself, and I have certain expectations about the relationship between church and state. For those reasons, Carter interests me, so I agreed to write a biography of him. I figured I could use him to explore some issues related to my home region and my own faith. I have already published a little bit about Carter and the election of1976, but other projects have intervened over the years, and I have made what can only be considered glacial progress on the book. Still, I’m plugging away and hope the book appears eventually.

Q: What’s the story behind the picture of you with Carter?

A: I went to his church in Plains, Georgia—Maranatha Baptist Church—one Sunday. Carter teaches a Sunday School class for adults there. The church advertises his teaching schedule, and tourists come to see Carter. A few years ago, my family and I were on vacation at the beach in Georgia, and I drove over for church that Sunday. He teaches a room full of a couple hundred people or so, and if you stay through the worship service, then Carter will pose for a photo with you. There are very strict rules for the photo line (no touching Carter, no trying to chat him up, keep moving), so it’s not like I actually met him. I said, “Hello, Mr. President.” He nodded and mumbled in my general direction. The designated picture-taker pushed the button on my phone and then yelled “next!” And then the Secret Service made sure I didn’t hang around.

Very Short Reviews: Mitter’s Forgotten Ally

Forgotten Ally

Rana Mitter is currently a Fellow of St. Cross College at Oxford and a member of the faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. He has written extensively on modern Chinese history with a special focus on the period before, during, and after World War II. His latest work, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, was named a book of the year by the Economist, Financial Times, Observers, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, and New Statesman.

Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (Boston: Mariner Books, 2013).

  1. Mitter argues that the true story of the war, never well understood in the West (partly due to the influence of subsequent Cold War politics) and largely obscured until recently in China by the ruling Communist Party, played an enormously significant role in shaping Chinese attitudes and making China what it is today.
  2. An extremely important theme running throughout this book is the way the experience intersected with the modernization of China.
  3. The conflict interrupted an earnest Kuomintang initiative to bring China into the 20th century China, halting modernization in some areas (e.g. economic development), pushing it forward in desultory fashion in others (e.g. social welfare provisions), and accelerating it dramatically in still others (e.g. political mobilization).
  4. As Mitter points out, the war helped determine who among the following would guide China’s modernization and therefore how it would unfold: Chiang Kai-Shek (leader of the Kuomintang government), Mao Zedong (who seized the opportunity presented by the war to become the unquestioned leader of the Communists), and Wang Jingwei (a member of the Kuomintang who advocated cooperation with the Japanese and eventually defected to them to found a collaborationist government in Nanjing).
  5. China’s future course, however, would not be determined exclusively by these leaders or even the Chinese people; it was contingent on the events of the war and the Japanese, the Soviets, the British, and the Americans who helped influence those events.
  6. Mitter recognizes Chiang’s weaknesses as well as those of the Kuomintang government (some readers, however, may think that he does not lay enough stress on these weaknesses, including widespread corruption and incompetence), but he also emphasizes the enormously difficult position in which this government found itself throughout the war.
  7. Much of that difficulty had to do with the Western imperialist powers: for over four years, until December 1941, they left the Chinese to their own devices in dealing with a militarily superior Japan; although China did enormous service to the Allied cause by refusing to surrender and holding down 500,000 Japanese troops, the Allies never made a priority of assisting Chiang; and when assistance did come, it was accompanied by very difficult conditions (e.g. General Joseph Stilwell was imposed on Chiang as chief of staff and commander of the China Burma India Theater which gave the American control of all Lend-Lease supplies to China, an unfortunate situation, for as Stilwell exercised enormous leverage over Chiang, the two grew to hate each other).
  8. Of course, the Nationalists discredited themselves with repeated defeats in 1937 and 1938 (that led to widespread loss of territory), the breaching of the Yellow River dikes to halt the Japanese advance in 1938 (that caused the deaths of 500,000 Chinese civilians), the failure of the campaign in Burma in 1942 (yet another disaster for Chinese arms), the Henan famine of 1942 and 1943 (which killed some 3 million more civilians), catastrophic losses during Japan’s Ichi-Go campaign in 1944, as well as the unraveling of the Chinese government and economy.
  9. Although they also faced a number of difficulties, the Communists emerged from the war with a better reputation at home and even abroad—in part because they did not have to bear the logistical and administrative burden of supporting a conventional army the way the Nationalists did.
  10. This book is not a military history, and Mitter does not seem particularly comfortable discussing military subjects in any kind of detail; this story is  cetered on Chiang, Mao, and Wang with occasionally forays into the lives of everyday people or a bird’s eye view of great events.

Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR


Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.