September 2001 Newsletter

Past President's Column

This is the inaugural essay by past SHAFR Presidents. The topics were open and completely at the discretion of the writers.

Robert Divine, Littlefield Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas - Austin, was president in 1976.

How I Became a Diplomatic Historian

My career as an historian of American foreign policy confirms the shrewd insight of Scottish writer John Buchan on the role of chance in history. Best known for his thriller Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan was also a prolific historian who pointed out the haphazard and often accidental way that events can unfold in his essay, "The Causal and the Causal in History." All too often, looking for a rational explanation of how things happened, historians neglect the way chance can determine the outcome.

In my case, three unrelated accidental occurrences were decisive in my becoming a diplomatic historian - a broken hip, the discovery of the total lack of linguistic aptitude, and the unexpected cooperation of political scientists.

The broken hip (actually a slipped epiphysis as the result of growing too fast) occurred when I was thirteen. Up to that time, while I had gotten reasonably good grades in public school in New York City, I had little interest in reading beyond comic books and juvenile pot-boilers. But when I found myself flat on my back for six months in a body cast, I discovered history. My older brother, then an undergraduate at Yale, came home for the summer and brought his European history text with him. I began reading about masters and serfs, kings and nobles, Napoleon and Bismarck, and I was hooked. History, I decided, was a fascinating subject and one that I would pursue as soon as I returned to school.

In l943, my father, a physician, returned to the Navy (he had served in World War I), and with the family on the move, I was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy. By now my hip had mended, but my previous lack of academic diligence forced me to drop back a year and enter as a freshman. Exeter proved to be just what I needed - small classes, a heavy emphasis on writing, and a good library. I took the required course in American history, but it did not excite me - partly due to an uninspired instructor, but more because my real love was European history. The next year I was fortunate enough to have a genuinely gifted teacher in Henry Bragdon for modern Europe. He introduced me to the reformation and the enlightment, explored the impact of the industrial revolution and made 19th century nationalism come alive. After another course on the history of England, I graduated from Exeter determined to major in history in college and devote the rest of my life to teaching and writing about modern Europe.

It was at Yale that I discovered that an insurmountable obstacle stood in my way. I had taken Latin at Exeter and did well, but Spanish proved more difficult - I barely made a B. I could work laboriously on translating Spanish into English, but I had no facility in speaking a foreign language, much less in becoming absorbed in it. I then learned I had to pass reading tests in both French and German to enter graduate school in history, which came as a great shock. I struggled manfully with French and passed the exam. For German, I took an intensive summer course that enabled me to read
Thomas Mann in eight weeks and pass the entrance exam, but I forgot it all just as quickly!

Aware that I lacked the language skills to do the reading and research I craved in European history, I reluctantly shifted my focus to the American past. Three courses, taught by scholars of very different temperament, helped confirm my decision. As a sophomore, I took Ralph Gabriel's course on the history of American thought. A shy, scholarly man, Gabriel's lectures shined with elegant prose and coherent organization that made them fascinating to me. I found Samuel Flagg Bemis a little overbearing in my first exposure to diplomatic history, provoking us with his dogmatic interpretations but succeeding in making the subject both lively and compelling. Finally, my favorite course was Howard Lamar's survey of the American West. A young instructor, low-key but with a dry sense of humor, Lamar went beyond the usual cowboy and Indians approach to show the complex nature of the expanding American frontier.

By the time I had graduated from Yale and was accepted into graduate school, I was sure I would write my dissertation on some aspect of the frontier experience, drawing on the Coe collection of Western Americana which Yale had just acquired.

In graduate school at Yale, first year students took a year long seminar on the literature of American history and wrote a paper on an historian of their choice. I naturally chose Frederick Jackson Turner and though the paper turned out well (David Potter later asked for a copy when he was writing People of Plenty), I began to lose my initial interest in the West, perhaps because Howard Lamar was not yet teaching a seminar. My second year, I found my dissertation topic in Ralph Gabriel's seminar, writing a research paper on the l924 National Origins Immigration Act which I later expanded in a dissertation on American immigration policy from the l920s through the McCarran-Walter Act in l952. Since I was writing in l953, I had difficulty in persuading my committee to accept so recent a topic (Bemis was particularly dubious), but the dissertation was approved and later published by the Yale University Press.

When I entered the job market in l954, the outlook was grim. Enrollments had been falling after the postwar surge of veterans and jobs were scarce. I billed myself simply as an American historian, as was the custom before the age of specialization. Fortunately, Texas had hired a colleague, Otis Pease, for a one-year replacement slot in l953, and he worked so well that the department decided to add four more new instructors to take over the survey course, which had previously been taught mainly by teaching assistants. My new colleagues, in addition to Pease, who soon left for the University of Washington, included David Van Tassel, an intellectual historian who later moved to Case Western Reserve, and Otis Singletary, who eventually became the president of the University of Kentucky. All of us taught four sections of History 615, the American survey, covering the first half in the fall and the second in the spring. I realize now I was fortunate to have only one course preparation in my first year of teaching, but I think I could have repeated each week's lectures in my sleep after delivering them four times to listless undergraduates.

It was thus a great relief when the chairman informed me that I could begin teaching an upper-division course in the spring of my second year. He asked what I wanted to teach - in effect, inviting me to name my speciality. Western history was out of the question - it was taught by our one true star, Walter Prescott Webb. Not wanting to infringe on David Van Tassel's interest in the history of American thought, I recalled how much I had enjoyed diplomatic history, despite ambivalent feelings about Sam Bemis. Diplomatic history, I realized, would allow me to weave in quite a bit of European history. When I told the chairman I wanted to teach the history of American foreign policy, he replied that while it had never been taught in the department, it was considered to be part of political science and was under the control of the Government Department. Fortunately, my chairman entered into delicate negotiations with his counterpart in Government, who finally persuaded Lloyd Meacham, a specialist in Latin American relations, to turn over the history of American foreign relations to me. The only sticking point was the dividing line between history and currrent relations; I was informed that I could teach diplomatic history as long as I did not go beyond the Washington Conference of l921-22. For someone who had written about legislation only a year old in a dissertation, that was a real problem, but one easily solved. Aware that few in authority ever know what instructors actually teach in their classes, I labeled the second half of my two-semester survey, U.S. foreign policy since l890, and happily included not only World War II but the Korean War in my lectures.

There were both advantages and disadvantages in being a self-taught diplomatic historian. While I did rely on some old lecture notes from Bemis' class, as well as on Thomas Bailey's text for anecdotes, I had to scramble to read the literature I would have mastered earlier if I had been trained in diplomatic history. Some late nights were devoted to reading Bemis on the diplomacy of the founding fathers, Arthur Whitaker and Julius Pratt on territorial expansion, Dexter Perkins on the Monroe Doctine, Norman Graebner and Frederick Merk on Manifest Destiny, Arthur Link on Wilson and World War I, Langer and Gleason and Robert Sherwood on the Second World War. But it was all fresh in my mind, and I was able to integrate this literature with what I had learned about political, cultural and intellectual history to avoid too narrow a focus. The result, I hope, was a generalist's view of how diplomacy fit into the larger story of American growth and expansion, first on the continent, later in the world.

I taught the survey of American diplomatic history for the next forty years. As I became known as a diplomatic historian, I often had to correct those who identified me as a Bemis student. While I am indebted to Professor Bemis for first introducing me to the mysteries of American foreign policy, I feel that I gained as much insight from my other professors, Howard Lamar, Ralph Gabriel, David Potter on the U.S., and Archibald Foord, Tom Mendenhall, Leonard Krieger, and Hajo Holborn on the European side.

The vastness of the literature and the complexity of the subject make specialization mandatory today, but I believe that there are great benefits to developing a broader understanding in order to place the field of concentration in its proper setting.

Had it not been for the broken hip, the language difficulty and cooperative political scientists, I would not have become a diplomatic historian. Buchan was right - too often we search for rational causes for historical events, when often the outcome is the result of pure chance. In my case, at least, the accidents were all happy ones which led to a career I had not expected but have thoroughly enjoyed.