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Is diplomatic history dying?

By Timothy J. Lynch


Despite lying at the intersection of both history and international relations — two of the most popular disciplines in the contemporary arts academy — diplomatic history is seen as old-fashioned. New, trendier, and leftier approaches have risen. Consider that of the 45 historians at the University of Wisconsin in 2009, 13 (or 29%) specialized in gender, race, and ethnicity; only 1 (or 2%) studied diplomatic history or US foreign policy. Between 1972-2009, the Journal of American History published 36 articles that expressed some sympathy for American communism and not a single one which was critical.

The bestselling history textbook remains Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980). Zinn was unabashedly liberal-leftist in his approach. His book is currently the 860th bestselling book in America. Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, a conservative interpretation, is 19,331st. This is not to argue over the academic merits of both books but to observe that Zinn’s leftism has necessarily affected how many students and their teachers understand US history. Despite over 40% of Americans describing themselves as conservative, less than 16% of academics identify that way. The American academy, no less American historiography, is a liberal hegemony.

Why this imbalance? After all, diplomatic history has hardly been the preserve of conservative scholars. Perhaps the most important 20th century work of diplomatic history was William Appleman Williams’ Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) — the inspiration for a wave of left-leaning revisionist histories of US foreign policy. Christopher McKnight Nichols and David Milne, my two associate editors for the Oxford Encyclopedia, would comfortably locate themselves on the progressive wing of modern politics. Liberal historiography is a very broad church.

One possible answers lies in the necessary focus on the ‘great man’ thesis of history — either implicitly or explicitly — in the work of many diplomatic historians. Men, and it largely is men, have been the key foreign policy makers until comparatively recently. They have lead nations, fought wars, and dictated the terms of peace. All the great commanders-in-chief in US history have been men because all 42 presidents have been men.

As a way around this, university students are increasingly presented with impersonal forces and told these are responsible for injustice or are, conversely, the locomotives of progress. Racism, economic deprivation, and gender inequality color the research agendas of a substantial number of historians. Ameliorate these forces and we can enter the sunny uplands of progress and equality. It is not individuals that move history but forces, pressures, classes, sexes, races, even climate. Nations, led by individual leaders, are made to matter less than the United Nations, led by supposedly progressive impulses.

The diplomatic historian, of course, may be in sympathy with some of this. But he or she must also acknowledge the elite nature of much of what he or she studies: the president and his foreign policy principals, ambassadors and military commanders. And that elite, until the era of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, was overwhelmingly white and male.

This modern bias against elitism and ‘great men’ and in favor of the explanatory power of impersonal forces is inherent in much contemporary historiography. Diplomatic historians find themselves having to bridge the divide. If only there were more of them — liberal and conservative — doing it.

Timothy J. Lynch is an Associate Professor, Director of the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Associate Dean for Research at the University of Melbourne. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. View the Melbourne launch of the Encyclopedia, or attend the American Military and Diplomatic History conference at Oregon State University on 7 May 2013.

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Image credit: A row of international flags. Photo by canbalci, iStockphoto.

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  1. Cal Engime

    Neil Gross has recently written a book on the liberal hegemony in the American academy for Harvard University Press, titled Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? The answer he finds is that academia’s reputation for liberal politics appeals to young liberal students and deters equally promising conservatives. (Lest this be misunderstood, he does not say there is a hiring bias against conservatives; conservatives themselves choose not to pursue careers in liberal academia.)

  2. [...] of American Military and Diplomatic History, gave diplomatic history back in May in his post “Is Diplomatic History Dying?” (to be fair, he does not evoke the stereotypes for religious studies I outlined above). In this [...]

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