Military History in the Spotlight at Oregon State

tags: military history, Oxford University Press, Christopher McKnight Nichols, Oregon State University


Steven McLain is an undergraduate student at Oregon State University. He wrote this report on the American Military and Diplomatic History Conference at Oregon State University at the request of the HNN editorial staff. Special thanks to Christopher McKnight Nichols for making this article possible.

Christopher McKnight Nichols at the American Military and Diplomatic History Conference.

Oxford University Press joined with Oregon State University on May 6-7 to celebrate the launch of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Military and Diplomatic History. Senior editors David Milne, senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, Christopher McKnight Nichols, assistant professor at Oregon State University, joined assistant editor Danielle Holtz, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and editor-in-chief Timothy Lynch, associate professor and director of Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne, at Oregon State University as part of an international Conference on American Military and Diplomatic History.

The major panels of the conference were designed to highlight "new perspectives on the historical and contemporary relationship between the United States and the world."

Following an informal guest reception on May 6, where visiting scholars were introduced to faculty and members of the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, the conference officially commenced on the afternoon of May 7 with a talk by Danielle Holtz.

Holtz began her lecture, entitled "The Impact of International Revolutions on Political Discourse in Antebellum America," by reorienting the audience's understanding of American doctrines. Highlighting the Monroe Doctrine -- the brief, unilateral declaration by James Monroe in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was closed to European colonization -- Holtz emphasized that the Doctrine was "referential" rather than "positional." A vital distinction, she asserted, insofar as the Doctrine lacked clear definitions, and was never codified in U.S. law. Neither did it have clear justification in international law. But, because of its status as a reference point of American policy, later presidents would be able to mobilize justification for action (or the lack thereof) based on Monroe's declaration. Holtz highlighted the 1848 decision of President Polk not to intercede in the Yucatán as indicative of the distinction he made between a policy "reference" and policy "position."

David Milne followed, and his talk, "The Art and Science of American Diplomacy," examined the intersection between ideology, education, and policy in American diplomacy. The author of America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, which explores the relationship between ideology and conviction in the policy recommendations of Walt Rostow during the escalation of the bombing campaign in Vietnam, Milne deftly maneuvers the sometimes blurry line between conviction and ideology in American policymaking. His talk began with recital of the decision-making process undertaken in the White House to formulate a response to Soviet development of the atomic bomb in September 1949. In order to "facilitate a robust decision-making process" President Truman created a three-man advisory committee comprised of David Lilienthal, Louis Johnson, and Dean Acheson on whether or not the United States should initiate a thermonuclear program in response. With the decision split between Lilienthal and Johnson, Acheson realized that his voice would cast the deciding vote, and so he in turn requested the opinions of his aides, George Kennan and Paul Nitze. Milne highlighted the process by which each came to his decision as a microcosm of how American foreign policy as a whole was crafted. While Kennan came to his conclusion based on deep, moral reflection, Nitze responded in a clear, realist paper which underscored Soviet perception of American weakness if the United States failed to respond. Milne used the talk to call for historians of American foreign relations to devote less attention to the ideological clash between realism and idealism, and instead "pay closer attention to the art and science of American diplomacy." Milne argued for the need to attend historically to the divide between those who think intuitively and "those bolder advocates of theory and experimentation."

The final presentation by Timothy Lynch, "The Forgotten History of American Foreign Policy Successes," reminded political scientists to use history as a laboratory to test theory. "[There] is really no other data set that we can use in the absence of historical knowledge." This, he said, was "part of his intellectual and professional motivation for editing these encyclopedias." His talk issued a challenge to historians and political scientists alike by asserting that on the scales of history, American foreign policy, has, on the whole, been a "force for good" marked by numerous notable "successes." Lynch, co-author of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy, suggested that American foreign policy is "appropriately conditioned by competitive processes" which "has great utility" and has taken the United States from "irrelevance to nearly everything." Lynch further asserted that American foreign policy is "far more marked by continuity than it is by disruption and change." Understanding the temptation of nations and people toward political polarization, Lynch stated that the founders created in the Constitution a "disputatious process" to pass legislation; competition ensured that sometimes good laws failed so that bad laws could not pass. In matters of foreign relations, Lynch stated that during times of crisis, policy changed slowly if at all. These moments of continuity indicated to Lynch that the foreign policy of the United States demonstrates a remarkably smooth maintenance of consensus. In times of crisis—such as during the Cold War and the ongoing War on Terror—"this consensus is robust," which tends to promote continuity. He argued that the Vietnam War faced so much domestic opposition because it violated that consensus. He concluded by challenging both the political scientist and the historian of American foreign relations to recognize the line of success which marks American foreign policy.

Following these daytime panels and discussions, a keynote panel on "American Power in Historical Perspective" concluded the conference, moderated by Dr. Ben Mutschler, Director of the School of History, Philosophy and Religion. With CSPAN in attendance to record the discussion, see CSPAN’s "American History TV" for the full episode of the keynote panel, Christopher McKnight Nichols joined Lynch and Milne as keynote panelists for a roundtable discussion of what each saw as central themes in the history of American power as well as their experience writing, compiling, and editing the Oxford Encyclopedia of Military and Diplomatic History. Each of the keynote speakers began with a talk that aimed to single out a central theme or argument that illuminated little-known or important ways of understanding American power. After their remarks, the panel was opened to the audience for a question and answer period.

Christopher Nichols spoke first. American foreign policy, he asserted, was shaped in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and in part, the early twentieth century not by power, but the lack thereof. American policymakers during the birth and childhood of the nation understood that the United States was both dangerously vulnerable and unable to project its power abroad. The foreign policy of these early thinkers, then, was articulated during a period of profound weakness. According to Nichols, author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of the Global Age, "weakness defined the United States’ role in the world." This weakness was articulated in an ambivalence toward a standing army, a modest diplomatic corps, and reliance upon the British navy to uphold international treaties, police the seas, and maintain the territorial integrity of the United States. It was not until the post-Civil War period, and especially the final decade of the nineteenth century, that American expansion assumed hemispheric proportions, and the United States gradually ascended to the position of power and influence we recognize today. In addition, Nichols highlighted the role of formative views – as he put it "three policy pillars" – expressed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe in laying out the relationship between weakness, isolation, and a form of cautious realism that dominated American foreign relations thought and practice for more than a century. These "pillars," he argued, help us to better understand that American "power" as currently conceived has changed significantly over time. At the end of his comments Nichols discussed a 1905 political cartoon entitled "The World’s Constable." He observed that such visions of the U.S. as a world police force were new to that era and hotly contested. As he put it in concluding his remarks, "we are mistaken to think of power as mono-directional or as largely even centered in diplomacy or military relations."

David Milne followed and examined the apparent peculiarities by which the United States develops its foreign policy. Contrasting American and British systems, Milne highlighted the dependence American policymakers place on American universities. The "revolving door" of the political/university system describes the way in which academics were invited to help shape American policy—from Walt Rostow, to Henry Kissinger and others—and after their tenure in the White House return to academia. Milne sees in this "revolving door" Americans struggling to transcend history. This American system, he maintained, directly contrasts with the diplomatic experience of Great Britain. "British diplomacy worked through history," Milne said, whereas the United States attempted to "transcend history." The deployment of British Diplomacy within the European Theater ensured that a strict, realist form of foreign policy would be implemented. The United States, in contrast, viewed its relations with the world in exceptionalist terms that relied on abstract theory. Milne went on to detail this comparison and how it reveals quite significant differences between so-called hegemonic powers. Intellectuals like Robert La Follett and Woodrow Wilson used American foreign policy not only to further the interests of the United States, but also to advance their own visions for how the world ought to be, and this seems to be one of the more profound historical and comparative differences between British and U.S. foreign policy-makers.

Finally, Timothy Lynch concluded the panel with a reflection on the broad outlines of American history he'd seen highlighted while compiling the encyclopedia. He enumerated a "top ten list" of ways to understand the "sources" and "successes" of American military and diplomatic history. Touching on American isolationism—its emphasis on remaining free of entangling alliances, and unilateral action that might be better described by what Nichols called "autonomism"—Lynch highlighted America's immigrant past and the system of power sharing that he says is "what makes it [America] special." The emphasis on taking power out of the hands of an elite class and sharing it with the people was a theme he developed further by emphasizing the degree to which immigration has molded the American experience. Lynch also talked about the consistency and slow moving nature of the American political system, particularly as it pertains to foreign policy, and he noted such key aspects as geography and climate. As successive waves of immigrants remodeled America in their image, the core of the American ideal was recast to incorporate these new voices. Importantly, Lynch highlighted the role the British institutions played in forming an American identity. Within this pedigree, distinct political theories cast the United States as a political experiment from its birth. Moreover, from the first moments of American independence, European observers predicted the imminent end of the American experiment. Despite these predictions, that demise has never occurred. Lynch posed a final rhetorical question: With what would you replace it? He challenged the audience to consider if the European Union or China could be capable of filling the void of American decline. The idealism and unique heritage of U.S. foreign policy rendered it, on the whole, a source for good in the world, and one not easily reproduced.

After Nichols, Milne and Lynch had finished speaking, a brief panel discussed began and the floor was opened for questions. The audience directed pointed questions at the speakers, chastising Lynch especially for what they perceived as a downplaying of American culpability in world affairs and interventions, or a smoothing of the nation’s turbulent past. He replied that he hoped he never gave that impression, but instead wished to highlight the overall good that the United States has played in the world. Notably, a member of the audience had recently returned from Libya as part of a documentary film crew, and wondered if American reluctance to intervene in the Middle East corresponded with Lynch's depiction of the US role. Lynch responded, "American policy is the sin of omission." The American way of war—its reliance on technology to fight cheap wars with little loss of life—he says, "is not an unalloyed good." Other questions and concerns centered on how Americans have debated interventionism and humanitarian outreach historically, including the so-called "CNN Effect," the role of intellectuals and ideas in foreign policy processes, and economics and the various causal forces that have factored prominently in the expanding U.S. role in the world since the 18th century.

Finally, when asked why they wanted to write an encyclopedia, Nichols said that he wanted "to offer the newest scholarly take on the history of American military and domestic history." Each of the authors explained their dedication to providing a concise tool for historians and political scientists as well as for the general reader to better understand history in its context and a lively conversation ensued about what scholars have to offer to broad publics, the innovative techniques the editors employed in conceiving specific essays and articles in the volumes, and the overall uses and "value added" of encyclopedias and similar works aimed at wide audiences in the age of Wikipedia.

In the catered reception which followed, audience and speakers were invited to continue the conversation, which lasted well into the evening.

The Military and Diplomatic History Conference was a rare opportunity to bring together leading and up-and-coming voices in the field for an opportunity to share their insights with the wider community. As important, it invigorated discussion amongst a more general audience and highlighted the ways in which history can be disseminated to a wider audience.

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