Diplomatic history, the famous quip goes, is the record of what one clerk said to another clerk. Or so it was. In 1959 William Appleman Williams published The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, igniting a ferocious debate about American empire. While at least a generation of diplomatic historians were busy arguing about Turner’s Frontier Thesis, the Open Door notes, and who’s most to blame for the Cold War, other historians were revolutionizing the way history was written by studying topics like gender, race, and ideology. Diplomatic history was at its peak of popularity during the most violent years of the Vietnam War, but soon after the conclusion of the war the subfield realized it had been left behind.
In 1980, Charles Maier decried the languishing state of diplomatic history, arguing that its published works revolved around tired one-dimensional arguments that paled in comparison to the serious work of other subfields. Not long after Maier aired his critique of the field, diplomatic historians began exploring the role of ideas and culture in U.S. foreign policy, perhaps most prominently in the publication of works such as Michael Hunt’s Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy and Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945. Today, diplomatic historians have come to fully embrace the old “new” ways of examining history. Indeed, recent winners of one of SHAFR’s most prestigious book award have gone to titles such as The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and The Philippines (Paul Kramer), Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Mary Renda), and Outposts of Civilization: Race, Religion, and the Formative Years of American-Japanese Relations (Joseph Henning).
While the embrace of new ways of writing history helped improve the profile of diplomatic historians within academia, diplomatic history has also benefited greatly from the latest fad of the ivory tower: transnationalism. As Thomas Zeiler notes in his state of the field essay of 2009, it is not uncommon to see diplomatic historians publish in specialized journals outside of their field or, equally as important, scholars from other fields publishing in journals like Diplomatic History. Quite conveniently, in Zeiler’s cheerful opinion, historians’ newfound interest in transnational trends complements diplomatic history’s relatively recent diversification of intellectual pursuits. “The field of diplomatic history has now entered the stream of cutting-edge scholarship, all while retaining the distinct characteristic of privileging the study of power in the international arena.”
Unfortunately, despite all the advances recently made in diplomatic history, it still suffers from a serious problem of relevancy. In June of last year, Patricia Cohen of the New York Times published an article examining the troubles of diplomatic history. Zeiler is cited in the article arguing that “The shift [to studying culture, discourse, race, gender, etc.] does not necessarily mean students aren’t learning the material, he noted, but rather that a new approach to teaching it has developed.” The numbers Cohen cites, however, challenge this assertion. Cohen notes that “Fewer traditional courses in the subject are taught, fewer articles are published in refereed journals, and graduate student training has changed”:
In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women’s history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.This might explain Tony Judt’s morbidly humorous recount of his experience teaching European diplomatic history at an American university:
How have some departments sliced up the pie? At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, out of the 45 history faculty members listed (many with overlapping interests), one includes diplomatic history as a specialty, one other lists American foreign policy; 13 name either gender, race or ethnicity. Of the 12 American-history professors at Brown University, the single specialist in United States empire also lists political and cultural history as areas of interest. The department’s professor of international studies focuses on victims of genocide.
After some probing ... [the] students would start to confess that they were actually in a state of panic. To be sure, they could expatiate at length on theories of nationalism. They had mastered the disputes surrounding the nature of fascism or the gendered impact of industrialization. They knew how to "explain" history.... But they had not the foggiest notion what happened, when it happened, who did it, or why.One might get the impression that diplomatic historians would have had the most to gain in academia from the events of September 11th and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but it seems the increased interest in world affairs has mainly benefited political science and area studies departments. It would be a bit crass to suggest that in seeking approval from the most “cutting-edge” scholars, diplomatic historians have become as irrelevant as they are. But perhaps there is something to this. In one way, Zeiler is right. There are few who would disagree with the notion that diplomatic history has vastly improved since it embraced new analytical methods. In this sense, diplomatic history is thriving. But why has it declined so much in terms of faculty positions and course offerings?
It cannot really be said that students have lost interest in world affairs. While a straightforward answer escapes me, I sense that despite all the flaws of the scholarship put out by the revisionists and their rivals, they did have the virtue of being understandable to curious students not already versed in highbrow academic debates and jargon. It is no coincidence that Niall Ferguson and John Lewis Gaddis are part of the chosen few diplomatic historians you’ll find at a Barnes & Noble: anyone vaguely familiar with history can pick up and understand their books. Though it is perhaps best that diplomatic historians get used to the fact that they will never be as popular as they were in the 1960s, it should be urged that more complexity be accompanied with a greater effort to remain accessible to people without graduate degrees in history.
William Mangoman Williams