The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Some understanding of history is essential for living an "examined life."  Mostly it is through the study of history that I've developed my understanding of who we are - who I am - and how I should live. Over the past quarter century, I have conducted research, written and taught widely on historical topics. This sense of self developed through the study of history serves as the basis for my work as an administrator and scholar.  Generally, I have focused my own historical writing on how Americans have viewed this nation - its ideals and its mission - and what they have done to promote their vision of national greatness.  

David Peck Todd (1855-1939)

David Peck Todd (1855-1939)

Finding My Place in History

As an undergraduate at Columbia and then at Yale, I studied with historians who inspired me with their passion for knowledge. Robin Winks and Paul Kennedy stand out for their enthusiasms, diligence and generous spirits. Enjoying the bounty that these colleges offered, I took courses in cultural, intellectual, social and political history from such outstanding teachers as James ShentonPeter Gay, Frank Turner, John Merriman, and Edmund S. Morgan. Robin Winks and Peter Gay advised my senior essay project, a biography of the astronomer and public intellectual David Peck Todd. 

Immediately after graduating from Yale, I "went up" to Oxford University where I studied the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth with John Darwin, Gower Rizvi and Sir Michael Howard. Studying the history of the British Empire was in many ways like studying world history with a special lens. As I got deeper into the work I realized that I could only sensibly make a career of it if I learned one or more Asian or African languages. While many people have studied empires knowing only the lingua franca - the imperial language, the wave seemed to run clearly toward doing in-depth local studies. I've never been particularly skilled at picking up languages, and the idea of tackling Xhosa or Gujarati was too daunting. So after a year, I picked up my master's degree and my interest in empires to return to the US.  

Westward The Course of Empire Takes its Way

I started a PhD in history at the University of California at Berkeley. My previous experience and studies had convinced me of the importance of studying the origins of the "American Empire." I choose to study at Berkeley not only because of its outstanding history department but also because I felt the need to learn more about this country by living outside of the northeast. 

Berkeley provided great opportunities for graduate students to gain teaching experience. I worked as a teaching assistant or a reader for several undergraduate history courses including the US survey, US foreign relations, and the Civil War and Reconstruction.  In my third year, I taught my own senior seminars on US Foreign Relations in the Progressive Era. This was great fun, sparking my life-long enjoyment of teaching undergraduates.  

For me, the most intriguing origins of the American empire lie in the transformation of the US Navy in the late 19th Century. Within a remarkably short span of 12 years, the Navy changed from a third-rate, dilapidated "brown water" enterprise mostly focused on coastal defense into a world-class, "blue water" fleet capable of taking on other great powers and asserting America's presence in the Caribbean, Pacific and soon even the Atlantic. I wanted to know why the strategy shifted so dramatically - and so quickly. 

Unlike other scholars who had argued that this shift resulted from external threats or from an extension of Manifest Destiny, I argued that it resulted from the deliberate campaigns of Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan and other less known "navalists." They set out to change the nation destiny by building a modern navy. Careful study of the history of previous empires taught them that sea power held the key to greatness. If a nation is capable of controlling sea lanes of communication, then it will enjoy greater security, more trade and ultimately more cultural capital as well. Their understanding of the historical forces demanded that they reshape America's political and cultural discourse in order to build support for the formation of a modern powerful fleet of steam driven, steel battleships. And in the face of a a fragmented peace movement and favorable economics (dropping steel prices and increased institutional efficiency), they achieved their goals in an astonishingly short time. By the early 1890s, the had prevailed in a naval revolution, and within a few years the United States emerged as a great power.  

The Influence of Ideas Upon the Historian

My dissertation advisors were historians Richard M. Abrams (chair) and Diane S. Clemens, and the eminent political scientist Nelson W. Polsby. During my fourth and final year of the PhD program, I enjoyed a term as a visiting scholar at Yale where Paul Kennedy and Michael Howard mentored my dissertation writing. Kennedy had recently published his epic Rise and Fall of the Great Powers triggering a global conversation about whether the US was in a period of irreversible decline. The commercial success of this book also brought a flow of foundation support to his new research program. I enjoyed that support in the form of a Post-Doctoral followed by three year-long appointments teaching history and helping Kennedy run the International Security Studies Program. I organized a research colloquium, a lecture series and several international conferences on military and naval history.  

Working at Yale at the beginning of my career enabled me to become friends some of the best historians around, including including then-junior faculty colleagues like David BellSteve GillonBill Cronon and Ben Kiernan and such promising graduate students as Will HitchcockJenni SiegelMary SarotteSteven Stoll, and Matt Connelly each of whom have gone on to illustrious careers of their own.  

The US Naval Institute Press published my dissertation book in 1995.

While at Yale, I revised my dissertation for publication.  The nineties saw large-scale cutbacks in the publication of monographs, but I was fortunate to find a reputable academic publisher in the Naval Institute Press. They could afford to publish books like Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power 1882-1893, presumably at a loss, on account of having published Tom Clancy's first book, the run away best-seller The Hunt for Red October.  My book received good reviews but didn't sell 1% as many copies as Clancy's.  

If you're interested in my topic but don't want to invest the time to read the nearly 300-page book, I'd recommend my chapter in The Politics of Strategic Adjustment edited by Peter Trubowitz, Emily Goldman and Ed Rhodes. As the editors note, my work underscores "not only the contestability and changeability of ideas but also the deep-cultural quality of the process by which ideas are transformed. Beliefs about the nature of the world and about appropriate behavior in that world are neither fixed nor an immediate reflection of materials forces. These beliefs serve a critical role in identity formation." 

Ultimately, I was appointed an Associate Professor of History at the US Air War College. The war colleges offer advanced professional education for outstanding senior military officers. I taught the basic course on strategy and policy using the historical method, as well specialized courses in the history of US Intelligence and National Security and in the Laws of War. Working at the Air War College was amazing. The resources for research were first-class. The students were smart and for the most part highly motivated. And we went on some fabulous field trips including a staff ride at Gettysburg, a tour of the Atlantic Fleet, and a visit to Fort Benning to meet new recruits and witness some awesome displays of Army firepower. 

In addition to history, I had long been interested in the law. The common law system relies heavily on the tools of history to examine and argue from precedent, so I figured, I might enjoy a professional advantage. In 1996, I left the War College to enter Columbia Law School. 

Historian and Citizen

Having studied history made the law school experience more interesting and rewarding. The case method employed by most law professors rewards those who can look for important facts, recognize meaningful context, analyze texts carefully and piece together a coherent story. Law school was fun - mostly a series of historical puzzles which I was skilled at solving. Meanwhile, I was able to teach military history at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs - just down the corridor from the law school.  

Columbia had some outstanding legal historians then, including former dean Barbara Black who supervised an independent study project that resulted in my first law review article.  Bridging history and law, The Progressive Era Origins of the National Security Act offered a different kind of legislative history. Rather than examining the acts and words of legislators in the months leading up to the drafting of the formative 1947 National Security Act, this piece looks at proposals and programs from a generation before. During World War I, a group lawyers, bankers and educators defined and proposed a broad slate of changes to US law and custom in order to promote a new notion of "national security." Unlike previous hawks, their ambition went far beyond building up the army and the navy. During the course of WWI, the new National Security League

"had publicly proposed and advocated: a consolidated defense department; national security coordination by professionals instead of a politically responsive Congress; joint military purchasing; a national natural resources board; universal conscription; construction of a national highway system; and English-only requirements for citizenship and residency."

The NSL's leaders also promoted a "100% American" agenda. This brand of hyper-nationalism did not bear fruit in the Progressive Era. A generation later, however, the experience of WWII and then the early Cold War had changed the nation. The post-war Congress adopted most of this agenda. I've always been interested in this tension between order and freedom - "ordered liberty" as Justice Cardozo termed it. What makes a nation choose more order and less liberty?  I asked this question many times and in many ways.  

Every nation must find its way. History is replete with stories of countries that disintegrated because leaders failed to take the necessary steps to maintain order and security. History is also full of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism, of bullies and autocrats, of torture, genocide and crimes against humanity - all for the sake of "order." As a historian, I'm mostly interested in the domestic factors that shape these decisions. In other words, some people generally attribute changes in strategy to events in the external threat environment. And yes, some external threats really do demand changes on the home front. Other scholars attribute these changes to technological transformations. Yes, the invention of nuclear weapons did inevitably reshape the contours of international relations. Of course, this kind of factor can make all the difference in the world. But a nation's character is revealed by the decisions it makes to balance the demands of security and liberty. So for me, the study of history is interwoven with citizenship and service. At this point, I write history to help inform better decision national security decision making.  

Four Freedoms

A running theme in my scholarship is that ideas, clearly articulated and practically instituted, shape our world. In January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt articulated the Four Freedoms - the package of ideas that constituted the US mission in World War II. These simple ideas, brilliantly stated and zealously pursued, continue to improve our world.  

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. 

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception–the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Illustrator Norman Rockwell created these posters of the Four Freedoms to raise funds for the war effort.  He not only succeeded but also provided decades worth of understanding and support for the package of freedoms that found its way into the International Bill of Rights.

FDR drew on the Constitution's First Amendment as the source of the first and second freedoms: speech and religion. His experience running the country's government during the Great Depression inspired the Freedoms from Want and Fear. In the years that followed, FDR and much of the world adopted these Four Freedoms as a shorthand for American values. Following FDR's death, they were incorporated into the Charter of the United Nations. And then in 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt, as chair of the drafting committee, brought them into new the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I have written several articles about the Four Freedoms, examining their history from their origins through the Second World War and analyzing how they fared during the Cold War, when they were split like much of the world. The West generally promoted the freedom of speech and religion -- civil and political rights. The Soviet Bloc claimed to be putting the freedoms from want and fear up front. In a post-9/11 world, I argue, the Four Freedoms should be reassembled as a nice shorthand for humane and sustainable grand strategy today.  The most complete version of this argument is here in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy

Civil-Military Relations

Part of the complex equation of balancing security and liberty interests can be found in the way that a society structures the relationships between civil authority and the armed forces. In many countries with weak civilian governments, the military enjoy tremendous autonomy - to the point that generals and admirals influence the governmental priorities far outside the military sphere. On the other hand, mature democracies typically ensure that the armed forces remained entirely under the control of elected civilians.

With BG Mark Martins, the Chief Prosecutor of the US Military Commissions at Andrews AFB on our way to Guantanamo (August 2014)

With BG Mark Martins, the Chief Prosecutor of the US Military Commissions at Andrews AFB on our way to Guantanamo (August 2014)

I have been studying the American tradition of civil-military relations. My article, Lead Me, Follow Me or Get Out of the Way, examines recent academic studies on the US tradition since the end of our war in Vietnam. It turns out to be a fascinating story.  According to one scholar, late Chief Justice William Rehnquist used his office to hew "the armed forces from general society in order to create a separate—and more socially conservative—sphere." I continue to pursue this research question -- how members of all three government branches have tried to shape our national destiny by structuring civil-military relations.