By Phil Hamilton, March 24, 2010 in Interviews
Phillip Hamilton Interview with Walter A. McDougall for Lehrman American Studies Center web site, February 6, 2010....
1. Why did you want to become a historian?
I became a historian because I never decided to do anything else. As a little boy I loved geography, which in time interested me in history. But I ended up majoring in history at Amherst by default: the other subjects or teachers I had just did not fire me up. Then I ended up in history graduate school by default because I gave no thought at all to careers during my years in the army and Vietnam. Indeed, since the University of Chicago did not have teaching assistants it was not until I was a new assistant professor at Cal/Berkeley that I even stood in front of a classroom! But the moment I did it was obvious that history was my calling. It was a joy and evidently a talent that just came naturally to me.
2. You were trained as a European historian in graduate school and your first book was about French diplomacy in the early 20th century. Why did you afterwards begin focusing on American history?
How can any of us (even historians!) account for the twists and turns of our crazy lives? But the short answer is that I am one of that dying breed of generalists, as befits a disciple of world historian William H. McNeill. European diplomatic history was my main teaching responsibility at Berkeley, but my second book concerned the origins of the U.S.–Soviet space race during the Cold War. Then in 1988 I moved to the University of Pennsylvania, whose history department already had two prestigious diplomatic historians, Marc Trachtenberg in European and Bruce Kuklick in American. So I just agreed to fill in where needed, like the sixth man on a basketball team. That led to my working up a lecture course on U.S. diplomatic history since 1776, which led to my book “Promised Land, Crusader State,” which led to a publisher’s invitation to write a general American history. But I still teach European history, when needed, with gusto.
3. How did your experiences in the military in Vietnam influence your views of America and your writing about America’s past?
Like most Vietnam veterans I wanted to put the whole experience behind me. I returned from my stint as an artilleryman in 1970, but not until 1994 did a former student persuade me to give a public lecture on Vietnam at the prep school where he taught. That long perspective allowed me to appreciate keenly that yes, my status as a veteran had been formative indeed. Just being in an army—a mass, wasteful, often irrational, by-the-numbers bureaucracy—was a valuable experience for a future historian. Being a combat soldier—like hundreds of millions of other young men throughout history—was a priceless (if unpleasant) experience. Being in the Vietnam war, of course, taught me a lot about the ways—good, bad, and ugly—that Americans relate to the objects of their serial foreign policy crusades. I was not ashamed to serve and have great respect and affection for the Vietnamese people. But I witnessed botched “nation-building” first hand and have no patience with those Americans, past or present, who think they possess the resources, wisdom, and right to practice it on others.
4. What led you to write your two recent surveys of America, Freedom Just Around the Corner and Throes of Democracy? What did you want to say about the United States? How are the two books thematically similar? How are they different?
Uh, that’s like four big questions disguised as one. So I’ll give you one big answer disguised as four. I wrote those books because the editors at HarperCollins wanted a new one-volume, scholarly but readable, American history, and were told I would be a good choice. I not only flunked the synthetic “one-volume” assignment, I was too rigorous and candid to write the sort of feel-good or feel-angry Americana that sells. As for what I “wanted to say,” the preface to Freedom lists the topics (like technology and religion) I hoped to take up. But I never begin a new project with some predetermined agenda or argument to impose on the evidence. I trust that good insights and interpretations will impose themselves upon me, and they did. I learned that Americans have always been hustlers, in the good and pejorative senses, and that they must be masters of pretense in order to sustain their diverse, continental democracy, worship of God and Mammon, idealistic self-image, and millenarian foreign policies. That dark side of the force, if you will, was muted in Freedom because that was a success story about the origins and founding of the United States. The dark side dominated in Throes because that was a tragedy about the coming of Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction.
5. Throes of Democracy ends in 1877. Are you currently writing the projected third volume of the trilogy?
No, I am not, much to the dismay of my small but very loyal fan base. HarperCollins did not even want to publish the second volume, much less a third, because Freedom was not a bestseller. As for me, I think the history down to 1877 taught me what I needed to learn about the fantasies, fears, and foibles that made the USA the sort of world power it became.
6. What is your current research project?
Probably a sequel to Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776, which has been overdue ever since 9/11.
7. What book did you most enjoy researching and writing?
I would have to say, even now, it was Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur. I had just left Berkeley for Penn and that book was sort of a long farewell to the Pacific Ocean.
8. What is the value of history?
To paraphrase Jacob Burkhardt, it’s to make us wise for always, not clever for another time. Or, as I put it, since theology was banished from our schools history serves as the “religion” in our curriculum. It teaches humility.
9. What book(s) about America’s past should every U.S. history teacher read?
Truth-tellers, not myth-makers, which usually means fiction rather than non-fiction! When it comes to understanding what makes Americans tick, sour-pusses like Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain are far more trustworthy than boosters like Emerson, Whitman, or John Dewey. In our own time Walker Percy, Tom Wolfe, and Robertson Davies (a Canadian) have been truth-tellers. Also, the recently departed J. D. Salinger and William Lederer, Jr. But my point is that any history teacher can master America’s grand narrative and range of interpretations from the books by us professionals. The irony, tragedy, and beautiful self-delusion of American life are best apprehended through art.
10. What two or three historical sites should every American citizen visit?
Whatever place makes them weep, be it a battlefield, monument, landmark, building, or just the home towns of their grandparents in America and great-grandparents across the sea. The rest of it—Jamestown, Independence Hall, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C.—they can experience virtually if not in person.
11. What advice would you give to a graduate student or recent Ph.D. looking for employment in higher education today?
I have always told students there is only one good reason to pursue graduate work in history: because you love history and would not be fulfilled doing anything else. The odds of finishing the Ph.D., landing a faculty position, and ultimately becoming a tenured professor at a good university are slim in the best of times. If you are currently an unemployed Ph.D., I would say do what you must to pay the bills, but exploit your lack of teaching duties to publish!
12. What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?
I’ll give you three. “The Oxford History of Christianity” edited by John McManners; “Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan” by Clinton Heylin; and “Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janiero 1808-1821” by Patrick Weylin. All are splendid.
13. What hobbies do you have?
It’s more accurate to ask what hobbies did I have before the burdens of responsibility and frailties of senescence drove them from my calendar. But the “official” hobbies listed on my C.V. include “books, music from Bach to Bob Dylan, golf, chess, Chicago sports, a sense of humor, and C. S. Lewis.”