The College of Liberal Arts at Temple University

Profile of Dr. Alan McPherson

This is part of an ongoing series of profiles of graduate students, scholars, and Temple faculty members associated with CENFAD. We want to show you the kinds of innovative work that is out there in the research areas -- the study of force, diplomacy, and international history -- in which CENFAD specializes. If you are interested in participating in this series, please contact Brian McNamara, CENFAD's Thomas J. Davis Fellow, at brian.mcnamara@temple.edu.

Dr. Alan McPherson is Professor of International and Area Studies, ConocoPhillips Petroleum Chair of Latin American Studies, and Director of the Center for the Americas at the University of Oklahoma. In the fall of 2017, Dr. McPherson will be relocating to Philadelphia, where he will assume the position of Professor of History, and Director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University. Dr. McPherson is the author or editor of ten books, including 2003's Yankee No!: Anti-Americanism in US-Latin American Relations (Cambridge, MA.), and 2014's The Invaded: How Latin Americans and their Allies Fought and Ended US Occupations (New York), which received the 2015 Ellis J. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the 2015 Murdo J. MacLeod Book Prize from the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association.

We asked Dr. McPherson a few questions about himself and his work so that our community would be able to know more about him. CENFAD encourages everyone to come meet Dr. McPherson at one of the many CENFAD events that will be forthcoming in the fall. Until then, enjoy the answers below!

 

1) Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? Education?

I was born in Berkeley, California, but, when I was six months old, my Canadian parents moved back up to Québec, where I got my education in French-language schools around Hull and Montreal, including undergrad at the Université de Montréal. In 1994, in my senior year, I took the unusual step of doing a semester abroad as a “foreign student” at San Francisco State University, even though I was a US citizen. I liked it so much that I stayed for an MA in history. Then I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I obtained a PhD in 2001. After that, I spent seven years as a US historian at Howard University in DC and nine years as a Latin Americanist in an international studies department at the University of Oklahoma. My career has benefited from my professional and linguistic flexibility!

 

2) What sparked your interest in studying history?

From high school on, it was always my favorite subject. I didn’t get my best grades in it—math seemed easier for that—but I just loved talking about politics, social justice, and culture in the past. Nothing about the present seemed to make enough sense to me unless I knew about its past. I also loved documentaries: in college, I was too poor to own a color TV or have cable, but I had a little black-and-white set that broadcast “The American Experience” documentaries, and that’s how I fell in love with US history. As an undergrad, I seriously considered journalism, but I majored in history to give myself some background and the background eventually came to the fore. I found I wanted to write deeper, longer works than was allowed in journalism, so I shifted all my energy toward obtaining a PhD in American history. I also asked myself what I liked to do for fun. The answer was, “read history books,” so I figured out a way to get paid to do that. I still read history books to relax.

 

3) Tell us about your research.

As a specialist of US foreign relations history, I’ve always straddled the fence between that and being an area studies expert. For my PhD, I spent almost two of my five years in Latin America, mastering Spanish and doing archival research and interviews in Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. So I grew to be a practitioner of the “new international history,” which places great emphasis on knowing the “other side” in US foreign relations history, and I’ve strived to understand Latin American motivations and perceptions when facing US power. I’ve written about US-Latin American relations from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, but mostly on the twentieth. Questions of accommodation and resistance have been at the forefront of my work: What did “anti-Americanism” mean in Latin America? Why did Latin Americans resist (or not) US military occupations? I’ve also been fascinated by the US perceptions of Latin American resistance: Do US policymakers understand its sources? Does it make a difference in their decision-making? Due to the difficulty in accessing some Latin American archives, these questions will help shape the research of historians for decades to come.

 

4) What book should all historians read? Why? How has it influenced you and your scholarship?

Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America deeply influenced me when I read it in graduate school. It was one of the works in my field of US-Latin American relations that mirrored the writings of Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Boorstin. Now, those who know Hofstadter and Boorstin might object that they were “consensus” historians, in contrast to the clearly “revisionist” work on LaFeber. But my attraction to them all was not their interpretation of American history, but rather the democratic way they approached it. In my undergraduate days, I read a lot of European history in French, and, while the interpretations were fine, the writing was often impenetrable—jargon-filled, long sentences, sentences without verbs, few quotes, and little biographical information about any of the participants. None of it was made to appeal to the average educated reader, and none of it brought history to life. But LaFeber and other historians wrote in a simple, direct style that told the reader, “Don’t be afraid, this is not that complicated, and it matters.” LaFeber was also always able to make his study of the past relevant to the concerns of the present.  

 

5) In what directions do you see the study of force, diplomacy, and international history moving? What methodological/historiographical trends have you excited?

From my reading of US foreign relations and military history, I see an increasingly holistic approach forming. Rarely are we encountering “pure” descriptions of battle or jargon-filled studies of the hidden cultural meanings of diplomacy anymore. Rather, we are seeing a melding of military history, domestic politics, culture, social justice, and traditional diplomatic history in almost every one of the great books that are coming out from young scholars. I don’t think they’re just trying to please their dissertation committees. They are instead using all the tools at their disposal to give the most well-rounded, complete answers to the questions they’re asking. 

 

6) What attracted you to Temple, and to CENFAD? Where do you see the center going under your leadership?

To a large extent, I wanted to be back on the East Coast, closer to the intellectual and professional center of US foreign relations history, and I think CENFAD is one of the nodes of that central network. Richard Immerman did such a great job building the reputation and the community of CENFAD that I first aim to maintain it, by keeping alive the fellowships, colloquia, publications, and other things it does. I do want to canvas all the interested parties at Temple and beyond, to see if they have fresh ideas. My own clearest idea is to “Latin Americanize” CENFAD a bit more. Not only is Latin America my own area of expertise in US foreign relations, but it has been underrepresented in CENFAD’s colloquium series, and so I would at least increase the number of speakers who specialize in the area. Research being done by the young historians of US-Latin American relations is among the most cutting-edge in the field. Apart from that, I’m open to making CENFAD as useful as possible to the Temple community!

 

CENFAD thanks Dr. McPherson for participating in our profile series. We look forward to welcoming him to Philadelphia this fall!