On June 2-3, 2006, the International History Workshop convened its first annual symposium, “Border Crossings: New Work in the International History of the Twentieth Century.” The conference showcased Temple faculty and graduate students, as well as prominent faculty and graduate students from institutions across the country. (See Strategic Visions Vol. 7, No. 1 for a list of panels and participants.) Under the inspiring direction of Professor William I. Hitchcock, participants presented new research highlighting the variety and complexity of current scholarship in international history. Below, Ph.D. candidate Rich Grippaldi comments on the IHW from the perspective of a military historian.


Whither the military historian in international history?

commentary by Rich Grippaldi

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Drew McKevitt, Kristin S. Grueser, and David Zierler.

This past June, the International History Workshop, in conjunction with CENFAD, hosted “Border Crossings: New Work in the International History of the Twentieth Century.” The conference itself featured two days of groundbreaking work and lively discussions, including a dinner talk on Henry Kissinger by Jeremi Suri of the University of Wisconsin. One thing the conference did not feature prominently was force and its use during the past century. Given that the twentieth century was the most destructive in recorded history, measured by damage, death, or geographic scope, I cannot recommend enough to the organizers of future conferences that they encourage the greater participation of military historians and those working on military-centered topics.

I found myself fascinated by the quality and type of history on display at the workshop. The panels presented both new topics for exploration and new approaches to older histories. From Temple alone, as an example, “Border Crossings” featured a planned environmental history of the Vietnam War; the operations of American Quakers in World War I and their debates over association with the U.S. government; and the effects of Japanese animation on American culture in the 1970s and 1980s. But traditional accounts of gunboat diplomacy and border disputes were nowhere to be found.

I doubt this was because of an intrinsic hostility on behalf of the organizers to military history. After all, one paper presented at the conference discussed the relationship between U.S. Army operations in Vietnam and President Nixon’s efforts to optimize American drug enforcement. Two others discussed U.S.-Japanese relations in the aftermath of the Second World War. But these weren’t military histories – certainly not the old-school “drum and bugle” kind, and for their use of the military, not really of the “new military history” neither.

This may reflect the centrality of the state to military history. The history of the rise of the European nation-state begins with the acquisition and centralization of force by kings. Pirates, fighting for themselves, were criminals; privateers, carrying letters of marque, were not. Filibusterers deposed Latin American governments for their own benefit; the U.S. Marines seized customhouses, nominally at least, so that those same governments could continue to make payment on debt. During the twentieth century, with its legacy of total industrialized war, national governments supposed that all citizens could be subordinated to state power in time of crisis: conscription, price controls, assignment of and control over labor. In the United States, at least, the national government surrendered many of these powers during peacetime: a draft affecting a small percentage of male citizens, a reluctance to order industry to hire certain workers or to guarantee the right to work, the brief and ineffective use of price controls to fight inflation during the Nixon administration.

The “Border Crossings” conference, on the other hand, made a motif of freeing the history of foreign relations from the history of the state. Many of the papers, like one dealing with the construction of the U.N. Relief and Recovery Agency after World War II, were supernational. These studied nation-states acted in concert to form NGOs and other actors that transcended the nation-state system. Others were subnational, like the paper on Japanese animation. These entities used a bottom-up approach to view how people, far removed from governmental levels and processes, dealt with foreign culture.

As the sparring themes of supernational and subnational indicate, the “international history” field, as a distinct disciplinary grouping, is new and in flux. Discussions with CENFAD-associated international historians revealed that the de-centering of this branch of foreign relations upon the state does not portend the destruction of nations and states as units of analysis, but rather involves fresh looks at old approaches and the growing use of interdisciplinary methodologies.

David Zierler, for instance, notes, “The whole allure of international history is that its fuzzily defined methodologies and ideological assumptions allow scholars from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise to assume its mantle when they claim to be pushing the boundaries of their own sub-discipline.” Many universities and departments “bring together scholars seeking to broaden their historical perspectives.” Kristin Grueser points out, and that “can only advance the profile of a dynamic group of historians who believe ’international’ means more than ‘between nations’.” Perhaps Drew McKevitt says it best: “My interest is in the various ways that people in the U.S. have experienced the world around them—clearly I’m rooted in some sort of state-centered perspective; however, I do not take the state for granted, nor do I assume that its powers are naturally inhered. I don’t think this is any brilliant insight that takes a conceptual leap to grasp.”

Indeed, the IHW offered some conceptual approaches with which the military historian can easily become conversant. Zierler got my attention when he spoke on Agent Orange. For nearly all of warfare, the idea was to kill people, with environmental damage secondary or incidental. Beginning with the Vietnam War, a combatant used a weapon to damage the environment first, with possible death or disease resulting from the weapon as secondary or incidental. Naoko Shibusawa discussed the idea of “maturity studies,” which should interest any military historian dealing with military advisors or the transfer of power from an occupying army to local civilians.

As an American military historian, I see plenty of topics for “international history,” topics that could use a fresh look or prove relevant to the twenty-first century world. As of this writing, the United States is engaged in constabulary work abroad and will probably be so for years to come. During the last third of the nineteenth century, certain Indian nations aided the United States in fighting other Indians. These Indian allies had their own reasons for doing so, just as Afghani or Iraqi interest groups have reasons for supporting (or not supporting) new national governments. Why would a Puerto Rican or a Filipino enlist in an American regular army unit – what does that say about them or the governing power? Fresh looks at the assumptions and values behind the Mutual Security Agency or the suitability of building and equipping the ROKA and ARVN (or the new Iraqi Army) on American lines, may help guide future discussions on nation building. Every day the United Nations is called upon to intervene in Darfur. Perhaps historians should revisit the drafting of the United Nations Charter and try to understand the intent behind its warmaking capabilities, as expressed in Chapter VII. Many Americans worry how Muslims see the Western world. Well, what did Armed Forces Radio or Television inadvertently broadcast to Europeans or to Vietnamese about American culture?

In retrospect, I realize now that even military history can do with loci of analysis beyond the state. So, to the IHW, I issue a challenge for its next conference: ask the military historians, in government service and the academy, to address international history and propose a panel. If the beauty of international history is in its breakdown of old walls and ideas, then one of the first walls to go should be the wall between military historians and all others. The profession will be richer for it.