Temple Alumni Forum
by Christopher DeRosa (Ph.D., 2000)
Assistant Professor of History, Monmouth University
Major conferences are sometimes the occasion for major anxiety. How gratifying, then, to walk the halls at the Convention Center this January and encounter one familiar and friendly face after another. Temple and the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy were all over the AHA in Philadelphia: on the panels, in the book stalls, and just hanging out. It was great to see so many of my cohort relaxed and employed, and to see the more recent students and current faculty teeming with the energy of a program that in all my association with it has never stopped growing. It is an association of which I am proud.
It is a good thing that a life can be built out of a series of casual decisions. I cannot recall any agonizing or serious thought that preceded my decision to apply to an academic program called New Jersey Scholars between my junior and senior year of high school. The forty-two students chosen for the program lived in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, over the summer to take five classes on medieval history. We were history nerds and we were delighted to find one another. I owe my interest in history chiefly to my father, but it is to that program that I owe the idea that history was a legitimate option for adulthood.
It was also with little forethought, in college, that I asked Eric Foner to supervise my senior thesis about soldier voting in the Civil War. The thesis was optional at Columbia, but I just had it in my head, probably based on the experiences of my friends at other schools, that writing a thesis was what you were supposed to do in college.
It was in the defense of this thesis that my committee asked me if I intended to go on in history at the graduate level. I turned it around to ask the committee members what sort of schools were good places to study military-political issues and the Civil War, and they rattled off the names of four schools, one of which was “Temple University.”
That was the same year Russell Weigley published The Age of Battles. Temple was clearly on the map as a military history program, but it wasn’t until after I had been there a while that I understood that I was part of the boom years. I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1992. Professor Weigley was taking on more students than he ever had before, and my arrival coincided with Richard Immerman’s and followed shortly after David Alan Rosenberg’s, so I got to take each of their first Temple graduate seminars.
Having gone to an Ivy League school undoubtedly had a lot to do with getting an assistantship at Temple. It probably wasn’t the personal statement in my application. In retrospect, I was not too tightly focused on what I intended to study with this Weigley guy who wrote that really cool book. I really knew very little about graduate study, the inner workings of a university, the history job market, or the structure of an academic life. And it was probably just as well that I didn’t. But I wonder if there is room today in graduate programs for people whose scholarly aspirations are so unformed. In advising others, we all tend to be prisoners of our own experience. As I watch my own M.A. students apply to graduate programs, it strikes me that they have a good deal more savvy and foreknowledge than I did in order to compete. I find I have to guard against the assumption that my path to a Ph.D. has much relevance to them. Keeping in touch with Professor Immerman and now Professor Urwin gives me a perspective on trends in the larger academic world.
In my first research seminar with Weigley, I wrote about a Civil War topic related to my undergraduate interests. In my second research seminar, with David Rosenberg, my subject was again the political uses of the military, but this time my concerns were in the 20th century, specifically, how the armed forces reacted to the party of their commander-in-chief in an unpopular war, and Eisenhower, the bright light of the popular one. With whom did the armed forces’ interests lie in such a contest? Would they try to persuade the soldiers to vote for the president or the challenger?
As it happens, the armed forces maintained a scrupulous neutrality in electoral matters. The main concern of their information departments was that soldiers vote for somebody. The ritual of citizenship was the important thing. The army’s views of citizenship and how to inculcate it became my chief subject.
Rosenberg’s seminar was enlightening in a number of ways. For one thing, I was astounded by how well-read some of my classmates were. A couple of the students were only a few years older than me but seemed to have a few more decades of military history reading under their belts. It was with them that I made the first of several trips to the National Archives. I am talking about the olden days: Archives I, on the national mall. We imagined the possibility that one of us would not ask the right sort of productive question of the archivist, and find himself out by the Reflecting Pool while his colleagues happily plowed through boxes inside.
I didn’t have to go to the Reflecting Pool, but I knew in that seminar that I was glancing off my topic rather than hitting it squarely. Dr. Rosenberg confirmed that for me in his customarily direct manner. One time when we were talking about lecture vs. discussion in the classroom, Rosenberg interjected, “I don’t lecture or discuss, I teach.” Teach he did; with an infectious delight in the give-and-take of the classroom, and a willingness to challenge students to do better, he did a lot to foster a sense of camaraderie among his students. His critique of my first effort on political indoctrination helped me get on track with the project.
Some of my favorite courses were my last ones, studying American political history with Howard Ohline and James Hilty. Understanding something of the history of Americans’ socialization to politics was crucial to put the military’s indoctrination of draftees into context. Both Ohline and Hilty served on my comprehensive exam committee. I found the exams to be a rewarding experience. I had as much anxiety about them as anyone, but the way the intense study of four fields facilitated making connections was exhilarating. The process has a way of granting you some intellectual clarity.
After my exams, when I told Professor Weigley I thought I would continue with the issue of political indoctrination in the 20th century army, he said he was glad to hear it. I think he thought there was a glut of Civil War topics at the time, but I don’t think he would have steered me away from it if I’d wanted to stay with the earlier topic. None of my mentors at Temple tried to steer me toward a hotter topic or channel my efforts toward particular methods. The attitude seemed to be that if one had chosen such allegedly moribund fields as military and political history to begin with, one might as well pursue one’s heart’s desire.
In innumerable ways Temple prepared me for work in a university. Most obviously, the department was great about getting its graduate students classroom experience. I was able to teach both halves of the US survey, World War II, and War and Society before ever applying for a job. Between CENFAD and the department, we were exposed to an impressive roster of guest speakers, including Anthony Lake, John Lewis Gaddis, Jeremy Black, and David Glanz. Temple familiarized us with such mainstays of academic culture as conferences, guest speakers, and interviews. As Barnes Club president, I got to go to a couple of department meetings. As a result, nothing that has ever happened in a department meeting has ever taken me by surprise. When the department conducted job searches, the faculty involved the graduate students. It is enormously valuable to have seen a job search in a big department from the inside before going into one yourself. You sometimes hear about the first-time job candidate who does something inappropriate, probably not because he didn’t do his best to prepare, but because they came from small departments where nobody ever told them which end was up in an interview.
As the student coordinator for CENFAD I gained some valuable awareness of development, school-department relations, and the compartmentalization of budgets. In that position I also learned about the relative merits of force and diplomacy in event planning. On one occasion, I could not, despite all kinds of advance planning, get a piece of AV equipment to materialize for a speaker, a foreign scholar. Later I fired off a letter to the culprit detailing at great length how he had embarrassed me, the Center, Temple, and pretty much the entire United States of America in front of our guest. Shortly thereafter, Morris Vogel, who was the department chair at the time, sat me down and explained, “Part of the job of being department chair is to get people not to write letters like that.”
I had excellent models for all aspects of professional conduct. It was instructive to me that the most accomplished person in my field was also the most gracious. In almost all situations of stress, the question WWRWD? yields a good answer. I have often thought, if Russell Weigley wouldn’t allow himself to be annoyed by this, what right have I got? He was a man of extraordinary patience, not only interpersonally, but intellectually. I made a couple of arguments in drafts of my dissertation chapters that he never really bought, but instead of batting them down, he just suggested I temper my conclusions slightly. I had the space to let my arguments evolve on my own. Probably because Weigley and Immerman were so positive in their support, I’ve never been able to relate to those who view writing a dissertation as a form of suffering. I thought everyone should have the chance to be young, in Philadelphia, and engaged in something creative. I had the time of my life.
My dissertation became the basis for my book, Political Indoctrination in the U.S. Army: From World War II to the Vietnam War, forthcoming this year from the University of Nebraska Press. In it I examine the Army’s “Troop Information” programs, whose officers labored for more than thirty years to stir draftee’ patriotism and spark their contempt for the enemy. I describe how the program took root as an Army institution, how its technique evolved over time, and how it interacted with the larger American political culture. I argue that the political motives behind this effort were not as simplistic as you might expect, but nevertheless, trying to impose a political consensus on an army of a democracy pulled it into debates in which it didn’t belong.
Thanks to my experience at Temple, from the first drafts of the manuscript, I had a sound foundation for this study. My readers’ suggestions entailed additional perspectives rather than drastic reconfigurations, and for that reason, the process of revision was like the dissertation itself, something I enjoyed.
The manuscript was also the basis of my job talk at Monmouth University. It may have been to my advantage to have written about a “new military history” topic to which social and cultural historians could relate. In general, I find that faulty assumptions about military historians usually melt away as soon as you divulge your own respect and admiration for work in other fields.
In my case though, my future colleagues probably could see that it wasn’t my secret dream to command an invasion force or something, because they had already met my wife. Katie Parkin, who preceded me to Monmouth and was surely the best part of my graduate school experience, was a student of Margaret Marsh’s, and also the person who took the first step in reviving the dormant Barnes Club in 1994. Every part of being a historian has been exponentially richer for having been able to share it with her.
Temple graduates who get tenure track jobs in small liberal arts colleges or teaching universities like ours will find the time they are accustomed to devoting to their research competing with their responsibilities to the students, the department, and the university. But there are compensatory rewards. For one thing, you get a sense of a university as a joint enterprise in which you have a stake. For another, you will have a lot of chances to connect outside the classroom. Military history can be the most accessible point of contact between the university and the local interested public. Those in smaller departments will also get to learn a lot about some things you might never have looked at on your own. Right now, I am overseeing MA theses on the history of NASA’s publicity efforts, the Peace Corps’ impact on African women, and bluefin tuna fishing off the Jersey Coast.
In the main, though, I am lucky that at Monmouth I get to teach upper level and graduate courses on World War II, the Cold War, 20th Century U.S. Politics, and U.S. Military History. Everything I teach is informed by my experience at Temple. My notes from Weigley’s World War II course are still the basis of my own lectures, and I would never have built my own Cold War course if I had not gotten caught up in the enthusiasm my diplomatic history friends had for the subject.
These sorts of courses are as popular as ever. The majority of my students are history-education majors; i.e., people who ostensibly want to be history teachers. They have lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center attack since junior high or early high school. The United States has occupied Iraq for longer than most of them have been in college. Their understanding of the world is shot through with a sense of American grievance and isolation. But they are skeptical about it, and keenly interested in the American uses of force and diplomacy. I feel like my training from Temple could hardly be more relevant to their needs, and it is my hope that I am conveying to my students not just the enthusiasms I shared with colleagues and mentors, but some of their wisdom as well.