Are Military and Diplomatic History Making a Comeback?

Last week, the American Historical Association released a members’ survey regarding how historians classify themselves. In contrast to critics (including me) who have suggested that the profession has aggressively diminished approaches to history deemed “traditional,” Inside Higher Ed reports that “designations of military history are up by 39 percent over the decade, for instance. Diplomatic history is up by 36 percent.” We’re experiencing a veritable flowering of pedagogical diversity within the field!

Not exactly.

First, the survey used a new methodology. In contrast to previous surveys, which asked AHA members to list their three chief areas of interest, this one allowed respondents to list as many as five areas. Quoting again from Inside Higher Ed: “Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the AHA, said the data do not indicate whether a greater percentage of historians are studying those areas with gains, or whether these historians always had such fields as their fourth or fifth area of interest.”

To illustrate the meaninglessness of allowing such a “fourth” or “fifth” classification, take an example from my own research. My first book (Peace Progressives) has some primary research in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection of various women’s peace groups, for a minor section of one chapter; and for my most recent book on the 1964 election, I had a bit on Lady Bird Johnson’s pathbreaking whistle-stop campaign. Under the AHA’s new survey guidelines, I could, therefore, identify women’s history as my fifth area of research interest. But–and for good reason–I never would be considered for any women’s history positions on the basis of that research; or considered qualified to teach a women’s history course. 

That these new “diplomatic” and “military” historians seem to have suddenly emerged over the past decade—when even a casual scan through H-Net listings would suggest a very tough market for such sub-disciplines, and when a glance through programs at AHA conferences would indicate almost no presence of diplomatic, military, or political history—raises eyebrows. A cynical person might speculate that the prime reason for the sudden inclusion of these fourth and fifth categories was to provide a talking point for defenders of the academic status quo when outsiders not unreasonably question why history departments have so little interest in studying the histories of public policy or the nation-state.

Second, exactly what sorts of topics are these new “diplomatic” and “military” historians studying? One of the most pernicious developments of the past decade-plus has been the “re-visioning” of more “traditional” fields (political, diplomatic, constitutional, military) to make their areas of research indistinguishable from the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. Are these new “military” historians, for instance, people whose interest is using class time to crusade against the Iraq war? Or looking into trendy topics like, say, prostitution in overseas military bases? Are the new “diplomatic” historians people whose interest is “gendered” language? Such topics may very well be worthy of study. But they also don’t exactly spring to mind when people outside the academy think of diplomatic or military history.

I e-mailed Townsend to ask if he could send me the names of the people who listed “diplomatic” and “military” historians as among their research interests, so I could get a sense of what kind of research they were producing. Unfortunately (if understandably) privacy concerns prevented the release of this information.

Finally, the AHA survey data is region-wide. Yet with very few exceptions, history departments hire at the sub-field level only for jobs in U.S. history (and, in larger departments, sometimes European history). That’s why my research has focused on hiring patterns of U.S.  historians, since examining the rise (and decline) of jobs in these positions gives a sense of what subfields the academic majority wants to promote and diminish. By contrast, most schools hire only one or perhaps two professors to teach non-Western regional fields (such as Middle Eastern history, Latin American history, South Asian history, East Asian history, or Latin American history). These professors are expected to cover all, or at least most, of the thematic subfields within their region. Without knowing who these “new” diplomatic and military historians are, and on what region they specialize, it’s hard to make much of the AHA study.

The AHA survey, in the end, is at best of little use; and at worst an attempt to provide cover for the profession’s group think hiring patterns. 


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “Are Military and Diplomatic History Making a Comeback?”

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