What’s in the February AHR ?
Robert A. Schneider, February 2014
When members open the February 2014 issue of the American Historical Review, they will find the annual Presidential Address, followed by articles on gender and soldiering in the Mexican-American War, humanitarian responses to the Armenian genocide, interracial sex in 20th-century Africa, and the Atlantic borderlands during the Second World War. There are also four featured reviews, along with our usual extensive book review section. “In Back Issues” draws attention to articles and features in the AHR from one hundred, seventy-five, and fifty years ago.
In this year’s Presidential Address, “Histories for a Less National Age,” outgoing AHA president Kenneth Pomeranz offers a sustained, learned, and wide-ranging discussion of how we might think of history in an era of global challenges and awareness. Unlike very few of his predecessors (in last year’s Presidential Address, William Cronon noted just how few), Pomeranz is concerned as much with teaching as with scholarship, weaving quite practical pedagogical and curricular issues into a still intellectually sophisticated analysis of the modalities of history writing in a global age. Here, however, among his many insights is the observation of a disjuncture between the courses we teach and the research agendas we tend to follow. He notes, for example that except for introductory courses, which do indeed often follow global or at least civilizational models, upper-level courses are still usually configured in terms of the nation-state. “Thus it appears,” he writes, “that the kinds of stories we find it interesting to explore and to tell each other are much less ‘national’ and ‘conventionally regional’ than those we tell our students.” But this particular contradiction is only one of many that guide his exploration of the theme posed in his title—how to think beyond the nation as the dominant historical category. His exploration is long on insight and analytical rigor but modestly short on prescription. For Pomeranz is aware that a move away from the apparent coherence of the nation-state, while filled with intellectual promise as well as contemporary relevance, also challenges us—and our students—with untidy boundaries, shifting scales, and thematic uncertainty. But explicitly thinking about the shape and scale of history on a global level may be one of the most valuable and revealing tasks before us—both as scholars and as teachers.
In “Gender, Soldiering, and Citizenship in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848,” Peter Guardino explores these topics through a comparative look at military recruitment on both sides of this often-neglected conflict. Gender norms were fundamental to military formations for the simple reason that gender was fundamental to society and citizenship. And in both countries, similar kinds of masculine behavior entitled men to status as respectable citizens. Gender norms were central to the composition of the professional armies as well, but in a different direction, for both militaries recruited as rank-and-file soldiers men who were not deemed respectable male providers. As the war progressed, however, the increasing manpower needs of the war led both countries to form separate units composed of a very different type of soldier. The recruitment of these citizen-soldiers was also gendered, but entirely differently; these later recruits were drawn from the kind of respectable male providers who would not have served in the professional armies. The distinction between the noncitizen soldiers who made up the armies with which both countries began the war and the citizen-soldiers who were mobilized specifically for the conflict is crucial to understanding how people experienced the conflict. Guardino helps us understand some of the limitations of these new nation-states, as well as the pivotal importance of gender in this development.
In “‘Crimes against Humanity’: Human Rights, the British Empire, and the Origins of the Response to the Armenian Genocide,” Michelle Tusan argues that this event proved crucial in the emergence of human rights justice as a central issue of the 20th century. The response to the attempt by the Ottoman Empire to exterminate Christian minorities during World War I was rooted in 19th-century humanitarianism, which later was tested by imperial politics and the rise of new forms of visual media—forms that represented atrocity to a mass audience for the first time. Using official records, private papers, and silent film, Tusan explores the origin of modern human-rights regimes by analyzing the central role played by the British Empire as an arbiter of justice during and immediately following the war—at a time before international institutions had taken on the responsibility of prosecuting war criminals. The linking of the early practice of international human rights justice with the ideals and actions of a humanitarian movement that evolved in an imperial context reveals why the Armenian genocide was labeled a crime against humanity at the time and continues to determine how the event is remembered today.
In “Decrying White Peril: Interracial Sex and the Rise of Anticolonial Nationalism in the Gold Coast,” Carina E. Ray goes beyond the well-documented ways in which management of interracial sexual relations was critical to the formation of empire to show how colonized populations’ own concerns about race mixing and their political uses of those concerns are implicated in the dissolution of empire. Drawing on rare newspaper commentaries penned by elite and newly literate Gold Coast men in the immediate post–World War I period, Ray demonstrates how this group of politically marginalized actors transformed their anxieties over interracial sexual relations into anticolonial nationalist rhetoric. At a time when press reports in diverse corners of the globe were rife with lurid tales of the sexual threat that black men posed to white women—the proverbial Black Peril—Gold Coast Africans turned this dominant narrative about colonial sexual danger on its head by asserting that white men were the real sexual menace. By articulating the need to protect “their” women from “immoral whites,” whose sexual predations rendered them unfit overlords, Gold Coasters crafted a provocative rhetorical strategy for challenging the legitimacy of British colonial rule decades before the heyday of political nationalism in West Africa. Ray thus not only provides a new chronology for anticolonial nationalism in the Gold Coast, she also locates its early origins in the fraught intersection of race, sexuality, and gender in colonial Ghana.
The long-forgotten importance of Spanish transatlantic merchant shipping during World War II is the subject of “New York City’s Spanish Shipping Agents and the Practice of State Power in the Atlantic Borderlands of World War II,” by Brooke L. Blower. The wartime Atlantic was not simply a battleground, but a legally and extralegally constituted borderland world where tenuous alliances and third parties had important roles to play, just as they had in previous centuries. Within this ambiguous terrain, Allied navy patrollers, consuls, and spy trackers proved willing to condone freelancers, even the friends of enemies, because they saw such brokers as enormously useful for the intelligence, humanitarian, and economic dimensions of modern warfare, which provided enduring links between the Americas, Africa, and Europe. Blower focuses on the premier shipping agency in the Iberian Atlantic, New York’s Garcia & Diaz, and shows how it built an elaborate support network for the Axis powers, using its “neutral” vessels to smuggle contraband, transport spies, and inform on Allied convoy movements. As records from American, British, and Spanish archives show, Allied strategists were fully aware of this illicit activity. Exploring why they nevertheless allowed this traffic to continue offers a window onto the complex practice of state power in the great power struggles of the 20th century. Blower’s reassembling of Spanish shipping reveals how modern states, in contrast to the way they are often portrayed, sometimes deliberately cultivated imperfectly ruled spaces and rogue agents as a means of facilitating their own ends.
Readers, especially those who primarily consult the AHR online, may not be aware that we have a “Letters to the Editor” section, titled “Communications.” The February issue has a particularly interesting exchange over a featured review in the December 2013 issue.
April’s issue will include articles on sovereignty and empire in 19th-century Europe, the search for coal deposits in 19th- and 20th-century China, the politics of housing in postwar France, and two pieces relating to Ottoman history, one considering oriental self-presentation, the other on the historical commemoration of the conquest of Constantinople.
—Robert A. Schneider is editor of the American Historical Review.