New Perspectives on Familiar Histories: Three New Volumes in the Reinterpreting History Series
Marian J. Barber, January 2014
It was a banner year for the National History Center's Reinterpreting History book series, a partnership with Oxford University Press launched in 2008 with Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives, edited by Mark Philip Bradley of the University of Chicago and Marilyn B. Young of New York University. Oxford published three more volumes in 2013, doubling the number of titles in the series.
Each collection of essays contributes to conversations about how interpretations of historical events change over time. Thus far, most of the interpretations addressed by the series have been related to the events of the late 20th century. Exceptions are this year's Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World, edited by Dane Kennedy of George Washington University, and the second volume in the series, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan of Johns Hopkins University, published in 2009. Atlantic History ventures at least as far back as the 15th century, and Reinterpreting Exploration goes much further, touching even upon written accounts of Chinese exploration of Central Asia from the fifth century.
The Human Rights Revolution: An International History, published in 2012 and edited by Harvard's Akira Iriye, Temple's Petra Goedde, and the University of Virginia's William I. Hitchcock, focuses on the short history of human rights as a subdiscipline, tracing its rather rapid development since the 1990s. The other two new volumes, The Cold War in the Third World, edited by Robert J. McMahon of Ohio State, and Beyond the Cold War: Lyndon Johnson and the New Global Challenges of the 1960s, edited by Mark Atwood Lawrence of the University of Texas at Austin and Francis J. Gavin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, naturally concern themselves with the post-World War II era.
Conceived by the Center's Founding Director, Wm. Roger Louis, and overseen by Susan Ferber of Oxford University Press New York, the series actually predates all of the center's current initiatives, including the Congressional Briefings, the Washington History Seminar, and the International Seminar on Decolonization. The original idea was that each volume would memorialize a historiographical panel organized by the center at an AHA annual meeting. The first such publication, on human rights, followed a 2004 presentation, and most of the volumes since have continued that pattern. The Cold War in the Third World and Beyond the Cold War were the products of freestanding conferences convened by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library with the LBJ Foundation, respectively.
The Cold War in the Third World seeks to bring into focus the simultaneous phenomena of decolonization and the world-shaping conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. It explores both the familiar story of the way the superpowers used the emerging nations of the global South as pawns in their great game and the less familiar story of how those nations used that conflict to further their own ends. The volume has been praised as containing rich material of interest to experts, while offering a trenchant introduction to the topic for the general reader.
Beyond the Cold War examines the international dimensions of LBJ's social and economic programs, arguing that while Vietnam must be reckoned with, it should not be perceived as the only important aspect of Johnson's foreign policy. Contributors show that the Great Society was more than a domestic program, touching upon administration efforts at addressing global issues including world poverty, hunger, population, public health, energy, and human rights. Gavin and Lawrence's collection contributes to an increasing body of revisionist history that attempts to see the Cold War as the context of events from the 1940s through the 1980s rather than as their chief determinant.
Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World sets the stage for the rest of the volumes in the series, all of which in one way or another concern the role of Europe and the United States in shaping world affairs. Kennedy's volume looks at how ideas associated with exploration influenced Europeans' self-conception and their perception of their proper role in dealing with other peoples. As Charles W. J. Withers of the University of Edinburgh wrote, "Elegantly replacing unwarranted hagiography with critical historiography, national narratives with cross-cultural perspectives, the essays in Reinterpreting Exploration at once demythologize and reinvigorate debates on the West's role in the world and the world's impact upon the West."
The same, we hope, can be said of the series as a whole
—Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.