Ernest Richard May (1928-2009)
Samuel R. Williamson Jr., September 2009
2001 Award for Scholarly Distinction winner; 50-year member
Ernest Richard May, the Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University and a recipient in 2001 of the AHA’s distinguished scholar award, died on June 1, 2009, following complications from surgery for cancer. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1928, May enrolled at UCLA at age 16 and received his doctorate five years later. After naval service at sea and in Washington during the Korean War, he joined the history faculty at Harvard in 1954 and was still teaching at the time of his death.
In his long career as scholar, teacher, administrator, institution builder, and mentor to generations of students—undergraduate and graduate—at Harvard, May published seminal works that fundamentally redefined the practice of international history. World War I and American Isolation, 1914–17 (winner of the AHA’s George Louis Beer Prize) and Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power reflected pioneering, multiarchival research on the formation of American foreign policy. Taking advantage of new access to public records in Europe and the United States, he analyzed the interactive processes influencing the formation of American diplomacy. Because of May’s work, subsequent generations of international historians now readily accept that all archival sources must be utilized. Before May, reliance on printed document was more often the case and U.S. foreign relations were treated as part of national history without serious attention to the international context of diplomacy.
A second contribution, implicit in these two early works, focused on the role that history and historical memory have played and play in the conduct of public policy. His work as a young naval historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff established this lifelong intellectual agenda: How do historical memories shape policy, how do policymakers use history, and how can future government leaders be trained to use history fairly and appropriately? His book, Lessons of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (1973), reflected these interests, as did his Pentagon study on the Soviet-American arms race. Another contribution (with Richard Neustadt) was their prizewinning Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (1986). Often he examined the ramifications that historical analogies have upon policy discussions, perhaps best seen in his works with Philip Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1997) and then later as one of the principal authors of The 9/11 Commission Report (2004). A third analytical contribution came from the “May Group” at Harvard that explored the impact of bureaucratic politics upon policymaking and led to an entire subset of studies focused on the subject.
Over time May embraced a fourth set of intellectual interests: the study of intelligence and its role in the formation of foreign policy. From this interest came his path breaking, Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment before the Two World Wars (1985); numerous articles on the failure of American intelligence; and the creation of instructional case studies across the range of the 20th-century diplomacy. His Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (2000) again used a multiarchival approach to show how French bureaucrats could obscure their own failures for nearly three generations. His interest in intelligence also brought active involvement in teaching intelligence and security officials about the uses of history in intelligence assessment, as well as establishing this analytical approach at training centers for intelligence officers.
But Ernest May was more than an extraordinarily productive and innovative scholar: he was a superb teacher, preferring to be known simply as “a teacher.” Harvard students crowded his courses. He lectured without notes, just names on a blackboard, and paced back and forth as he explored in seemingly endless detail some problem of international history. Along the way he peppered his lectures with telling anecdotes, revealing a wry sense of humor and a sensitive appreciation of the ridiculous. Blessed with a superb memory, sophisticated language skills, insatiable curiosity, and the ready ability to pose new, probing questions on almost any historical topic, his lectures were polished gems. His graduate students, who amazingly stretched over five decades, found him a genial but incessantly demanding mentor, pungent in his criticism but never sarcastic, and always willing to help them reformulate a topic. Generations of students marveled at his ability, almost on the spur of the moment, to ask probing questions about very familiar problems, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cuban missile crisis, almost always from a completely novel perspective.
Amid all of this activity, May worked to build and maintain academic institutions. He and Richard Neustadt shaped the Institute of Politics at Harvard (he was its first director) and both later played pivotal roles in the creation of the Kennedy School of Government. During this same period, at the height of the Vietnam War (and with considerable disruption to his research and teaching), May agreed to serve as dean of Harvard College. At one point, he found himself chased around Harvard Yard by unhappy protesters. Later, in the 1970s, disturbed by the inability of history graduate students to find jobs, he chaired a committee and wrote a report, Careers for Humanists, which sought to point them to employment opportunities.
May’s nearly indefatigable energy served him and the historical profession well. In the 1960s, with John Caughey and John Hope Franklin, he wrote a multicultural history, Land of the Free, for California public schools that contained then novel presentations on the role of women, Native Americans, and African Americans in American history. Though savaged by conservatives in the state, the book set the stage for later textbooks that comprehensively explored the American experience. His editorship of the Bedford Series in History and Culture saw him encourage new attention to quite familiar topics. Committed to open access to government records, including its most secret files, he wrote a history of the Soviet-American strategic arms competition and later co-chaired the International Nuclear History Program. A scholar who believed multiarchival research must form the bedrock foundation of international history, he repeatedly pressed for unfettered access to archival material.
Once described as someone who played his cards inside his chest, May long enjoyed monthly poker games at Harvard and became passionately committed to tennis, both as a player and spectator. May delighted in the hurly-burly of life in Washington, but Harvard remained his true home and the Widener Library his natural habitat for more than half a century.
Ernest May is survived by his wife, Susan Wood; by three children from his previous marriage to Nancy Caughey, John, Rachel, and Donna; and by three grandchildren.
I first met Ernest May in the fall of 1959 in Widener Library; he became my dissertation mentor and I later his faculty colleague, a collaborator on historical projects, and most of all, his friend, as he was to many of his students. The profession and we will miss his inspiring presence.
—Samuel R. Williamson Jr.
University of the South