Publication Date

April 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Historian of McCarthy-era United States

On January 25, 2011, American University lost an eminent and widely admired leader with the death of Robert Griffith, professor of history and chair of the history department. He died of complications of cancer.

Griffith was a pioneering scholar of post-World War II history in the United States. He wrote The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (1970; 2nd edition, 1987), which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize of the Organization of American Historians. This thoroughly researched study remains a definitive account of McCarthy’s political career that is grounded firmly in the politics of the early Cold War and the internal dynamics of the Republican Party and the U.S. Senate. This now classic work transformed our thinking about McCarthy, refuting the notion that his rise to power reflected fears and anxieties of the postwar world. The book established a solid foundation for nearly two generations of subsequent scholarship on McCarthy and his times.

His articles and essays appeared in many scholarly journals, including the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, and Business History Review. His frequently cited 1982 article, “Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth,” in the American Historical Review presented a new view of Eisenhower as a leader who sought to deal with the contradictions of a capitalist society through a “corporate commonwealth” that ameliorated class conflict and bitter partisan conflict.

Griffith’s edited works included, The Specter: Original Essays on McCarthyism and the Cold War (1974); Ike’s Letters to a Friend: 1941–58 (1984); and Major Problems in American History Since 1945 (1992). This latter work has been a staple for students grappling with important issues in recent U.S. history. A new edition of Major Problems in American History since 1945, co-edited with Paula Baker, appeared in January 2001; a third edition in January 2007.

Griffith held fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.  He served on the Board of Editors of the Journal of American History. He received teaching awards from the University of Georgia and from the Danforth Foundation.  He also served as treasurer of the Organization of American Historians.  In 2011 he received the OAH’s Roy Rozensweig Prize for Distinguished Service.

Robert Griffith was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in southern Indiana. He earned his BA at DePauw University, where he was a Rector Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received his MA and PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He taught at the University of Georgia and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also served as chair of the Department of History.

From 1989 to 1995, Griffith served as dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park. At Maryland, he helped implement a rigorous new core curriculum, dramatically increased the presence of women and minority faculty and staff, coordinated planning and design for the new $130 million Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and helped make the college a campus leader in the use of innovative information technologies.  From 1995 to 1997, he served as provost at American University, where he improved faculty recruitment, sharply increased the presence of minority faculty, and enhanced the role of new information technologies.  He then joined AU’s history department.

Griffith took over leadership of the department’s Undergraduate Committee.  He created and promoted a History Day, at which undergraduate majors gave oral presentations based on their senior theses. He tested measures of assessing the effectiveness of the history major.
He was a dedicated and inspiring teacher who regularly directed undergraduate senior theses. One of his students, Adam Barnhart, wrote: “I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor than Professor Griffith. He was always so encouraging, pushing us to make our projects better and bringing out talent in us that even we didn’t know we had.”

He served as chair of the history department from 2004 to 2010. In that time, the department faculty grew in size and improved in quality, in considerable part because of his political skills and his ability to appraise talent. The history department also gained many more majors during his tenure, and its course enrollments grew steadily.

Griffith was as almost as active outside the history department as he was inside it. Whenever the university or another department needed him, he made himself available. He knew how to solve problems and mediate conflicts better than anyone else.

Griffith always was an advocate for public history—ways of presenting history to broad public audiences. As chair, he was even more active in this field. He struck agreements with government agencies and private organizations to create internships, research opportunities, and in some cases, jobs for AU students.

Griffith rarely spoke of his many accomplishments. He rejoiced in the successes of others and those of the history department. His last request was the establishment of a Robert Griffith Fund for the Study of Public History.

— Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman
American University

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.