Publication Date

January 1, 2013


Public History

To celebrate the seventh anniversary of their partnership, the Council on Foreign Relations and the National History Center will augment their popular twice-a-year New York lecture series with occasional sessions in Washington, D.C.

The center's collaboration with the council began in 2005 with a session featuring Harvard's Ernest R. May, now deceased, on the history of surprise attacks, from the fall of France in World War II through September 11. The council's president, Richard Haass, set the tone for the series to follow by thanking the center's director, Wm. Roger Louis, for suggesting the idea of "a series of meetings which looks at history—not history for history's sake, but in some way to help us better understand where we are and where we might be headed."

The series is perhaps the least known of the center's major programs because the events are not open to the public, though the 4,700 members of the council around the world are invited, as are guests of the center. It fulfills the center's goal of bringing historical knowledge to bear on current policy debates, as well as those of the council, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, research center, and publisher of the influential journal, Foreign Affairs. Originally, each event began with a formal lecture, followed by a conversation between the presider and the speaker that the audience could join for a few minutes at the end. Fritz Stern of Columbia gave the second talk on the role of fear in Hitler’s subversion of freedom, followed by Marilyn Young of New York University on Iraq and the lessons of Vietnam, or “how not to learn from history.” Young’s presider was Frances Fitzgerald, author of the classic volume on Vietnam,Fire in the Lake, published in 1972.

heir informative exchange led to a shift in format, implemented in 2009. Beginning with David Fromkin's session on his bookThe Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, the formal lecture was abandoned, replaced by a conversation between the presider and speaker with more time for questions and comments from those in attendance. Harold M. Evans of The Week interviewed Fromkin. Next, Haass questioned Yale’s Paul Kennedy, who presented his views on the intimate relationship between a nation’s fiscal strength and its political and military presence internationally. In 2010, Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley and Newsweek editor and Princeton journalism professor Evan Thomas discussed American presidents and the lure of war, focusing especially on Theodore Roosevelt.

The three most recent sessions have focused on biographies. In 2011, Roger Louis spoke with Jonathan Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania about his book on Otto von Bismarck. Haass again presided at the next session, held last June, interviewing John Lewis Gaddis of Yale on his Pulitzer Prize-winning life of George Kennan. In November 2012, Alan Brinkley and Jean Edward Smith, both of Columbia, discussed Smith's recent Eisenhower in War and Peace. Perhaps more than in earlier years, audience participation has focused on the parallels between history and current issues. Questioners asked Steinberg to compare Bismarck and current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while Smith was asked about Eisenhower’s record on the federal deficit.

The sessions are held in the early evenings at the council's headquarters, the Harold Pratt House, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and draw large and attentive crowds. Gaddis's audience numbered more than 180. The council's membership includes individuals from the world of business, as well as academics, government officials, and public intellectuals. Though its meetings are private, the council posts videos and transcripts of many of its events on its website (access the links to those for all nine of the NHC-CFR collaborations). Information on the proposed Washington sessions will be available soon.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.

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