This presidential address was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, December 28, 1974. Published in the American Historical Review 80, no. 1 (February 1975): 1-20.

American Historians and the World Today: Responsibilities and Opportunities

Nations have long had relations with each other and have acknowledged some responsibilities to each other in the world, but have historians? Members of the American Historical Association will increasingly ponder this question as the time approaches for the first meeting in the United States of the International Congress of Historical Sciences. Some American historians have attended the other international meetings held in Europe since 1900, but the congress is expected to bring together in San Francisco in August 1975 several thousand historians, most of them Americans. The participants will read or listen to learned papers on the “grand themes of history” as well as on a large number of smaller topics, will attend receptions, and will enjoy the still powerful attractions of northern California. One may well ask to what useful end all this movement, all this expense of time and money will be directed.

My answer is a simple one. International congresses of historians do not fully meet the needs of the times and cannot be expected to do so unless the organization that sponsors them is substantially changed and unless national organizations accept far greater international responsibilities. For the AHA this means that we need to strengthen the teaching and writing in the United States of the history of all regions of the world, to recognize the increasingly significant study abroad of our history, and to foster in all possible ways the professional relations of historians on an international scale. For the ICHS to meet its challenge, this largely Western organization must review its traditional operations in various specific ways, which will be suggested later.

This may seem a Utopian proposal to those aware of the political problems encountered by the congresses and to historians everywhere who are often concerned principally with their own history. Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote:

Most history is tribal history: written … in terms generated by and acceptable to, a given tribe or nation…. Historians, like other people, tend to identify with a community—not necessarily the one in which they were born—and in the case of modern historians this identification is likely to affect, and interact with, the character of their work, their career, their geographical location, and their public. Normally they write within a convention which suggests these conditioning factors do not exist, or can be ignored. Marxist historians, indeed, emphasize such factors but only as limitations on bourgeois historians.1

If this be true, or partially true, why should Americans concern themselves with the history of other tribes and with other tribal historians?

Members of that large and diverse tribe which inhabits what is called the Western World can best begin to examine these questions by considering the consequences of the discovery of America on the writing of history. Herbert Butterfield has emphasized that one of the unique characteristics of the West is its “historical mindedness” and that history only in modern times has become the kind of subject it is today.2 Yet he and many others ignore Iberian influences, a considerable omission because in the development of history since 1492 Spain was in the forefront, at least chronologically, of all European nations, and Portugal also made significant contributions.

Historians should be grateful for the Spaniards’ keen sense of the past and for their almost unconscious though certainly widespread realization that Spanish actions overseas would one day be scrutinized by posterity. Columbus started the practice of writing about America, and many followed his example, for the conquest so stimulated their imagination that they came to look upon it as the greatest event since the coming of Christ. Even as the conquistadores roamed over vast areas of land and sea and missionaries attempted to Christianize millions of Indians, they collected historical materials and composed chronicles on a monumental scale.3 This copious documentation constitutes another kind of treasure from the Indies, distinct from the gold and silver found there, a documentation that still excites historians by its richness and depresses them by its quantity, for every fleet from Spanish America carried homeward thirty or forty boxes of documents, often carefully indexed for convenient study by the council of the Indies.4

Beginning with Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, who arrived in Mexico in 1535, the principal Spanish officials manifested a keen interest in history. Mendoza wanted to know about the “chronicles, hieroglyphs, and pictures from Montezuma’s palace which told of the migrations of the ancient Mexicans.” Many other viceroys, moreover, commissioned the writings of histories or received histories voluntarily written by Spaniards on American subjects.5 Sometimes there was a polemic purpose, as when Viceroy Francisco de Toledo organized in the 1570s a study of Inca history to prove Spain’s contention that her conquest not only had followed just principles but in fact had liberated the Indians from a tyrannical and unjust Inca rule. But even this stern official was much impressed by what he saw in Peru, and he proposed that a museum be created in Spain where “Indian art and the products of nature” in America could be studied.6

Ecclesiastics were eager to have their missionary triumphs recorded. In 1536 the Franciscan chapter in Mexico City recommended that one of their number write an account of Indian life in pre-Spanish days as well as a history of the labors of the first group of Franciscans, known as “The Twelve Apostles,” from the time of their arrival in 1524.7 The dedicated missionaries Spain sent to America were convinced that the discovery and conquest not only afforded a unique opportunity to bring the Gospel to the Indians but also, according to some, foreshadowed the rapid approach of the end of the world and the coming of the millennial kingdom. Though the traditional Church was being destroyed in Europe, or at least severely challenged by Luther, the friars were determined that a new and more powerful Church be built in America. But there was no time to be lost. Faced with an enormous diversity of native languages, which were in turn divided into hundreds of dialects, all phonetically and morphologically alien to European languages, the early friars first tried to learn Nahuatl by playing with Indian children to acquire useful phrases. Frustrated in their attempt to identify even a few words but unwilling to allow one Indian soul to suffer damnation because of their own ignorance, some of the early friars preached to the Indians in Latin or Spanish in the hope that Christian fervor would make up for linguistic deficiencies.8

As the conquest proceeded and Philip II increasingly came to dominate the administrative machinery governing the far-flung Spanish empire, a demand arose for an adequate history of Spanish accomplishments as a whole. A decisive epoch for historiography began about 1570 when the council of the Indies decided that good administration required an archive containing organized information on previous laws and past events, machinery for obtaining current reports, and an official historian.9 A detailed questionnaire was drawn up, which every governor in America was ordered to answer with specific data on the history, people, climate, and geography of the territory he administered. Begun as a brief inquiry in 1569, this questionnaire soon grew to fifty items and—since bureaucrats never seem to have enough information—eventually became a printed volume of three hundred and fifty questions, which must have been a heavy cross for hard-pressed governors in the far reaches of the empire to bear.10

The first historian was appointed in 1573, and beginning in 1578instructions were regularly sent out requiring the principal royal representatives in America to search their archives for historical manuscripts and to dispatch the originals or authentic copies to the council of the Indies so that a true, general history of the Indies could be written. The council had a realistic view of the habits of historians, for it decreed that the appointee would not receive the last quarter of his salary until he had turned in some completed text. For almost two hundred and fifty years, until the eve of independence, Spain sent out a constant stream of orders for information and history.11

Controversy inevitably developed over what constituted “true” history. To set straight the record as he saw it, one foot soldier of Ferdinand Cortez, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, composed a True History of the Conquest of New Spain, now a classic on the discovery period.12 Bitter and prolonged battles on the justice of Spanish dominion and the place of Indians in Spanish society produced an enormous amount of historical documentation, which continues to attract historians. We are particularly aware of these disputes today because 1974witnessed the commemoration of the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the best-known defender of the Indians and a persistent doubter of the justice of Spanish rule. Inasmuch as my volume on his doctrine has recently appeared, I will restrain myself, with some difficulty, from analyzing his role in the development of historical writing in America and his insistence that the American Indians should not be considered natural slaves according to the Aristotelian doctrine but instead should be persuaded by peaceful methods to accept the Christian faith.13 To prove that the Indians were not semianimals whose property and services could be commandeered at will by the Spaniards, Las Casas prepared a large work entitled Apologetic History, in which he advanced the idea that the Indians compared very favorably with both the Spaniards and the peoples of ancient times, were eminently rational beings, and in fact fulfilled every one of Aristotle’s requirements for the good life.

The main argument of Las Casas against those who considered the Indians less than human beings, an argument that entitles him to be included as a principal member in that great tribe that might be called “all mankind,” may best be summarized in his own words:

Thus mankind is one, and all men are alike in that which concerns their creation and all natural things, and no one is born enlightened. From this it follows that all of us must be guided and aided at first by those who were born before us. And the savage peoples of the earth may be compared to uncultivated soil that readily brings forth weeds and useless thorns but has within itself such natural virtue that by labor and cultivation it may be made to yield sound and beneficial fruit.14

We see here the beginning of the great dispute today, in which William Shockley and Arthur Jensen contend that blacks are born with genetic deficiencies that limit their intellectual growth and hinder their attempts to compete with whites.

The history of the relations between Europeans and natives in the conquest period is rich in detail. Indian men loved to wear their hair long, which offended Spaniards, whose custom was to have their hair cut short. Besides, the Spaniards said long hair was filthy and that Indian women usually slept with the men whose hair they braided, which was an offense to Christian morals.15 In Manila one zealous sixteenth-century bishop was so opposed to allowing Chinese converts there to keep their queues that it required an order from the council of the Indies to stop him from cutting them off. Instead, the bishop and his missionaries were ordered to treat the Chinese “with prudence and intelligence, and with the kindness and mildness required to nurture such new and tender plants.”16 In the following century Jesuits in the Philippines denounced the drinking of chocolate; in Mexico they said it was a danger to chastity for it aroused the passions. By the end of the century, however, the nutritious drink had become a standard breakfast food on Jesuit tables in Spain and the Indies.17

But one custom of the Indians was not accepted—human sacrifice by the Aztecs. None of the many contemporaries of Las Casas who prepared histories of the dramatic meeting of the West with Indian culture supported his view that the practice of human sacrifice, which revolted lay and ecclesiastics alike, should be understood in the light of the Indians’ own history and doctrines. Las Casas discerned, underneath the horrible and bloody aspects of these rites, a commendable spirit of religious devotion that might be directed to higher ends and enlisted in the service of the only true God.18

As the conquest proceeded and as the archives of the council of the Indies in Spain began to fill, Spaniards gave more and more attention to Indians and their culture. What taxes had they paid to their rulers before the Spaniards came? What religious concepts did they have that must be rooted out to prepare them for the true faith? Did their previous habits indicate that they were capable of becoming civilized and Christian? Though ecclesiastical writers concentrated on religious aspects of the conquest, they also viewed it in the round; they wrote on art and cooking, child training, disease and death, and the many other subjects that interested them.

The greatest single figure in the study of Indian cultural history was the Franciscan, Bernardino de Sahagún. One of the earliest missionaries in Mexico, he was not satisfied with the approach involving playing with children and almost at once began to study Nahuatl and collect materials bearing on the Indian past. In 1547 his superior ordered him to work on a history, and for a decade he continued his investigations. Then in 1558 he embarked in Tepepulco near Mexico City upon a large-scale, systematic study of Aztec culture, with the aid of several of his own Spanish-speaking Indian disciples who also knew Latin. Sahagún had written down many extensive lists of items—culture elements they would be called today—on which he desired information, and he brought together about a dozen old men reputed to be wise in their own lore. Sahagún and his research assistants interrogated these informants during 1558-59; it was the first oral-history project in America. The old men illustrated their replies by preparing a series of drawings and paintings, which were explained in writing by the Indian assistants. These visual materials became an essential part of the historical documentation.

After two years of discussions with the old men and his young Indian assistants at Tepepulco, Sahagún moved to another center at Santiago Tlatelolco to test his preliminary findings, for he exhibited the fundamental skepticism of the historian who is rarely satisfied that he has complete or accurate sources. For two more years, 1560-61, he reviewed and revised all his material with the help of a new set of informants. It took him three more years to re-edit the whole manuscript, which was still in Nahuatl, and to rework it into twelve books, each one broken down into chapters and each chapter into paragraphs.

The result was a carefully organized mass of text and 1,850 illustrations on the spiritual and material aspects of the life of the ancient Mexicans as the Indians remembered them. It was decidedly not, like so, much of the transatlantic literature of the period, a European view masquerading as a description of far-off peoples, but a remarkable collection of oral literature that expressed the soul and life of the Aztec people at the time of their greatness, one of the finest sources known for ethnohistory.19 While some other Spaniards were fanatically destroying Indian culture, Sahagún methodically brought together documentation on the functions, ceremonies, legends, and traditions of the many gods of the Aztecs, on astronomy, astrology, the calendar, and the calculation of the recording of time, which was of great importance to them. Sahagún also included their superstitions, rhetoric, philosophy, ideas of mortality, songs to the gods, and hymns to the sun, the moon, the stars, and the wind. The ancient rulers received much attention, as did their merchants and judges. The education of the children in the home and school was treated, as well as information on botany, zoology, and the animal and plant life of Mexico, mineralogy, agriculture, the preparation and preservation of edible plants, sculpture, painting, melting of metals, the jeweler’s trade, house building, the raising and care of domestic animals, road building, and temple construction. The final book described the conquest of Mexico as seen by the conquered.

Sahagún’s purpose was clear: to learn all about the Indian language and culture in order to help him and the other missionaries in their conversion labor. Thus he included descriptions of the ways in which Indians got intoxicated for ceremonial reasons, for Sahagún maintained that missionaries must know all about the sins of the Indians in order to correct them, just as doctors must study disease.

As Sahagún struggled through the years against obstacles and apathy he became so immersed in the study of Indian culture that he grew interested in it for its own sake and was concerned that contact with Europeans would cause the native culture to disappear or become hybridized. Thus there was dedication and urgency in his work. At last, as the result of a royal order in 1577 instructing Viceroy Enríquez Martinez to collect all of Sahagún’s manuscripts for the council of the Indies, the Nahuatl text was translated into Spanish and sent to the council.

Sahagún died in 1590 without seeing a single chapter of his monumental work published. Only in recent years have complete editions of both the Nahuatl and the Spanish texts become available, based upon the various manuscripts dispersed in libraries in Florence, Madrid, and Mexico City. The first translation into any language of the entire Nahuatl manuscript has just been completed, after thirty-five-years’ labor, by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, whose English version, General History of the Things of New Spain, imparts the spirit as well as the substance of the original. This outstanding work of American scholarship, richly footnoted and based upon extensive researches by European and Mexican scholars as well as those of the editors, will enable the English-speaking world to appreciate one of the foundation works in the history of how scholars in one culture have studied another.20

Sahagún must be recognized as one of the most complex Spaniards in sixteenth-century America. He was a member of a powerful nation, whose people believed themselves to have been singled out by God for His purposes just as certainly as the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony were convinced that they were “God’s Chosen People.” He was a member of one of the most militant missionary nations that the world has ever seen, yet in an age when few persons displayed a respectful interest in any culture except their own he devoted many years of effort to understanding, from their viewpoint, practically all aspects of the life of the ancient Mexicans. For a sixteenth-century European, his was a remarkable achievement particularly when we realize that no other colonizing nation produced such a figure.21

The work of Sahagún and other Spaniards who studied the history of Indian culture and the accomplishments of Spain in America have not yet sufficiently been analyzed or understood. Perhaps in 1992 when the five-hundredth anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus across the Ocean Sea will be commemorated—and Spain has already appointed a commission to plan for this event—we will have an adequate examination of these works that helped to lay the basis for the modern study of history. Among the many figures who should appear in such a work, Sahagún will be seen not only as a “past glory” but as one whose work has significance for us today. As Miguel León-Portilla of the University of Mexico emphasizes, Sahagún’s supreme achievement is that he found a way to discover in a different culture those elements which are common to all mankind. León-Portilla concludes that the world today, with its many distinct cultures and physically closer together than ever before because of technological advances, needs the lesson of Sahagún, for it should help us to achieve relations with other cultures through dialogue and comprehension.22

Why do some historians in the twentieth century, which bears some striking resemblances to the time when Sahagún was at work, study other cultures? Why do many more historians, though occasionally attempting to develop professional relations on an international basis, continue to work only on the history of their own tribes?

Only fragmentary accounts have been published concerning the efforts of historians to create some kind of international community, which illustrates the truth of the remark by Charles Homer Haskins, “Many historians find it easy to be historically minded respecting everything save only history.”23 Our best single source for an understanding of the development of the international congresses from the American viewpoint is the correspondence of J. Franklin Jameson, that giant among the founders of the AHA, for it provides a running account of the activities of historians in the international meetings held since the first one in Paris in 1900. When Jameson attended the congress in London in 1913, the ignorance and the indifference of the European historians toward American history pained him. He reported that no one in Great Britain “was at all interested in American history.” Nor did other European historians at the congress manifest the slightest curiosity in what had happened in the United States. By 1915 Jameson was fearful that World War I would create a state of mind “which for a long time will make it difficult for the students of history, in various nations to come together in a spirit of harmony,” and he was sufficiently realistic to see “only a restricted scope for international endeavor in history,” due to “the fact that for the last four hundred years mankind has been chiefly organized in great states.”24 He did not expect European historians to cooperate much.

Although Jameson spent most of his life outside universities, he considered them the basis for sound historical activities. In 1919 he supported plans to establish a professorship of American history at the University of London. He also applauded the proposal that the 1923 congress should include one session devoted to our history; in fact, he wrote in a burst of chauvinism, “American history, between you and me, should be the chief pursuit of mankind henceforth.”25 The congress meeting in Brussels in 1923 was not prepared for such a radical step as a session on United States history alone but experimented with a separate session on “the history of the American continents,” which may have reflected a reluctance to schedule a session on any subject that Europeans considered as parochial as United States history and on which they were not prepared to speak. The miscellaneous and scattered papers delivered at this session must have convinced the few Americans who attended that European scholars had little knowledge of or interest in our history.26

Americans were sensitive in other ways too. Haskins devoted his presidential address in 1922 to recounting American contributions to European historiography, as if to make certain that everyone understood how much had been accomplished over here. He urged Americans not to be content with receiving European history secondhand, in packages prepared by European scholars, and insisted that American historians “participate fully and directly in all phases of the historical activity of our time.” This question, he declared, concerned “the future of American scholarship, its dignity, its independence, its creative power.”27

Eager as Jameson was to see our history properly recognized at international congresses, he was principally determined to have the congresses produce some lasting benefit for historians and history and also bring historians together in friendly relations by working for a common purpose. The establishment of the International Committee of Historical Sciences in 1926, with a permanent bureau to provide continuity and leadership, was intended to develop projects with international support.28 But only an International Bibliography of Historical Sciences received general support, and it has had a precarious existence. The statement made by Jameson still has some validity: “These congresses might have done more to Promote the progress of historical science than merely to provide an opportunity for the reading of various papers and for social intercourse.”29

But what can historians do, scattered around the world as they are, following different approaches to history, living under different kinds of governments, with only a few able to attend the meetings held every five years? My own view is that we should encourage the ICHS to expand its activities between sessions on the basis of a few fundamental policies, such as the following.

First, access to archives should be liberalized. The VIth International Council on Archives in 1968 passed far-reaching resolutions on this subject. It urged that archival administrations of all countries review national regulations controlling access to documents and propose to appropriate authorities the removal of all unjustified restrictions. It recommended further that “the principle of equality of treatment between national and foreign scholars be recognized and applied everywhere.”30 Historians surely want to have as full access to sources as possible, and international pressure might be one of the best ways to achieve it. Should not historians, therefore, join with the archivists to work toward these desirable objectives? The ICHS would be expected to devise some procedure to handle complaints, perhaps in cooperation with the archivists. The experience of the AHA with the charges against the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library proves that this might be a heavy responsibility, but no announcement of principles governing access will be worth much unless there is some machinery for inquiry and redress of grievances.

Second, historians should be encouraged to study and teach in foreign lands. Jameson had ideas on this too. He proposed that British professors of history be invited to attend and participate in the annual meetings of the AHA, an invitation that might also involve their teaching in our universities. He once succeeded in getting support from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and distinguished historians from a number of British universities attended the annual meeting in December 1924. Afterward a number of these visitors went to universities to meet with their colleagues and deliver lectures.31 Why should some similar arrangement not be developed for every session of the ICHS? How valuable it would be, for example, to our students and our faculties if fifty or more foreign historians who will attend the meeting in San Francisco could also teach for a quarter or semester before or after the meeting. The experiences of these historians on our campuses would also enlarge their understanding of life in the United States and the variety of historians to be found here. The matching of historians with appropriate institutions might require considerable managerial expertise, but it could be done.

Third, the teaching of history should receive sustained attention. Some sporadic attention has been given since World War I to the analysis of textbooks in order to eliminate gross prejudices and nationalistic bias, but the ICHS does not seem to have considered the improvement of history teaching as an essential part of its task. This is a curious fact. The modifying of national and other prejudices in the writing of textbooks should be one of the obvious and natural objectives of historians in their international organization. But attention to history teaching should not be limited to the ever-present problem of honesty and balance in textbooks. Is it not equally important for us to exchange ideas and experiences with our colleagues in other countries in order to improve the teaching of both our own national histories and the history of other cultures? This fundamental labor can probably best be undertaken at the primary- and secondary-school level, which means that we should ask the ICHS to develop some definite program for teachers in these grades to live and teach outside their own countries. Here indeed is a large and complicated enterprise in which the AHA is not yet fully equipped to participate, but our divisional committee for teaching should be very helpful in the future.

Besides these continuing activities for the improvement of accessibility to sources, travel for historians, and the teaching of history, the ICHS should re-examine the program and organization of its congresses. There must be better ways to foster understanding among historians than to mount expensive extravaganzas every five years.

The beginnings of the movement for the closer association of historians on an international basis were made by a small band of European and American historians in the early decades of this century, and in our present desire for improvement we must not forget or undervalue the pioneer efforts that made possible the present system of meetings every five years. Nor must we forget that most international movements develop very slowly and often involve disappointments and frustrations. But a larger and more solid structure for the international relations of historians is long overdue, and let us hope that at least the scaffolding for a new structure will have been constructed by the time the AHA completes its first century in 1984. When this comes to pass, all historians, no matter which tribe they belong to, will benefit.

If Jameson could visit us today he would doubtless be gratified to see how American studies, including history, are being increasingly cultivated in universities, institutes, and special associations in Britain, continental Europe, and elsewhere. The inadequacies that lasted into the late 1950s resulted from lack of funds, faculty resistance attributed to political opposition or doubt as to the academic validity of courses on the United States, and “the absence of young scholars with sufficient academic qualifications to merit appointment to university teaching posts in American studies.”32 Thanks in part to the Fulbright program and foundation grants to the American Council of Learned Societies to encourage these studies overseas, the situation has changed radically in recent years.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Japanese schoolteachers who studied at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, last summer were shocked to find so little attention to Japanese history in our textbooks, just as scholars in Japan concerned with developing Latin American studies there deplore the ignorance in Latin America of Japanese culture.33 Foreign historians, in the Spirit of Jameson, may now be sensitive to what they view as our indifference to their increasingly important work on United States history. C. Vann Woodward deplored the parochialism of some American historians in these words: “The fault of Americans lies largely in their habit of looking within for the significance of historical experience and assessing it narrowly according to preconceptions and legends of democracy, equality, and frontier-flavored determinants of exceptionalism.” This myopia also explains why Americans have been so slow “to understand the significance of the influence they have exerted beyond their borders.” David M. Potter gives substance to this charge, in examining the Civil War, for he concludes, “The significance of the Civil War for world history, and particularly for the history of nationalism, has been generally neglected by historians.”34

The quantity and quality of foreign contributions to United States historiography since the end of World War II will probably surprise many of us, and the AHA might well sponsor the preparation of an annotated and organized bibliography on the subject.35 This bibliography would make clear that the increase of attention to our history abroad has not only been beneficial to the persons overseas whom Jameson worried about but would be equally useful to our own historians, for they would learn something about their own fields from foreign historians. A Dutch writer has stressed the difference between American and European scholarship: “European ideas that do not fit well into the American conception of self, that collide with the dominant official ethos of America, have long been soft-pedalled in American scholarly thought, while they prevail in European thinking.”36 There are differences, too, between American and European conceptions of social history, for different value systems result in different views. In the light of development abroad, must we not conclude that American history is too important to be left to American historians alone?

With the ever increasing attention the AHA is giving to teaching, why could we not sponsor, in various parts of the country and on a variety of topics, a continuing series of summer seminars and colloquia that would bring together historians from other parts of the world to discuss matters of mutual interest in the teaching and interpretation of American history? The foreign participants might spend an additional month or so visiting other colleagues or working in archival or library collections. Eventually American and foreign historians might work together on some aspect of our past. Would it not be refreshing to have a Brazilian scholar join with one of our historians to study the history of race relations in the United States?

Since Sahagún’s fundamental work on Mexican Indians, studies of foreign cultures by scholars outside the cultures were sporadic until recently. Our institutions of higher education were parochial, for they recognized mainly the United States and Europe as proper subjects for scholarly inquiry and usually regarded other parts of the world as outposts on the periphery of civilization. The result, as Richard D. Lambert stated in his review of language and area programs, was that “generations of Americans educated before World War II were ill-equipped to live in the postwar world of newly independent nations asserting their rights to political sovereignty and to respect for their cultural identities.”37 Today the situation has radically changed, due to the energetic and far-sighted support for foreign area programs of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council from the 1930s onward, with financial aid from foundations.38 World War II prompted foreign language and cultural studies for strategic purposes. Since the end of the war development has been notable, for only thirty years ago “the American scholarly experts on many of the world’s areas could have been assembled in a small room, and today all the world areas are represented by flourishing scholarly associations with memberships running in some cases into the thousands.”39 Throughout our colleges and universities one now finds a wide variety of well-trained area specialists, ready to enrich the educational offerings for their students with their hard-won knowledge of other cultures.

Many of these area specialists are historians, and now that few students are required to take courses in United States history or Western civilization, should not all history departments use their influence to encourage undergraduates to become acquainted, through a broad “civilization” course, with the history of another culture distinctly different from their own? World history will also have a place, particularly if presented with the imagination and expertise of a William H. McNeill, but the study of a single civilization has a special value all its own. Equally important would be the encouragement of graduate students in history to select one field from non-Western history for their general examinations. Enough good material now exists in English to make this a respectable and interesting possibility for all graduate students, and such broadening of their training would also enlarge their possibilities as teachers. This training would, in addition, increase their ability to treat topics of comparative history. The stimulating contribution of Carl N. Degler on race relations in Brazil and the United States indicates what we may expect when practitioners in one field enter another.40

Fifty years ago Haskins felt that one of the important obstacles to American research on European history was the deficiencies of our libraries. Today it is possible to pursue meaningful research on most areas of the world without leaving the United States, and in many fields our library resources are unsurpassed. A large volume would be required to do justice to this subject. Let these illustrations indicate the depth and range of the documentation available on foreign areas: in the period 1962-67, the Library of Congress offices abroad obtained 7.5 million publications from Ceylon, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the United Arab Republic, and Yugoslavia. Through this program forty other research libraries received sets of foreign-language publications, and 310 libraries received English-language sets.41 The April 1965 issue of the Library of Congress’s Monthly Index of Russian Accessions contained 487 pages of triple-column pages in small type.

Another way in which American historians might improve their world view would be to hold an annual meeting in Mexico City. We have met twice in Toronto: why not follow the example of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other American professional associations by trying out the excellent facilities in Mexico City? It would be worth the trip alone to visit the Anthropological Museum there, a remarkable testimony to the Indian cultures whose study Sahagún initiated.

One possible danger must be mentioned. As our students and professors become more acquainted with the history and conditions of other tribes, will we become more sensitive to injustices committed abroad, especially to historians, and in consequence will we attempt to influence foreign nations in ways we consider desirable? Spaniards studied Indians largely as an aid to Christianizing them. Will the AHA look upon governments and historians that do not follow our ways as laggards in civilization who must be exhorted by formal resolution and even condemnation to follow our leadership on such explosive matters as civil rights and free speech?

These are gut issues on which honest historians differ. Thus far the Soviet Union’s treatment of its dissident intellectuals has received most attention, but if relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States continue to increase, there will be other problems to confront. Although ethnocentrism can be found in many places—and there may be even today some Americans who would agree with Jameson that what the world needs is a large dose of American history to save it—China has one of the most completely closed civilizations ever developed in the world. Until the 1840s Chinese governmental and educational elites saw little need to study foreign languages or cultures, for all non-Chinese were considered barbarians. Those few who did study these subjects were dubbed “barbarian tamers” and tolerated because they performed an “odious and distasteful job, like sewer-inspectors,” an attitude that lasted in some quarters well into the nineteenth century.42 Today there is a different orthodoxy in China, according to which Maoist values are enshrined as the ultimate repository of truth. Apparently we will see in China a conscious and continuous ideological orientation of historical scholarship, as has been the case for some time in other countries, which will make dissidence dangerous and unlikely.43

Americans living in a pluralistic society where there is legal emphasis on individual rights and free speech look upon such cultures as subject to thought control, whether in China, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere. Can historians from widely varying cultures find common ground to stand on? If one may judge from our experience in discussing Latin American history with Soviet scholars, the possibilities of a fruitful exchange of views must not be exaggerated.44 Thus far these exchanges have been limited because of financial, linguistic, and political reasons, but it is likely that the coming generation will see a more wide-ranging and intense debate than ever before as historians discuss Latin America from the standpoint of their own tribes.

A final problem must be mentioned: the function of “tribal history.” Do all nations—including the United States—need parochialism, naiveté, and myths to bind together their people? Does everyone need to cultivate self-sustaining, self-satisfying, and supportive notions about the virtues and unique qualities of the tribe he belongs to? Perhaps so, and if the tribal history can be kept within decent bounds by the perspectives of historians inside and outside the tribe, it may serve a useful purpose. It must be recognized, too, that not all members of a tribe accept the dominant interpretation of its history and that divergent opinions within a tribe affect the views of historians outside. A century ago Japanese educational leaders embraced the American dogma of hard work and individualism—”Boys, be ambitious” was the watchword transmitted to Japanese youth by William Clark of Amherst.45 Japanese Americanologists such as Yasaki Takagi, who introduced a course on the United States at Tokyo University in 1918, were convinced that America was basically “a good country of good people.” The generation after 1945 was not so sure, and it aimed at viewing America objectively and dispassionately. A new school, now gathering influence, “contends that earlier American studies in Japan, following the example of American scholars themselves, have ignored the problems of America’s minorities—the blacks, Indians, and immigrant groups-and is in need of fundamental reform.”46 Today Japanese textbooks no longer reflect the simplistic image that summed up for previous generations the message of America: “Boys, be ambitious.”

If myths are useful when held by members of a tribe concerning its own history, they are less innocent and less justifiable when they are invoked to explain another culture. For example, during the Vietnam War the United States stressed its opposition to Communist North Vietnam as a totalitarian dictatorship similar to those found elsewhere. The difficulty with this argument Frances FitzGerald has made clear: “The non-Communist Vietnamese leaders believed in intellectual freedom no more than the Communists…. Intellectual freedom, of course, implies intellectual diversity.”47 Is not one of the important reasons for paying attention to the history of other peoples to make sure that our understanding of their culture is not based on untenable myths?

However we may answer these questions, I believe that historians in this country now face a watershed, just as did that small group of teachers and writers who founded the AHA in 1884, who aimed to raise the teaching of history to a higher level because they were convinced that the local and state spirit should give way to a larger, national view.48 Our problem today is to find ways of strengthening all international aspects of history teaching and writing in the United States. I am convinced—and this may be an expression of my own ethnocentrism—that no nation today has a better opportunity than our own to attempt to study other cultures without necessarily losing the necessary life-giving and life-sustaining connection with our own national roots. A minority group like the Scots or the Catalans may have some justification for giving almost exclusive attention to their own history, lest they disappear as a distinct culture. But surely the situation is different in the United States, with its many different strains of cultures, with its economic and political power, and with the need to overcome or at least diminish and channel in other directions the force of what might be called its missionary zeal.

My hope is that in the great enterprise, whose dimensions I have barely sketched, organized American historians will have an important and even indispensable part. Today the AHA has more projects, more problems, and a larger budget than ever before. Among our 17,000 members is to be found an astonishing diversity of historical interpretations, life-styles, linguistic skills, and, yes, pizzazz. Surely this remarkable aggregation of human beings will be able to influence the study and teaching of history in international as well as national ways and to strengthen the already solid beginnings made here to study seriously the history of other nations and other peoples, while continuing to help Americans understand their present and future by providing an honest and informed picture of the past. When this day arrives we shall be achieving what Jameson hoped for: recognition of the fact that the history of the modern world cannot be fully understood unless foreign historians pay more attention to our history and recognition that United States history cannot be fully comprehended if isolated from world history.

Americans will then be ready for an even more difficult step, the initiation of fundamental revisions in their own views of the world, man, and the future, which began in the century of the great discoveries and for which Bernardino de Sahagún showed the way by his studies of Aztec culture. If American historians are fully aware of their opportunities and responsibilities in the world today, they can exert a powerful influence by their teaching and research to the end that we are able to appreciate the history of other peoples without losing allegiance to our own. By studying the history of their own tribes and other tribes as well, historians should be in the forefront of all those who would seek to understand the common elements in all cultures.

Lewis Hanke (1905–93) was a preeminent US historian of colonial Latin America. He taught at the University of Texas, Columbia University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.



The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance received from many persons, beginning with the discussion held with a Spanish railroad track walker while waiting in the Escorial station for a train to Madrid in the summer of 1929.


  1. Conor Cruise O’Brien, States of Ireland (New York, 1972), 16-17. []
  2. Herbert Butterfield, Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (Boston, 1960), vii-xi. []
  3. Lewis Hanke, “The Other Treasure from the Indies during the Epoch of Emperor Charles V,” in Peter Rassow and Fritz Schalk, eds., Karl V: Der Kaiser und seine Zeit (Cologne, 1960), 94-103. []
  4. Juan Manzano, ed., “Un documento inédito relativo a como funcionaba el Consejo de Indias,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 15 (1935): 316. []
  5. George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Obregon’s History of 16th Century Explorations in Western America (Los Angeles, 1928), 10-11. []
  6. Marcos Jiménez de la Espada, Tres relaciones de antigüedades Peruanas (Madrid, 1879), xix. []
  7. Francis Borgia Steck, ed., Motolinia’s History of the Indians of New Spain (Washington, 1951), 20. []
  8. David Haberly, “The Hieroglyphic Catechisms of Mexico” (B.A. thesis, Harvard College, 1963), 3. []
  9. Rómulo D. Carbia, La crónica oficial de las Indias Occidentales: Estudio histórica y critico acerca de la historiografia mayor de Hispano-America en los siglos XVI a XVIII, con una introducción sobre la crónica oficial en Castilla (Buenos Aires, 1940). []
  10. Marcos Jiménez de la Espada, Relaciones geográficas de Indias, ed. José Urbano Martínez Carreras, 1 (Madrid, 1965): 5-117. For an exhaustive description and evaluation of these reports, see Howard F. Cline, “Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources: Part One,” in Robert Wauchope, ed., Handbook of Middle American Indians, 12 (Austin, 1972): 183-242, 324-95. []
  11. Sylvia Vilar, “Une vision indigéniste de l’Amérique en 1812,” Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez, 7 (Paris, 1971): 339-401. []
  12. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, True History of the Conquest of New Spain, ed. and tr. Alfred Percival Maudslay (London, 1908-16). []
  13. Hanke, All Mankind Is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians (De Kalb, 1974). []
  14. Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologética, historia, sumaria, ed. Edmundo O’Gorman, 1 (Mexico, 1967): 258. []
  15. Juan de Matienzo, Gobierno del Perú (1567), ed. Guillermo Lohmann Villena (Paris, 1967), 80. []
  16. Philip II to Bishop Salazar, June 23, 1587, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Filipinas 339, bk. DDI, pt. 2, fol. 155v. []
  17. Horacio de la Costa, S.J., The Jesuits in the Philippines, 1581-1768 (Cambridge, Mass. []
  18. Hanke, All Mankind Is One, 93-95. []
  19. Henri Baudet, Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man, tr. Elizabeth Wentholt (New Haven, 1965), vii; J. H. Elliott, “The Discovery of America and the Discovery of Man,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 63 (1972): 1-27; Benjamin Keen, The Aztec Image in Western Thought (New Brunswick, 1971). []
  20. Bernardino de Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain, tr. and ed. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Salt Lake City, 1950-69). The history and bibliography of Sahagún’s work are extraordinarily complex. For a competent guide through the maze, see Howard F. Cline and John B. Glass, “Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources: Part Two,” in Wauchope, Handbook of Middle American Indians, 13 (Austin, 1973): 186-239. This rich volume contains much information on other aspects of history writing in the Indies by such authorities as Ernest J. Burrus, Charles Gibson, and others. See also Munro Edmundson, ed. Sixteenth-Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagún (Albuquerque, 1974). For a general study of the growth of Spanish studies on Indian cultures during the conquest, see Carmelo Lisón Tolosana, Antropología social en España (Madrid, 1971), 1-96. See also Alfredo Jiménez Núñez, “La antropología y la historia de América,” Revista de Indias, 107-08 (1967): 59-87; and Núñez, “El método etnohistórico y su contribución a la antropología americana,” Revista Española de Antropologia Americana, 7 (1972): 163-96. []
  21. On the lack of French writers of Sahagún’s stature, see Alfred Métraux, “Les precurseurs de l’ethnologie en France du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle,” Journal of World History, 7 (1962): 721-38. The early Jesuits in China had language difficulties. Donald F. Lach states that Matteo Ricci “was evidently the only one of the Europeans to learn more than a few polite expressions in Chinese.” Asia in the Making of Europe, 1 (Chicago, 1965): 821. Even Ricci did not measure up to Sahagún, as will be seen from the study by George L. Harris, “The Mission of Matteo Ricci, S.J.: A Case Study of an Effort at Guided Culture Changes in the Sixteenth Century,” Monumenta Serica: Journal of Oriental Studies, 25 (1960): 1-168. There was an impressive amount of information on Chinese culture available in Europe’s major languages, according to Edwin J. Van. Kley, “News from China: Seventeenth-Century European Notices of the Manchu Conquest,” Journal of Modern History, 45 (1970): 561-82. But this information was not obtained by the rigorous methods of Sahagún. In India, according to Sir George B. Sansom, “it was not until 1606–after a hundred years of missionary effort–that the Jesuit father Roberto de Nobile, with the approval of the Society of Jesus, undertook a serious study of Hinduism in order to learn how it could best be criticized and confuted.” The Western World and Japan (New York, 1950), 77. Though England had commitments in India from the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir William Jones of the High Court in Calcutta was in 1783 the pioneer in the British study of Indian languages. The study of the Japanese language by the Jesuits Luis Frois and João Rodrigues was on a fairly low practical level, states Tadao Doi, “A Review of Jesuit Missionaries’ Linguistic Studies of the Japanese in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” in Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, International Symposium on the History of Eastern and Western Cultural Contacts (1957), Collection of Papers Presented (Tokyo, 1959), 215-22. Their study was a far cry from the intensive linguistic effort of Sahagún who described his work as “a sweeping net to bring to light all the terms of this language, with their regular and metaphorical meanings, and ways of saying things.” Cline and Glass, “Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources: Part Two,” 203. On Europe’s abysmal record in studies of African cultures, see Katherine George, “The Civilized West Looks at Primitive Africa, 1400-1800: A Study in Ethnocentrism,” Isis, 49 (1958): 62-72. H. J. de Graaf remarks on how little research was done by the Dutch. “Aspects of Dutch Historical Writings on Colonial Activities in South East Asia with Special Reference to the Indigenous Peoples during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in D. G. E. Hall, ed., Historians of South East Asia (London, 1961), 213-24. In his introduction Hall emphasizes the great strength of the “Europe-centricity of historians,” especially in the period before World War II (p. 8). []
  22. Miguel León-Portilla, “Significado de la obra de Fray Bernardino de Sahagún,” Estudios de Historia Novohispana, 1 (1960): 27. []
  23. Charles Homer Haskins, “European History and American Scholarship,” AHR, 28 (1922-23): 225. []
  24. J. Franklin Jameson to Andrew C. McLaughlin, Feb. 13, 1919, in Jameson, An Historian’s World: Selections from the Correspondence of John Franklin Jameson, ed. Elizabeth Donnan and Leo F. Stock (Philadelphia, 1956), 230; Jameson to Waldo G. Leland, Mar. 24, 1924, in ibid., 298. For some recent sober and detailed views on the continuing strength of nationalism, see Boyd C. Shafer, “Webs of Common Interests: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Peace,” Historian, 36 (1974): 403-33. []
  25. Jameson to Leland , Nov26, 1922, in An Historian’s World, 275. []
  26. Waldo G. Leland, “The International Congress of Historical Sciences, Held at Brussels,” AHR, 28 (1922-23): 650-51. []
  27. Haskins, “European History and American Scholarship,” 215; see also Jameson to Henri Reverdin, May 24, 1923, in An Historian’s World, 288. []
  28. The literature on the history of the ICHS is scanty. In 1958 the bureau authorized Halvdan Koht and Waldo G. Leland to write a history. Koht prepared an eighteen-page account, The Origin and Beginnings of the International Committee of Historical Sciences: Personal Reminiscences of Halvdan Koht (Lausanne, 1962). Boyd Shafer kindly loaned me a copy of this rare work. Leland apparently never prepared anything on the subject except an earlier paper, “L’Organisation Internationale des Études Historiques,” in Historie et Historiens depuis Cinquante Ans: Méthodes, Organisation et Résultats du Travail Historique de 1876 à 1926, 2 (Paris, 1928): 741-56. []
  29. Jameson to Alexander S. Lappo-Danilevskii, Aug. 3, 1917, in An Historian’s World, 214-15. []
  30. For the complete text, see “Resolutions, Recommendations and Wishes of the VIth International Congress on Archives Held in Madrid, September 3-7, 1968,” Archivum, 18 (1970): 213-15. []
  31. Jameson to Elihu Root, July 19, 1923, in An Historian’s World, 290-91. []
  32. Gordon B. Turner, “A Decade of American Studies,” ACLS Newsletter, 1970, no. 2, pp. 1-6. []
  33. Gustavo Andrade, “Latin American Studies in Japan,” Latin American Research Review, 8 (1973): 147-56. Dr. Andrade writes, somewhat in the spirit of Jameson, “This report has analyzed the state of studies on Latin America in the country which is one of the greatest economic powers of the world and which, according to the prediction of Herman Kahn, will be the country of the twenty-first century. And now let me ask, what does Latin America know about Japan? How many research centers and university departments are there which teach that Japan is no longer the land of cherry blossoms, because the fouled air of the great cities kills them, nor the land of Mount Fuji, because the smoke of the blast furnaces wipes its stylized figure from the landscape, nor the home of the geishas, because they prefer the easier road of the nightclubs? Where are the translations into Spanish of Nobel prizewinner Kawabata? If Latin Americans want, the Japanese to understand the reality of Latin America, Latin Americans must also try to understand the reality of Japan” (pp. 155-56). []
  34. C. Vann Woodward, “The Test of Comparison,” in Woodward, ed., The Comparative Approach to American History (New York, 1968), 352; David M. Potter, “Civil War,” in ibid, 145. See also Peter Hametty, “Cotton Exports and Indian Agriculture,” Economic History Review, 2d ser., 24 (1971): 414-29. []
  35. While gathering material for this paper, the following items came to my attention by chance: Inga Flots, Colonel House in Paris (Aarhus, 1972); A. N. J. den Hollander, ed., Contagious Conflict: The Impact of American Dissent on American Life (Leiden, 1973); “Theses on American Topics in Progress and Completed at British Universities,” Journal of American Studies (published by Cambridge University Press), Apr. 1974, no. 1, pp. 131-51; Cristiano Camporesi, Il marxismo teorico negli USA, 1900-1945 (Milan, 1973); Anna Katona, “Nineteenth-Century Hungarian Travelogues on the Pre-Civil-War U.S.,” Hungarian Studies in English, 5 (1971): 35-52; “Nineteenth-Century Hungarian Travelogues on the Post-Civil-War U.S.,” ibid., 7 (1973): 51-94. []
  36. A. N. J. den Hollander, “Cultural Diversity and the Mind of the Scholar,” in Hollander, ed., Diverging Parallels: A Comparison of American and European Thought and Action (Leiden, 1971), 205. []
  37. Richard D. Lambert, “Language and Area Studies Review,” Items, 27 (1973): 17. []
  38. See Gordon B. Turner, “The joint Committee on Slavic Studies, 1948-1971: A Summary View,” ACLS Newsletter, 1972, no. 2, pp. 6-26; George E. Taylor, “The Joint Committee on Contemporary China, 1956-1969,” ibid., no. 4, pp. 1-16, and 1973, no. 1, pp. 11-32. For a list of the historians who enjoyed unusual opportunities to study foreign languages and cultures in these programs, see Dorothy Sunderland and Leslie Wendell, eds., Directory: Foreign Area Fellows, 1952-1972, of the Joint Committee on the Foreign Area Program of the Social Science Research Council, 1962-1972 (3d ed.; New York, 1973). []
  39. Lambert, “Language and Area Studies Review,” 17. []
  40. Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery in Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York, 1971). []
  41. Dagmar Horna Perman, ed., Bibliography and the Historian (Santa Barbara, 1968), 59. []
  42. John King Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports (Stanford, 1964), 176. An important recent study by Donald W. Treadgold deals in detail with both Russian and Chinese responses to the West. The West in Russia and China (Cambridge, 1973). Other valuable studies of this complicated topic are Paul A. Cohen, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism, 1860-1870 (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), and Joseph R. Levenson, European Expansion and the Counter-Example of Asia (Englewood Cliffs, 1962). For an example of how cautiously one scholar worked to help his countrymen comprehend the nature of the outside world, see Fred W. Drake’s account of the history-geography of Hsu Chi-yu (1795-1873). “A Mid-Nineteenth-Century Discovery of the Non-Chinese World,” Modern Asian Studies, 6 (1972): 205-24. For a sophisticated and forthright statement on the role American historians should play in the study of Chinese history, see John K. Fairbank, “Assignment for the ’70’s,” AHR, 74 (1968-69): 861-79. []
  43. Herbert A. Simon, “Mao’s China in 1972,” Items, 27 (1973): 1-4. On ideological aspects of history writing in the German Democratic Republic and in Poland, see the review by George G. Iggers, Journal of Modern History, 44 (1972): 149-52. []
  44. I. R. Lavretskii, “A Survey of the Hispanic American Historical Review, 1956-1958,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 40 (1960): 340-60. This article originally appeared in Voprosy istorii, and the survey concluded “that the official Latin Americanists of the U.S. falsify and distort the historical truth in order to benefit imperialism” (p. 360). See also Russell H. Bartley, “On Scholarly Dialogue: The Case of U.S. and Soviet Latin Americanists,” Latin American Research Review, 5 (1970): 59-62. This is an introduction to the article by M. S. Al’perovich, “Soviet Historiography of the Latin American Countries,” ibid., 63-70. For a Mexican perspective, see Juan A. Ortega Medina, Historia soviética iberoamericanista (Mexico City, 1961). []
  45. Quoted by the staff of the Asahi Shimbun in The Pacific Rivals: A Japanese View of Japanese-American Relations (New York, 1971), 363. It is encouraging to see that some Japanese historians, such as Masuda Yoshio, are also calling, as Lothar G. Knauth has said, for “less parochialisin among Japanese historians and the removal of barriers between the Japanese historians of Japan and those of foreign countries. Only in this manner, he insists, can Japan come to grips with the problem of its place in world history and overcome her relative alienation in Asia, and in the world.” “Pacific Confrontation: Japan Encounters the Spanish Overseas Empire, 1542-1639” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1970), 530-31. []
  46. Staff of the Asahi Shimbun, Pacific Rivals, 355-57. []
  47. Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (New York, 1973), 22. []
  48. David D. Van Tassel and James A. Tinsley, “Historical Organizations as Aids to History,” in William. B. Hesseltine and Donald R. McNeil, eds., Essays in Memory of Herbert A. Kellar (Madison, 1958), 62. []