AHA Member Spotlight: Mark R. Jacobson
Mark R. Jacobson is the John J. McCloy ’16 Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy at Amherst College. He splits his time between Washington, DC, and Amherst, MA, and has been a member since 2016.
Alma maters: BA (history), University of Michigan, 1990; MA (war studies), King’s College, University of London, 1991; PhD (military history and strategic studies), Ohio State University, 2005
Fields of interest: diplomatic, military, veterans, propaganda, Cold War
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I designed my graduate program with the intention of working in the national security arena in Washington, DC, and served in various roles at the US Senate; the Department of Defense, including as a special assistant to the secretary of defense; and NATO as a diplomat in Afghanistan where I advised the commanding US generals on the political dynamics of the mission. I also worked in the think tank world and as a military reservist—including mobilizations to Bosnia and Afghanistan. I loved being at the center of some of the most complex challenges our nation faced but while I enjoyed public service I realized that my passion was teaching. I used every excuse I could to “teach” or lead seminars while in government service and eventually I was able to satisfy some of this through adjunct roles. Still, what I wanted was to tackle the crisis I saw in historic literacy amongst our policymakers—especially the junior ones. Thus, I wanted a full-time role as an administrator, teacher, or both so I could work with students inside and outside the classroom. Eventually, I landed a visiting role at Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service and this led to a longer term role at Amherst College
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Amherst College lets me focus on the classroom and it’s incredibly relaxing compared to Washington, DC!
What projects are you currently working on? I am currently trying to publish my dissertation on psychological warfare during the Korean War. While the basic story remains the same, my own understanding of the issue has evolved and the context within which readers consider propaganda and disinformation certainly has changed! I am also beginning a project on identity communities (religious, ethnic, gender based) and the intersection of community validation and military service.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? I have consistently maintained an interest in propaganda but I am more interested in the use of history as a decision-making tool than I was before. At the same time my interest in military history has focused on how we tell the story of war through narrative and film.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? In 1998 I found a document at NARA entitled Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, a list of techniques the Chinese used during the Korean War to “elicit false confessions” from American prisoners of war. It did not tie in directly to my dissertation so I wrote a bit about it and put it aside. In 2007 as part of the US Senate Armed Services Committee team investigating the treatment of detainees in US custody we came across the same document—and this time it illustrated that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” had been drawn from those designed by the Chinese to elicit false confessions.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. I used this in a seminar on the Second World War and it was my first time reading the book. Not only a powerful and disturbing story but Browning’s work also showed my students how to “do history” and the significance of not assuming you cannot learn something new about a well-covered subject.
What do you value most about the history discipline? For me “past is prologue.” While there is a danger of presentism, history is an incredible guide for making better public policy. It is not just about knowing the history of a particular event or region but about, as the Maori say, “walking backwards into the future.” In other words, while we cannot predict the future, studying the past can suggest some relationships and dynamics that may help us to understand the present.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? We are at a crisis point in our nation due to a lack of historic and civic literacy. Solving this challenge requires the AHA and the promotion of the study of history. I want to be part of that network and be part of the solution.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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