This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

seuss isolation
One of many Dr. Seuss anti-isolationist cartoons from the early 1940s. PM Magazine/Dr. Seuss

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From MI5’s Cold War obsession with historians, to the myth of American isolationism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Historians’ Work Meant Little to an MI5 Obsessed with Cold-War Communists

Martin Kettle

Even in the age of secret mass surveillance programmes such as the NSA’s Prismand GCHQ’s Tempora it is hard to imagine living in a society in which a historian could be seen as a threat to national security. It seems absurd that MI5 might today be amassing a file on the activities of David Starkey, be opening Lucy Worsley’s mail, tapping Simon Schama’s phone or sending an undercover agent to make notes on Niall Ferguson’s lectures. Such a society nevertheless existed here in Britain less than 50 years ago during the cold war. And the latest release of MI5 historic files to the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, fills in some detail of how it was done.

Half a century ago, there were hardly three bigger names in academic history than Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and AJP Taylor. Their books were standard reference and teaching texts for generations of students. Yet the released files reveal that all three were being monitored by MI5 on a regular basis. The release this week of several detailed files on Hobsbawm and Hill is a reminder of just how deeply the cold war penetrated into every nook and cranny of British academic life. [continue reading]

A Century Later, Relics Emerge From a War Frozen in Time

Michele Gravino
National Geographic

A WW1 Italian cannon sits atop Cresta Croce, a 3,000-meter-high Adamello ridge. Photo by Stefano Torrione, National Geographic Italia
A WW1 Italian cannon sits atop Cresta Croce, a 3,000-meter-high Adamello ridge.
Photo by Stefano Torrione, National Geographic Italia

Greetings from Cercen Pass. It is storming and snow covers the highest peaks. We wait for peace, but the bad weather, the high altitudes … Peace can only come with our death.

—from the May 28, 1916, diary of C.D., a soldier from Italy’s Trentino region

The first cold war was fought during the First World War. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions. Now, a century later, the warming world is revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting free of their icy tombs.[continue reading]

Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake: 30 years on and Still as Magnificent as Ever

Joanna Warson
Francophone Africa

Over the past few weeks, in our second year unit, ‘Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa’, we have been exploring the partition of the African continent by the European colonial powers. Taking as our starting point the Portuguese exploration of Africa’s coastline in the 15th century, we have traced the development of relations between Africa and Europe, from these early, primarily trade-focused encounters to the violent, territorial conquest that took place in the final three decades of the 19thcentury, seeking to present the “Scramble for Africa” as a long term process, whilst also exploring in detail the particular late 19th century context that enabled formal partition to take place.

We dedicated one of the first sessions dealing with this topic to watching The Magnificent African Cake, episode six of Basil Davidson’s award-winning series, “AFRICA: A voyage of discovery”. Despite being more than 30 years old, for a number of different reasons, this documentary remains a first class resource for teaching the partition of Africa, both to students with little prior knowledge of the theme and to those who have studied the “Scramble for Africa” before. [continue reading]

Phantom Menace: The Myth of American Isolationism

Peter Beinart
National Journal

In an op-ed last year in The Washington Post, former Sens. Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl warned of “the danger of repeating the cycle of American isolationism.” That summer, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer heralded “the return of the most venerable strain of conservative foreign policy: isolationism.” New York Times columnist Bill Keller then fretted that “America is again in a deep isolationist mood.” This November, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens will publish a book subtitled The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder.

What makes these warnings odd is that in contemporary foreign policy discourse, isolationism—as the dictionary defines it—does not exist. Calling your opponent an “isolationist” serves the same function in foreign policy that calling her a “socialist” serves in domestic policy. While the term itself is nebulous, it evokes a frightening past, and thus vilifies opposing arguments without actually rebutting them. For hawks eager to discredit any serious critique of America’s military interventions in the “war on terror,” that’s very useful indeed. [continue reading]

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