This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Image courtesy of Matt Roth, the Chronicle Review.
Image courtesy of Matt Roth, the Chronicle Review.

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

From the return of grand narratives to how four Caribbean nations ended the Latin American embargo against Cuba, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Historians: Go Big or Go Home!

Rebecca Onion
Boston Globe

Who among us really understands the grand sweep of history—the deep roots of the major problems of our time? If anyone does, you might guess, it would be people aspiring toward jobs as professional historians, who shape their dissertations with one eye on the highly competitive market for tenure-track jobs at colleges and universities.

But to look at recent winners of the field’s most coveted honors, the Bancroft Award, you’d see something quite different. The historians who land the prize for their doctoral theses tend to focus on very narrow time periods. Take the titles of some recent Bancroft dissertation prize winners: “Paying the Price of War: United States Soldiers, Veterans, and Health Policy, 1917-1924” (Jessica Adler, 2013); “American Empire, Agrarian Reform and the Problem of Tropical Nature in the Philippines, 1898-1916” (Theresa Marie Ventura, 2009); “A Struggle in the Arena of Ideas: Black Independent Schools and the Quest for Nationhood, 1966-1979” (Russell J. Rickford, 2009). The top prizes are emblematic of a much broader trend in the field of history itself, one that favors archival research within tight boundaries over broadly conceived narratives with big conclusions. [continue reading]

Slavery and Capitalism

Sven Beckert
Chronicle of Higher Education

Few topics have animated today’s chattering classes more than capitalism. In the wake of the global economic crisis, the discussion has spanned political boundaries, with conservative newspapers in Britain and Germany running stories on the “future of capitalism” (as if that were in doubt) and Korean Marxists analyzing its allegedly self-destructive tendencies. Pope Francis has made capitalism a central theme of his papacy, while the French economist Thomas Piketty attained rock-star status with a 700-page book full of tables and statistics and the succinct but decisively unsexy title Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press).

With such contemporary drama, historians have taken notice. They observe, quite rightly, that the world we live in cannot be understood without coming to terms with the long history of capitalism—a process that has arguably unfolded over more than half a millennium. They are further encouraged by the all-too-frequent failings of economists, who have tended to naturalize particular economic arrangements by defining the “laws” of their development with mathematical precision and preferring short-term over long-term perspectives. What distinguishes today’s historians of capitalism is that they insist on its contingent nature, tracing how it has changed over time as it has revolutionized societies, technologies, states, and many if not all facets of life. [continue reading]

What the International Response to the Civil Rights Movement Tells Us About Ferguson

Justin Worland
Time Magazine

Images of armed soldiers blocking nine African-American high school students from integrating a public high school in Little Rock, Ark. shocked the world nearly 60 years ago. Organs of Soviet propaganda, determined to disrupt perceptions of a tranquil American democracy, wrote of American police “who abuse human dignity and stoop to the level of animals” in the newspaper Izvestia. In the midst of stiff Cold War competition for hearts and minds around the world, the prospect of controlling international perceptions motivated officials at the highest levels of U.S. government to support new civil rights measures.

The U.S. representative to the United Nations warned President Dwight Eisenhower that the incident had damaged American influence, and the President listened. “Before Eisenhower sent in the troops, there were mobs around the school for weeks, keeping these high school students from going to school,” says Mary Dudziak, a professor at Emory whose book Cold War Civil Rights argues that international pressures encouraged the federal government to work to improve civil rights, and which tells the above story about Little Rock. “The issue caused people from other countries to wonder whether the U.S. had a commitment to human rights.” Today, the highly-publicized killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner have attracted similar international condemnation, and some historians wonder whether concerns about U.S. appearances around the world could once again influence the federal government. [continue reading]

1972: How Four Caribbean Countries Led the Collapse of the Cuban Embargo in the Americas

Sir Ronald Sanders
Antillean Media Group

The US is cutting loose the shackles of the past by establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after 53 years.  But the first blow in the Western Hemisphere against those shackles was struck by four governments of the English-Speaking Caribbean.  Today that single act should be a source of great satisfaction to leaders who put themselves, their governments and their countries at risk for a principle in which they believed. In 1972, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, then Foreign Minister of Guyana, told the Cuban Foreign Minister, Raul Roa, “Trust me”. The exchange took place on the eve of a meeting of Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned countries in Guyana.  Cuba was then almost completely isolated in the world and especially in the Western Hemisphere following the US diplomatic and trade embargo of 1961.  In the Hemisphere only Canada and Mexico retained any relations with Cuba.

Ramphal’s reassurance to Roa was in response to the Cuban Foreign Minister’s statement that he had brought to the Non-aligned Foreign Ministers’ meeting “a draft Diplomatic Relations Agreement”.  Roa had done so because Guyana’s then President Forbes Burnham had intimated his interest in “discussing” diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Recording this landmark moment in his memoir, “Glimpses of a Global Life”, Ramphal recalls telling Roa that Guyana would establish diplomatic relations with Cuba “but would prefer to give the three other independent English-Speaking Caribbean countries the chance to join us in doing so”. [continue reading]

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