RT: This book has taken you years to research and write. It’s clearly a labour of love. But some people would think that presidential libraries are rather a dry subject. What is it about them that you find so interesting?
AC: I began the book believing I would write a simple history of the presidential library system. But as I discovered more and more about the politics that drive the libraries, and inappropriately was kept from seeing hundreds of thousands of the National Archives’ own records about them, I began to change the focus of the book.
The system has strayed from its original purpose: to preserve presidential records and make them available to the public. The libraries have become taxpayer-funded legacy factories, and arms of the national political parties – particularly the Republican Party.
Modern presidential libraries open about four years after presidents leave office, but the papers of their presidencies will not be opened for 100 or more years. History is being locked up for a century due to conscious choices that Congress and National Archives officials have made and continue to make about our priorities, our budgets, and the sensitivities of powerful people.
The politics are fascinating: the site selection process, and what factors make for a winning bid; how they are funded, both with hundreds of millions of private dollars, and a billion dollars of taxes each decade; the exhibits that spin or ignore controversies; the political events, such as presidential primary debates and “debut” speeches by aspiring candidates; and the complex mechanisms that work to keep records – the core mission – closed, and unavailable for a century or more.
David Thackeray, Marc Palen and Richard Toye University of Exeter
As 3rd-year students scramble to finish their dissertations and as 2nd-year students begin formulating topics for their own, it’s worth noting the dramatic expansion in the availability of sources for the study of modern British and British imperial history in recent years.
Many of these sources are free to use. However, it is often hard to keep track of what materials are now available. What follows is a short guide (which is by no means comprehensive) but gives an introduction to some of the most important sources and may be of particular use to students planning dissertations, as well as other researchers. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the ‘comments’ section.
Mass Observation was a social investigation organisation set up in the 1930s that produced a range of social surveys about British life until its disbandment in the late 1940s. This website provides online access to a range of data held in the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex and is invaluable for social historians. Dr. Lucy Robinson has also produced the excellent Observing the 80s website, which holds material compiled following the modern revival of Mass Observation, as well as oral history recordings from the British Library.
Introduction by Christopher Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal
One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cites, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.
In his Nobel prize-winning novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee masterfully describes how the agents and members of empire struggle incessantly against the imperial state’s demise by creating a constant state of fear against barbarian attack. It is not enough to rule. The imperial state needs an enemy. It then marches the army into the borderlands to attack the nomads before they can descend upon the empire. The deployment of the army, the use of torture, and the suspension of rule of law are necessary evils. The preservation of civilization and of the white race depends on it. Empire simply cannot fathom its own end. And yet, throughout his novel, Coetzee has his borderland administrator remind us that all empires must one day perish. Imperial time, the Magistrate whispers ever so seditiously in our unsuspecting ears, is not universal: “We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients.” Driven almost mad by the failed military campaign against the barbarians he has come to admire, the Magistrate finally admits that he “wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.” Our tortured colonial administrator had dared to imagine decolonization from the inside.
In the comparative study under review here, Fight or Flight, the talented and prolific British historian Martin Thomas provides an in-depth account of how and why the French and the British tried to hold on to their empires against all odds but in the end had to let go. Sometimes, Thomas tells us, the colonizers chose to cut their losses and get out in order to focus on other parts of the empire. It was a question of preservation. On other occasions, Thomas counters, they went to war to hold on to their prize possessions. In both cases, it –what we now call decolonization – was a messy, complicated, unpredictable, and terribly bloody business. There was no roadmap for ending empires because, at least in the immediate wake of World War II, neither the French nor the British decision-makers could fathom that imperial time was perhaps not universal.
Nor could they imagine that the ‘barbarians’ were thinking of historical time in different terms and were willing to fight to force that change upon their colonizers. While Thomas’s comparison turns on the French and British imperial endgames, he successfully weaves in the stories of the Africans and Asians. For many colonial nationalists, Thomas reminds us, decolonization did not magically begin in the wake of World War II; but emerged in many colonial minds as the only response to failed reformist promises. Nicholas White is right to suggest that Thomas is on to something big by suggesting that the colonial crisis that coalesced in the 1930s was as important as anything that came after ‘1945.’ Some chose communism, like Ho Chi Minh, the future father of Vietnam, and Thomas shows how that pre-WWII communist connection would differentiate the French war of decolonization in Indochina from other ‘fight experiences’ in French Algeria and British Malaya. Continue reading “Roundtable Review of Martin Thomas’s ‘Fight or Flight’”→
Combining world class research with very high levels of student satisfaction we are a member of the Russell Group and now have over 19,000 students. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) Exeter was ranked 16th nationally with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. We are ranked 7th in The Times andSunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide.
The full time, permanent post of Lecturer in Imperial or Global History will extend the research profile of these subjects within the Centre for Imperial & Global History in the History department at Exeter in relation to the history of European empires, including colonial Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America . The post will require the candidate to contribute to teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level of a range of courses including team-taught modules HIH1420 Understanding the Modern World and HIH2002 Uses of the Past, and contribute to the MA programme, and supervision of independent work at levels 2, 3 and MA level. The candidate may also devise a Level 2 Option Module and a Level 3 Special Subject. Continue reading “Join Us! New Lectureship @ExeterCIGH in Imperial/Global History”→
In his 2004 book The Absent-minded Imperialists, Bernard Porter argues that there was little sustained general interest about the British Empire in British domestic society. The supply of products from the Empire to Britain and references to imperial matters in British cultural activities did not mean that society was steeped in the Empire, he suggests. His book is one side of the argument between “minimalists” and “maximalists”, the protagonists in the historiographical debate about the magnitude of the effect of Empire on society in Britain.
The protagonists of minimalism and maximalism, although taking strongly opposing views, have in common a desire to answer the question: how widespread was awareness of the Empire in British society? This question quickly leads to two more: How might this be done? And is it possible to quantify imperial awareness? The seed of a mechanism for answering these questions can be found in Porter’s book in which he lists some of the “imperial associations that mushroomed” in Britain at the end on the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. By examining a wide range of imperial groups and their memberships, I have been able to estimate the extent of imperial activism, identify the aspects of Empire activists cared about, and examine the class structure of groups’ memberships.Continue reading “Fully-Aware Imperialists”→