OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Peter Karsten

Portrait of Peter Karsten

Peter Karsten is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, with joint appointments in the sociology department and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of the prizewinning The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972); Law, Soldiers, and Combat (1978); Heart versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth-Century America (1997); the prizewinning Between Law and Custom: "High" and "Low" Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora, 1600–1900 (2003); and The Magic Mirror: Law in American History (2nd edition, 2009), among other books. He is also editor-in-chief of the prizewinning Encyclopedia of War and American Society (3 volumes, 2005). He has held visiting chairs at University College Dublin, Augsburg Universitat, and The Citadel.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Most scholarship on the American role in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II has addressed the “large” issues of strategy, campaign outcomes, command leadership, and logistical support. Other, generally more recent research efforts have provided insights into the experiences of the individual combatants. This talk offers a better grasp of these latter efforts, utilizing evidence that has been underutilized. How did American infantrymen (“dogfaces”) experience and comprehend their world in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II? What did they think of their plight, of enemy’s weapons and their own, of tankers, army air force bombers, medics, officers, rear echelon personnel, replacement depots, “combat fatigue” and the many civilian refugees the war generated? These issues were addressed by combat infantry veterans in their diaries and in letters written from the front; in their recollections later published or recorded in oral interviews. They were also addressed in the reports of journalists covering the warfronts; in the output of combat photographers, artists and cartoonists capturing scenes there; and some of them were addressed in the massive surveys conducted by the Army’s Research Branch (RB) of combatants in the ETO to generate and provide data for the use of division and corps commanders. This talk explores additional sources of information concerning the infantrymen’s views, compares them to the recollections of the combatants and to the responses to the Research Branch’s questionnaires. While these on-the-scene combatants and observers confirm and reflect a number of the Research Branch survey findings, there are several dimensions of the dogfaces’ mindset that the RB surveys failed to detect, that are only to be found in this “on-the-scene” historical evidence.
This talk compares four religious, political, and legal controversies in 19th and early 20th century America. Each was grounded in the sharp division between the Republican and Democratic Parties’ perspectives on public policy, and all four were fired by religious differences involving the active use of “positive” law and judicial fiat. Several scholars have addressed the emergence in the state courts of substantive due process as well as the fight in those courts over the use of the bible and school prayer in the public schools. But no one has noted the similar political division there, nor has anyone examined the political or religious affiliations of the state court justices who decided those tests of the constitutionality of the early substantive due process cases or those involving bible reading and school prayer. These and other related issues constitute what this talk offers to our understanding of how religiously inspired party politics played out in both state and federal legislatures and state and federal courts.
Several legal scholars have criticized five antebellum justices – Joseph Story, John McLean, Benjamin Curtis, Lemuel Shaw, and Joseph Swan –for their having been unable or unwilling to defy the Fugitive Slave Acts. They have argued that a morally “correct” path could and should have been hewn out and followed by these justices to release those claimed by slave-catchers, and to protect from prosecution those aiding fugitives. I disagree with their verdicts with regard to three of these jurists, and partly with the fourth, in that the critics offer insufficient regard for their perspectives from the bench as well as relevant historical evidence that supports the justifications provided by them: Firstly, in that they had sworn to respect and uphold the rule of law. And secondly, in that they maintained that refusing to enforce these fugitive slave statutes could well lead to the dissolution of a Union these jurists regarded as profoundly important, for reasons, again, that their modern critics have insufficiently appreciated or understood.
Celtic Irish and Highlands as well as other Britons have sojourned in British Imperial lands, where they have engaged in contact with Indigenous people. How did they these ethic groups compare in their reactions to Indigenes? Were the former two groups empathetical to the Indigenes out of a sense of identification with their common plight ? Were they more or less likely than their English counterparts to have been harsh or empathetic towards Indigenes? Karstan puts these hypotheticals to a test by examining the courts-martial records of British military personnel in India, 1878-1912, where the largest numbers of such similar, ethnically-organized Britons were stationed, more than any other colonial domain in the Empire. He offers social psychological theory to explain his surprise findings, not predicted in the considerable literature on this controversy.
The Naval "Quarantine" of Cuba in October, 1962 brought the world closer to nuclear war than any in history, and those involved in it on the U. S. side in Washington or the forces at sea were unaware of the issue that nearly led to such nuclear disaster. Three different decisions were made, any one of which could have led to the deaths of thousands and two of these might have produced a nuclear holocaust. OAH Lecturer Peter Karsten brings first-hand experience to this talk; he was one of two officers breaking encrypted messages on the USS Canberra from President Kennedy's Executive Committee and from Admiral Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations, for Rear Admiral "Red" Ailes, commander of the 20-odd destroyer screen.
This talk concerns the moral dilemmas that professionals sometimes face -- that is, persons with special training and expertise and a publicly-professed commitment to peer-set standards of conduct, performance, and service. Many of us have faced, or will face ethical dilemma as adults: Whether to serve in a war we regard as morally wrong; whether to represent a rich but reprehensible client; whether to have an abortion. Some of us face more difficult, and more frequent, ethical dilemmas than others, because some of us have less choice than others. Karsten explores several types of professionals who face the kinds of crises of conscience in varying degrees, focusing on dilemmas faced by both military officers and jurists in the nineteenth century. A distinction between the moral dilemmas faced by the self-employed professional, and those faced by all others, is one of the issues that inform this talk. The other issue concerns the ethical challenges themselves. Many moral crises result from having ethical considerations that pull in different directions -- dilemmas akin to the ones that jurists face in resolving “conflicts of laws.” The challenge is how one reconciles these divergent considerations when it is not at all obvious that one should simply apply one and ignore the other. One jurist may privilege a states’ “police powers” over the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause more than her peers; one judge may find the imposing of stiff sentences in certain sorts of cases more problematic than another; one senior public servant may be less willing to resign or otherwise risk his career to protest an order or policy-decision the finds unconscionable than another, who may feel that such protest is simply inappropriate from one who has not been chosen by the voters to make such decisions.