OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Christopher McKnight Nichols

Portrait of Christopher McKnight Nichols
Image Credit: Mina Carson

Christopher McKnight Nichols is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, where he also directs the Center for the Humanities and leads the Citizenship and Crisis Initiative. He specializes in the history of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world, with a focus on isolationism, internationalism, and globalization. In addition, he is an expert on modern U.S. intellectual and political history, with an emphasis on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1880–1920) through the present. Nichols is the author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age (2011, 2015); he coedited and coauthored Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (2008); and he was the senior editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History (2013). He also coedited the Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2017). His forthcoming co-edited book is entitled "Rethinking American Grand Strategy," and he is finishing an edited volume on the role of ideology in U.S. foreign relations, a book U.S. politics and foreign policy during the early Cold War and a sweeping study of American isolationism and internationalism. In 2016 Nichols was named one of 33 Andrew Carnegie Fellows worldwide; he has also been elected a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. A passionate teacher, he has received four teaching awards, including Oregon State University's Honors College Professor of the Year in 2014. Nichols is a frequent commentator on the historical dimensions of U.S. foreign policy and politics, including as a regular panelist on CNN, National Public Radio, and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In championing “America First” isolationism and protectionism, the current U.S administration has shifted the political mood toward selective U.S. engagement, where foreign commitments are limited to areas of vital U.S. interest and economic nationalism and unilateralism are the order of the day. Yet the resurgence of the phrase -- and even these ideas and policies -- has been disconnected from historical context. What is that history? What are the key ideas of "America First" and to the longer tradition of isolationism? And why is it significant? Nichols explains the origins, development, and central tenets of American isolationism. The talk focuses on the rise of "America First" in the early 1940s and WWII and will illuminate how this history has implications that shape present policies and debates.
Given the high drama of the recent impeachment process from 2019 through 2020, it seems essential to take a step back and put it all in historical perspective — from the founders and the Constitution to past presidential impeachments and precedents, from other presidents’ personal engagements in foreign affairs to questions related to the balance of powers and Congressional oversight of the executive. This talk will have a special focus on the historical dimensions of national security concerns and the question of foreign "meddling" in American politics as they pertain to questions of impeachment. This third presidential impeachment in U.S. history has been historic, thereby bringing into focus a need for deeper context and a broader account of where it fits in the broader patterns of U.S. history since the 1770s.
We must look to the past to understand and adapt to the challenge of the present. Contemporary developments related to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 are moving fast and involve every part of the United States and reach around the world. So, what might we glean from the lessons of our past to help us in the present? Not knowing what the eventual toll will be, looking into the lessons of history —and the impact of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (which infected 20-30% of the world’s population, accounting for as many as 50 million deaths including roughly 675,000 Americans) —could perhaps offer clues to how we might navigate this moment collectively. In this talk Nichols explores what happened and why. He opens new vistas onto the WWI Era, the wartime spread of influenza, the role of the media, politicians, and citizens, public policy and public health. The talk addresses comparative urban and international history, with a focus on the United States, and such efforts as sheltering-in-place, quarantine, and socially distancing in the name of a greater good. In addition, Nichols seeks to address how influenza disease and death alongside broader discussions of public health fit into economic and social concerns. He argues that history rarely offers such clear insights about proactive public policy, honest, rapid information government transmission, the significance of local, city, and state officials, and the agency of everyday people to help stem the tide of devastation and disease. In the end, what er can learn from the 1918-19 pandemic challenges us all to think about the wider possible ramifications of pandemics and crisis. For example, the enmeshed challenges of the war and influenza were crucial to propelling the U.S.'s shift toward post-war "normalcy," the strike, isolationist foreign policies, and even stringent immigration laws.