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The Ubiquity of Emotional Thinking

march_coverThis is the final installment of a four-part round table on Frank Costigliola’s openly-available March 2016 JAH article “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan.” The first part, from Costigliola, is available hereA response from David Milne is available here. A second response from Laura Belmonte is here. This response from Frank Costigliola wraps up our round table.

My thanks to David Milne and to Laura Belmonte, scholars whose work I greatly admire, for contributing such thoughtful responses to my article. And thanks also to the staff of the JAH for proposing this blog and inviting me to participate.

First off, I agree with Milne and Belmonte that the emotionalism, self-reflection, and incessant writing of George F. Kennan render him a particularly fascinating subject for emotions history. Nevertheless, historians do not need “dream diaries,” or any diaries for that matter, to do emotions history. For probably most foreign policy makers, evidence of emotional thinking abounds in their letters, speeches, official memoranda—and in almost anything they have written or said. What is required is not extraordinarily revealing evidence, but rather the interest and commitment to read the evidence closely. It is not a matter of reading between the lines but rather of reading the lines. Even in my JAH article on the inner life of Kennan, references to his diary appear in only seventeen of the seventy-five footnotes. Moreover, not a single footnote cites Kennan’s “dream diary.”

Despite their perceptiveness, Milne and Belmonte miss, albeit for understandable reasons, a central point. Evidence of emotions is so ubiquitous because emotions are, as neuroscience tells us, integral to all thinking. Emotional thinking is especially important in the formation of beliefs, in the appraisal of options, and in the making of decisions—mental activities key to foreign relations. This demonstrable unity of thought runs counter to a deep Western cultural tradition that encourages us to assume that when it comes to serious matters, we can and should relegate emotions to a minor role. As Ute Frevert, a pioneer in emotions history and a director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, puts it, we in the Western world stand, unavoidably, on the shoulders of intellectual giants who for over 2,000 years have conceptualized emotional feelings, linked to the body, and rational thinking, linked to the mind, as separable processes. (Regarding my position on the relationship between feelings and other aspects of integrated thought, readers might look again at my initial blog post.)

The binary of emotion vs. reason and the privileging of the latter invites the assumption that while analyzing rational thinking is crucial to scholarship, analyzing emotional thinking remains optional. Hence Milne, in arguing that emotions history is appropriate only with regard to such “exceptional” figures as Kennan, matter-of-factly contrasts Kennan with another foreign policy maker who, presumably, was less emotional and less complicated. He asserts: “Dig deep into the psyche of John Foster Dulles and little will be revealed that we don’t already know.” (In fact, as the scholarship of Bevan Sewell is demonstrating, emotions and ideas about emotions did figure prominently in Dulles’s thoughts and actions as secretary of state.1 More about this in a minute.) With similar assumptions, Belmonte characterizes my work as seeking “to illuminate the darkest corners of . . . individual psyches,” and Kennan as unusual in having “the inclination, time, and self-awareness to examine [his] emotional” life. Neither Milne nor Belmonte is faultfinding here. Nevertheless, the implied criticism comes through: emotions remain esoteric terrain—exotic and indulgent, but not central or necessary.

While scholars will of course differ on what they deem as important, a growing number of historians are incorporating the study of emotions into their work. Especially striking is how much of this historical scholarship has appeared since 2012. (See footnote 3 of the article.)

I remain a bit puzzled about the intended takeaway of Milne’s observation that journalists writing on foreign policy “have been unconsciously attentive [to emotions] all along.” Given the centrality of emotional thinking and humans’ interest in each other’s feelings, the attention of journalists to such “‘color’” is not surprising. The task for professional historians is to move beyond “unconscious” attention and superficial treatment. Armed with archival research and an appreciation for the intricacies of emotions and other aspects of integrated thought, historians can with rigor analyze the deeper motivations, beliefs, and behaviors of historical actors. We can thus arrive at a more complete understanding of causation. With regard to my own work, Milne notes that while my 2012 book, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances, explored the intersections between the personal and political relations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston S. Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, that study did not delve into emotions history with the depth of my 2016 article on Kennan. The book was a much larger project with different aims than the article. Again, the crux of the matter is not the documentation, but rather one’s approach to the documentation.

As Belmonte points out, approaches to foreign/international relations history have changed significantly since the 1990s. I appreciate her recognizing my role in the 1990s in helping bring together “social and cultural history with the history of foreign relations.” I would question, however, her assumption that this development “shaped the field” “irrevocably.” The field is continuing to evolve. It is telling that Belmonte positions my article as “somewhat disconnected from a larger historical and historiographical context.” In particular, she points out, the essay neglects Kennan’s views “on gender, race, and class.” No article can both meet the strict word limit of the JAH and cover all aspects of a topic. Moreover, a JAH article of mine in 1997 did focus on the gendered aspects of Kennan’s relations with Russia. A larger point, however, is that the  triptych of “gender, race, and class” remains central to the cultural history of foreign relations that became cutting edge in the 1990s, and that now constitutes the “historical and historiographical context” that Belmonte regards as normative. In a footnote she recalls the “heated debates” of the 1990s, particularly over postmodernism and the cultural turn. Back then, much of the strong resistance to new approaches came from foreign relations historians adhering to the previous iteration of cutting edge scholarship, the 1960s–70s emphasis on economic causation inspired by the work of William Appleman Williams.

Belmonte notes that the ferment of the 1990s led to the publication in 1991 and then revision in 2004 of a volume showcasing the field’s “vibrancy and diversity” of approaches: Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations. As it happens, Explaining has just appeared in a wholly revised third edition. The table of contents reveals that while gender and race remain important (as do national security, IR theory, and political economy), there have emerged new approaches centering on what we might term inner history: memory, religion, the senses, and emotions. Change continues.

Finally, I would like to suggest very briefly the potential of emotions history for topics other than those centered on the individual. Historians can also explore how emotions circulated within groups, such as the foreign policy establishment of the Cold War or the frightened and angry public in post-9/11 America. Scholars can examine how the societal norms—that is, the often contested “feeling rules” for expressing and repressing emotions—have changed over time, across cultures, and in accord with who wields power. Moreover, emotional reactions themselves have a history. How people have conceptualized anger, courage, honor, and other emotional responses has not remained constant. For instance, while honor among nations once loomed as an issue justifying war, that norm was altered by the horrors of fascist nationalism and the world wars. Finally, there is a history of how societies have tended to conceptualize emotion and its relation to supposedly objective rational thought. Most Americans have subscribed to the Western tradition that privileges ostensibly rational, objective thought as normative and masculine. Smearing a person or a policy as emotional, feminine, or “wimpish” has proven a powerful rhetorical strategy.2

This brings us back to John Foster Dulles. A close associate observed that the secretary of state, in enforcing his authority as an exemplar of rational intelligence, “was opposed not only to stupidity but to emotionalism as well.” And yet, despite his cold demeanor, “he had certain emotions himself that were rather strong.”3 Nearly as ubiquitous as emotions have been the efforts to police or deny them.


  1. Bevan Sewell, “‘I ought not to have argued at all with this dying man’: John Foster Dulles, the Eisenhower Administration, Illness, Masculinity and Emotions in U.S. Foreign Relations, 1953–1961,” unpublished manuscript.
  2. These themes are developed in Frank Costigliola, “Reading for Emotion” in Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 356–73.
  3. Interview of George V. Allen, Reel 1, John Foster Dulles Oral History Project, John Foster Dulles Papers, Seeley G. Mudd Library, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. My thanks to Bevan Sewell for sharing this source with me.