The American Historian

Internationalizing American History: Reports from the Field

David C. Engerman

Since the Organization of American Historians (OAH) began promoting the “internationalization” of American history in the late 1990s, the approach has boomed. Job advertisements beckon scholars of “The United States in the World,” American historians spend more and more time abroad for professional purposes, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) has seen its membership climb and its methodological orientation widen, and the OAH and its journal, the Journal of American History, have kept up with the times. Many members have joined distinguished New York University historian Thomas Bender in rethinking American history in global perspective.[1] The logic is compelling: global interconnectedness—flows of people, ideas, and not least capital—has shown the extent to which the fate of the United States is tied up with the world writ large. Nor is this anything new; American history has always been enmeshed in the world. Historians, the argument goes, need to rid themselves of nationalist blinders and gaze over borders and across oceans.

Historians have pursued the “internationalization of American history” with great vigor—and great success. Once-familiar eras and events such as the Progressive Era and the civil rights movement look very different when examined in broader perspective. And new places, events, and trends come into focus from this new transnational vantage point. Or should that be vantage points? As the insightful essays by Jane Kamensky and Kristin Hoganson show, “internationalization” is not a single process or a single direction, but a variety of approaches. For Kamensky, writing of the field formerly known as “early American history,” continental approaches focus upon European imperial outposts in the Western Hemisphere interacting with British colonists as well as native peoples. And Oceanic approaches contextualize the future United States by positioning the thirteen colonies as a small sliver of an outpost within a great and expanding British empire. For Hoganson, “internationalization” in the nineteenth century—at once the age of nationalism and the heyday of empire—could mean the turning to the transnational as Bender suggests, but also to the trans-imperial.

Despite their differences in time period and approach, Kamensky and Hoganson inhabit much common ground. Both emphasize teaching. Both call, also, for expanding our reading and not just our perspective. Kamensky frequently notes how the new perspectives build on the work of historians of decades ago, existing in the awkward zone in between “current work” and “classics.” Hoganson, for her part, suggests that American historians need to expand our intellectual horizons beyond the discipline in order to expand our histories beyond America.

Lest we think that expanded horizons are an unmitigated benefit, such fruitful scholarly injunctions as reading widely and thinking broadly have engendered vehement critiques, especially from beyond the profession. To the extent that “internationalization” has been canonized in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history curriculum, it has been the target of heated and hyperbolic criticisms, as Andrew Hartman documents in his thoughtful essay. Rush Limbaugh and the Republican party have blasted the AP exam for undercutting American exceptionalism; and the historians so accused would likely agree. In a National Review essay, the conservative critic Stanley Kurtz went further, blaming Bender and others for trying to cede American power to the United Nations.

Should Americanists ever doubt our impact on the world, such overheated criticisms might come as a welcome relief. Our views of American history, these critics imply, matter—whether presented in a monograph or in a classroom, whether captured in a MOOC or a museum exhibit. Being a U.S.-based historian of the United States comes with special obligations and special opportunities. Those obligations are not—despite the fervid prose of the National Review—to celebrate the American past, but to understand it, and to communicate that understanding as widely and effectively as we can.

 

DAVID C. ENGERMAN is Ottilie Springer Professor and chair of the department of history at Brandeis University. He is the author of Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (2009) and is currently completing a book on “Planning for Plenty: The Economic Cold War in India.” He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

 

[1] See especially Thomas Bender, ed.,Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002); and Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006). Also see the special issues of the Journal of American History on “Rethinking History and the Nation State: Mexico and the United States” (vol.86, Sept. 1999) and “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History” (vol. 86, Dec. 1999).