H-Diplo Essay 435- John Lamberton Harper on Learning the Scholar’s Craft13 min read

n the beginning was a name: John “Jack” Lamberton, the twin of Hugh, and one of my mother’s four brothers. They grew up in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 20s and 30s. Their father, Robert E. Lamberton, was the Republican mayor of Philadelphia at the time of his death in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the twins took different paths. Hugh became an American Field Service ambulance driver, attached to the British Eighth Army as it slogged its way up the Italian peninsula from Salerno to Udine. Jack became a tanker with the Ninth Armored Division. In early November 1944, only days after the division had been deployed in Luxembourg, he was killed by artillery fire. My curiosity from an early age about the Second World War, and the world in which my parents’ generation had come of age, began, I suspect, when I fathomed that I’d been named for Uncle Jack. I had a name to live up to. Studying, and eventually writing, history was partly a tribute to him.

H-Diplo Essay 435

Essay Series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars
6 May 2022

Learning the Scholar’s Craft

https://hdiplo.org/to/E435
Series Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Essay by John Lamberton Harper, The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Emeritus

In the beginning was a name: John “Jack” Lamberton, the twin of Hugh, and one of my mother’s four brothers. They grew up in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 20s and 30s. Their father, Robert E. Lamberton, was the Republican mayor of Philadelphia at the time of his death in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the twins took different paths. Hugh became an American Field Service ambulance driver, attached to the British Eighth Army as it slogged its way up the Italian peninsula from Salerno to Udine. Jack became a tanker with the Ninth Armored Division. In early November 1944, only days after the division had been deployed in Luxembourg, he was killed by artillery fire. My curiosity from an early age about the Second World War, and the world in which my parents’ generation had come of age, began, I suspect, when I fathomed that I’d been named for Uncle Jack. I had a name to live up to. Studying, and eventually writing, history was partly a tribute to him.

I grew up in Warren, Pennsylvania, a then-thriving town on the upper Allegheny River where my father, a Pittsburgher, had decided to practice law. My father and his brother had gone to Haverford, a small Quaker college near Philadelphia, and when the time came to choose in 1968, it seemed the pre-destined choice.

Haverford in the late ‘60s and early 70s was a kind of intellectual pressure-cooker, as well as a center of the anti-war movement on the east coast. Students studied and demonstrated hard. I had excellent history teachers there, including John Spielman and Roger Lane. I’m grateful to Spielman for admonishing me after reading a sophomore term paper: “Your writing certainly isn’t up to the standards of a British university, so you’d better work on it.” Indeed, I was headed to the University of York for my junior year, where I wrote weekly essays for Richard Fletcher, a distinguished Medievalist, and Gerald Alymer, a renowned scholar of seventeenth-century Europe.

The most important influence on me as an undergraduate came from a non-historian, Patrick McCarthy. Patrick (the biographer of Céline and Camus)[1] taught French literature, with a particular emphasis on engaged novelists, and the cultural milieux in which they had emerged. An Oxford-educated Welshman of Irish parentage, he had an inimitable ironic—at times sardonic–sense of humor, and an infectious passion for contemporary European politics. It was through him that I heard of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS. His own, quite literal, encounter with SAIS had occurred as the fly-half on a Philadelphia-area rugby team who happened to play the SAIS team. While still at Haverford, he began teaching at SAIS, and in the late 80s, we would become colleagues at the SAIS campus in Bologna, Italy.

Encouraged by Patrick, I left a job teaching at a private school in Bryn Mawr, PA, and enrolled in the Master’s program at the SAIS Bologna Center in 1975. Early on, I met an inspiring teacher, Simon Serfaty, who encouraged me to study contemporary US foreign policy. The world beyond the classroom, meanwhile, was fascinating and harrowing to behold. Thanks to the precipitous rise of oil prices, Italy was battling a serious case of stagflation. Kidnappings and murders committed by far-left terrorists, and deadly bombings perpetrated by neo-fascist extremists, were its weekly fare. The Italian Communist Party reached the high-water mark of its political power following the 1976 elections. A counter-cultural student rebellion blossomed–or exploded, depending on your point of view–in 1977. I became intrigued by contemporary Italian history, in particular the Allied occupation and postwar reconstruction. To what degree had that moment (as some on the left claimed) been a missed opportunity for addressing in a democratic way Italy’s historic problems: the South’s economic backwardness, and a chronically inefficient state? What had been the effects of American tutelage, meddling, and largesse? These questions were at the heart of my Ph.D. dissertation written at SAIS Washington, under the supervision of Professor David Calleo, the director of SAIS’s European Studies program.

SAIS was no doubt an odd, and somewhat risky, choice for an aspiring historian. European Studies was not a history department, and SAIS Ph.D.s were typically headed for the Washington bureaucracy or think-tank world. (Don’t say you’re a historian, I was once told. You wouldn’t be hired in this town.) Calleo was sui generis as a scholar of contemporary Europe and Transatlantic relations—his background was in political philosophy, and his sympathies lay with French President Charles de Gaulle in an imperial capital where Gaullism was a kind of lèse-majesté. He was a brilliant and original analyst, but not a habitué of archives. Somehow, these potential problems didn’t trouble me. I found SAIS’s interdisciplinary approach, and eye on current affairs, congenial, and was prepared to count on luck when it came to finding a job. Calleo was conscientious, demanding, and truly constructive in his sometimes withering criticism. He encouraged me to explore competing US views of Italy’s future, and how policy makers had tried to promote Italian interlocutors who appeared to share their agendas. I came to question the facile view that the US had somehow imposed its will on Italy, and became aware of the ways in which astute Italian leaders had converted vulnerability into leverage.

Venturing to the National Archives in search of the US records, I met the ideal complement to Calleo as an adviser, the archivist and historian, James Edward Miller. Jim was both an expert guide to the sources, and a fount of knowledge on Allied policy toward Italy. He became my second reader. Through Jim, I met my future friend and colleague, David Ellwood, whose recent book on the occupation of Italy was an important resource.[2] Steve Schuker, who was teaching part-time at SAIS, provided advice and encouragement, as did Gian Giacomo Migone. The resulting dissertation became my first book.[3] I am grateful to Charles Maier, who read the manuscript, and steered me to Frank Smith, who became my editor at Cambridge University Press. The book won the Helen and Howard Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies in 1987.

As I was finishing the dissertation, and as luck would have it, a junior position opened up at the Bologna Center, starting in February 1981. Thus, and as I’ve often remarked, Ronald Reagan came in one end of Washington, and I went out the other. I began with a one-and-a-half year contract, extended to three, then three more, although there were no tenured positions in Bologna at the time. Thanks to the recently published book, and with the support of David Calleo, Ronald Steel, and Alan Milward, I obtained a German Marshall Fund Fellowship. It allowed me to pursue a project on competing American answers to the perennial “European Question”: how to put an end to the internecine conflicts which had ravaged the continent, and engulfed the world. Having developed an interest in biography, I conceived the study as a tryptich of portraits. Each of the individuals portrayed developed a personal vision of Europe and US-European relations. (By “vision,” I meant an “a kind of ideal or ultimate design, representing the intermingling of emotional and intellectual influences, never—because of its strongly private and wishful elements—fully realized or realizable, but conditioning thought and action.”[4]) The task was not simply to elaborate the visions, but to trace their origins in the subjects’ experience, and the cultural milieux in which they were formed. The project became an intellectual odyssey, taking me to archives and libraries across the eastern half of the United States. Among the hosts I encountered, I remember with particular fondness William Emerson, the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. George Kennan was kind enough to read the chapters on himself, and send a number of corrections. The resulting book was dedicated to the memory of John “Jack” Lamberton. It won the Robert H. Ferrell Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) in 1995.[5]

The US-Soviet Cold War had ended by the time I’d finished American Visions, and the dawn of a new era prompted a desire to return to the roots of US foreign policy. “Parachuting” into the late eighteenth century, I carried, in a scholarly sense, the equivalent of the clothes on my back, and I arrived uninvited and unannounced. I took heart from the fact that I was carrying forward the enterprise of teachers and friends, the above-mentioned Calleo and Serfaty, as well as Robert E. Osgood and Robert W. Tucker, scholars who had put SAIS on the map as a center for the study of US foreign policy. Cutting my way through the historiographical undergrowth, I sought out a leading authority on eighteenth century America, Jack N. Rakove of Stanford.[6] Perhaps out of sympathy for a fellow Haverfordian, he gave me invaluable directions and advice.

I decided to focus on Alexander Hamilton, a Founder whom postwar historians had tended to neglect (or treat rather badly) compared to his rival, Jefferson—although a swing of the pendulum was underway. On an impulse, I bought a copy around the same time of Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio in a Roman bookstore. Studying Hamilton and Machiavelli together, I was struck by the parallels. Hamilton’s life experience gave him an instinctive understanding of what Machiavelli had meant by fortuna and virtù. He grew up, after all, in the West Indies, a place where fortuna was hyperactive in the form of natural disasters, economic boom and bust, and frequent wars. By the same token, he owed his remarkable rise from obscurity to a set of qualities—vital energy, intelligence, cunning, perseverance, boldness, and knowledge of the art of war—that define Machiavellian virtù. Hamilton and Machiavelli drew similar, pessimistic conclusions about human nature and politics from their study of classical and recent history, above all the importance of prudence. As foreign policy advisers, they operated in similar contexts, and faced similar challenges. Machiavelli’s Florence and Hamilton’s United States were infant republics liable to be torn apart by internal strife, strangled in the cradle by outside enemies, or pulled into suicidal conflicts by over-bearing allies. The end product of these and other reflections was a study of Hamilton’s career and ideas, highlighting the parallels with Machiavelli’s.[7]

Early in the 2000s, I became a contributing editor and regular book reviewer for Survival, a London-based journal of international affairs, edited by my friend and colleague Dana Allin. The fiasco resulting from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq led me to reflect on the American way of going to war over the course of US history, and to analyze what struck me as a pattern of messianic and self-delusionary behavior.[8] I had begun to expand the project into a book when my plans unexpectedly changed. Thanks to the recommendation of Professor Marilyn Young of New York University (a frequent visitor to Bologna), Oxford University Press commissioned me to write a survey of the Cold War for a new “Oxford Histories” series. The project allowed me to convert a number of the lectures I used for a course called “America and the World Since 1945” into print. Telling the story also required considerable research in Soviet bloc and Chinese original sources, and for this I was grateful for the wealth of documents available on line through the Cold War International History Project.[9]

In 2015, I became the first member of the Bologna Center resident faculty since the center’s founding in 1955 to be granted full tenure at the Johns Hopkins University. Also in 2015, I became the first holder of the Kenneth H. Keller Professorship at SAIS Europe (as the center is now known). I retired from full-time teaching in 2020.

I recently fulfilled an old ambition by writing a work of historical fiction. It’s called Edge of Empire, set in Washington in January-June, 1950, a juncture in Cold War history I’d found both fascinating and elusive when doing the general study. The story unfolds in the poisonous atmosphere fuelled by the anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy, during the preparation of a strategic study cum propaganda tool known as NSC 68, and amid a bitter struggle over national priorities: massive defense spending versus a more generous welfare state. As the title suggests, early 1950 was an inflection point. The country was poised—but I don’t think predestined—to adopt an open-ended and costly global role. The novel uses original research to portray historical figures—President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Policy Planning Staff Director Paul Nitze, State Department Counselor George Kennan, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, among others—and a handful of invented characters to dramatize how political battles change fates in personal lives. The invented male protagonist is inspired by Hugh, Jack’s surviving twin; his female counterpart, by my late wife, Maria. As of this writing, the novel’s fate, like that of the country it depicts, is uncertain. I can only say that learning the novelist’s craft has been immensely enjoyable, and I’m hopeful that Edge of Empire will soon see the light of day.

 

John Lamberton Harper is Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.

 

Notes

[1] See Patrick McCarthy, Céline, a Biography (London: Allen Lane, 1975); McCarthy, Camus (New York: Random House, 1982).

[2] See David Ellwood, L’alleato nemico: la politica dell’occupazione anglo-americana in italia, 1943-1946 (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1977).

[3] John Lamberton Harper, America and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1945-1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). In Italian translation as America e la ricostruzione dell’Italia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1987).

[4] Harper, American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and Dean G. Acheson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4

[5] Harper, American Visions of Europe.

[6] Jack N. Rakove is the author, among other works, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[7] Harper, American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[8] See Harper, “Anatomy of a Habit: America’s Unnecessary Wars,” Survival 47:2 (Summer 2005): 47-86.

[9] Harper, The Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). In Italian translation as La Guerra fredda: un mondo in bilico (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2013). A Greek edition was published by Gutenberg Press, Athens, in 2021.