Christopher Nichols

Christopher Nichols is new at Oregon State, having just arrived here in Sept. 2012. But the assistant professor of history is off to a good start. His class on the history of U.S. foreign relations was recently taped and will air on C-SPAN’s “American History TV” in June.

His most recent book, "Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age," which explores the origins of modern American isolationism and internationalism from the 1890s through the 1930s, received a favorable review in The Nation. Nichols is co-editing the "Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History," which is due out in 2013.   

On May 7, Nichols will host a conference at Oregon State focusing American military and diplomatic history. Nichols has invited several international scholars to present at the conference.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Nichols about the C-SPAN experience, why it’s important to teach more than dates and names and how history can help us understand our national identity.

Has there been a lot of anticipation about being on C-SPAN? What is special about the class they taped?

My students are really enthusiastic about the class and about the C-SPAN opportunity. In some ways, that’s the best part so far. I have an exceptionally good class, History 465/565. It’s American Diplomatic History, aka “The U.S.’s Role in the World”. I teach it as a high level discussion-oriented class, so it’ll be a little different from the way that the C-SPAN lectures are often taught. The content the day that C-SPAN taped my class was a high-level discussion of the U.S. role in the world from the end of the Cold War through 9/11.

A lot of the students in the class are junior and senior history or political science majors, so they know a great deal.  They’re bringing a lot of knowledge to bear in every class The course itself moves across a wide swath of international as well as U.S. history, from the 1890s through the present, so it is essential and tremendously useful to have students come with French or German or other world history backgrounds and we can incorporate that even in ways that are outside of our formal reading. I rely on them to bring their expertise to the table and to have interests and passions about the subjects we study, which is part of what has made the class particularly dynamic this term.

Is there a particular discussion from this class that stands out as being especially rewarding?

One thing I like to do in this class is have us all challenge the received wisdom of the various textbooks and scholarly accounts of the U.S. role in the world. One thing they did particularly well was analyze the lead-up to World War II, which is often taught, or perceived as an inevitable path towards a “good” war.

But the challenge is to think historically without the benefit of hindsight – to consider, for example, why were so many people, so many well-meaning, smart individuals in the U.S., in France, in the UK, in Germany, in Japan – grappling with and committing to alternatives to a path to war? Why were they pursuing these things that now seem kind of odd to us, like appeasement, in Munich?

We use primary sources to construct our own accounts in class and to come to a consensus interpretation. We struggled to build an understanding of the 1920s and 1930s, for example, not as an inevitable “interwar” period. Instead, by looking through several analytical lenses, the class was better able to understand how people all over the world at the time did not experience the time as one leading toward the next great world war but, rather, were working to prevent the the world from descending into conflict; understanding this period through the eyes of Americans and those from other places reveals that there wasn’t as neat of a trajectory “toward war” as even really good textbooks may make it seem.

Is the aspect of a complicated narrative what drew you to history?

Absolutely. I specialize in a sort of odd historical field – the intellectual history of the U.S. role in the world – which focuses on the role of ideas, foreign policy, individuals and groups,, the role of presidents and high-level policy-makers, as well as transnational interactions. That’s an inherently messy combination—like history itself!—but it is a fruitful one both for my teaching and scholarship.

How did you end up studying the U.S. role in the world?

I think post-9/11 sort of shaped that a little bit for me, made it more pressing for me to confront and examine the kinds of questions that Americans and global citizens, diplomats, intellectuals, activists, have confronted in the past—especially the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which very broadly defined the 1880s and 1920s. That period is under-studied, and not as well known – certainly not for college students. It’s always a fun challenge to teach that period, and show students why it’s important. And particularly, the Spanish-American, Filipino, Cuban war of 1898 is a moment in that era that I have studied a lot.

Does that affect how your students think of the U.S.?

One basic insight from that era is that it’s the period for the U.S. and arguably for the world that in many ways made the modern conditions under which we live – from urbanization and industrialization to international law and the first real moments of globalization.

If students take something significant away from many of my classes and from that period in particular, it’s that it wasn’t so different, even in the late 19th century or early 20th century, from today. If you look at urban photographs, for example you can easily imagine walking down the streets; at the end of that period you can look at cars and other modes of transportation, trains and ships, for instance, or instruments of communication, such as telephones, that all are very familiar.

So there’s a way to enter that history on the level of familiarity, that way. And then, at the intellectual and geopolitical levels, the challenges the U.S. faced in the world as becoming a global, commercial, and military power also appear very similar to the present ones. That is, it seems to me that very often students find in my classes that deeply understanding the challenges related to the U.S.’s role in the world in the past reveal profound echoes of similar – though hardly identical – contemporary concerns.

What are the major questions you ask in your work?

On some fundamental level I think I tend to study debates that engage how American and global participants – in political conversations, generally – have debates about the meaning of America. I’ve studied isolationists, internationalists and interventionists. At the most fundamental level what many of those people and groups I have studied in the past were really debating about was how purportedly American values and national identity get embodied in foreign and domestic policy.

Is that what “Promise and Peril” deals with?

One thing I show in the book is that isolationist arguments have been misunderstood, that from the late 19th century onward, virtually all of them entailed international engagement. In some ways, there’s no such thing as isolationism the way we think of it in the 21st century.

It was hurled around as an epithet. People who made implicitly isolationist arguments sometimes didn’t even want to call themselves isolationists, and they often were in favor of cultural and commercial engagement with the world. So they never really wanted to wall off the U.S. At that most basic level, the contest between types of internationalism and types of isolationism are about the meaning of America, fundamentally.

Why do you think “Promise and Peril” is getting attention?

I think for some of the same reasons that students are attracted to these topics and questions. Debates about America’s place in the world and what the U.S. should do are very pressing and the notion of how to define the nation’s “proper” place in the world is not only hotly contested but also one where caution and an attention to the historical concerns of isolationist as well as internationalist aims makes a lot of sense.

Do you have an overall goal for your teaching? 

One of the things that turns students off most is meticulous name and date history. At the beginning of every term I poll my students about what they most want to get out of the class. What are they most interested in? What do they know of so far on the topic? Usually, it’s sort of big ideas, or sweeping things, like Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement.

So I try to build that into my classes, to build on their interests and passions. I make so every class is a little different, based on who shows up on day 1 or day 2, and to get away from that sort of meticulous name-and-date approach.

You have to know the evidence of history to succeed in a history class but the big takeaways of history classes are about critical thinking, or about long-term developments, processes. From my perspective – it’s not very political, it’s just charged with good history.