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Robert A. Wampler

Senior Fellow

The National Security Archive
Posted - June 10, 2009

Photo Credit: Harvard News Office





Washington, DC, June 10, 2009 - Last week the world lost a luminary scholar of diplomatic and international history with the passing of Ernest R. May, who served for 20 years on the National Security Archive's advisory board.


            In thinking about the immense and wide-ranging contributions that Ernest made during the course of a career that lasted over fifty years, a line from Wallace Stevens comes to mind:


            “Description is revelation.” (from his poem Description without Place).


            Whether it be one of his many books, the innumerable scholarly articles or the lectures given at Harvard, he always demonstrated a fascination with and appreciation for the fine points of detail and the need for multiple perspectives in describing and understanding key diplomatic issues. His painstaking research into the complex pathways of the past marks all his work, whether he was examining the origins of the Monroe Doctrine or America’s entry into World War II, rethinking the causes for the fall of France in 1940 (after personally walking the battlefields to get a better sense of the landscape on which this crucial battle was fought), or exploring the fascinating intricacies marking the different ways the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought accuracy for their ICBMs, and how this affected the arms race and the efforts to curb it.


            The sheer range of his scholarly interests and contributions is astonishing: 20th century great power diplomacy and military history, early American foreign policy, the domestic roots of American imperialism, the theory and practice of intelligence and how it should serve policy-makers (seen most recently in his contribution to the 9-11 Commission’s report. His fascinating memoir of working on the report is available here, courtesy of The New Republic.), presidential decision-making, and last but not least, his central role in organizing the “May Group” at the Kennedy School of Government, which developed the analytical framework to guide policy-makers in drawing upon the “lessons of history,” a framework elaborated in the “Uses of History” classes and their later incarnations.


            The insights developed by Ernest and his colleague, Richard Neustadt, in this course were presented in their co-authored award-winning book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. He was also a key mover in initiating a major multi-national research project on the history and role of nuclear weapons in post-war diplomacy, the Nuclear History Project, which served as the launching pad for many scholarly careers in the United States, England, France and Germany (including the present author), not to mention providing the foundation for the Archive’s collection of declassified documents on nuclear weapons.


            The NHP can be viewed as a logical extension of the seminal History of the Strategic Arms Competition that Ernest and two colleagues, John Steinbruner and Thomas Wolfe, prepared for the Department of Defense. (see the essay by William Burr below for more on this critical study). All of these contributions and more are discussed in the Festschrift presented to him a decade ago, Rethinking International Relations: Ernest R. May and the Study of World Affairs, edited by Akira Iriye (Imprint Publications, Chicago 1998).  


            Numerous obituaries have appeared which provide the basic facts about Ernest’s career and accomplishments. We at the National Security Archive want to add our own personal note of appreciation for all that Ernest May has done over the years to support the work of the Archive, as a member of its Advisory Board and on the advisory panels for individual projects, and his role in mentoring many of the scholars who have worked with the Archive. Along with this expression of appreciation and loss, we would also like to share some observations from other colleagues and former students of Ernest’s, which you will find below.


            I would like to add my personal recollections to these, as I was privileged to be one of his graduate students in the 1980s. As might be imagined, having Ernest May as an advisor was both an extraordinary opportunity and a formidable challenge. It would be an understatement to say he was an incredibly busy person. Though always maintaining an amazing pace, combing teaching, research and consulting for the government, his office at the Kennedy School (where he tended to spend most of his time rather than at the History Department in Robinson Hall) was always open and welcoming. After checking with Sally Makacynas, his loyal assistant and guardian of the gates for nearly three decades, I tended to plan my visits with the care of a minor military campaign, rehearsing in advance the questions I needed to raise so I could move through my agenda with the maximum of efficiency. Despite his hectic schedule, though, he never made me feel rushed and I always left with questions answered but also usually a new batch of questions or new avenues to pursue in my research. 


            Attending the Uses of History course was a unique experience, as Ernest and Dick Neustadt engaged in the intellectual analog to tag team wrestling, tossing the narrative line of the lecture back and forth, while the students were scribbling furiously in the margins of their case studies. The overarching theme – that history properly interrogated and analyzed can provide useful information for those engaged in the task of understanding and solving policy problems – left its mark on my subsequent work, as on many others in academia and government.


            His generous support was always available, be it in contacting former officials I needed to interview or scholars whose work paralleled mine. His assistance continued as I moved to the Archive, serving on the advisory panel for my first project and lending his support to efforts to establish a panel of scholars to advise the Defense Department on its declassification programs. It was through his good offices that I had the opportunity to meet such fascinating witnesses to history as Robert Bowie and General A. J. Goodpaster, whose recollections of the Truman and Eisenhower years (not least including General Goodpaster’s imitation of John Foster Dulles) are a vital resource for all scholars studying the national security policies of those administrations.


            Equally memorable was his wry, at times self-deprecatory, sense of humor. At one of the early NHP conferences, Ernest prefaced his remarks by noting that though he had met a great many fascinating scholars at the conference, he felt he should apologize in advance for not remembering their names. The reason: as a historian he had to remember the names of hundreds of dead people, and learning the name of someone new would necessitate forgetting one of these, which professionally just was not an option.


            As the recollections below underscore, Ernest as a person and a scholar was always intensely curious and very generous. His dedication to teaching is amazing (he was maintaining practically a full teaching load at Harvard at the age of 80, a time when most people in any field are content to rest on their laurels). While the subjects which drew his attention were serious, often deadly so, there was no mistaking the enjoyment and sense of play he exhibited when exploring them. His career and work are also marked by his openness to the ways in which historical research and policy analysis can be mutually enriching and open up new avenues for study. His dedication to the highest standards of historical scholarship and emphasis on the need for multi-archival research, combined with the span of his interests and the depth of his knowledge, set a model for students and colleagues that was both invigorating and somewhat daunting.


            In attempting to sum up all the many interests and accomplishments that mark Ernest’s life, another poet comes to mind, one who like May began life out West but made New England his home. These lines speak to the poet's desire for a life in which personal meaning and professional accomplishment are not at odds:


But yield who will to their separation,

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future's sakes.


Robert Frost – Two Tramps in Mud Time


In his long career and strict adherence to the highest standards as a scholar and a gentleman, Ernest May provides us with an object lesson in what can be attained when one is able to achieve this unity of avocation and vocation. He will be missed.


*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Personal Reminiscences from Former Graduate Students and Colleagues:


            I still have my notes from Ernest May’s lectures for History 164a: American Foreign Relations to 1898. I took the course when I enrolled as a first-year graduate student at Harvard in the fall of 1957. He was not yet twenty-nine years old but was to be promoted to tenure two years later. The first sentences of my notes of his first lecture, given on September 23, 1957, read: “Study of policy making. Broad range of political experience in American diplomacy makes its history meaningful.” Here, it would seem, is a nice summary of Ernest’s approach to the history of U.S. foreign relations, with its sharp focus on decision-making and on lessons of the past, which he retained throughout his career. His lectures were the point of departure for my (and many other scholars’) graduate and professional work. Some of us have moved away from decision-making or from U.S. foreign affairs as key scholarly concerns, but we always knew that Ernest was understanding of, and open to, new approaches, which we were able to explore only because we were confident that our mentor had provided us with a solid, common foundation.


Akira Iriye, Harvard University

* * * * *



            Professionally, Ernest and his work always impressed upon me how important it was to understand the domestic political contexts of foreign policymakers. Decisions that, especially in retrospect, seem poor or even bizarre can become comprehensible viewed this way.
            Personally, Ernest was such a wonderful adviser because he always seemed happy to see you. You would enter his office to a bright smile and twinkling eye. You would leave confident in yourself because you knew he believed in you.


Mike Barnhart, Professor of History, SUNY-Stony Brook


* * * * *


            Ernest May was a world famous scholar, a good friend with a wry sense of humor, and a true gentleman.  He had a marvelous capacity for wonder, which inspired the questions he asked of history and of his students, about whom he cared a great deal.  His ability to answer the questions that intrigued him, and to make those answers relevant to the world in which he lived, made him a valuable expert for Congressional hearings and Executive Branch commissions.  He thus contributed to our understanding of history, to interdisciplinary study and good governance. Yet, Ernest also had a musician's sense of silence: the importance of pause to melody.  For those of us who were students of his, perhaps a tad insecure, those silences taught us a lot, including not to rush to fill the gap. This is a lesson - a gift - worth remembering.


Jennifer Sims, Visiting Professor Security Studies Program, School of Foreign Service Georgetown University


* * * * *


            What strikes me as I reflect on my memories of Ernest May as my graduate-program adviser in the 1980s is the quality of unassuming dignity that he embodied. Here was one of the world's foremost historians of diplomatic history, a distinguished scholar who also periodically did important work for the top levels of government, and yet who displayed not a hint of personal arrogance or pretension.

            Instead, there was a charming shyness about his manner that seemed to form an integral element of his gentlemanly self-possession and that consistently left those who met him feeling intrigued. This was a characteristic that Ernest May deployed to good effect as a pedagogical tool: in the classroom and during office hours, he would raise questions and delineate historical conundrums without spelling out what the answer was, let alone imposing his opinion. By leaving his students wondering what he really thought about an issue, Professor May was gently inducing them to think for themselves. And that is all too rare a quality in a teacher. It is sad to think that he is gone.


Aviel Roshwald, Professor of History, Georgetown University


* * * * *


            There will be many tributes to Ernest May over the next few months.  As a historian, an outstanding scholar of international relations, a careful analyst of the arcane world of intelligence, Ernest May was a man of many talents, not least his ability to read several languages and his extraordinarily wide-ranging interests.  (When computers were still in their infancy, I remember him telling me that he had purchased a software program that would allow him to train to be a pilot!)  Of course there was always tennis, which seemed to keep him perpetually youthful, vigorous, and always engaging, with new ideas and projects.  Despite all his achievements and honors there was also a genuine humility to Ernest, rare among those who taught at Harvard for more than half a century.


            I knew Ernest for more than thirty years, ever since I walked into his office as a new graduate student intimidated by the world-famous professor.  That feeling didn’t last long.  Ernest was, at heart, a teacher, and his method, sometimes direct, sometimes by example, had a profound effect.  He taught me to question my assumptions, interrogate the evidence, and always consider the alternative hypothesis.  One of his favorite quotations, one he used often in challenging the government leaders and the CIA officials he taught in his classes at the Kennedy School, was from Oliver Cromwell, when he wrote to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken.”  My own hope is that the questioning Ernest provoked, the belief he held so deeply that better policy decisions and better governance could come from it, will be the legacy he leaves us.


Thomas Schwartz, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University


* * * * *

            Harvard was an intimidating place for a student from the Austrian provinces in the first couple years of graduate study in the 1980s. Ernest May, forever smiling and gently prodding, helped me accommodate to the place in his inimitable ways. He was gentle but also cryptic. When defining my dissertation topic on the post-World War II quadripartite occupation of Austria, he encouraged me to do it all --- political, economic, social and cultural relations. I was taken aback by such a broad charge but now realize that he just had given me a challenge. In retrospect, he helped me define my lifelong scholarly interests as I have done a lot of work on political and economic relations but am still working on social (migration) and cultural (public diplomacy, Americanization).

            His intellectual persona liked to play the sphinx in many ways. When I attended the conference at Princeton on John Foster Dulles’s 100th birthday in 1988, I asked him whether he would be there too. He answered that he only attended conferences that were so interesting that he would take a bus there. He did not take a bus to Princeton that spring (I’m not sure whether he ever took a bus to a conference – he came by plane to the ones I was involved in invited him too in New Orleans and Munich).

            May’s astounding range and depth as a historian I experienced when I served as his head TA in his CORE CURRICULUM course on “The Nuclear Era” in 1988. This course reflected his profound interest on nuclear issues in the 1980s (when SDI, “nuclear winter” and “nuclear ethics” were high on the agenda of U.S. foreign policy and international history). The only time I was admitted into his inner sanctum – his expansive study on top of Widener Library – was when I helped him collect the documents for a reader of case studies for that course. What astounded me most about his impeccably delivered lectures in that course, spoken freely with few notes, was that the first third of the lectures covered great thinkers of international relations, war and peace, from Machiavelli to Kant. Machiavelli, yes, but I did not anticipate May dwelling at length on Kant’s moral philosophy Zum Ewigen Frieden.

            When I tried to see him last October in his Kennedy School office (without making prior arrangements) he was out of town. Sally, his gatekeeper, was out of town too – usually she would have relayed the latest news on him. May was always interested in my work (a rare trait for a Harvard Professor), Sally in my family. Now I regret even more to have missed him last fall. I will miss him but will continue to work on the life long challenge he set me up with – he will not be forgotten.

Günter Bischof, Marshall Plan Professor of History, University of New Orleans

* * * * *


Ernest R. May, John D. Steinbruner, and Thomas W. Wolfe, History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972, Alfred D. Goldberg, editor, Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, March 1981, Top Secret, excised copy, Chapters 1 through 5, with end-notes - Excerpts (Complete excised version available on DNSA). Compiled with Commentary by William Burr.


            Ernest May was well known for his long-standing relationship as a historical consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency, but an extraordinary study, a History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972, that he helped produced for the Office of Secretary of Defense may have been one of his more significant historical projects for the U.S. government.  In March 1981, the OSD Historical Office published (internally) the top-secret History that May prepared with two other scholars, John Steinbruner (then with Yale) and Thomas Wolfe (RAND Corporation).  Commissioned by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in 1974, and supported by his successors, Donald Rumsfeld and Harold Brown, the thousand-page plus study was completed in March 1981. 


            Believing that insufficient knowledge of the recent past handicapped “critically important discussion” of nuclear policy issues, Schlesinger wanted such a history to contribute to better public understanding of the Cold War arms race (although he may have assumed that the study would tend to validate U.S. government policy).  Toward that end, according to then-OSD Historian Alfred Goldberg, the authors believed that an “exacting analysis of the historical past can yield evidence of long-term trends and recurrent and repetitive cycles of behavior which assist our understanding of the present and our planning for the future.” 


            A major objective was to reach a better understanding of the U.S.-Soviet “interaction process” in order to illuminate “hypotheses and models of the competition”; therefore, May and his colleagues emphasized the need to “focus on the perceptions, assessments, and reactions on both sides” [xii]. In particular, they tried to determine the extent to whether it was possible to identify consistent patterns of behavior in U.S. and Soviet decisions on nuclear forces and force levels and the extent to which  Moscow and Washington were imitating each other, acting defensively, or acting “enterprisingly” for any variety of reasons.

            To produce their study, the authors had extensive access to highly-classified sources in U.S. military and civilian agencies, including the CIA.  Given the huge complexity of their task and the massive size of the relevant government record, they tried to get better control of the primary sources by commissioning numerous supporting studies, chronologies, and oral history interviews with former government officials.  For example, the Institute for Defense Analyses prepared top secret histories of U.S. and Soviet command and control systems from 1945 to 1972, while officials at the OSD Historical Office developed a massive chronology.  For Moscow’s role in the story, full sourcing was necessarily impossible so the authors had to rely in part on what intelligence reporting and analysis suggested about Soviet intentions and capabilities.


            While Defense officials expected to produce and publish an unclassified version of the History it never materialized.   Because it included so much then-highly classified intelligence information, the Pentagon may have abandoned that part of the project because it was too difficult.  In any event, the May-Steinbruner-Wolfe history has yet to be declassified in full.  The Pentagon FOIA office released a heavily excised version under appeal in 1990 and subsequent attempts to challenge the excisions have been only partly successful.  Significantly more of the text was declassified in 2002, although excised portions remain under appeal at the Pentagon.


            The following excerpt from the History of the Strategic Arms Competition include the first five chapters, covering U.S. and Soviet military policy developments from the early Cold War through the U.S. military build-up during 1950-53.  On the U.S. side, the authors produced a fine-grained analysis of armed services policies and politics and inter-service rivalries, as well as organizational developments on the civilian side, produced an illuminating and informative account of the early development of U.S. nuclear policy and programs.  On the Soviet side, with less evidence May and his colleagues tried to tease out what they thought shaped Stalin’s military policies.


            To some extent reflecting orthodox views of Cold War origins, the authors treated U.S. policy as a valid and inevitable response to Soviet expansionism, without giving much weight to security considerations driving Stalin’s policy.  Nevertheless, their analysis of Soviet capabilities recognized the significant degree to which Washington had exaggerated views of, and reactions to, Soviet power, discounting the “enormous damage” caused by the German invasion of the Soviet Union; thus, “much that was written and said about the Soviet threat was a function less of evidence about what the Soviets were actually doing than of fear of what they might do” [81-82]. Nor did they see the U.S. as simply reacting to Soviet initiatives: for example, they acknowledged that the U.S. military buildup was not “wholly defensive” but also aimed at achieving a “suitable world order”: “substantial increase in defense spending would ensure that the Soviets and everyone else became fully aware of the omnipotence of the United States” [120].  


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