Falcone on Dickson, 'History Shock: When History Collides with Foreign Relations'

John Dickson
Michael Falcone

John Dickson. History Shock: When History Collides with Foreign Relations. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2021. 256 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-3202-2

Reviewed by Michael Falcone (Yale University) Published on H-War (October, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56984

John Dickson has a modest proposal. Parachuting assertively into the dusty no-man’s-land between academia and government, Dickson’s new book, History Shock, argues that diplomats must take history more seriously. That sounds straightforward, but in a world where scholars and officials too often glower at each other from behind parapets of mutual skepticism, it is a more radical proposition than it seems. Dickson insists, however, that greater historical comprehension is an urgent priority, not only for the good of diplomats’ careers but also for the advancement of US foreign relations as a whole.

He speaks from experience. Dickson is a retired foreign service officer whose long and distinguished career in the diplomatic corps sent him into the eye of numerous foreign relations storms. The book, however, is not a self-serving diplomatic memoir; instead, it is a clarion call. Dickson puts his experiences to work to demonstrate how Americans abroad—and especially diplomats and others in the foreign service—experience “history shock,” a feeling of surprise and internal dissonance that poisons their interactions with host countries and hinders their pursuit of good relations.

In Dickson’s formulation, history shock results when two (or more) competing versions of history collide, a syndrome particularly virulent when the histories in question are formative to national identities. Interpretive frictions, of course, are inherent to the practice of diplomacy, but Dickson highlights a damaging strain of them peculiar to the foreign relations of the United States: the collision between deep historical awareness among international hosts and profound historical ignorance among US diplomatic arrivées. Worse, US diplomatic staff are often unaware not only of foreign interpretations of history but of American ones, too, particularly when it comes to sensitive conflicts from the past. The result is too often discord, missteps, blunders, and insensitivities.

The book’s diagnosis is that this friction is structural: Americans with precious little historical understanding enter a foreign service whose training requirements have been steadily eroded over time, and year after year they are shuffled between embassies without getting time to comprehend the Andersonian “imagined communities” of their hosts.[1] Dickson concludes, both forcefully and convincingly, that only better historical engagement can give the United States the diplomatic capital needed to improve its relationships and advance its long-term interests.

The author guides the reader through chapter-length case studies that roughly map onto the stops of his own career, including to Mexico, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, the Summit of the Americas, Haiti, Cuba, and Peru. Autobiographical vignettes and disparate snatches of memory weave together with plunges into secondary source historiography. In each case, Dickson explores how divergent interpretations of history or, in some cases, US actors’ ignorance of a shared history have created tensions that threaten good bilateral relations.

History Shock is refreshing in that it does not read like a bloated diplomatic autobiography; Dickson’s career memories are not intended to be exhaustive but rather are offered up as evidence in support of his thesis. The fact that his own experiences are somewhat secondary to the narrative, however, is not to say that they are minor or unimportant. On the contrary, among the developments Dickson witnessed firsthand during his long career were the end of apartheid in South Africa, the death of Fidel Castro, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. The book thus gives a realistic sense of behind-the-scenes diplomatic crisis management, and it should be informative for prospective career entrants to the State Department in the hope that they bring Dickson's humility and historical sensitivity to their future work. Although as the book shows, Dickson’s ability to overcome his own inflexible nationalism took years of wrestling with perspectival dissonance (he admits to being “too captivated by the exceptional nature of the United States to acknowledge the times when the United States fell short of its image” [p. 206]), as well as a significant helping of individual historical curiosity.

For someone outside of professional academia, the care put into the methodology behind the historical primers here is commendable. As a former high school teacher, advanced history student, and diplomat, Dickson understands that historical content is contested and ever-changing. Each chapter thus provides a capsule history that does not just sketch a Wiki version of the past but rather takes seriously the academic scholar’s task of synthesizing knowledge, weighing evidence, and engaging with contemporary historiographical revisions and debates. Doing so elegantly can be an awkward task even for career historians, so Dickson is to be applauded for taking it on and doing so effectively. While there are perhaps a few moments where the exposition seems a tad convoluted, some narrative awkwardness is the price of Dickson’s sincere effort to strike sensitive intellectual balances.

But history shock itself is nevertheless not an academic phenomenon. Dickson presents numerous examples of very real and very thorny flashpoints surrounding US diplomatic missions, and in many cases it is clear that bad situations were made worse by the historical unfamiliarity that US actors brought to them. Few Americans pouring into Haiti in 2010, for example, had any idea of the island’s destabilizing centuries of forced isolation. Fewer still had ever heard of the brutal US occupation, repression, forced corvée labor, executions, and resource dispossession that passed as US policy between 1915 and 1934. Few US observers or practitioners understood the history behind Mexican president Vicente Fox’s lukewarm response to US interventionism during the George W. Bush years. Few watching the Iranian hostage crisis knew of the US role in that country’s 1953 coup d’état. Few saw—few still see—the US-Cuba relationship as anything but a Manichean binary, and do not understand how other observers could possibly view it otherwise. While Dickson uses Barack Obama’s voice to suggest that modern leaders “must learn from history, but we can’t be trapped by it.... To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements,” he also cautions that a blinkered view only toward the future is bound to alienate many for whom the past is very much alive (p. 81).

The passage most illustrative of this point is buried in a discussion of the politics of apology. In 1997, President Bill Clinton was set to lay a wreath at the Niños Heroes monument in Mexico City, a memorial to young martyrs who fought against US aggression in 1847. Tellingly, some aides expressed reservations about the president’s gesture, worrying that it would remind Mexicans of the war. That, of course, is the fallacy; Mexicans did not need reminding, since the 1840s and their memory are woven into the fabric of historical understanding there. It was the US Americans who had forgotten—who had chosen to forget. As Dickson says, by laying a wreath, Clinton “chose to remember while many Americans decide to overlook” (p. 176, emphasis added). Ultimately, that is the most salient lesson in History Shock: that failing to engage with history is a choice that Americans make, a choice they have the luxury to make.

Of course, US Americans are no more intrinsically ignorant than anyone else, but as historian C. Vann Woodward suggested decades ago, the United States’ centuries of “free security” have generated a particular, inward-looking worldview.[2] The combination of abundance, power, and a lack of existential threats has given Americans the longstanding privilege not to care all that much about others, and not least their histories. The problem that that parochialism has engendered is that even after the United States has taken up a global role and fashioned itself as “the indispensable nation,” its power has often not been accompanied by further study of history.[3]

Indeed, while History Shock shows it to us today in real-time, a certain disregard for world history has marked US power ever since the dawning of the so-called Pax Americana in the 1940s. As works by Stephen Wertheim (Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy [2020]) and Patrick Hearden (Architects of Globalism: Building a New World Order during World War II [2002]) have shown, when US foreign policy elites in World War II were planning the country’s postwar hegemonic role, the “spheres of influence” they drew on world maps paid precious little regard to the cultural, political, or historical realities of other continents; the American Century was apparently supposed to rely more on a kind of US magnetism than on any effort at mutual comprehension. Similarly, on the other side of the world, mainland US troops arriving to liberate the Philippines in 1945 were shocked to find that locals could speak English, apparently unaware that they were in a US colony with a long, fraught, and violent historical relationship with Washington.[4]

Dickson does not call for a corrective to such longstanding historical neglect merely for altruistic reasons. Rather, he offers a straightforward incentive, stating bluntly that Americans’ lack of historical engagement hampers the United States’ ability (or, at least, its diplomats’ ability) to pursue US interests. Historical illiteracy thwarts Americans’ capacity to draw on memory when making decisions and forming strategy, and the resentment it stokes from others, prevents diplomats from finding common ground. A greater “historical sensibility” among all Americans overseas, he insists, would help the country forge partnerships and alliances vital to the country’s goals (p. 210).

Ever the diplomat, Dickson can sometimes make assertions or turn phrases with a sanguine neutrality that might raise the occasional eyebrow of academic historians—who, in fairness, are not his target audience. Impassive references to Latin American countries’ “differences with the U.S. policy in Cuba” and Mexicans’ feeling something “close [to an] entitlement” to immigrate north are only later fleshed out with the often unpleasant facts about the United States they conceal (pp. 28, 129). While admitting its complications, the book at times presents the US-Mexico Bracero program (1942-64) as an era of happy cooperation to be revived. It also tends to frame matters like the United States’ campaign against coca leaf cultivation in South America and its attempts to build coalitions against Cuba and Venezuela as unmitigatedly sound policies whose pursuit is obvious. Nevertheless, in almost all cases the author follows up these equivocal discourses with ample historical complexity, encouraging the reader to delve deeper.

Dickson also has a longtime diplomat’s sense that there is a wider world out there that is not entirely knowable or legible to a single individual. He is to be commended for not dodging subjects like race; the book is open about the way he, with his particular positionality as a white American man, has experienced history shock not only in his relationships with international interlocutors but also with US colleagues of color serving in embassies, many of whom are put into “typecast” positions when they are sent to places viewed by the establishment as somehow in line with their racial backgrounds. These interactions reveal the obtuseness that sometimes marks diplomatic policymaking, as when the Durban embassy put up an anti-poverty display focusing disproportionately on Black communities in US cities or when staffers attempted to concoct a tone-deaf airport handover ceremony in Port-au-Prince at the height of the recovery chaos following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. At the same time, such episodes show an admirable willingness on the part of Dickson to explore his own biases, as well as—to be blunt—to fess up to them in a book in which he himself controls the narrative.

All told, History Shock represents a compelling exercise from a refreshing perspective, and it works to lower a bridge between academia and officialdom that is too often drawn up over a moat of incomprehension. Further, “history shock” itself is a useful concept, one that might serve usefully both as a means of pedagogical framing for undergraduates and, perhaps, as an apt description for American-born students’ own experiences in advanced history courses. After all, university students, like freshly minted diplomats, frequently find themselves buffeted by narratives departing from the inch-deep conventional wisdom with which they are inured by domestic politics and the popular culture.

Dickson closes the book with concrete prescriptions stemming from his diagnosis that there are structural problems with the way new foreign service recruits learn history. Dickson would like to see all Americans leaving their shores—diplomats, yes, but also travelers, businesspeople, and students—take history more seriously. Ultimately, however, the book is aimed at practitioners—current and future diplomats and officers whose professional paradigm currently leaves transnational understanding mostly to individual initiative. Given how slow-moving the machinery of the State Department and the Washington foreign policy “blob” can be, perhaps it is too much to expect a fundamental overhaul of primary training for junior officers just yet. As a useful first step toward better comprehension and respect toward history, however, at the very least they could read this book.


[1]. Dickson cites social constructivist theory, and specifically Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983), in building his case for the importance of history to diplomatic relations.

[2]. C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 109.

[3]. This phrase is originally attributed to Secretary of State Madeline Albright. See, for example, Albright, interview by Matt Lauer, NBC-TV, The Today Show, February 19, 1998, U.S. Department of State Archive, https://1997-2001.state.gov/statements/1998/980219a.html.

[4]. See Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2019), 212.

Citation: Michael Falcone. Review of Dickson, John, History Shock: When History Collides with Foreign Relations. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56984

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.