H-Diplo Essay 268- Elizabeth McKillen on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars

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H-Diplo Essay 268

Essay Series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars
16 September 2020

Confessions of a Frustrated Historian of U.S. Labor and American Foreign Relations

Series Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Essay by Elizabeth McKillen, University of Maine

As someone with my feet in two fields—labor history and diplomatic history—I’ve often felt more comfortable in the former than the latter.  To labor historians, the importance of research on the international perspectives and activities of workers and labor activists has long been a given.  By contrast, this proposition has been a tough sell in diplomatic history, despite the professional politeness with which my research has been greeted in this field.  I first developed an interest in history during my undergraduate years at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) in the late 1970s.  The History Department boasted only four members:  Jerry Israel (U.S, Asia), Michael Young (European), John Heyl (European), and Paul Bushnell (U.S.).  All were excellent teachers as well as active scholars.  I’m thankful I was able to go to a small, private college at a time when tuition costs were still relatively low and financial aid was at its peak.

My interest in diplomatic history was inspired by an excellent course I took with Jerry Israel that covered all of U.S. foreign relations history in a semester.  Israel, a student of Lloyd Gardner’s, taught history at that time from the perspective of the William Appleman Williams School that emphasized the importance of economic forces in shaping U.S. foreign policy.  Israel contributed an important work to this school with the publication of Progressivism and the Open Door, which I later read in graduate school.[1] That undergraduate course persuaded me that materialist factors had played a critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.  The text for the course was the first edition of Thomas Paterson’s textbook on foreign policy which, at that point, was available only in hard copy and covered the history of U.S. foreign policy from the American Revolution to the present.[2]  I took from this book the lesson (whether intended or not) that an essential contradiction lay at the heart of American foreign policy:  the United States rhetorically emphasized that it sought to promote democracy abroad even while more often suppressing it.  I admired this critique and thought it explained much about the malaise in which the United States found itself in the late 1970s.  On the other hand, I was struck by the fact that U.S. foreign policy history at the time was dominated by studies of elite white men and failed to give voice to the concerns of working people, women, and people of color.  Social history was coming into its own in the late 1970s and I wondered why more had not been done to connect the dots between the “bottom up” approach of this new type of history and the “top down” methodologies still typical of diplomatic historians.  As the child of a single-parent home, whose mom often worked two jobs to make ends meet, I was particularly interested in the agency of working women. 

I was nominated by the IWU History Department to apply for an International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (ITT) International Fellowship as a senior and proposed a project of study in Ireland on Irish women during the Irish revolution.  European historian Michael Young assisted me in preparing this proposal.  Much to my shock, I received the fellowship and spent the year after college graduation at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  The bulk of my time during this year was taken up with researching the largely neglected role of Irish women during the Irish revolution—research which I subsequently published in a couple of articles.[3] But my year in Ireland also coincided with the Iranian hostage crisis and I spent of lot time in Irish pubs debating the U.S. response to this crisis, as well as the presidential victory of Ronald Reagan. These latter experiences reinforced my interest in the history of U.S. foreign relations.  

I attended Northwestern University for graduate education in history after returning from Ireland and chose as my fields of concentration U.S. labor history, U.S. foreign relations history, and Irish history.  Ironically, Northwestern did not have a permanent U.S. labor or U.S. foreign relations historian at the time.  Mike Sherry, however, who was then at work on his prize-winning book on American air power, agreed to chair my doctoral committee until Northwestern hired a permanent diplomatic historian.[4] He proved an insightful dissertation advisor who welcomed innovative approaches to the field.

I relied on two visiting assistant professors at Northwestern during this period for substantial assistance in labor and U.S. foreign relations history:  David Roediger and Nathan Godfried.   Roediger would later publish the prize-winning book, Wages of Whiteness.  Godfried, a student of Thomas McCormick’s from the University of Wisconsin, wrote the definitive Williams-inspired book on U.S. economic relations with the Middle East during the 1940s: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor: American Economic Development Policy toward the Arab East. Godfried introduced me as well to the important scholarly works of McCormick, who had been a student of William Appleman Williams.  Tom’s China Market and, later, America’s Half Century, had profound influences on me.  Godfried also alerted me to the early works that had been written about labor and foreign policy but warned that they emphasized the perspectives of collaborating American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders such as Samuel Gompers and George Meany rather than exploring dissenting labor perspectives or approaching working-class history from a “bottom up” perspective.[5]  Roediger introduced me to the rich community histories then emerging in labor history.  In consultation with Roediger and Godfried, I explored how one could pursue a “bottom up” history of labor and international affairs for my Ph.D. dissertation.  Roediger pointed me in the direction of the Chicago Historical Society and the papers of the Chicago Federation of Labor.  He noted that he had worked in the papers and was surprised at how much local labor leaders seemed interested in foreign affairs during the World War I era.

I spent much of the next year researching a Chicago labor insurgency against the AFL’s foreign policies during World War I that culminated in the Farmer-Labor Party Movement of 1919-1924.  Particularly rich were the papers of John Fitzpatrick, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, during this period.  Fitzpatrick was an Irish immigrant and an insightful anti-imperialist who developed a strong anti-Wilsonian agenda for the Farmer-Labor Party that attracted the support of local AFL union and city labor councils across the country.   This research became the subject of my dissertation and subsequently my book, Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy: 1914-1924.[6]

Meanwhile, Nathan Godfried and I discovered we had another common interest beyond questions of labor and foreign relations.  We were both softball players and started attending the same informal Sunday softball games.  After colliding in the outfield several times while running for fly balls, the die was cast and we married in 1989.  Nathan took a tenure-truck job after his temporary stint at Northwestern at Hiram College in Ohio and I took a series of one-year jobs while trying to find permanent work in the field, preferably in Ohio.

I soon realized that I was seriously considered for the few labor history jobs around but not for the larger number of diplomatic history positions.  Labor historians were accustomed to using local case studies to ask broader questions about American history that might then be verified, or proven only selectively true, based on other case studies.  By contrast, diplomatic historians doubted that a local study could tell them much of importance, even though I insisted that my Chicago study raised significant questions about the paradigms then used to explain public opinion on questions of U.S. foreign policy—at least during World War I.  In particular, I used my Chicago research to question the model that insisted that U.S. foreign policy opinion could be understood as a pyramid, with locally minded people at the bottom and elites at the top. 

Only the top 25% of Americans, argued this model, typically paid any attention to foreign policy and exercised any influence over it.[7] Yet my Chicago research belied this.  Equally important, my research suggested that the corporatist model used by some Williams-school diplomatic historians to explain business and labor influence over foreign policy remained incomplete.[8]  Although AFL leaders collaborated in corporatist networks, many grassroots workers rebelled against this path to power for labor movements.  I also argued that the dissenting perspectives of grass-roots labor activists were important in their own right: they needed to be incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum because they more clearly identified the costs of American interventionism abroad for workers than did the critiques of intellectuals like Walter Lippmann, or policymakers like George Kennan, with whom diplomatic historians were often preoccupied.

In 1992, I was finally offered a tenure-track job teaching U.S. foreign relations history and labor history at the University of Maine (UM).  Howard Schonberger had previously held the foreign relations position at UM but died tragically at age 50 while attending a conference in honor of William Appleman Williams.  Schonberger had written a book on the U.S. occupation of Japan that included an important chapter on the role of U.S. labor in that occupation.[9]  He had also been active in social justice movements in Maine.  I believe his interests made his then colleagues at UM more sympathetic to my own interests.  Three years later, some additional money became available and Nathan Godfried and I were able to arrange to share a position and a half at UM; it took another thirteen years for that arrangement to turn into two full-time positions.  UM has been our institutional home since 1992 and our son was raised in Maine.

Since coming to the University of Maine, I’ve been struck by two recent trends in U.S. foreign relations history:  an emphasis on multi-archival international history and the new ‘cultural turn’ in the field.  Like most U.S. foreign relations historians, I think the new emphasis on language training for graduate students and on conducting research abroad is a positive development that has helped the field overcome some of its parochialism.  Yet, in contrast to some, I don’t believe that multi-archival research is necessarily more sophisticated or more important than research which focuses on the domestic determinants of foreign policy.  The domestic factors shaping U.S. foreign policy seem as important today as they did in Williams’s day.   For this reason, I was happy to see the new cultural turn in diplomatic history that began in the 1990s.  In particular, the new literature on African Americans and U.S. foreign relations, and on gender and foreign relations, has been important in complicating our understanding of the domestic forces shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Too often, however, those pursuing cultural approaches have continued to focus on national elites and have assumed that those elites played the dominant role in creating a national culture and in developing ‘myths’ about American foreign policy that most of the U.S. public either accepted unquestioningly or felt powerless to oppose.[10]  Social history, however, which most historians of foreign relations have failed to embrace, teaches a different lesson.  The American population, from a social history perspective, was always highly diverse and responded in quite varied ways to U.S. foreign policies.  The sheer diversity of the American population, in combination with structural political impediments, has been more important than cultural hegemony in preventing the success of many dissenting foreign policy movements.

This was one of the major points of my 2013 book, Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left and Wilsonian Internationalism, which explored the diverse labor responses to Wilsonianism among a broad array of labor groups both abroad and in the United States.  Well reviewed by both U.S. labor historians and international historians in other countries, the book was again largely ignored by the field of U.S. foreign relation history.  Other works on labor and international affairs have also received insufficient attention in the field.[11]

I nonetheless remain happy that I chose foreign relations history as a field of concentration back in graduate school, because I am convinced that it is an important subject to teach both undergraduate and graduate students.  Too often, students today are taught very little of the history of U.S. foreign relations and lack the knowledge necessary to engage in informed dissent.  Historians of U.S. foreign relations have a responsibility to provide this knowledge.  Critical to including in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum are more studies of marginalized dissenters who exposed the problem of empire in American history even before William Appleman Williams wrote and have continued to do so since.  Such dissenters also offer insights on how to prevent future diplomatic tragedies.  As for future research projects, though, I’m heading back to Ireland.


Elizabeth McKillen is Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine.  She is the author of two books and many articles at the intersection of labor, diplomatic and diaspora history.  She is currently working on a project on the role of women of the transatlantic Irish Left in in shaping anti-imperialist politics in both Ireland and the United States during the Irish Revolution (1916-1923).



[1] Jerry Israel, Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 1905-1921 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971).

[2] Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, American Foreign Policy: A History (New York: D.C. Heath, 1977).

[3] Elizabeth McKillen, “Irish Feminism and Nationalist Separatism:  1914-1923,” Eire-Ireland, XVII:3 (1982): 52-67 (part 1); idem,  “Irish Feminism and Nationalist Separatism:  1914-1923,” Eire-Ireland,  XVII:4  (1982): 72-90 (part 2). For more recent research on this subject see, Elizabeth McKillen, “The Irish Sinn Féin Movement and Radical Labor and Feminist Dissent in the United States, 1916-1921,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 16:3 (September 2019): 11-37.

[4] Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: the Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

[5] David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso Press, 1991); Nathan Godfried, Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor: American Economic Development Policy toward the Arab East (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987); Thomas McCormick, China Market: America’s Quest for Informal Empire, 1893-1901 (Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1967); Thomas McCormick, America’s Half Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989). See, for example, Ronald Radosh, American Labor and United States Foreign Policy: The Cold War in the Unions from Gompers to Lovestone (New York: Random House, 1969).

[6] Elizabeth McKillen, Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy: 1914-1924 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

[7] Melvin Small, “Public Opinion,” in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, Michael Hogan and Thomas Paterson, eds.,  first ed.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 165-176.

[8] See especially, Thomas McCormick, “Drift or Mastery: A Corporatist Synthesis for American Diplomatic History,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 318-330; Michael Hogan, “Corporatism,” in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, Michael Hogan and Thomas Paterson eds., second ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137-148.

[9] Howard Schonberger, Aftermath of War: Americans and the Remaking of Japan, 1945-1952 (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1989).

[10] See especially, Walter Hixson, The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[11] Elizabeth McKillen, Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left and Wilsonian Internationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).  For more on recent works on labor and U.S. foreign relations, see my extended article “Labor and U.S. Foreign Relations,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (online), 2019, https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/page/199.