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  • Ernest R. May
  • Edward Berkowitz (bio)

Ernest R. May, who came to Harvard in 1954 as a twenty-five-year-old UCLA Ph.D., taught history there for the next fifty-five years.1

Specializing in diplomatic history, he made his mark as early as 1959 with the publication of The World War and American Isolation, 1914–1917. This book won scholarly prizes. It also garnered a New York Times review by Samuel Flagg Bemis, who proclaimed it "the most thorough study yet presented of American politics and diplomacy vis-à-vis the European war, 1914–1917."2 At the same time, May emerged as a leading departmental and university citizen, eventually serving as department chair and, in the perilous period after 1969, still only forty years old, as the dean of Harvard College.3

Unlike many of his colleagues who shared his interests in politics and public policy, May never left Harvard. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., another celebrated member of the Harvard history department, took a post in the Kennedy White House and never returned to the Harvard faculty. Similar things happened to McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger (although not to economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served on the margins of the Kennedy administration and made his way back to Cambridge). Once engaged in the realms of policymaking at the highest levels, they discovered that the experience changed them and altered the course of their careers. Ernest May, although a prominent consultant to the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, never saw a reason to sever his Harvard connection, in the manner of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and cross over completely to the realm of public policy. Instead, he remained behind in the academy and taught generations of students how to combine the study of history and the conduct of public policy. Through such works as Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, he became arguably the most influential twentieth-century academic in the field of history and public policy. [End Page 366]

May did all of the conventional academic things superbly well. He mentored generations of graduate students in diplomatic history, such as Akira Iriye, who became a president of the American Historical Association. He lectured, in an era when lecture as performance went far toward establishing a professor's reputation, in a way that commanded the audience's attention, often speaking without notes to a packed lecture hall. He played the role of public intellectual, writing on such timely subjects as the president's role as commander in chief (1960) and American imperialism (1968).4 He advocated that the government's records should be open to scholars, and he proved ahead of his time in his insistence that diplomatic history should be written from a multiarchival, multinational perspective.

Shy by nature, he conducted himself, as one of his students noted, without "a hint of arrogance or pretension."5 He was laconic in his speech and in his writing, with a spare and unornamented writing style that nonetheless included perceptive character sketches and quick flashes of insight. In a book about the Monroe Doctrine (1975), for example, May described English statesman George Canning as looking "older than his years. His hairline had receded and he had begun to grow stout. Though his eyes could still flash, they often showed strain and weariness, and the small mouth that still so frequently curled around cutting epigrams now seemed to be set in a natural pout."6 His writing, despite these literary touches, often took on a Socratic tone, much as if he were leading a seminar through some complicated historiographic question. He was never strident. The book reviewer for the New York Times described him as "the most courteous disputant I have encountered in recent historical discussions."7

Despite his impeccable academic credentials, May was not a conventional member of the academy. For one thing, he spent significant amounts of time in Washington, where, among other projects, he prepared a history of the strategic arms competition between 1945 and 1972 for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and served as a senior consultant to the Senate committee investigating the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s. At the...


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