Diplomatic History Holiday Gift Guide

The Erstwhile staff offers a glimpse into recent diplomatic history books that may be appropriate to give as gifts this holiday season. The kids below are certainly excited to give their neatly wrapped monographs to grandma and grandpa- you can be, too!


Believe it or not, there are diplomatic histories that do not make one want to immediately fall asleep. Some may even make decent gifts for readers close to you- if those close to you include historians. This holiday season, give the gift of heavy reading with Erstwhile’s guide to diplomatic histories. We know you probably won’t actually buy historical monographs for your loved ones this year. But, as a history blog, what else are we qualified to suggest?

For the know-it-all who ALWAYS seems to bring up the failures of Coolidge-era foreign policy at the dinner table:

Christopher McKnight Nichols, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Nichols addresses perhaps one of the most overlooked eras of twentieth century US foreign policy: the “isolationist” 1920s. Nichols tries to complicate the notion of an America obsessed with itself, by showing that Americans were quite interested in the international realm as well. American interwar thinkers offered a variety of opinions about what the US role in the world should be, from Henry Cabot Lodge’s expansionism to William James’ belief that the US might remain a sort of non-interventionist “beacon of hope” to the world. Although he is not the first to revisit isolationism, Nichols paints a vibrant picture of how internationalist thinking pervaded American minds by using a number of character studies, in a decidedly not-sleep inducing way.

For the brother-in-law with a deep distaste for disruptive militaristic nationalism manifested in war-mongering:

Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War. London: Profile Books, 2013.

Commemorating the centennial of the outbreak of World War I has been the motivation for a wave of new books on the war. One of the best of the bunch is written by the elder stateswoman of WWI history, Margaret MacMillan. The War that Ended Peace touches on a key trend in diplomatic history (and history more broadly): contingency. As her subtitle suggests, MacMillan argues that the outbreak of the Great War was contingent upon European leaders drawing back their aggressiveness as tension escalated. The nature of the escalation had less to do with exhausting all other options, and more to do with policy mistakes made by high officials in Germany, France, Russia, and Britain. Underestimating the scale of the coming war, overestimating the advantages their own militaries possessed, and giving in to nationalist fervor all fed movement toward a war that accomplished little, but destroyed much.

For the father who spends most of his time in an easy chair yelling about the Spanish Empire’s failure to secure its Western holdings in the New World:

Paul W. Mapp, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire 1713-1763. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Imperial rivalry in the New World is old territory for early American historians. It is becoming rediscovered territory for diplomatic historians. Mapp discusses the Spanish, French, and British imperial movements in the New World, and the rather curious lack of knowledge about the North American West all three possessed. Not only did their lack of knowledge of the region leave each empire unwilling to commit enough resources to colonize the West, but it also explained the dominance of native peoples in the region through the 1700s.     

For anyone but your grandmother:

Robert Neer, Napalm: An American Biography.  Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

This is a history of napalm- a sort of scientific/foreign policy narrative about the origination of the weapon as a tool initially meant for destroying buildings rather than people. Such “incendiary warfare” had a much longer pre-US history, but due to new international pressures beginning in 1939, chemical weapons like napalm became a key part of American military arsenals. Interesting excerpt:  John Steinbeck’s suggestion to Lyndon Johnson that the military should pack napalm in small plastic spheres, thereby creating a “Steinbeck Super Ball” for use on the battlefield.  This book is not for the faint of heart, hence the recommendation above.

Let us know if the above suggestions end up providing a loved one with a smile this year. Happy Holidays!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s