Top Young Historians: 23 – Greg Grandin


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

23: Greg Grandin, 6-19-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Professor of History, New York University, 2006-
Area of Research: political violence, revolution and counter-revolution, the development of human rights, US-Latin American relations, and the Latin American Cold War.
Education: Ph.D. History, Yale University, May 1999, with distinction
Major Publications: Greg Grandin is author of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago, 2004), Greg Grandin JPG The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation, (Duke University Press. 2000), (winner of the Latin American Studies Association’s Bryce Wood award for best book published in English in the humanities and social sciences on Latin America)) and most recently,Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States and The Rise of the New Imperialism (Imperialism, Metropolitan/Henry Holt Books, May 2006).
Grandin is also the author of A Revolução Guatemalteca, (São Paulo, Brazil: Fundação Editora de UNESP, 2005), and the translator of La Sangre de Guatemala: Una Historia de Raza y Nación (Spanish translation of Blood of Guatemala) (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 2005), and Denegado en su totalidad: Documentos estadounidense liberados (a collection of declassified United States documents pertaining to Guatemala), (translated into Spanish and published in Guatemala by Asociación para el Avance de Ciencias Sociales, 2001).
Grandin is the co-editor with Gilbert Joseph of A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War, (under contract, Duke University Press) and he is also the editor of Human Rights and Revolutions, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2nd ed., Forthcoming, invited to join editors of first edition, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Lynn Hunt, Marilyn Young, for second edition)
Awards: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, (taken Fall 2005/Spring 2006);
American Council of Learned Societies, Charles Ryskamp Fellowship, (taken Spring 2005);
Faculty Fellow, New York University’s International Center for Advanced Studies, 2003-2004;
Bryce Wood Award for Best English-Language Book published in the Humanities and Social Sciences on Latin America. Given by the Latin American Studies Association, 2001;
The Howard Cline Memorial Prize for Best Book on Latin American Ethnohistory, honorable mention. Given by the Conference on Latin American History, 2001;
John Hope Franklin Seminar for Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke University, 2000-2001;
Arthur and Mary Wright Prize for outstanding dissertation, Yale University, 1999;
Mellon Dissertation Fellowship, Yale University, 1997-98;
J. William Fulbright Scholarship, 1997;
Center for International Area Studies’ Dissertation Fellowship, Yale University, 1996;
Latin American Dissertation Fellowship, Social Science Research Council, 1996;
Agrarian Studies Program Research Fellowship, Yale University, 1995;
International Area Studies Research Grant, Yale University, 1995;
International Predissertation Fellowship, Social Science Research Council, 1993-1994;
Jacob K. Javits Graduate Fellowship, 1992.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor, Department of History, Duke University 1999-2001.
Researcher and Historical Consultant for the United Nations’ Guatemalan Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico), 1997-1998.
Consultant to the photographic exhibit, Guatemala ante la lente: Imágenes de la Fototeca de CIRMA, organized by the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica. Guatemala City, Bogota, New York, Los Angeles 1998-2000.
Interviews on NPR, Voice of America, and Pacifica radio networks on topics related to Latin American history and politics.
Provided sworn testimony in genocide prosecution in Guatemala and in immigration cases in the United States.

Personal Anecdote

I had the good fortune of receiving my BA from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, a greatly underfunded public institution attended primarily by working-class and immigrant students, and my doctorate from Yale, which was, well, it was Yale. I started at Brooklyn during the early years of the Gorbachev period, continuing through Reagan’s Central American wars, the Iran-Contra scandal, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invasion of Panama, and the first Gulf War. It was an exciting moment. Students organized (on both sides of any given issue — it was the 1980s). Faculty, particularly those in the history and political science departments such as Renate Bridenthal, Hobart Spalding, Bonnie Anderson, Teo Ruiz, Steve London, Sam Farber and Norman Finkelstein, were vitally engaged with what was going on in the world, linking what they were teaching on their syllabi to fast-breaking events. Initially I thought I would go on to study Soviet history but my increasing involvement in Central American solidarity work led to a growing research interest in Latin America.

Then I landed at Yale, sometime after the failed coup that led to the break up of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The university’s faux gothic spires nicely accented what seemed to be a rapid deceleration of history, and there appeared to be an elective affinity between the place and the self-assured post-Cold War triumphalism that began to seep into much American culture, scholarship, and politics in the 1990s. This perhaps helps explains why that triumphalism has been the subject of my last two books. Looking back, the distinction between the two institutions helped shaped my scholarship in another fundamental way. At Brooklyn College, I learned about ‘class’ as a category of analysis, in books, seminars, and lectures. At Yale, ‘class’ presented itself primarily as a felt experience of entitlement. Luckily, this distinction coincided with a trend in the humanities and social science which sought to combine analytical explanation with hermeneutic interpretation to get at political subjectivity and historical change in a more holistic manner. I’ve tried to apply a similar combination in my writing, whether on local histories of peasant politics in Guatemala or on the formation of the American New Right.

I was also lucky enough to have worked for a year, just before finishing my doctorate and after I had all but written my thesis, with the United Nations ‘ Truth Commission investigating political violence in Guatemala. Working as something of a house historian to an institution largely staffed by lawyers made me appreciate the value of historical analysis – lawyers get nervous with any attempt to move beyond the immediate mechanics of an act to get at the larger ‘why.’ It also shaped much of my subsequent scholarship agenda, leading to the research that resulted in both The Last Colonial Massacre and Empire’s Workshop.


By Greg Grandin

  • “Yet the links between the current Bush administration’s revolution in foreign policy and Reagan’s hard line in Central America are even more profound than the simple recycling of personnel. It was Central America, and Latin America more broadly, where an insurgent New Right first coalesced, as conservative activists used the region to respond to the crisis of the 1970s, a crisis provoked not only by America’s defeat in Vietnam but by a deep economic recession and a culture of skeptical antimilitarism and political dissent that spread in the war’s wake. Indeed, Reagan’s Central American wars can best be understood as a dress rehearsal for what is going on now in the Middle East. It was in these wars where the coalition made up of neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals, free marketers, and nationalists that today stands behind George W. Bush’s expansive foreign policy first came together. There they had near free rein to bring the full power of the United States against a much weaker enemy in order to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam-and, in so doing, begin the transformation of America’s foreign policy and domestic culture.” — Greg Grandin in “Empire’s Workshop”
  • “In Latin America, obstacles toward the achievement of even the most minimal approximation of democratic reform persisted not only through the visible institutions of government bureaucracies, courts, militaries, land tenure, and labor relations but in the closed quarters of family, sex, and community. The Last Colonial Massacre JPG What is today understood as democracy was achieved by individuals engaged in a myriad of small yet pitched struggles that strained such hierarchical, private, and steadfastly obdurate relations of domination and control. Secular ideologies of nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and Communism — those dangerous scions of liberalism — did motivate and give solace to people’s lives. But this gift did not merely satisfy an abstract or innate desire for meaning in an increasingly uncertain world, as some theorists would now dismiss the appeal of socialism and communism. Rather, by providing the fuel and steel needed to contest the terms of nearly intolerable conditions, it combined the stuff of mundane survival with the more sublime advance of democracy. In the decades following WWII, the left in every country lost its bid to take over the state and restructure the economy but it did force a transformation of power relations that allowed broader participation in politics, culture, and society. Panzós was not a “colonial” massacre in the technical sense since it took place well into the second century of independent rule. Yet it was part of a larger epic assault on the private fiefdoms of social control that grew simultaneously besieged and emboldened with the spread of commodified social relations and the extension of state power throughout Latin America.” — Greg Grandin in “The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War”
  • “Historical analogies tend to be as fickle as flattery, as Washington has recently learned. The more the United States strives to attain the glories promised by its enthusiasts, the more it disappoints. Think of recent comparisons to World War II. In the yearlong buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, no analogy was more favored by the Bush Administration and its neoconservative advisers than the liberation of Western Europe six decades earlier. Like their grandfathers in Paris and Rome, American G.I.’s in Baghdad would be graciously received as freedom’s foot soldiers. In the same way that the United States brought liberal democracy to Nazi Germany, so would it make the political desert bloom in the Middle East. Behind such boosterism, however, neocons can barely conceal their contempt for a decadent American culture. . . . ” — Greg Grandin in “The Right Quagmire: Searching History for an Imperial Alibi,” Harper’s December 2004

About Greg Grandin

  • “But there may have been one more defeat, which Grandin’s [Last Colonial Massacre] suggests not by explicit argument but by the force of its analysis. For all its violence and misery, the Cold War had the virtue of imposing on Western intellectuals, Communist and anti-Communist alike, the duty of historical intelligence. Marxism attracted its share of morally blind and politically repellent followers, but its varied currents carried scholars and writers – in happy or unhappy conveyance – to an unparalleled appreciation of the effects of time and place. Whether it was Lukács discerning the failed revolutions of 1848 in the stilted realism and archaic dialogue of Flaubert’s Salammbô or Louis Hartz attributing American liberalism to the absence of feudalism in the United States or George Steiner hearing the ‘hoofbeats’ of Napoleon’s armies in Hegel’s Phenomenology (‘the master statement of the new density of being’), Marxism pressed intellectuals of varying stripes to think about history’s wayward intrusions . . . But the collapse of Communism and disappearance of Marxism have eased the burdens of intelligence. With the market – and now religion – displacing social democracy as the language of public life, writers are no longer compelled by the requirements of the historical imagination. Facing a new enemy, which does not make the same demands that Communism once did, today’s intellectuals wave away all talk of ‘root causes’: history, it seems, will no longer be summoned to the bar of political analysis – or not for the time being. Mimicking the theological language of their antagonists, contemporary writers prefer catchwords such as ‘evil’ and ‘Islamo-fascism’ to the vocabulary of secular criticism. Their language may be a response to 9/11, but it is a product of the end of the Cold War. When Marxism was banished from the political scene in 1989, it left behind no successor language – save religion itself – to grapple with the twinned fortunes of the individual and the collective, the personal and the political, the present and the past. That Grandin has managed to salvage some portion of that historical vision from the dustbin of history suggests not only his resourcefulness, but also the timeliness of this most untimely of meditations.” — Corey Robin, reviewing The Last Colonial Massacre, in the London Review of Books
  • “Greg Grandin knows the history of modern Guatemala better than anybody else in the world outside of that country-and therefore understands the nature of U.S. attitudes and action toward Latin America at their most disturbing. This grants him keen insight into the manic ferocity behind U.S. imperialism across the globe today, which he describes in fine, rich, vivid, bitter detail. Grandin also shrewdly observes that the outrages possible in little U.S. neo-colonies are not so easy to accomplish on a grand scale. His admirable book deserves many, many serious readers.” — John Womack, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University, reviewing “Empire’s Workshop”
  • “This remarkable and extremely well-written work is about more than the dark history of Guatemala and the Cold War in Latin America. It is about how common people discover politics. It is about how common people discover politics. It is about the roots of democracy and those of genocide. It is about the hopes and defeats of the twentieth-century Left. I could not put this book down.” — Eric Hobsbawm reviewing “The Last Colonial Massacre”
  • The Americans who engineered countless military coups, death squads and massacres in Latin America never paid for their crimes — instead they got promoted and they’re now running the ‘War on Terror.’ Grandin had always been a brilliant historian, now he uses those detective skills in a book that is absolutely crucial to understanding our present.” — Naomi Klein, author of “No Logo,” reviewing “Empire’s Workshop”
  • “A remarkable tour de force. It is one of the glories of American democracy that North Carolina is home to both Jesse Helms and the Duke University Press. This book describes a Latin America about as far away from the senator’s conception of the place as can be imagined. Grandin, who worked with the Guatemalan Truth Commission in 1997-98, displays a powerful narrative style — touching on nationalism, state power, class and caste divisions, ethnic identity, and political violence.” — Kenneth Maxwell, reviewing Blood of Guatemala, in Foreign Affairs

Posted on Sunday, June 18, 2006 at 7:49 PM

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