Top Young Historians: 112 – Andrew Preston, 36

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

112: Andrew Preston, 7-19-10

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Senior University Lecturer in History, and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University
Area of Research: American diplomatic history; American-East Asian relations; American religious history
Education: Ph.D., History, Cambridge University, 2001
Major Publications: Preston is the author of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Andrew Preston JPGHe is currently writing a book on the religious influence on American war and diplomacy from the colonial era to the present, to be published by Knopf in 2012.
Preston is the co-editor with Fredrik Logevall of Nixon in the World: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1969-1977. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Preston is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others: “Universal Nationalism: Christian America’s Response to the Years of Upheaval.” In The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective, ed. Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010: 306-318; “The Politics of Realism and Religion: Christian Responses to Bush’s New World Order.” Diplomatic History 34:1 (January 2010): 95-118; “The Deeper Roots of Faith and Foreign Policy.” International Journal 65 (Spring 2010): 451-462; “Reviving Religion in the History of American Foreign Relations.” In God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy, ed. Jonathan Chaplin and Robert Joustra. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2010: 25-44; “The Death of a Peculiar Special Relationship: Myron Taylor and the Religious Roots of America’s Cold War.” In America’s Special Relationships: Foreign and Domestic Aspects of the Politics of Alliance, ed. John Dumbrell and Axel Schäfer. New York and London: Routledge, 2009: 202-216; “Bridging the Gap between the Sacred and the Secular in the History of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History, 30:5 (November 2006): 783-812; Operation Smallbridge: Chester Ronning, the Second Indochina War, and the Challenge to the United States in Asia,” Pacific Historical Review 72:3 (August 2003): 353-390; “The Soft Hawks’ Dilemma in Vietnam: Michael V. Forrestal at the National Security Council, 1962-64,” International History Review 25:1 (March 2003): 63-95.
Awards: Preston is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
London School of Economics Fellow, Cold War Studies Centre, 2006-2009;
Post-Doctoral Fellow, International Security Studies, Yale University, 2001-2003;
Fox International Fellow, Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University, 1999-2000.
Additional Info:
Formerly Visiting Professor of History, Autumn 2007, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Institut universitaire de hautes études internationals et du développement), Geneva, Switzerland;
And Visiting Assistant Professor, International Relations, John M. Olin Fellow, International Security Studies, Yale University, 2005-2006.

Personal Anecdote

I was twenty-five years old in the spring of 1999, and just in the throes of my first intensive research trip to the United States. I was writing a dissertation on McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, and his role in the origins of America’s war in Vietnam. This trip was to be an extended reconnaissance mission to scope out archives in Washington, New York, Boston/Cambridge, and Austin, and lay the groundwork for a full year of research in 1999-2000. I had also lined up several interviews with many of Bundy’s former colleagues.

Unlike many students of the war, I had no personal connection to Vietnam. As a Canadian born after U.S. troops withdrew in the spring of 1973, the war was a chapter in history rather than an episode from my own life. My parents had attended a protest or two in Toronto, but they were not activists, and Vietnam had never really been a part of their lives. I became fascinated by Vietnam for purely intellectual reasons, especially after reading David Halberstam’s classic The Best and the Brightest. So I was yet unacquainted with the raw emotional power the war still held over generations of Americans.

One of my interviewees was Robert S. McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense and probably the best-known Vietnam policymaker. After decades of silence on the subject since leaving the Pentagon in 1968, McNamara had only recently begun granting interviews on Vietnam. In 1995, he published his memoir of the war, In Retrospect, which attracted a good deal of praise but also a firestorm of criticism.

McNamara not only possessed a formidable intellect, he had also earned a reputation as a fearsome interviewee who would storm out of the room if he felt the questions-or the questioner-were political, moralistic, or just plain stupid. Despite In Retrospect-or probably because of it-McNamara was still extraordinarily sensitive about Vietnam. Indeed, I was surprised he had agreed to my interview request in the first place. Needless to say, I was extremely nervous.

We met in his large, book-lined office in Washington. To break the ice, I began with what I thought was a softball. I pulled out a document I’d photocopied a few weeks before at the LBJ Library in Austin, a 1965 memo to LBJ outlining Bundy and McNamara’s reasons for advocating military escalation. I asked him to take me back to 1965 and explain the pressures they faced. To follow up, I had a series of tougher questions about why he and Bundy had not only supported escalation despite evidence-already mounting in early 1965-that it likely wouldn’t work, but also why they had so vigorously marginalized and discredited the prescient dissenters within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Brandishing the memo, I asked my question. McNamara looked at me blankly, and then down at the piece of paper in my hand. Narrowing his eyes, he fixed his gaze upon me again and blurted out, “Well, just read the damn thing! You’re a smart guy, you can obviously read, so just read it for yourself!” I was stunned by the rawness of his anger. I didn’t know how to respond, and his comments hovered over us in the awkward silence. But he hadn’t asked me to leave, and so I meekly suggested that it was perhaps best if I moved on to the next question. “Yes, I think you should,” he replied tersely, and we spoke for another half-hour. He relaxed a bit, as did I. But I never did ask my tough questions about the suppression on internal dissent (though they ended up forming the analytical core of my dissertation). I did, however, receive an invaluable lesson in Vietnam’s enduring resonance.

Quotes

By Andrew Preston

  • Although both Kennedy and Johnson were strong presidents, neither was particularly passionate about Vietnam, and neither of them was ever certain about the best course of action. They were not enthusiastic about waging The War Council McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam JPGa difficult war in pursuit of murky aims, but they also did not want to risk the domestic and international consequences that seemed likely to follow disengagement. At this point Bundy and the NSC staff enter the story, and it is the president’s uncertainty that makes them so important. Unlike their chief executive, they were rarely unsure. Their strong advice, their skill in promoting it, their bureaucratic dexterity, and their professional intimacy with the president enabled them to skew the internal debate over Vietnam in their favor. This book, then, is both a bureaucratic history of the changes in presidential decision making and a diplomatic history of the origins of the Vietnam War. It is a story with two inseparable themes: the acquisition and consolidation of power, and how that power was then used. — Andrew Preston in “The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006)
  • Independently, religion and foreign relations are two of the most important and exhaustively studied aspects of American history. Religion has consistently been one of the dominant forces in shaping American culture, politics, economics, and national identity. Indeed, the United States is the only major industrialized democracy where religion is as salient today as it was three centuries ago. America’s engagement with the world has had a similarly profound effect on virtually all facets of national life. Moreover, since at least the Seven Years’ War, and certainly since the Revolution, American foreign relations have shaped people and events within and beyond North America. Religion and foreign relations, then, are two subjects that have not only been instrumental to the study of American history, they have also played an instrumental role in making both the United States and the world what they are today. — Andrew Preston in “Bridging the Gap between Church and State in the History of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 30:5 (November 2006)

About Andrew Preston

Reviews of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam

  • “A superb study of one of the key shapers of America’s Vietnam policy and of the National Security Council he led. Preston is an enormously talented young historian, and his skills are on display in this powerful and instructive book.” — Fredrik Logevall, author of Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam
  • “An impressive book that establishes more than any previous work the critical role of the reorganized National Security Council under Kennedy and Johnson. Preston skillfully demonstrates that McGeorge Bundy was key in gaining the national security adviser an influence comparable to that of the secretaries of state and defense.” — Gary R. Hess, author of Presidential Decisions for War
  • “In a vivid portrait of the intelligent, influential, and insidious McGeorge Bundy, Preston demonstrates that Bundy and his counterparts failed as policymakers because they made choices that reflected their own experiences, not the conditions of the world beyond America’s borders. This is a sobering and timely book that everyone interested in foreign policy should read.” — Jeremi Suri, author of “Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente”
  • “A powerful and graceful account of the influence of McGeorge Bundy’s National Security Council in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the Vietnam era. Preston’s astute examination of the ‘soft hawks’ who took us to war underscores the need for us to constantly revise what we know of our history. The War Council is a formidable contribution.” — Kai Bird, co-author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”
  • “It is in exploring how Bundy convinced two presidents of the rightness of his argument that The War Council provides fresh insight. Most histories of the Vietnam war focus either on the combat itself or on the political leadership involved. Mr. Preston looks not at the flashes of gunfire but at the more shadowy world of bureaucratic infighting…[The War Council] shows all too clearly what happens when the White House circle of decision-makers has too small a radius. Clearly, leaders have the right to rely on a loyal few; excessive debate and deadlock are not desirable. But as America is once again learning, people in power need to make sure that the decisive circle includes those who actually know a region.” — The Economist
  • “Buffs of the 1960s and 1970s will relish Andrew Preston’s outstanding The War Council, a superbly researched reinterpretation of the origins of the Vietnam War that confirms its author’s reputation as the rising star of American History.” — Dominic Sandbrook, “Daily Telegraph”
  • “Preston has captured his subject well. His research is impeccable.” — David A. Welch, “Literary Review of Canada”
  • “With admirable clarity, Preston sketches Bundy’s intellectual heritage…Preston’s book is a definitive account of the train wreck into which Bundy and his allies drove the United States in Vietnam.” — Marilyn Young, International History Review
  • “This book is well written, neatly incorporates many primary sources, and provides cogent summaries of the positions taken by Bundy and some of his key assistants. The author also provides an excellent synopsis both of Bundy’s intellectual development and of the transformation of the NSC during this period.” — John Garofano, “Political Science Quarterly”

Reviews of Nixon in the World American Foreign Relations, 1969-1977 Edited by Fredrik Logevall and Andrew Preston

  • “Logevall and Preston have done a splendid job assembling a valuable collection that should help quiet those who continue to celebrate Nixon’s diplomatic brilliance.” — Melvin Small, “The Journal of American History”
  • “An outstanding overview of the Nixon era in international affairs. Nixon in the World helps us better understand both the historical uniqueness of the détente approach, and the reasons for its defeat.” — Odd Arne Westad, London School of Economics
  • “‘Rescuing choice from circumstance’ was a mantra of Nixon and Kissinger as they tried to steer the ship of state in the face of turmoil abroad and turbulence at home. These essays vividly illuminate the challenges they faced, the methods they employed, and the successes and failures they experienced. The book is a major contribution to our understanding of a fascinating era in the history of U.S. foreign relations.” — Melvyn P. Leffler, author of “For the Soul of Mankind”
  • “These essays shed much light on the fascinating and elusive Nixon administration. Each is excellent and can be read with profit by itself, but unlike many collections it is even better read cover-to-cover. Both Nixon as a peculiar leader and American foreign policy are revealed in rich detail.” — Robert Jervis, author of “American Foreign Policy in a New Era”

Posted on Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 8:52 AM

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