Beisner Essay

Some Notes on American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature

Robert L. Beisner In the 1970s, members of SHAFR first conceived the idea of producing an annotated bibliographical guide to the study of the history of U.S. foreign relations. The plan originated in the hope of updating (and superseding) the impressive but by then hopelessly obsolete Samuel Flagg Bemis and Grace Gardner Griffin, eds., Guide to the Diplomatic History of the United States, 1775-1921 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1935). SHAFR's ambition bore fruit in a superb new work, Richard Dean Burns, ed., Guide to American Foreign Relations since 1700 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1983), a collective effort of forty-one contributing editors and ninety-two contributors that included 9,255 entries in forty chapters along with maps and two appendixes. A substantial historiographical essay preceded each chapter. This fine compendium of historical scholarship immediately became indispensable to researchers and teachers alike. But relevant new publications also appeared by the hundreds each year, and before long SHAFR members began wondering about the possibilities of an update or new edition. The "Burns Guide" had not become obsolete—it remains extremely useful even now—but it became progressively necessary to venture beyond it in bibliographical searches. (The same fate, of course, awaits the new work.) By the mid-nineties, members of the SHAFR Council were actively considering the production of a new Guide. In 1997, I was asked to oversee a new edition. I consulted widely, especially among members of a distinguished advisory board I appointed for the purpose, before making several important decisions. Although the 1983 Guide served as a general model, it seemed advisable to depart from its design in a few respects, especially in not including maps or lists and sketches of important foreign policy "makers" readily available elsewhere. Reluctantly, we also decided against the substantial historiographical essays that introduced each chapter of the original, judging that they had mostly gone unread, to be replaced by brief editors' statements about their selection criteria (all but one chapter of the new work includes a historiographical section). We made these decisions in an awareness of the likely size of the new work and the need to save space. The result is that the new volumes are not a Guide to American Foreign Relations since 1700 but a straightforward annotated bibliography—American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature. After making basic organizational decisions, in the spring and summer of 1998 I turned to the sometimes daunting task of recruiting editors for specific chapters, a small number of whom had to be replaced over the next two years. Several other decisions shape the character and structure of the new Guide. After lengthy consideration and consultation with the advisory board focused on the possibility of creating some kind of "balance" in coverage among different periods of U.S. history, I decided instead that market forces should prevail and so advised the chapter editors. The result is readily apparent; just as with the Burns Guide, works on the twentieth century-and the post-World War II period-predominate, reflecting the United States's years as a great power and the scholarship such status attracts. The number of entries in particular chapters ranges from 140 to 1,335. I asked all editors to include helpful works on historiography. That some chapters are relatively bereft of such entries does not reflect any lack of industry on the editors' part but the simple fact that little historiographical attention has been given to certain areas. I also urged them to pay more attention than in the past to journal articles and essay collections. Annotations were to be descriptive but if possible contain pointed guidance about an item's relative importance. Although assuming that we were largely producing a guide to historical literature published in English, I encouraged editors to include works in other languages when they thought them of great importance. Many did so, but chapters vary, depending on editors' judgment about selection and their varying familiarity with foreign language sources. Dissertations are included only when considered high in quality and necessary to fill gaps not addressed by published scholarship—nearly a hundred are listed or mentioned. The new work also reflects a commitment to mainstreaming. With the exception of two chapters on reference works, overviews, and syntheses, we have eschewed using separate chapters on particular topics, such as economic or military history, or, to point to more recent historical trends, cultural relations or the impact of sex and gender on the conduct of foreign policy. (Since SHAFR owned the copyright to the contents of the 1983 Guide, editors were free to use, revise, or exclude old references and annotations and were given digital files from that work, scanned for the purpose. I also shared with them the contents of a diplomatic-military history bibliography of some 17,000 items I had assembled over the years). The quality of the results is for others to judge. Although individual chapters surely vary in quality, as is inevitable in any collective enterprise, I was personally impressed by the editors' range, expertise, and judgment. Reading every single annotation was like being in graduate school again, and I once more received a fine education, but not enough to succumb to the temptation to pronounce on the "meaning" of the total body of scholarship represented except to note some notably visible trends. One is the broadening of scholars' definition of the "history of U. S. foreign relations." Brief reference to the editors' use of a keyword system will help make this clear. Part of the substructure of our work (though not visible in it) is a uniform set of keywords from which editors drew to attach to every entry. Growing attention to "nontraditional" aspects of the field is reflected in the assignment of the keyword "Domestic Society" to 363 entries (of a total of 16,356), "Race and Racism" to 527 (and 269 to "African-Americans"), "Cultural Relations" to 581, and "Sex and Gender" to 201. Having decided to consider the relations between Native Americans and, first the local colonial rulers and later the federal government, as a form of "foreign relations," we ended up with 260 entries associated with the keyword "Indians." The new bibliography also provides a rough measure of where work has and has not been concentrated since 1982, the last year of publication of works mentioned in the 1983 Guide. On the average, works published since 1982 comprise almost exactly half of the new Guide. As one would expect, the percentage of such works is far higher in the chapters covering the period since 1961, but the pattern for earlier chapters is not so clear. Although in general the farther back in U.S. history, the more listings of pre-1982 publications, there are notable exceptions; for example, in the chapter on 17th and pre-1776, 18th century history, 58 percent of the listed works were published after 1981. Yet in the next chapter, on the revolutionary years themselves, only 16 percent of listed works date from the last two decades. Chapters covering the period from the age of the Federalists to the Nixon-Kissinger era run from a low of 18 percent (the chapter on the diplomacy of the Civil War) to a high of 79 percent (the chapter on the Eisenhower years). As we finished our work, we tried hard to keep it as current as possible—nearly 100 titles from 2002 appear in it. As many in of our colleagues have made a point of declaring in recent years, there is little reason for tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth about the guild's health and vigor. Although many history departments and universities may currently undervalue the field, the quality of the work recorded and annotated in the new Guide demonstrates that it is not the result of any deficiencies in how contemporary historians of U.S. foreign relations are practicing their profession. As the institutions that normally house such historians return to a sensible appreciation for the importance of the role of power in human affairs and the relations between the nations and peoples of the world, as they surely will, I have little doubt that they will also restore the teaching of the field to its rightful place. Will someone else be writing a similar preface in another ten, fifteen, or twenty years? Perhaps. Even now, SHAFR is considering how to avoid starting over from scratch in the future. It may be possible, for example, using SHAFR's web site to post supplements to this Guide. In a few years, those using it might be able to swing from the book to an integrated spot on the internet in pursuing their bibliographical searches. Because this Guide has been prepared in digital form, such supplements, if kept reasonably updated, should greatly simplify the preparation of a later edition of this work, which may also eventually be put on line in its entirety.