At Home in the World: The International Dimensions of the AHA

Linda K. Kerber, December 2006

I write from Queen's College, Oxford University, where I am settling in for a year as the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History—a year happily interrupted, of course, by the AHA's annual meeting in Atlanta. That I use this final column as an occasion for a few reflections on the AHA in international context is perhaps overdetermined.

Invitations to serve as the Harmsworth Professor are offered three years or so in advance, and commitments were made long before I knew I would stand for election as AHA president. I was vaguely aware that the Association had some connection to the professorship. I was surprised to discover after arriving in Oxford that a much more robust and active relationship had once existed between the AHA and the professorship.

The origins of the professorship are moving. Two brothers died in the First World War, and in their memory their father, Lord Rothermere, the press magnate and philanthropist, endowed two professorships. One, in imperial and naval history at the University of Cambridge, honors Vere Harmsworth, who had been educated at the Royal Naval College. The professorship at Oxford University was linked to Vyvyan Harmsworth's favorite subject, and, in an effort to meliorate tensions and encourage cooperation among the Anglophone nations, was devoted to the study of U.S. history. It was to be an exercise in what we would now call cultural diplomacy.1

The Harmsworth family continues its strong support for the project. Major Vyvyan Harmsworth, a relative and namesake of the man for whom the professorship is named, faithfully attends the inaugural lectures of the incumbents and takes a lively interest in their welfare. Five years ago, thanks to the efforts of the Rothermere Foundation and the Harmsworth family, a splendid modern building was opened to house the Rothermere American Institute (RAI), an international center for the study of the United States and the colonies that preceded its creation. The RAI embraces the Vere Harmsworth Library, named for the late third Viscount Rothermere, who died in 1998. With its comfortable offices for visiting fellows and space for research seminars, the institute is now one of the best sites in Europe for the study of the United States.

In 1954, as the late Robin Winks told the story in his own Harmsworth inaugural lecture in 2000, the AHA joined Oxford University in quietly resisting the U.S. ambassador's rejection, on political grounds, of the nominations of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and of Merle Curti.2 In the aftermath, an AHA committee of former holders of the Harmsworth chair offered advice when requested, although in recent years, with the establishment of the Rhodes Professorship in American History (now held by Richard Carwardine) and the appointment of an active cohort of university lecturers, the management of the post has been handled in England, and the involvement of the AHA has receded.

Less than a decade before the Harmsworth Professorship was established, the AHA had experimented with establishing its own institutional presence abroad, in the form of an office in London, whose first task was to assist American students doing research at the British Museum and the Public Record Office. The AHA shared the rooms of the Royal Historical Society at 22 Russell Square (not far from the museum); for a brief moment it appeared that a similar venture would be undertaken in Paris. The war intervened, and by the end of 1919 it was clear that little use was made of the London office; students had alternatives sponsored by American universities, and the project was abandoned.3

But the AHA had already taken steps that signaled its understanding of itself as part of an international community of historians. In 1886, not long after its founding, the German historian Leopold von Ranke was welcomed as an honorary member of the Association. The practice continued over the years; more than 90 distinguished scholars have been elected to honorary membership.4 This January we welcome the Norwegian historian Ida Blom (see "A Conversation with Ida Blom" by Alice Kessler-Harris).

Nominations for the Honorary Foreign Membership require three to five supporting letters testifying to the candidates' scholarly distinction and the role they play in welcoming Americans to conduct research in their community. As a member of Council I have now read several years worth of these letters. It is clear that any winner is one of a formidable group of nominees; that all over the world, generous-spirited historians are constructing the often invisible communities that make strangers welcome and help them find colleagues far from home.

The 6.5 percent of the members of the AHA who are not based in the United States signify, I suspect, a misleadingly modest measure of the international dimensions of the practice of historical scholarship today. The AHA is unusual among national historical societies in that most of our members study national histories other than that of our own country. Those who study the history of the United States are likely to be informed by what they or their teachers have learned from the work of scholars based in other nations; those who study subjects like race, gender, diplomatic relations, military, or environmental history can hardly help but engage in transnational comparative work.5 Inspired by the practices of European nations in maintaining their public records, and appalled by Americans' neglect of their own, the decades-long campaign of J. Franklin Jameson and the AHA was indispensable to the establishment of the National Archives itself.6 The American Historical Review welcomes essays and authors and books to review from all over the world; indeed, it has long reviewed books written in languages other than English. The digital availability of articles from the AHR and Perspectives, and virtually all of the material on the AHA's web site, mean that it is easy to engage in the AHA's work, whether or not one is a member, whether or not one lives in the United States. The boundaries of national histories are eroding, as doing the history of what was once treated as a single nation—France, Germany, the United States—increasingly means treating its colonies and expansion into empire. It is not only American history that—as the title of a recent book put it—is being rethought in a global age.7

Over the years, one significant expression of the AHA's commitment to international scholarly exchange has been its standing Committee on International Historical Activities (CIHA). Beginning in the 1920s and reinvigorated in the 1950s, the committee (currently chaired by Iris Berger) is charged with constructing the program for the U.S. contribution to the International Congress of Historical Sciences, which meets every five years. The CIHA has also, when the occasion demanded, taken an active role in defending the rights of historians everywhere (see, for example, the "Statement of Concern and Intention" that the committee issued in 1974, and reprinted here in the box at left). From time to time, the AHA initiates international scholarly conferences and collaborations (sometimes at important historical moments, like the bilateral Soviet-American conferences that marked, in 1983, the 50th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations) and has issued other policy statements on the rights of foreign historians.8

My own first substantive international academic experience came in 1983, when I was asked, at the last minute, to replace a participant who was unable to attend a conference in Florence sponsored by the AHA and the Italian Historical Association. As often happens, what was most meaningful to me was less the formally structured sessions, but rather the liveliness and intensity of informal conversations with the younger Italian historians, culminating in a magical moment when, one evening after dinner, a feminist historian (I think it was Giulia Calvi) took me aside to show me a review of my own book. Did I know that Memoria—a wonderful feminist multilingual journal, no longer published, alas—had published a review of Women of the Republic, which had appeared three years before? No, I hadn't a clue. So she fished out the copy, and, sitting on the stairs, she improvised a rough translation of the review. The reviewer got all the right points, asked all the right questions, and generally made it clear that we—Italian feminist historians, U.S. feminist historians—were engaged in the same conversation. I don't know why I should have been so surprised, but I was overwhelmed. We transcended distance and entered into a world of colleagues I had not known existed.

The National History Center, an initiative of the AHA, last summer sponsored the first of a series of international seminars on decolonization (sponsored by the Andrew Mellon Foundation), the most recent in this train of occasions that juxtapose creative combinations of subjects—between Antarctica and the Sahara, the partition of India and of Palestine—so that participants may emerge surprised and creatively unsettled.9 Under the energetic leadership of Vice President Teo Ruiz, the AHA's Research Division is now contemplating new international initiatives. More than 100 individuals from 30 countries will participate in our annual meeting in Atlanta.

We live in a time when the importance of international intellectual exchange is as great as it has ever been; but it is also a time when the institutional supports for it are erratic, and even breaking down. The abolition of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, and its absorption into a series of programs scattered in the Department of State through its Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, has weakened one important source of public support for international cultural exchange. The tightening of visa restrictions is undermining the enthusiasm of foreign colleagues for teaching or attending meetings in the United States. And in many settings today, historians practice their craft against real political pressures; sometimes when their conclusions challenge those the government would like to hear, sometimes when they seek to use records—such as the archives of some nations' Truth and Reconciliation Commissions—that stand to reveal crimes others would like to conceal. In the absence of robust freedom of information practices, allegedly open national archives can be closed in practice. Against these trends, we invoke the AHA's own strong international traditions, and maintain our confidence that efforts to sustain the practices of historical scholarship and the community of historians throughout the world will, in the long run, make the AHA a more resilient enterprise and a more useful supporter of historians, wherever they are.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is president of the AHA.


A year ago, when I wrote my first column, I thought I understood reasonably well what a learned society can be and the role the AHA can play in our professional lives. A year later I am surprised to realize how much there remained for me to learn. The small but dedicated staff of the AHA bring to their work extraordinary wisdom, sensitivity, and responsiveness. When I think back on this year, I will gratefully remember all they have taught me. I will miss their help and unstinting support, just as I will miss the sage advice of Bruce Craig, the immensely knowledgeable executive director of the National Coalition of History, who is leaving the Coalition to pursue—in Canada—a career of teaching public history, reading, reflection, and writing.

—Linda K. Kerber


1. For this history I am indebted to Robin W. Winks, "To Stimulate to Some Action": The Harmsworth Professorship 1920–2000, An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 18 May 2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

2. The ambassador was Winthrop W. Aldrich. See Winks, 'To Stimulate to Some Action,' 12.

3. I am indebted for this information to the research of Pillarisetti Sudhir in the AHA annual reports; see especially Annual Report, 1913, page 52; Annual Report, 1915, page 62; Annual Report 1916, p age 27; Annual Report 1919, pages 81–82.

4. For the complete list, see

5. For an extended discussion of the role of scholarly societies in internationalizing scholarship see The Internationalization of Scholarship and Scholarly Societies (American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 28, 1995), especially Sandria B. Freitag, with Robert Townsend and Vernon Horn, "American Historical Association," online at

6. "I have found no instance of a civilized European country, not even Bavaria, Württemberg, or Baden, which does not spend more absolutely upon its archives than we do," Jameson observed in 1890. For his efforts, and other examples of the inspiration that the founding generation of the AHA took from European historians, see Arthur S. Link, "The American Historical Association, 1884–1984: Retrospect and Prospect," AHR 90: 1 (February 1985), 1–17.

7. Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (University of California Press, 2002).

8. See, for example, the statement adopted by Council in June 2001 (online at AHA's initiative on the bilateral conference is described in Freitag, et al.

9. A report on the seminar appears in the September 2006 issue of Perspectives.