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Academic Affairs | Communications

October 3, 2012

 TO:  Faculty and Staff
 FROM:  Phyllis Peres, Dean of Academic Affairs
 SUBJECT:  Death of Distinguished Historian in Residence Anna Nelson


AU Distinguished Historian-in-Residence Anna Kasten Nelson, whose research on the history of the foreign policy process and tireless campaigning for the public’s right to access to government records made her a familiar figure in Washington and nationwide, died September 27 after a long illness.

Dr. Nelson did graduate work at the University of Oklahoma and Ohio State University before earning her Ph.D. at George Washington University in 1972. Her dissertation and her first book, Secret Agents: President Polk and the Search for Peace with Mexico (Garland Press, 1988) criticized presidential efforts to control information, a concern she pursued for the rest of her career. She was an early proponent of efforts by historical associations to improve the declassification process and promote access to the records of public figures, publishing on the topic and devoting her considerable energies to the cause. She served on the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials and became the chief investigator for the Committee on the Records of Government, which argued in the early 1980s that the advent of computer technology should not be permitted to diminish scholarly access to government records. She testified before Congressional committees on freedom of information principles and practices numerous times between 1981 and 2008. She was a member of the Department of State Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation and received a presidential appointment (with Senate confirmation) to the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board; in both capacities she often directly challenged government officials to release documents to the public.

Her work to benefit historical scholarship was recognized with the James Madison Award from the Coalition on Government Information, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Prize for the Advancement of Historical Study of the Federal Government, and the Troyer Steele Anderson Prize for Advancement of the Purposes of the American Historical Association. She continued to promote the interests of the historical profession as a member of the Policy Board of the National Coalition for History, an organization that advocates in Washington for the interests of scholars, archivists, and teachers of history.

Dr. Nelson’s scholarly interests moved from the nineteenth century to the post-World War II creation of the national security establishment. She became a recognized expert on the National Security Council and the postwar transformation of the foreign policy process, publishing more than thirty articles and book chapters and editing The Policy Makers and the Formation of American Foreign Policy, 1947 to the Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Her most recent publications include a chapter on “The Evolution of the National Security State” in Andrew Bacevich’s edited collection, The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II (Columbia University Press, 2007), and “Continuity and Change in the Age of Unlimited Power,” published in Diplomatic History, the flagship journal of her field.

After teaching at George Washington University, Tulane University, Arizona State University, and for several years in the 1980s and ‘90s at American University, Dr. Nelson became AU’s Distinguished Historian-in-Residence in 1996, helping to develop ties between area institutions and the History Department. She specialized in undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of U.S. foreign relations from the founding of the Republic to the present, and acquired a reputation for holding students to a rigorous standard. For many years as the sole diplomatic historian in the Department after the retirement of Professor Robert Beisner, Dr. Nelson directed and served on Ph.D. committees, and signed off on her last dissertation only a month ago.

Dr. Nelson was a pioneer in a field where most of her colleagues were men; when she joined the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), she was one of only six female members. She took a special pride in mentoring young women at AU and in the many national organizations to which she belonged. More than a role model, she was an activist, pushing for the creation of the Committee on Women in SHAFR, helping to create targeted fellowships for women historians, speaking out at annual meetings, and making a point of approaching young female historians to offer advice on networking and professional practice. The SHAFR Council, to which she was elected in 2005, this week expressed “sincere condolences upon the passing of Professor Anna K. Nelson on September 27, 2012. A scholar, advisor, and friend to many, Anna was a pivotal figure in our field. We will dearly miss her.” Her departmental colleagues, students, and other members of the American University community mourn her passing.

We thank Professor Max Friedman for composing this announcement. Please contact him ( if you have any questions.