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The Making of an International Political Historian

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Paul Behringer

With two published articles and three research fellowships, Paul Behringer, Ph.D. student in History, paves his way to becoming a renowned academic in U.S.- Russian-Japanese History. His passion for foreign affairs and history has led him to obtain funding from diverse sources to pursue his goal: creating policy-relevant historical research.

What brought you to AU and the History Department?
Even though I have a master’s in IR, I was always more comfortable with a historical approach. When I was looking at various history programs, I noticed that AU had an Initiative for Russian Culture (now the Carmel Institute). I emailed Eric Lohr (now chair of the department), and he was very enthusiastic about my potential application. He also said that the department had funding for studying Russian, which is rare in graduate programs. I’ve always been interested in contemporary foreign policy issues, so the opportunity to stay in Washington, D.C., was another reason. I was also excited to work with Max Paul Friedman in U.S. diplomatic history and with Justin Jacobs on East Asia, so from the beginning, I already had an idea of potentially who would be on my committee.

Tell us more about the current predoctoral fellowship you have with the Harvard Belfer Center. What does it entail, what research are you pursuing?
My fellowship is called the Ernest May Fellowship in History and Policy at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. The fellowship is named after Ernest May, a giant in the field of diplomatic history, who strongly believed that historians should make their research relevant for policymakers and that policymakers should use historical knowledge to think critically about the present. Therefore, the fellowship provides funding for projects that are both historical and policy relevant. Mine is a predoctoral fellowship, meaning that I am using the funds to support myself while I write my dissertation. I also share an office with another May fellow and have access to Harvard's world-class library resources. The fellows are also encouraged to participate in the intellectual community of the Belfer Center and the Kennedy School by attending various workshops and seminars, which often attract famous and powerful government officials and academics. I regularly participate in the International Security Program Brown Bag Seminar and the Applied History Workshop. The latter, which was founded by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson, brings in historians to talk about their work and how it applies to current and future policy.

You have published peer-reviewed articles. How have your classes at AU and your professors shaped your research for these articles?
From the beginning, my professors at AU encouraged me to write papers with the goal of publication. My first publication, “Forewarned Is Forearmed” (published in International History Review) was based on a paper that I wrote for a research seminar taught by Anton Fedyashin. I became interested in the U.S. railway sent to Russia in 1917, which ended up staying in the Russian Far East until the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922. Initially, I thought it was interesting simply because most accounts of U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War begin in 1918 and end in 1920. But when I began reading the railway mission’s confidential correspondence at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, MD, I found that they had a huge cache of secret Japanese telegrams, which had been intercepted, translated into Russian, passed to the American railway engineers in Harbin, and then translated into English. Almost nothing had been written on these sources. I began to wonder, what did it mean that the United States had all this information about Japanese intentions and operations in the Russian Civil War during a period of major tension between Tokyo and Washington?

My first argument was that American policymakers were able to use this intelligence against the military expansionists in the Japanese government and devised a political strategy that appealed to Japanese officials who more interested in cooperating with the United States. This helped lead to the success of the Washington Conference in 1922. Later, I completely rewrote the paper for a seminar on Modern Japan taught by Jordan Sand at Georgetown, this time from the Japanese point of view. When I looked at the actual content of the secret correspondence, I found that it revealed that the Japanese foreign minister, Uchida Yasuya, had aligned himself with the military expansionists, and this had all sorts of implications, since Uchida would later reemerge as foreign minister after Japan seized Manchuria in 1932.

My second publication, “Images of Empire” (just published in Russian History), grew out of a seminar on imperial Russian history I took through the Washington Consortium. I noticed that much had been written about U.S. depictions and stereotypes of Russia, but there was almost nothing on how Russians perceived the United States. I wanted to do a survey of newspaper editorial cartoons in the Russian press. Fortunately, I found that one of the most influential Russian newspapers, Novoe Vremia (The New Times), published dozens of cartoons commenting on the U.S. rise to global power between 1898 and 1912. I argued that many of the stereotypes that later appeared in Soviet propaganda against the United States were already prevalent in the imperial period, even in the conservative press. These illustrations tried to deflect U.S. criticism of Russian foreign policy and autocracy by highlighting America’s own hypocrisy when it came to extending U.S. empire and race relations at home (a rhetorical tactic that later came to be known as “What Aboutism” in the Soviet period). At the same time, there was a dark anti-Semitic edge to many depictions of Uncle Sam that disappeared, at least for a while, under the Soviet regime.

Both publications received strong support from the members of my committee and AU faculty. I used my other classes to do projects that covered the historiography surrounding U.S.-Russian-Japanese relations during this time period. My advisor, Max Paul Friedman read both papers and gave me helpful feedback.

What are your future career plans?
After finishing my dissertation by spring 2020, I plan to apply for postdoctoral fellowships and to pursue a career in academia as a university professor.