Ernest May (left) with Ashton Carter at a 2005 Belfer Center seminar.
Ernest May: Bridging the Chasm Between History and Policy
September 25, 2009
Author: Sharon Wilke, Associate Director of Communications
Ernest May "bridged the chasm between history and policy," Belfer Center Director Graham Allison noted in his opening comments at a special Center seminar Thursday, September 24, to recognize the impact of May's ability to connect the two often divergent practices. A number of Ernest May's colleagues, students, friends, and family members gathered in the Belfer Center library to honor May with stories and discussion of his "extraordinary" contributions.
A member of the Belfer Center's board of directors until his death this past June, Ernest May was a world renowned historian of international relations and foreign policy. He was a member of the Harvard faculty for over 50 years. He served Harvard in many roles, including as the dean of Harvard College, the director of the Institute of Politics and as chair of the History Department. May was the author of a number of books, including Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (Free Press, 1986), written with Richard Neustadt, and The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, co-authored by Philip Zelikow. In 2002, May was awarded the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction for pioneering research in international relations. From 2003 to 2004, he was senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission.
"Not only was Ernie a really important historian...he was also an historian who knew how to engage successfully in the public sphere," said Harvard's Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History and Belfer Center board of directors member Niall Ferguson at the seminar titled "Reflections on Ernest May: The Rare Bridge Between History and Policy." Ferguson went on to say that if more historians could make this connection as Ernest May did, policymakers might make much better decisions. Ferguson - who said he would continue to make sure going forward that his own students study as much "May" as possible - noted that one of many contributions Ernest May has made to historians is demonstrating that "what didn't happen but might have happened was as important as what did happen."
University Distinguished Service Professor Joseph Nye, also a member of the Belfer Center board, said that May was for him and many others an intellectual model, someone with extraordinary judgment and patience. May would look carefully and patiently at all of the complexities of a problem, Nye said, and when he came to a conviction, it was "compelling." Nye, Allison, Zelikow, and a number of others at the seminar, said they greatly valued Ernest May's insights and views on a wide range of policy and other issues.
Zelikow, who co-authored books with May and asked May to advise him in his role as executive director of the 9/11 Commission, said he often asked himself, and continues to ask, "What would Ernie do?"
Graham Allison said he has asked that question with regard to decisions now facing President Obama in Afghanistan. May, he said, would have looked at examples from history - Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iraq War - and weighed not only the decisions made but also what went into making the decisions and the "frame of mind" of the decision makers and the country itself at the time. May, he said, would also urge the president to resist being rushed by others into making quick decisions.
Ernest May was "wonderfully counter-conventional," Nye said. As one example, he noted that in the 1970s, the conventional thinking at Harvard was to keep a distance between the university and "intelligence" related to government and policies. Ernest May, however, had a different view and convinced then Kennedy School Dean Graham Allison to invite military intelligence officers to the Kennedy School to learn how to do better analysis. That intelligence policy program became highly successful and continued under May's leadership for many years.
Alex Keyssar, Harvard Kennedy School's Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy who this semester is teaching Ernest May's course Reasoning from History, told of teaching his first class with Ernest May on September 12, 2001. He was moved and inspired at that difficult time, he said, by watching May's process of figuring out how to get perspective on the 9/11 attacks. He was, Keyser said, "a voice of extraordinary reason and caution."
Anne Karalekas, a student of Ernest May's in the 1970s, commented on the universality of his teachings. She said she has carried into her business career his teachings on discipline, rigor, curiosity, clarity of thought, and connecting the dots.
Vivek Viswanathan, a 2009 Harvard graduate, commented in "A Personal Reflection" about Ernest May's impact on him during his four years as May's student. "His influence on me was incalculable," he said. "I cannot imagine Harvard without him." "[M]ore than his renown as a historian or his intimate knowledge of national security policy, I was fascinated by the quality of his mind: the precision of his words, the pointed nature of the questions that he posed, and the bracing clarity of his thought."
Ernest May's daughter Rachel May said she was most proud of a textbook for 8th graders that her father co-authored in 1965. This textbook, Land of the Free, included facts - such as treatment of minorities and women - that had been omitted in previous textbooks. Her father's goal, she said, was primarily to inspire young people to look at original documents and to do solid research to find the actual facts before drawing conclusions or making decisions.
Graham Allison noted that those individuals gathered to honor Ernest May - at the Belfer Center event, Harvard memorial service, and other tributes held on the Harvard campus and elsewhere - constituted a significant part of Ernest May's legacy to history and policy and the bridge between the two. These many individuals - colleagues and students as well as friends and family - will help carry on his "extraordinary" impact by continuing to ask themselves, "What would Ernie do?"
To read Vivek Viswanathan's reflections on Ernest May, see http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/19556/
For additional comments and reflections from colleagues, students, friends, and family, see http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/19179/
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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