McDougall, Walter A. 1946–

views updated

McDougall, Walter A. 1946–

(Walter Allan McDougall)

PERSONAL: Born December 3, 1946, in Washington, DC; son of Dugald Stewart (a patent attorney) and Carol (Brueggeman) McDougall; married Elizabeth Swoope, August 8, 1970 (divorced, 1979); married Jonna Van Zanten, August 6, 1988. Education: Amherst College, B.A. (cum laude), 1968; University of Chicago, M.A., 1971, Ph.D., 1974. Religion: "Continuing Anglican." Hobbies and other interests: Baseball, "music of all kinds from Bach to Bob Dylan, wine and spirits, a sense of humor, and British writer C.S. Lewis."

ADDRESSES: Office—Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut St., Ste. 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102.

CAREER: Writer, historian, and educator. University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1975–83, associate professor, 1983–87, professor of history, 1987–88; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations, professor of history, and director of International Relations Program, 1988–. Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, senior fellow. Visiting scholar, Hoover Institute, Stanford, CA, 1986; member of advisory panel, Office of Technical Assessment, U.S. Congress, Washington, DC, 1982–84, and Harvard/Carnegie Study on Prevention of Nuclear War, 1985–86. Vestryman at St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Military service: U.S. Army, 1968–70; served with artillery in Vietnam.

MEMBER: American Church Union, Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, Delta Kappa Epsilon.

AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson Center fellow, Smithsonian Institution, 1981–82; fellow at National Air and Space Museum, 1982; selected by Esquire as one of "men and women under 40 who are changing America," 1984; American Book Award finalist, 1985, and Pulitzer Prize in history, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1986, both for … the Heavens and the Earth; selected by Insight as one of America's ten best college professors, 1987; Dexter Prize, Society for the History of Technology, 1987.


France's Rhineland Diplomacy, 1914–1924: The Last Bid for a Balance of Power in Europe, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1978.

(Editor, with Paul Seabury) The Grenada Papers, foreword by Sidney Hook, Institute for Contemporary Studies (Oakland, CA), 1984.

(Contributor) T. Stephen Cheston, Charles M. Chafer, and Sallie Birket Chafer, editors, Social Sciences and Space Exploration: New Directions for University Instruction, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Washington, DC), 1984.

the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1985.

Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.

Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585–1828, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor of numerous articles and reviews to periodicals, including American Historical Review, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Business History Review, Discover, Final Frontier, Journal of Modern History, Los Angeles Times, National Review, New Oxford Review, Reviews in American History, Society, Technology and Culture, Wilson Quarterly, and the World and I. Editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA.

SIDELIGHTS: In October of 1957, the former Soviet Union placed in orbit the Earth's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The launch occurred at the height of the Cold War, a competition between the USSR and the United States for worldwide political dominance. The Sputnik project was widely seen in both countries as a sign of emerging Soviet superiority, and the United States reacted with a massive effort to surpass its rival. The ensuing "space race" culminated when Americans became the first to land on the Moon in 1969. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning study … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, historian Walter A. McDougall focuses on America and the former Soviet Union in the years immediately preceding and following Sputnik. Asserting that the Cold War made technology an indispensable part of a nation's political might, McDougall charts the development of both superpowers into technocracies—governments that, in his view, control the work of scientists in order to increase their own power. In the United States, he warns, technocracy threatens many traditional freedoms.

According to McDougall, the former Soviet Union was a technocracy by nature because of its Marxist ideology. Since a Marxist state controls industry, it must also control the scientists whose discoveries make modern industry possible. McDougall recounts the harsh subordination of Soviet scientists to their government: under dictator Joseph Stalin, the Academy of Sciences lost its independence, and eventually many scientists conducted their research as inmates of Soviet prison camps.

In contrast, McDougall believes, for many years the development of U.S. technology reflected such characteristic American virtues as individual initiative, free enterprise, and limited government intervention. Technology developed in response to the needs and desires of private citizens. Thus, in the years before World War II, some of the most notable U.S. research on space flight was conducted by Robert Goddard, an individualistic genius whose development of increasingly powerful rockets was largely ignored by the federal government (and his fellow citizens). Meanwhile, state-funded rocket research was already in progress in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

With the advent of the Cold War following World War II, many political and military leaders thought the United States could only survive the Soviet challenge by pursuing science in a centralized, systematic fashion. In … the Heavens and the Earth, McDougall followed many historians writing during the 1980s in applauding President Dwight Eisenhower for maintaining a common-sense belief in government restraint. He argues that Eisenhower, though a longtime military man, believed strongly that scientific research should remain in private hands because the growth of any government power diminishes the personal freedom of U.S. citizens. Expanding on the president's fears, McDougall stresses that the greatest danger to liberty is not from scientists who seek to control society but from politicians who would exploit the power of science to control society.

Unfortunately, in McDougall's view, Americans ignored Eisenhower's insights because of international tensions engendered by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Flamboyant and outspoken, Khrushchev tried to use advances in technology to increase his country's international prestige. After the success of Sputnik he led a public relations campaign that boasted Soviet achievements in military and space technology—claims, McDougall emphasizes, that later turned out to be greatly overstated. But in the United States the result was a national panic, which the author believes was fanned by the communications media and by Democratic politicians eager to gain a political advantage on Eisenhower's Republican supporters. And so, during the presidencies of Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, McDougall contends, technocracy became an accepted part of American life. Heavy spending for complex weaponry and space vehicles became difficult to question. Moreover, U.S. political leaders began to believe that central planning and technical expertise could solve the country's social problems, an idea the author considers grievously mistaken.

In the closing chapters of … the Heavens and the Earth McDougall puts his fear of technocracy in philosophical terms. Technical experts, he suggests, should never be the final authority in a society because science is only a tool, devoid of any sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, he believes, while technology "might have nothing to say to us about the timeless concerns of culture love, death, justice," it "inevitably attract[s] people's attention away from those concerns." For McDougall, the answer is to look beyond technology and reserve such faith for a supreme being in order to preserve one's humility and one's sense of ethics. As Naomi Bliven summarized the historian's message in the New Yorker, "we cannot expect expertise to do the work of wisdom."

Reviewers generally lauded … the Heavens and the Earth while taking issue with some of its author's conclusions. Many disputed McDougall's contention that America had been largely free of technocracy until the era of the space race, arguing that the successive crises of the Great Depression and World War II had already led the American people to accept the notions of centralized planning and rule by trained experts. In Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, David Holloway wondered if technocracy were really more a reflection of Soviet, rather than U.S. values. "Technocracy had American roots too," Holloway observed, citing both a tradition of corporate planning and the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who told Americans even before World War I that scientific principles could be used to manage business and industry. In Science Robert Griffith questioned McDougall's "idiosyncratically conservative premises," including "occasionally strident anticommunism" and faith in pure free-market economics. The critic was moved to ask: "Did the appropriation of science and technology by large corporations, about which McDougall is curiously silent, also imperil liberty and democracy?" Several reviewers were skeptical of McDougall's appeal for religious values. Newsweek contributor Gene Lyons, for instance, wrote that "this solution has its charm. But exactly how the world's technocratic heathens will be converted McDougall doesn't say."

There was general admiration, however, for McDougall's exhaustive research, which included interviews with many of the major figures in his account and documents from presidential archives and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Alex Roland, who worked at NASA as a historian, declared in the New York Times Book Review that … the Heavens and the Earth "is the most comprehensive history of space activity written to date, the most thorough analysis of the political and social forces at work." Even reviewers who disagreed with McDougall on specific issues praised his overall achievement as a scholar. Michael Collins, reviewing the book for the Washington Post, commented that he was "more bullish" on space flight than the author but still found the book "a superb piece of work." Griffith asserted that his questions about … the Heavens and the Earth "are themselves testament to the power of McDougall's provocative book." "Indeed," the reviewer concluded, McDougall "has raised the history of the space age to a new high ground on which the triumphs and failures of our recent past will henceforth be debated."

While McDougall sets his sights lower than the stars in 1993's Let the Sea Make a Noise: The History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, his subject is as expansive as the universe. Focusing on the area of the North Pacific—one-sixth of the Earth's surface—McDougall chronicles four hundred years of events occurring in the region that illustrate the flex of national muscle between Japan, Russia, and the United States. In this arena, each of these imperialist political powers acted upon its own sense of supremacy, particularly the United States and Japan, which deluded themselves with their own variation on the theme of Manifest Destiny, according to McDougall. In what New York Times Book Review contributor Pico Iyer called an "unorthodox" popular history, readers are treated to "a tale not of glory and expansion, but of folly and miscalculation, a procession of tyrants and nincompoops and scalawags … who either bungle good ideas or stumble onto bad ones." Noting that the author's narrative style is more novelistic than many traditional scholars would perhaps find comfortable—the book includes imaginary dialogues between McDougall and such historic figures as Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Saito, a Franciscan missionary named Junipero Serra, and Kaahumanu, the consort of Hawaii's King Kamehameha—and praising the wealth of detailed information offered by the volume, Iyer felt that "after nearly 800 pages of this susurration of index cards, one may suffer an almost terminal case of vertigo." Nonetheless, the critic admitted: "As I began to fall into the rhythm of the book, I came more to appreciate the sheer energy of its research." Praising the second half of the volume, which covers the period after 1880, Iyer concluded that Let the Sea Make a Noise is "lively, fresh (in every sense) and certain to provoke."

In Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776, McDougall offers a sweeping examination of the history of U.S. foreign policy, with a focus on the beliefs that formed the underpinning of all U.S. foreign policy decisions and actions. "McDougall's insight is that there is no single tradition of U.S. foreign policy," commented reviewer Bruce D. Berkowitz in Orbis. "Rather, he finds, there are at least eight different foreign policy traditions—that is, coherent bodies of belief and logic—that have held sway at one time or another during the nation's history." McDougall uses religious metaphors to explicate those beliefs and their position in foreign policy history. "His examination yields an American 'Bible,' which happens to be divided into two 'Testaments,' each containing four 'Books,'" observed Independent Review contributor Ralph Raico. In the foreign policy "Old Testament," which corresponds chronologically from the nation's founding to the last part of the nineteenth century, foreign policy was dominated by the "doctrines of Liberty (or Exceptionalism), Unilateralism (often 'mislabeled Isolationism'), the American System (or the Monroe Doctrine), and Expansion (or Manifest Destiny)," Raico explained. The "New Testament" time period, covering approximately the last one hundred years, has been influenced by "Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism (or Liberal Internationalism), Containment, and, today increasingly, Global Meliorism," noted Raico. McDougall explores each of these doctrines in depth and analyzes what influence they had on the crucial foreign policies of their day. Charles M. Korb, writing in Perspectives on Political Science, commented that "strengths of the work are the manner in which it redefines diplomatic terminology (e.g., unilateralism vs. isolationism), its adept interpretation of policy speeches and documents" from relevant periods in history, and "the framework it offers for viewing foreign policy events." Korb remarked that the book is "a welcome source of perspective for discussions of U.S. diplomacy."

In Freedom Just around the Corner: A New American History, 1585–1828 McDougall provides a large-scale recounting of approximately 250 years of American history, but tells it with a focus on what he calls the "hustlers" of history. For McDougall, the term "hustlers" has a dual meaning; one, it refers to the shifty and often larcenous individuals that the word usually connotes. Conversely, it also refers to those whose energy, drive, and unflagging dedication led to significant advances in technology, economics, science, and culture. In some cases, both definitions applied equally well. "McDougall reminds us that Americans mixed low self-interest and high ideals in ways so intricately intertwined that they cannot finally be separated," remarked Commentary contributor James Nuechterlein. "Indeed, some of them were quite self-conscious as to what they were about: the trick they attempted to master, in McDougall's telling, was to turn humanity's corruption to creative purposes." He covers prominent figures in the Federalist construction of the American constitution; the religious groups of the colonies; the early presidents; and supporters of the Scottish Enlightenment, showing, in some cases, how events we now take for granted were not so definitive, nor overwhelmingly supported, in their time. McDougall "has mastered an astonishing range of specialized scholarship and presents it as the engaging story of dynamic individuals rather than the product of abstract forces," observed reviewer Carl J. Guarneri in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. "McDougall offers an analysis that is at once original, comprehensive, compulsively readable, and (to this reader at least) remarkably persuasive," stated Nuechterlein.

McDougall once told CA: "I became a historian because I never decided to do anything else. I remained a historian by dint of hard work and good luck. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that writing and teaching history was my calling. My role model was William H. McNeill of the University of Chicago. Hence I am something of a generalist in an age of rampant specialization. I believe, like [sociologist] Max Weber, that the purpose of scholarship and teaching is to communicate our cultural values stemming (ultimately) from Athens and Jerusalem."



McDougall, Walter A., … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1985.


American Historical Review, April, 1986, Robert A. Divine, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 364.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January, 1986, David Holloway, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 50.

Commentary, September, 2004, James Nuechterlein, "America without Tears," review of Freedom Just around the Corner: A New American History, 1585–1828, p. 98.

Current History, April, 1994, Leann P. Mos, review of Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, p. 187.

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November, 2004, Carl J. Guarneri, review of Freedom Just around the Corner, p. 55.

Independent Review, fall, 1998, Ralph Raico, review of Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776, p. 273.

Journal of American History, June, 1986, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 253; December, 1994, H.W.W. Brands, review of Let the Sea Make a Noise, p. 1268.

Newsweek, May 27, 1985, Gene Lyons, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 82.

New Yorker, April 21, 1986, Naomi Bliven, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 121.

New York Review of Books, December 18, 1986, James Fallows, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 34.

New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1985, Alex Roland, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 1; August 29, 1993, Pico Iyer, review of Let the Sea Make a Noise, p. 7.

Orbis, summer, 1998, Bruce D. Berkowitz, review of Promised Land, Crusader State, p. 465.

Perspectives on Political Science, spring, 1998, Charles M. Korb, review of Promised Land, Crusader State, p. 105.

Science, December 6, 1985, Robert Griffith, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 1154.

Washington Post Book World, April 7, 1985, Michael Collins, review of … the Heavens and the Earth, p. 1.


Houghton Mifflin Web site, (April 8, 2006), biography of Walter A. McDougall.

University of Pennsylvania Department of History Web site, (April 8, 2006), biography of Walter A. McDougall.

About this article

McDougall, Walter A. 1946–

Updated About content Print Article