Spotlight: Fredrik Logevall

January 28, 2016
by Josh Burek, Belfer Center

For Fredrik Logevall, the journey from his boyhood in Sweden to the Harvard faculty was a complex one, but a particular piece of weekly mail was key. His father’s subscription to TIME magazine kindled a childhood spark for the study of international affairs that culminated in a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.

Logevall, the Belfer Center’s newest faculty member, joined Harvard earlier this year from Cornell, where he was Anbinder Professor of History, vice provost for international affairs, and director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Befitting a transplant to the Kennedy School, Logevall’s current project is a full-scale biography of John F. Kennedy. Logevall, who stresses with a smile that he signed the contract with Random House “well before” his offer from Harvard, says the book will tell the story of the man while also using “Kennedy’s life to map the rise of the United States, first to great-power, and then to super-power status.”

Logevall will be a key figure in the Center’s emerging Applied History project, along with Graham Allison, Arne Westad, and Niall Ferguson. Building on the tradition of Harvard legends Ernest May (whose writings were a major inspiration to Logevall) and Richard Neustadt, Logevall is developing a course provisionally titled “Reasoning from History” that will focus on the uses—and mis-uses—of history in decision-making. Such analogizing is at once inevitable and problematic, warns Logevall, whose scholarship defies simplistic sound bites but greatly enriches the ability of students and readers to see the past in color and high-definition.

To take just one small example, many people know that Dean Acheson—President Truman’s secretary of state and one of the leading architects of America’s Cold War strategy—once defined foreign policy as “one damn thing after another.” It’s a clever acknowledgement that crisis management usually trumps grand strategy.

Logevall sees power in Acheson’s quip, but says it does not capture the totality of U.S. foreign policy history. From the development of the strategy of containment of Soviet communism to the later engagement with China, he notes, careful strategic planning on occasion emerged right alongside crisis response.

To the question of whether American leaders know their history, Logevall offers a nuanced answer. “Plenty of senior and mid-level U.S. officials over the years have possessed a pretty sound grasp of American history, and some have also had decent knowledge of the major developments in modern world history more broadly,” he says.

The problem is that “even when decision-makers know some of the history, they don’t always act on that knowledge...U.S. officials knew full well, for example, that the Chinese and Vietnamese had a long history of conflict, and that the French had failed spectacularly in their bid to reclaim colonial control of Indochina after World War II. They just assumed, some of them, that the U.S. was somehow exempt from history, and that the bitter experience of the Chinese and the French therefore didn’t have all that much to teach them.”

Even today, Logevall says, there is still a widespread (if diminishing) belief that “if only the United States would assert its power in this or that problem area overseas, the crisis would get resolved…The U.S. is far and away the most powerful military power on the world stage, but that doesn’t mean it can get its way in particular crises, especially those that ultimately demand a political solution.”

Logevall says the opportunity to interact with a diverse body of students who share a passion for learning about history, and to teach courses that bring together history and policy in richly rewarding ways, made coming to Harvard irresistible. “I’m likewise honored to be ensconced in the Belfer Center, with its intellectual firepower and terrific programming, and to be the Laurence D. Belfer Professor.”

Fredrik Logevall

Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs and Professor of History at Harvard University

Logevall says the opportunity to interact with a diverse body of students who share a passion for learning about history, and to teach courses that bring together history and policy in richly rewarding ways, made coming to Harvard irresistible.


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