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On the Notion of Nation Building: History Professor Connects Current Controversies to Deeper Historical Forces


Michael E. Latham, Ph.D., associate professor of history, tries to put “current debates into historical perspective” through his research and teaching.
Photo by Michael Dames

When Michael E. Latham, Ph.D., taught the history of the Vietnam War last fall, his class erupted into a heated debate about Iraq. Those opposed to the Iraq War were inspired by Vietnam-era student protesters, while others called them cowards — rich kids who dodged the draft with doctors’ notes while poor, inner-city soldiers died in seemingly endless battles.

“So we got into this really interesting debate about forms of protest” and what it meant to oppose a war but support the troops, said Latham, an associate professor of history, who teaches courses at Fordham College at Rose Hill and in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It was not a tame debate.”

Indeed, nation building and modernization are at the heart of his research and often inspire spirited discussions in his classes about current U.S. policy in the Middle East. Latham has long been fascinated by how U.S. foreign policy — in Vietnam, during the Cold War, and in Latin America — has been shaped by the idea that all societies advance almost ineluctably toward modernity in the same way. Many Americans have believed for a good part of the nation’s history, he said, that the U.S. model of democracy and industrialization can be exported anywhere, including the Third World.

“There are a lot of things wrong with this theory,” he said. “It doesn’t really tell us anything about the way that culture shapes societies.”

Latham was no stranger to this debate. He grew up in Hawaii, steps away from Pearl Harbor. His father and grandfather were both naval officers.

“These questions about U.S. foreign relations were always just constantly around me,” he said. “I can remember going to high school and being really upset with what the United States was doing in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and coming home and having these long debates with my father.”

The two often held very different positions, which at times made for searching, challenging discussions. But they also learned from each other, and grew together in mutual respect.

Latham soon became an ardent student of U.S. foreign policies promoted during the 1960s. He would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, and later a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in the subject at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In 2000, Latham taught in China at an institute run by Nanjing University and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Discussing the Cold War with Chinese students was for Latham an amazing experience. “While my father was serving in the U.S. Navy,” Latham said, “[the Chinese students’]parents were being sent off to the countryside to be re-educated.”

Many of the young people belonged to the Communist Party, and he found himself disagreeing with his “incredibly smart” students on several points, including the U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Latham supported the military action, but his students felt otherwise.

“They saw the United States using its overwhelming force to intervene in another state,” he said.

They also emphasized their own perspectives on the Korean War: his students felt the United States should have expected that China would engage.

The experience opened his eyes: For years, he had focused on U.S. foreign relations and “I didn’t know enough about Soviet history, Chinese history.” So he did what all good scholars do: He went home and studied.

In 2000, he published Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2000) and in 2003 co-edited Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

He is now at work on another book, looking more closely at the idea of nation building.

“I’m trying to put current debates into historical perspective,” he said.

It’s becoming increasingly important to him, Latham said, that his research factor into current policy questions, just as he tries to draw connections for his students between what he’s teaching and the current social climate.

“When students graduate and go off, they’re not going to remember the finer points of a debate about slavery and the U.S. Constitution, or legislation and the New Deal,” he said. “But I think they probably will develop a critical perspective, informed by their understanding of the issues. As a teacher, I want them to have the evidence, the facts.”

By Nicole LaRosa


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