AHA Member Spotlight: Philip Muehlenbeck

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Philip Muehlenbeck is a professorial lecturer at George Washington University. He lives in Washington, D.C., and has been an AHA member since 2006.

Alma mater/s

BA, Michigan State University; MA and PhD, George Washington University

Fields of interest
U.S.-Africa relations, Czech-Africa relations, African civil aviation, Greek and Greek-American history, the role of race, ethnicity, and religion in foreign affairs. 

When did you first develop an interest in history?
My interest in history began as early as the first grade when each school bus ride revolved around me either studying a book of facts about U.S. presidents or having my friend quiz me on the facts I learned from the book. Later in life, the late great Dr. Harold Marcus, under whom I studied during my undergrad days at Michigan State, was most influential in prompting me to enter grad school and to seek a career as a historian.

What projects are you working on currently?
Having recently finished my first book, Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy’s Courting of African Nationalist Leaders, I have now started research on my second manuscript-length project tentatively titled, Contested Skies: Cold War and the Battle for Africa’s Hearts, Minds, and Airports; this is an ambitious globalized history in which I plan to use archival materials from about 10 countries in Africa, North America, the Caribbean, and Europe, as well as archival materials from several airlines. It will tell the largely unknown history of the international competition for African civil aviation markets in the 1960s. This became an important issue because in both the Congo crisis and the Cuban missile crisis the Soviets were unable to fly supplies to their allies due to a lack of overflight and landing/refueling rights on the African continent. This project will intersect diplomatic, economic, and technological history; it will be unique in its demonstration of the level of agency that African actors possessed in their relations with the Cold War superpowers.

I am also co-editing a volume on John F. Kennedy’s policies towards the Third World in which I will contribute a chapter studying the Kennedy administration’s policies towards Mali.

What is the last great book or article you have read? 
This morning I read Jamie Miller’s recent article in Cold War History titled, “Things Fall Apart: South Africa and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire, 1973–74,” which won the prize for best paper given at the Cold War Graduate Student Conference; it was quite impressive.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I think all historians should read Susan Williams’ Who Killed Hammarskjold? The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa (Columbia University Press, 2011). See my recent review of the book for H-Net here.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I appreciate the fact that although teaching and research are both mostly solitary endeavors, the field also allows for the sharing of ideas in a way which is rare in most other lines of work. I find the opportunities to discuss current and future research projects or teaching techniques with colleagues at professional conferences or through email correspondence very rewarding.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
For me the best part of the AHA annual meeting is the fact that it has turned into an annual opportunity to reunite with one of my high school friends and college roommate, David Hopkins Jr., who is currently ABD at Wayne State University. The annual meeting allows us to relive some of our old exploits of undergraduate debauchery while providing the opportunity to continue adding to our legacy. I will leave specific details vague in case law enforcement authorities or hotel cleaning staff from Washington, New York, San Diego, or Chicago may be reading this.

The AHA annual meeting has also presented me with unexpected professional opportunities. I presented a paper titled, “Washington, the ‘Castro Phenomena’ and African Nationalism, 1958–1965” at the 2009 AHA annual meeting. Representatives from Vanderbilt University Press enjoyed my talk and afterwards contacted me to inquire whether the project the paper stemmed from was already under contract. My revised dissertation was already under contract with Oxford, but this paper was not a part of that project. Unfortunately, my AHA paper was a strong abstract and a respectable paper but could never have been expanded into a book length project. Nevertheless, I took advantage of the rare opportunity for a recent graduate to have the ear of an university press to pitch the idea of a edited volume of essays on Race, Ethnicity and the Cold War: A Global Perspective and Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective—projects which prior to this conversation I had never contemplated. VUP published both books last month, and neither would have even been conceived had it not been for this chance encounter at the AHA annual meeting.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Sports (particularly football, college basketball, tennis, and badminton), making irreverent commentary on social media platforms, watching re-runs of the Golden Girls, and pursuing my quest to one day become the Guinness Book of World Records holder in spooning.

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