June 15, 2009
By David Darlington
Ernest R. May, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University and a consultant to numerous government agencies, passed away on June 1, 2009, following complications from cancer surgery. He was a 50 year member of the AHA.
Ernest May was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on November 19, 1928. He received his PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles (1951). He joined the Harvard University faculty in 1954, after serving in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War and working as a historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, achieved full professorship in 1963, and was named Charles Warren professor in 1981. In additional to teaching in the history department, May served at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he taught courses on reasoning from history and assessing other governments, and directed a program studying the relationship between intelligence analysis and policymaking. He also served as dean of Harvard College, 1969–71, and chair of the department of history, 1976–79.
May was an authority on international relations, particularly on how history influences political decision making. His first book, The World War and American Isolation: 1914–17 (Harvard Univ. Press) won the AHA’s George Louis Beer Prize in 1959 for the best work on European international history. He also won the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2001 He authored or co-authored 14 books in all, covering diverse subjects such as the U.S. entry intro World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Monroe Doctrine, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and, most recently, the fall of France in 1940 (Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, 2000). With Richard Neustadt he wrote Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (Free Press, 1986), based on their work at the Kennedy School, which sought to uncover better ways historical knowledge could be used to make decisions—what to ask of history, how to ask it, and how to draw meaningful historical comparisons. Robert Wampler, senior fellow at the National Security Archive, said of The Uses of History (the course on which the book was based), “The overarching theme—that history properly interrogated and analyzed can provide useful information for those engaged in the task of understanding and solving policy problems—left its mark on my subsequent work, as on many others in academia and government.”
In 2003–04, May served as a senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission, recruited by Executive Director Philip D. Zelikow, a frequent collaborator of his. He had a hand in writing the commission’s 600-page final report, which was finalist for a National Book Award. His job was to “help produce the historical narrative,” he said in a memoir of the experience for the New Republic (reprinted here at HNN). He added: “[T]he report was dedicated to the idea that a genuine concern for communicating an accurate picture of our reality to future generations may allow us to transcend the passions of the moment. For this reason, I hope that this official report will not be the last government document of its kind. In these perilous times, there will surely be other events that will require the principles of historiography allied to the resources of government, so that urgency will sometimes become the friend of truth.”
Ernest R. May is survived by his second wife, Susan Wood, a son and two daughters, and three grandchildren. A fuller treatment of his career will appear in a fall issue of Perspectives on History.