Empire of the Air, Empire of the Earth: American History in a Global Context with Jenifer van Vleck

Scan through recent headlines, and it will quickly become clear how much modern societies and international politics revolve around the airplane. During the ongoing Ebola crisis, national health authorities–even those for countries whose flag carriers didn’t run direct flights to West Africa–have panicked over the possibility of a rogue infected passenger contemning whole countries during a fluke layover. Meanwhile, the American military continues to conduct its counter-terrorism policy in Central Asia and the Middle East in large part through strikes from drones. Try boarding an airplane bound to the United States with stamps from countries in those regions in your passport, and it’s likely that your ticket will be stamped with a mysterious “SSSS”–a sign that you’ve been singled out as a security risk, a putative airborne threat that has to be scanned before even boarding a flight from, say, Frankfurt to the United States. Whether governments today think about protecting the nation at home (as with Ebola) or abroad (air strikes as foreign policy), it’s clear that our notions of security have become linked with a logic of the air that goes beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.

It all seems like a far cry from the supposed heyday of air travel–glamorous flight attendants, supersonic travel, and the possibility of a seamlessly connected world that a look at the departures board from a major airport today can still awaken. But even if the structures of airspace in the early 21st century invoke more pessimism than inspiration, it bears asking how things got so bad in the first place. It demands, in short, history. Visions of what how travel through the skies could be–and the relationship of states and empires to the air–have a deep history that demands scrutinizing. Indeed, with airline alliances touting themselves as “One World,” it’s especially worthwhile for scholars interested in global history to do that kind of work.

Fortunately, our latest interviewee for the Global History Forum, Jenifer Van Vleck, explains much of this back story in her recent Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy, published recently by Harvard University Press. Van Vleck, an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, devoted years to scouring through the archives of Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and numerous government and Presidential Archives to tell the story of a corporation–and an industry–that reveals much about the shape of American corporate globalism and American empire. The Global History Forum was delighted to sit down with her this summer to discuss her intellectual journey, Empire of the Air, and her upcoming work in the history of technology and American foreign relations.

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Globalizing Time, Globalizing Capital: A Conversation with Vanessa Ogle

It’s a familiar routine for scholars of global history. Having squeezed in a visit to an archive during a spring break or stretch of summer vacation, you get off the airplane in a foreign land, stretch your legs, and feel, in spite of the local caffeine injection, tired. You set your watch, several hours ahead if coming from the United States and several hours back if coming to Europe and try to make the best of the first day on foreign soil.

Soon, however, jet lag sets in. You either fall asleep in your dinner or wake up hours before the local bakers do. Exhausted, you read tips on how to beat the exhaustion, where you learn that the body needs an equivalent number of days to time zones crossed to beat off the exhaustion. The scholar coming from California to Moscow, for example, has eleven days of misery to endure before he or she is fully up to date with local time. You remain grateful for the chance to pursue your research, but, counting the time zones, groan at the routine.

It’s a familiar routine for many, indeed, but not as old as one might think. Until the late 19th century, as University of Pennsylvania professor and global historian Vanessa Ogle shows in her work, efforts towards a global standardization of time ranged from negligible to chaotic. The standardization of time that we have today, and the divisions that we use–Central European Time from Madrid to Montenegro, Greenwich Mean Time, and scientifically controlled Coordinated Universal Time to keep time zones themselves punctual–are all relatively recent inventions.

Unpacking this story, and seeing how contentious the seemingly most universal thing in the world–time–could be are great themes for global history. That’s why the Global History Forum was excited to sit down to interview Ogle, who is close to publishing her findings on the history of time standardization and well underway on a second project on the global history of “archipelago capitalism.” Speaking over coffee, we discussed her journey to global history, her first project, and her current work.

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Conquering Peace: Exploring European History with Stella Ghervas

One century after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged the Continent into war, Europe in 2014 offers observers few chances to catch their breath. The recent annexation of the Crimea by the Kremlin, followed by suspension of that country from the G8 and from the Council of Europe, brought relations with Russia to a new low point. With European leaders calling for more sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin having declared a ban on European agricultural imports, Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory seems to have taken a decidedly anti-Western turn.

As pundits race to search for historical parallels–the Crimean War, the Sudetenland Crisis, even the rise of the Ottoman Empire–it’s especially important for professional historians with an understanding of peace and the European political system, to share their findings with the public. The tortuous ways by which a warren of quarrelsome princedoms, duchies, and empires became a European Union by the late 20th century–a haven of peace and cooperation in a world too often scarred by conflict–demands explanation. It is also essential for the Europeans themselves to better understand how peace was accomplished, if they wish to better perceive the risks and opportunities that lie ahead with the Ukrainian crisis.

That’s why we at the Global History Forum were delighted to sit down with Stella Ghervas, an expert of European history who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. Ghervas, who organized a major conference on the Congress of Vienna at Harvard in last April (and who is giving several papers on the topic this autumn), graciously took the time out to discuss how she came to write a book on post-Napoleonic Europe, as well as her current book project on the history of peace and peacemaking over the longue durée. Speaking with her this spring, the Global History Forum managed to cover several topics, from her personal journey to history, to her forthcoming projects.

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Excavating “The Last Empire”: Discussing Soviet History and Global History with Serhii Plokhii

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Since the USSR formally ceased to exist on December 26, scores of books have been written on the Soviet dissolution, an event that resulted in the creation of fifteen new states across Eurasia and that current Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In his new book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii offers a definitive account of the end of the Soviet state.

Serhii Plokhii's latest book, "The Last Empire"
Serhii Plokhii’s latest book, “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”

Based on research in archives in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States interviews with high-level officials, The Last Empire explores the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington, and various Soviet republics between 1989 and 1992 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet experiment. Standing at the center of his story are tensions between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv and élites in the Ukrainian SSR. Already weakened by pressure from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an abortive coup, Gorbachëv and his visions for a revitalized Soviet confederation were doomed by the decisive results of a December 1991 Ukrainian referendum in favor of independence.

The account of The Last Empire, published by Basic Books this May, might surprise to American readers, many of whom are led to believe that it was decisive action by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Plokhii shows through exhaustive research–and interviews with important figures like Brent Scowcroft–the Soviet collapse arose far more due to internal Union dynamics than American foreign policy.

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Global History Forum: Discussing “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956” with Steven Serels

For most audiences today, the word “Sudan” evokes images at once terrorizing and timeless. Older readers may recall the images of emaciated bodies that television crews relayed from western and eastern Sudan during the great famines of the mid-1980s. Anyone reading today, however, will remember the outrage – but also lack of meaningful reaction – that the Sudanese government’s terror in the western region of Darfur evoked during the early 2000s. (Those wars, which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide, still continue.) According to these images, Sudan remains at once black, Arab, Muslim, poor, hungry; but also – crucially – in the present. Appalled by the horrors of famine and genocide, it is easy to forget to probe the past – a colonial past – to inquire after the structural roots of hunger and famine not as an accident but as an accomplishment of modern state-making. Moral outrage and a human rights-inflected imagination may be important, but it’s solid empirical history that furnishes an understanding of the roots of crises like those that plague – or define – Sudanese stateness.

That’s why the Global History Forum was delighted to sit down recently with Steven Serels, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Steven, whose first book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan in December 2013, graciously met with GHF to discuss his work, his future agenda, and – at the center of it all – Sudan and the broader region and even world order that the country fits into.

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