by David Gulliver
Professor Emeritus of History Justus Doenecke is no longer teaching classes, but he’s still as busy as ever – perhaps even more so.
His latest accomplishment is a major update of his widely-taught book, From Isolation to War, 1931-1941. The fourth edition was published in late 2015.
For the update, Doenecke said he read every significant book and article he could find on the pre-war period since the book was first published in 2003. He worked through the spring and summer of 2014 on the revisions.
“I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t retired,” Doenecke said. “Scholarship is a jealous mistress.”
With a 15-page curriculum vitae, including the authorship of 10 books, contributions to several more and dozens of journal articles and presentations to his credit, you’d be allowed to think Doenecke is ready to relax.
Hardly. Doenecke is now at work on an entirely new book, a sequel to his 2011 book Nothing Less Than War, which examines America as it entered World War I.
It seems like a sprawling topic, and that’s intentional. Doenecke recalled a conversation that inspired him.
“When I retired I wanted to do something new. There was a prominent historian, Gordon Craig, a historian of Germany at Stanford. We were just talking over lunch one time, and he said, ‘Justus, always pick a big topic. Always pick a topic when several lifetimes can never give the definitive answer.’”
“I had a library of World War I, often of primary books, books of the period, but I never really read them,” Doenecke said. “So I figured, this will give me an excuse to read these books. I started out just to do the critics of Wilson … But in the course of that, I was accumulating so much that I figured that, why not write a fresh history of the whole thing?”
The new book, to be titled America in the War, will cover the United States’ participation in World War I, the country’s role at the Paris Peace Conference that resulted in the Versailles Treaty, the national debate over U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the 1920 presidential campaign and the election of Warren Harding, which ended debate over the League.
The book will be published by University of Kentucky Press, which also published Nothing Less Than War. A publication date is not yet set.
It will mark a departure from his focus on the World War II, the topic of his revised From Isolation to War, which he wrote with the late John E. Wilz, a professor at Indiana University. They published the first edition in 1968. Subsequent editions were published in 1991 and 2003, and now in 2015.
Doenecke’s work on the period dates to his doctorate at Princeton, and for the revision he studied new work and updated the books’ coverage of the Washington Conference of 1921-22, early American diplomacy in the Manchurian crisis, Russia’s invasion of Finland and more.
It also includes short biographical sketches of world leaders, and reviews and examines recent scholarship on U.S. policies from the period.
Among the many questions the new edition addresses is the theory that the United States knew of Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbor, and allowed it, in order to drive support for entering World War II. Doenecke lays out a compelling argument in favor of that theory – and then an equally compelling argument debunking it. (Doenecke does not believe in the conspiracy theory.)
Reviews of the new edition were strong. “Justus Doenecke’s new edition of the interwar era emulates the era’s great American sport by touching all four bases: the newest scholarship, superb writing, compelling argument, and in 1941 an appropriate climax. A home run,” wrote Walter LaFeber, Andrew H. and James S. Tisch distinguished university history professor emeritus at Cornell University.
“An excellent book has just got better … This is an ideal book for undergraduate courses on U.S. foreign relations or 20th century U.S. history,” wrote Andrew J. Rotter, Charles A. Dana professor and director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Colgate University.
Even with books in the works, Doenecke also finds time and energy for short-term projects. He recently contributed an article, titled “Gilded Age Presidents,” to a A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, to be published in 2017 by Wiley-Blackwell. It draws on work in Doenecke’s 1981 book, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.
Don’t expect that work ethic to flag, Doenecke said.
“Look, hopefully I’ve got five to 10 years of some kind of productivity. And I’m not about to just sit down, play golf or watch TV. I’ve just got to keep myself going, and that’s why I do all this stuff.”