From the Vault: U.S. Responsibility to the “Free Peoples of the Globe”

by Mikala Carpenter on August 29, 2013

Our “From the Vault” posts allow you to take a peek into the history of the Press, where you can rediscover past authors, projects, editors, awards, and more that led to the development of the university publisher that the Press is today. This window into our past spotlights backlist or out-of-print titles and series and also recommends and contextualizes them with similar current and forthcoming titles. Explore the drawers of the Vault with our intern, Mikala Carpenter, as we uncover the hidden treasures that await us in the archives of the University of Michigan Press.

“To be a fit partner of other lands, we must try to understand them. And understanding is impossible without a firm grasp of their past,” Allan Nevins, a Columbia professor of history and two-time Pulitzer prizewinner, said when introducing the Press’s University of Michigan History of the Modern World series for the first time in 1958. Nevins and his fellow editor, Dr. Howard Ehrmann, former chairman of the University’s Department of History, worked on the development of this project for ten years in the hopes of cultivating American interest in participation in international affairs following World War II and the Korean War. The goal was to reach college classrooms, history specialists, and the general public: “We have done our utmost to make this series a beaconlight to all American families who wish to grasp the development of the modern world, and the part we must play in it.”

The first four volumes of the seventeen-volume series, which was meant to inspire U.S. citizens to “irrevocably accept the leadership of the free peoples of the globe,” were published in a boxed set in 1958 and referred to as the “Countries of Decision.” These volumes were compiled first and published together because, as a 1958 Press catalog explained, they were “devoted to the four great power areas outside the United States” considered to be “the main areas of unrest and tension in the world” at the time. The Countries of Decision were: Russia and the Soviet Union by Warren Bartlett Walsh; The Near East by William Yale; The Far East by Nathaniel Peffer; and Latin America by James Fred Rippy.

These volumes functioned to enlighten readers on the political, social, and cultural history and international significance of these four regions of the world. Drafted cover summaries of the volumes I found in the Vault express the individual volumes’ primary objectives and methods. Walsh’s Russia and the Soviet Union recounts “Russia’s rise from barbarism to the immense totalitarian state that sways half the world,” delving into the pre-World War I era, origins of the Communist party, and a contemporary view of the Cold War. Yale’s Near East presents the development of the region seen as the “breeding ground of religions and revolutions… where tradition and revolt struggle to make new nations” by considering the development and maturation of the region’s diplomatic significance. Peffer’s Far East is lauded as a text that “lifts the Bamboo Curtain” and describes the “decline of the world’s oldest civilization and the rise of Red China and modern Japan” with emphasis on intra-Asian and western foreign relations. Rippy’s Latin America threads together the colonial, revolutionary, and developmental periods of the region’s history that contribute to “the building of twenty republics — and their present struggle for a modern industrial Latin America.”

The University of Michigan History of the Modern World series was an ambitious undertaking for the Press. The series was developed at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars and was launched in October 1958 with an initial advertising and promotional budget of more than $60,000, statistics that were openly quoted in a Publishers Weekly review. An effort was undertaken to also reach an overseas market, which was aided by the Press’s partnership with Mayflower Publishers in London.

Nevins, Ehrmann, and the Press’s enterprising goals were met with both positive and negative responses. Some reviewers claimed the volumes gave a too generalized view of the regions’ histories, or balanced aspects of the region’s past and present disproportionately. Other reviewers welcomed the project with open arms. Arnold J. Toynbee, a historian and the author of A Study of History, was quoted in a 1958 Press catalog with this approving remark: “Mankind is now confronted with the need to learn to live as one family or exterminate ourselves. This History is an effective help towards our understanding of one another.” One professor, adamant about adopting Rippy’s Latin America for his class, wrote to expound on the series’ exemplary “interpretations [that] allow for discussion, rather than a ‘regurgitation’ of names and dates.”

The History of the Modern World series continued from its launch in 1958 until the release of the final volume in 1974. After the Countries of Decision were published, the following titles succeeded them in the series: The United States to 1865 by Michael Kraus; The United States since 1865 by Foster Rhea Dulles; France by Albert Guérard; Italy by Denis Mack Smith; Canada by J. Bertlet Brebner; Germany by Marshall Dill, Jr.; India by Percival Spear; Great Britain to 1688 by Maurice Ashley; Great Britain since 1688 by K.B. Smellie; The Southwest Pacific to 1900 and The Southwest Pacific since 1900 by C. Hartley Grattan; Spain by Rhea Marsh Smith; and Africa to 1875 and Africa since 1875 by Robin Hallett. Several of the original volumes were reprinted 10 years after their initial release as revised and enlarged editions. Peruse the links provided above to determine if Nevins and Ehrmann’s History of the Modern World series might have been informative enough to inspire U.S. citizens’ interest and responsibility in international relations with the other nations of “free peoples” around the world.


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