In Defense of Political History: Thoughts and Tantrums from a PhD Student

Victoria Saeki-Serna

Political history today is in peril. In my years of study, plenty of my professors and peers have professed their prejudice against political history, criticizing its overbearing Hegelianism and its insistence that government individuals and institutions are the only influencers of history. Political historians today are an endangered species, their approach hunted by endless epithets in emerging historical studies. Characterized as elitist and chastised for its exclusivity, critics maintain that political history research encompasses a view that the world only runs from the highest echelons of society.  

True, the crime of overbearing Hegelianism – which many would label as the “original” history – was committed by political historians. Yes, those who formally engage in politics have a high level of privilege. Yet the overly simplistic, determinist, and preachy character of this sin is tragically a bad habit of many disciplines taken up in their early years. Our reproach of them now arguably reflects the positive shift we have seen towards interdisciplinary approaches in the recent years. As a testament to the growth of the discipline, any apt political historian will plainly admit that legal and legislative adjustments do not always prompt advancements in daily life – rather their effect predominantly relies on popular responses. Ultimately, as Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one” – hence we must labor to understand it. 

So what productive insights can political history produce? Political history surveys the application of agency – its successes and contributions, its silences and confines. If social history studies how individuals exercise agency in everyday life, political history scrutinizes who, when, and how the rules of these expressions are determined and debated. The insufficiency of political institutions provokes insurrections with the potential to turn political, economic, and social realities upside down. These structural shortcomings, as well as how significantly these systems shift after strikes, must be understood through political history to holistically understand revolutions and rebellions. 

Political history studies the distribution of resources, and how these decisions are made. If economic history examines how people obtain material needs for mundane survival, political history explores how people advocate for themselves when the status quo fails to meet their tangible and intangible needs. Foreign aid has long been utilized as a negotiating weapon in bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Diplomacy involving foreign aid has a tangible impact on the standard of living for citizens, particularly those in the Global South. These and other economic policy decisions contribute to material sustenance or lack thereof, and can lead to rebellions. At its finest, therefore, political history is not the examination of how the world operates according to the will of the top echelons of society, but a study of the structures that determine everyday life and their struggles to distribute resources and defend rights. 

Today, historians across subfields strive to spotlight subaltern voices in their studies, aiming to accentuate their agency. Historians have yet to fully fulfill this promise in political history. Broadly speaking, traditional historiography has presumed that countries outside of the Global North have minimal diplomatic agency – an assumption particularly prevalent in my field of Cold War history. But as historians of Eastern Europe have demonstrated in recent years, even the countries who squarely fell into one of the spheres of influence of one of the two principal superpowers of this era found creative ways to assert their agency. Latin America, like Eastern Europe, has been presumed to be a region unquestionably bound to the will of one of the superpowers. Historians of the region today have highlighted daily forms of mass resistance, overlooking diplomatic accords such as resolutions from the Organization of American States, which appear to reaffirm the United States’ hegemony in the region. Despite this focus, the negotiations behind the scenes depicts this as only a façade of US control;  in fact, Latin American countries undertook delicate diplomatic discussions that diluted the US geopolitical agenda and allowed them to advocate for their own doctrines. My research shows how Mexico meticulously managed to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba after 1964, and how Mexico’s consistent courage compromised the US’ goal of isolating Cuba from the hemisphere. In defying the United States, Mexico sustained its domestic stability, protected opportunities for economic profit, and most notably impeded US efforts to employ international forums to legitimize hemispheric interventions. However, my findings in historiographical patterns. Both this narrative and those of Eastern European agency have yet to dramatically alter our understanding of the geopolitical dominance of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.  

This historiographical failure directly impacts the course of international relations today, plaguing governments’ imagination regarding diplomatic strategies and interactions. Marcelo Ebrard, the Foreign Relations Minister of Mexico, blatantly demonstrated this when he filed a lawsuit in a United States federal court against U.S. gun manufacturers on behalf of the Mexican government, chastising the companies for their creation of military grade weapons accessible to cartels. Instead of approaching the United States at the negotiating table on such a critical issue as an equal, Ebrard chose a course of action traditionally reserved for US citizens. This approach implied that Mexico’s government was subject to the laws established by its neighbor, in effect negating Mexico’s status as an independent polity with its own sovereignty, legal system, and agency. Nations like Mexico need political history to remember when it challenged the perceived hegemon of the hemisphere. In these histories, they could find inspiration to devise innovative ways to impose their diplomatic agency and advocate for their interests.

Political history is not a panacea, but it can be a powerful tool to make sense of the structures that organize our world, where and why they fall short. Applied properly, one of the many things the discipline can do is reconstruct narratives on negotiating power, and in turn preclude the pernicious erosion of the Global South’s diplomatic agency by providing inspiration for potential strategies. Ultimately, fully recognizing the agency of these nations and their people requires us to realize citizens’ individual agency, as much as their collective political and diplomatic power. This is why political history matters.

Image: From left to right: President Truman, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, and President Adolfo López-Mateos in a meeting in 1959. From Wikimedia Commons, National Park Service.

Victoria Saeki-Serna is a recipient of the Ira and Patricia Gruber Award for Best Honors Thesis from Rice University for her thesis entitled “Negotiating Mexican Foreign Policy on Cuba: Between Domestic Interests and the United States: 1959-1964.” A Mellon Mays Fellow, Saeki-Serna is passionate about incorporating her Mexican identity and perspective into her research on US-Latin American Cold War relations. She is currently a first year History PhD Student at Georgetown University, where she hopes to study the hemispheric context of the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco, Mexico.

One thought on “In Defense of Political History: Thoughts and Tantrums from a PhD Student

  1. Great text! Made me reflect on Brazil’s negotiations in WW2 and my country’s own long-lasting support to diplomacy, to Global North reparations & accountability, and to South-South relations. Glad to see this discussion also happening in the case of Mexico.

    Liked by 1 person

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