A gentleman and a scholar

A gentleman and a scholar

I want to pay brief tribute to my colleague Ernest May, who passed away earlier this week after a brief illness. Others knew Ernie much better than I did, but he was a splendid colleague during my ten years here at Harvard: always insightful, original, utterly dependable, and a dedicated supplier of collective goods. It was a pleasure to be in his company, and to hear how contemporary events looked to his historian’s eye.

Although I didn’t meet Ernie until the early 1980s, his work shaped my own intellectual development from the very beginning. I read his book "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Abuse of History in American Foreign Policy in one of the first IR courses I ever took, and its central message — about the ways that historical interpretations shape (and more often, distort) policymaking — has resonated with me ever since.   

Together with Richard Neustadt, Ernie refined and expanded these arguments in the prize-winning Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decisionmakers.  This book emerged from a classic course that Neustadt and May taught together for many years, and it is a “must-read” for anyone contemplating a career in public service. Among his many other books of international history, my favorite is Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, a gripping account of the intelligence errors and other strategic blunders that allowed the blitzkrieg to succeed in 1940.  

May was much more than a distinguished and exceptionally productive scholar. He was dean of Harvard College throughout the turbulent 1960s and subsequently served as director of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Nor was he merely an ivory tower academic; he served as a consultant to the U.S. government in various capacities and as an advisor to the 9/11 Commission. And I can testify to his dedication and skill on a tennis court: I don’t remember who won the one time we played, but I do know it was close and hard-fought (and I was twenty-five years younger!).

May wore his many accomplishments lightly, and never succumbed to the egomania that is an occupational hazard of academic life. I first learnt of his illness when it forced him to miss a dissertation defense; typically, he made sure to send the committee a detailed memo outlining his views on the thesis in question and offering suggestions for improving it. Perhaps the word that sums him up best is "gentleman." We could use more people like him in this business, and he’ll be hard — nay, impossible — to replace.