The Spanish crown, in its wisdom, determined that its colonial officials, at the end of their services, should be held accountable for their acts in a special inquiry, the residencia. It also laid down the rule that the inquiry in any given case should be conducted by someone other than the outgoing official’s immediate successor, but, as was its custom, it turned a blind eye to repeated infractions of the rule. This somewhat irregular practice saved both time and money, and it is unlikely that the general quality of the administration was much the worse for it. When the time came to residenciar the outgoing Managing Editor of the HAHR, similar practical considerations suggested that it be done by members of the new editorial team, taking advantage of the fact that on laying down his editorial (and other) duties at the University of New Mexico, Professor Johnson had accepted an appointment at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, in relative proximity to the present editorial office in Gainesville, Florida. He accepted the summons, and the inquiry was conducted, in Gainesville, on March 21, 1986.
It seemed only reasonable, however, to combine Professor Johnson’s accounting for his stewardship of the HAHR with a broader inquiry into his career as one of the leaders in the field of Latin American history in the United States over most of the period since World War II. Having invented the series of interviews with distinguished scholars that first graced this journal in 1982, he could hardly refuse to be interviewed. For us, it seemed poetic justice—and wholly justified—to do unto him as he had caused to be done to so many others. To expedite the operation, we invited him to prepare written answers in advance to certain routine questions that have almost always been present in the interview series. Excerpts from the more extensive oral questioning have been interspersed with portions of the written testimony in the manner that seemed most appropriate. Readers will be able to distinguish the former by the initials of the interviewers, David Bushnell (DB) and Lyle N. McAlister (LNM), which are followed by the oral responses of John J. Johnson (JJJ). Questions posed in written form are attributed instead to HAHR, and when JJJ is replying to HAHR, it is to be understood that the reply was made to the written questionnaire.
In both written and oral questioning, as will be seen, the emphasis is on John Johnson’s teaching (of graduate students above all); on his research and writing; and, more broadly, on the state of Latin American history as an academic specialty in this country. He himself brings up his service with the Latin American research office of the State Department as an important stage in his intellectual formation, but there is no mention of other contributions to the broader field of Latin American studies, even though Johnson served, for example, as president of the Latin American Studies Association during 1969 and 1970. For this parochialism we are willing to take either the blame or the credit, as the case may be. Neither do we (much less he) make reference to the numerous other honors and awards bestowed on John Johnson over the years, although there is, necessarily, considerable space devoted to his book Political Change in Latin America: The Emergence of the Middle Sectors, which won the Bolton Prize of the Conference on Latin American History in 1959. In due course, all main positions held and honors received will be listed in his obituary, but Johnson is by no means ready yet for that. Having retired once from Stanford and once again from New Mexico, he is now busily engaged in another research project and in assorted new or unfinished old forms of service to the profession that he has loved and so ardently enjoyed over the years. Those who do not wish to wait for the obituary—it has not been written, and we predict it will be a long wait—can meanwhile find other missing details in any number of scholarly directories.
As far as possible, we have retained the informal tone of the oral discussion even while making necessary abridgements. The version printed below also starts out with discussion of John Johnson’s work with HAHR rather than with his early childhood. This obviously reveals a certain HAHR-centric attitude on the part of the interviewing team. But we could cite the words of Simón Bolívar, who urged that history should be presented to the student starting with the most recent period, and that is a rather high authority to cite in our field. It is an especially appropriate one in the present case, since among other things John Johnson once produced a very solid, edited book of readings on Bolívar (a “potboiler,” as he refers to it with undue modesty, in a segment of the interview that has not been transcribed). Once finished with HAHR, however, we take a great leap backward to early beginnings, and proceed from there in more conventional order.
David Bushnell: I would like to ask you to say a few words about the HAHR, on the basis of your five-year stint as managing editor. What gave you the greatest satisfaction from that job, what major problems do you still see in the operation of the journal?
John J. Johnson: I guess my greatest satisfaction was helping young people get some very good articles published. I could, but won’t, name some people who came in with poorly written manuscripts and we would write back to them suggesting that they had good material but that we didn’t think that 15 years hence they would want to see their material in print as currently written. We would suggest a reworking. Without exception they followed our suggestions; and that was a real satisfaction: to see young people get a sound start publishing in the field. I suppose the other major satisfaction of having primary responsibility for the HAHR was that it kept me abreast of the field. When books are coming in, articles are arriving, you know who is doing what; and it keeps you alive. I think that some people who retire just do not do that.1 I would also like to think the Review was improved over the five years. We worked hard, and when most journals were losing subscribers, we increased the number of subscribers between 120 or 150 during those five years. I think that the weakness of the Review both before and during our regime was the book review section. This was partly because I did not communicate with the Latin Americans the way that I should have. I published their articles, I saw that they were included in the Interview Series, but I did not travel in Latin America to the degree that I am sure you will, or communicate with people on a one-to-one basis, which I think is very important.
DB: I am not really sure what else could be gained for the journal, as far as relations with Latin American historians are concerned, than what you did. Getting Latin Americans to collaborate both as authors and as people being interviewed—this you very definitely did accomplish. What more would have happened if you had, say, gone from country to country, getting personally acquainted with them?
JJJ: One thing, almost certainly, is that we would have gotten more books out of Latin America to call to the attention of our readers. This is an area where a lot needs to be done. To advertise the journal, I would also like to have seen us send more free copies to Latin America. I took a number of United States scholars off [the gift list] and put Latin Americans on. It made a few colleagues in this country unhappy, but I think it was the proper thing to do.
DB: There are also those who still do not forgive you for introducing colored covers.
JJJ: That’s historians for you; so many of them resist change. Different colors make for quick identification.
DB: One member of the Board of Editors now wants us to have lilac next year.
JJJ: Why not? You know, the biggest criticism I got was introducing the Interview Series.
DB: Right. You really made your mark with the colored covers and the interviews. And the colored covers, you say, are a convenience. The interview series, would you care to say a little more about the genesis of it?
JJJ: Yes, I would. When I took over the editorial responsibility, I began wondering how the Review might better serve the profession. The idea of an interview series was on my mind from the first. We determined to initiate the series when Duke University Press gave additional pages, just at a time when the number of strong manuscripts was in decline; a situation that you seemingly are experiencing, I trust only temporarily. Certainly the Interview Series never kept a worthy article from being published. And I believe that future generations of historians will find the series of considerable value.
DB: What struck me at my first editorial board meeting, last December, was the fact that the sentiment of the assembled editors was quite lopsided against the interview series. Nevertheless, even some of the critics had good things to say about specific ones.
JJJ: That is the point. They would object, but if someone was interviewed that they were particularly interested in, it was great.
DB: Everybody agrees that there have been some exceptionally good ones. And then certain others that, well, it might have been better to have a bad article.
JJJ: I think the real problem now is that there are so few new people entering the field, and it is the new people who write articles. They do an article or two, and then say to themselves, I’d better get to work on a book or I may be denied tenure. At that point, they quit writing articles. There is the added consideration that we now have more journals competing for fewer strong articles. The Journal of Latin American Studies is the one that is really giving the HAHR competition, especially in the modern period.
DB: And journals like Comparative Studies in Society and History and Journal of Social History.
JJJ: One thing I tried, and did not really pull off, was to reestablish the historiographical essay, once such an important feature of the Review. I got a few, but I could not get one in each issue as I hoped: that would have recreated the image.
Lyle N. McAlister: I think these are even more important now, with the atomization of the field.
JJJ: Probably, it is a feature that you people can revive; I hope so.
DB: As managing editor just since last July, I have been struck by the scarcity of colonial articles. We get ten modern to one colonial, and this has been a surprise to me.
JJJ: I think you will find that they will even out.2 In my experience, we came up with more good colonial articles than we did modern articles.
[The consideration of colonial vs. modern specializations will be taken up again later, after dealing with the education and professional career of John Johnson himself. ]
HAHR: Would you give us a sort of autobiographical reminiscence, covering such matters as your family background; what you see as particularly decisive periods in your intellectual development; and the stages of your formal education?
JJJ: I was born in White Swan (named for a tribal chieftain) on the Yakima Indian Reservation, located in central Washington. The community, which never reached a population in excess of 200 while I lived there, began as an adjunct of a Methodist Indian mission and of the Indian Agency located at Fort Simcoe, some six miles distant.
My parents, older brother, and sister moved to White Swan in 1910. My father opened a livery stable and started a stage line between White Swan and North Yakima, a distance of 27 miles, about half of it over open country. North Yakima was the trading center of the upper Yakima Valley. My father first used teams of fast coach horses and spring wagons with extended beds. His was no Wells-Fargo operation. In 1914, the year my younger brother was born, my father shifted to Ford touring cars, and ran through three of them before he sold out the line in the early 1920s. He then went into mixed farming and sheepraising, and was equally unsuccessful in each of those enterprises.
I went through the first eight grades of my schooling in a two-story, four-room school that was partially supported by federal funds. In the early grades, the enrollment was probably nearly equally divided between town kids, all of whom were white or of mixed origin, and Indian boys and girls, who came in on horseback from the surrounding countryside. As I recall, the horse barn contained about as many square feet as did the school building. Attendance dropped off sharply during the winter months. By the sixth grade, nearly all of the Indian girls had terminated their classroom training, as had many of the boys. It was not hard to earn good grades in such an environment. It is probable that no family in the community, including my own, consciously created incentives for learning, but for some reason I truly enjoyed school, so much so that I finished those first eight grades without being absent or tardy.
White Swan did not have a high school; I received my high school education in Yakima and Prosser. Prosser was a county seat in a farming community, and its high school was a small, warm, friendly place. Its young faculty were very much a part of our lives.
Eastern Washington was entering the worst years of the Great Depression when I finished high school in 1930. The state of our family’s finances precluded any thought of my going directly to college, but after two years of off-and-on employment, and unable to save money, I decided that I would have to go to college then, if I were ever to do so. Central Washington Normal School in Ellensburg was the nearest institution of higher learning, as well as having a tuition of only $14. 00 a quarter; for those reasons I began my college career there. Central was not a great center of learning, but I cannot imagine that I could have found a better place to be during some of the worst depression years. I had a half-dozen instructors who in one way or another had a positive influence on my life and career. At that point in my life, the sciences and especially geology (history in slow motion) were my choice subjects, but I was already leaning towards history. Still, had any one told me in 1935 that I might make a living as a geologist that is undoubtedly the route I would have tried. But no one suggested to me the possible opportunities in geology, and after three years and with a teaching certificate in hand, I went into public school teaching, where I remained for six years. I enjoyed my students, and had summers free to attend school or to work for the United States General Land Office, surveying in the Blue Mountains one summer and in the Cascades another.
The summer of 1939 I attended the University of Washington, where I worked with Solomon Katz, a highly inspiring young instructor of classical history. I did well enough in my history courses that summer to convince myself that I might have a career as a professional historian.
After two more years of public school teaching—and some serious thought about my future and any potential I might have for being a teacher of history at the college level—I enrolled for graduate study in history at the University of California, Berkeley, in June 1941. I had decided that I would work in the Latin American field. Curiosity born of a profound ignorance of the area, its people, and its institutions was admittedly a factor in my decision. But I also thought that I knew something about and had respect for Indians from having lived among them. It will come as no surprise that just about everyone in the Pacific Northwest who ever thought of Latin America at all thought of its population as being composed overwhelmingly of Aztecs and Incas who lived off a diet of corn.
Probably the most important factor in my deciding on Latin America was that the Good Neighbor Policy seemed to portend well for hemispheric relations and thus for increased academic and official interest in the region. In that sense, my decision to work in the Latin American field was a purely pragmatic one, understandably, I think, for a young person who had come through the depression.
I arrived in Berkeley just about the time that World War II was beginning to take its toll on graduate enrollment. And, as it turned out, there were times when Gwen Cobb and I were the only full-time students in the Latin American field. Being a member of a small group had its advantages and disadvantages. I received unlimited attention from the Latin American faculty, and at one time or another had the privilege of assisting Herbert Eugene Bolton, Engel Sluiter, James F. King, Lawrence Kinnaird and visiting professor John Rydjord. I also assisted George Guttridge in teaching Early Modern Europe, an era that I found fascinating and one that my training in science and math helped to make especially meaningful.
Because we were such a small group, I never had the challenge that would have come from being a member of a large seminar of dedicated students, or of participating in scholarly bull sessions, of the kind that we associated with Harvard. Furthermore, and without wishing to seem ungrateful, I must say that the lack of rigor was a notable feature of the seminars I took at Berkeley. Bolton was probably the most guilty on that score; it did not seem to be in him to push students to test the limits of their ability. Without his ever having told me, I think that his philosophy was that those possessing the qualities required of a historian would establish themselves, if given the opportunity to develop in an understanding environment. Certainly Bolton and Sluiter provided that kind of environment. Both were generous of their time and not reluctant to put their names on the line to help students compete for grants and jobs. As I reflect, I think the importance of a favorable climate for graduate students to grow and develop was the principal lesson I learned at Berkeley. As a graduate instructor, I probably was less patient to see students prove themselves than were my Berkeley instructors.
LNM: I took Engel Sluiter’s course at Berkeley, and I will say he was a brilliant lecturer.
JJJ: I remember well the first course I took at Berkeley was with Sluiter in the summer of 1942. Then I worked with Bolton, and it seems most people associate me with Bolton, but I did most of my work with Sluiter. And he was the key reader of my dissertation. I think that was most fortunate.
LNM: Yes, he was the most critical.
HAHR: [resuming the same question]
JJJ: I completed work for my M. A. degree in early 1943. Up to that time, I had worked almost exclusively on the colonial period, but my real interest had turned to the postindependence era. I remember well that Frank Tannenbaum’s Peace by Revolution was the first book to excite my interest in twentieth-century issues.
Professors Herbert I. Priestley and Charles Chapman died soon after I arrived in Berkeley, and a short time later Bolton retired a second time. Aware of those developments, a dean called me in one day and told me that since the Latin American history section had suffered unexpected losses, the university would award me the William Harrison Mills Traveling Fellowship, which I could use to transfer to another university. I do not know to this day who put the dean up to the idea, but it was one of the most generous acts on the part of a university towards a graduate student that has ever come to my attention, and, I think, it speaks well for Berkeley. I chose to use the fellowship to attend the University of Chicago during the academic year 1943-44.
DB: Incidentally, why did you pick Chicago?
JJJ: Because I was interested in modern Latin American history, and technological development.
DB: In other words, [Chicago’s J. Fred] Rippy was a logical man to work with.
JJJ: Yes, Bolton spoke highly of Rippy, and Chicago was a major institution.
DB: You ended up with a kind of Rippyesque dissertation topic, that study of [“pioneer”] telegraphy [in Chile].
JJJ: Yes, I started research on that in Chicago.
HAHR: [again resuming the same question]
JJJ: I do not have fond memories of my year in Chicago. I did enjoy working downtown in the John Crerar Library, noted for its runs of scientific and technological journals. Also, after signing up for courses for spring quarter, I left for Washington, DC, and spent six weeks in the National Archives, my most exciting experience with original documents up to that time. I was happy to return to Berkeley at the end of the academic year.
I took my oral examinations in August 1945 and with war’s end, was again awarded the William Harrison Mills Fellowship that I used to support my dissertation research in Chile. I chose Chile because I was interested in the economic modernization of Latin America, and Chile was among the first countries outside Europe and the United States to invest in such technological advances as railroads, steamships, and electric telegraphs (all by the midnineteenth century). My second reason for selecting Chile was that it had been reasonably stable during the nineteenth century. Because it had a highly centralized system of government, I reasoned, nearly all data relevant to technological development would be deposited in the Archivo Nacional, which had the reputation of being the best organized in Latin America. I reasoned correctly on that occasion, and the archive proved a splendid, efficient place to research, made more enjoyable by its director, Ricardo Donoso, who helped me and so many other aspiring young historians in every way he could, and by Eugenio Pereira Salas, who was in the archive on nearly a daily basis and gave me endless advice and encouragement. My debt to Ricardo and Eugenio is great. They were first-rate, dedicated scholars and teachers deserving of any credit that may be given them at home or abroad.
In the spring of 1946, my research took me briefly to Argentina, where United States scholars were not welcomed as warmly as in Chile, and to Peru, where they were, before returning to Berkeley in May. I wrote my dissertation during the next four months, but did not formally receive my degree until February 1947.
In the meantime, I had been awarded an appointment as Acting Assistant Professor at Leland Stanford Junior University. At Berkeley of the 1940s, it was the “Junior” that was stressed. I began my career at Stanford in September 1946, and remained there until 1977, when I was given emeritus status. Accepting the Stanford appointment—I had an attractive offer from a university in the northwest at the time—was another of the many fortunate decisions in my life. I saw the history department develop into one of the best in the country, and, at one time or another, I worked with four colleagues elected presidents of the American Historical Association, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and several others with remarkable academic and teaching skills. One had to hustle to have the respect of such colleagues.
HAHR: Other than in Chile, where have you done research?
JJJ: I spent several months during 1949 trying to become a Brazilianist, but that didn’t take. I was interested in the interregnum period, and found the contents of the press and the discourses in Congress so polemical and of such poor intellectual quality that I decided that I had best continue to concentrate on Spanish America. The best part of my 1949 project was that I met and worked with José Honorio Rodrigues. He was then director of the Rare Book Room of the National Library and was full of enthusiasm about his research and writing. I lived in Copacabana, and José Honorio kindly gave me a ride home each evening. Traffic was crowded and often stalled, so we had hours and hours in which to discuss the work we were doing. José Honorio was in his “Afro-Brazilian” phase at the time, so I had an early introduction to some of the studies that would enhance his reputation as one of Brazil's most distinguished historians.
In 1961, while working on The Military and Society in Latin America, I added Ecuador and Venezuela to the countries of Latin American in which I have researched. Both before and after 1961, I worked in the archives of the Mexican Foreign Office, where I collected material that I have never put to direct use, but hope to one day. Most recently, I have worked during two summers in the British Public Record Office in Kew, England. The PRO provides the best working conditions I have ever encountered. It is rich in materials, documents are well organized, originals are available to scholars, and the staff is wonderfully knowledgeable and helpful. What a contrast to the U. S. National Archives!
HAHR: If you were to single out one of your books as your most important contribution to the field, which would it be?
JJJ: I guess that I would have to single out Political Change in Latin America: The Emergence of the Middle Sectors (Stanford, 1958). I hope that I do not appear overly immodest when I suggest that Political Change may have had several merits. First and most important, it recognized that the political systems of the more advanced countries of Latin America were opening up, and that new elements that were being incorporated into the political arena were bringing about fundamental changes in the socioeconomic life of the republics. A cycle of military dictatorship during the 1960s and 1970s brought middle-sector supported reform to an abrupt halt, but I think that the validity of my argument is being substantiated in this decade as civilians return to power. We may yet have other cycles of dictatorships, but at the end of each, the base from which civilian leaders start will be firmer, thanks to the contributions of the middle groups. Second, the volume helped to establish that in certain areas, the field was ready for comparative history, which is not to suggest that as I look back on my study I find very sophisticated comparative history. Still, it was not bad comparative history for the time. Third, I would like to think that Political Change helped to establish that to work with complex modern issues, an initial set of well-considered variables may assist the historian to avoid intellectual digressions. Fourth, I think that the volume gave a degree of credit to the Latin Americans themselves for improving their societies that some deterministic studies seemed to deny them. Fifth, the study sold in excess of 20, 000 copies, which suggests that it may have had some influence on the field. And what better reason to write a book?
DB: You were saying that you still think, in spite of everything, that there is some connection between middle sectors and democracy. Did you ever have any really nagging doubts about that? Say, back when José Nun was writing on the “middle-class military coup”?3
JJJ: Writing about my book was what he was doing. Still, I never had doubts. I truly think that if we are going to get change in Latin America it has to come from or with the strong cooperation of those sectors.
When I did my Political Change, I thought I was onto something. When I took it to Stanford University Press, they had some doubts about it, but I was on the faculty and I suppose that had some influence, so they accepted the manuscript and did the initial run of 1500 copies. They had to do three or four printings within a few months, but it was in considerable part because it came at . . ..
LNM: You hit it just right.
JJJ: Absolutely. It was published just before Castro came on the scene. I was pretty fortunate. Where I made my big mistake in that book, and when it was called to my attention it was obvious, is that what I called middle sectors are such a fluid group that they do not really think of themselves as middle sectors—they think of themselves as one step up on the way to the elite. I missed that initially; it is an embarrassment.
DB: I think there are two other things we ought to get for the record concerning your publications. Of course, you single out Political Change as the most significant, hut the others have their significance, too. First of all, concerning The Military and Society in Latin America, was that in some sense an outgrowth of Political Change?
JJJ: No, not so much an outgrowth of Political Change as an outgrowth of Lieuwen’s book.4 His book was diplomatic history, and I thought that it did not give sufficient attention to internal issues. Ed and I debated this issue publicly on several occasions, but always on a friendly basis. After I did the military, I started working on labor, as a third study of a socioeconomic sector. I couldn’t warm up to labor history. In fact, it really bored me.
DB: Chuck [Bergquist] will do that for you. But tell us about the genesis of Latin America in Caricature. Where did the idea for that come from?
JJJ: I became increasingly convinced that you had to look more closely at United States attitudes than has ordinarily been done in order to understand United States-Latin American relations. I started research on the topic with the traditional sources that diplomatic historians use. I read official documents, journals, psychological studies, and textbooks.
DB: You sort of did this off and on?
JJJ: No, once I started on the project, I worked on it as much as my other responsibilities permitted. Before I finished the Bolívar book, I had in mind this topic, and it took me a considerable time to do it. After reading all the traditional sources, I started examining periodicals and newspapers. It was in them that I came across cartoons, and I thought, by God, they not only say everything that is said in the other works, but they say it better. The central fact was that Latin America was looked down on. But I thought the originality of the book was that it used cartoons topically. It showed how if you wanted to typecast a country and make it look weak, you make it female! To make it look irresponsible, you use long, straggly hair, or make it black. The symbols used were what most interested me.
One thing about the book is that it sold fewer copies than any other of my books, my doctoral dissertation excepted, of course.5 The Bolívar book sold about 3, 000. Political Change sold over 20, 000, and the Military sold over 15, 000. I believe that Latin America in Caricature did not sell because the experts at the University of Texas Press insisted on their title, which gives the impression that it is a coffee-table book. I wanted to call it The United States and Latin America: An Illustrated History. Had we agreed on my choice of title, political scientists would at least have had to look at it; this way they didn’t have to. And so it sold less than 1, 500.
DB: It was also expensive.
HAHR: Do you have any historical work in hand at the moment?
JJJ: Yes, indeed. I am working on a book I have tentatively entitled “Reassessment of United States-Latin American Relations, 1815-1830.” Earlier coverage of the period built on major historical events—hostilities between Spain and its New World colonies, United States recognition of the emerging republics, the Monroe Doctrine, the Panama Conference of 1826, and so forth. I am not as interested in what happened as I am in the developments that between 1823 and 1830 convinced Washington that it could safely disregard Latin America (Mexico and Panama excepted) for the foreseeable future. I plan to have major sections on (a) conditions in Latin America that suggested to Washington that it should keep the region at arm’s length for the time being; (b) domestic issues in the United States that tended to force the nation to look inward—infrastructural development, trans-Appalachian migration, anti-Catholicism, antimonarchism, for example; (c) the conjuncture of circumstances that permitted Washington and London to reach peaceful agreements on their respective roles in Latin America and especially on Cuba, the key to United States security in the days of sailing vessels; and (d) the role of North American perceptions of Latin America’s racial groups—Iberians, creoles, Indians, blacks, and mixed races—on decision making at the public and private levels.
DB: Latin America in Caricature developed into this?
JJJ: When I did the background chapter for that book, it seemed to me that I was not getting to the roots of what actually happened. I had to go farther back in time. The real trouble we have had with Latin America is that we think we know what is good for them better than they know themselves. This is the curse of United States foreign policy from 1815 to the present day. And I have been guilty of such thinking myself on occasion. My Political Change had a lot in it that I had no business writing. Both the Good Neighbor Policy and the Alliance for Progress were failures, because we insisted that we knew what was good for Latin America and how to go about achieving it.
HAHR: Over the years since you first entered the field, there have been some notable advances in the study of modern Latin American history. Would you venture to single out a number of your contemporaries, or near contemporaries, who in your opinion made especially important contributions to the field?
JJJ: Six individuals, no one of whom is still with us, come to mind.6 Arthur P. Whitaker’s broad acquaintance with the modern period, the professional leadership that he provided for two decades, the number of his distinguished publications and the lucidity of his writing certainly make him one of the outstanding historians of modern Latin America. Frank Tannenbaum was the very best of an earlier generation when it came to articulating those issues of greatest concern to the popular reader. He projected the feeling that he was always in complete command of his material. Clarence H. Haring’s ability to treat colonial and modern problems with equal skill and the outstanding group of Harvard graduates that he helped to train give him a lasting place among United States historians of Latin America. Howard Cline had an impressive list of publications, but more important to the field was his leadership role in the Hispanic Foundation of the Library of Congress, his part in the founding of LASA, and the many publication projects that he was personally responsible for getting off the ground financially.
Miron Burgin belongs on any short list too. His Economic Aspects of Argentine Federalism: 1820-1852 is a classic in every sense of the word. But in addition, from June 1952 until August 1953, I was on leave from Stanford to work in the State Department as Acting Chief of the South American Branch of the Division for Research for the American Republics. The division was headed by Miron Burgin, who made my 15 months in Washington the most challenging of my career. Mirons knowledge of Latin America was unequalled. His “seminars” in the division were great intellectual and teaching exercises. Miron’s imaginative conceptualization of issues and his insistence on respect for detail were exemplary.
I would not want to conclude my list of outstanding scholars without mention of Kalman H. Silvert, a political scientist with a fine sense for the relevant in history, a keen feel for scholarly values, and the intensity and conviction to make projects succeed. The variety of achievements of my half-dozen early contemporaries suggests that I have not been one to measure colleagues strictly by the weight of their publications.
DB: Returning to Miron Burgin, did he influence the conception of your Political Change?
JJJ: Oh, yes. When I was in the State Department, we talked about “new groups”—we did not use the term “middle sector.” It was after I returned to Stanford that I said to myself that the groups we had been talking about basically were middle class. When I was at some point in the manuscript, Miron asked, “how do you determine who are the middle sectors?” And so I came up with the variables that I used to establish who the reform elements were in each of the countries that I studied. I also thought I learned more about scholarship in the 15 months that I was with Miron than I learned as a graduate student. If it took until two in the morning to finish something, then by God, you did it; that is the way Miron operated. Every word had to be just the word that he wanted. And I learned a lot from him. He convinced me once and for all that I wanted to be in modern Latin America, meaning the twentieth century.
The manuscript for my Political Change in Latin America was at Miron’s bedside when he died. Had he lived and given me his suggestions, I have no doubt it would have been a better book than it was.
HAHR: What would you say has been your greatest satisfaction as a historian?
JJJ: That is an easy one. Far and away my greatest satisfaction has come from working with those graduate students at Stanford who opted to train in the Latin American field. The first such group came to Stanford immediately after the war on the G. I. Bill. Most of them were my age, and had very definite objectives in mind. To a remarkable degree, we worked and developed together. That group finished in the early to mid-’50s. Despite several of them having considerable talent, as their subsequent achievements have proved, they were difficult to place, mainly because Stanford did not yet have a reputation as a major graduate school and because of my being a beginner in the field, so that I was unable to give them the assistance that schools such as Berkeley, Harvard, and Columbia offered. The failure to place members of that group in as good positions as they deserved was a bitter experience for me, so much so that I did not accept students for graduate work at the Ph. D. level during the late ’50s.
The second group began arriving at Stanford in the early ’60s, and continued coming until the mid-’70s. They were remarkably gifted, and there were enough of them to make seminars exhilarating. Also there were sufficient funds available so that students could devote full time to their programs, and best of all, for them and for me, they could work with assurance that when they finished there would be jobs as well as excellent opportunities for publishing.
When I joined the department at Stanford, I believed that were I able to assist three or four students to be better historians than I would be, my career would be a success. In fact, my success on that score greatly exceeded my expectations. Stanford graduates in Latin American history are located in over a dozen major institutions where they are doing excellent scholarship and are helping a new generation of students to improve their and our understanding of Latin America.
While I had the privilege of working with a large number of outstanding young Latin Americanists, there will not be a Stanford “school” for the reason, among others, that I was always careful to see that students did not work in fields that I had, and that they chose the topics on which they wished to work. In retrospect, I find the dissertation titles of Stanford students wonderfully diverse and exciting.
DB: About how many of your graduate students, Ph. D. candidates, have gone all the way through and gotten their degrees?
LNM: Why do you think that in our field we do not seem to develop “schools” like those in United States history and European history, when some of us turn out a lot of graduate students? The only real “school” that I can think of is the Bolton school.
JJJ: I think it is because you and I and most others today let people do more or less what they choose to work on. That is my argument, but I talked with Chuck Bergquist on this point, and he thinks that there is a Stanford school. He has in mind modern Latin America.
LNM: Your former students are in modern Latin America, but they are going off in all different directions.
JJJ: That is right. They are not cast in a mold.
LNM: Do you think this is a peculiarity of the field and the way it developed, because in other fields of history, the master and the disciples . . ..
JJJ: Don’t you think, Lyle, it has something to do with the size of our graduate body, or the number of people working? Until after 1960 there were, except at Berkeley, not enough people in the field to really create a school. C. H. Haring, at Harvard, where you [Dave] worked, I don’t think of as having produced a school either.
DB: No, because he, the same as you have done, encouraged students to work really on whatever was of interest to them, assuming that the topic was feasible. Haring, who was a colonialist, had very few students who ever worked on colonial topics.
Have you had any colonial-topic students?
JJJ: No, I had Doris Ladd, a Bolton prize winner, who worked on the independence period; that was as far back as we got.
DB: That might still be a basis, in very general terms, for talking of a Stanford school—the fact that all those students of yours were engaged in modern Latin America I would also go a little further and wonder if maybe what Chuck Bergquist has in mind when he claims that, yes, there was a Stanford school, is that most of these students of yours, at least the students of the ’60s and ’70s, worked on political topics but in a kind of social context. Would that he a fair description?
JJJ: I imagine that Bergquist may have had something like that in mind.
HAHR: Do you have any feelings about the directions in which the field is moving?
JJJ: I have been around long enough to have personally known several members of the first generation of historians of Latin America—Bolton,
Haring, Lanning, Leonard, Rippy, Scholes—while they were still in their productive years. When I entered the field as an acting assistant professor at Stanford, there were not a half-dozen institutions offering graduate programs in Latin American history worthy of the name. History claimed a dozen or so serious Latin American specialists. Most of them were colonialists, and Mexico was the focus of their attention. There were few monographs that touched on modern Latin America, and nearly all of them were of a descriptive nature. History textbooks were impossibly dull, being little more than storehouses of facts, or what passed for facts. They were blatantly ethnocentric.
Between 1946 and 1960, Latin American history in the United States underwent a remarkable change, as to both the number of practitioners and the quality of scholarly publications, although most authors continued to concentrate on Mexico and to hew closely to traditional lines such as international relations and elite politics.
It was, however, only in the mid-'60s that the field took off. Good-to-excellent training became available in at least 20 institutions of higher learning. The number of historians holding academic positions skyrocketed, and thanks to various advances in training and the increased support from foundations and government agencies that allowed them to spend extended periods in the field, the quality of the new generation was impressive. The increased number of individuals in the academic pool resulted in the opening up of the field to a wide range of new topics: urban history, women’s history, regional history, the black experience—to mention only several of the areas today staffed by competent scholars. Also important has been the growth in related disciplines where substantive findings and methodologies have given new dimensions to the best of historical writing.
We in the United States have made excellent progress, but our own success should not blind us, in some respects, to equally remarkable progress in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Great Britain, and France. Institutions in those countries are turning out impressive numbers of sophisticated young scholars who will pose an ongoing challenge to the best produced in our universities. That, I believe, has been and will continue to be for the good of all of us. Although I have singled out Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, the ground is being prepared in several other republics for a burst of historical activity. Once the political climates improve, the return of Argentina and Chile to their former scholarly standing is to be expected.
LNM: An issue that has always interested me, and that I think we are all aware of, is that in most schools where we have Latin American history, the field tends to be regarded by the people in the European and United States fields as peripheral—noting that nothing really important happened in Latin America, and Latin America has never made any major contributions to the development of Western civilization. This may or may not be true, but do you think that we have progressed beyond that stage now, and what can Latin Americanists do about it, to move from the periphery to the center?
JJJ: Regrettably, I just do not know the answer to that.
HAHR: Are there ways in which Latin American history has not lived up to your earlier expectations?
JJJ: Truly impressive progress has been made, but there are, of course, many fields that are crying out for imaginative attention. It is obvious that many of our “problems” are a function of the lack of personnel in the workforce. There are, however, other problems with the field that have little to do with the number of scholars involved. Although the influence of the most recent generation of historians of modern Latin America has been extensive, they have not produced, nor do they appear about to produce, a central paradigm that helps adequately to explain the problems that have vexed Latin Americans, for example, an inability to reconcile industrial progress with the preservation of individual and community autonomy. To the contrary, their studies typically have taken the form of methodological innovation rather than overarching interpretations. As I have suggested elsewhere, one of the single greatest changes in the writing of Latin American history since 1960 has been the engagement of scholars in the lives of ordinary men and women, and the social and economic forces that control their daily lives. While there is no denying the importance of those topics, I cannot fail to ask how they have contributed significantly to our understanding of the forces that bind, or fail to bind, nations together. One of the most pronounced trends in our discipline has been toward country or topical specialization.
Have we gone this route without seriously questioning how specialization may narrow research perspectives and teaching? To put it another way, is spending one's academic career on, say, Argentine, Brazilian, or Mexican issues, or on the history of women, or of immigration, or of labor, the surest way to advance theory, methodology, and teaching?
LNM: That leads directly to my next question. My observation from reading the HAHR and other journals, as well as books, is that in this country at least the field is becoming atomized, people are dealing with smaller and smaller bits and pieces isolated from each other, and to the nonspecialist, with quite inconsequential themes.
JJJ: I think that one explanation for what you have in mind is that historians still prefer to work by themselves. They don’t want to sit around the table with a geographer and demographer. At least I don’t, and I don’t think most historians do. You will find people in other disciplines doing comparative or multiauthored books, but we don’t—at least very few of us do.
LNM: The only large-scale enterprise of that sort, to my knowledge, at least recently, is Schwartz and Lockhart’s work, where it is pretty hard to separate who did what. They had a concurrence of the mind on many things. I think the works of synthesis that have been done in recent years, including mine, have been synthesizing old stuff.
DB: It also seems to me that there has been far more synthesis on the colonial period. It certainly lends itself to that, which raises another matter. I think that it is not just that historians tend to work alone—one could work alone on an overarching subject if you will—but as already mentioned, there is the tendency of the historians who work on national Latin America to fragment the field. The Latin Americans usually work on their own country for reasons of obvious practicality, because they do not have access to materials on neighboring countries. We do not have the same excuse, but tend to do the same thing. We work on one country at a time, and now many people have broken down countries to look at one region of a given country. Which also has its good points, undoubtedly. But should there not perhaps be more attention given to Latin America as a whole, as in two obvious examples both written by you?
JJJ: Well, that has been my approach, you know. I have been criticized for it, but that is what I have enjoyed doing, besides finding the approach meaningful.
LNM: It has to be done, because if you don’t synthesize the whole, it is all useless—you have to think of the ultimate consumer and the social utility of what we do. When you, John, did your books, it was still possible to be familiar with most of the relevant material. I don’t see how anybody can possibly do that now. The fragmentation becomes so great—so many little bits and pieces. How can this all be put together?
JJJ: I am not sure. We are probably going to have to come to working in teams.
LNM: I think the problem has become more and more severe with the explosion of the new social history, with everybody investigating bits and pieces of the lives of common people. All this has to be integrated by someone.
JJJ: It is great to explore the lives and perils of the nonelites, but I think one reason we do not have a feel for Latin America as a whole is that just about the time we got enough researchers, we started looking at these people who to date have had limited influence on how societies in Latin America evolved. If you have the number of scholars that the United States field has, then yes, you can do both. But as it is, I don’t see that we are much closer to understanding Latin America than we were 15 years ago.
LNM: Well, here is a new tack. If you had the good fortune to have a seminar with six or seven brilliant young students looking for inspiration, what would you put them to studying?
JJJ: Well, first of all, we need better scholarship in the modern period. For one reason or another, as I have noted earlier, the best scholarship on Latin America has been on the colonial period. I do not know why. When you look at the Bolton Prize7 winners, most of them have been colonialists.
LNM: I can tell you why: because they are not so involved with trying to change Latin America as the people working in modern Latin American history. They are dealing with something that they cannot change—it is gone. Present company excepted, I think probably the modern area draws more dilettantes.
JJJ: I think that another reason we modernists do not seem to come off as well is that when a colonialist writes, he or she seems to cover the entire continent. But if we work on, say, a given class in Chile, we would not expect anyone to accept our generalizations about Chile to apply to Colombia or Venezuela, for example.
LNM: But that no longer works in the colonial period, either. People have gotten away from that type of generalization.
DB: What you have is a common framework in the colonial period, an institutional framework, which may have different applications in different places, but at least is a point of departure.
LNM: Yes, they are the same guidelines, legally at least.
JJJ: Also, the Catholic Church was a far greater unifying force than it is today.
DB: Could it be suggested that one reason for the popularity of the dependentista school was precisely to find a unifying theme—of course, an external unifying theme—to remedy this seeming fragmentation.
JJJ: I think that is true. The dependentistas have come up with ideas that we had not seriously considered before. My real objection has been that they came up with ideas, but failed to give them solid intellectual underpinnings. That is where they have hurt the field more than anywhere else.
DB: Maybe you give them a little too much credit, because I am not sure that everything they say is necessarily that new. To some extent, dependency" is just a new name.
HAHR: Before concluding this interview would you care to make any further remarks?
JJJ: I sometimes think of myself as the last of the generalists. I have researched and written on the colonial period, the independence era, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have written on a half dozen of the republics and on such diverse topics as horses, electric telegraphs, political behavior, the military, political cartooning, and hemispheric relations. I have, naturally, sacrificed something in terms of depth, but learning about new fields and how to approach them intellectually has been vastly satisfying for me.
Finally, I would like to think that this interview conveys an essentially upbeat note. That is as it should be. I have only fond memories of my life as a student. Ever since my days as a graduate student, my wife, Maurine, has been 100 percent supportive, and her counsel has been unfailing. My 31 years as a member of the Stanford history department afforded me time to research and write in a highly stimulating environment. I am ever so proud of the men and women I helped to prepare for productive careers. My emeritus years have been fulsome. The University of New Mexico and its Latin American faculty made my five years as managing editor of the HAHR a continuing pleasure and a constant learning experience. This year the National Humanities Center has afforded me yet another opportunity to be with a splendid group of associates and to write, restrained only by my own limitations.
Here, of course, Professor Johnson is alluding to the fact that he had retired from Stanford before coming to New Mexico to assume the position of managing editor. While at the University of New Mexico, he also taught on a regular basis, and during his final year he commuted once a week to Stanford to direct a graduate seminar there as well.
The extreme imbalance mentioned has in fact been overcome since this interview was made; but colonialist submissions remain a distinct minority among those received at the University of Florida.
José Nun, Latin America: The Hegemonic Crisis and the Military Coup (Berkeley, 1969), pp. 46-48.
Edwin Lieuwen, Army and Politics in Latin America (New York, 1960).
Published as Pioneer Telegraphy in Chile (Stanford, 1948).
Professor Johnson has identified several of the more productive of the current generation in “One Hundred Years of Historical Writing on Modern Latin America by United States Historians,” HAHR, 65: 4 (Nov. 1985), 745-765.
Awarded annually for the best book on Latin American history published in English.