The Choir of Clare College will tomorrow (5 July 2014) perform a special concert at West Road as tribute to outgoing Master and eminent historian Professor Tony Badger. With characteristic candour, Badger answers questions about his trajectory from grammar school boy to leading specialist in American political history. 

His interest in history, and American history in particular, started when he was 12 and has never wavered. This summer will see Professor Anthony (Tony) Badger step down from his roles as Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College, Cambridge. 

Badger is a specialist in 20th century America, most notably the troubled politics of the South. He has published widely on topics such as race relations, the depression of the 1930s and the New Deal. His books include FDR: The First Hundred Days, a book widely read by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and his scholarship has won him a series of accolades.

Known for his approachability and unswerving loyalty to Bristol Rovers Football Club, Badger is passionate about teaching and is proud of the achievements of his students, many of whom are making their mark on the world, both within academia and beyond. They include the BBC’s Washington correspondent Nick Bryant, actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, and the historian Dominic Sandbrook.

Sitting in his office overlooking the gardens at Clare College, Badger looks back on his career of 50 years. He also talks about his future roles which include working for the Foreign Office as the independent reviewer of the release of thousands of archived government files. He’s certainly not going to be idle.

When did you know you wanted to be a historian?

When I was 12 my father had a book on his shelves called America Came My Way written in the 1930s by an English baronet, Sir Anthony Jenkinson – it’s still the best book of its kind about that era. Jenkinson had very good connections and he starts with a description of the America’s Cup off Rhode Island and ends with an interview with Shirley Temple in Hollywood. In the middle of the book, Jenkinson goes to Washington and there’s a chapter called ‘Huey Long Takes His Shirt Off’. It’s all about the colourful antics of this senator from Louisiana and was very different to anything I knew about British politics. There was a little asterisk beside the title of the chapter which pointed out that the interview had taken place before Senator Long was assassinated. I read this in 1959: I knew Gandhi had been assassinated a decade before but the notion that an American politician had been killed in this way came as a big shock. Of course, that was all to change in the 1960s. 

What qualities do you need?

To be a historian you need to be able to weigh up the evidence and construct a coherent explanation of events. You need to be able to really get into the subject so that you’re not surprised by things, or rather, to understand when you should be surprised. You are always tempted to apply anachronistic contemporary values. Inevitably when you’re studying the 20th century you’re bound to have strong sympathies with certain characters, in my case Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.

You came up to Cambridge in 1965. What was it like?

I was brought up in Bristol in a family of Welsh school teachers. My parents were both wonderfully encouraging, there were lots of books around, and I went to the local grammar school. I sang in a local church choir and regret I did not carry on seriously when my voice broke. I also played a lot of rugby. History was always my main interest though I wouldn’t say that I was a very good student. When I applied to Cambridge, my future director of studies said that, although I obviously didn’t know very much, I did show the ability to answer the question.

As an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex, I shared a room with a very bright historian who opened my eyes to how I could make best use of my time. But I rather cringe when I look back at what I produced as an undergraduate. Cambridge was an unusual place – almost all male at that time – but Sidney Sussex had few students from what you might call major public schools. Most of us came from maintained grammar schools and I certainly didn’t feel intimidated or different from anyone else.

At the end of my first year I decided to take a course in American history and I suddenly realised that Huey Long, the man I’d read about when I was 12, was actually rather important as a major political challenger to Roosevelt in the 1930s. I wrote a paper for my college history society about all of this – and I’ve continued to be fascinated by the politics of the South during this era. In 2007 I published a chapter about Long – called ‘When I took the Oath of Office, I took no vow of poverty: Race, Corruption and Democracy in Louisiana’ - in a collection of essays.

By the end of my time at Cambridge I’d begun to learn how to work – how to manage my time and how to concentrate rather than ‘sort of’ work, and how to take notes and read things in different ways – which things to read in detail and which things just to skim through. I’m still learning now.

What would you have been if you hadn’t been a historian?

I probably would have been a school teacher – it runs in the family. Before I got a scholarship to go to Hull to take a PhD I had accepted a place to train as a teacher at Bristol University.

You went from Cambridge to Hull to take a PhD – two very different environments?

Taking a PhD at Hull University was the best thing I ever did. I went from somewhere where there were lots of graduate students to a place where I was the only graduate student in American  history. When I first went to Hull it was for my interview and I clearly remember arriving at the station. The centre of Hull at this time was pretty depressing and I thought: ‘I’ll never have the same sense of excitement coming here as I do each time I get back to Cambridge.’ By the time I left Hull, the reverse was true. I came to appreciate the northern environment and later went to work at Newcastle University. Soon I’m going to be living in Yorkshire.

You’ve focused on American politics throughout your career. What difference does it make that you’re English?

I went to America for the first time in my life in 1969 when I was half way through my PhD and spent 13 months in North Carolina. In those days long-distance travel was really expensive so if you got somewhere you stayed as long as you could. It’s very different for our graduate students today - they go back and forth to the States all the time. The focus of the previous generation of historians of America to mine tended to be explaining America to non-Americans and to concentrate on the Anglo-American relationship. What people of my generation wanted to do was to be virtually indistinguishable from American graduate students. We sought to master the sources as thoroughly as American students would and tackle the problems that concerned American historiography - and thus be judged on our credentials on the same basis as American historians.

Over the years I’ve come to think that there is no advantage or disadvantage to being English – it’s just different. A historian from the North of America working on the history of the South is another different experience. It’s been said that you never will understand the south without having been born there. That might be right but it brings with it all kinds of assumptions.  In some ways being an outsider is helpful in that it avoids you getting into a cycle of self-congratulation and lamentation that bedevils American and Southern history.  It took a long time for American historians and commentators to pick up on the distinctive importance of religion in modern American politics which for outsiders really stood out. 

Do we study history in order to learn from the past?

AJP Taylor famously said that we learn about the mistakes of the past in order to make the same mistakes again. I’ve written a fair amount recently on Obama and the lessons of the New Deal because in 2009 explicit comparisons were made between Obama’s administration and Roosevelt’s administration. Obama had different things to face and he didn’t have the same opportunities as FDR. American politicians, particularly Democrats, have always been imprisoned by comparisons with Roosevelt – none of them will ever live up to it. Things are never the same twice but an analysis of history can provide comparative factors and useful pointers about what may or may not happen.

As for politicians having a solid grasp of history, Clare Short once said of Tony Blair that he had very little knowledge of history while Gordon Brown did. It’s not clear what effect that had but I do think a broad historical sense gives you a certain degree of caution. The most obvious lesson of the past for European politicians should have been Iraq and for Americans it’s Vietnam

You’ve been Master of Clare College for the past ten years. What’s special about a Cambridge education?

For students the most important thing in studying history is to get an imaginative understanding of it.  Like classics, it’s not a vocational subject – it teaches you how to weigh up material and make judgments. The most important thing I look for in students is that they enjoy it.  What we have at Cambridge, as one of the world’s leading research universities, is an amazingly favourable environment for students. I taught for 20 years at Newcastle where we had wonderful students but in the history department they are operating with a student-staff ratio at levels which can’t possibly offer the same experience students get at Cambridge. We’re also sitting on fantastic resources here in the form of libraries and so on – so there’s absolutely no excuse for not providing world class undergraduate education.

The real challenge for Cambridge over the next ten to 15 years is to raise the big sums of money needed to sustain the research standard and keep that quality of undergraduate education at the same time.  The pressures on today’s College Fellows from the demands of research are such that a College needs far more of them than we did in the past in order to maintain the current level of teaching. The notion that nothing needs to change is simply wishful thinking.

How do you feel about history teaching in schools?

I feel that the best people to comment on that are teachers themselves. As an American historian I can’t complain. I don’t lament the current state of historical knowledge in our sixth forms, many of which I visit to give talks. Students arriving to start courses at Cambridge don’t come up with lesser skills than their predecessors, they come up with different skills. They are accustomed to working in a modular fashion and, in terms of doing weekly essays at Cambridge, that’s rather good training. They master IT skills that academics have on the whole been fairly slow to grasp - and they certainly know how to work hard.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

The most rewarding thing has been teaching a special subject in the History Faculty that’s been very popular – it’s a course on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes I hear from students from years ago who write to tell me what they are doing today – NGO work in Rwanda, for example – as a direct result of doing this course.  I’ve been remarkably lucky to have some very talented PhD students, real self-starters, who have gone into the leading university jobs in American history in this country.

The reality of being a Master of a Cambridge College and a professor are that you are busy but that’s not a complaint. I spent two terms on to the University Council and had a period as chairman of the Cambridge Colleges Committee where you confront the inevitable difficulty of getting things done in a self-governing institution. In retirement I’m looking forward to not being timetabled quite so much

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

History looks very different from how it looked in the late 1960s if you’re an American historian. The relatively narrow range of American political and diplomatic history has been enormously enriched by the new social history. One particular example is the history of women: in 1974 I was working at Newcastle University and I invited Carl Degler, the visiting Harmsworth Professor, from Oxford to give a lecture on “Is there a history of women?”  Well, there certainly wasn’t at Newcastle – or most other places – back in 1974.  The emergence of the history of women as a research area and the influx of women into the profession have transformed the subject. History is a much more theoretically sophisticated subject than it was 30 years ago. I look at the courses available to students at Cambridge today and think what a wonderful subject it is. In my own area, it was the great books of the history on slavery that came out in the 1970s that led me to teach race relations as a subject. As an American historian, it was important to know these works – and the best way to do that was to teach them.

Which of your books would you most recommend to readers?

It would have to be FDR: The First Hundred Days which came out in 2008. At first no-one was really interested in it and then it began to attract attention. The financial crisis in the autumn of that year meant that 10 Downing Street got interested in it and just after Christmas, the historian Tristram Hunt wrote in the Observer that this volume was top of the reading list of political classes on both sides of the Atlantic. It developed from a book I published in 1989, a one-volume history of the New Deal called The New Deal: The Depression Years 1933-1940.

What are you doing next?

I’ve got three main things to do.

I’m independent reviewer for the Foreign Office for, firstly the Migrated Archive and their Special Collections. The Migrated Archive is a vast number of papers sent to London from the British administrations of former colonies in their last days rather than handing them over to their successors. The existence of this archive came to light in the Kenya torture trial. My appointment was designed to provide assurance that these papers would get published in their entirety. I did that in 2013.

The Foreign Office then acknowledged that they had a much larger collection of papers that they had not made available – held at the records centre at Hounslow Park. These papers are not as significant, I suspect, as the Migrated Archive and they are much more haphazard in what they cover. The best way of describing this archive is as residual collections – they didn’t come in the normal way under the 30-year rule that governs the annual transfer of documents from any government department to the national archive. These files have been accumulated outside that departmental route – they include stuff from the Allied Control Mission and stuff on the Foreign Office investigation of Burgess and McLean as well as very interesting material from Hong Kong and claims against the German government from British citizens who were victims of Nazi persecution. 

While the Migrated Archive released over the last two years had just over 20,000 files, the Special Collections has 600,000 plus files.  It’s my role to guarantee that these are being released in a timely fashion. This task isn’t quite as massive as it seems as 250,000 of these files relate to Hong Kong and won’t be released until 2047. Another 150,000 files are routine foreign compensation claim files. My role is to prioritise the release of the most important papers as quickly as possible.

The second thing is that I’m chairman of the Kennedy Memorial Trust which administers the Kennedy Scholarships and also the memorial at Runnymede. Thirdly, a former colleague of mine is doing a remarkable job building up American history at Northumbria University in Newcastle and I’m going to be doing some work for them. So, all in all, I’m going to be pretty busy.

Inset images: Tony Badger as Bristol choirboy, rugby player and visiting scholar (credit: Tony Badger)


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