British Association for American Studies


Conference Review: Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) Annual Conference, June 21st-23rd 2023, Northumbria University.

Reviewed by Alex Riggs

This year’s Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) conference began with an appeal. At the conference’s opening tribute to Iwan Morgan, the Emeritus Professor at UCL’s Institute of the Americas who retired in 2020, participants called for political history to remain an integral part of the discipline, but in combination with a recognition of the importance of cultural and social forces. This reflected Morgan’s longstanding interests in not only the American presidency but also film and the role of cinema in shaping popular views of politics and the presidency. Over the next two days at Northumbria University, presenters at the conference constantly heeded this call. In addition, Professor Bruce Schulman’s keynote gave much for the traditional HOTCUS audience of political historians to ponder, all in a setting where PGRs and ECRs were fully included and made vital contributions to the conference environment.

Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello plays at Occupy Wall Street in New York, October 2011, Wikimedia Commons.

At a conference hosted by one of the largest American historical associations in the UK featuring nearly 100 papers, it would be impossible for this review to fully cover the wide range of work showcased. Nevertheless, a few examples will draw out the creative scholarship that reflected a dialogue between politics and culture. [1] Ben Quail of the University of Glasgow made use of music to take a creative look at the culture of the war on terror. Highlighting the popularity of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) and political education projects including ‘Punk Voter’, formed by the band NOFX ahead of the 2004 Presidential election, and the ‘Axis of Justice’, convened by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, Quail rebuked the idea of a passive reaction to the foreign policy of the Bush Administration. Instead, he revealed a variety of creative responses to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that fostered anti-war sentiment and drove youth engagement with politics.

Kendra Gage of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, deployed a similarly creative approach, using the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to shed light on not only Cold War superpower relations, but also their domestic implications. The imagery of the games around a hyper-patriotic sensibility (the famous five colours of the Olympic rings were even sidelined in favour of red, white, and blue) was a key element of the Reaganite ‘New Patriotism’, with ‘all American’ athletes like gymnast Mary Lou Retton symbolic of a revived confidence in American supremacy on the world stage. Gage also used this case study to illuminate the games’ local political impact. Especially noteworthy were crime, gangs, and homelessness, with local officials playing up these fears in a bid to win more federal funding, whilst local anti-communist activists plotted a network of ‘safe houses’ for defecting Eastern bloc athletes. As Gage highlighted, both were important public justifications for the eventual Soviet boycott.

The Olympic Torch Tower at the Los Angeles Olympics, July 28th, 1984 Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most novel use of popular culture to comment on political climates was from Malcolm Craig. The Liverpool John Moores University historian of the Cold War used Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPG) to interrogate ‘the politics of vulnerability’, or how people processed the anxieties and fears of living under the threat of nuclear conflict. This was especially significant in an era where ‘games’ were central to the culture of conflict, from the advent of ‘game theory’ to the frequent ‘war games’ practised by NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As a particular case study, Craig used the TTRPG Twilight 2000, set in a post-Nuclear War Poland and released amidst high Cold War tension in 1984. More than just a political history conference then, HOTCUS underscored the value of looking beyond the high politics of the presidency and congress, with the interaction between politics and culture at key moments in recent history revealing the value of these sources for understanding the political and social climate that produced them.

Another important theme emphasised the importance of analysing America’s dialogue with the world, rather than understanding it as an isolated or exceptional nation. In particular, the panel on ‘The Special Relationship in the Early-Twentieth Century’ showcased this. Anna Stroinski’s paper on American Federation of Labour founder Samuel Gompers’ 1909 European Tour traced the international engagements of American trade unionists in the period, engaging with partner organisations like the British Trades Union Congress, but equally the tensions between them over the role of unions in electoral politics. Tom Smith’s paper followed the American travels of the British Pentecostal Alexander Boddy (1854-1930), highlighting Los Angeles as a pilgrimage site for many early-twentieth-century members of this denomination, especially the African American-run Azuza Street mission in the city. Smith used such travel writing to underline the feelings of national superiority that many British visitors felt over American race relations and segregation, even as British writers continued to associate Black Americans with their poor surroundings in segregated cities. Finally, Rachel Reville’s paper reflected on the shifting attitudes on the British left towards Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidency, drawing out a transformation from criticising the New Deal as a saviour of the American capitalist order to hailing a revolution in everyday life that brought material benefits to ordinary Americans and offered a model for the British left’s own post-war transformation.

Perhaps the conference highlight was Bruce Schulman’s keynote on ‘The New American Political Tradition and the People Who Made It’. As the title suggests, the 2022-2023 Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford used his address to update Richard Hofstadter’s iconic 1948 work ‘The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It’. Schulman could not settle on one tradition of his own, instead putting forward three permeable and interacting perspectives. The first of these was the liberal machine tradition, a transactional and top-down form of politics with a strong belief in the potential of electoral politics and government. Embodied by figures like Lyndon Johnson and Chicago machine mayor Richard J. Daley, this tradition made its maxim ‘getting things done’, with politics about tangible results produced by political bargaining rather than popular participation in policymaking.

Two members of the liberal machine: Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (L) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (R), April 21, 1966. Wikimedia Commons

More positive about participation was the social movement tradition, based around bottom-up organisation to advance identity-based rights claims. Exemplifying this tradition in Schulman’s view was Ella Baker, the civil rights organiser whose outlook was based around activists communicating their lived experiences, rejecting charismatic leadership in favour of organising from local issues upwards. Finally, there was the Mugwump tradition, a politics described by Schulman as ‘neither top-down nor bottom-up, but from the middle around’, in its stress on channelling all forms of politics into its strategies, which often prioritised process over outcome in a disinterested view of government. The standard bearer for this tradition was Ralph Nader, whose consumer activism encouraged ordinary Americans to adopt a ‘citizenship lifestyle’ where they organised in a non-bureaucratic way to advance a self-defined set of interests. This provocative keynote provided perfect fodder for discussion—Schulman spent almost every session break fielding questions on his talk and hearing suggestions for other new American political traditions! Some of the most pointed critiques came from its emphasis on the 1960s and liberalism over more strongly conservative political traditions (or even those from the far-right, such as white nationalism). Yet as a premise and keynote, Schulman’s was an impressive provocation to consider the variety and diversity of figures that have shaped the political environment of the late twentieth century.

As well as the quality of the papers, other attributes made the HOTCUS conference worthy of acclaim. The first of these was the variety of panel formats. The standard ’20 minutes per paper with 3/4 participants plus Q&A’ remains the most common, but several more experimental ventures were piloted at the conference. Perhaps the most successful were the three ‘book panels’, during which authors introduced their new works before commentaries from other scholars. After sessions on Susan L. Carruthers’ Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America, Nick Witham’s Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America, and Kathryn Cramer Brownell’s 24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News, attendees were given an informative insight into the process that produced each work and the questions authors sought to answer, before enlightening commentaries placed them in wider contexts and debates. Also included were discussions around teaching and pedagogy, publishing, and ‘the second project’, i.e. the process of formulating new research after completing a PhD. Writing as someone approaching the end of their PhD, these sessions were particularly helpful, providing insight from academics at all career stages on their experiences. Another positive aspect for HOTCUS as a PhD candidate was the integration of early-career academics so that they were made to feel integral to the conference, rather than observers at an event for senior scholars. Specific space for PGRs was carved out on the conference’s first day, at the writing workshop where Schulman led feedback on pre-circulated works by early career historians, but throughout the conference PGRs and ECRs featured on panels that mixed all career stages, bearing the fruits of HOTCUS’ policy of requiring panellist diversity.

In short, HOTCUS 2023 stretched beyond its traditional strength of political history, showing its importance for all with an interest in American Studies as presenters weaved the political in with cultural and social explorations of recent American history. This conference also clearly revealed HOTCUS’s significance as a home for scholars in early career stages, providing a welcome home for those embarking on one of their first academic conferences in a supportive environment that integrated them with established historians. With this latest conference, HOTCUS reaffirmed its importance as a champion of contemporary American history in the UK.

[1] See here for the full conference programme- https://docs.google.com/document/d/19qofXjE4XUIFidQZD29CBzXXmkGc5Y6FaeVuyVzY4Xk/edit.

About the Author

Alex Riggs is a third-year PhD student in History at the University of Nottingham, funded by Midlands4Cities. He researches the 1970s and 1980s American left, using case studies from local and national politics to trace their intellectual history and organisational efforts. He also co-founded the Contemporary History and Politics Seminars at Nottingham. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexRiggs6