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Columns

Your Thesis Might Just Change the World

How Roosevelt and Kennedy’s Harvard Experience Shaped Their Worldview

By Nick J. Danby, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

I recently visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to conduct thesis research. After spending a few days requesting folders and files that last saw the light of day four decades ago, this trip helped to not only substantiate my thesis argument, but to also redefine and illuminate my thesis’ importance and impact on U.S. national security strategy.

But at a certain point, when I had requested pulled one too many folders and flipped through one too many files, I had to ask myself, “What is it all for?” I have heard many seniors ask this same question, with perhaps more agony, a week before their thesis was due. But the question does not seem to answer itself even when the thesis is completed. During his 2000 Class Day address at Harvard, comedian Conan O’Brien ’85 mentioned that he had written a thesis but that “no one is ever going to care.” He is probably right. The only person who will care about a thesis is the person who tirelessly researched, drafted, edited, and reviewed your thesis — but that may be more than enough.

Towards the end of his junior year, Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, was invited to write an honors thesis. As he perused the Porcellain Club’s library, he came across British historian William James’ “Naval History of Great Britain.” Roosevelt considered the six-volume work “invaluable… written with fullness and care” but also biased with its “succession of acrid soliloquies on the moral defects of the American character.” James’ pro-British bias was countered by “The History of the Navy of the United States” by James Fenimore Cooper, whose book Roosevelt found “very inexact” because it “pa[id] no attention to the British side of the question.” Roosevelt was disturbed that “each writer naturally so colored the affair as to have it appear favorable to his own side.” He set out to write a naval history of the War of 1812 that was “full, accurate, and unprejudiced” — and, incidentally, would change the course of world affairs.

Knowing little more about his subject than any other undergraduate at Harvard, Roosevelt poured over primary sources never before accessed, including “official letters, log-books, original contracts, [and] muster-rolls.” To grasp the precise circumstances of a certain naval engagement, Roosevelt even recreated two- and three-dimensional ships. His close friend, Owen Wister, Class of 1882, recounted numerous instances when Roosevelt was alone in his library, standing with one leg on the bookcase, sketching a diagram for his book in excruciating detail. Upon graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt finished the book’s first two technical-heavy chapters, and then subsequently published “The Naval War of 1812” in 1882 at the age of 23.

The book was not only revered as a definitive operational history of the naval war but also a catalyst for the American Navy’s rapid buildup in the 1890s. Through his historical analysis, Roosevelt crafted a historical justification for a policy of naval expansionism based on preparedness and modernization. Roosevelt hoped the book would, as author William S. Dudley states, draw “attention to the need for a stronger navy, so the nation could play a significant role on the world’s stage.” If America even wanted to fulfill its dream of becoming a world power, it would have to adopt the principles of naval expansionism. To achieve this aim, Roosevelt followed his thesis’ own recommendations.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy and President, Roosevelt spearheaded efforts to increase the capabilities and capacities of the U.S Navy along with the skill, training, and education of American seamen. He routinely deployed this modernized navy to demonstrate American power and achieve his geopolitical objectives. These objectives included the decisive domination of Spanish naval forces in the Spanish-American War, the Colombian cession of Panama in order to build the Panama Canal, and the sailing of the Great White Fleet around the world to signal America’s status as a burgeoning superpower.

Sixty years later, another future President, John F. Kennedy ’40, applied “himself feverishly for a couple of months” to writing his magna cum laude thesis, titled “Appeasement at Munich,” or better known under its subsequent book title “Why England Slept.” Kennedy argued that the “Munich Pact should not be the object of criticism.” Instead, Britain’s inability to prepare for war should be based on the other factors like “the conditions of Britain’s armaments.” In short, Kennedy did not put a lot of stock in Munich analogies and the dangers of appeasement. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a naval blockade would reduce the risk of nuclear war, Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay said the “blockade and political action… will lead right into war… This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” Kennedy incredulously asked, “What did you say?” He then quickly left the room “just beside himself,” furious at LeMay’s attempt to compare his blockade to the appeasement of Hitler. Yet Kennedy’s own thesis about the origins that engender World War II allowed him to realize that if he followed LeMay’s advice and his Munich analogy, “none of us will be alive later to tell them [the military] that they were wrong.” Powerful stuff.

So, yes, right now your thesis may seem useless. And it may be, unless you utilize these insights to make decisions and shape your worldview — whether that be creating a naval strategy or averting nuclear war. Just like a thesis, the options are endless.

Nick J. Danby ’20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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