Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts In Memoriam: William H. McNeill
In Memoriam: William H. McNeill

In Memoriam: William H. McNeill

William McNeill

“I was born on 31 October 1917 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. That day happened to be the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and my father, who was then teaching church history at a newly established Presbyterian college in Westminster, B.C., noted the fact with some satisfaction. Later in life I was more impressed by the fact that my birth occurred a week before Lenin inaugurated the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia – a different, and more fleeting, historical landmark.”

So recalled William Hardy McNeill at the start of his 2005 book  In Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir. On July 8, 2016, McNeill went to his rest, aged 98, near his retirement home in rural Connecticut. He was arguably the greatest American historian of my lifetime…and my mentor.

You may read as much or as little as you wish about his extraordinary career in the New York Times or University of Chicago obituaries available online, in the forthcoming American Historical Association’s Perspectives in History commemoration written by his son John R. McNeill, or in his own candid and self-aware writings. But if you choose the latter, be advised that you risk being drawn into an enormous oeuvre rivaling that of Arnold J. Toynbee.

McNeill was a pioneer and self-described missionary for world history long before the word globalization had even been coined. Although he himself was thoroughly trained in the paradigm of Western Civilization and even helped develop the University of Chicago’s survey course in the field, he saw beyond his own country, culture, and era to imagine homo sapiens as a single species and the human community as an integrated whole. Toynbee’s twelve-volume A Study of History pointed McNeill in that direction by rejecting national history as parochial, rejecting the “assembly-line” trend toward historical specialization, and rejecting all “process history” derived, for instance, from Liberalism or Marxism. But McNeill spied a reality so universal even Toynbee’s cyclical model of civilizational growth and decay had missed it: the continuous imitation and cross-fertilization that occurs across all human boundaries and tells a story bigger even than civilizations. So he made up his mind to write his own world history in one volume of less than a thousand pages and to divide it into three parts: the era of Near Eastern dominance of the ecumene (the Greek word for the known world comprising Eurasia and Africa), the era of rough equivalence between eastern and western civilizations (albeit with China in the forefront), and the modern era since 1450, which gave his book its name: The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. Praised by the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper as the “most stimulating and fascinating” world history ever written, it won the National Book Award in 1964 and launched a career that would earn McNeill the Erasmus Prize in 1996 and a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2010.

McNeill grew up on the campus of the University of Chicago following his father’s appointment there in 1927, an experience recalled in his memoir on [Robert Maynard] Hutchins’ University. He attended its famous “lab school” and college and had begun graduate work at Cornell University when war intervened. But he spent childhood vacations at his grandfather’s farm on Prince Edward Island, where the city boy experienced both Elysian bliss and hard lessons as recounted in his poignant memoir Summers Long Ago. Finally, he spent five years Growing Up in the Army (the title of a third memoir written in retirement) during which time he observed the Communist insurrection in Greece (hence The Greek Dilemma: War And Aftermath, published in 1947). He returned home with a wife – the gracious, intelligent Elizabeth Darbishire (whose father happened to be a close friend of Toynbee) – and completed the PhD at Cornell University. His dissertation topic was “The Influence of the Potato on Irish History,” a seemingly prosaic topic that presaged a lifelong fascination with peasant life, nutrition, environment, and demography. McNeill then returned to the University of Chicago where he earned tenure in 1955, chaired the history department from 1961 to 1967, edited the Journal of Modern History from 1971 to 1979, served on Mortimer Adler’s board of editors for the Encyclopedia Britannica, developed programs, curricula, and textbooks for world history, and contributed to the broader profession in all manner of ways before and after his semi-retirement in 1977 and full retirement ten years later. He was also elected president of the American Historical Association in 1984. All that in addition to sustaining a sixty-year marriage and intellectual environment for their four children.

*  *  *  *  *

We graduate students used to joke that Bill McNeill must have an identical twin brother to accomplish so much, including publication of a book almost every year. The most original ones included studies of the vast steppe lands that served as rookeries for the nomadic peoples who perturbed European history for 1,500 years; the unique role played by Venice, the entrepôt for the people, produce, and ideas of the Byzantine, Catholic, Arab, and Ottoman Turkish civilizations; the role of infectious diseases (aptly termed micro-parasitism) as a devastating by-product of civilizational intercourse; the competition among states to acquire, tame, and project power through social organization, taxation, technology, and bureaucracy; the irresistible force of demographic change, especially in our era of population explosions and national states; and the mystical power of people moving in unison, as in dance, military drills and parades, and civil and religious rites. McNeill, an unabashed generalist, was occasionally criticized by specialists for not doing archival research or mastering languages, but he believed the alternative – to disqualify anyone from “thinking big” – would only make academic history irrelevant, even absurd. “McDougall,” he once told me, “don’t be a pygmy.”

McNeill often referred to Plagues and Peoples, The Pursuit of Power, and Population and Politics as merely “extended footnotes” to The Rise of the West. But they inspired a generation of younger historians, including Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was a bestseller in 1997. Not long after that John McNeill, by then a distinguished environmental historian at Georgetown, hit on the notion of the “human web” of communications as an organizing concept for world history. The result was a synthetic masterpiece, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (2004) co-authored by père et fils. Its strikingly simple account (thereby satisfying “Occam’s Razor”) described the whole human adventure from the “Out of Africa” exploration and settlement of the planet to the violent and sometimes peaceful contacts among tribes by which information and techniques disseminated, to the commerce and conflict among empires and civilizations that stimulated the science and technology that now weave people almost everywhere into a single pulsating “world-wide web.” But even that tour de force was merely suggestive, for McNeill subsequently likened the role of its authors to that of “John the Baptist, prefiguring a greater revelation coming from the hand and mind of David Christian,” whose own 2004 book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History “begins with the big bang and surveys the entire evolutionary story as cosmologists, physicists, geologists, biologists, archeologists, and historians have been able to put it together.”

Inevitably, McNeill was quizzed throughout life about “where history is going.” Invariably, he would speak in terms of probabilities based on grand trends, but never certainties because in the end human beings wielding their mighty symbols (e.g., language, art, mathematics, cybernetics) have mastered their environments far more than been mastered by them. That is why, as the McNeills wrote in The Human Web, “despite innumerable failures and local disasters – environmental, biological, and sociopolitical – the net effect was to expand human life by sporadically enlarging our species’ consumption and control of energy….” But do evolutionary patterns still apply in our own century, an era when the global population has suddenly expanded from 2 billion people in 1930 to 7 billion, when the 80 exajoules of energy consumed in 1930 have soared to 600 today, and when the IT revolution has put 7 billion cell phones into the hands of rich and poor all over the world in just twenty years? How can this century fail to be plagued by violent political and religious rebellions born of ferocious resentment of inequality and impuissance on the part of poor and middling folk? How will the world’s patricians tame its plebeians?

Way back in 1990 McNeill speculated on what the 21st century might bring in an article for Foreign Affairs called “The Winds of Change.” He wrote that “Human affairs never stand still for long” and that “The travail of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites ought not to be counted as a clear and definitive victory for the United States and the American way of life. Freedom has not definitively triumphed, nor has history achieved its appointed end, despite recent assertions to that effect.” On the contrary, he noted that American society also had grave difficulties, not least its persistent racial divides and increasingly unassimilated immigrants. He also rued “the halfheartedness of official response to ecological problems and a military policy preoccupied with preparing for high-tech international war when low-grade local violence – both at home and abroad – is a more likely occasion for American military action.” By contrast, McNeill observed, “If China’s enormous bulk should ever begin to attain efficient modernity, it is hard to doubt that the Far East would reassert a world primacy like that it enjoyed between 1000 and 1450….” But all nations would face enormous challenges due to new forms of infectious disease and crises in food production such that massive die-offs and ecological disasters could occur even in the absence of armed conflicts. “Clearly, what is needed is a global effort at ecologically and politically sustainable development. Somehow worldwide management of capital flows, migration flows, pollution, energy use, and exchange of goods needs to become explicit – and efficient as well.” But a “world government, exercising mandatory and presumably dictatorial power over all of humankind, is anything but attractive to anyone who is heir to the liberal tradition.”

Four years later McNeill elaborated in a lecture on “The Changing Shape of World History.” He said, “Human groups, even while borrowing from outsiders, cherish a keen sense of their uniqueness. The more they share, the more each group focuses attention on residual differences, since only then can the cohesion and morale of the community sustain itself. The upshot has always been conflict, rivalry and chronic collision among human groups, both great and small. Even if world government were to come, such rivalries would not cease…. In all probability, human genetic inheritance is attuned to membership in a small, primary community. Only so can life have meaning and purpose…. But how firm adhesion to primary communities can be reconciled with participation in global economic and political processes is yet to be discovered.” He suspected that the human race trembles on the verge of a great transformation, with risks greater than ever before, but so, too, great possibilities.

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People ask me how I decided to become an historian. In fact, I never did. While geography and history were childhood passions of mine, which I indulged in course selection, I never expected to make a living from them. I just never decided to do anything else. It might have seemed that becoming a lawyer like my father was a logical choice, except that he worked all the time and I wanted no part of that. Most immediately, as graduation from Amherst College loomed so did the likelihood that I must enter the military. So I applied to graduate programs in history half-heartedly and put off a career decision pending my return from the Vietnam War in 1970. Of course, soldiers in a war zone think about nothing else except surviving and getting back home, which meant I had no immediate prospects besides graduate school at the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago, the only departments that accepted me. (I suspect to this day I got into Chicago on the strength of my parents’ status as alumni.) I had not studied its faculty and had no idea under whom I would work. I had never even heard of William H. McNeill.

Call it chance, fate, karma, or providence, but the history department in the old Social Sciences Building at 1126 East 59th Street in Chicago’s Hyde Park perfectly suited my temperament. I treated graduate work like work, not school, as befit the dour environment of the “Gray City,” and was pleased to encounter professors both rigorous and inspiring. They included Peter Novick in U.S. American intellectual history, Akira Iriye in U.S. diplomatic and East Asian history, Ralph Austen in Africa, Donald Lach in Early Modern Europe, and F. Gregory Campbell in Late Modern Germany. It quickly became apparent that McNeill was a prominent figure in the department and a visible one, since his office was in the midst of the busiest corridor and his door was often open. Moreover, Marnie Veghte, his secretary across the hall, served as a cheerful, encouraging “house mother” to graduate students. But I did not encounter McNeill until, I believe, the second semester of my second year, when time came to prepare for the orals exam. I led a polite rebellion against the random mix of courses offered by various professors, calling instead for proseminars to train all the students in, say European or American history in the basic themes and interpretations defining their fields. In my European field, for instance, that meant the origins of revolutions, the international systems of the 19th and 20th centuries, the ideologies of Liberalism, Socialism, Nationalism, Communism, and Fascism, the Industrial Revolution(s) and their social and economic effects, and something on art and culture. To my surprise, Professional McNeill not only approved our petition but also volunteered to teach the proseminar.

A year and a half later it came time for me to select a dissertation topic and a Doktorvater (as Romantic German students call their mentor). Since my topic was to be French diplomacy toward the Weimar Republic in the years following the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the obvious choice was Campbell. But he strongly suggested McNeill as someone better able to advance my career, so I timidly approached him again and again he agreed on condition that Campbell serve on my committee and render technical advice. What McNeill did provide, with unfailing generosity, was a constant flow of good counsel about the historian’s craft, counsel I have never forgotten and invariably pass on to my own students. Most memorably, he suggested that I take a day every month to collect my thoughts and send him a detailed progress report describing my researches, working hypotheses, crises, and conundrums. I recently dug those reports written from Paris 43 years ago and was dumbstruck by the length and self-consciousness of my self-assessments as well as McNeill’s two or three page, single-spaced, painstakingly typewritten replies. Here is one sample from his letter of May 6, 1973.

“I feel immensely pleased and impressed with your progress and hope your current investigations will come up with pay dirt to confirm and give precision to your interpretations…. I do not think you should be too worried about coming up right away with a fine and compelling outline of the whole thesis. I would address myself to the problem at roughly the one-month intervals, just to see where you are in your overall thinking, and to make any adjustments or enlargements of detail that your improved state of knowledge suggests. But a period of fertile indecision, indeed of agonizing confusion and concern for the apparent anomalies or gaps or general unintelligibility is a sine qua non of really worthwhile work, since only after passing through such a state of puzzlement are answers to worthwhile questions likely to emerge. Obvious questions with obvious answers result in dull history. So a suitable tension between hypothesis and available data, between confusion and certainty, is the wholesome and proper state in which to find yourself. You seem in that posture and I commend it to you.”

Thanks to the training and motivation I received from McNeill I finished the thesis in near-record time and got hired by the University of California, Berkeley, in the depressed academic job market of the mid-1970s. Since then our paths only crossed a few times (including two FPRI history institutes he generously graced). But we continued to correspond and McNeill kindly “blurbed’ several of my books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age and Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828. Obviously McNeill continued to influence my teaching and writing. I especially recall drawing on The Rise of the West for my lectures in the Western Civ survey at Berkeley, including its illustration of a French headboard carved in 1892 that depicted the horrific scene of a snake twisted into the shape of a human face and in the process of devouring its own tail. McNeill’s caption likened the snake to “the intellectuals of our time who, having used their conscious and rational faculties to discover the dark realms of the unconscious psyche – realms that tie them willy-nilly to the primitive – can no longer trust rationality, but instead make reason feed upon itself by rationally arguing the helplessness of reason.” That got the undergraduates’ attention.

Anyone who has sampled both books can tell that McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power influenced my interpretation of the Cold War Space Race in …the Heavens and the Earth (even though he generously credited my manuscript for influencing him). He also praised my subsequent books on American history, remarking in April 2004 that he valued my emphasis on “religious movements and commitments. Both had been left out of my US history courses systematically, transmuting to me a sanitized and secularized version of the facts. These, I felt, you corrected.” But he wondered how my books would be received since “those trained in European history are not supposed to intrude on U.S. domestic history as a rule: and I can imagine snide possessory efforts to put you down.” Perhaps McNeill had in mind his own vain efforts to rebut the erroneous distrust of world history by his colleagues at Chicago – and by the profession at large to judge by his AHA presidential address on the conflation of myth and history, which I had thought daring but which (he confided to me) had been roundly ignored.

In February 2009 McNeill followed up with praise of my Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, which he evidently read thoroughly despite fading eyesight. “I congratulate you on what was to me a revelatory experience – exhilarating and disquieting at the same time. Your ruthless pursuit of the whole truth, presenting the crude and nasty as well as the bright and shiny side of American history is surely unprecedented, and I suspect this has disturbed others like myself comfortably asleep in the self-congratulatory half-truths that pervade our public discourse and prevail in US history books…. You are my most accomplished student, and I am proud to have known and learned from you in your student days. Sincerely, and with all my heart, Bill.” The only word to describe Professor McNeill was magnanimous.

Over the past two decades my own inquiries have gravitated toward American civil religion and the damage its twentieth and twenty-first century deformations have done to U.S. foreign policy. Once again, it turned out his mind and mine had been pedaling in tandem. For as early as 1982 he wrote in another Foreign Affairs article on “The Care and Repair of Public Myth” that even though secular liberalism had become a mere simulacrum of traditional Christianity, “the primacy of faith is equally real for the various civil religions that since the eighteenth century have come to provide the practical basis for nearly all of the world’s governments.” But such myths (including the American) no longer had much survival value, because “the national history of the United States fits into the pattern of world history not as an exception but as a part.” So placing our nation “within the panorama of world history will require us to give up both the original Puritan vision of creating a ‘city on a hill’ uniquely pleasing to God, and its variously secularized versions that continue to dominate our national self-image.” He doubted that could easily be done. But such “care and repair” of public myth was imperative because what humanity needs is “an intelligible world, and to make our world intelligible, generalization is necessary. Our academic historians have not done well in providing such generalizations of late. Thoughtful men of letters ought therefore to try.”

*  *  *  *  *

Nearly a century ago, in 1917, John T. McNeill wrote poems on the occasion of the birth of his son William Hardy and pasted them in his baby book. One was a prophecy:

            You come while still the deep skies lower
            With strifes that make the people free:
            Your drowsy eyes shall, in their hour
            View wonders we may never see:
            Your tender hands shall grasp with power
            New keys to the old mystery!

The other was a prayer.

            God shield you not from pain
            But from unworthiness.
            God send you hard-won joy for gain
            And honor for success.

The prophecy and the prayer have both been answered, or so it seems to me.


The Works of William H. McNeill

The Greek Dilemma: War And Aftermath (Victor Gollancz, 1947)

History of Western Civilization: A Handbook (University of Chicago, 1949; 6th edition, 1986)

“The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland,” The Journal of Modern History (Sept. 1949)

America, Britain, & Russia: Co-operation and Conflict, 1941-1946 (Oxford University, 1953)

Past and Future (University of Chicago, 1954; second edition 1964)

Greece: American Aid in Action, 1947-1956 (Twentieth Century Fund, 1957)

The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago, 1963, revised edition 1991)

The Ecumene: Story of Humanity (Harper & Row, 1963)

Europe’s Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800 (University of Chicago, 1964)

A World History (Oxford University, 1967; 4th edition 1998)

The Contemporary World, 1914-Present (Scott, Foresman, 1967)

Essays in the Liberal Interpretation of History: Selected Papers by Lord Acton, edited with introduction (University of Chicago, 1967)

The Islamic World, edited with Marilyn Robinson Waldman (University of Chicago, 1973)

The Shape of European History (Oxford University Press, 1974)

Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081-1797 (University of Chicago, 1974)

Plagues and Peoples (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976)

The Metamorphosis of Greece since World War II (University of Chicago, 1978)

Human Migration: Patterns and Policies, edited with Ruth S. Adams (Indiana University, 1978)

“Historical Patterns of Migration,” Current Anthropology (Mar. 1979)

The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View (Princeton University, 1980)

The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 (University of Chicago, 1982)

The Great Frontier: Freedom and Hierarchy in Modern Times (Princeton University, 1983)

Polyethnicity and National Unity in World History (University of Toronto, 1985)

Mythistory and Other Essays (University of Chicago, 1986)

Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (Oxford University, 1989)

Population and Politics since 1750 (University of Virginia, 1990)

Hutchins’ University: A Memoir 1929-1950 (University of Chicago, 1991)

The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes, & Community (Princeton University, 1992)

Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Harvard University, 1995)

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History with J. R. McNeill (W.W. Norton, 2003)

Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (with Jerry H. Bentley, David Christian, et al., editors), 5 vols. (Berkshire Publishing, 2005, second edition, 6 vols. 2011))

The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir (University of Kentucky, 2005)

Summers Long Ago: On Grandfather’s Farm and in Grandmother’s Kitchen (Berkshire

            Publishing, 2009)

A Scholar’s Guerdon of Verse 1933-2011 (Berkshire Publishing, 2011)

Growing Up in the Army: September 1941-November 1946 (Berkshire Publishing, 2012)