National Hispanic Heritage Month

Edward Roybal (

A Brief Overview

Hispanic Heritage Month has the distinction of not being a traditional month from the Gregorian Calendar. Rather, it is a thirty-day period drawn across September and October, starting in commemoration of revolution, enacted initially as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 – proposed by Edward Roybal of Los Angeles in 1967 – and expanded into Hispanic Heritage Month under Ronald Reagan in 1988, after Esteban Torres of Pico Rivera, CA’s proposal. September 15 was chosen because it represents the date of independence from Spain for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in 1821; Mexico’s independence from Spain was declared on September 16, 1810 and Chile’s on September 18, 1810. Toward the end of the month is October 12, known to some as Columbus Day, and by others as Indigenous American Day, and Día de la Raza.

The Spanish and Hispanic influence on the United States is evident not just in the ethnic makeup of the modern population, but in the history of the nation-state’s expansion over the last five centuries. The oldest European city which still exists in the United States is Saint Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.[1] While the middle third of the United States was largely a result of the questionably-constitutional Louisiana Purchase between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte, a great deal of the west coast and far west, became part of the country in the 19th century either as a result of the U.S. war with Mexico (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado), or in the time preceding it (Texas). But expansionist wars, imbalanced treaties, and violations of the sovereignty of neighboring states are only part of the story. And, at some point soon, we will discuss this violent interventionist history that has been ongoing for three centuries.

The mark of Hispanic communities can be found in the food, dance, and language across the country – from those states formerly belonging to Mexico to midwestern and northeastern cities like Chicago and New York. Pete Rodriguez is among the Hispanic musicians to come out of New York, with his Latin Boogaloo sound a mainstay of the American zeitgeist for fifty-plus years. Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz helped revolutionize television with his onetime wife Lucille Ball. Comedians and actors such as Cheech Marin and Freddie Prinze helped move Hispanic Americans from the periphery into the cultural spotlight in the mid-20th century. But aside from myriad cultural contributions, Hispanic citizens of the United States have been involved in the countries governance for nearly two centuries. The meaningful gains of popular media are solidified and amplified when the ethnographic makeup of the conventional powerbreakers reflects the diversity of wider demographics. While we have not yet had a Hispanic or Latino U.S. President (excepting, of course, Puerto Rican-Surinamese American Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos on the West Wing), men and women with ancestry across Latin America have served in the most important national political bodies of this country.

The Senate and the Congress


Octavio Larrazolo (

The first Hispanic U.S. Senator was Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, born in Chihuahua, Mexico on December 7, 1859, and elected in 1928. He helped secure recognition for the Spanish language in public business at the 1910 New Mexico constitutional convention, broke with the Democratic Party in 1911 due to his commitment to equal citizenship for Hispanics, and was also elected as the Republican governor of New Mexico in 1918.[2] The first American-born Hispanic Senator was Dennis Chavez, who represented New Mexico from 1925 to 1962. A graduate of Georgetown Law, he helped pioneer free textbooks in public school as a state representative and, as a member of the U.S. Senate, his contributions to civil rights included the Fair Employment Practices Commission Bill, a workplace anti-discrimination law. In 1950, he was among the first to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s revival of the Red Scare. He now has a statue at the U.S. Capitol.[3]

The first Hispanic Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives was Joseph Marion Hernández. Hernández was born in Florida while it was still a Spanish colony and became an American citizen when it transferred to the control of the U.S. government. He served for less than a year advocating for the rights of Floridians, and eventually settled in Cuba.[4]


Romualdo Pacheco (

The first full Representative to Congress was José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco, Jr. of California, who served the 45th district from 1877-79, the 46th from 1879-81, and the 47th from 1881-1883. He was born in 1831 to the daughter of a prominent Mexican family and a captain in the Mexican army; his father died five weeks after his birth, and his mother married Scottish sea captain John Wilson. He attended Oahu Charity School in Honolulu from 1838 to 1843, becoming fluent in English and French and having to relearn Spanish on his return home. He was captured near San Francisco in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, and accepted U.S. citizenship in 1848 after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He and his brother, Mariano, entered local politics at mid-century; Mariano was elected to the state legislature in 1850 and Pacheco served as superior court judge for San Luis Obispo County from 1853 to 1857 and then in the state senate until 1862.[5] He initially worked as a Democrat, but became a Union Party politician in 1861 because he hated slavery and was opposed to Southern secession.[6]

Today there are Americans of Hispanic descent serving in the U.S. Congress in record numbers.[7] There are forty-six total: forty-one in the House, including one Delegate and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jennifer González-Cólon.[8] The five Hispanic members of the U.S. Senate are Marco Rubio of Florida; Robert Menendez of New Jersey; Catherine Marie Cortez Masto of Nevada; Ted Cruz of Texas.[9] Cruz and Rubio’s parents were immigrants from Cuba, and they are both Republican; Democrat Menendez’s parents also came from Cuba.[10] Cortez Masto is also a Democrat, who formerly served under Republican governors Jim Gibbons and Brian Sandoval as Nevada’s Attorney General. Her paternal grandfather immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico.[11]

Things to come

Why wait until the end of the month to publish this? There is a genuine utility to discussing National Hispanic Heritage Month at the end rather than the beginning. While this should be a time of the year where we think more deeply about the forgotten contributions of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States, October 15 should not be the end of discussion. It should be an inspiration to consider these contributions on a regular basis; to continue studying the history of Hispanic Americans beyond this Autumn. This history, within and beyond institutional politics, could never be covered in a single blog post, and so it is our duty to continue to research and report the work of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.

In a time when some of the elected leaders in the U.S. government are using the differences between us to foster political antagonism, it is important to realize that different experiences and perspectives create a more complete picture. Our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. The United States was conquered and compiled by dubious means, but the intended oppressed, ethnic minorities among them, have subverted expectations to help lead this country and create meaningful, positive impact. The least we can do is remember them.



[1] José E. Serrano, Chairman Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1993-94, “Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995,” Library of Congress,

[2] “Octaviano Larrazolo: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate,

[3] “Dennis Chavez: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate,

[4] “The first Hispanic American to serve in Congress, September 30, 1822,” U.S. House,

[5] “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives,,-Romualdo-(P000003)/

[6] “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives.

[7] Jennifer E. Manning, Senior Research Librarian, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service,

[8] Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress;” “Hispanic-American Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by State and Territory, 1822-Present,” U.S. House of Representatives,

[9] “Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” The U.S. Senate,

[10] Shailagh Murray and Karen DeYoung, “Momentum Grows for Relaxing U.S. Policy on Cuba; Bill Would Lift Travel Ban,” The Washington Post,



“Transmissions from the Edge of the Abyss: Mexico 1968,” a lecture by Luis M. Castañeda


The Villanova University Latin American Studies program hosted Art historian and former Syracuse design professor Luis M. Castañeda for their first major event of the school year. His talk commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the student massacre at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico, a tragedy that nearly-coincided with the Mexico City Olympics. These coalescing events are also the subject of his recent book, Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics. His talk focused on the concept of total design and the ways in which Olympiad architecture, advertising design, and organizational planning combined to create a spectacle which the oppressive PRI regime used to suppress resistance and international awareness of civil unrest.

Dr. Castañeda began by showing a photo of a piece of “fake news” from El Tiempo, a Spanish-language paper from New York City. This 1968 issue was headlined “Detienen Telegrafista del “Che” en Complot Para Hacer Fracas en la Olimpiada en Mexico;” “Che’s telegraphist detained in plot to cause trouble in the Olympiad in Mexico.” Allegedly – and non-factually – a telegraphist associated with Ernesto Guevara was captured while trying to stop the Olympic torch making it to Mexico. This lie was in line with the tumult of the times.

The path of the Olympic torch, a ritual of transportation which signifies the globally-unifying aspect of the games, seemed to follow the path of the conquest of Mexico. After starting in Greece, the torch went through Iberia, crossed the Atlantic, and stopped in the Bahamas before stopping on Mexico’s eastern coast and heading inland. At the stop in the Bahamas, there was a shrine built around the cauldron which reflected both the radiant design of the 1968 Olympics as well as the architecture and symbolism of the pre-Hispanic civilizations. This hybridization was a recurring theme.

The Games of the Sixteenth Olympiad were the third summer Olympics held in the autumn, the first held outside of Europe or North America, and the first held in a Latin American country. These Olympics were cloaked in controversy, named by Sports Illustrated magazine as “The Problem Olympics.” For instance, they were the first Olympics where Germany appeared as two separate entities – the NATO-aligned German Federation and the USSR-allied Democratic Republic of Germany. The inclusion of Apartheid South Africa was also controversial. The formally-racist nation was invited on the condition that race and discrimination would be eliminated from all sports in the country by 1972, but other African countries, African-American athletes, and the entire Eastern Bloc promised to boycott if they participated. Franco’s fascist Spain initially planned to boycott the games before deciding to show-up, before appeals from Mexico’s government under Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños secured their participation.

Pedro Ramírez Vázquez was the president of the organizing committee of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Dr. Castañeda described Vázquez as the most prolific Mexican architect of his time – he was responsible for designing most Mexican federal government buildings for three decades. Mr. Vázquez’s Olympics were marked by an aesthetic and cultural convergence of 20th-century and pre-Hispanic Mexico. For instance, the opening ceremony in Teotihuacan utilized the New Fire ritual. This custom marked the end of a temporal cycle for multiple pre-Cortez indigenous Mexican peoples.




(Stamp commemorating the Games, HipStamp)

This exemplified what Dr. Castañeda described as a “narrative of time travel” woven through the tapestry of these Olympics. The Olympic Stadium itself was built in the middle of University City in Mexico City, the heart of unrest and student protests, showcasing the multiple, conflicting ways different people used the same sites. It was built on a pre-Hispanic site in a vast bed of cooled lava that came from a volcanic eruption which marked the mythological-historical beginning of time for many pre-Hispanic groups.

The Mexico City Olympics invoked many parallels with the 1910 centennial of 1810’s War of Mexican Independence, which itself spurred the 1910 revolution which brought the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) to power. One of the most notable parallels was the insistence on “paz,” here ordained as state-sanctioned coercive peace: no unrest, no dysfunction, no instigation, no change.

In 1910, Mexican dictator Porifirio Díaz staged propaganda photoshoots across Mexico City to show the nation’s progress through the city’s literal growth and spread. One remarkable photo displayed the metropolitan cathedral lit up with thousands of lights, with one steeple expressing “1810, Libertad” and its opposite displaying “1910, Progreso,” with the church house in the middle displaying “Paz.” The implication here is that liberty was established in 1810, but now it was a time for peace, progress, and order. Much as Teotihuacan was used in 1968, it was a staging ground for propaganda photos in 1910.

Map of Competition Sites

(Spectacular Mexico)

1968 saw the utilization of an “ideal geography” expressed through the way Olympic city maps were color-coded to direct traffic from Olympic event site to Olympic event site. The intent was to coral the visiting audience to avoid them viewing instability. Total design was a part of all of this. The 1968 Olympics were the first to have a unified global logo, a tradition that has been continued in every Olympics since. The simplistic, radiating design was used in stamps and postcards, in all sorts of Olympic advertising. It was also co-opted by protestors who grafted the simple elegance into their own work protesting the national condition.

In the end, the spectacle worked. The sanitization of space and ideas through architecture and design made Mexico look like a country on the rise. Mexico appeared to be an emerging power on the world stage rather than a country which was mismanaging money that could be redistributed for needed social programs to pay for an international sports tournament.

In the Q&A, Dr. Castañeda was able to expand on some of these ideas. The 1968 Olympics showed a continuity with the 1910 political moment, especially in the sense of the ruling class trying to prevent another revolution, as had come about at the centenary of the war for independence. The 1968 Summer Olympics showed a coherence between policing and design – all architecture, especially officially-produced culture, especially in cities reflects a psychology deeper than the shaping of raw materials, which is revealed with the deeper analysis of context. The Plaza de las Tres Culturas where protestors were shepherded and massacred was designed as the perfect place for an ambush.







The 1968 Olympics also anticipated a pattern that continues today in the way that authoritarian regimes use spectacles to project progress and security to the world. This was a major talking point at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The dialogue at these moments disclosed a social awareness among some in the media and around the world that the regimes in these places were cultivating an image in the way that they constructed barriers to vision. The gaze of the general visiting public was directed to the unifying moments of sports competition. Dr. Castañeda stressed that the archival record, and the ideas of the organizers – if not the designers – show an intent in the 1968 Olympics to contain unrest. Restriction was not the only thing involved in the organization and design, but it was a dimension.

Another noteworthy parallel with Russia and Brazil in recent years is the way in which consecutive sporting tournaments are used to showcase progress, modernity, social cohesion, and security. After the 1968 Olympics, Mexico hosted the 1970 World Cup. Before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Russian city of Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014. After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics. Dr. Castañeda said that it is likely, given his reading of their respective Olympic hosting proposal packages, that Brazil drew direct inspiration from Mexico. He also said that, while there is some consistency across time, the relevance of sport to the world at large has changed and that it is important to be specific in context as a historian, to be aware of the historical differences and nuances as well as the similarities.


(Protest art,Research Gate)

Dr. Castañeda was prompted to comment on the current political situation in Mexico – specifically, what it means that the incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that he would never use violent, repressive force against the citizens of Mexico like Díaz Ordaz did fifty years ago. Dr. Castañeda noted that “the political quarter” out of which the new president emerges was the resistance group of 1968. Moreover, a lot of the contemporary political currents were galvanized by this event. It could be taken as an innocuous statement – who would disagree with a condemnation of brutal repression against a civilian population? – as well as commemoration of the events half a century ago. We cannot, regardless, presume the authenticity of feeling. Dr. Castañeda pointed out that, much as the relationship of sports with the zeitgeist has changed, the political landscape is totally different now than it was in 1968. It is more fragmented and chaotic: in 1968, there was not a powerful coalition of drug cartels. These are, as Dr. Castañeda put it, “completely different political universes.”

It is crucial to remember how different the world is just as it is important to remember how much it has stayed the same. Mexico City 1968 is a historical setting which demonstrated the ways in which the political will of people like Pedro Ramírez Vázquez can do the bidding of an authoritarian regime to distract the masses from state violence through spectacle. As students were massacred for demanding a more equitable and socially-just distribution of resources, the world was silent and unknowing.


As Dr. Castañeda pointed-out, we live in an era when it is ever-easier to police people. Peace can be conflated with order, while some conflate the tone of political discourse with its substance. Information and knowledge have been widely-democratized by social media, but fake news has proliferated as well. In 2018, as in 1968, spectacle is often a substitution for substance when nation-states are trying to demonstrate progress. The lessons of 1968 are myriad – social movements and political dissidence erupted across the globe. But Mexico City 1968 shows a peculiar example of the way in which our passion for entertainment can be used against us, while people go starving and are murdered by militarized police.

Give Us Freedom or Give Us Freedom: Britain, U.S. and Egyptian Foreign Relations, 1953-1955

suez-canal-mapImage Found: /


October marks the sixty-second anniversary of the Suez Canal conflict.  Today I cover the negotiations between the United States, Egypt, and Britain, which took place behind closed door, that influenced the event. It is important to note that the world ideology of the early 1950s was full of nationalism, revolution, decolonization, and neutrality. The “Third World” began to take center stage in international politics, and the Soviet Union and United States were engaged in a mass effort to make South East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East choose sides.

Egypt had been under British occupation since 1882 with the Egyptian monarchy in allegiance with the British government. In July 1952, the Free Officers Movement led by General Muhammad Naguib and Lieutenant Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, the Egyptian king, and put a nationalist government in charge of Egypt. This change of power is known as the Egyptian Revolution, and resulted in General Naguib becoming president of Egypt.[i] President Naguib, and Lieutenant Colonel Nasser began advocating for the removal of British forces stationed in Egypt, primarily at the military base located in the Suez Canal Zone.[ii] The British, however, rejected the demand of the Egyptian government and tried to enter negotiations to keep troops and personnel on Egyptian soil at the military base.

Why did the British refuse to leave the Suez Canal Zone? To put it simply location, location, location. The Suez Canal resided in an area of strategic military importance to Western powers during the Cold War. If the Britain had access to the military base on the Suez Canal then it could have access to easier trade and military routes between the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

The conflict between the British forces, seen by the Egyptians as imperialistic colonizers, and the newly independent Egyptian government drew the attention of the United States. (Spoiler Alert: This would backfire as the Egyptian government would settle for nothing short of full independence, something the United States could not grant). The United States attempted to function as a mediator in the situation. On one hand the United States tried to aid the British in negotiations and help them find a way to remain at the Suez Canal base. On the other, the U.S. tried to be seen as an ally to Egypt through the use of economic and military aid.[iii] The U.S. had to walk the line between making foreign relations decisions that pleased a fellow western, albeit colonizing, power as well as those that would foster western influence and friendship with a newly independent, decolonizing state. In January 1953, the United States found itself trying to give aid to the newly independent Egyptian state in order to protect it from “outside aggression”.[iv] The U.S. State Department believed that an alliance with Egypt would help establish a foothold of western influence and friendliness in the Middle East to combat the spread of Communism in Asia, and Eastern Europe.[v] The main roadblock to positive U.S.-Egyptian relations was the position of the British government, whom the U.S. had also administered aid to and shared common interests in the containment of Communism (Because working against our allies attempts at continuing colonization maintains friendly relationships…right?).

President Naguib’s negotiated with the British and insisted on the removal of British forces from Egyptian territory. The Egyptian government advocated for a free Egypt with the same rights as other states on the international stage. Naguib remained firm in his negotiations, claiming that Egypt should be free of any western imperial powers.[vi] Great Britain refused to remove British personnel from the Suez Canal Zone, which incentivized Egyptian guerrilla tactics against troops (Which Western powers trying to maintain a hold over territory are not very fond of). These guerrilla attacks led to a violent response from British troops against Egyptian guerrillas, which further escalated tensions between the two states. During this time the United States tried to encourage the British to find common ground and peace with the Egyptian government. The U.S. also attempted to supply Egypt with money and military technology as a sign of friendship. The British disapproved of the arming of Egypt, despite the U.S. claiming it would help create stability in the region against the threat of Communism.[vii] The British feared that by arming Egypt the United States would really be supplying weapons against British forces (Which makes logical sense when you think about it). What culminated was a heavy amount of back and forth correspondence between the three states in 1953-1954, until finally the United States decided it would stick with the plan of selling weapons and supplies to the Egyptian government against the concerns of one of its oldest allies.[viii] Because when negotiations fail, just do what you want to try and force conflict to end.

By the end of 1954, after a long drawn out negotiation process, the U.S. was finally able to begin sending aid to Egypt, but now Egypt and Israel were on the verge of a military dispute which led to a change in how the United States handled its foreign relations with Egypt.[ix] Egypt had begun seizing cargo ships in the Suez Canal that were destined for Israel which created instability in the area, and was an overall rude move. In addition to this problem, 1954 through 1955 was a stressful time for the United States in terms of international relations. Iraq tried to gain U.S. attention as a big player in the Middle East. The Soviet Union began to take notice in the conflict and issues taking place in the Middle East, and Khrushchev began trying to reach out to the fledgling state governments, but these are all topics for other papers and posts. The British and United States governments were unable to resolve tension between Israel and Egypt and the meddling led to the Israeli invasion of Egypt in the Suez Canal Zone thus resulting in the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. Egypt had to fight against not only Israel, but the previous colonial powers of France and Britain. With both of its closest allies involved in the crisis the U.S. found itself in a difficult position (shocking right?) due to its alliances with France and Britain. The U.S. tried to play it safe and called for a military ceasefire as well as the removal of foreign troops from Egypt’s territory.[x] In short all was not well in waffleville. The area continued to be a hot bed for conflict. It wasn’t until 1957 that Britain, France, and Israel withdrew their forces from the Suez Canal.

Waffleville meme

Why was the West so involved in Egyptian national affairs to begin with? Well when Nasser took power in 1953 it complicated the United States negotiations with his idea of “neutralism”. Nasser refused to choose sides between the Western bloc supporting capitalism and the Eastern bloc supporting communism. The Cold War mindset of the early 1950s did not accept Nasser’s concept of “neutralism”. The Cold War dichotomy between the East and West required states to choose sides and either support Communist or Capitalist Regimes. Both sides believed that if a state did not agree with their ideology than it was automatically against them, and they were “losing” to the enemy. The United States and Britain worried about who Egypt would side with during the Cold War due to the Suez Canal’s key location, and they feared losing it to the Soviet Union.

Egypt Article Image

Basically how the West perceived the Cold War. Image Found:


To put this article in conversation with current events. In 2016 Al Jazeera, a global media network, published an article about the current President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s attempt to modernize the Suez Canal in hopes of, “creating economic and political stability” by using the canal to increase global maritime trade and in turn put Egypt on the map as a global economic power. Egyptians are worried that this could actually do the opposite and the money and resources it would take to implement such a plan could instead put strain on Egypt’s economy.[xi] As for U.S.-Egypt relations, they seem to be on a high note from the 1950s which Trump inviting Sisi to the White House, and then allegedly mocking the Egyptian President behind closed doors.[xii] If anything can be learned from the conflict it is that the Cold War was complicated, and since 1956 the Suez Canal Zone has still been seen as an important territory for Egypt as well as a representation of Egyptian nationalism.


[i] Odd Arne Westad. The Cold War: A World History (New York: Basic Books, 2017) 452-454.

[ii] “Naguib Pledges Fight to Death to Oust ‘Enemy’ from Nile.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jan 27, 1953. See also, Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. “NAGUIB ADAMANT ON EGYPT’S RIGHTS.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 24, 1953.

[iii] The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Gifford) to the Department of State, 1 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954. The Near and Middle East (in two parts): Volume IX, Part 2, 1934-1936; The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Gifford) to the Department of State, 3 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954. The Near and Middle East (in two parts): Volume IX, Part 2,1938-1941;

[iv] The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Gifford) to the Department of State, 3 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954. The Near and Middle East (in two parts): Volume IX, Part 2, 1948-1950;

[v] Westad, The Cold War, 273-274. National Intelligence Estimate, 15 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Near and Middle East (in two parts) Volume IX, Part 1, 334-343;

[vi] Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. “EGYPTIANS CITE FREEDOM.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jan 05, 1953.

[vii] The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Gifford) to the Department of State, 3 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954. The Near and Middle East (in two parts): Volume IX, Part 2,1938-1941;

[viii] The Secretary of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom, 23 January 1953, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Near and Middle East (in two parts): Volume IX, Part 2, 1970-1971;

[ix] The Ambassador in Egypt (Caffery) to the Department of State, 6 November 1954, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Near and Middle East, (in two parts) Volume IX, Part 2;

[x] Westad, The Cold War, 272-274.

[xi] Geoffrey Aronson “Sisi faces the uncertain promise of Suez” Al Jazeera (August 23, 2016)

[xii]  “Woodward: Trump mocked Egypt’s Sisi, calling him a ‘killer’” Al Jazeera (September 13, 2018)

Tenth-Annual Lore Kephart Lecture: “The Education of Grace Halsell: An Intimate History of the American Century” by Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley

the education of ms grace halsell

Robin KelleyOn Tuesday, October 2, 2018, honored guest Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley of UCLA discussed the topic of his newest book, Grace Halsell, in the Villanova Room of the Connelly Center. Grace Halsell described herself as a contemporary Candide in a memoir pitch to editor Martin Levin near the end of her life. Candide is Voltaire’s satire of the philosophy of optimism and critique of European imperialism, wherein the titular protagonist travels the world and learns about the price of European luxury for conquered and exploited peoples. Halsell used this reference unironically, because – as Dr. Kelley explained – Grace Halsell lived a life “profoundly shaped by the conceits of U.S. global power.”

Her father, Harry H. Halsell was part of the generation which finished the conquest of the west. Despite their limited means, Grace grew up with an African-American house servant and White Supremacy was an uncontested value in the home.

Grace Halsell was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1923, and from an early age showed a penchant for writing and journalism. She was the editor of both her junior high newspaper Cowboy World and her high school newspaper Western World. She won an award in high school for a 1940 article which criticized the building of the Maginot Line. Her overall tone was echoed in Henry Luce’s 1941 LIFE Magazine article, “The American Century.” Grace Halsell attended Texas Tech College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock from 1939 to 1942, Columbia University in New York City from 1943 to 1944, and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas from 1945 to 1951. Between TTU and Columbia she had a brief, unsuccessful marriage with an angry, sometimes-violent man twenty-two years her senior. She never remarried.

Halsell was an advocate of the U.S. neo-imperialist role as an advocate for peace and prosperity in the world. She began traveling Europe in 1942, eventually being stationed in Tokyo, Japan to travel across East Asia. She worked as a journalist writing stories for papers like the Houston Post about Texans abroad. She also wrote an English-language column for La Prensa in Lima, Peru. It was in this period during the 1950s that she also began to question Cold War gender and sex norms – she once had her passport revoked because she rebuffed a U.S. official’s unwelcome advances.

While proposing a story to learn about the “working girl in six capitals” to try to visit Moscow, she was approached by the CIA to spy for them – they alerted her that they had been spying on her and knew about an illicit affair she had with a journalist in Korea that culminated in an abortion. She was appalled by the idea, still believing herself to be a member of the free press despite being employed by the military, as all foreign correspondents were.

In Vietnam in 1965, she first began to critique U.S. foreign policy, and she had the deft touch to do it without the sort of personal editorializing that would get her in trouble. After seeing wounded women and children in hospitals, she asked a doctor how he felt about the US and South Vietnamese attacks on women and children, to which he responded, “women and children can be Viet Cong too.” Halsell let the quote stand on its own in her writing.

The doctor’s dehumanized view of Vietnamese people answered questions that Halsell asked in personal letters that Dr. Kelley analyzed. “How can we do this?” she asks, seeing that it is because of elision, the ability to make the Vietnamese seem invisible.

Later that year, Halsell started work in the White House as an assistant press secretary. Despite her mounting frustration with Vietnam, she did not see the Johnson administration as at fault – she held the generals at fault, and associated LBJ almost-exclusively with the programs that made up the Great Society. Her immediate boss, James Moyers, considered her “overly ambitious,” “brazen and aggressive with men,” and noted that she “devotes much of her office time to her own personal writing.” While that last criticism was accurate, her real crime was that she stood up to her male coworkers.

At the White House, Halsell met Zephra Wright, an African-American woman employed as a cook. Wright was required to do the dangerous job of driving the President’s dogs from Washington, D.C. to Texas through the Deep South with no lodging. Zephra’s experiences inspired Halsell to write Soul Sister, her claim to fame beginning on this track in what Dr. Kelley described as “racial masquerade.” Dr. Kelley stated this was when she really became a writer; it was the first time she could be free of the constraints the military-industrial complex put on journalists.

Soul Sister was partially-inspired by John Howard Griffith’s Black Like Me, where the white journalist went to the deep south while disguised as an African-American. Griffith gave his blessing, and Halsell referred to him – ironically, problematically – as “Soul Brother number one.” Halsell underwent a chemical process to alter her skin tone and lived in Harlem and Mississippi. Dr. Kelley concludes that her experiences show the possibilities and limitations of radical empathy, that true understanding required more critical thinking and analysis than she put toward the project.

Nonetheless, it was a revelatory experience, one which challenged the idea of racism being a problem only in the Southern United States. Granted, she maintained her own naïve liberal conception of racism – concluding that familiarity bred some acceptance, and furthermore that racist oppression was more of a psychological than an institutional problem.

Halsell documented the Black attempt to practice normative behavior in the abnormal conditions of white supremacy. Her book had a generally positive reception, but she was surprised by the negative perception of some Black people. Dr. Kelley did not dive too deeply on why this idea was problematic, probably because it seemed implicit and obvious. Pretending to be a Black person on a limited time basis is not the same as living the life of a Black person.

There have been Black people since Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northrup writing their own stories. In the first half of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison were among the authors and poets whose work expressed the harsh realities of being Black in America. Halsell’s inability – and the further inability of the wider American reading public – to recognize that work reflects a greater insistent sociocultural problem across American history with alienation, misunderstanding, and othering.

Halsell, in fact, did know this – and did not claim to truly know the experience, but the television interviews she had presumed she had some prescription for the end of racial hostility in America, which led to her espousal that it was a psychological issue.

One of the strangest things she concluded during this project was that racist white men desired her in Mississippi because they believed she was sexually available by virtue of her race. Meanwhile, she found that Black men in Mississippi were more attracted to her upon finding she was actually white. These sorts of revelations led her to use race as a lens to analyze sex and gender in her next book – 1972’s Black/White Sex.

In 1973 she released Bessie Yellowhair – she adopted the titular identity, with permission, from a Navajo woman at the reservation where her brother worked as an attorney. Prior to the racial masquerade, she lived with the Yellowhair family for a time, learning about their culture and identity. Unfortunately, the conditioning did not inadequately prepare her, as after taking a job as a domestic worker in California, racism and condescension had her crumbling within days.

She felt that the African-American experience required only skin-darkening, while being an indigenous American required psychological conditioning, which is an incredibly problematic and reductive way to look at the plights of these groups of people. She fetishized Native Americans broadly, looking at them as a primitive and mythical people. She was aware of, but did not address, the Indian Movement for political power, failing to address the Alcatraz occupation and the March of Broken Treaties. The book was not universally beloved but was notable for being praised by both Native American activist Vine Deloria and Conservative politician Barry Goldwater, which Dr. Kelley described as “probably the only time they ever agreed on something.”

Five years later, Halsell released The Illegals, based on her experiences crossing the Rio Grande between Texas and Northern Mexico illegally three times. She thought of the border war as an extension of Vietnam and anticipated the militarization of the border as part of an imperial conflict. In the time leading up to the Reagan Administration in the 1980s and the rejection of progressivism on the stage of U.S. politics, this book was looked at by some right-leaning critics as ‘too sympathetic’ to immigrants.

Halsell came up with more exotic book plans, among them to travel Antarctica alone and trace the Apostle Paul’s travels across the Roman empire, but she was repeatedly rejected by publishers. Eventually, her ideas led to 1981’s Journey to Jerusalem.

Halsell initially wanted to write exclusively about Palestinians, but had to change the proposal to living with Christians, Jews, and Muslims across Palestine-Israel. Editors and critics were not keen on her perspective of “empathy for all” and she began to realize that politics of empathy required solidarity and choosing sides. In her time traveling among Palestinians, she documented abuses by Israel and was almost killed by an Israeli soldier. She tried to render Israeli settlers sympathetic in her book, but privately expressed disdain. She called-out racism and imperial colonialism. The book was not promoted; her editor was either fired or forced to resign. It received enough of a positive reaction to begin to be taken seriously, and was subsequently panned; months into her book tour, she was accused of anti-Semitism and was blacklisted.

Her next book was called Prophecy and Politics, alternatively subtitled Military Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War and The Secret Alliance Between Israel and the Christian Right. In the United States, Halsell, an ever-faithful Protestant went undercover as a member of Jerry Falwell’s far-right Christian Evangelical sect, exposing some of the connection between American neo-Zionist Christianity and US foreign policy with Israel.

In 1996 she wrote In Their Shoes, a hastily-composed memoir, an amalgam of vignettes from the other books. The haste came from her diagnosis with multiple myeloma the year before. At the end of her life, she was concerned about her connections with people, and intimacy. Her private letters show her writing about aging, pain, and the happiness she found with her 42-year-old lover.

Dr. Kelley expanded on Halsell’s message and meaning in the Q&A. He ended the main lecture by noting that Halsell came to understand the need for humanity to cultivate its garden, and expressed in the Q&A that the garden we need to cultivate is not of one gender or race or identity, but it is the world. He said that Halsell got a lot wrong in her prescriptions, but she tried to answer questions about how to unite contentious factions of society.

Dr. Kelley contended that it is not the things that we have in common, but the things that are different than us that are important. Those are things we have to come together around.

He said, “I don’t always write about people that have arcs,” i.e. “people that aren’t likeable.” Dr. Kelley usually writes about movements, and Halsell was not, as he put it, a “joiner” of movements, except for the Americans for Middle East Understanding, who she came to after her time in Palestine. Moreover, he was interested in the way in which some of his colleagues took umbrage at the subject – some people presume he is crossing a color line and a sex line, in a way they do not when he writes about Black labor in the 1920s, or Thelonious Monk.

Dr. Kelley’s talk was very elucidating, and it made me interested in a person I would not otherwise have known to be interesting. To me the contradictions and problems of racial masquerade seem almost too obvious to note, but I think Dr. Kelley did not stress the point so much in part because Halsell challenged myriad boundaries in society. Years of racial-undercover work made her truly aware of the limitations of radical empathy. She lived a wild life, lived through the entirety of the Cold War and watched the United States transform from a superpower to the hyperpower. Grace Halsell saw the social justice movements born in the 1960s. She pushed against sexism and saw her own ideas about race evolve as the country’s did, slightly outpacing the ideas of the majority. Grace Halsell was a fascinating human being that lived an incredible life attempting to do something novel in understanding others by very problematic means.

Reviewed: Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: Language, Materiality, and Early Modern Epistolary Culture by Alison Wiggins

By the end of her life, Bess of Hardwick had become the richest and most important woman in England, second only to Elizabeth I. She also left behind the largest correspondence by a non-royal woman in early modern England. As a result, her letters are a treasure of information for historians of women and epistolary culture in that time period. In her study of Bess’ letters, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: Language, Materiality, and Early Modern Epistolary Culture,Alison Wiggins presents the original argument that Bess of Hardwick’s letters have been underestimated in the past, and that they give insights of Bess’ life, the society she lived in, and early modern epistolary culture. Wiggins’ work is an interdisciplinary study of Bess’ letters, as she uses tools both of historical and paleographical analysis.

In order to insert her book in the historiography of Bess of Hardwick and women in early modern England, Wiggins challenges old interpretations of Bess’ letters, she shows how they have been misinterpreted and modified to fit a wrongheaded portrayal of Bess, and how slowly but surely historians’ perspective of Bess is changing. She argues that there was a lack of interest in Bess’ letters due to their scattering across archives, the difficulty reading the handwriting, and most importantly the incapability to see anything other than biographical value in the letters. As to the misinterpretation of the letters, Wiggins demonstrates how, for example, in the 1790s Edmund Lodge transformed “a humorous and ironic joke between the couple [Bess and the earl of Shrewsbury] into a harsh-sounding complaint or reprimand” by omitting a part of a sentence and by italicizing a word, therefore changing its meaning (Wiggins, 44). In correcting the wrongs done in the interpretation of Bess’ letters, Wiggins has two objectives. First, she wants to change the perception of Bess as a cold, scheming woman, and instead reveal through her letters that she was a loving wife and mother. For example, Wiggins puts Bess’ letters to her daughter back in historical context, and shows how even though the tone of a certain letter might seem cold, her writing was limited by social decorum, and the frequency of her letters to her daughter shows a desire to be involved in her life (Wiggins, 82, 85). Second, Wiggins wants to change the perception of women’s letter writing in early modern England. While women’s correspondences have often been portrayed as mere gossip, she argues that they actually reveal serious networks of relations and information. She also challenges the idea that styles of writing were gendered, and shows that business-like styles of writing were also used by women in their daily dealings with household affairs.

To support her thesis, Wiggins organizes this volume thematically and chronologically, meaning that each chapter addresses one of the steps of the process of epistolary correspondence: composing/drafting the letter, writing it down, sending/receiving it. By taking the reader step by step through the writing process, Wiggins gives the reader the impression that they were there with Bess as they follow her on the different stages of the writing process: what is the goal of this letter? To achieve this goal who should write it? Who should deliver it? In the first chapter, Composing and scripting letters, the main argument is that Bess employed different writing styles to reach different goals or desired outcomes. Wiggins explores the different epistolary styles deployed in Bess’ letters. Depending on the situation, she used the following writing styles: household management, spousal partnership, political friendship, or “curial prose” (Wiggins, 91). The style of political friendship was itself divided in different categories depending on the rank and relation of superiority between Bess and the recipient of the letter. In Reading and writing letters, Wiggins addresses the process of writing letters, the physical act of putting pen to paper. She mentions notably the use of scribes, the situation in which Bess did use them, who they were and their relationship to Bess. Wiggins also points out the differences in writing between Bess and her scribe, and how to recognize the differences. She concludes that Bess’ writing style, her spelling, and her handwriting are indicators of her social rank and her level of education. And finally, in Sending and receiving letters, Wiggins studies the process of delivery. She addresses who delivered Bess’ letters, what service they provided in addition to delivering the letter, the different packaging of the letters, and whether or not they were accompanied by an enclosure.

Wiggins’ book is the result of several developments within the last ten years, which enabled her to tackle the task of studying Bess’ letters in depth. As she mentions in her introduction, such a project would have been impossible without the development of interest in women letter-writers, then in epistolary culture, and finally without the University of Glasgow’s project, under the direction of Wiggins herself, to gather, transcribe and make available all of Bess’ correspondence (Wiggins, 2-3). With this database compiled, Wiggins was able to exploit the now compiled 242 letters to and from Bess as the basis of her argument. The novelty of her use of the sources resides in the fact that she doesn’t use them solely for biographical purposes. She is not interested in what the letters say about Bess’ life but about what they say about her as letter-writer and as an early modern woman. To achieve this goal, her methodology is to use a mix of historical and paleographical analysis: she is interested in what the handwriting, the style, even the size of the letter used say about Bess’ relationship with the recipient and how it all played into achieving the desired outcome. For example, Wiggins notices that most of Bess’ letters were written on “a sheet of paper folded bifolium to create a writing space of around 20 x 30cms,” except for her letters to Queen Elizabeth I, in which she used a larger piece of paper to reflect the “high degree of ranked extremity” (Wiggins, 189). Another example of Wiggins’ methodology is found in her analysis of the steadiness and constant aspect of Bess’ handwriting. She compares it to her fourth’s husband, Shrewsbury’s handwriting, which unlike Bess’ shows variation overtime. She therefore concludes that Bess was more focused when writing, whereas Shrewsbury showed greater instability, a reflection of his character (Wiggins, 110-11).

Through her study of Bess’ letters, Wiggins paints a picture of her daily life, and of her process as she drafted, wrote and sent letters to her family, friends, and employees. She also successfully takes the reader on a tour of  the tropes and the guidelines of letter writing in Early Modern England, and proves convincingly that Bess was aware of them, at times defying them, as a woman, and at times exploiting them to reach her goals. Not only does Wiggins use Bess’ letters, but she also supports her argument by using additional sources in order to complete the picture. She looks at household inventories to show Bess’ financial investment in her letter writing, as well as her payments for scribes and deliverers. As previously mentioned, she also uses other letters written by Shrewsbury to compare his and Bess’ writing styles and point to Bess’ education (lower gentry) compared to Shrewsbury’s (an earl).

Throughout the book, Wiggins’ writing style is clear and straight to the point, proving that she is a good storyteller. However, in each chapter she often uses the phrase “the argument is” to make her points, which at times pushes the bigger argument of the book to the background and the reader can lose sight of it. Because of the depth of the analysis of Bess’ letters and the amount of detail, it sometimes seems like Wiggins can sometimes focus too much on less important elements and leaves the letters, the main body of work studied, to the side. The main example of this is at the beginning of chapter 2, when Wiggins details the content of several of Bess’ inventories but doesn’t mention the letters for almost 20 pages, therefore leading the reader to lose sight of them.

In Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, Wiggins shows Bess as more than the gold-digger or the builder that she has been portrayed as for years. She employs the letters to show a particular aspect of her life: Bess as a masterful letter-writer, completely in control of her writing and of the outcome that came of it. She has shown that letters have more potential than simply telling the story of a person’s life. Wiggins has opened the door for more work to be done with these letters to show other aspects of Bess’ life, which have been overlooked so far. This book is a good manual for students of Elizabethan England or epistolary culture, as it exposes a method of analysis of letters, spelling, sentence structure, and more, which can be applied to other correspondences.


Climbing the Ivory Tower Part 2: Applying

This is arguably the worst part. This is when you have to find some non-existent time in your busy schedule as a grad student, GA, TA, employee, and regular human to perfect your written application.

Most of the written portion of PhD applications can be broken into 3 parts: the Statement of Purpose (SOP) or your Personal Statement (PS), your Writing Sample (WS) and CV or resume. An additional part is the letter of recommendation, but you (obviously) don’t write that for yourself.

Disclaimer: Every school wants something different for each of these parts (of course they do, because nothing is ever simple). Make sure to check your school’s website to see exactly what they want. To make things simple, I’m going to use guidelines from schools I’m applying to.

What’s the Sweet Spot for Numbers?

So you’ve done the research and have your nifty spreadsheet with all the info you need about programs. But how many should you actually apply to? 2 or 12? The answer is somewhere in between.

The average advice I’ve gotten is somewhere between 5 and 7.

“Don’t waste your time applying to schools that only accept or fund 2 or 3 people. Apply for some places that the school’s name recognition is fantastic, then apply to some where it’s about the person you’d be working with.” Dr. Giesberg

Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement

A SOP and PS seem fairly interchangeable.

For me, this is the part I’m dreading the most. For some reason, writing about myself is much harder than writing about people who have been dead for over a century.

To make matters worse, most schools give barely any guidelines for what they want from a PS. The most robust one I’ve come across is from Harvard:


  • Personal statement that makes clear why the applicant wants to study history in graduate school, and why the applicant wants to study at Harvard. This statement often illustrates the applicant’s research interests and notes potential advisors


According to Duke, a Statement of Purpose should be about 1-2 pages that includes

  • your purposes and objectives in pursuing graduate study;
  • your special interests and plans;
  • your strengths and weaknesses in your chosen field;
  • any research projects or any independent research in which you have actively participated and how they have influenced your career choice and desire to pursue graduate studies; and
  • any particular reasons you may have for applying to Duke (e.g. you would like to work with a specific faculty member).

The point is, every school wants something slightly different, but your program should tell you exactly what they want. Your PS or SOP should be succinct and punchy. This part is going to show if you really know what you want to do in grad school. It should be tailored to the school you’re sending it to, including what faculty you want to work with and what other resources they have available to you.

Here’s some sage advice from Villanova’s wise faculty:

“Draft it and send it to people who know what a good PS looks like, because as a grad student you probably don’t. Don’t start with how you had a passion for history as a child because you went to a museum. It’s been done. A more compelling way to start is to talk about a moment in college when you got really excited about a reading or something you found in an archive, etc. Start with passion, but also intellect and curiosity.” Dr. Whitney Martinko

“One of the key things is to think of the three main pieces of your application–the Personal Statement, the Statement of Purpose, and the writing sample–not as three independent pieces, but as three things that need to work together. The personal statement, as much as it is trying to give a sense of who you are as a person, it should be very much embedded in the intellectual trajectory that you’re trying to map out. So you want to explain how your personal perspective inform the way in which you look at the historical subjects you want to engage. So part of it I guess it to think about drafting these in tandem. What are the things I really want to say about me and my personal perspective on history? Which of these belong in the personal statement? Which belong in the statement of purpose? And so on. It’s important to say I understand how this intellectual work fits into the complications of doing archival work and publishing, etc. I read this, and I published this, etc. These things I’ve done that make it possible for you to understand my experience and awareness of how this works.” Dr. Paul Steege

“I used undergrad faculty to help me with my personal statement. But I don’t know today if I’ve ever written one that I liked. I think no matter how hard you try they sound terrible, trite. I’ve read some good ones. I’m very happy to read other people’s and critique them, but I can honestly say I’ve never written one I liked. The advice I got was to imagine yourself there, in the program, and see how you see yourself working with the faculty. For me, I had already taught in public schools so in my application I incorporated that experience as something I could bring to the table. In fact, I started teaching right away because there was an emergency.” Dr. Judith Giesberg

“It’s about how everything you have done so far sets you up to be the most awesome graduate student ever. Craft it so that all your choices led you to where you are today. It’s your talking CV: ‘This is what I would contribute to the program and the community.’ If there’s something about you that’s really very interesting, even if it’s not academic, it could help you succeed in the program.” Dr. Rebecca Winer

Writing Sample

Your writing sample is the star of your application. That’s why you have to absolutely nail it.

While you may be tempted to submit your undergrad or MA thesis. Sure, it’s proof that you can plan a research agenda, execute it, and write about it in an extended way. However, most theses far exceed most WS page limits. And because of their extended length, it’s harder to perfect every aspect of a thesis. It’s better to submit a shorter paper you’ve had time to revise and polish.

“Submit a shorter, clearer writing sample rather that your undergrad thesis, because it’s a good experience but doesn’t always produce a great piece of writing. You need a really good, short writing sample that’s coherent and showcases what’s going to make you stand out.” Dr. Martinko

“Follow the length rules.When you’re getting lots of applications you have to make a choice about you to discard and you shouldn’t give them an excuse to dismiss you…Don’t underestimate the importance of the opening paragraphs. You need to have it clear and upfront about why this is important and why I should care about it. But that’s why it’s important to have the link between the statement of purpose and the writing sample. It (SOP) is a guideline of what they should look for in the writing sample.” Dr. Steege

“Use all the resources at your disposal. Use the professional staff at the Writing Center, use your advisor, faculty, work in a group of other people who are applying to circulate your writing.” Dr. Giesberg

“If you’re in a field with languages, use something that shows off your skills. Send your best paper–one that won a prize, was published, etc. If it’s on your topic, even better.” Dr. Winer


A CV (Curriculum Vitae, aka “the course of one’s life” in Latin) is basically an academic resume. It’s telling the reader what you have contribute to the field. As grad students, it’s pretty difficult to craft a good one because you probably haven’t done that much!

Like resumes, there is no one perfect way to make a CV. I’ve gotten a lot of different advice from people, but some things you should include on your CV are:

  • Your undergrad and grad education
  • If you wrote an undergrad thesis (and your thesis director)
  • Any publications (including historical blog posts!)
  • Grants and awards
  • Work experience related to academia (i.e. being a TA)
  • Conferences you’ve presented at

“Less is more on a CV when you’re applying to a PhD program. Things in high school should not be on your CV. Your extracurriculars don’t matter unless that had to do with history. Blog articles, maybe being a columnist for the student newspaper, maybe including one line about BA coursework concentrations. This is about communicating what you’ve contributed to the field and as someone applying to be a grad student, the answer is probably not much. But you want to include things like conferences you’ve presented at, related blog posts you’ve written, if you have published in an undergrad or graduate journal, if you’ve done service related to history, if you’ve won any awards (even if it’s in a different concentration). Coursework should go more in your personal statement than your CV.” Dr. Martinko

“For PhD programs, I’m not sure how much a CV matters. I’m guessing your SOP, PS, and WS matter more.” Dr. Giesberg

Letters of Recommendation

This is kind of the easy part, because you don’t have to write these! You do, however, have to ask for them. Most schools require 2-3, and you should ask professors you’ve worked with or had multiple classes with throughout your program. As an MA student, you can ask your undergrad professors but it’s probably better to have someone who’s worked with you in a graduate level.

“Letters of Recommendation need to be developed over a period of time. The first time you have a real conversation with a professor should not be when you’re asking for your letter or rec. You want them to feel invested and committed to you work. So once you have a relationship with your profs now, you can have them vouch for you to those potential advisors.” Dr. Steege

“Letters of Recommendation should be another argument on your behalf. If you can give your letter writer a pretty polished PS, SOP, and WS, then they know what you’re saying and how they can supplement that argument and show the reader why it matters.” Dr. Steege

“I have a file of how to ask for a Letter of Recommendation from Dr. Winer. It’s too important to mess it up! Give it to me 3 weeks in advance. Give them a list of where you’re applying, due dates, method of submission, CV, Writing Sample and Statement of Purpose. Ideally we should meet so I can find out everything I need to know to write you a great letter. Waive your right to access–schools put more weight on a confidential letter.” Dr. Winer


Submit a shorter, more polished paper for your writing sample, and make sure your PS or SOP is an academic elevator pitch that works in tandem with your other application materials. Ask your letter-writers far in advance and give them all the materials they need to write you the best possible letter. Apply to 5-7 schools.

Next Up! Deciding

It doesn’t seem like it, but eventually this will be over and we get to decide which program we got into is right for us. In the meantime, what other advice are you looking for?

Reviewed: A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time (Image from Wikipedia)

In March of this year, scientists, philosophers, and average thinking people the world over reeled at the loss of the brilliant Stephen Hawking. In the immediate wake of his passing, thousands of people directly or indirectly affected by the influence of his work wrote and spoke about what his life meant to them personally. I was listening to a popular culture podcast in the spring and one of its hosts, comic book and magazine writer Marc Bernardine, mentioned a Brief History of Time. Originally released in 1988, but updated in 1996 and 2017, A Brief History of Time is one of Hawking’s preeminent works, focused on breaking down to simplicity the major developments in the history of human discovery in theoretical physics.

The book weaves small bits of personal memoir into the overall historical chronicling because Hawking’s personal interest and involvement provide his perspective. Because he was an extraordinary theoretical physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking’s recollection of the development of the field includes his own major contributions. Historians are no doubt used to seeing historiographic essays whose authors use the space to contribute new interpretations. Hawking’s approach is parallel, but his contributions and interventions are a different sort of scientific. He is not merely reinterpreting existing facts and discoveries. He is also demonstrating the way in which theoretical physics grew out of baser understandings of the world.

Hawking does his best to simplify incredibly complex theoretical physical concepts. He does this through analogy, metaphor, straightforward examples, anecdotes, and jokes. The concepts build on one another, broken up in eleven chapters from “Our Picture of the Universe” to “The Unification of Physics.” He discusses at length the theory of relativity, quantum physics, string theory, wormholes, time travel, the uncertainty principle, the unification of physics, the origin and fate of the universe, and more.

While he does a better job than many authors would of rendering the content into something digestible, readers that are averse to mathematics or hard, quantitative science might have problems.  There were undoubtedly times when I had to take breaks between large chunks of the book to give my brain some time to work out what I had just read. Hawking’s writing is clear, concise, and witty, so the pages turn easily, and he uses graphs and analogies to illustrate complex scientific concepts. Nonetheless, because of the complexity and gravity of those concepts, it can be an easy book to get lost in. A Brief History of Time is cumulative in the sense that you will not be able to skip around it with much comprehension unless you have a very thorough scientific background. However, if you take it as presented, you will find yourself opening new paths of understanding into another field of worldly analysis.

Hawking begins by recounting a popular anecdote within the scientific community – that a scientist is confronted at a lecture by someone that thinks the universe is as simple as the world sitting on the back of a turtle, and that turtle is sitting on another turtle; it is turtles all the way down. He uses this juncture to pivot into questions about the manner of the human relationship with, and understanding of, the stars. This early chapter covers Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and St. Augustine as well as Hubble and Kant in setting the book’s foundational premises. To summarize their discoveries: the world is round; heavenly bodies rotate around the world; the sun is at the center, not the other; orbits are elliptical, not circular; gravity is a force at work in the world, and the universe is infinite and static; the universe and humanity began around 5000 B.C.

It would be untenable in this space to try to unpack in detail every single advancement in the study of physics that occurred between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. What Hawking somehow accomplishes in under 200 pages is to generally explain dozens of developments in theoretical physics. This include the Doppler Effect which expresses how light fluctuates as an electromagnetic wave through space-time, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, quantum relativity (and the fact that quark is supposed to be pronounced like “quart” but is usually pronounced like “lark”), black holes and dark matter.[1] Hawking contextualizes these discoveries within the historical settings in which they took place – opining, for instance, on how censorship in the USSR stalled peer review for a paper on quantum gravity written in 1981 by his friend Andrei Linde from the Lebedev Institute in Moscow.[2] The overall narrative begins to culminate two-thirds through the book as Hawking makes it apparent that the current challenge of theoretical physics is to combine the as-of-yet seemingly incompatible theories of gravity and special relativity.

Hawking also takes an accommodating stance toward the concept of God. In the first chapter, he refers to the separation of the problem of describing the universe into two parts – “how the universe changes with time” and its initial state.[3] He goes on to say that, some people consider the second question a matter of metaphysics or religion and therefore beyond the scope of hard science:

“They would say that God, being omnipotent, could have started the universe off any way he wanted. That may be so, but in that case he also could have made it develop in a completely arbitrary way. Yet it appears that he chose to make it evolve in a very regular way according to certain laws.”[4]

Hawking also points-out that the Catholic Church adopted the big bang as “in accordance with the Bible” in 1951, preceding a similar pronouncement about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution three years later.[5] This statement is made in the context of the book for the purpose of expressing the scientific dispute over the veracity of the Big Bang, which seemed to some scientists too much like divine intervention. His invocation of God seems to generally be in the interest of refuting people that would choose to limit inquiry based on the idea that God set things up in a way beyond our understanding. “This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being,” Hawking writes, “but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand?”[6] When explaining the law of entropy (that things naturally become more disorderly over time) in the context of the “Arrow of Time” chapter, he explores the human conception of time, arguing that if God had set the universe to eventually become less disordered then the psychological arrow of time for people would run backwards.[7]

Rather than being an atheist polemic like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion on one hand, or a peer review-failing creationist diatribe like Darwin’s Black Box on the other, Hawking simply relates scientific study and gives the option that a deity could have existed at the universe’s beginning. Essentially, he is attempting to work outside of the parameters that some put on science when looking for a conflict where there is only reason. He concludes that if a complete universal theory is at some point discovered, then “philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people” would be able to consider the question of why the universe exists, and an answer would amount to “know[ing] the mind of God.”[8] It is an interesting note to end on, and one wonders what compelled Hawking to be inclusive about the possibility of a higher being.

In fact, Hawking was an avowed atheist by the end of his life, according to interviews he gave with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo inquiring about that exact quote. He clarified that he meant that “we would know anything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”[9] He believed that “science offers a more convincing explanation” than God for the organization of the universe.[10] Nonetheless, that interview came out between editions of the book. Hawking could have changed it and he chose not to add such a clarification to the actual text; he added chapters in 1996, and forewords and appendices in 1996 and 2017, but he never felt it necessary to imbibe the book with anti-religious thought. The theories he sets-out to express stand on their own without need of polemic.

After the book’s conclusion, there are short biographies of major contributors to our understanding of time and space, an appendix which explains some deeper scientific concepts, a glossary, and acknowledgments. First there are short biographical essays about Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. The slightly-longer appendix explains some scientific concepts in further depth. They are “Dark Energy and the Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” “Microwave Background Radiation and the No Boundary Proposal,” “Eternal Inflation and the Multiverse,” “Gravitational Waves,” and “The Information Paradox.” The section concludes with the “Outlook,” in which Hawking states that the two intervening decades between updates to the book have seen incredible new discoveries in cosmology, some anticipated (gravitational waves), some not (dark energy), and that all signs are pointing increasingly in the direction of the existence of a multiverse.[11] He states that, while some might find it unsettling that our universe is likely just one of many, we can “be proud to be part of a species that is working all this out.”[12]

I mentioned before that there were memoirist influences in the book. Overall, however, Hawking does not focus on himself too much. He briefly mentions his marriages, and he mentions being diagnosed with ALS, but he inundates his audience neither with romantic notions nor in his medical trials. A deeper look at Stephen Hawking the human being would probably be found in his 2013 My Brief History, which apparently borrows a naming convention from this work.

His tone throughout the book is a sort of factual optimism that renders the overall tale compelling in a way that it might not have been by another author’s pen. While not a conventional work of history – there are not footnotes, archival research, or oral interviews – it nonetheless narrates scientific discovery, and the change in interpretation, over time. It also serves as a historical artifact of the development of theoretical physics because the author’s understanding of what was scientifically plausible changed between editions. There are probably better books for a deep dive into scientific history, but for a casual read primer on physics from one of the late, great authorities, we could hardly ask for more.

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantham Books (1988, 1996, 2017), 67.

[2] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 135.

[3] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 11.

[4] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 11.

[5] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 49.

[6] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 127.

[7] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 150, is where God is referenced. 149: “There are at least three different arrows of time.” Thermodynamic arrow: increase in entropy/disorder. Psychological arrow: the way humans relate to time; our ability to remember the past, but not the future. Cosmological: the direction of time in which the universe expands.

[8] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 191.

[9] Alan Boyle, “I’m an Atheist’: Stephen Hawking on God and Space Travel,” NBC,

Pablo Jáuregi, “Stephen Hawking: ‘No hay ningun Díos. Soy un ateo,” El Mundo,

[10] David Edwards, “Stephen Hawking comes out: ‘I’m an atheist’ because science is ‘more convincing’ than God,” RawStory,

Pablo Jáuregi, “Stephen Hawking: ‘No hay ningun Díos. Soy un ateo,” El Mundo,

[11] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 207.

[12] Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 208.