Our nuclear summer

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Mira Rapp-Hooper, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia, presents research she conducted this summer as part of the new Hertog Global Strategy Initiative. / Photo: Jenica MillerWill Leonard ’12CC was searching for a senior thesis topic this spring when he stumbled upon a curious aspect of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He wondered why Carter, who took office with the intention of reducing the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, ended up deploying 572 new missiles to Western Europe. Historians generally believe that Carter’s foreign-policy team feared that war with the Soviet Union could be imminent, but Leonard saw little evidence to support this idea.

So in July, Leonard and a research companion from Yale flew to the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta to examine transcripts of meetings between Carter’s foreign-policy team and European leaders. Leonard telephoned Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser. And he traveled to Arlington, Virginia, to interview David Aaron, Brzezinski’s deputy. What he learned contradicted the historical record: Brzezinski and Aaron had never seriously feared a nuclear threat from the Soviet Union during this period. They told Leonard that the United States deployed the missiles primarily to placate European allies and to gain leverage in any nuclear-weapons negotiations.

This type of original research is the cornerstone of the new Hertog Global Strategy Initiative, an intensive 12-week summer program underwritten by businessman and philanthropist Roger Hertog. The program, founded and directed by Columbia history professor Matthew Connelly, encourages aspiring historians to study topics relevant to contemporary world affairs, while pushing young political scientists and public-policy students to conduct historical research. It is administered by the history department.

The program brings undergraduates, master’s degree students, and doctoral candidates from all of these fields together in an environment that Connelly likens to a “research laboratory.” Students travel, sometimes in groups, to visit archives and interview important figures. Then they share their most interesting documents and interviews with one another in an electronic archive.

“I wanted to create a research program that deals with a specific issue in world politics that’s too big and complex for a single scholar to handle,” says Connelly, whose latest book, Fatal Misconception, chronicles the global population-control movements of the 20th century. “Every year we’re going to tackle a different issue.”

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