Remembering Theodore Hamerow

The life of a history professor at the University of Wisconsin reminds us of our prior obligations and responsibilities.

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A group of desk/chairs in a classroom.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

A nation's destiny is determined by its past; its present is protected by its historians. America sits along the threshold of past and future, more comfortable in the present as a political culture. It must rely on its historians to remind her of prior obligations and responsibilities. In rare circumstances individual Americans combine all of this into a single life.

Last Saturday, a great American passed away who represented all of this. His name was Theodore Hamerow, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Hamerow, as he was to me at age 18, and simply Ted in later years, was an American life writ large, and that life illustrated the greatness of America on the world stage. He was born in Warsaw, Poland in the turbulent year of 1920 to parents who were instrumental to the most important Yiddish theatre company of the time. The family ultimately emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and Ted found himself in Uncle Sam's uniform during the Second World War.

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Ultimately, Ted would pursue an academic life and is considered one of the most important historians of the 20th and 21st centuries. He will be remembered as a scholar par excellence who treated history as it should be treated, as a serious subject, the neglect of which produces catastrophic consequences. There is no way that a country can conduct proper foreign affairs without obedience and adherence to its historical roots. Professors like Ted remind us of that, making us realize that the journalistic moment is fleeting, but strategy and history have meaning. He was of the old guard school that embraced great men, great ideas, and great causes and was often attacked by the pseudo historians of the contemporary era. He attacked sloth and revisionism like a lion, often alone in the gladiatorial arena. He understood, what anyone who is serious about international relations and foreign policy understands, a nation that treats history as a luxury or a technicality is a nation that ceases to be important.

In 1987 he sounded the warning bell when he wrote in Reflections on History and Historians, "[History's] value to society is being questioned; its ability to provide guidance and enlightenment is under challenge. It is gradually being reduced to an academic discipline, still taught in most schools and colleges, but increasingly remote from the vital concerns of the community at large." This applies to all the so-called social sciences and humanities. Ted loved his country and he taught as he wrote, that truth in all things is important. In looking at his life, one remembers an America that once was, but does not mean an America that can never be again. As the American people search for their right place in the world, we can look at a life like Ted's for a true guide. Ted never gave up fighting, he never gave up fighting for his profession and his calling, and he never gave up on his country, looking both inward and outward. He gave a lesson for any American looking for guidance regarding our position on the world stage: in victory be a gentlemen, and more so in any defeat.

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