Campus & Community

Ernest May, Harvard professor and eminent historian of international relations, dies at 80

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Ernest May, a renowned historian of international relations and foreign policy and professor of history at Harvard University, died on June 1 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from complications following surgery, according to his family. He was 80.

An esteemed member of the Harvard community for more than 55 years, May came to Harvard in 1954, was named associate professor of history in 1959, and became professor of history in 1963.

May served as dean of Harvard College from 1969 to 1971, during a time of upheaval and unrest on many college campuses. In 1969, under May’s deanship, Harvard College began its first comprehensive re-examination of undergraduate education in 25 years. From 1971 to 1972, May was associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“Ernest May was a wonderfully distinguished scholar and historian. He was beloved and admired by the Harvard community, and widely respected for his caring leadership as dean of Harvard College,” says Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard.

May served as chair of the Department of History from 1976 to 1979. In 1981, May was named Charles Warren Professor of American History.

May was also a member of the faculty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (HKS), and a member of the board of directors of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was director of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics from 1971 to 1974.

“Ernest May was a man of uncommon wisdom and humanity — a rare gem whose sparkling insights influenced many of us,” said HKS Dean David T. Ellwood. “He played an absolutely vital role in the Kennedy School and the University and was a world-renowned international historian, who devoted his life to teaching people how to use history to make effective policy decisions. We all mourn the loss of our friend, and we will miss him dearly.”

“Ernest was widely recognized as the leading international historian in the country,” says Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Belfer Center. “No historian in recent memory so successfully bridged the chasm between history and public policy. Ernest demonstrated that the best source of insight into current policy choices is to be found in a sound analysis of history. It is hard to visualize Harvard without him.”

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1928, May received his A.B. in 1948 and Ph.D. in 1951, both from the University of California, Los Angeles.

May’s first book, “The World War & American Isolation 1914-17,” was published by Harvard University Press in 1959, and won the George Louis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association for the best work of that year.

May was co-author, with John Caughey and John Hope Franklin, of “Land of the Free” (Franklin Publications; Benziger Bros., 1965) an eighth-grade textbook that changed the way American history was taught by emphasizing primary sources and a more modern worldview.

May was also the author of a dozen other books, including “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers” (Free Press, 1986), written with Richard Neustadt. In 1988 he received the first Grawemeyer Award for “Ideas Improving World Order,” with Neustadt.

“Professionally, within the field of America’s relations with the outside world, Ernest was the leading historian of the second half of the 20th century,” says Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. “As a teacher, his influence has been even more wide-ranging, leading Harvard’s Arts and Sciences faculty during difficult times and becoming a founding pillar of the Kennedy School of Government, while molding generations of other scholars now teaching around the world.

“But above all, as a person, it is hard to think of anyone who was at once so luminous and so beloved by so many students and colleagues. We may regret his absence in our scholarly conversations. But we will miss, and miss, his gentle spirit.”

With Zelikow, May was co-author of “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Harvard University Press, 1997), which analyzed detailed transcriptions of meetings and phone calls that took place during the Cuban missile crisis. The book was later turned into a feature film.

In 2002, May was awarded the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction, for pioneering research in international relations. From 2002 to 2004, May was senior adviser to the 9/11 Commission.

“Ernest May himself had much to do in broadening the field, for he was a passionate researcher in the archives of many countries,” says Akira Iriye, Charles Warren Research Professor of American History at Harvard. “He was interested not just in the top governmental leaders but also in public opinion, as he strongly believed that in a democratic country, foreign policy decisions ultimately reflected the public’s perspectives and interests.”

May is survived by his wife, Susan B. Wood of Cambridge, Mass.; son, John E. May of Wenham, Mass.; daughter S. Rachel May of Syracuse, N.Y.; and daughter Donna L. May of Los Angeles. He is also survived by three grandchildren.