Q&A: Christopher McKnight Nichols, Mershon's New Hayes Chair in National Security Studies
We are excited to welcome Christopher McKnight Nichols to the Mershon team as the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair of National Security Studies. Nichols joins us from Oregon State University, where, during his 10 years there, he served as director of the Center for the Humanities, Sandy and Elva Sanders Eminent Professor in the Honors College, and Associate Professor of History. In his move to Ohio State, Nichols also joins the History Department as a tenured professor.
Nichols specializes in the history of the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world, particularly in the areas of isolationism, internationalism, and globalization, as well as the role of ideas and ideologies in U.S. foreign relations. He is also an expert on modern U.S. intellectual, political, and cultural history, from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1880-1920) through the present.
Learn more about Chris in the Q&A below and help us welcome him to the Mershon community!
What drew you to the Mershon Center?
I was first drawn to the Mershon Center by the exceptional faculty affiliated with the center and the offerings and events here, including as part of several conferences I participated in over the last fifteen or so years. An invited talk in 2019 piqued my interest in Mershon because of the great engagement of the audience, community members, faculty, students, and staff, and the ways in which I could envision being part of building an even more dynamic set of interdisciplinary programs.
What research projects do you hope to highlight or make progress on in the coming years?
First up, I am delighted to say, my first publication as an Ohio State and Mershon fellow will be my new edited volume, with David Milne, Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, will be published by Columbia University Press in August/Fall 2022. This book explores the most significant ideologies and ideas that have helped to shape U.S. foreign relations since even before the American Revolution, with focus on a wide range of individuals and groups far beyond the "usual suspects" of elite policymakers. The project has been an ambitious labor of love as it brings together many of the top and rising star historians of the "U.S. and the world" to put forward a field-defining project. We plan to do events and public engagement all fall -- including a series of launch events at Mershon in late September -- to discuss the crucial history of the ideologies and ideas that have guided U.S. foreign relations historically and are likely to influence U.S. foreign policy in the present and future.
I'm at work on a book on the early Cold War using the election of 1952 as a lens through which to view the transformation of U.S. foreign policy, national security, and related domestic politics.
I'm in the midst of several studies of the role of ideas in U.S. foreign relations, including a sweeping study of global anti-imperialism, continued work on isolationism and internationalism, and several biographical projects.
I have in mind a number of international conference ideas that will aim to bring together well-known as well as rising younger thinkers in U.S. foreign relations history to address topics of both significant scholarly concern and contemporary relevance. I am in the early stages of planning and organizing those, to be hosted at and through Mershon in the next few years - so please stay tuned!
How is it helpful to you to be part of an interdisciplinary center? And how do you hope to contribute to that?
From my several postdoctoral positions in interdisciplinary centers and institutes at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Virginia, years ago, through to directing Oregon State University's Center for the Humanities from 2017 to 2022, I have found myself challenged and invigorated by exposure to a wide range of scholars, scholarship, and ways of thinking and knowing.
One of the things I have most prized about life in academia is the ability to push boundaries and keep learning. My own research and writing blends and works across historical fields (diplomatic, intellectual, political history, with a cultural and social bent at times), moving across era and periodization, and often draws on scholarship from political science, philosophy, and American Studies, and at times other fields such as literary studies, communications, rhetoric, and more.
I am hopeful of contributing insights from my own work, of course, but perhaps more importantly, I am eager to help organize and participate in larger interdisciplinary conversations and programs. In that vein I'll likely contribute to Mershon given my experience as a humanities center director through my "big tent" approach to scholarship, collaboration, and community. One area, in particular, that I hope to be a part of building up is public-facing work that brings the best insights of Ohio State and Mershon scholarship and scholars to bear to help to address pressing contemporary challenges, this may include training and workshops, op-ed and public commentary, collective discussions, engagement with think tanks and policymakers, and doing that public work itself. Such efforts would dovetail with my abiding commitment to public engagement and work as a founding editorial board member of the "Made by History" section of the Washington Post.
I've advocated passionately for the importance and essential contributions of the humanities and history; I'm eager to continue those efforts -- and meet and engage with the widest possible group of faculty and students -- at the Ohio State and at the Mershon Center.
What are you most looking forward to as you settle into Columbus?
I am delighted to be moving back to a major city. I'm particularly keen to get a sense of the cultural offerings of Columbus, from museums and live music to the History Connection and parks. Honestly, I'm also eager to start trying the varied and excellent restaurant offerings. I love to run and hike, as well as bike, so I look forward to exploring the many parks and trails in greater Columbus.
What is something many people don’t know about you?
I am a baseball fan and baseball history aficionado. Born and raised in New York City, I'm a die-hard and lifelong (long suffering) New York Mets fan. I look forward to rooting for the Buckeyes on the diamond (and gridiron, of course!) and to getting to know and going to games of the various minor and major league affiliates across Ohio, most notably the Columbus Clippers, of course.