Archives, Activism, and History: A Conversation with 2024 Bancroft Prize Winner Carolyn Woods Eisenberg (’71GSAS)


Photo of Carolyn Woods Eisenberg by William Fried

Activism and history-writing are inseparable in the work of Carolyn Woods Eisenberg, a winner of this year’s Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy. A distinguished historian, who specializes in foreign policy and the Cold War at Hofstra University, Eisenberg earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1971 and was a central figure in the Columbia University student protests of the late 1960s. This historical period is also the subject of her award-winning book, Fire and Rain: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Wars in Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press, 2023), which examines the policies of the Nixon administration in the final years of the Vietnam War.

Recently, Eisenberg joined Thai Jones, Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, to discuss the connections between activism, archival research, and the writing of American history.

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity. 

Thai: I’m really interested in the connections between your activism, the research process, and history interpretation. So, I’d love it if you could situate us by describing where you were in your time at Columbia, when the student protests began in the spring of 1968.

Carolyn: Well, that was my first year at Columbia. I was in the history department. And I was actually having pretty good experiences in the history department. I had started work on a master’s thesis on Black parents in Harlem. Previously, I had been an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where there was a very active civil rights movement, and I had been very involved in school desegregation. When the Columbia demonstrations started in 1968, I was just at the beginning of my work on my dissertation. Students for a Democratic Society and the Society of Afro-American Students had initiated the protest. And so it felt kind of natural. When the sit-in started in Hamilton Hall, it felt very natural to go and be part of it.

Thai: Students and outside protesters ended up occupying Hamilton Hall, as well as four other buildings on campus in April 1968. They were protesting the University’s connections to military research, as well as a plan to construct a new gymnasium in Morningside Park. Can you describe your role in those protests?

Carolyn: I was in Fayerweather, where most of the graduate students were. I was the representative for Fayerweather to the protest steering committee. I was the only woman on the steering committee. I was older, and I was a woman, and I didn’t agree with a lot of the tactics. So, you could see how – pretty quickly – that could make me the most hated person on the committee. I felt there was a lot of posturing going on. More than some other people back then, I had a very strong focus on what is effective, and how do you build coalitions. And, what are actions that you could take that actually inspire more people to become involved, and what are the things that really just turn people off. If you were going to draw any kind of line between my activism and my research, especially my work on this book, I would say it was an interest in this question: What is effective? What works?

Thai: Speaking of effectiveness, your research in the Nixon and Kissinger archives clearly demonstrates the power and impact of the antiwar movement itself. Public opinion against the wars in Southeast Asia made it impossible for the administration to continue those conflicts.

Carolyn: Obviously, to me, it’s not debatable that the Vietnam War was wrong. America’s position in the war was wrong – I’m sorry. But I think the durable question for me is what was effective in opposing the war. You know, what actually works, and what’s just really like spinning your wheels? When I was doing this book, that was not one of my initial questions. But the more that I read in the documents, the more I realized that there was a lot to be learned about how the antiwar movement affected policy. At a certain point – given my own background – it was like staring me in the face. I realized that it was something that was worth developing as an important theme. I learned a lot about the peace movement from the archives. You could really see in some of the highest-level conversations between Nixon and Kissinger how much of the decisions were really being shaped by the problem of domestic opposition. It’s absolutely essential. Now, I mean, Nixon said a million times, “I’m not affected by it, I don’t care about it, blah, blah, blah.” But that’s completely untrue. And I think that one of the biggest takeaways is that I really feel like I learned a lot more about what things were effective in influencing policy.

Thai: Can you say a bit more about your work in the archives. Do you bring a specific method or approach to your work research?

Carolyn: When I think back about how long this project took, and my other book also – each of them took 20 years – it’s clear that to really do the archival work, it can’t be cursory. You really have to read these things, and there’s always a temptation, you know, to cut corners. But I actually think it requires close attention and also critical attention. In other words, you’re thinking all the time about what is meaningful, or what’s important, or what is casting some new light on a problem, and so forth. It’s not that you just look at the papers, and then you know what to say. You look at the papers. You read them really carefully and think about their significance. You do that with an understanding that there’s a whole range of materials and that there’s a lot to know. I think one of the things that’s interesting is that – especially in the foreign policy area – there actually could be a lot more work done with archives.

Thai: In many ways, the ‘60s generation revolutionized archival research. By emphasizing “history from below,” scholars who had been involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements used the archives in ways that few historians had bothered with previously. How do you think about the connections between the late ‘60s and the archive?

Carolyn: Probably anybody of my generation was very struck with the fact of how much lying goes on at every level of the government, how many things are misrepresented. And so how do you know that people are lying? You don’t just say: “Well, this is a feeling I have.” You look at evidence to try to figure out what’s going on. If you don’t want to just be somebody who has criticisms, but you really want to understand what’s happening – you need to go into the archives.

Join Columbia University Libraries for a program and reception to honor the 2024 recipients of the Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy on Thursday, April 18. The event is free and open to the public. Register here to attend