Balancing past and present: Edward Mead Earle and Makers of Modern Strategy


This post is based on my article which appears in the most recent issue of The Journal of Military History.

It might be considered that in producing a significant contribution to scholarship, a scholar ensures his or her own reputation. Yet this is not always the case. Edward Mead Earle, Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton for twenty years from 1934, has long languished in obscurity. This is despite the fact that his 1943 edited volume Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler proved to be a seminal text, read by a multitude of scholars – as well as soldiers – in the years following his premature death in 1954. Notable amongst this cohort was Sir Michael Howard, who recounts in his autobiography that when preparing to take a lectureship at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, UK he was advised to read Makers. ‘By following up its references’, he writes, ‘I started to build up a corpus of knowledge […] The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies.’

For decades almost nothing was written about Earle. In recent years, however, this situation has changed. For example, Patrick Porter has noted Earle’s part in bringing the concept of ‘national security’ to the mainstream of public and academic debate, underlining the enlarged concept of strategy that Earle brought to his work. David Ekbladh, meanwhile, has offered a sustained analysis of Earle’s career, arguing that Earle should be considered as an unheralded depression-era pioneer of security studies in the USA.

My own contribution in The Journal of Military History emphasizes Earle’s role as a historian through an investigation into the creation of Makers of Modern Strategy and Earle’s subsequent attempt to work towards a revised second edition of the volume. By focusing on the genesis of Makers, Earle’s concerns as a historian come to the fore. In line with his approach to historical study, the Makers project saw Earle attempt to connect the past to the present in an effort to enhance both military and public understanding of military thought, war and strategy, in the service of the ongoing Second World War and for the future of American power. In short, Earle was keen to turn history to practical use and to engage in contemporary debates using the historical mode of study.

Nevertheless, the book project itself always existed in an uncomfortable space between a settled past and a rapidly changing present. Whilst early efforts towards the volume that would become Makers were more concerned with exploring the foundations of military thought, as the work progressed through 1942 and 1943 the course of the Second World War came to weigh more heavily on the tome. No doubt this served to enhance the appeal of the work, and gave it a degree of contemporary urgency which helped account for the immediate success of the volume, both in a critical and a commercial sense. Yet at the same time, the need to account for the near past also enticed Earle towards revising the book. Earle began to make plans for the second edition as early as 1944, knowing that even in the short time since the book went into production the events of the Second World War had underlined certain deficiencies. These related notably to air and sea power, which had assumed prominent roles in shaping the course of the war, and to which Makers did not fully do justice.

Earle’s attempt to remake Makers failed, however. In part, this was down to bad luck. Some potential contributors were uninterested in the project, for others age and infirmity stood in the way. Meanwhile, for many of the academics previously involved in the project, war service had now become all-consuming. Yet this was not just a question of chance. It seemed that the Second World War had become too big for a scholarly project to handle: events were simply moving too fast. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 only compounded matters. Not only did the advent of the nuclear age broaden the potential scope of any new edition, it even brought into question the future relevance of the Second World War experience. Although Earle still harboured hopes for a second edition as late as 1947, the chances of accomplishing his goal diminished with each passing year. The result was that the original Makers – already outdated in some respects at the time of its publication – remained in print, and indeed in use, with a successor volume only appearing in the mid-1980s.

It might be tempting, then, to view Earle as something of a failure as well. Indeed, even in the early 1940s Earle felt that his own scholarly output was somewhat meagre. Not all academic activity consists in writing, however, and as an organiser, an editor, a speaker and an adviser to military and government, Earle made his mark. Moreover, Makers of Modern Strategy achieved a certain longevity in spite of its flaws. That was no mean feat, and in a sense the magnitude of this achievement was underscored by the difficulties Earle encountered in trying to revise the work. In this manner, the story of Earle’s Makers tells us something about the problems and pitfalls that abound in any attempt to balance past and present in an attempt to capture the changing character of war.


Image: IAS, Princeton. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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