Ernest R. May


Ernest Richard May (November 19, 1928 – June 1, 2009) was an
American American(s) may refer to: * American, something of, from, or related to the United States of America, commonly known as the United States The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US), or America, is ...
historian ( 484– 425 BC) was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC and one of the earliest historians whose work survives. A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are con ...
international relations International relations (IR), international affairs (IA) or international studies (IS) is the scientific study of interactions between sovereign states. In a broader sense, it concerns all activities between states—such as war, diplomacy ...
, whose 14 published books include analyses of American involvement in
World War I World War I, often abbreviated as WWI or WW1, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war A world war is "a war engaged in by all or most of the principal nations of the world". The term is usually reserved for ...

World War I
and the causes of the
Fall of France The Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, was the German German(s) may refer to: Common uses * of or related to Germany * Germans, Germanic ethnic group, citizens of Germany or people of German ancestry * For citizens of Germany ...
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved —including all of the great powers—forming two opposing s: the and the . In a total war directly involving m ...
. His 1997 book ''The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis'' became the primary sources of the 2000 film '' Thirteen Days'' starring
Kevin Costner Kevin Michael Costner (born January 18, 1955) is an American actor and filmmaker. He has received two Academy Awards The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, are awards for artistic and technical merit in the film industry. They ...

Kevin Costner
that viewed the Missile Crisis from the perspective of American political leaders. He served on the 9/11 commission and highlighted the failures of the government intelligence agencies. May taught full-time on the faculty of
Harvard University Harvard University is a private Private or privates may refer to: Music * "In Private "In Private" was the third single in a row to be a charting success for United Kingdom, British singer Dusty Springfield, after an absence of nearly tw ...

Harvard University
for 55 years, until his death. May was also a recipient of the 1988
University of Louisville The University of Louisville (UofL) is a public university, public research university in Louisville, Kentucky. It is part of the Kentucky state university system. When founded in 1798, it was the first city-owned public university in the Unite ...
Grawemeyer Award The Grawemeyer Awards () are five awards given annually by the University of Louisville. The prizes are presented to individuals in the fields of education, ideas improving world order, music composition, religion, and psychology Psychology ...
for ''Ideas Improving World Order'', co-authored with Richard Neustadt.


May’s PhD dissertation at UCLA in 1951 was on the role of
William Jennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan (March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925) was an American orator and politician. Beginning in 1896, he emerged as a dominant force in the Democratic PartyDemocratic Party most often refers to: *Democratic Party (United State ...

William Jennings Bryan
as secretary of state in 1914-1915. It was never published. It was directed by John W. Caughey.

Harvard University

He joined the Harvard University faculty following the completion of his military service in 1954, and remained there full-time until his death.Hevesi, Dennis
"Ernest May, International Relations Expert, Dies at 80"
''The New York Times'', June 6, 2009.
May was promoted to associate professor of history in 1959 and full professor in 1963.Lavoie, Amy

, '' Harvard University Gazette'', June 2, 2009.
He served as the dean of
Harvard College Harvard College is the undergraduate education, undergraduate college of Harvard University, an Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1636, Harvard College is the original school of Harvard University, the oldest ...
for two years starting in 1969, and served as chairman of the Harvard history department from 1976 to 1979. At the
John F. Kennedy School of Government The Harvard Kennedy School (also known as the John F. Kennedy School of Government and HKS) is the public policy school of Harvard University Harvard University is a Private university, private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, ...
, May also served on the faculty. May and historian
Richard Neustadt Richard Elliott Neustadt (June 26, 1919 – October 31, 2003) was an United States, American politics, political scientist specializing in the President of the United States, United States presidency. He also served as adviser to several president ...

Richard Neustadt
created a course that had students make choices for current political issues based on a thorough review of choices made over the course of history. Their work together became the basis for the 1986 book ''Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers'', published by the Free Press that has been widely used by students and professionals in the field.

Books and essays

His first book, ''The World War and American Isolation 1914-17'', published in 1959, was based in part on German government documents and available on microfilm. The book was honored by the
American Historical Association The American Historical Association (AHA) is the oldest professional association of historians in the United States and the largest such organization in the world. Founded in 1884, the AHA provides leadership for the discipline by protecting academ ...
with its
George Louis Beer PrizeThe George Louis Beer Prize is a book prize awarded by the American Historical Association The American Historical Association (AHA) is the oldest professional association of historians in the United States and the largest such organization in the w ...
, which recognizes the best work each year published on European international history. The book was included on a list of 1,780 books chosen to be included in the White House library. Together with historian Philip D. Zelikow, May edited the 1997 book ''The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis'', published by Harvard University Press. The book provided details based on taped recordings of conversations made in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy as he considered options to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis that included unilateral air strikes to destroy the Soviet missiles based in Cuba or the imposition of naval quarantine around the island to prevent further deliveries of new missiles and materials. The book offered a word-for-word transcription by May and Zelikow of the secret White House recordings made during the crisis. The book was used as the source for the 2000 film '' Thirteen Days'' with Kevin Costner as presidential advisor Kenneth O'Donnell and Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy. ''Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France'', published by Hill and Wang in 2000, tells the chain of events that led to the rapid fall of the French Army in the Battle of France. The book counters the perception that the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was inevitable, and recounts the chain of events on the political and military fronts that led to the collapse. Reviewer David A. T. Stafford, David Stafford of the ''The New York Times, New York Times'' records how May documents that French military had more and better-trained troops than the Germans and had more tanks, bombers and fighters. The French general staff was competent and confident, while their German counterparts were cautious and leery of success. The fall began with intelligence failures by the French that led them to misjudge German plans such as their sweep through the Ardennes around the Maginot Line. May's specialty of studying the effects of intelligence failures led to his role as a senior advisor on the 9/11 Commission, in which he played a role in the preparation of the 604-page report it issued documenting the attacks and offering recommendations for the future. His final essay addressed the China's peaceful rise as a major world power, a situation that was a major foreign policy turning point for the United States but May believed that war between the two was not inevitable as the decision by the Chinese government to focus on economic growth would allow it to remain at peace with its trading partners.

Personal life

May was born on November 19, 1928, in Fort Worth, Texas, Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up as an only child. He graduated from R. L. Paschal High School in 1944. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1948 and received his Ph.D. in 1951. After his graduation, he served during the Korean War era from 1951 to 1954 as an officer in the United States Navy Reserves."Fort Worth Native Author of Book"
''Fort Worth Star-Telegram'', Fort Worth, Texas, 79th year, number 25, February 25, 1959, page 24.
A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, May died at age 80 on June 1, 2009, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, due to complications resulting from cancer surgery. He was survived by Susan Wood, his second wife. Nancy Caughey, his first wife, had died in 2000, and May was survived by their son and two daughters, as well as three grandchildren.


* “The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Far Eastern War, 1941-1945,” ''Pacific Historical Review'' 24:2 (1955): 153-74. * “The Development of Political-Military Consultation in the United States.” ''Political Science Quarterly'' 78#2 1955, pp. 161–80, * “The Far Eastern Policy of the United States in the Period of the Russo-Japanese War: A Russian View,” ''American Historical Review'' 62:2 (1957): 345-51. * ''The World War and American isolation : 1914-1917'' (1959
* ''Imperial democracy : the emergence of America as a great power'' (1951
* ''American imperialism; a speculative essay'' (1968
* '' American-East Asian Relations: A Survey'' (Harvard UP, 1972
coeditor *
Thinking in Time: The uses of History for Decision-Makers
', (1986) * ''The Kennedy tapes : inside the White House during the Cuban missile crisis'' (1997
* ''Strange victory: Hitler's conquest of France'' (2000


Further reading

* Philip Zelikow, Niall Ferguson, Francis J. Gavin, Anne Karalekas, Daniel Sargent. "Forum 31 on the Importance of the Scholarship of Ernest May" ''H-DIPLO'' Dec. 17, 202
{{DEFAULTSORT:May, Ernest 1928 births 2009 deaths 20th-century American historians American male non-fiction writers Harvard University faculty Writers from Cambridge, Massachusetts Historians of American foreign relations Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professors of American History People from Fort Worth, Texas United States Navy officers United States Navy reservists University of California, Los Angeles alumni Deaths from cancer in Massachusetts Historians from Massachusetts Historians from Texas 20th-century American male writers Military personnel from Texas Military personnel from Massachusetts