Herbert Feis

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Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,106 words
Lexile Measure: 1160L

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About this Person
Born: June 07, 1893 in New York, New York, United States
Died: March 02, 1972 in Winter Park, Florida, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Historian
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Feis, Herbert (June 7, 1893 - Mar. 2, 1972), economist and historian, was born in New York City, the son of Louisa Waterman and Louis Jacob Feis. Educated in the public schools of his native city, where his father was a businessman, he received his B.A. degree from Harvard in 1916. During World War I he was a lieutenant in the United States Navy, serving with the Sixth Battle Squadron of the British Grand Fleet. After the war he returned to Harvard and in 1921 received a Ph.D. degree in economics. In the same year his first book, The Settlement of Wage Disputes, was published. On March 25 of the following year he married Ruth Stanley-Brown, a great-granddaughter of President James Garfield.

Feis spent the decade of the 1920's in academe, first at Harvard (1920-1921), where he was an instructor in economics; then at the University of Kansas (1922-1925), where he was associate professor of economics; and lastly at the University of Cincinnati (1926-1929), where he was professor and head of the department of economics. During these years he published numerous papers, pamphlets, and books on labor relations and also served as industrial relations adviser to the International Labor Office of the League of Nations in Geneva. The publication in 1930 of his first major book, Europe, the World's Banker, 1870-1914, which he wrote while holding a Guggenheim research fellowship, impressed Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who recruited him to serve as economic adviser to the Department of State.

From 1931 to 1947 Feis lived in Washington, D.C., with his wife and only child. He spent twelve years in the State Department and three with the War Department. During this tenure he shifted the focus of his scholarly interest from labor relations to international economic affairs. As the Department of State's specialist in this area, he served as chief technical adviser to the U.S. delegation at many of the international conferences held during the 1930's. These included the important World Economic and Monetary Conference of 1933 in London and the various meetings of the Conference of American Republics held in Buenos Aires (1936), Lima (1938), and Panama (1939). While he was with the State Department Feis wrote The Sinews of Peace (1944), a perceptive and important analysis of the complex economic problems that awaited the nations of the world after World War II was over.

In 1947 Feis left government service and embarked on a new career as a historian. His years as a Washington insider, where he was witness to many of the events about which he wrote, gave him a sure grasp of his subject. His 1947 book, Seen from E. A.: Three International Episodes, inaugurated a series of eleven books published over the ensuing twenty-five years, which together offer a comprehensive history of American foreign policy from 1933 to 1950. Written from the distinctive perspective of an eyewitness, these volumes trace the tortuous course the United States followed in abandoning its traditional isolationism for a policy of global intervention.

Included among these eleven books was Feis's important five-volume diplomatic history of World War II published by Princeton University Press. The first volume, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War Between the United States and Japan (1950), utilized for the first time both Japanese and American government documents to describe events leading to the United States' entry into the war. The last of the volumes, Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific (1961), discussed the complex problems involved in the Truman administration's decision to use the atomic bomb. His fourth volume, Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference (1960), won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1961. All of the volumes, including the second and third volumes, The China Tangle: The American Effort in China from Pearl Harbor to the Marshall Mission (1953), and Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought (1957), were praised for meticulous scholarship. Despite his closeness to the events, Feis wrote objectively and analytically, often using State and War Department documents not yet examined by other scholars. As participant historian, he understood the limits of those documents. His experience told him when they distorted or concealed the truth, and suggested when he should find new sources and conduct new interviews. Feis's particular gift as a historian, said one critic, was his "careful and wide-ranging research" and his "lucid skill in disentangling highly confused situations." A perceptive analyst, he was able to cut through a welter of conflicting points of view and contradictory information to expose the essence of the matter.

Feis was not without his critics. Some charged that as a "court historian" he could not write objectively about the government policies and actions that he himself had helped to formulate. His close involvement with the people and events about which he wrote, they said, "shackled" him to an "establishment line." One English critic described his 1960 prize-winning study of the Potsdam Conference as "a State Department brief, translated into terms of historical scholarship." But the dominant view was that while Feis's participation in events animated his narrative, he wrote objective history characterized by reasonably dispassionate analysis. As an insider with access to government documents closed to other scholars, he had an unusual advantage, a fact of which he was well aware. Perhaps because of this, he devoted much time during the 1960's trying to persuade government officials that they could open government documents to research scholars much sooner than was customary without jeopardizing the national security. He wrote an article for the New York Times, for example, defending Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret study of the Vietnam War ordered in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

After leaving government service in 1947, Feis became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he worked intermittently over the next decade. He returned to the Department of State in 1950 to serve for a year on its policy planning staff. In 1951 he accepted an appointment as visiting professor of history at Harvard and over the next decade held several such appointments at other institutions, including Columbia University. This tall, slim man, his convivial face topped by a cascade of tousled snow-white hair, was a familiar figure on the campuses of American universities during the 1960's, where he was a popular lecturer and recipient of many awards and honorary degrees. He spent his last years at his farm in York, Maine, but usually wintered in Antigua, where his daughter lived, or in Florida. He died in Winter Park, Fla.


[Feis's professional and personal papers (28,000 items) are located at the Library of Congress. An extraordinarily prolific writer, he was author of more than 150 articles published in Foreign Affairs, Yale Review, the New York Times Magazine, and other periodicals. Major monographs and books, in addition to those mentioned in the text, include The Diplomacy of the Dollar (1950); Foreign Aid and Foreign Policy (1964); The Birth of Israel: The Tangled Diplomatic Bed (1969); and From Trust to Terror: The Onset of the Cold War, 1945-1950 (1970). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Mar. 3, 1972; The Washington Post, Mar. 4, 1972; Newsweek, Mar. 13, 1972; Time, Mar. 13, 1972; and The American Historical Review 78, no. 2 (Apr. 1971).]


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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310013741