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Robert Hugh Ferrell
Born (1921-05-08)May 8, 1921
Cleveland, Ohio, US
Died August 8, 2018(2018-08-08) (aged 97)
Chelsea, Michigan, US
Nationality American
Alma mater Bowling Green State University, Yale University
Notable work(s) Peace in Their Time, Harry S. Truman: A Life, Dear Bess, Choosing Truman, Ill-Advised, The Dying President, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman
Spouse(s) Lila Sprout Ferrell[1]
Children 1[1]
Awards John Addison Porter Prize, George Louis Beer Prize

Robert Hugh Ferrell (May 8, 1921 – August 8, 2018)[2] was an American historian and a prolific author or editor of more than 60 books on a wide range of topics, including the U.S. presidency, World War I, and U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. One of the country's leading historians,[3] Ferrell was widely considered the preeminent authority on the administration of Harry S. Truman,[4] and also wrote books about half a dozen other 20th-century presidents. He was thought by many in the field to be the "dean of American diplomatic historians," a title he disavowed.[5]

Early life[]

Ferrell was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1921 to Ernest and Edna Ferrell. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father was a World War I veteran whose career as a banker kept the family moving throughout Ohio during the Great Depression.[4] The family settled in Waterville, Ohio, where Ferrell's father managed the First National Bank and Ferrell and his brother Ernest Jr. went to high school.[6][7]

A pianist, Ferrell studied music and education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio before serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during the Second World War as a chaplain's assistant and staff sergeant.[4] His wartime experience in Europe compelled him to change his vocation to the study of history,[3] inspired also by reading the works of historian and fellow Ohioan Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Ida Tarbell, and Allan Nevins.[4] After the war, he received a B.S. in Education from Bowling Green in 1946 and another in history in 1947.[3][8]

Academic career[]

At Yale University, Ferrell earned a master's degree in 1948 and a Ph.D. in 1951, working under the direction of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Samuel Flagg Bemis. His dissertation, The United States and the Origins of the Kellogg–Briand Pact,[9] won Yale's John Addison Porter Prize for original scholarship.[10] A longer version of this became his first book, Peace in Their Time: The Origins of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which went on to win the American Historical Association's 1952 George Louis Beer Prize.[11] “This may not be the last book on the subject, but it should be,” wrote historian Richard W. Leopold of Northwestern University.[2]

Ferrell was an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C., during the Korean War. After leaving the Air Force, he taught at Michigan State in 1952–53.[1] He then moved to Indiana University in Bloomington, where he taught for many years, starting as an assistant professor in 1953 and rising to distinguished professor of history in 1974. He held several notable visiting professorships, including Yale in 1955–56 and the University of Cairo in 1958–59, the universities of South Carolina, Wisconsin and Nebraska in the late 1950s, and the Naval War College in 1974.[5]

In 1971, he was elected the fourth president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).[12] He made nine appearances on C-SPAN to discuss his books and historical events,[13] and was a featured expert in the History Channel's 2005 documentary series The Presidents.[14] In a 2000 Chicago Sun-Times article, Ferrell ranked Abraham Lincoln, Truman and George Washington as the three best presidents in history.[3]

Teaching and academic legacy[]

Ferrell considered teaching a core part of his career, and worked to improve the quality of history teaching in general. In 1964, working with Maurice Glen Baxter and John E. Wiltz, he conducted a thorough survey of every high-school history teacher and school librarian in Indiana, writing up their findings along with detailed suggestions to help unprepared teachers in the 1964 book The Teaching of American History in High Schools.[15][16][17]

He supervised 35 Ph.D. students from 1961 to 1988.[18] Many of his students became history professors themselves. His students, both Ph.D. and otherwise, included Eugene P. Trani, former president of Virginia Commonwealth University; American Spectator founder Emmett Tyrrell;[19] William B. Pickett, a professor emeritus of history at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana[4] and author of Eisenhower Decides To Run; historian and author Arnold A. Offner, past president of SHAFR; Reginald Horsman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and author of Race and Manifest Destiny;[5][20] Terry H. Anderson, history professor at Texas A&M University and author of The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action;[21] Ross Gregory, history professor at Western Michigan University and author of Walter Hines Page: Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s; national security and intelligence expert Melvin Goodman, author of Whistleblower at the CIA; Theodore A. Wilson, history professor at the University of Kansas and author of The First Summit: Roosevelt and Churchill at Placentia Bay, 1941;[22] and John Garry Clifford, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.

After his 1988 retirement, SHAFR named the annual Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize in his honor for distinguished scholarship in the field.[23] More than a dozen of his former students, all historians in their own right, compiled the book Presidents, Diplomats, and Other Mortals: Essays Honoring Robert H. Ferrell to recognize his achievements in the field.[17]

Published works[]

Ferrell wrote prolifically, sharing with Bemis a disapproval of what they called "one-book men" who stopped writing after finishing a Ph.D. dissertation.[2] He published 25 books before his 1988 retirement from teaching, and before his death had produced more than 60. His prose was "expressed with grace and economy, [and] a light wit," wrote historian Lawrence Kaplan.[17] After the publication of Peace in Their Time, his early works included influential history textbooks American Diplomacy in the Great Depression and American Diplomacy: A History, the latter of which was republished in expanded and revised editions three times in the ensuing decades. He continued to work closely with his mentor Bemis, co-editing the later volumes of the series American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy which Bemis had begun in the 1920s, and also writing the entries on Frank B. Kellogg, Henry L. Stimson, and George Marshall. He helped edit Bemis' Pulitzer-winning 1949 biography, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, and catalyzed the publication of a 1957 paperback edition of Bemis' The Diplomacy of the American Revolution.[5][24]

Ferrell was also notable for the thoroughness and depth of his research, with a knack for finding obscure or unpublished diaries, memoirs, and letters which would then become central elements of his books, such as the papers of Coolidge-era assistant secretary of state William Castle, which greatly informed Peace in Their Time. Editing and publishing the diaries and private letters of persons of historical interest, from presidents to ordinary soldiers, became a specialty of his, with nearly two dozen such books to his name, including presidents Truman, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge (and his wife Grace) and Dwight Eisenhower, White House staffers James Hagerty, Frank Comerford Walker, Arthur F. Burns and Eben Ayers, and soldiers in the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Spanish–American War, and the Mexican–American War.

Not content to be a passive chronicler of history, Ferrell would often, when he felt a topic merited it, engage in spirited critique of other historians' interpretations of past events.[17] In the influential 1955 article "Pearl Harbor and the Revisionists," he argued against the conspiracy theory that Franklin Roosevelt had deliberately allowed Japan to commit the surprise attack that drew the U.S. into World War II.[25] His book Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists argued against post-1960s New Left historians' critiques of the Truman era.[2][26] Reactions to the book were divided: Writing for Michigan State University's H-Net, Curt Cardwell felt that Ferrell misunderstood the arguments of the younger generation he criticized and was "condescending,"[27] while Alonzo L. Hamby's review in Journal of Cold War Studies called the book "restrained and gentlemanly" and noted that Ferrell viewed prominent revisionist William Appleman Williams as a friend.[28] In a 1995 article in American Heritage, he accused Merle Miller, author of the bestselling book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry. S. Truman, of fabricating many of the quotes attributed to Truman.[29][30] In 1998's The Dying President, Ferrell examined Franklin D. Roosevelt's medical records and concluded that Roosevelt had deliberately chosen to keep the cardiovascular disease which would soon kill him secret from the public. The book was praised by historian John Lukacs as “painstaking and exceptionally researched … sparklingly well-written, bearing the marks of a master historian” and one of the most important books on Roosevelt by any historian.[31]

Harry S. Truman[]

Ferrell wrote voluminously on Truman, devoting more than a dozen books to his life and presidency. Ferrell's work rehabilitated the reputation of the Truman presidency, which had been previously considered a failure by scholars, by providing evidence of how decisions such as Truman's choice to champion the Marshall Plan led to the successful establishment of an American-led post-war world order.[3] Although it was overshadowed by the popular success of David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning Truman biography, Ferrell's 1994 Harry S. Truman: A Life was considered a masterwork by scholars in his field. Historian Lawrence Kaplan called it "the height of his achievement," with far more detailed analysis than McCullough's book.[17]

Ferrell's discovery of a cache of hundreds of letters from Truman to his wife, previously thought to have been burned, led to his 1983 book Dear Bess: The Letters From Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959.,[3] a New York Times bestseller.[32]

Coincidentally, Ferrell and Truman were born on the same day, May 8.[3]

World War I[]

World War I was a special interest of Ferrell's—in particular the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest and bloodiest U.S. operation of the war, in which Ferrell's father and then-Capt. Harry Truman both served. His books on the conflict include America's Deadliest Battle, Collapse at Meuse-Argonne, and a profile of the American Expeditionary Forces' only African-American division, Unjustly Dishonored, as well as several edited memoirs of soldiers who served in it. One of his final books, 2008's The Question of MacArthur's Reputation, painstakingly reconstructed the events of the Meuse-Argonne, a victory which helped launch the career of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to prove that MacArthur had lied about his role in the battle to embellish his prestige and take undeserved credit.[33]


In addition to the John Addison Porter Prize and George Louis Beer Prize for his early work on the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Ferrell received the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations' Norman and Laura Graebner Award in 1998, which recognizes distinguished lifetime achievement by a senior historian of United States foreign relations.[34] In 2002, Ferrell was given the Society for Military History's Distinguished Book Award for editing a trio of memoirs by soldier William S. Triplet, A Youth in the Meuse-Argonne, A Colonel in the Armored Divisions, and In the Philippines and Okinawa.[35]

Personal life[]

His wife, Lila, died in 2002.[4] They had a daughter, Carolyn.[1][36][37] He was an inveterate collector of books, owning more than 10,000 volumes.[2] He died of heart disease.[3]

Ferrell's papers, writings and correspondence, comprising 200,000 items, are archived at Indiana University's Lilly Library.[38]


External video
Booknotes interview with Ferrell on The Strange Deaths of President Harding, January 12, 1997, C-SPAN
Presentation by Ferrell on Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion, May 14, 2005, C-SPAN
Lecture by Ferrell: Illness and Death of President F. Roosevelt, Oct. 30, 1996, C-SPAN
Lecture by Ferrell: Chief Justice John Jay's Legacy, Dec. 12, 1995, C-SPAN
Ashbrook Colloquium presentation by Ferrell: Good Fortune in Politics: The Case of Calvin Coolidge, Jan. 28, 2005
Organization of American Historians panel on Truman biographies, including Robert Ferrell's Harry S. Truman: A Life, Alonzo Hamby's Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman and David McCullough's Truman.", C-SPAN

As primary author[]

As editor[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Ferrell2007
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Grant, James (2018-08-17). "Robert H. Ferrell, a Historian of Breadth and Clarity". Wall Street Journal. New York City. Retrieved 2018-08-21. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Schudel, Matt (2018-08-23). "Robert H. Ferrell, presidential historian and Truman biographer, dies at 97". Washington Post. Retrieved 2018-08-26. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Sandomir, Richard (2018-08-22). "Robert H. Ferrell, Authority on Truman, Is Dead at 97". New York Times. Retrieved 2018-08-23. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Clifford, J. Garry (2007). "The Young Bob Ferrell". In Clifford, J. Garry; Wilson, Theodore A.. Presidents, Diplomats, and Other Mortals: Essays Honoring Robert H. Ferrell. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press. pp. 307–315. ISBN 978-0-8262-1747-9. 
  6. Phyllis Witzler; John Rose; Verna Rose (28 August 2017). Waterville. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated. pp. 92–. ISBN 978-1-4396-6204-5. 
  7. Lawrence S. Kaplan; Scott L. Bills; E. Timothy Smith (1997). The Romance of History: Essays in Honor of Lawrence S. Kaplan. Kent State University Press. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-0-87338-563-3. 
  8. Ferrell, Robert H. "Robert H. Ferrell oral history" (November 3, 1994) [oral history]. Robert H. Ferrell mss.. Indiana University: Lilly Library Manuscript Collections.
  9. "Dissertations by year, 1950–1959". Yale University Department of History. Retrieved 22 August 2018. 
  10. Historical Register of Yale University, 1937–1951. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1952. p. 80.;view=1up;seq=88. 
  11. "George Louis Beer Prize Recipients". American Historical Association. Retrieved December 24, 2017. 
  12. "Past Presidents". Retrieved 2018-10-06. 
  13. "Robert H. Ferrell". C-SPAN. Retrieved 19 September 2018. 
  14. "The Presidents : The Lives and Legacies of the 43 Leaders of the United States" (Television). New York City: A&E Television Networks. 2005. ISBN 9780767077606. OCLC 60583878. 
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  16. Wolf, Hazel C. (1965). "Book Reviews: The Teaching of American History in High Schools". pp. 436–439. JSTOR 40190203. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Kaplan, Lawrence (2007). "Robert H. Ferrell: An Appreciation". In Clifford, J. Garry; Wilson, Theodore A.. Presidents, Diplomats, and Other Mortals: Essays Honoring Robert H. Ferrell. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press. pp. 307–315. ISBN 978-0-8262-1747-9. 
  18. Clifford, J. Garry; Wilson, Theodore A., eds (2007). "Robert H. Ferrell's Ph.D. Students". Presidents, Diplomats, and Other Mortals: Essays Honoring Robert H. Ferrell. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press. pp. 327–329. ISBN 978-0-8262-1747-9. 
  19. Tyrrell, Jr., R. Emmett (2018-08-21). "Death of a historian, Robert H. Ferrell". Washington Times. Retrieved 2018-08-23. 
  20. Reginald Horsman (1981). Race and Manifest Destiny. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-94805-1. 
  21. Anderson, Terry H. (2004). The pursuit of fairness: a history of affirmative action. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195182453.  Preview.
  22. "Theodore A. Wilson". Retrieved 2018-10-06. 
  23. "Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize". Retrieved 22 August 2018. 
  24. Samuel Flagg Bemis (1957). The Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Indiana University Press. 
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  27. Cardwell, Curt (October 2007). "Review of Ferrell, Robert H., Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists". 
  28. Hamby, Alonzo L. (Fall 2015). "Book Review: Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists by Robert H. Ferrell". pp. 203–204. Digital object identifier:10.1162/JCWS_r_00607. 
  29. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named plainfaking
  30. Michael T. Benson (1997). Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 37–. ISBN 978-0-275-95807-7. 
  31. Lukacs, John (1998-07-26). "His Secret Life". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. Retrieved 2018-09-08. 
  32. "Best Sellers: Nonfiction". New York Times. 1983-09-25. Retrieved 2018-09-11. 
  33. Messenger, Robert (2008-11-04). "The Search For a Hero". Wall Street Journal. New York City. Retrieved 2018-09-07. 
  34. "The Norman and Laura Graebner Award". Retrieved 2018-09-21. 
  35. "Distinguished Book Awards". 
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  37. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Ferrell2011
  38. "Ferrell mss.". Indiana University. 

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