Margaret Appelbaum Levine ‘64
As I get ready to attend my 50th Reunion in a few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on how my life has been affected by my experience as a Vassar History major. It’s crystal clear. It’s there I learned the skill that has meant the most to me personally and professionally: how to ask the right questions and how to weigh the answers. When I went on to graduate school in journalism, I shifted that search for sources from the college library stacks and historic archives to living people, but the same skeptical approach applied. Later, working in the digital world with vast resources at my fingertips, critical evaluation of sources proved fundamental. On the personal level, figuring out where to get advice I can trust and cross-examining diverse sources became habitual. Although I’ve long since forgotten most of the facts of my senior thesis, the research process has stayed with me for a lifetime. I was interested in American foreign policy between the first and second World Wars. With Professor Charles Griffin as my advisor, I zeroed in on an Ambassador-at-Large to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the influential but little-known Normal H. Davis. In a period of entrenched isolationism Davis was an internationalist who supported the League of Nations and advocated American participation in world affairs. He represented the U.S. in disarmament negotiations in the 1930s, acting both as official and back-channel liaison between President Roosevelt and European leaders.
To research his impact on FDR, Hoover, Stimson and Hull, and evaluate what influence he had on the direction of American policy, in the fall of my senior year I made many trips to the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park. In those days we used note cards. I filled shoeboxes with them after reading hundreds of letters between Davis and Roosevelt – some of them handwritten – and piles of other documents. But Davis’s own files weren’t in Hyde Park. Professor Griffin arranged access for me to the Davis Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress in Washington. My almost-completed work there came to a shocking halt midday on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The process I learned when faced with a huge trove of source material but not knowing exactly what I was looking for, was to start with a tentative hypothesis (about the extent of Davis’s influence), and then to formulate specific questions as a guide to research. I learned to be prepared to continually revise my thinking when surprising information came to light. Professor Griffin gave my paper a B++. I asked him why not A--? Excellent use of manuscript material, he said, but a little hero-worship, not quite critical enough! Thank you, Vassar. That shaped my mindset forever: never lose that skeptical edge.
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