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D.C.-based January Term Course Examines Role of U.S. in Middle East

University of Virginia professor Elizabeth F. Thompson is leading her students through the complex past of the United States’ relationship with the Middle East, and helping them find their way around the National Archives.

Thompson’s January Term course, “Americans in the Middle East,” conducted through the Woodrow Wilson Center of Scholars in Washington, provides students not only with class work and guest lecturers, but also gives them the opportunity to explore source documents in the National Archive and the Library of Congress during a nine-day stay in the nation’s capital.

Thompson, an associate professor in the Corcoran Department of History in the College of Arts & Sciences, said she wants the students to understand U.S. involvement in the Middle East in a larger context, running from its early history to the Iraq War.

“It’s an exercise in transnational history, inter-relational history, going back to the 19th century, the policies of Woodrow Wilson, the creation of the American University in Beirut, and then in the post-World War II era, when things got murkier,” she said.

The intensive course examines the activities in the Middle East of a variety of Americans: missionaries, educators, diplomats, businessmen, spies, journalists, non-governmental organizations and soldiers.

“Each day is geared to a different group, such as missionaries, educators or businessmen who have lived in the Middle East,” she said. “We examine how citizens affect diplomacy, how Wilson was greatly admitted in the region, and how Congress plays a role in foreign policy.”

Thompson wants the students to understand the complexity of the U.S.-Middle East relations by making connections between the readings, the source materials and the guest lecturers.

“Scholars now recognize that our foreign relations are not determined solely by diplomats, but also by other government agents and by private citizens who travel abroad,” Thompson writes in her syllabus. “Foreigners’ opinions of the United States, in other words, are shaped not just by the policies of the State Department, but also by the actions the Pentagon, the CIA, the Commerce Department and by corporations, academics, artists, and philanthropists.”

The 13 students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, read about 200 pages each night and discuss the readings during class. Mornings are spent on lectures and discussions, and in the afternoons, students visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

Dorin Methfessel, 21, a fourth-year European history and politics major in the College, said he was aware of Middle East history, but had not studied it directly.

“Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Middle Eastern history heavily involves America and Europe,” Methfessel said. “The class granted me more insight to colonialism, oil and relations within the international system. I also wanted to learn about the Middle East in the context of the Cold War proxy wars.”

Methfessel, from Clifton, said “the class offers massive insight,” and she has learned where the Middle East fits into the international system and that politics there affect politics in other places.

“Working with primary sources is a contextualizing tool for me,” Methfessel said. “It allows me to put a name and a face to the history. I am currently studying Henry Morgenthau, the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. His writings reaffirm what I have learned.”

The class has also been humbling, she said.

“I have learned that I do not know as much as I think I know,” Methfessel said. “My focus is on a particular part of the world, and though I may have seen what went on in the rest of the world, I am far from understanding it.”

Andrew Cox, 21, a third-year government major, has found the course “expectantly challenging, but also intellectually enriching.”

“I thought this was a unique opportunity for me to learn in a different setting, and in an area that is highly applicable to my area of study,” Cox said. “I have learned a lot about the way specific actors and organizations influence decision-making in the Middle East.”

Cox has appreciated the intensity of the course and working with source documents in the archives.

“This has been the most exciting aspect,” he said. “Having the ability to touch historical artifacts has been a truly unique experience. My paper pertains to the 1953 coup in Iran, and I am researching letters of correspondence from U.S. Ambassador to Iran Loy Henderson. By looking through these primary sources, I can piece together why things happened the way they did.”  

This is the first time Thompson has offered the course, and if she can work out the logistics, she would like to offer it again. January is a slow time in Washington, giving the students greater access to the archives, and the archivists have been very helpful in assisting the students at finding files and documents. The students stay at the Grand Hyatt hotel on H Street in D.C., so they can have easy access to archives and each other.

“They are supposed to have an intense experience with each other, study together a lot and compare viewpoints,” Thompson said. “So many students want to do something that is policy-oriented, and this gives them a reality check.”

She said the use of source documents has more value than just reading someone else’s conclusions in texts.

“I wanted to know more about the National Archives,” said Thompson, who has had experience with archives in several countries, “and the students could use some experience in Washington.

“A lot of history students don’t get a chance to study overseas, and this is an opportunity to link a knowledge of history to practical and real-world reality check,” she said. “The students were very impressed when they passed around Wild Bill Donovan’s passport,” referring to the creator of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA.

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