Researching the FBI is adventurous, and cob-webby
My interest in history began, I suppose, with the stories my grandparents and other relatives told me when I was a child. My paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War flying aboard blimps that searched for Japanese subs out of Mountain View, California. My maternal grandfather was a foreman in a Western PA steel mill and told me many stories about working there and all sorts of other tales. (During summers and one winter while in college I had the opportunity of working in the same steel mill, experiencing what that life was like. I worked on this milling machine (a tandem mill) one summer; it was awful.) I learned his father, my great grandfather, died in the 1918 influenza epidemic when his son was only 5. My grandmother described her and her family moving to our area, driving in what must have been a Model T with flaps as side windows. My other grandmother explained to me once about the communist relatives she didn't like very much -- they just asked for money in correspondence -- who lived in Yugoslavia. Later, I learned that my step-great grandfather served in the First World War in northern Russia helping to stem the success of the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution; I even found out that compass my grandfather gave me was, in fact, his step father's from the war. I even vividly remember the bicentennial of the United States in 1976 -- when I was but 4 years old -- having a picnic, playing carnival games, wearing a plastic, blue tri-cornered hat, and watching the fireworks over the local elementary school. I later seemed to enjoy "social studies" (whatever that is?) in elementary school, when I believed historians were people who each day wrote down what happened so we all knew about it! Eventually, I had my 7th grade history class with Mr. Wilson Holbein, who also taught my mother in the same school. He was different than the "social studies" teachers I had before because he told stories. Every Friday was his Great Moments in History, and one Friday he told the story of the feats of Charles Lindbergh replete with a very good drawing of the Spirit of St. Louis on the blackboard and a cliff hanger that kept us guessing until the following week. From that moment I was hooked (and now regret not telling him what I did with my life before he died), and would hold an enduring interest in finding out more about this Lindbergh fellow. Afterwards, I had uninteresting "social studies" teachers in high school which did nothing to develop my interests.
In 1989, I made my first trip to Europe. Foreign travel, especially at that age, can be a life altering moment, particularly for a kid from a working-class background. Sponsored by my high school French class, we visited France on a 15 day tour starting in Nice and, going clockwise around the country, ending in Paris (during the bicentennial of their Revolution in 1989 no less!). Previous to this, my only foreign trip was to rural Canada in 1979 (when I was 7) with my family who were interested in fishing. And even there I still vividly remember our visit to some sort of museum, the name of which I cannot remember but I think in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where I learned about Native Americans and saw a film about them that captured me (my family owns a cottage in the forests of PA and it made me think about the Indians who once lived there). But France was an experience because it felt foreign; it was a uniquely different culture and one where I got to put my language skills to the test. And I saw most of France! From the Côte d'Azur to Roman ruins to wine country to châteaux to Normandy, Rouen, and Paris; it was a lot for a 17 year-old to soak in, including odd bathrooms and moaning toilets. Better yet, three years later I got to go again. By this time I had started college, and had really begun to expand my mind in new ways as a history major when my high school French teacher asked me to go back to France, and England this time, in order to help with that year's voyage. This trip was different for me. I was slightly older, and, more importantly, my mind had been opened up having taken a number of history and art history courses at Penn State. As a result, I found the trip even more enlightening than before. I was looking at things and already knew something about them. It was astounding! I knew more about Normandy this time, I KNEW the paintings in the Louvre having studied them in class. It was truly exciting, and much more meaningful than my experience as an unknowing, naive teenager. I even remember when we visited Oxford, and I thought: one day I will take my doctorate from here. How little did I know I would virtually fulfill that wish, but in Scotland at Edinburgh University.
I started college in 1990. At that time I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and, as I later learned is standard, I, like many others, thought I would major in something involving computers (which was the popular thing at the time, like criminal forensics is now). Then I had my first university-level history class, with an excellent professor who lectured and was clearly passionate about his subject. I was stunned. Never before had history been presented to me in such a compelling way by someone so knowledgeable, and never before had I seen it in such complexity. I loved it. I loved the university pace of class (the slow high-school pace of classes made me largely bored and diffident), and I was on the edge of my seat soaking up this knowledge like a dry sponge and saddened when class ended after only 50 minutes. I realized I had found my calling and, after a brief flirtation with thinking I'd have to teach high school history (which was cured by taking two ed courses), I was all in with being a history major and resolved that I wanted to do what my professor did. I asked him how one became a history professor; I learned that unlike teachers in high schooI, history profs were historians who did much more than just teach. I loved it. Moreover, I had the history bug, and a deep-seated drive and motivation I now know is exceedingly rare in students.
Then, one day, in this same professor's US History II survey course, Lindbergh's name popped up again but in relation to the debate over the U.S. entrance into the Second World War. Lindbergh opposed American involvement, which was news to me, and I remember thinking when I eventually take an upper-level history course I should write a paper on this mainly because I had an interest in Lindbergh since I was 13. Naturally, this happened and in the course of researching my paper in the "America Between the Wars" course, I read in a non-academic book that the FBI had investigated Lindbergh's opposition to FDR. I decided it would be cool to supplement my paper with a great primary source and, mostly on my own, submitted an FOIA request with the FBI and a week before my paper was due I received the 1,000-page Lindbergh file. I took the file to class, hoping (like he'd say no!) my professor would be kind enough to give me an extension so I might work in this material. Stunned, he gave me extra time! In fact, I think he was dumbfounded that an otherwise shy history student took such initiative and wanted to do advanced research. I think I earned an A.
This then evolved into a more in-depth independent study project that, to make a long story short, evolved into my first academic article. This work led me to continue my research into the FBI, took me to Marquette to study with Athan Theoharis where I wrote my master's essay on the FBI and the broader surveillance of FDR's foreign policy critics including, in addition to Lindbergh, the America First Committee. I also learned of the FBI's liaison with British intelligence before and during the Second World War and ultimately I ended up taking my PhD in Scotland with FBI & CIA historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones and British intelligence and Second World War historian David Stafford. In my academic studies I was fortunate to have such brilliant and helpful mentors.
Today, I'm an historian of American history with a research focus on the FBI and its interest in political surveillance, gays and lesbians, and obscenity issues. My first book, J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists (2007), examined the FBI's political surveillance of President Franklin Roosevelt's anti-interventionist foreign policy critics between 1939 and 1945, as well as its liaison with British intelligence, and how this was a prelude to the later development of the national security state. My second book, The FBI's Obscene File (2012), examined FBI officials' long interest in obscenity, pornography, and the politics of morality and the creation, development, and evolution of the Obscene File from 1910/1925 to 2011. My third book, with the University Press of Kansas, Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's "Sex Deviates" Program, examines the FBI's obsession with and investigations of gays, lesbians, and their respective organizations and the politics surrounding it from 1937 to 1993. My fourth book will be a synthetic history of the FBI, bringing together all the significant literature on the Bureau. I've published articles in The Historian, Diplomatic History, Intelligence & National Security, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, and American Communist History. I've appeared on NPR, C-SPAN, History Channel, was noted in the New York Times, on PBS's NewsHour, Yahoo News, and had general pieces appear in Yahoo News, Time Magazine, Boston Globe, HNN, NBC News, Le Parisien, Vox, Media Matters, and other venues.
Some have described historians, borrowing from ancient Greek philosophy, as being either hedgehogs or foxes. "A fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Most academic historians today are specialists in very narrow fields, and so much so their work often doesn't reach the broader public. So what kind of academic historian should one strive to become? Why not both? I'm primarily an historian of the FBI, but because the bureau has involved itself in many different areas this allows an FBI historian, like myself, to touch upon different fields of history. My first book about the FBI landed in the realm of intelligence history, foreign policy, and political history; my second book in the complex social field of obscenity regulation; and my third book is squarely centered on gay and lesbian history. Not only do I find exploring more and different fields of studies intellectually satisfying, but I think it makes for a better historian (especially on the teaching end of things). So, to be glib for a moment, I guess I'm a foxy hedgehog.
As an academic historian, I believe it is important not only to advance human knowledge by reconstructing the history of the American past, but to use my expertise to advance further understanding, as a public scholar, of contemporary issues. I have therefore written various OpEd pieces and have contributed to programming on NPR and the History Channel.
I completed my undergraduate education at Penn State, took my M.A. at Marquette University studying with the dean of FBI historians Athan Theoharis, and completed my Ph.D. at Scotland's Edinburgh University under the supervision of FBI and CIA historian Professor Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones and British intelligence and Second World War historian Professor David Stafford. My external examiners there were Dr. Robert Mason and Dr. Mark Ellis.
Being an historian, I'm keenly interested in my own family history. One half of them were from so-called Old Immigrant stock (German, English, and Welsh) and the other half were so-called New Immigrants (Serbian and Croatian). This makes me, I suppose, quintessentially American! In fact, growing up I thought everybody had two Christmases: the one in December where you got presents and ate turkey and the one in January where you ate kielbasa and pierogi. I even remember my great grandmother, baba, who spoke Croatian and not English (and frightened me when she spoke, banging her cane). The German side I have traced back to 17th century Germany ( Württemberg ) and the other side arrived in Pennsylvania from Ponikve, Croatia, at the turn of the century to work in industrial Pittsburgh (see photos on the main page). I have an appreciation of the Pittsburgh steel mill working experience, having had the opportunity, as an undergraduate, to work in the mills for two summers and, while between degrees, one winter. Academia, I've learned, is a much easier and more comfortable occupation!
I've taught previously at Edinburgh University, Penn State Erie, and Marietta College.
Avocations: bicycling, poker, kayaking, nature.