Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 793

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 793


This is the grave of Ernest May, as well as various other professors associated with Harvard.

Born in 1928 in Fort Worth, Texas, May went to UCLA for college, graduating with his B.A. in 1948 and his Ph.D. in 1951. He was half-Mexican, as his mother came from an old Tejano family in Texas, though this was a very white class and thus he did face discrimination as he did not look Mexican at all. He then served in the Navy during the Korean War. In 1954, he joined the faculty at Harvard University and stayed there for the rest of his career. May became one of the foremost historians of American diplomacy the field has ever seen. He made an instant splash with his 1957 book The World War and American Isolation 1914-17, which won the George Beer Prize for European International History from the American Historical Association. He became known for his intense teaching style that literally led to him beginning lectures as he walked into the classroom, even before he took his coat off. That happens to me sometimes, but it’s more a factor of perennially running late than any teaching ability. He was an early factor in the creation of the Kennedy School of Government, moving over there part-time from home in the History Department. More books followed, exploring Wilson’s decision to enter World War I, the American conquest of the Philippines, the Spanish-American War, and the Monroe Doctrine.

His later books included his 1997 editor’s role for The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which became the source material for the film Thirteen Days with Kevin Costner. I guess we can’t blame May for this. In 2000, he published Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, which argued that the Germans were not actually more powerful than the French military at that time; rather, it was French incompetence, especially in the intelligence services, not German military strength that led to the dominant victory in 1940. Overall, he either authored or co-authored 14 books over his career. Due to his expertise on the history of intelligence failures, May served as a senior advisor for the 9/11 Commission.

May died of cancer in 2009. He was 80 years old.

Ernest May is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A quick run-down of the other figures buried here. Ernest Detusch was a Czech-born political scientist who specialized in how elites controlled the media. John Milton Ward was a musicologist who specialized in the Renaissance. Karl Strauch was a physicist who worked on experimental particles. His wife Maria Strauch was an artist but I can’t find much information on her. W.C. Burriss Young seems to have been mostly an administrator. Gerhard Kallmann is the architect responsible for the monstrosity that is Boston City Hall. Joseph Fletcher was a historian of China. His wife was still alive when I took the picture. Carroll Williams was an entomologist. Kenneth Gewertz was a journalist and editor; Sheila was also an editor. Nathan Huggins, who I feel I should know but I do not, was the first W.E.B. DuBois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at Harvard. Can’t easily find anything about his wife Brenda. Alfred and Brenda Dyer Szabo were architects. Donald Fleming was an intellectual historian. Wilga Rivers was a professor of romance languages. Not seeing any information on Muriel Williams. Karel Liem was an ichthyologist. Hetty Liem is a bit thin on information, but she is an artist among other things.

In 2001, May won the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction. If you would like this series to visit other historians who have won this award, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Mosse, the intellectual historian of Germany who won the award in 1996, is in Madison, Wisconsin, as is Gerda Lerner, the pioneering women’s historian. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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