Emilie Cunning – Historian Highlight

Emilie Cunning, @emiliegcunning, interviewed by Cherish Watton

Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our fourteenth post, Emilie Cunning tells us about her experience of researching Project 100,000 during her MPhil in American History at Cambridge.

What are you currently researching?

I just finished up my MPhil dissertation on Project 100,000 which was a controversial manpower program instituted by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. Project 100,000 formed the clearest expression of the complex entanglement of the War on Poverty with the War in Vietnam, as it involved lowering mental and physical standards in order to draft more men into the military, primarily from working-class backgrounds. Due to systemic racism and the history of segregation in the US impacting on the education of African Americans, the program disproportionately targeted poor African Americans from the South. This led to many African American congressmen equating the program to “genocide” and was generally seen as a highly problematic manoeuvre by the Johnson administration. However, the program continued for several years and produced a successor – Project Transition – which was established in order to provide Project 100,000 men with the necessary training and skills to enter the civilian job market. Yet, the Department of Defense developed significant connections with local law enforcement and actively encouraged returning veterans to join police forces across America. Of course, this occurred at the same time as significant racial and social unrest in cities such as Newark and Detroit, which led to increased demand for “law and order.”

What led you to research this topic?

I have always been very interested in the history of policing and mass incarceration in the US, as well as US foreign policy history. However, I also find the 1960s to generally just be such a fascinating decade as you have so many political and social intersections colliding at once. There was Johnson’s attempt to revive the spirit of the New Deal order through the Great Society and War on Poverty, significant gains in the Civil Rights movement, yet also significant losses with the assassination of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Then there’s the defining foreign policy quagmire of the decade – the Vietnam war – which was highly unpopular and inspired mass protests. Project 100,000 stands at the intersection of the domestic and foreign policies of the Johnson administration, and demonstrates quite how incompatible they were. Personally, my uncle was a conscientious objector in Vietnam when he was called forward to the draft so I have always found the war a particularly fascinating topic to research.

What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?

One of my favourite shows, Dickinson on Apple TV, chronicles the life of Emily Dickinson and her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. You would think this would be very boring, but it’s actually one of the most fun shows to come out in the last few years, particularly as they use modern dialogue like “she’s so basic” which makes the show truly original. Moreover, they weave in the events of the 1860s throughout the show, particularly in the second and third seasons where the Civil War is very much a part of the show’s narrative. I highly recommend it.

What’s one of your favourite historical sources?

 I absolutely love finding content from the New York Times online archive, because particularly with older editions you get to see the amusing ads that accompany the articles. There were some very revealing articles I sourced from their archive for my dissertation, especially one which covered how Civil Rights activists and African American members of Congress responded to the announcement of Project 100,000. I also really enjoy looking back at articles from an old publication called The Public Interest from the 1960s/1970s which was essentially the journal for neoconservative writers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Irving Kristol. Moynihan’s writings – however controversial he was – provide an excellent insight into the politics of that era.

And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?

When I was in the LBJ Presidential Library this last March and April, there was another researcher in there, an economist, who would get up about once every hour and nicely say to the archivist on duty “come over here, I want to show you something.” He showed them what he had found in the files and often made comments about how things had changed now so significantly or how fascinated he was with his new finding. I just loved how excited he was about his sources, which I think speaks to how rewarding doing archival research is.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?

Probably to get a subscription to the New York Times in order to access their archives which are full of excellent material covering events from decades ago. I think also at undergrad I actively was encouraged to try to find primary sources from a wide range of possible locations, which often led to new and interesting discoveries in terms of what I was able to find and integrate into my argument, from old historical posters to audio recordings of conversations between key political figures, such as Lyndon B. Johnson.

And the worst?

To disregard the work of one of the most important, well-respected female scholars at Yale just because this person disagreed with their work and said that they weren’t a “proper historian.” Her work proved critical to my undergraduate dissertation.

What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?

I am a keen nature-lover, so I would say walking along the Cambridge backs to get that special view of King’s College with its gorgeous lawn and the cows, or a walk to Grantchester in the nice weather is pretty glorious. For food, I would recommend checking out this little Spanish cafe called Pinch, which is on the same pathway from the institution that is Gardie’s (also highly recommend) – Pinch does great coffees and cakes, but also has all these amazing products from Spain, like Turron chocolate.

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