There is something of a rapport that grows between historians and their subjects. Figures grow and change in your estimation as you learn more about them. That is most certainly true with Vera Micheles Dean (Radcliffe College AB '25, PhD '28). Some years ago I discovered that US debates about world affairs in the mid-20th century were thoroughly salted with her writings. Accordingly, I dipped into her papers at the Schlesinger Library. The more I learned the more I understood Dean’s influence was broader and deeper than initially thought. So I returned to the Schlesinger to find a complicated figure.
When people think of the crisis years of the 1930s and 1940s they do not tend to think of Dean. Yet she has likely influenced how they think about the decade. There is a bias toward a particular set of scholars, writers, and politicians. As head of research at the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), she may seem a peripheral player in a larger drama. Yet at the time the FPA was dynamic and influential, shaping public and elite discussion through a wide-ranging program of public education on international affairs. Dean was the driving force behind much of what was printed and distributed to schools, associations, local clubs, and the reading public.
Her papers show that as early as 1933 Dean had a grasp of why regimes like Nazi Germany threatened global stability. While her work at FPA was ostensibly nonpartisan and objective, when you parse the range of materials that emerged from the organization on decisive world issues, you detect her skepticism of “dictatorship” and “totalitarian” regimes. Views reflecting this permeate various publications that were used by a cross section of American society as a basis to understand the international drama of the day. Many of these perspectives have since rooted in the established narratives about the era.
Dean's career reflects the barriers that women faced in many sectors of American life. But it is also a reminder that when we look at the full range of participants, we see that there are other angles from which to influence the perception of world events. The rise of advocacy organizations like FPA in the interwar years allowed Dean and others avenues of influence that assuredly would have been denied them in the academy or policy circles.
Dean's sophisticated and perceptive analysis did not end with Europe. As early as the 1930s she appreciated the interconnected nature of pressing global issues. She put international development on the agenda and this foreshadowed a commitment to education and engagement with the “Non-Western World” in her writing as well as teaching at the University of Rochester and New York University. Throughout the many phases of her life, Dean saw the world clearly and incisively.
At the same time, this extended foray into Dean’s papers has made her into a fully formed individual. For all of her accomplishments, there were difficulties. The cosmopolitan daughter of Russian émigrés, she would marry an American lawyer. When he suddenly died, Dean was left to raise her children alone, which makes her enduring activities all the more impressive. If debates about world affairs at critical moments in the 20th century cannot be fully grasped without appreciating the influence of Vera Micheles Dean, then her bracing contributions cannot be fully understood without appreciating the complete person behind them.
David Ekbladh is an associate professor of history and core faculty in international relations at Tufts University. His books include Beyond 1917: The United States and the Global Legacies of the Great War (with Thomas Zeiler and Benjamin Montoya) and The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton University Press, 2010), which won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize of the Society of American Historians and the Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award.