Ernest May (historian)
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Ernest May Historian
Ernest May
Ernest Richard May

(1928-11-19)November 19, 1928
DiedJune 1, 2009(2009-06-01) (aged 80)
Nationality United States
Alma materUCLA
Known forThe Kennedy Tapes
Scientific career
FieldsModern American history
InstitutionsHarvard University

Ernest Richard May (November 19, 1928 - June 1, 2009) was an American historian of international relations whose 14 published books include analyses of American involvement in World War I and the causes of the Fall of France during World War II. His 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis became the primary sources of the 2000 film Thirteen Days starring Kevin Costner that viewed the Missile Crisis from the perspective of American political leaders. He served on the 9/11 commission and highlighted the failures of the government intelligence agencies.[1] May taught full-time on the faculty of Harvard University for 55 years, until his death. May was also a recipient of the 1988 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, co-authored with Richard Neustadt.[2]


Harvard University

He joined the Harvard University faculty following the completion of his military service in 1954, and remained there full-time until his death.[3] May was named as associate professor of history in 1959 and as a full professor in 1963.[4] He served as the dean of Harvard College for two years starting in 1969, and served as chairman of the Harvard history department from 1976 to 1979. At the John F. Kennedy School of Government, May also served on the faculty. May and historian Richard Neustadt created a course that had students make choices for current political issues based on a thorough review of choices made over the course of history. Their work together became the basis for the 1986 book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, published by the Free Press that has been widely used by students and professionals in the field.[3]

Books and essays

His first book, The World War and American Isolation 1914-17, published in 1959, was based on material seized by the Allies after the conclusion of World War II from German records. The book was honored by the American Historical Association with its George Louis Beer Prize, which recognizes the best work each year published on European international history.[3] The book was included on a list of 1,780 books chosen to be included in the White House library.[5]

Together with historian Philip D. Zelikow, May edited the 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, published by Harvard University Press. The book provided details based on taped recordings of conversations made in 1962 by President of the United States John F. Kennedy as he considered options to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis that included unilateral air strikes to destroy the Soviet missiles based in Cuba or the imposition of naval quarantine around the island to prevent further deliveries of new missiles and materials.[3] The book offered a word-for-word transcription by May and Zelikow of the secret White House recordings made during the crisis.[6] The book was used as the source for the 2000 film Thirteen Days with Kevin Costner as presidential advisor Kenneth O'Donnell and Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy.[7]

Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, published by Hill and Wang in 2000, tells the chain of events that led to the rapid fall of the French Army after the May 1940 blitzkrieg war. The book counters the perception that the French surrender was inevitable, and recounts the chain of events on the political and military fronts that led to the collapse.[3] Reviewer David Stafford of the New York Times records how May documents that French military had more and better-trained troops than the Germans, and had more tanks, bombers, and fighters. The French general staff was competent and confident, while their German counterparts were cautious and leery of success. The fall began with intelligence failures by the French that led them to misjudge German plans such as their sweep through the Ardennes around the Maginot Line.[8]

May's specialty of studying the effects of intelligence failures led to his role as a senior advisor on the 9/11 Commission, in which he played a role in the preparation of the 604-page report it issued documenting the attacks and offering recommendations for the future.[3]

His final essay addressed the rise of China as a major world power, a situation that was a major foreign policy turning point for the United States, but May believed that war between the two was not inevitable as the decision by the Chinese government to focus on economic growth would allow it to remain at peace with its trading partners.[3]

Personal life

May was born on November 19, 1928, in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up as an only child.[3] He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1948 and received his Ph.D. in 1951.[4] After his graduation, he served during the Korean War in the United States Navy.[3]

A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, May died at age 80 on June 1, 2009, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, due to complications resulting from cancer surgery.[4] He was survived by Susan Wood, his second wife. Nancy Caughey, his first wife, had died in 2000, and May was survived by their son and two daughters, as well as three grandchildren.[3]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-04-13. Retrieved .CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "1988- Richard Neustadt and Ernest May". Archived from the original on 2014-09-13.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hevesi, Dennis. "Ernest May, International Relations Expert, Dies at 80", The New York Times, June 6, 2009. Accessed June 15, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Lavoie, Amy. "Ernest May, Harvard professor and eminent historian of international relations, dies at 80" Archived 2009-06-09 at the Wayback Machine, Harvard University Gazette, June 2, 2009.
  5. ^ Staff. "The List of 1,780 Titles Compiled by Experts for Inclusion in White House Library", The New York Times, August 16, 1963. Accessed June 15, 2009.
  6. ^ Weiner, Tim. "Word for Word/The Cuban Missile Crisis.; When Kennedy Faced Armageddon, And His Own Scornful Generals", The New York Times, October 5, 1997. Accessed June 15, 2009.
  7. ^ Reeves, Richard. "Commentary; Call 'Days' What You Will, but It's Not Quite History", Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2001. Accessed June 15, 2009.
  8. ^ Stafford, David. "Not Their Finest Hour", The New York Times, September 17, 2000. Accessed June 15, 2009.

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