The GMU professor discusses his book, ‘Brothers at Arms,’ who he called first when he heard about his Pulitzer nomination and which historical period he would time travel to.
The GMU professor and Pulitzer Prize finalist for Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It discusses his latest and third historical book, who he called first when he heard about his Pulitzer nomination and which historical period he would time travel to.
You’ve written three historical books thus far—tell us about this one.
When my kids started to learn about the American Revolution, they learned about the usual figures, but there was never a mention of Spain and very little mention of France, and I knew that the French and the Spanish had combined forces to defeat the British. And that was the key, that the defeat of Britain really was more of a naval defeat than it was a defeat at the battle of Yorktown.
Why do you think the French and Spanish roles in the war get glossed over?
A lot of the history of the United States started to be written in the middle of the 19th century, and what was happening at the time was America was expanding West, so you had the concept of Manifest Destiny. You also had the Monroe Doctrine that America should control the Western Hemisphere without interference. There was a very strong exceptionalist thread that ran through all of these ideas: that America was exceptional; it was different than its European roots. And because of that, having the French monarchy and the Spanish monarchy as our saviors really just did not fit into the exceptionalist narrative.
What was your reaction when you found out you were a Pulitzer nominee?
Joy, of course. A bit overwhelmed. And at that particular moment, I received the call on a Monday afternoon when I was preparing to teach a class at Georgetown University. First thing I did was call my wife, of course, and my wife had predicted that I would get something like the Pulitzer. She just said, “Wait for something like the Pulitzer.” And my first words to her were, “You told me so.”
What got you interested in the Navy and naval history?
I loved Jacques Cousteau and all of the National Geographic films and television shows, but unlike most kids, it wasn’t the underwater corals and the fish that interested me but his ship, Calypso, and his little submarine and all of the apparatus that he had. I took a book out of the library, and it was called, I still remember this, Your Future in Naval Architecture, and it was written by Harry Benford. So eight years later, I was a naval architecture student at the University of Michigan, and Harry Benford was one of my professors.
Neighborhood: Prince William County. Grew up in Long Island.
To what historical period you’d like to time travel: 23rd century. Anything before about 1950, you were likely to die early. Think about the mortality rate of children before the full adoption of antibiotics. So I’m going to move forward.
Teaches at: George Mason University, Georgetown University and Stevens Institute of Technology (New Jersey).
Currently watching: Genius (National Geographic), Victorian Slum House (PBS), anything on the Smithsonian Channel.
Currently reading: The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger
Favorite appetizer: Peruvian ceviche with a pisco sour—there’s nothing better in the world.