My father called me right after Sidney Crosby scored the goal that won the gold medal for Canada. Both of us having been born and raised in Pittsburgh we were thrilled for Crosby, but my father was upset that the US had lost. He asked my opinion and I said that while I was disappointed, I was also thrilled for Canada and my Canadian friends. He replied “Why do you always do [stuff] like this?” He was referring to the unusual (for an American) interest I have always had in Canada, probably stemming at first from my love of hockey and the fact that the first vacations I planned for myself as an adult were in Ontario.
The more I came to know Canada and the more history I studied, the more interested I became. Canada became in my mind a counterweight to much of the American Exceptionalism that is still so fashionable on my side of the border. Canada has dealt with many of the same issues of federalism, nationalism, and the removal of Native Peoples (or First Nations) that have marked US history. To cite just one example from the recent symposium in Waterloo, David Bercuson’s fascinating discussion of the controversy over the Bomber Command display at the Canadian War Museum shared many features of the Enola Gay controversy at the US Air and Space Museum in Washington. The solutions of the two countries to such problems has often been quite different and it may be that differences still outweigh similarities, but I think there are more similarities then people on either side of the border like to admit.
As the symposium brought home to me once more, the US and Canada also share much of their military history. The Brock Memorial on the Niagara Parkway that I passed on my drive home is a symbol of the contested parts of that history. More recently, the two world wars and the Cold War provide examples of both the intersection of US and Canadian interests, as well as the ways that the two countries have come to different conclusions about those interests. Whitney Lackenbauer’s lecture on the Arctic brought that point home clearly. Papers on personnel policy in World War II, the development of Canadian air mindedness, and space operations all brought to mind comparative points about the equivalent American experience.
Yet for all that we can learn from one another, it seems to me that American and Canadian historians still don’t work as well together as we could. As an American, I am perfectly willing to admit that much of the blame lies with my countrymen, who think too superficially and too infrequently about Canada or the lessons that Americans might learn from their northern neighbors. But there is also a kind of Canadian Exceptionalism that drives Canadian scholarship to look more often for difference and distinction from the American experience. I am not, of course, arguing that US and Canadian history is the same or should be studied as such. Rather, I am arguing that patterns of both similarity and difference would come into sharper focus if we each paid more serious attention to the history of the other. On the military history side, there are wonderful opportunities for such interaction, and I have been fortunate to have experienced many of them, including participation in a Canadian-American staff ride in Sicily and Italy. I am also grateful for the chance to have given the keynote address at the Laurier Symposium in 2008 and to have had that talk published in Canadian Military History.
Still, our two academic cultures remain too far apart from one another. Too few Canadians come to the Society for Military History annual meetings or are even members of the society, despite its having met twice recently in Canada. Two few Americans, moreover, come to the major Canadian conferences. I am grateful for forums like this blog that are available to help us improve this dialog. As Whitney and I have discussed for years, we will all gain tremendously if we can find more ways to get Canadian and American scholars talking to one another and collaborating on research together. It may pull our loyalties a bit more during international hockey tournaments (then again maybe it won’t), but it will also improve our understanding of our shared history.
Michael Neiberg is a Professor of History at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA
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