Typescript article and correspondence of Sir Denis William Brogan, 1900-1974, knight, historian and political scientist

Scope and Content

  • Edited typescript of The Illusion of American Omnipotence Reconsidered by Sir Denis Brogan with covering letter from Harpers magazine c1968

Administrative / Biographical History

Denis William Brogan was born in Glasgow, Scotland in  1900 . His father was from Donegal, Ireland, and had spent some time in the USA so Denis grew up sensitive to both Irish and American politics. He was educated at Rutherglen Academy before entering the  University of Glasgow, where he graduated MA in  1923 . Following further study at Balliol College, Oxford, England, he spent some time at Harvard University on a research fellowship. When he returned to the UK he worked briefly for The Times newspaper before becoming a lecturer in history at University College, London, and in  1930  as lecturer in politics at the London School of Economics. In  1933 , he published The American Political System. Appearing at a turning point both in American national development and in British awareness of the United States, it rediscovered America for a generation of British readers and profoundly influenced the perception of American politics in both academic and non-academic circles. An Introduction to American Politics followed in  1954 .

In  1934 , Brogan left London for Oxford as fellow and tutor at Corpus Christi College. There he expanded his academic interests to take in the study of France. The impressive first-fruit of this was The Development of Modern France, 1870-1939(1940 ). Here for the first time, in English or French, the complex phenomena of modern French politics, at home and abroad, were reduced to a comprehensible narrative that does justice to economic and social factors but keeps the individual, from peasant to president, at the heart of the story. A later study, The French Nation from Napoleon to Pétain, 1814-1940 (1957 ), is marked on a smaller scale by the same characteristics.

During the 1939-1945 World War, Brogan began work in the Foreign Research and Press Service, and then moved briefly to the American Division of the Ministry of Information. For a short time he was with the Political Warfare Executive, but finally found his niche with the overseas services of the BBC. Here his exuberant energies overflowed from the European Service to the North American Service; in each capacity his role was that of an intelligence officer, providing background information and policy guidance from his diverse and capacious store of contemporary and historical knowledge. During this time he published The English People: Impressions and Observations(1943 ), characteristically precise, yet wide-ranging and shrewd, an essay in presenting the distinctive features of the English way of life by 'a foreigner of a kind'. The American Problem (1944 ) was a series of loosely linked essays on the evolution of modern America, which discharges an analogous function from west to east.

In the spring of  1939  Brogan was elected to the professorship of political science at the University of Cambridge and to a fellowship at Peterhouse and to this he returned at the war's end. His approach to his chair was that of a liberal, a pragmatist, and a historically-minded student of institutions. Sceptical of systems, suspicious alike of sociological and philosophical abstractions, he warned in his inaugural lecture, The Study of Politics (1946 ), against imposing on his subject "a degree of abstractness or bogus neutrality that it cannot stand". His lectures, delivered with a minimum of notes, do not survive, but some of the fruits of his approach can be gathered from The Price of Revolution (1951 ), a characteristically sceptical analysis in terms not so much of revolutionary professions or doctrines but of the discrepancy between cost and benefit, expectations and performance, moral claims and concrete results. For a historian and an Americanist it was regrettable that Brogan produced no study of the American past on a scale comparable to The Development of Modern France. His Abraham Lincoln (1935 , revised 1974, posthumously) is a miniature, albeit a classic one. The Era of Franklin D Roosevelt (1950 , published in Britain as Roosevelt and the New Deal,  1952 ) is a useful, balanced, compact treatment curiously lacking in its author's individual touch. American Aspects (1964 ), which reprints a number of historical and political articles, including the classic The Illusion of American Omnipotence, has far more of Brogan's range and historical penetration about it. Brogan retired from his chair in 1968 and died in Cambridge on 5 January  1974 . In addition to many honorary doctorates from France and the United States, he was an honorary LLD of Glasgow (1946) and an honorary DLitt of Oxford (1969). He was an honorary fellow of Peterhouse and Corpus Christi and became a fellow of the British Academy in 1955. He was knighted in  1963 .

Nicholas, H GBrogan, Sir Denis WilliamDictionary of National Biography(1986) .


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Fonds level description compiled by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, March 2003

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Related Material

Further materials relating to Sir Denis Brogan can be found by searching the  University of Glasgow Library, Department of Special Collections website using the name search facility

GB 0062 Papers of Sir Denis Brogan, available at  Imperial War Museum, Department of Documents

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