William Roger Louis

William Roger Louis CBE FBA (born May 8, 1936), also known as Wm. Roger Louis, or Roger Louis, informally, is an American historian, currently distinguished historian at the University of Texas at Austin. Louis is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford History of the British Empire, the former President of the American Historical Association, the former Chairman of the Department of State Historical Advisory Committee, and the Founding Director of the American Historical Association's National History Center in Washington, D.C.

Academic career

Louis joined the history faculty at the University of Texas in 1970 after teaching at Yale University for eight years. He has directed British Studies since 1975, has held the Kerr Chair in English History and Culture since 1985, and has served as the Chairman of the British Scholar Editorial Advisory Board since 2006.[1] He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1993, and in 1999 Louis was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen for professional achievement. Louis is best known for his work on the British Empire, which focuses mostly on official British policy and decolonization in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in the period after the Second World War. Louis has been acclaimed by A.J.P. Taylor as the foremost historian of the Empire in his generation, and by Alan Bullock as the leading historian of the final phase of the Empire. Ronald Robinson, one of the most influential of all imperial historians, wrote that "Louis takes his place among a handful of writers from Hancock to Harlow to Cain and Hopkins who have given us an original view of a major movement in British imperial history."[2]

In 2009, Roger Louis was appointed to the Kluge Chair at the Library of Congress for the spring semester 2010.[3] The Kluge Chair represents the apex of scholarly distinction. The position was originally set up to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for scholars in fields of study not represented by that award. Louis will use the time as the Kluge Chair to complete his book The British Empire in the Middle East, 1952-1971, the sequel to one of his previous monumental works, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951. Simultaneously, Louis received in February 2009 the University of Texas Professor of the Year, an award "in recognition of unwavering dedication and service" to the students of UT.[4] The award, presented by the Senate of College Councils, represents the choice of the 50,000 students at UT, a university-wide honor. In 2011, Louis was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center, founded in 1780, whose early members included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and of course the founders, John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin. Louis joins the Academy's 200 Nobel laureates and its 4,000 other members in what is probably the most distinguished professional association of its kind.[5]

Early life

Louis was born in Detroit, Michigan, United States, though his family was from Oklahoma and he was raised in Oklahoma City.[6] As a child Louis attended the First Christian Church in Oklahoma City with his parents, Henry Edward Louis and Bena May Flood, "solidly middle class people who set a strong example of the importance of work, thrift, and family.".[7] Louis admits that he is "less religious," but he describes his philosophy in life with the one-liner made famous by Franklin Roosevelt: "I am a Christian and a Democrat. What more does one need in life?"[8]

Louis attended Classen High School, where he especially enjoyed literature and where he thrived as a member of Classen's orchestra, in which he played the French horn. He later became assistant first horn player in the Oklahoma City Symphony. Louis was also involved in swimming at Classen, and in gymnastics and handball at the local YMCA. Louis's involvement with the YMCA gave him his first experience with segregation in Oklahoma, and he traces his commitment to civil rights to that experience.[9] The YMCA also gave Louis his first opportunity to travel to Europe and England.


Louis took his B.A. at the University of Oklahoma, M.A. at Harvard University, and D.Phil at Oxford University.

Louis entered the University of Oklahoma in 1954 as a Letters Major, an honors program that required one ancient and two modern languages, and combined English, history, and philosophy—the equivalent of a liberal arts education. Louis spent his second year of college in Freiburg and Paris, where he roomed with Hans-Peter Schwartz, today known as one of Germany's leading political scientists and the biographer of Adenauer, and where he befriended Nancy Maginnes, the future wife of Henry Kissinger. Louis's time abroad kindled an interest in African and Middle Eastern nationalism. He spent the summer of 1956 in Egypt and was in Cairo when Gamel Abdel Nasser made his speech nationalizing the Suez Canal. The speech was made from Alexandria, but speakers were wired throughout Cairo, and Louis's Egyptian friends kept him informed of the happenings. Louis spent his last two years of college at the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.[10]

With the help of OU's Philip Nolan, Louis applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and was admitted to Harvard in 1959. "This was a heady experience," Louis later wrote.[11] He took courses with Stanley Hoffman on France, Merle Fainsod and Adam Ulam on Russia, Franklin Ford on Germany, and David Owen on England. The "best of [his] Harvard education," however, were the classes with Rupert Emerson, who taught nationalism in colonial Africa, and Barrington Moore, who provided introduction to Marx and Marxist analysis -- "an approach so radically different from all others that it was a revelation," Louis later wrote.[11] Above all, Louis benefited from Ernest May, who he regards as having "one of the most fertile and inventive minds of all historians I have known."[12]

After one year at Harvard, Louis decided to transfer to St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. The decision was influenced by Arthur Smithies, the great Australian economist, who told Louis: "If you are really interested in studying Nasser and Africa and all that rot, then you had better go somewhere where they know something about it, which definitely is not Harvard.".[12] Smithies helped Louis get a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford, and he began studies in 1960. Louis studied under the historians Margery Perham, John Andrew Gallagher and A.J.P. Taylor, the last of which Louis describes as a "galvanizing experience." Taylor was "not only the towering radical historian of our time, but also one of the great writers of the English language."[12] Louis's time at Oxford centered on the imperial history seminar headed by Vincent Harlow and later by John Gallagher, at which time imperial history had been reinvigorated by the "Robinson and Gallagher" thesis of informal imperialism that later became the subject of one of Louis's edited books. Louis's doctoral thesis began as a comparative study of German, British, and Belgian colonial administration in central Africa, and later was narrowed to the study published as Ruanda-Urundi.


After Oxford, Louis went to Yale to teach courses on comparative imperialism, where there existed a strong tradition of research in German colonialism. Yale also marked the beginning of his long and successful career of collaborating on edited volumes, among them (with Prosser Gifford) a series on British and German colonialism in Africa and another on A.J.P. Taylor's view on the origins of the Second World War. "At conference after conference," writes Ronald Robinson, "the circle of Louis' consultants widened with the number of contributors. He made his first major contribution to Imperial history as the grand impresario of symposia.".[2] In 1970 Louis moved to the University of Texas at Austin where he took positions as the Kerr Chair in English History and Culture and Director of the British Studies seminar at the "Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. His ascension to a full professorship allowed for a flurry of publications, both individual and edited, which laid the foundations for Louis's reputation as one of the foremost imperial historians of his generation.

Louis's early achievements as a historian gave him a wide reputation in his field that was commemorated in an issue of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, and particularly in an article by Ronald Robinson, entitled "Roger Louis and the Official Mind of Decolonization."[2] One of Louis's notable early accomplishments was his success in producing a series of edited volumes on a wide range of themes. Louis held the unique position of being primarily a historian of British policy, but also an American, an expert on the Middle East, and a proponent of "area studies," a field whose rise to prominence paralleled Louis's own career. His own scholarly interests span these themes. The result of his collaboration on such a wide range of issues was to bring together a diverse cast of historians whose interests spanned the sub-disciplines of history. The wide range of contacts he developed and his skills as an editor would later serve him well in his role as the editor-in-chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire. Perhaps the most enduring of Louis's edited volumes is The Robinson and Gallagher Controversy (1976), a short volume which brought together the main lines of debate over the contributions of John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson to the history of the British Empire. Their scholarly oeuvre was at the time, and still remains today, one of the most important theories to have been made about the causes and nature of British imperial expansion [13] Louis's introductory essay itself proposed something of a consensus that found wide acceptance among other historians.

A second major contribution made by Louis was to offer a large number of original basic narratives of the post-war Empire, particularly on the Middle East.[14] His publications, both in article and book form, discussed the era from 1940 to 1967, most in the context of the Cold War and the rise of American power. His first major book Imperialism at Bay, 1941-1945 (1977) tells the story of the contest between British and American officials over the fate of empire in the post-war world. Louis's second and most famous book The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951 (1984) traces the six critical years of Attlee's Labour Government after the war, during which time the British were able to uphold their informal influence in the Middle East with the backing of the United States government, which shifted towards support of the British Empire to create a bulwark against Communist advance. These two books contain themes that later became the subject of full-length books edited by Louis. One, with Robert Stookey, covered the creation of the state of Israel another, with James Bill, revisited Musaddiq's nationalization of Iranian oil in 1951; yet another, with Robert Fernea, studied the Iraqi revolution of 1958. More could be added. The general thrust of these contributions was to provide historians with some of the earliest histories of post-war British imperialism, written from the perspective of the "official mind."

The final contribution made by Louis involves what Ronald Robinson called "a symposia to end all symposia." The Oxford History of the British Empire, published initially in five volumes, brought together over six scores of historians in covering four centuries of British imperialism. Multiple reviewers in top academic journals have lauded the series as one of the great achievements of the age. One reviewer, the historian D.A. Low, wrote that, "all in all, these five volumes constitute an extraordinary achievement which has brought Roger Louis's dauntingly formidable editorial skills to their apogee... He has brought the whole enterprise to a conclusion all in one go and in an astonishingly short period of time. Those of us who have organized similar (if very much more modest) ventures can only mop our brows in amazement."[15] The project was funded by the Rhodes Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. Louis served as Editor-in-Chief of the series, co-editor of the twentieth century volume (with Judith Brown), and author of a historiographic introduction to the fifth volume entitled "Historiography." One critic, the British historian Max Beloff, expressed skepticism publicly when a presumably anti-colonial and "politically correct" American from Texas emerged as the editor-in-chief, but these criticisms were later withdrawn when it became evident that Louis had carried through the series with his usual degree of impartiality.[16]

In all of his work, Louis's style has remained unapologetically empirical with rigorous fidelity to evidence. He prefers the "art of the historian" to the social science approach - the pen portraits that capture fascinating characters, the panorama of official perceptions and misconceptions, narrative over theoretical arguments, and clear, precise writing.


During his time as President of the American Historical Association, Louis wrote an essay entitled "Historians I Have Known," which discusses at length the historians who had the most profound impact on his own scholarship. Louis spends the majority of the essay discussing a handful of Oxford historians, each of which, in their own way, are among the most prominent and influential scholars of their generation: A.J.P. Taylor, Margery Perham, Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher, and Max Beloff. Other influences include Barrington Moore, Jr., Ernest May, and Arthur Smithies - all of Harvard - and Vincent Harlow, Roger Owen, Christopher Platt, Sarvepalli Gopal, and Albert Hourani, all of Oxford.

Louis's scholarship is also influenced by J. C. Hurewitz, a prominent scholar of Israel and Palestine. In the preface to his highly regarded book, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951, (Clarendon, 1984) Louis stated that “my views on Arab nationalism and Zionism, and on the United States and the Middle East, have been influenced by the sensitive and dead-on-the-mark observations of J. C. Hurewitz.”[17]


Articles and book chapters

Please note that a number of the following titles refer to recently revised versions of these articles as published in Louis's volume of collected essays: Ends of British Imperialism


  1. Archived January 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. 1 2 3 Ronald Robinson, "Roger Louis and the Official Mind of Decolonization," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1999), pp. 1-12.
  3. "W. Roger Louis - Scholars Council (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress)". Loc.gov. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  4. "UT History Department: News". Utexas.edu. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
  5. Wm. Roger Louis, "Hinges of Fate," Burnt Orange Britannia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), p. 284.
  6. Roger Adelson, "Interview with William Roger Louis," The Historian (2000)
  7. Adelson, "Interview with William Roger Louis".
  8. Roger Adelson, "Interview with William Roger Louis," p. 496.
  9. Louis, "Hinges of Fate," p. 290-91.
  10. 1 2 Louis, "Hinges of Fate," p. 291.
  11. 1 2 3 Louis, "Hinges of Fate," p. 292.
  12. Wm. Roger Louis, Imperialism: The Robinson and Gallagher Controversy (New York, 1976).
  13. Ronald Robinson, "Roger Louis and the Official Mind of Decolonization," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1999), p. 5.
  14. D.A. Low, "Rule Britannia: Subjects and Empire: The Oxford History of the British Empire," Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2002), pp. 491-511.
  15. Max Beloff, "Empire Reconsidered," The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1999), pp. 13-26.
  16. "J. C. Hurewitz, 93, Dies; Scholar of the Middle East". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
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