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Jeffrey  Engel

Jeffrey Engel

Founding Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University

Jeffrey Engel

Founding Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University


Jeffrey A. Engel is founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and Professor in the Clements Department of History. A Senior Fellow of the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies and formerly a Senior Fellow of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University.  He additionally studied at St. Catherine's College, Oxford University, and received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before holding a John M. Olin Postdoctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University.

Having taught American history, international relations, and grand strategy at the University of Wisconsin, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Haverford College, he served until 2012 at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government & Public Service as the Howard and Verlin Kruse ’52 Professor and Director of Programming for the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs, receiving during that a Silver Star Award for Teaching and Mentorship, a Distinguished Teaching Award from A&M’s Association of Former Students, and a Texas A&M University System Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award.  In 2012 the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations named him their Bernath Prize lecturer, while in 2019 SMU’s Residence Life students voted him their campus-wide Hope Professor of the Year.

Engel has authored or edited thirteen books on American foreign policy, including Cold War at 30, Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy (Harvard University Press, 2007), which received the Paul Birdsall Prize from the American Historical Association; Local Consequences of the Global Cold War (Stanford University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008); The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President (Princeton University Press, 2008); The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989 (Oxford University Press, 2009); with Joseph R. Cerami, Rethinking Leadership and “Whole of Government” National Security Reform (Strategic Studies Institute, 2010); Into the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War (Oxford University Press, 2012); with Andrew Preston and Mark Lawrence, America in the World: A History in Documents (Princeton University Press, 2014); The Four Freedoms: FDR’s Legacy of Liberty for the United States and the World (Oxford University Press, 2016); with Thomas Knock, When Life Strikes the White House: Presidents and their Personal Crises (Oxford University Press, 2017); When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), which received the 2019 Transatlantic Studies Association Prize; with Richard H. Immerman, Fourteen Points for the 21st Century (University of Kentucky Press, 2020); with Timothy Sayle, Hal Brands, and Will Inboden, The Last Card: Inside George W. Bush’s Decision to Surge in Iraq (Cornell University Press, 2019), and with Jon Meacham, Peter Baker, and Timothy Naftali, Impeachment: An American History (Random House, 2018).

A frequent media contributor on international and political affairs on venues including MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, National Public Radio, and the BBC, his scholarly and popular articles have appeared in such journals as Diplomatic History; Diplomacy & Statecraft; American Interest; USAToday; The Los Angeles Times; International Journal; The Dallas Morning News; Foreign Policy; The Houston Chronicle; Air & Space Magazine; The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

Engel lives in Dallas with his wife (the historian Katherine Carté) and their two children, and is currently writing Seeking Monsters to Destroy: How Americans Go to War from Washington to Biden and Beyond (Oxford University Press).

Speaker Videos

Presidential Historian Reviews Presidents in Film & TV, from 'Lincoln' to 'The Comey Rule'

Speech Topics

The New Cold War: Russia & the U.S. (What Went Wrong?)

The Cold War’s end was supposed to bring about a new era of East-West cooperation, integrating Russia for perhaps the first time as an equal player in European and Atlantic affairs. Democracy was emerging, along with free markets. The end of old history appeared in sight, replaced by the new.  We were poised to share “one common European home,” the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev pledged. And we shall all have peace. “Eastern Europe is free,” George H.W. Bush proclaimed as 1991 came to an end. “This is a victory for democracy and freedom. Every American can take pride in this victory.”

Not very long ago, the United States and its allies declared victory in the long cold war to contain and overthrow the Soviet regime. It looked like George Kennan was a genius. Hopes were high for a transformed world of ever more democracies and ever friendlier relations with Moscow – but something went terribly wrong. Russia fought a brief war in 2008 that left the independent Republic of Georgia dismembered. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine by force in 2014, and continues to support armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s modernizing military conducts aggressive overflights of NATO ships in international waters, and even threatens to use nuclear weapons. Moscow has been cozying up to Communist-led China. Many observers are calling U.S.-Russia relations a new cold war. What happened?

FDR & the Four Freedoms

The United States stands for freedom. No politician dares say otherwise, lest they seek an early retirement. But what kind of freedom, precisely, and for whom? Franklin Roosevelt offered an answer in 1941. Believing the United States had a role to play in the battle against Nazi and fascist aggression already underway in Europe, he called Americans to arms not just to preserve their security, but their way of life, and their very freedoms. Four freedoms, to be exact: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of religion, and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt’s words helped define American politics and foreign policy for generations, but the freedoms he desired are not necessarily those espoused today. He called for freedom from want, citing the need for universal health care, in particular. Needless to say, contemporary Americans continue to struggle to find a universal sense of how much is too much, and how much government should do to keep all its citizens from wanting. He called for freedom of speech, yet today we debate if that applies to corporations as well as people, and if money and speech are truly one and the same. He called for the freedom to worship as one pleases, yet not every religion is universally embraced across the political spectrum. Finally, Roosevelt promised freedom from fear, and today Americans live as fearful of the future as ever. Contemporary Americans live in the shadow of FDR, but as we ponder the country’s future, and as we trace the evolution of our common understanding of this term from 1941 to our present day, we need ask, as well: if we stand for freedom, can we even define it?

Pearl Harbor - December 7, 1941: A Date That Will Live in Infamy

It was a day that would live in infamy.  That part you already know, recalling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vivid judgment of the Japanese Empire’s attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.  But there is more to the story than just a surprise assault followed by a speech.  The attack on Pearl Harbor culminated months of bitter and tense diplomacy, and even more importantly, ended debate on one of the most contentious and divisive issues in all of American history: the country’s potential intervention in World War II, and more broadly, its engagement with the wider world.  The infamous attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into the war, at least formally, but in truth the country was already a participant, and December 7, 1941, ultimately colored far more about America’s global role than just an immediate call to arms.  It was a day that would live on, beyond infamy, daily through to the 21st century.

George H. W. Bush: What We Know Now (That We Didn’t Know Then)

It’s been three decades since George H.W. Bush was president, and nearly three years since his death. After all that time, what do we really know about his life and time in office? A LOT more than we used to. Thirty years has provided time for archives to open, diaries to become available, and frankly, tongues to loosen. There is plenty new to learn about this man: especially the critical role he (secretly) played in keeping the Cold War’s end from turning hot. In this lecture, Professor Engel reminds students of the key events of Bush’s presidency—which he contends were the most dramatic four years on the international stage for any US president (save Franklin Roosevelt), and more importantly, what we now know—and what you are glad you didn’t at the time!