In Memoriam: Robert A. Potash (1921-2016)
Thursday, August 10, 2017
Thursday, August 10, 2017
Robert A. Potash, Haring Professor of Latin American History Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst, died December 30, 2016 at age ninety-five. A member of the history department from 1950 until his retirement in 1986, he was a prolific scholar whose publications in Latin American history won international acclaim.
Born in Boston in 1921, Bob graduated first in his class from Boston Latin School in 1938 and then entered Harvard College, where he majored in history with a special focus on Latin America. Graduating magna cum laude in 1942, he was about to begin graduate study at Harvard later that year when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie, MD, he was eventually posted to serve in the Pacific theater and remained there until he was discharged in February 1946. Upon his return to the United States, he married Jeanne Feinstein, whom he had met at the University of Illinois in 1943, during his military training. Bob and Jeanne celebrated their seventieth anniversary in 2016.
In the fall of 1946 Bob was back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, resuming graduate study in history. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on a nineteenth-century Mexican development bank, the Banco de Avio de Mexico, and at that time considered himself a specialist in Mexican history. A Spanish edition of his revised dissertation was published in Mexico in 1959, and an English-language edition, entitled Mexican Government and Industrial Development in the Early Republic: The Banco de Avio, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1983. Also in the 1980s he developed a collaborative project with Mexican historians at El Colegio de Mexico to create a computerized guide to the documents in the Notarial Archive of Mexico City. Initiated at the University of Massachusetts Computing Center, the project was taken over and continued by El Colegio de Mexico. In recognition of his great service to Mexico, he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Mexican Academy of History in 1985.
Bob’s ties to the University of Massachusetts dated from 1950, when, after one year as a visiting instructor at Boston University, he joined the UMass History Department with the rank of instructor. Like most new history faculty in a time when Western Civilization courses were required of all undergraduates, Bob initially taught more courses in Western Civilization than in his specialty of Latin America. However, the excellence of his teaching, service, and scholarship was such that he rose swiftly through the ranks, and by the end of the 1960s he was a full professor and had served as Head of the Department. His extra-departmental commitments at the University included service as chair of the Committee on Latin American Studies and director of the University Argentine Program. An active participant in both the Conference on Latin American History (CLAH) and the New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS), he also served on the editorial boards of the American Historical Review and the Hispanic American Historical Review.
A two-year period (1955-1957) in the U.S. State Department’s Research and Intelligence Division led him to shift his main research focus to the history of Argentina. His three-volume work, The Army and Politics in Argentina, which covered the years from 1928 to 1973, was a widely admired achievement that clearly established his reputation as the leading authority on Argentina’s military. The Spanish editions became best-sellers in Argentina, and the scholarly community there honored him by election to the National Academy of History in Argentina, whose membership is limited to forty scholars and is by invitation only. Bob’s proven success and reliability in the study of controversial events led the Foreign Minister of Argentina to appoint him in 1997 to the Commission of Inquiry into Nazi Activities in Argentina in the decade after World War II (CEANA). His particular contribution to the commission’s work was documenting the employment of German technicians by the Argentine Army.
In his autobiographical memoir, Looking Back at My First Eighty Years, Bob described himself as a historian of institutions, of the banking system in Mexico and the military in Argentina (2008). This description was typical of Bob’s modesty. The historical significance of his publications is beyond question and is widely recognized. But another important, perhaps more subtle, contribution is his influence on the way a younger generation of Argentine historians approached their field. The standard approach had doubted the practicality of studying recent Argentine history, usually defined as anything later than the 1920s, on the grounds that too many essential documents were not available, kept in restricted archival collections or in private hands. But Bob, in talks he gave to historians and others in Argentina, pointed out that many sources unavailable in Argentina, such as Argentine-German diplomatic communications from the 1940s, could be found in the United States at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He also was a pioneer in using oral history as a means of studying recent Argentine history, conducting literally hundreds of interviews with prominent Argentine participants in crucial events from the 1920s to the 1970s. In the course of these interviews Bob spoke with twelve out of the eighteen Argentine presidents who had held office between 1956 and 2001. He became a warm friend of some, notably of Raúl Alfonsín, whose election in 1983 ended a long period of military rule.
Bob exemplified the best of a phenomenon embodied in the term “public intellectual,” that is, an individual at the very top of his specialized academic discipline who makes its insights accessible to a general audience. Bob regularly wrote op-ed articles for major Argentine newspapers, and when delegations of Fulbright scholars came to Amherst to study here on a program run by the UMass Civic Initiative, Bob annually agreed to speak to them about his knowledge of Argentina. Such was his kindness that he also continued to accept requests for interviews from novice journalists among these visiting young Argentines, no matter how obscure were the journals with which they were beginning their careers.
Bob was a loyal and generous member of the University of Massachusetts community. He and Jeanne endowed the Robert and Jeanne Potash Latin American Travel Grant that is awarded annually to UMass graduate students in the field of Latin American Studies. Bob also donated an immense body of documents, the Robert A. Potash Papers, 1930-1991, to the University’s Archives. The bulk of these papers consists of correspondence, audiotapes, and transcriptions of Bob’s interviews with leading Argentine military and political leaders. These unique sources are now available in digital form to qualified researchers worldwide.
Bob remained active even in the last years of his life. A Spanish-language edition of his memoir is to be published in Argentina, and he had the opportunity to read proofs of its early chapters and to conclude that the translation was expertly done. He also published a series of five articles on Argentine General and President Alejandro Agustín Lanusse in the prestigious Argentine journal, Todo es Historia, the last of which appeared in January 2017, continuing his enduring legacy to the profession.
Gerald W. McFarland
Professor of History Emeritus
University of Massachusetts Amherst
See also Professor Potash's obituary by Richard J. Walter in the Hispanic American Historical Review: http://hahr.dukejournals.org/content/97/3/524.full