History majors, faculty, and students in History 382 heard from Becca Solnit ’12 last week on the beginning stages of her honors thesis research, on the Indian independence lobby’s influence on American foreign policy during World War Two. Ms. Solnit contends that the “India Lobby” represents a “lost” example in our history of foreign lobbies exerting tremendous influence over American foreign policy, similar to AIPAC today.
Despite the stage of her work, she has already begun to form a strong framework for discussing and analyzing the influence this lobby had on foreign policy. In her presentation and in her written work, she displayed a mastery of a variety of primary and secondary sources, ranging from newspapers and magazines to biographies and scholarly articles.
Ms. Solnit also readily acknowledged one of the main pitfalls of historical research that focuses on “impact” and “influence”: measuring such things is very difficult. While I was pleased to see that she acknowledged this issue, I am not yet satisfied with her response. I think it would be wise for her to spend some time thinking carefully about how she might quantify the lobby’s role in foreign policy decision making. She might consider reviewing the correspondence and public remarks of members of Congress, particularly in states with substantial Indian populations. Is the lobby or its aims a topic of discussion among members? This might be a key indicator of influence.
Finally, I was particularly intrigued by an aspect of the lobby’s history that Ms. Solnit did not connect to broader thematic elements of foreign policy: the role of leaking in advocacy. Ms. Solnit opens her paper and dedicates several pages to the story of Robert Crane’s disclosure of a confidential report on Indian independence to a nationally-syndicated columnist. This was the not the first time such action was taken in support of particular policy initiative, and it was certainly not the last. As evidenced in the recent Wikileaks affair, the domestic and foreign response to the release of such classified documents is often riveting and insightful. Ms. Solnit would do well to dig deeper into the leak scandal and offer some comparison with other such events throughout history. This contrast might even provide an interesting comparative measure of influence and impact.
Overall, Ms. Solnit’s presentation indicated that there are great things to come from this project. I’m looking forward to reading and hearing more.