the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 7


The field and discipline of geography have long been intimately linked with the state, and with one of its key instruments, war. So illustrates David Livingstone in an extensive history. The development of statecraft, imperialism, and warfare have driven, and been driven by, the simultaneous development of geography, in particular, regional geography (as described below) and cartography. Practically speaking, such knowledge is very useful. Historically, then, geography has been valued by the state, and when called to serve, has answered.

It is not an accident that geography as a field has been better developed and more prestigious in Britain than in the United States. US culture is still identifiably a descendant of its European, especially British, roots. The difference is that Britain’s imperialism, its long history of colonization (of which the US is of course a product), its naval prowess, and its extensive trade networking in the world gave the empire a material incentive to explore, learn about, and understand the world as a geographic object. By contrast, the first century and more of US independence saw a state that was primarily concerned with itself, that did expand continentally but not overseas, and intervened offshore only in limited ways on limited occasions (the Monroe Doctrine was more of a claim and a threat than a common practice). No one familiar with the American Indian saga could deny the reality of US imperialism, but it was simply not of the same geographic scale or historical scope. Other of the European empires had similar patterns, in particular Germany and France. An empire knows what geography is good for.

War is one thing geography is good for. Accurate geographic information, particularly as represented on a map (and well-represented, hence the development of cartography), is crucial at the global strategic level and the battlefield tactical level alike. Positions of defense, possibilities of attack, logistical concerns, terrain and climate patterns and human settlement must all be understood for military advantage. Sustained occupation requires a thorough knowledge of the land and the locals. World distribution of resources says much about the value of taking or holding land.

The US as a state does have some tradition of engagement with geography. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson tied geography to the government of the US, in his own person and in his actions in office. He authored a model regional geography, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’; when president, he negotiated the purchase of the entire Mississippi basin (the portion west of the river, not yet controlled by the US, and called “Louisiana” at the time), and dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the great extension of the continent, and report back. He was geographically aware and inclined to bring awareness to the citizens of the young state.

But a more recent figure helps illuminate the strain of the state-discipline relationship in the US. In Isaiah Bowman, especially as described by Neil Smith, we have a figure representing the service of geography to the state, and the possibility of its patronage by the state. From his position as head of the American Geographical Society, he was in a position to house and provide staff for a personal project of president Woodrow Wilson, known as the Inquiry (which Smith aptly describes as an early think tank), meant to prepare the government for eventualities of the (First) World War. He came eventually to be its effective head, and as such became a key figure in the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference and finally oversaw all technical advisors to the delegation. His geographers and cartographers helped the US, with a few allies, to redraw the map of the world, and of Europe in particular. And he later served in a similar advisory capacity to Franklin Roosevelt, owing not only to his prior experience, his position in the Council on Foreign Relations, and an existing familiarity with Roosevelt, but also to his specific expertise in settlement (as, for example, the author of ‘The pioneer fringe’), an important topic before and after the Second World War.

Other geographers gave similar service, and it would be fair to say that the discipline as a whole participated in the war effort. Dick Hartshorne, for example, was an officer in the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency). In the aftermath of the war, the US came to understand that it, like other world powers before, must come to know the world over which it was now the political, military, and economic hegemon. It is no small irony that, after geography’s wartime service to the state, the state would use its great need for geographic knowledge, and the great resources it intended to devote to acquiring this knowledge, to break up the discipline and erect an alternative instead. This, as told by Jerry Dobson, and by Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen, was the creation of area studies programs, which now exist throughout the academy, attract students and researchers and grants, and were made possible by the funding priorities of the post-war federal government. So the US did indeed develop the academic and research infrastructure to play its outsized role in the world, just as the British Empire had done in the past. But where this information would previously have been counted as regional geography, now it was “area studies”, separate disciplines, separate departments, separate from the geographic tradition to which they were nonetheless heirs. Had the discipline of geography a genuine enemy, that enemy could hardly have done better than this ‘DIVIDE ET IMPERA’ strategy that has left academic geography so weakened.

The systematic geography that remains does have some relationship with the state. The academic development of geographic information systems and remote sensing have certainly led to collaboration — funding, borrowing ideas, hiring of graduates, et cetera. Various physical subfields remain of value to the state — resource-oriented, or, during certain administrations, climate-oriented. Geographers have even been visibly involved in recent wars, such as suggesting means of tracking terrorists. But it seems unlikely that, apart from technical expertise in remote sensing and GIS, the US government would again call on geography to assist in a grand enterprise like a war. The discipline is not what it was, and is not equipped to help, even if it wanted to.


Isaiah Bowman. ‘The pioneer fringe’. American Geographical Society, 1931.
Jerry Dobson. Presentation to the national conference of the Association of American Geographers, Washington, 2010.
Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen. ‘The myth of continents: a critique of metageography’. University of California, 1997.
David N. Livingstone. ‘The geographical tradition’. Blackwell, 1992.
Neil Smith. ‘American empire: Roosevelt’s geographer and the prelude to globalization’. University of California, 2003.


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