Introduction of Dr. Margaret MacMillian


15 November 2004

Since its inauguration in 1996, the annual Allan J. MacEachen Lecture series has hosted an illustrious array of prime ministers, premiers and political advisors. Tonight, we are welcoming our first historian, Dr. Margaret MacMillan, a renowned scholar whose specialty is the study of politicians and their profound impact on our lives.

Dr. Margaret MacMillan is best known for her recent publication, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. This international best-seller has been widely acclaimed and showered with awards and accolades of praise. I want to tell you something of the journey that has brought her to this successful point in her career.

Born in Toronto during the Second World War, Dr. MacMillan was raised in a transatlantic household where the emotional connection with Great Britain and the British Empire was very real. Dr. MacMillan’s father was a University of Toronto-trained medical doctor of Scottish lineage, while her mother was the product of a childhood spent partly in India where her father was one-time physician to the Viceroy, Lord Reading. Dr. MacMillan’s emotional connection with Great Britain goes even deeper. Her grandmother was the eldest daughter of David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1916 to 1922. So, for Dr. MacMillan, a love of history--especially imperial history--is bred in the bone. It has become the linking thread in her life.

In the early 1960s, after an education at schools in both Canada and England, Dr. MacMillan attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Her enthusiasm for history took her to Oxford, where she pursued her studies first at St. Hilda’s College and later St. Antony’s College. In 1975, with her freshly-minted D.Phil. in hand, she took up a teaching position at Ryerson University, where until 2002 she taught International Relations, Modern European History, Contemporary Third World and History of Modern China. At a time when the traditional discipline of history was under assault, Dr. MacMillan’s fascination with the narrative of empire remained unshaken by the fashionable tastes of the “new history”. In 1988, she published Women of the Raj, a sequel to her doctoral dissertation on British expatriates in India. It is a lively overview, which tells the story of the British women who came to India at the height of the Raj—women who acted out their roles in the “imperial pageant” as they battled disease, snakes, mutinies and their most formidable struggle of all, asserting a British identity in the face of a physical environment that was patently unBritish.

In the late 1990s, as the 80th anniversary of the Versailles Peace Treaty loomed, Dr. MacMillan’s interests increasingly focused on revisiting this pivotal event. It is said that when Lloyd George left Paris after the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty, he intimated to a friend, “I felt I was closing a book that would never be reopened—a book of intense interest.” How surprised he would be to know that not only has the book been reopened, it has been rewritten by his great-granddaughter. According to Canadian historian, A.J. B. McKillop, Dr. MacMillan originally applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to finance her research on Canada’s role at the Paris Peace Conference. The results came back: “supported but not funded”. One of the reviewers carped, “this seems like rather old-fashioned history.” Two things can be said here. First: category 4A’s (the infamous ‘supported but not funded’ category) take heart, you may not get SSHRC funding, but you may become a world-famous author. Secondly, this so-called “old-fashioned history” has been on the best seller list for over two years.

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, which was first published in 2001, is a majestic and magisterial study of the peace conference held in the wake of the Great War of 1914-1918. For six months in 1919, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson and French Premier Georges Clemenceau met in Paris to rebuild and recast a shattered world and to learn first-hand the hard truths that “War is simple. It is black and white. It is peace that is complex.” The eyes of the world were fixed on the “Big Three” and on the city of Paris which teemed with statesmen, diplomats, lobbyists, aides, clerks, typists, chauffeurs and approximately seven hundred journalists.

In Dr. MacMillan’s hands this extraordinary event, the consequences of which echo down to the present day, is recreated in all its vividness and vitality. The multi-dimensional characters, the conflicting wills, the multiplicity of motives and purposes, and the often shadowy circumstances unfold in a compelling narrative. Dr. MacMillan is such a powerful storyteller that one feels transported back to this time and place. One can almost imagine how it felt to pour over the maps, to observe the sleights of hand and to listen in on the whispered rumours at these lengthy deliberations. Paris 1919 is a strategically important work, offering a balanced corrective to the long-standing conventional wisdom that the horrors of Hitler’s rise to power and the Second World War can be placed at the doorstep of the 1919 international conference. Despite some of the “deadly legacies” of the Paris Peace Conference, it is Dr. MacMillan’s even-handed conclusion that: “ If they could have done better, they certainly could have done much worse…They could not foresee the future and they certainly could not control it. That was up to their successors.” In short, the leaders who gathered around the conference table in Paris should be seen more as captives of character and circumstance than “hostages of hindsight.”

Dr. MacMillan’s book has captured a wide readership and resonated with a war-scarred world, whose modern birthplace was the bloodbath of World War I. Her book has been recognized widely as a masterpiece and has garnered such prestigious literary awards as the Duff Cooper Prize for History, the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction. Despite such honours, Dr. MacMillan has handled her new-found celebrity with grace, dignity and quintessential Canadian understatement. As one Trinity College graduate remarked to me: “it has not turned her head.”

Today, along with a punishing schedule on the lecture circuit, Dr. MacMillan is juggling a busy career as the first female Provost of Trinity College, an appointment that she assumed in 2002, and as a professor of history at the University of Toronto. From 1995 to 2003, Dr. MacMillan was co-editor of the journal, International Relations. She has also edited three volumes on Canada’s international relations, the most recent being Parties Long Estranged: Canada and Australia in the Twentieth Century, published in 2003. Dr. MacMillan is currently working on what promises to be another groundbreaking study, an account of American relations with China during the Cold War.

Dr. MacMillan’s work has important messages for all of us. It reminds us of the centrality of artistry to the writing of history as well as the importance of bringing historical scholarship closer to the reading public. It also serves as a poignant reminder that if history is to be studied to any purpose “it is not a mere tale that is told, but a relation of cause and effect, and a treasury of responsible wisdom.”

This evening, Dr. Margaret MacMillan will lecture on “The Uses and Abuses of History: 1919 to the Present”. Please join me in welcoming her to St. Francis Xavier University.


Political Science Department

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