Donald Kagan

Donald Kagan (/ˈkɡən/; born May 1, 1932) is an American historian and classicist at Yale University specializing in ancient Greece, notable for his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War. He formerly taught in the Department of History at Cornell University. At present, Kagan is considered among the foremost American scholars of Greek history.

Donald Kagan
Born (1932-05-01) May 1, 1932 (age 88)
Alma materBrooklyn College
Brown University
Ohio State University
Known forHistory of the Peloponnesian War
AwardsNational Humanities Medal, 2002
Scientific career
InstitutionsCornell University
Yale University

Early life and educationEdit

Born into a Jewish family from Kuršėnai, Lithuania, Kagan grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, where his family emigrated when he was two years old, shortly after the death of his father. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954, received an MA from Brown University in 1955 and a PhD from the Ohio State University in 1958.[1]


External video
  Booknotes interview with Kagan on On the Origins of War, March 12, 1995, C-SPAN
  Presentation by Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan on While America Sleeps, November 29, 2000, C-SPAN
  Presentation by Kagan on The Peloponnesian War, October 3, 2003, C-SPAN

Once a liberal Democrat, Kagan changed his views in 1969. According to Jim Lobe, cited by Craig Unger, Kagan's turn away from liberalism occurred in 1969 when Cornell University was pressured into starting a Black Studies program by gun-wielding students seizing the Willard Straight Hall: "Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me, and I became much more conservative."[2] He was one of the original signers of the 1997 Statement of Principles by the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, co-founded by his son Robert Kagan.[3][4] On the eve of the 2000 presidential elections, Kagan and his son, Frederick Kagan, published While America Sleeps, a call to increase defense spending.

Known for his prolific research of the Peloponnesian War; Kagan is also famous for his work On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, a comparative history examining four major conflicts (the Peloponnesian War, World War I, the Second Punic War, and World War II) and one non-conflict (the Cuban Missile Crisis) with the purpose of identifying how and why wars do or do not begin. Remarking in 2015 on the work, Kagan summarized the causes of war by quoting Thucydides: "You know, Thucydides has this great insight. I wish I could get people to pay attention – he has one of his speakers at the beginning of the war say, 'Why do people go to war? Out of fear, honor, and interest.' Well, everybody knows interest, and fear is very credible. Nobody takes honor seriously." [5] Kagan believes honor—better understood as "prestige"--- was crucial in beginning World War I, for example.[5]

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded Donald Kagan the National Humanities Medal in 2002, and selected him to deliver the 2005 Jefferson Lecture,.[6] Kagan titled his lecture, "In Defense of History";[7] he argued that history is of primary importance in the study of the humanities.[8][9] In his The New Yorker review, George Steiner said of Kagan's four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War: "The temptation to acclaim Kagan's four volumes as the foremost work of history produced in North America in this century is vivid."

Until his retirement in 2013, Kagan was Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. His "The Origins of War" was one of Yale's most popular courses for twenty-five years. Over an even longer timespan he taught "Introduction to Ancient Greek History"[10] and upper level History and Classical Civilization seminars focusing on topics from Thucydides to the Lakedaimonian hegemony.

Personal life and familyEdit

Kagan lives in New Haven, Connecticut. His late wife of sixty-two years, Myrna Kagan (1932-2017), was a teacher and historian in her own right and author of Vision in the Sky: New Haven's Early Years, 1638-1784. He is the father of well-known writers Robert Kagan and Frederick Kagan. Robert Kagan married Victoria Nuland, who was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Frederick Kagan married Kimberly Kagan, a well-known military historian and founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War.

Positions heldEdit

  • 1987–1988 Acting Director of Athletics, Yale University
  • 1989–1992 Dean, Yale College


  • Kagan, Donald. (1965). The Great Dialogue: A History of Greek Political Thought from Homer to Polybius. New York: Free Press. OCLC 63980809
  • Kagan, Donald. (1969). The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-0501-7.
  • Kagan, Donald. (1974). The Archidamian War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-0889-X.
  • Kagan, Donald. (1981). The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1367-2.
  • Kagan, Donald. (1987). The Fall of the Athenian Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-1935-2
  • Kagan, Donald. (1991). Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86395-2.
  • Kagan, Donald. (1995). On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-42374-8.
  • Kagan, Donald and Kagan, Frederick. (2000). While America Sleeps. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-20624-0.
  • Kagan, Donald, Craig, Albert M., Graham, William A., Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M. (2000). The Heritage of World Civilizations.
  • Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M.. (2003). The Western Heritage. New York: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-182839-8.
  • Kagan, Donald. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-03211-5.
  • Kagan, Donald. (2009). Thucydides: The Reinvention of History. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-02129-6.
  • Kagan, Donald. (2013). Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece. Princeton University Press.


  1. ^ "Lion in Winter". April 2002. Archived from the original on 2007-08-09. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
  2. ^ Craig Unger (2007). American Armageddon. Simon and Schuster. p. 39.
  3. ^ "Statement of Principles". Archived from the original on March 3, 2011. Retrieved 2007-08-19.
  4. ^ "About PNAC". Archived from the original on 3 March 2011.
  5. ^ a b "Donald Kagan on Conversations with Bill Kristol". Conversations with Bill Kristol.
  6. ^ Kagan, Donald (May 18, 2005). "In Defense of History (2005 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities)" (PDF). NEH. Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  7. ^ Donald Kagan,"In Defense of History," text of Jefferson Lecture at NEH website.
  8. ^ Philip Kennicott, "Yale Historian Donald Kagan, Mixing the Old And the Neo," Washington Post, May 13, 2005.
  9. ^ George F. Will, "History's Higher Ground," Washington Post, May 19, 2005.
  10. ^ "Open Yale Courses - Introduction to Ancient Greek History".

External linksEdit