Donald Kagan

Donald Kagan
Born (1932-05-01) May 1, 1932
Kuršėnai, Lithuania
Nationality American
Fields Classics
Institutions Cornell University
Yale University
Alma mater Brooklyn College
Brown University
Ohio State University
Known for History of the Peloponnesian War
Notable awards National Humanities Medal, 2002

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.


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]

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 militants 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, however, believes honor played an out-sized role in beginning World War I and that modern observers would do better to understand the concept as "prestige."[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, which the NEH calls "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."[6] Kagan's Jefferson Lecture was entitled "In Defense of History";[7] he argued that history is of primary importance in the study of the humanities.[8][9] In a review in The New Yorker, critic George Steiner said of Kagan's seminal 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—a title reserved for only the few most accomplished academics at Yale. His course "The Origins of War" was one of the university's most popular courses for twenty-five years. He currently teaches "Introduction to Ancient Greek History"[10] and upper level History and Classical Civilization seminars focusing on topics from Thucydides to the Lakedaimonian hegemony.

Kagan lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He is married to Myrna Kagan, a teacher and historian in her own right, and the author of Vision in the Sky: New Haven's Early Years, 1638-1784. He is the father of Robert Kagan and Frederick Kagan, both well-known writers. Robert Kagan's wife is Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson from 2011 to 2013 and the current Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Frederick Kagan's wife is Kimberly Kagan, a well-known military historian and founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War.

Positions held



  1. "Lion in Winter". April 2002. 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. 1 2 "Donald Kagan on Conversations with Bill Kristol". Conversations with Bill Kristol.
  6. Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  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".
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