Athan Theoharis |
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Athan Theoharis


  • Fellow
  • 2003
Letters, History, Public Affairs, Government

Athan George Theoharis is an American historian, professor of history emeritus at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and a Wisconsin Academy Fellow.

Born August 3, 1936, in Milwaukee, Theoharis earned all of his degrees from the University of Chicago: two bachelor’s degrees in political science in 1956 and 1957, a master’s degree in 1958, and his PhD in history in 1965. He has taught at Texas A&M University, Wayne State University, City University of New York, State University of New York at Buffalo, and lastly at Marquette University. The scope of his writings has extended to Cold War history, anti-communism in America, civil rights and the politics of government secrecy.

Theoharis’s debut book was Anatomy of Anti-Communism (1969), which was quickly followed with the publication of his revised PhD dissertation, directed under the supervision of Walter Johnson, titled The Yalta Myths: An Issue in U.S. Politics, 1945-1955 (1970). The book explored the changing symbolism of the Yalta Conference and how it affected the domestic politics of both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

This was followed by his influential Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism (1971), and his influential article “Roosevelt and Truman on Yalta: The Origins of the Cold War” in Political Science Quarterly (1972). The former located the origins of so-called McCarthyism not with the junior senator from Wisconsin but with the context of the Cold War and President Harry Truman’s flawed leadership and anti-Communist rhetoric which created a climate permitting the advent of the phenomenon of McCarthyism. The article highlighted Truman’s role in determining, in part, the way in which the Cold War materialized.

In the mid-1970s, because of his work exploring the Truman and Eisenhower loyalty and security programs as well as his articles on FBI wiretapping, Theoharis was asked by the Church Committee to conduct research at presidential libraries. The Church Committee—the Senate select committee to study governmental operations with respect to intelligence activities—was formed by Senator Frank Church after Nixon administration, FBI, and CIA abuses became public. First without and then with qualified security clearances, Theoharis examined some presidential records relating to the FBI and White House at the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidential libraries. He also examined some FBI records for the Church Committee at FBI headquarters.

Following this work and changes made to the Freedom of Information Act in the 1970s, in 1976 Theoharis became a specialist in the history of the FBI. He focused on FBI records procedures, rather than individual FBI targets, leading to discoveries or further understandings of the complexities and uses of FBI office files (as opposed to “official” FBI files), the JUNE mail file, the National Security Electronic Surveillance Index Card File, Surreptitious Entries file, COMPIC file, and COMRAP file.

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