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Simon Miles, Historian of International Relations, Joins Sanford Faculty

October 11, 2017

By Jackie Ogburn

“I went into the family business,” says Assistant Professor Simon Miles, a historian who researches U.S.-Soviet relations during and after the Cold War.

When he was undergraduate, “history didn’t feel like work,” Miles said. And with his love of travel, becoming a historian of international relations seemed like a natural choice.

A native of Canada, Miles earned his PhD in history from the University of Texas in Austin and a master’s degree, also in history, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Miles has conducted much of his research in archives that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain, primarily in the Czech Republic, East Germany, the Soviet Union and Ukraine. While working on his dissertation, “Engaging the ‘Evil Empire:’ U.S.-Soviet Relations in the Second Cold War,” he traveled to eight countries and pored through the collections of 31 archives.

The “Second Cold War” describes the escalation of tension between the U.S., NATO, and the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1985.

When he first began the research, Miles wasn’t sure how much access would be permitted to archives east of the Iron Curtain. In Moscow, he found that materials from the early 1980s were available, including records of the Politburo and personal papers of Secretaries Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.  

At the archives in several Warsaw Pact countries, Miles was surprised at the range of documents he was permitted to see, especially in East German and Czech repositories. In addition to becoming democracies with a commitment to transparency, there was another reason access was easy. 

“East Germany has no national security interests anymore, because there is no East Germany,” he said.

Miles is bilingual in French and English, fluent in Russian and reads German, Czech and Ukrainian, so he was able to read the documents in their original languages 

Among his most exciting finds were memos of conversations between Arthur Burns, U.S. ambassador to West Germany during the Reagan administration, and the Soviet ambassadors to East Germany. Normally, the two officials met regularly to discuss the divided city of Berlin, and frequently focused on issues of transportation, such as air corridors and overland traffic; under Reagan, the regular, inconspicuous meetings became a forum for two top-level policy-makers to have frank conversations about major issues in the Cold War. Such back-channel communications allowed direct discussion between the superpowers without the need for political posturing.

Other Warsaw Pact archives held documents that also shed light on U.S.-Soviet relations during the period and the Cold War as a whole. Crucially, Warsaw Pact diplomats and bureaucrats had their own takes on events and were close observers of superpower actions.

Miles is adapting his dissertation into a book and planning his next book project, an international history of the Warsaw Pact, from 1955 to 2005.

At the Sanford School, Miles is a faculty affiliate of the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy. This fall, he is co-teaching the class in American Grand Strategy with Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, and developing a new course for the next, a seminar on the global Cold War.