Donald Kagan
Born(1932-05-01)May 1, 1932
DiedAugust 6, 2021(2021-08-06) (aged 89)
Myrna Dabrusky
(m. 1954; died 2017)
AwardsNational Humanities Medal (2002)
Academic background
EducationBrooklyn College (BA)
Brown University (MA)
Ohio State University (PhD)
ThesisPolitics and policy in Corinth (1958)
Doctoral advisorWilliam F. McDonald
Academic work
InstitutionsCornell University
Yale University
Main interestsPeloponnesian War

Donald Kagan (/ˈkɡən/; May 1, 1932 – August 6, 2021) was a Lithuanian-born American historian and classicist at Yale University specializing in ancient Greece. He formerly taught in the Department of History at Cornell University. Kagan was considered among the foremost American scholars of Greek history and is notable for his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War.

Early life and education

Kagan was born in Kuršėnai, Lithuania, on May 1, 1932,[1][2] to a Jewish family. His father, Shmuel, died before Kagan turned two years old, and his mother, Leah (Benjamin), subsequently emigrated to the United States with Kagan and his sister. He grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.[1] He attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he played football,[1] before becoming the first person in his family to go to college.[2] He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954, received a master's degree in classics from Brown University in 1955, and a Ph.D. in history from the Ohio State University in 1958.[2][3]

Academic career

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

Donald Kagan's political views underwent a significant shift around 1969, moving from liberalism towards neoconservatism. This change occurred following student protests at Cornell University, which led to the establishment of a Black Studies program following the student occupation of Willard Straight Hall. Kagan felt the university administration's response was inadequate, deeply impacting his political outlook. He became one of the original signatories of the 1997 Statement of Principles by the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, co-founded by his son Robert.[4][5] In the lead-up to the 2000 presidential elections, Kagan and his other son, Frederick, published While America Sleeps, advocating for increased defense spending.[1]

Known for his prolific research on 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."[6] Kagan believes honor – better understood as "prestige" – was crucial in beginning World War I, for example.[6]

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded Kagan the National Humanities Medal in 2002, and selected him to deliver the 2005 Jefferson Lecture.[7] Kagan titled his lecture "In Defense of History";[8] he argued that history is of primary importance in the study of the humanities.[9][10] 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."[1]

Until his retirement in 2013, Kagan was Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University.[11] His "The Origins of War" was one of Yale's most popular courses for twenty-five years, and was the basis of a book he published in 1995.[12] Over an even longer timespan he taught "Introduction to Ancient Greek History",[13] and upper level History and Classical Civilization seminars focusing on topics from Thucydides to the Lacedaimonian hegemony.[14][15]

Personal life and family

Kagan married Myrna Dabrusky in 1954. They met while studying at Thomas Jefferson High School together,[1] and remained married for 62 years until her death in 2017.[2] Together, they had two children: Robert and Frederick.[1][2]

Kagan died on August 6, 2021, at a retirement home in Washington, D.C. He was 89 years old.[1][2][16]

Positions held



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Risen, Clay (August 13, 2021). "Donald Kagan, Leading Historian of Ancient Greece, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 13, 2021. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Italie, Hillel (August 13, 2021). "Donald Kagan, celebrated historian of ancient Greece, dies at 89". The Washington Post. Associated Press. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  3. ^ "Lion in Winter". April 2002. Archived from the original on August 9, 2007. Retrieved August 19, 2007.
  4. ^ "Statement of Principles". Archived from the original on March 3, 2011. Retrieved August 19, 2007.
  5. ^ "About PNAC". Archived from the original on March 3, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "Donald Kagan on Conversations with Bill Kristol". Conversations with Bill Kristol. Archived from the original on March 24, 2016. Retrieved March 25, 2016.
  7. ^ Kagan, Donald (May 18, 2005). "In Defense of History (2005 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities)" (PDF). NEH. Archived (PDF) from the original on July 1, 2019. Retrieved November 19, 2019.
  8. ^ Donald Kagan,"In Defense of History," Archived September 4, 2017, at the Wayback Machine text of Jefferson Lecture at NEH website.
  9. ^ Philip Kennicott, "Yale Historian Donald Kagan, Mixing the Old And the Neo," Archived October 4, 2018, at the Wayback Machine The Washington Post, May 13, 2005.
  10. ^ George F. Will, "History's Higher Ground," Archived November 16, 2016, at the Wayback Machine The Washington Post, May 19, 2005.
  11. ^ "Donald Kagan, celebrated historian of the ancient world and revered teacher". Yale University. August 10, 2021. Archived from the original on August 12, 2021. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  12. ^ Cohen, Eliot A. (March 1, 1995). "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace". Foreign Affairs. Archived from the original on August 14, 2021. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  13. ^ "Introduction to Ancient Greek History | Open Yale Courses". Archived from the original on August 15, 2021. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  14. ^ a b Cavanaugh, Jack (August 13, 2021). "Yale Professor Turns to Sports". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 14, 2021. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  15. ^ "Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War". Hertog Foundation. Archived from the original on August 14, 2021. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  16. ^ "Donald Kagan, leading neo-conservative historian, dead at 89". Times of Israel. Archived from the original on August 17, 2021. Retrieved August 11, 2021.