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Lecturer's expectations

Ian Copland, Lecturer

In this section, one of your lecturers - Ian Copland - sets out what he expects from student assignments on this topic.

Essay topic:

Why did the Grand Alliance fall apart so soon after the victory in Europe and Japan?

What's required?

A good essay on this topic would need to:

  • demonstrate why the question is an important one in the context of the study of the period
  • present a clear point of view - what you think is the best explanation for events
  • provide adequate evidence to support your position

This question concerns the period immediately following the Second World War. The so-called Grand Alliance refers to the main victorious powers in the war: Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union. Be clear about the basic details of the topic, i.e. Who, Where, When, etc.

The next step is to understand what precisely the question is asking. This question hinges around the issue of causation - Why did the Alliance fall apart?. Thinking about and understanding why certain events occurred in the past is a fundamental theme in the study of history.

So, an essay on this question would need to be focused on reasons, but try to avoid just saying: "A was a factor, B was a factor, C was a factor, etc.". The problem with this approach is that it leaves it to the reader to work out what was crucial and what was not.

What we are looking for here - and indeed in any history essay - is for you to prioritise: On the basis of your reading and thinking about the topic, tell us what you think is the most important reason that might be proposed for the failure of the Grand Alliance to survive the war. Was it for example, a problem of diplomacy? Or a more fundamental clash of the ideologies of the victorious powers? Or did it just come down to a problem of the competing egos of the various leaders?

One way to get into this argumentative mode is to think about why a particular question might be posed in the first place - why might it be an issue for Second World War historians. In the case of this question, we are dealing with what, on reflection, is an unlikely event. Here is a Grand Alliance that worked so well during the Second World War, and one would expect it to continue - but it doesn't.

So, in your introduction you need to lay out this context - why this is an important question to ask. And then you need to think to yourself: "What's the best explanation I can offer, and what evidence can I bring in to support my explanation?"

How to go about writing the essay?

  1. Think about what this topic means - jot down whatever reasons you can think of.
  2. Next go to a general text on the period - using the contents or index to find the relevant sections. Go for a chapter entitled something like "The end of the alliance". Use this to do the following: a) to be clear about the chronology of events (What happened? In what sequence?); and b) to understand what the general historical issues are (what historians say about the Alliance's break up).
  3. Think about which of these reasons - on the face of it - appears to you the most important, the most fundamental one. This will be the beginning of your argument. (Be quite up-front about why you decide to lean toward one particular reason.)
  4. Next, go hunting in the more detailed specialised books - in the primary and secondary sources - to assemble evidence to support your argument. (Your argument will develop - or even change altogether - as you do this more detailed reading.)

    In your reading of the secondary sources, you also need to be thinking hard about the different positions historians are adopting in their descriptions of events. Is one suggesting the break-up was due fundamentally to a conflict of egos between leaders? Is another suggesting it was all about incompatible ideologies? Don't leave such debate up in the air. Always say which you believe to be the more satisfactory argument - and why.
  5. Try to plan out the structure of your essay into a sequence of paragraphs, maybe 1-10. In your planning you need to think about what the main point of each paragraph is going to be, and also what evidence you might bring in to support each point.

    There should be some sort of logical progression to the essay. Do this structuring as early as possible in the process, and keep going back to it while you are doing your reading.
  6. When you have done enough reading, structuring, and argument formulation, you can begin drafting the essay. In the process of writing, you might also need to go back to some of the things you did in Stages 1-5.
  7. When you have completed your draft, leave it for a day or two, then re-read with "fresh eyes" and edit it.

When editing, always think about your reader. Frame your writing so that the essay will make sense to someone who is not necessarily familiar with the articles you are describing.

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