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The courage to dissent

For graduate student Amanda Rothschild, political science meets personal history in her studies of how the United States responds to genocide.
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Rothschild’s great-grandfather, David (standing, third from left), is pictured here before the war with his siblings and father Joseph. During the Holocaust, David was imprisoned at Buchenwald, and several siblings were killed or imprisoned, including Joseph, who was murdered at Auschwitz.
Rothschild’s great-grandfather, David (standing, third from left), is pictured here before the war with his siblings and father Joseph. During the Holocaust, David was imprisoned at Buchenwald, and several siblings were killed or imprisoned, including Joseph, who was murdered at Auschwitz.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Rothschild.
Amanda Rothschild addresses an audience.
Amanda Rothschild addresses an audience.

Given the global refugee crisis stemming from Syria’s civil war, the focus of MIT graduate student Amanda Rothschild’s work — how the United States responds to genocide — has arguably never been more relevant.

Rothschild’s dissertation, “‘Courage First:’ Dissent, Debate, and the Origins of U.S. Responsiveness to Mass Killing,” analyzes the policies of seven administrations in the face of five cases from the 20th century. The cases include the Armenian and Rwandan genocides and the atrocities in Bangladesh and Bosnia.

But the beating heart of Rothschild’s research is the Holocaust. Both of her father’s parents were survivors. Many family members perished; others were saved and went on to help others. The dissertation is dedicated to their memory.

“I’ve always been interested in issues of anti-Semitism, hatred, genocide, and mass atrocity,” Rothschild says. “Political science seemed like a great field to examine those issues because it’s interdisciplinary — it draws on history, economics, even philosophy.”

While studying the Holocaust and World War II, Rothschild was struck by the role that public servants and inner-circle influencers played in changing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attitude toward Jewish refugees. In 1943, whistleblowers in the U.S. State Department worked with officials in the U.S. Treasury to document practices of, among other things, disinformation and delays in processing rescue efforts — all designed to limit the immigration of Jews to the United States. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., Roosevelt’s closest Cabinet adviser, presented the findings to the president in January 1944. The War Refugee Board was established days later.

“One of the conventional arguments related to why states don’t respond to genocide and mass killings is that they lack political will,” says Rothschild. “But I found that to be vague. My argument specifies what ‘political will’ means. It’s a complex of factors originating in domestic politics.”

After analyzing the five cases, she identified three elements required to move the needle on response to atrocities: dissent, usually at the highest levels of government; considerable Congressional pressure; and political incentive — the idea that inaction carries some political cost for the president. Because all three are needed, and because they can take years to develop, Rothschild says, “we don’t often see a prompt or robust response after a crisis emerges.”

Which is why, she adds, the Obama administration has not changed its policy on Syria — despite a State Department memo signed by 51 diplomats in June that called for military action against Bashir al-Assad’s government: “The civil servants who used the dissent channel were not in the inner circle of the president, and there seems not to be a lot of pressure from Congress or political cost to President Obama for not acting.”

Brutality and bravery

As the title of her dissertation indicates, Rothschild is particularly impressed by the courage of dissenters, especially those at lower levels. “Because they don’t have access to the president, they might use the dissent channel, risking retaliation, or resign. They’re sacrificing their own professional future and livelihood for the well being of others,” she says. “That contrasts starkly with presidents, who are primarily motivated by political considerations when they do act. There’s this interesting juxtaposition of very altruistic people and very self-interested people in the same case studies.”

While her thesis explains rather than advocates, Rothschild says, “part of my driving motivation for understanding these issues is so that we might be able to address them more effectively.” That motivation derives its urgency both from her family’s history and from her own life. In the mid 2000s, a series of anti-Semitic incidents at her high school had a “profound influence” on her career goals. To address the incidents, school administrators invited civil rights expert Frederick Lawrence, a Jewish faculty member, and Rothschild herself to speak. She considered becoming a civil rights lawyer. In the end, she opted for the “deep study of politics” over law.

Fitting in at MIT

MIT was a perfect fit for Rothschild not only because it’s a place that “cares about applying research to a big problem the globe is facing,” but also because it welcomes her historical approach. “Researching an important topic, applying that research, and being open to using the best methodologies to answer the question you’re trying to ask — it was the complete package for me,” she says.

In addition to receiving multiple awards and graduating summa cum laude from Boston College, Rothschild played Division I ice hockey there, and the athletic experience enriched her academic life: “Division I sport is very results-oriented, so you get very good at taking feedback, addressing it, and producing,” she points out. She played goalie, and the desire for her research to have an impact parallels the duty and potential intrinsic to that position. “Being a goalie, you had the ability to influence the outcome of the game. I liked that responsibility.”

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