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Award-Winning Book Examines US-Mexico Agrarian Relations

Tore OlssonTore Olsson, assistant professor of history, has received multiple awards from organizations in three very different historical disciplines for his recent book, Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside, published by Princeton University Press in 2017.

The Agricultural History Society presented Olsson with the annual Theodore Saloutos Memorial Award, which recognizes the best book on agricultural history in the United States. The American University School of Public Affairs and the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies awarded Olsson with the annual William M. LeoGrande Prize for the best book on US-Latin American relations published in 2016-17. His third award, the Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, is given for the best first book in the history of US foreign relations.

“It has been absolutely thrilling to see my work receive such honors from the intellectual societies that have fostered this project from its very beginning,” says Olsson, a historian of the 20th century United States in international context. “My work has always straddled multiple fields of history – from US southern history to agricultural history to Latin American history. But because I’m all over the map, I’ve often felt intellectually homeless, a jack of many trades and master of none, but receiving these prizes has helped me overcome some of these anxieties.”

Agrarian Crossings tells the story of how rural reformers in the United States and Mexico during the 1930s and 40s waged campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice and agricultural productivity. Olsson shows how the reformers conducted the campaigns in dialogue with each other and how each nation exchanged models, plans, and strategies across the border.

“The primary lesson I want readers to take away from the book concerns the close relationship between the United States and Mexico,” Olsson says. “In 2018, we often understand those two nations as binary opposites, as a metaphorical yin and yang. My book demonstrates that for much of their history, the US and Mexico shared a great deal, confronted similar dilemmas, and exchanged solutions for how to resolve problems.”

Olsson also examines the impact of East Tennessee on Mexico’s history through the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Several Mexican presidents visited East Tennessee to tour dams and demonstration farms. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Mexican government modeled TVA and undertook a vast effort to eradicate poverty and improve agricultural productivity in southern Mexico.

“The book tells what I think is an important story about the American South and its place in the world,” Olsson says. “For example, most East Tennesseans imagine TVA as a strictly regional or national institution, yet dozens of nations around the world borrowed its strategies during the latter half of the 20th century. East Tennessee, it turns out, has a significant global footprint.”

About the Awards

  • Theodore Saloutos Memorial Award: Given annually since 1982, the $500 award is named after Theodore Saloutos, a historian of American agricultural labor, politics, and immigration.
  • William M. LeoGrande Prize: The $1,000 prize is named after LeoGrande, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs from 2003-12. LeoGrande was a professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy in Latin America.
  • Bernath Book Prize: The $2,500 annual award recognizes and encourages distinguished research and writing by scholars of American foreign relations.