Former Williams professor KC Johnson read Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s undergraduate thesis: “La Historia Ciclica De Puerto Rico. The Impact Of The Life Of Luis Muñoz Marin On The Political And Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930-1975.”

This is, by coincidence, a topic about which I know something — I did a biography of Ernest Gruening, a sometimes friend, sometimes foe of Muñoz Marín, and also did a journal article on Puerto Rico and the Good Neighbor Policy. The thesis is quite good. I’m not sure it’s a summa cum laude thesis… but summa grades essentially depend on the competition and the standards at the time.

As for the thesis as a whole, from a historian’s perspective: It’s solidly researched and fairly well written — uses lots of data, more or less presents an argument, and has a pedagogical approach (political/economic history, focus on a key political leader in Muñoz Marin) that is very much mainstream. This is basically a pedagogically sound thesis that (with one exception) allows the facts to speak for themselves.

There are also a few jarring elements that contrast to the pedagogical approach. First, I’m curious as to when Sotomayor ceased being a Puerto Rican nationalist who favors independence — as she says she does in the preface. (The position, as she points out in the thesis, had received 0.6 percent in a 1967 referendum, the most recent such vote before she wrote the thesis.) I don’t know that I’ve seen it reported anywhere that she favored Puerto Rican independence, which has always been very much a fringe position….

Second, her unwillingness to call the Congress the U.S. Congress is bizarre — in the thesis, it’s always referred to as either the ‘North American Congress’ or the ‘mainland Congress.’ I guess by the language of her thesis, it should be said that she’s seeking an appointment to the North American Supreme Court, subject to advice and consent of the North American Senate. This kind of rhetoric was very trendy, and not uncommon, among the Latin Americanist fringe of the academy.

Third, she had an odd habit of inserting [sic] into quotes not to identify an error but because she disagreed with the (usually innocuous) content of the quotes.

Fourth, she asserted that Muñoz Marín’s economic program, called Operation Bootstrap, failed primarily because Puerto Ricans continued to think of themselves as colonials. This, like the reference to the US Congress as the ‘North American’ Congress, was 1970s-trendy dependency theory rhetoric, but was wholly unsupported by the evidence that she presented in the thesis (and, indeed, by virtually any evidence that has appeared since that time).

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