Photo of Clayton Koppes
  • Professor of History


  • BA, Bethel College Kansas, 1967
  • MA, Emory University, 1968
  • PhD, University of Kansas, 1974


My curiosity about how competing political and cultural forces determine human behavior led me to become a historian.  I’m particularly interested in how the recent past impacts life today and how deeply held beliefs are contested and change over time.  I teach courses about American history since the Civil War.  My usual rotation includes the following:  Roosevelt to Reagan, US Since 1877, The Sixties, American AIDS, US(SR):  Comparative Cold Wars, and World Censorships.  Because Oberlin students are intellectually serious, my teaching and scholarship feed a mutually reinforcing dialogue.

My Oberlin career has been enriched by service in academic administration. I was honored to serve as acting president in 2000 an interim president in 2017.  From 1996 to 2004, I was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and provost in 2004-05. 

I came to Oberlin in 1978 from the California Institute of Technology, where I served four years as a senior research fellow in history.

In my recent scholarship I analyze how political, social, and cultural constraints have affected American movies.  I’m finishing a book tentatively titled Desire Under the Code: Censorship and the Creation of Classical Hollywood.  This book traces the history of censorship, which primarily concerned sexual expression, from the 1890s to 1968 (when today’s ratings system supplanted the old censorship apparatus). While acknowledging the limitations that censorship imposed, I explain how Hollywood crafted a symbolic language that enabled it to show much that was ostensibly forbidden. 

My first book on this subject, Hollywood Goes to War:  How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (written with Gregory D. Black and published by The Free Press), explored how government propaganda operatives tried to influence Hollywood and how the studios pushed back.

My study of film and popular culture intersects with my publications about the United States and the Third World.  I have examined how assumptions of racial superiority shaped the outlook of George F. Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War containment policy. I found related beliefs at work as Washington challenged Mexico’s nationalization of its oil industry.

My first book, JPL and the American Space Program:  A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (published by Yale University Press), analyzed the technological breakthroughs of that iconic institution and its role in the American space program. This book won the Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology, given for the best book on the history of technology in a two-year period. 

I was an early contributor to scholarship about American environmental history, focusing on federal resources and Native American policy.  I served as president of the American Society for Environmental History, introduced the first environmental history courses at Oberlin, and was a founding member of our Environmental Studies Program.

In addition to academic print scholarship I’ve participated in film documentaries about World War II propaganda films, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Goodyear blimp.

My late partner, William Norris, an Oberlin sociology professor, and I were longtime members of the LGBTQ Concerns Committee and worked to advance the cause of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people at Oberlin and more broadly. He and I were honored to stand among the first recipients of the Oberlin Lambda Alumni’s Q Awards for service to the Oberlin College gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.


  • Clayton Koppes Presents Two Papers

    February 25, 2020

    Clayton Koppes, professor of history, presented a paper "I Feel Your Pain: Bill Clinton, AIDS, and the Politics of Disappointment" at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New York City on Jan. 3, 2020. His co-author and co-presenter was David L. Kelly, an independent scholar from Palm Springs, California.

    They will present another paper, "The Plague and the Presidents: Reagan, Bush, Clinton and AIDS Avoidance" at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 3.

  • Clayton R. Koppes Presents Paper, Gives Presentation

    July 24, 2019

    Clayton R. Koppes, professor of history, and David L. Kelly, independent scholar, presented a paper, "On Cats' Paws: America Awakens to AIDS," at the Australia/New Zealand American Studies Association meeting in Auckland on July 15. The paper is part of their ongoing work on the history of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Koppes also gave a presentation in a plenary panel on "populism in America."

  • Clayton Koppes Presents Paper

    August 1, 2018

    Clayton Koppes, professor of history, presented a paper titled "Hostility, Heroism, and Hope: How to Have History in an Epidemic" at the Australian History Association annual conference  on July 5 in Canberra. David Kelly, an independent scholar from Palm Springs, California, coauthored and co-presented. The paper covered the history of HIV/AIDS in the United States.

  • Clayton Koppes receives Distinguished Achievement Award

    June 18, 2018

    Professor of History Clayton Koppes was honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award from Bethel College. The award recognizes character and citizenship, achievement in a chosen profession or vocation, and work of benefit to humanity. More about Koppes and the award.

  • Clayton Koppes Presents Paper

    June 25, 2015

    Clayton Koppes, professor of history, delivered a paper at the International Association for History and Media conference at Indiana University, Bloomington, on June 18. The paper was titled "What's New Is Old: North Atlantic Movie Censorship in Its Formative Years."


Clayton Koppes Receives Distinguished Achievement Award

June 18, 2018
Professor of History Clayton Koppes was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award which recognizes character and citizenship, achievement in a chosen profession or vocation, and work of benefit to humanity.