The historical profession and me
I know some War College students read these posts, and one once took me to task in a comment for complaining about being there. I do not want to be misunderstood. In certain ways the War College was the ideal intellectual environment for me. It's the only place I know of where you have to know a great deal about a great many different things, and the only place where you are paid to think big. Since, as you know those were always my natural tendencies, that was a good fit. It does have its own problems, however, of which repetition is the biggest, and after 21 years, I will be leaving at the end of this year.
For the last 17 years I have been a regular participant on an internet discussion group called H-Diplo. I am reproducing, below, the post I submitted yesterday morning, which has now appeared. It is self-explanatory. Regular commentaries will resume soon.
In 1994 or 1995 I made my first post on H-Diplo, and I have certainly been one of the most active posters—perhaps, indeed, the most active—for the last 17 years. This was, at the outset, a rare and rewarding opportunity for personal expression within a very lively intellectual environment. It has also been a forum within which changes within the historical profession could be observed. Sadly, many vital aspects of the list have changed. Although the American historical profession was well into its great and disastrous transformation by the mid-1990s, it was still in a transitional phase. Many posters in those days had been born well before the Second World War. Nearly every university or liberal arts college still included in its history department at least one genuine specialist in American diplomacy, and very possibly, a scholar of European diplomacy as well. They had been trained to address, research, and study great questions of war and peace, and they had done so. They took their own and others’ opinions on those questions very seriously, and they enjoyed discussing these questions in a frank, if generally friendly spirit. I myself belonged, I can now see, to the dying days of that tradition, having earned my Ph.D. in 1976. By 1991 the vagaries of the historical profession had landed me here at the Naval War College. The internet in general, and H-Diplo in particular, arrived just in time for us to take advantage of it, and for some time, we did.
Those who take the time to go through the H-Diplo logs in the mid- and late 1990s will find, I think, a record of extraordinary intellectual vigor and curiosity. We had very long debates on major historical questions, including the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the origins of the Korean War, the reason that Pearl Harbor was such a surprise, and many more. In 2002-3 we had a long and heated discussion about the forthcoming war in Iraq. We were also joined, from time to time, by non-historians who brought something different to the discussions. The prominent neocon David Horowitz posted for an extended period. The convicted spy Morton Sobell appeared briefly at one point to proclaim his innocence—a position he has now recanted. Most importantly of all, perhaps, the historians and political scientists who posted regularly did not feel bound to confine their comments to their research specialties. We had been taught that historians have opinions on every major question, and we expressed them. Of the historians who made the list go in those days, only two seem to be left: Ed Moise and myself. And we appear much less frequently than we did then.
Later in the 1990s, if I am not mistaken, H-Diplo became the site of a series of very heated discussions about postmodernism, whose value I and some others sharply questioned. It was now clear that history was at a serious turning point indeed. I had been taught that historians used the fullest possible documentary record to make the best judgments they could about what actually happened. Now a new view was taking hold: that arguments about knowledge, as Joan Scott put it in a celebrated article, were about the interests of groups, not the opinions of individuals, and that everyone was free to reshape the past based in large part on identity politics. The arguments over this position raged for several years and I think they were intellectually productive. They have however now died down, as a younger generation that grew up with postmodernism has come to the fore.
Indeed, it seems that H-Diplo is no longer a discussion forum—it is an online journal. I do not in the least mean to slight the work of the moderators who have done a thankless job very well for all these years. The trouble is with the posters, not the moderators. A new view of history has triumphed, one which indeed denies the existence of any single truth. (I am not suggesting that truth is ever easy to find, but I do believe it exists and is well worth looking for.) Everyone, it seems, is entitled to his or her own small plot of intellectual land, within which he or she can develop a particular variety of history. A general non-aggression pact among the practitioners prevails. The idea that certain books are superior in research, argument, or scholarship to others has become most unfashionable. Dissent from these views has not in fact died out, but it has shrunk to the point that it can safely be ignored. I recall that sometime in the 1990s I tried to start a thread entitled, “What Makes a Great Historian?” I put forward some ideas of my own, but that post never drew a single reply of any kind. That question, however, has continued to interest me deeply, and that is probably the reason why I am now well into my seventh book, each of them on a very different topic from all the rest. It has occurred to me, by the way, that several of my favorite historians, including Henry Adams, W. E. B. Dubois, Charles A. Beard, and Luigi Albertini, had either a fleeting involvement in the academy or none at all. Perhaps there is a lesson there too.
The last time that I made a post questioning the conclusions of a book that had been the subject of a roundtable, I received six emails within 24 hours thanking me for what I had said. I asked each correspondent to think about posting their views on the list. Not one of them did. That is another feature of the current historical profession: historians (and political scientists) are afraid to take a stand. Having grown up with the idea that history is controversy, I am very sad about that. More recently, in a perfectly friendly spirit, I raised a serious question of fact arising from another roundtable. No one responded publicly or privately to that one. I am quite certain they would have 15 years ago.
I would like to close with two broader comments. First of all, it is a paradox that serious archival work involving exhaustive research has fallen out of fashion at a moment when the opportunities to do it are exploding. The digitization of history is a godsend to historians. The Proquest historical newspaper data base, for instance, could allow historians to write political history of a kind that would have been impossible in earlier ages. Other aspects of computer technology, particularly the excel spreadsheet, have enabled me, in my last project and in my current one, to collect, store, and organize data on a hitherto undreamed-of scale. I regret that I have had no opportunity to pass these new techniques on to younger generations of historians. On several occasions I asked friends in history departments if I might give a presentation about them, but that never happened.
My second point involves the relationship of the historical profession to politics. It is commonly asserted that left wing politics dominate the academy and the historical profession, and in a sense that is surely true. Yet I am convinced, as a lifelong student of American politics, that the changes in the academy have benefited the political right far more than the political left. Because the historical profession is no longer interested in the doings of the rich and powerful, but only in the lives of the marginalized, universities have turned out a generation of undergraduates lacking the intellectual tools to understand the world around them. One cannot understand the great crisis the United States and the world are now passing through without detailed knowledge of the American Civil War, or the Depression and the Second World War, but such knowledge is increasingly unavailable on college campuses. And because we do not understand those crises, we have been, to date, almost completely unable to cope with this one in a useful manner. The right has never lost interest in American politics and in how things actually work—and it shows.
H-Diplo probably made me better known within the historical profession than anything I have written. (My books made me better known outside it, of course.) I made more than a few friends here, and I know that many people found things I said useful and encouraging. (I would warn them against believing, however, that ideas like mine have any place in contemporary history departments.) I am continuing to write the kind of history I believe in and I am sure that I will do so for a long time to come. I also have an additional year of teaching at an excellent liberal arts college, where I know from recent experience that the students want what I have to offer, to look forward to. After that, however, my professional career—not my writing career-- will come to an end. I shall try to keep the best historical traditions alive, and I am very satisfied with what I will have left behind.
This will be my last post on H-Diplo.