THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN HISTORY OVER AT THE AMERICAN FUTURE
Marc Shulman has a couple of interesting posts up; the first on how professional historians rate George W. Bush
and another from Oxblog on a realist critique of an American president
. I won't spoil the second post by naming the critiquer but he was in my view not a realist but one of the biggest fools who ever posed as an American statesman. Had his views prevailed in foreign policy the world might have become a very grim place.
For those interested in the first topic, HNN has had a similar discussion recently where their survey revealed 81 % of professional historians rated George W. Bush a "failure "
- thus demonstrating once again the political gulf between a radical left to liberal academic world and the rest of America is substantial.
In the old days - roughly my grandfather's time - the unwritten rule for historical writing was not to tackle subjects any closer to the historian than approximately before the French Revolution. This rule began to break down during WWII when Pieter Geyl wrote his seminal Napoleon, For and Against
while living in Nazi occupied Holland, which drew daringly obvious parallels to current events. After the war, journalist William Shirer shattered all historical shibboleths in 1960 by publishing his monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
. Shirer's book suffered the flaws expected from an author with too much proximity to his subject both in terms of experience ( he covered Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler as a reporter) and time but in doing so he launched a vast field of research for historians and political scientists alike.
Today, historians comment openly and frequently on current events - I'm a prime example having been trained as an academic historian though that's not my occupation - overall I think this is a good thing because historians bring both an unusual body of context knowledge to the table as well as ( hopefully) rigorous analytical methodology. I have a number of historians like Judith Klinghoffer
, Juan Cole
and the Cliopatriarchs
and cognate scholars like Milt Rosenberg
, Thomas Barnett
and The Volokh Conspiracy
on my blogroll for this very reason - their professional insight that journalists and pundits typically lack.
That being said, academics make a terrible misjudgement by misrepresenting their instant analysis of contemporary events on their blogs or in op-ed pieces as sound scholarship, particularly historical scholarship. It isn't. It's informed, expert opinion and interesting to be sure, compared to lightweight ruminating by airhead anchors in the MSM but the methodology, documents and peer review simply are not there. The official declassified state papers for American foreign policy - The Foreign Relations of the United States
series- is only just now opening up the Nixon-Ford years to scrutiny. There is much left for this period in the National Archives, at the CIA, at Defense and at presidential libraries to be declassified - to say nothing of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations.
There are a lot of assumptions about modern presidencies culled from memoirs, interviews, leaks and flat-out urban legends that have grown through repetition into conventional wisdom. Some of it is pure nonsense that will eventually be brutally debunked - like Eisenhower's former image as a genial, out-of-touch, caretaker that concealed the reality of a ruthless and determined Chief executive, deeply influenced by his WWII supreme command experience, who kept an ironfisted control over foreign affairs and intelligence policy.
Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton will look different to our children than to us. So will George W. Bush. Their view will likely be much closer to the truth than our own.