Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Last week, HNN ran a somewhat critical piece by John Elrick on Colonel H.R. McMaster and Frederick Kagan entitled "The Two Historians Who Are Playing a Key Role in "The Surge". The primary hook for HNN's readers was the aspect of two historians (albeit one a serving military officer) playing an influential role in developing administration policy:

"Like Kagan, H.R. McMaster holds a PhD in military history, earning his from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Col. McMaster was commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in northwestern Iraq from 2005-2006 and is currently an advisor to the head of US forces, General David Petraeus. McMaster belongs to a group of "warrior intellectuals" who, according to Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, "make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq."

McMaster authored the highly acclaimed book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, which charges that President Johnson misled the country into war and pressured the nation's military leaders to lie about. The book is highly influential among current military officers and is required reading at West Point.

Both Kagan and McMaster have taught history at West Point. The former was a Professor at the US Military Academy from 1995 to 2005, while the latter taught there from 1994 to 1996."

Traditionally, relatively few historians have been deeply engaged in shaping current policy or political affairs. Bernard Lewis, the eminent Mideast scholar, is frequently cited as having been a deep influence on the Bush administration policy makers who favored the invasion of Iraq. Sean Wilentz was a vigorous defender of President Clinton during impeachment hearings and leading historians like Richard Pipes have sometimes quietly served tours of duty on the staff of the National Security Council. Few have ever gone so far as did the recently deceased Arthur Schlesinger, jr. and become members of a President's White House inner circle. Most historians though, keep their distance from current policy.

The acclaimed scientist, environmentalist and futurist Stewart Brand, whose ideas presaged the internet-based information revolution has called on historians to practice "Applied History"

"All historians understand that they must never, ever talk about the future. Their discipline requires that they deal in facts, and the future doesn't have any yet. A solid theory of history might be able to embrace the future, but all such theories have been discredited. Thus historians do not offer, and are seldom invited, to take part in shaping public policy. They leave that to economists.

But discussions among policy makers always invoke history anyway, usually in simplistic form. "Munich" and "Vietnam," devoid of detail or nuance, stand for certain kinds of failure. "Marshall Plan" and "Man on the Moon" stand for certain kinds of success. Such totemic invocation of history is the opposite of learning from history, and Santayana's warning continues in force, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

A dangerous thought: What if public policy makers have an obligation to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to try to help?

And instead of just retailing advice, go generic. Historians could set about developing a rigorous sub-discipline called "Applied History."

There is only one significant book on the subject, published in 1988. Thinking In Time: The Uses of Hustory for Decision Makers was written by the late Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, who long taught a course on the subject at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. (A course called "Reasoning from History" is currently taught there by Alexander Keyssar.)

Done wrong, Applied History could paralyze public decision making and corrupt the practice of history — that's the danger. But done right, Applied History could make decision making and policy far more sophisticated and adaptive, and it could invest the study of history with the level of consequence it deserves."

Brand has a solid point. Historians have a useful skill-set to offer policy makers. As a discipline, history requires the cultivation of a very large cognitive map that serves both as a knowledge base as well as a starting point for recognizing patterns and analogies. Historians spend much time assessing the validity and reliability of data and discerning cause and effect. Like scientists ( perhaps the only time when historians are like scientists), historians attempt to isolate causation from mere correlation. When policy makers have to deal with uncertainty, historians can reduce that uncertainty at the margins by providing the context in which to make logical extrapolations or to apply the specfic skills of psychologists, economists, game theorists or other specialized analysts.

Historians, of course, are just as liable to bias as anyone else, so no pretensions to omniscience should be aired. However, all things being equal, historians at least can provide a better-informed bias than if their contribution were absent from the policy process.

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I respectfully challenge your closing assertion regarding "bias". I submit that true historians (in the Brand model of "Applied Historians") practice the scientific method of rigorous analysis based on observed phenomena. As a scientist (at least by education and the first half of my career), I was taught to challenge my own presumptions and attempt to prove myself wrong. Anyone serious about critical inquiry will attempt the same.

Policymaking, on the other hand, is not about asserting truths -- it is about influencing action. Therefore it is an inherently social and, dare I say, "complex" phenomenon that defies linear, reductionist logic. So it is perfectly understandable (even acceptable) for the policymaker to "cherry pick" conclusions that support their objectives (e.g., yellow cake from Nigeria; hostile naval action in the Gulf of Tonkin; the fictitious "Tenth Army" in WW II). This is why I believe so few historians are apt to get involved with policymaking.

Of course, perhaps the most mis-cited reference to history in warfare is how leaders tend to study "the last war". This is not a problem at all -- in fact, I think it is essential to improved performance in future battles. The trap many fall into, however, is only studying what they LIKE about the last war. The perceived success of our air campaign in the Balkans during ALLIED FORCE, for instance, led our leadership at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9 to focus on a purely technocratic, stand-off approach to warfighting that has proven wholly inadequate in 4GW/5GW 21st century warfare.

sf/ shane
Hi Shane,

I think you have correctly put your finger on a reason why historians shy away from developing policy. I also agree with you on the J9/JCS apparat favoring of (politically) "clean" surgical air campaigns over ground warfare. Unfortunately, every war ain't a nail for that hammer.

Further thoughts:

" I submit that true historians (in the Brand model of "Applied Historians") practice the scientific method of rigorous analysis based on observed phenomena"

The operative word here would appear to be "true". :O)

" Anyone serious about critical inquiry will attempt the same"

Very much agreed.

I warmly welcome the high regard in which you hold historians. Some do live up to that high standard but I fear that others are not quite so dedicated to Rankean empiricism these days.

Although, properly done, history is more "scientific" in the sense of being falsifiable than is, say, political science, history strikes me as being closer to a craft. At least when evidentiary research is finished (it's never "complete") and constructing a narrative begins.

Inevitably, in the aspect of " telling it like it happened", gaps in the historical record are filled by interpretation and logical speculation by the historian. Particularly in subfields like ancient history where primary sources can be thin.

Speculation is great. Speculation is creatively generative. Speculation is often where the scientist first begins but it is also where the historian, at least in a few parts of a well-constructed history, must often end.

And that's an important difference. Also the reason why historians would be more useful than they collectively realize in shaping policy.
Mark - great post. I'd track back to you but you don't have TB's. You inspired this.

"observations are equally valid on a smaller scale: helping executives set strategy and (in some cases) deliberately shape the future of their industry.

Often, I've found, the skill-sets and 'cognitive maps' needed to recognize strategic patterns, develop appropriate analogies (flawed ones are relatively easy to churn out!), and provide a rich, shared context for uncertain decisions don't have a natural home inside most large organizations..."
Hi, Mark,

Many thanks for posting this interesting essay on a subject that deserves more attention than it usually receives among academic historians.

There are, of course, federal historians (of which I am one) who work in civil service positions (the so-called GS 170 series). There are others who work as archivists or in other history related job classifications. (When I worked as an employee of the National Archives, screening Richard Nixon's tapes to see what could be released, most of my colleagues had graduate degrees in history.)

Since your posting centers on applied history and policy, you might find interesting this article by Victoria Harden, "What Do Federal Historians Do?"



At the time her article appeared in Perspectives in 1999, Dr. Harden was President of the Society for History in the Federal Government
( http://www.shfg.org )

Her article is worth reading in its entirety but you might find the section on the mission-based rationale for employing historians of particular interest.

I also recommend:

1. Richard G. Hewlett, “Government History: Writing from the Inside,” in Frank C. Evans and Harold T. Pinkett, eds., Research in the Administration of Public Policy (Washington: Howard University Press, 1975);

2. Roger R. Trask, “Small Federal History Offices in the Nation’s Capital,” The Public Historian (Winter 1991);

3. George T. Mazuzan, “Official Government Historians and Standards for Scholarship," in Government Publications Review 15 (1988);

4. Roger R. Trask, "Starting Two Federal History Programs: Experiences and Lessons," in The Public Historian, Vol. 21, No. 3, (Summer, 1999),

5. The Society for History in the Federal Government, "Federal History Programs: A Guide for Heads of Government Agencies" (1987).

These touch on the writing of policy papers for decision makers as well as on the writing of retrospective narratives.

Best regards,

Maarja Krusten
A quick search suggests that there are no links, unfortunately, for most of the older articles I cited above. They should be available through JSTOR. You might want to look also at the Principles and Standards for Federal History Programs at
(these generally are useful to consider. Section E deals with advising policy makers).

Two quotes for you:

On the broad question of understanding and applying history:

In “America’s Children Are Flunking History,” Robert C. Byrd wrote in 1998 that "Cicero, a great Roman Senator, said: 'To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born, is to remain always a child.' Recent studies suggest that we are failing in our efforts to teach our children history. If so, we may soon hand over the reins of leadership to a generation that is ill prepared to steer the nation to continued success.”

On history within the federal government:

In Federal History Programs: A Guide for Heads of Government Agencies, Roger Trask wrote in 1987 that “government decision makers unacquainted with the history of their organizations are comparable to amnesia victims who lack memory of people, places and events. Often the hazy institutional memories of these officials affect perceptions of the character and mission of their organizations and the past patterns of agency decisions.”

Some lengthier observations on a Saturday morning as I have more time than I did before dashing off to work on Friday.

What you and Brand discuss is an area which can require a lot of groundwork. And it can require different skill sets than those that lead to success in a campus environment. That is because, as Richard G. Hewlett has noted, "If the top officials in the agency need to be educated about the value and purposes of history, the historian should begin the education process before he starts to write.”

Federal historians have somewhat different job requirements than academic historians. As Roger Trask pointed out in his article on small history offices in the government, some work in one or two person offices and act as lone missionaries, in an organization employing thousands of people, for the history function. (I started out in my agency in a three person office in 1990, but due to budget cutbacks, have been the sole, GS-14 civil service grade, historian in my office since 1995.)

As do academic historians, federal historians need to excel at creating factual narratives and applying critical analysis. But we can only succeed in our jobs if we communicate effectively both orally and in writing. We also must take into account how others perceive us. (I don't mean in the conclusions reached in our research, but rather in dealing with people on a day to day basis.) We have to think strategically and tactically. As Dr. Harden and others have pointed out, we have to build trust and maintain credibility with peers but also with people skilled in disciplines different from ours. (George Mazuzan was the historian for the National Science Foundation, for example.)

Judging by what I've seen in H-net forums and selected blogs, I believe these are areas where some academic historians show weakness. Consequently, they might struggle when dealing with policy makers. Some historians write well for the public at large in the forums I just mentioned, others appear to be pitching their work only to fellow academics. Insularity also shows in other areas. It is easy to pick out people in Internet forums for whom considering the mindsets or perspectives of people outside their discipline never has been part of their job. For some, such skills may have weakened through disuse. They would have to strengthen those skills in order to communicate effectively with policy makers.

In 1988, David Trask (formerly an historian at the Department of State) wrote a thoughtful examination of federal history programs, "Does Official History Have a Future?" He explained how easy it is to misunderstand the very term "official history," which can carry with it "the lingering suspicion that federal history, especially that produced by the historians who labor for the national security agencies, is doctored history intended to justify a given version of events acceptable to those in power rather than the considered professional judgment of untrammeled scholars." While acknowledging that "it can be difficult and even dangerous to press such matters very much," he urged federal historians to "undertake tactful but extensive efforts to educate their agencies to the appropriate use of official history."

Some academic historians question the very idea of becoming a government historian. Dr Hewlett noted that they ask: “How can one trust the faceless bureaucracy? How can a historian on a government payroll maintain his independence?” [For some academics] a common way of speaking about government employment is ‘selling one’s soul to the devil.’” However, Dr. Hewlett believed “we need more historians who are willing to commit themselves to a career or at least to a period of several years as government historians." However, it is important to note that he was writing at a time when budgets, at least for civil agencies, were larger than they are now.

The growth of government history programs began during World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for an “accurate and objective account of the war.” Although the military departments began this compilation, after the war, many civil agencies also established formal history programs or offices. The largest single employer of historians in the government is the Department of Defense. In 1986, GAO found that the Department of Defense (DOD) employed 371 military personnel and 25 civilians in its historian programs.

When Roger Trask surveyed federal history programs in 1991, he found that the SHFG’s Directory of Federal Historical Programs and Activities listed more than 150 government history programs.
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