Monday, May 22, 2017

Correcting The Histories

     Who controls the past controls the future.
     Who controls the present controls the past.

     [George Orwell, 1984]

     History is generally taken to mean a record of past events. More often than not in our time, this is not the case.

     Most people, given a moment to reflect on the matter, would easily reach the “trivial solution:” i.e., that the historian is virtually never someone who was personally present at the events he purports to chronicle. He almost always works from other people’s reportage – hopefully, “primary sources” and tangible objective evidence they’ve amassed – and from histories written by other historians. In the latter case, the historian may inadvertently make an easily understood assumption: that his earlier colleagues relied upon tangible evidence that was real and primary sources that were trustworthy. It’s a natural form of “professional courtesy,” and one which persons in all walks of life would be likely to feel.

     However, as you may already have realized, there’s another facet to the story. It inheres in a simple yet seldom asked question: Why is the historian writing this history?

     In earlier times, the correct answer would normally be to create a record for posterity. Over the century immediately behind us, it would more often be to impose his preferred causal model on particular events. I submit that our ability to perceive this is a great part of our contemporary dissatisfaction with history.


     Historians who delve into the distant past have a certain advantage over those who treat with more recent events. As recently as seven centuries ago, the state as we know it was still either nonexistent pitifully weak. Barbara Tuchman made note of this in A Distant Mirror, her engaging and illuminating treatment of Europe in the Fourteenth Century. One consequence is that the historian’s focus must be on far smaller aggregates of persons and regions of territory. Those histories tend to be more intimate with the lives and doings of ordinary men than are histories of more recent times, especially histories of post-Westphalian Europe.

     When the state is weak, the individual is strong; when the state grows strong, it’s necessarily at the expense of individuals and their voluntary organizations and arrangements. Isaac Asimov mentioned this in Foundation and Empire. His fictional Galactic Emperor Cleon II was considered “the last of the strong emperors” specifically because he permitted no great strength to individuals, especially among those who served him.

     Strong states give rise to explicitly political histories. This too is inevitable, as strength correlates with the ability to steer events. A strong state may be under the hand of a strong individual, as is the case in a dictatorship, or a small oligarchy such as the inner circle that ruled the late, unlamented Soviet Union, but what matters to historical treatments thereof is the strength of the state itself: whether it can impose its will on its subjects and bend the policies of other states to its liking.

     At this point the political preferences of the historian become a major factor in how he’ll treat with developments.


     Many an important historical question is asked without the explicit inclusion of important qualifications and conditions. Consider as an example this article cited by Ed Driscoll. Please read it all before proceeding here.

     With regard to the importance of whether the Vietnam War was “winnable,” note the following:

     “The administration made a deliberate decision not to create a war psychology in the United States,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked that October, because it was “too dangerous for this country to get worked up.” Johnson, Rusk and other officials had feared that war fever would undermine the domestic programs of the Great Society and heighten tensions with the Soviets. But now, Rusk conceded, “maybe this was a mistake; maybe it would have been better to take steps to build up a sense of a nation at war.”

     As a condition for the prosecution of a war, the national temperament can be important. Indeed, sometimes it’s critical. Add to that the decisions by the administration to refrain from the use of available weapons and to impose unrealistic rules of engagement upon its forces. But the headline of the article:

Was Vietnam Winnable?

     ... understandably doesn’t include that consideration. In raising it, the writer should cause the reader to realize that the real question was:

Was Vietnam Winnable Given The Constraints The Johnson Administration Put On Its War Effort?

     That’s a much different question, which historians tend to answer according to their political preferences.

     Viewed outside all constraints, the answer is “Of course it was winnable.” The United States in the 1960s was the most powerful nation the world had ever seen, capable of annihilating every other nation on Earth without sustaining one percent of the damage it could inflict. The U.S. could have reduced North Vietnam to smoking rubble. Indeed, it could have done so with effectively no loss of life. But the Johnson Administration didn’t want that sort of outcome.

     By suppressing any discussion of the constraints, the “dovish” historian can make the Vietnam War appear unwinnable. By dismissing the constraints or downplaying their importance, the “hawkish” historian can make the Vietnam War appear to be a pure botch, a comedy of errors by inept politicians and commanders more concerned with their images and postwar career prospects than with victory. Both positions are open to serious dispute.


     A political history whose causal model prevails, especially if it prevails among decision makers, will often shape subsequent developments with an astounding force. “Dovish” historians of the Vietnam War exerted a profound influence on the foreign policies of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations. “Hawkish” historians of Operation Desert Storm exerted an opposite though less powerful influence on the Bush II Administration. Yet it is typical for those historians – indeed, for all who discuss the relevant conflicts – to emphasize or deemphasize important constraints on those wars in a tendentious, politically oriented fashion.

     As ideologies, rise, wax, wane, and fall in popularity, especially among political elites, histories tend to be “corrected” as to the causes of political developments. No history of any period can be so inclusive as to address even the most minor of surrounding conditions and the smallest pockets of sentiment. But even here there’s a lot of leeway for tendentiousness. Who decides what’s important enough to include and evaluate? Why, the historian, of course...with the “assistance,” be it noted, of those who pay for his coffee and cakes while he works.

     Standing above all other considerations is the state itself, which is stronger than ever before, and not just in military might. Today, the majority of the funding for all scholarly studies comes from the federal treasury. It follows that those who control the flow of funds can decree the direction of those studies. As important as that is to the hard sciences and the way the public can be led to regard them, it’s critically determinative for histories written by contemporary historians.


     As our era’s knowledge aggregate transitions away from physical objects with material persistence and toward mutable, erasable electronic records, we face a danger unprecedented in human history: the loss of earlier records of events and viewpoints on them. Of course those records could be mistaken. Of course the causal models favored by earlier historians could be erroneous. That doesn’t matter. All such records are important elements of Man’s historical memory and perspective. They illustrate how easily a writer with an axe to grind can impose his own notions upon the genesis and consequences of a major event. By their diversity they speak of the effects of focus, viewpoint, and historians’ human orneriness. They remind us that the frame is just as important as the photograph – indeed, that the photograph is determined by the choice of frame.

     There will come a time when human lives will depend upon our ability to remember that Oceania hasn’t always been at war with Eastasia...that Oceania was once at war with no one at all.

     Food for thought.

1 comment:



  1. Fran, do see Jerry Pournelle's POV on us winning Vietnam. It was telling, and several Vietnam vets concur (I missed out on those actions, I did not go active duty until '75 and got shipped to Germany). It seems that the facts Dr Jerry lay out for us did not fit the MSM paradigm of the late '60s - Cronkite, et al - and with the complicity of congress backing out on fully funding the South Vietnamese, it became historically a loss.

    This is one of those many 21st century occurrences where my dear departed Old Man's line matters. He'd say (for this and others) "Who do you kill?" Yeah. A bit late on this one.

    Bill Cthulhu

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