This presidential address to the American Historical Association was delivered in Chicago on December 28, 1991. American Historical Review 97, no. 1 (February 1992): 1–18.

The Historian and the Public Realm

Over the past century, no question has more polarized our profession than the dispute over what is the appropriate relationship of history to the public realm. Generation after generation, a substantial corps of scholars has insisted that historians should concentrate on contributing to the solution of contemporary problems. Indeed, the conviction that history should cater to the present goes back to the earliest days of this association, when it was voiced by the very first presidents of the AHA, including Andrew Dickson White and Charles Kendall Adams. A generation later, one of C. Vann Woodward’s patrons declared, “If Dr. Johnson were alive today, he would say it was [pure] research which is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” On the other hand, more than half a century ago Robert Livingston Schuyler celebrated “the usefulness of useless history,” and more recently Theodore S. Hamerow, confronted by “that troublesome question with which historians are constantly assailed: ‘What is the use of history?’” replied, “The answer is that history is of no use; it simply is.” On only one point have the two sides agreed—that their positions are irreconcilable.1

The belief that history should address the urgencies of the day has taken two forms, the first of which is the claim that current needs should be privileged in the writing of history. That notion found classic expression in 1907 when James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard boasted that they had “consistently subordinated the past to the present” in keeping with their “ever-conscious aim to enable the reader to catch up with his own times; to read intelligently the foreign news in the morning paper; to know what was the attitude of Leo XIII toward the social democrats even if he has forgotten that of Innocent III toward the Albigenses.”2

The emphasis on applicable history has also taken a second form: advocacy of direct attempts by historians to shape public policy. When Herbert Baxter Adams secured for the American Historical Association the unusual recognition from Congress of a federal charter, he anticipated, in John Higham’s words, that he had “opened a channel through which the aristocracy of culture might, in historical matters, exert a vigorous, uplifting influence on national politics.” In the Progressive Era, that archetypal figure, Charles A. Beard, who had worked at Hull House when he was a college student and had helped establish a working-man’s college at Oxford in his graduate student days, continued, while professor at Columbia, to participate in the activities of civic reform groups such as the National Municipal League and campaigned for a Socialist congressman. Subsequently, he served as an adviser to governments in the Balkans and in Japan. By the time the United States intervened in World War I, it seemed altogether natural for John Franklin Jameson to organize a National Board for Historical Research, put together lectures on history for delivery at army training camps, and place the American Historical Review in the service of the government by seeking articles establishing German war guilt.3

World War II opened further opportunities for historians. Even before Pearl Harbor, the federal government created a board to analyze foreign intelligence under the diplomatic historian, James Phinney Baxter III, president of Williams College, and Baxter, in turn, appointed the Harvard historian, William L. Langer, to direct research. Out of those beginnings came a new agency, the Office of Strategic Services, with Langer as chief of Research and Analysis, an endeavor that involved some of the most prominent senior historians in the country, including Hajo Halborn and my former teacher, Franz Neumann, as well as a brilliant galaxy of younger men including Franklin Ford, H. Stuart Hughes, Carl Schorske, and Robert Wolff.4

When, less than a decade later, the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education was being considered by the Supreme Court, the Justices, John Hope Franklin has recalled, raised a number of “searching and quite difficult questions [that] sent legal counsel scurrying not to the history books but to the historians!” In numerous papers prepared for the attorneys, in seminars and conferences conducted for the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and in more informal ways, Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, and other historians made it possible for counsel for black pupils to parry the argument that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend it to empower the national government to desegregate schools. Although the court’s decision in Brown could not be shown to have turned on the evidence adduced by the historians, it could be said, as Franklin observes, that historians “had answered the call to participate in an important public policy issue; and it would seem that their participation had been effective.”5

In the nearly four decades since Franklin and his associates helped to bring about the demise of Jim Crow, historians have made their mark in the public realm in countless ways. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., served under President Kennedy and Eric Goldman in the Johnson White House. During the Vietnam War, petitions published in the New York Times in 1967 with the message “Mr. President: Stop the Bombing!” bore the signatures of 184 historians. Robert Kelley, J. Morgan Kousser, Peyton McCrary, Allan Lichtman, and several others have been employed as expert witnesses in litigation ranging from environmental policy to voting rights, and historians recently assisted in the brief of a significant abortion suit, William L. Webster, et al. vs. Reproductive Health Services, et al. After the Supreme Court in a 1980 ruling announced that it required historical evidence of discriminatory intent in voting rights cases, the Justice Department, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other plaintiffs “had little choice,” as Kousser noted, “but to call in the historians.” In fact, it has been said that “some cases have been decided primarily because the courts have placed credence in testimony by historians.”6

The past generation has seen, too, the burgeoning field of public history come into its own. Large numbers of historians have found jobs in government agencies, national and local, as well as in the private sector, and the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Federal Judicial Center have set up historical offices that have proven to be of inestimable value both to those institutions and to historians. With startling swiftness, the field grew large enough to make possible the birth of a National Council on Public History, two new professional journals, and, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, an undergraduate major in the history of public policy. Implicit in these developments has been an assumption about what role the historical guild should perform. Peter N. Stearns and Joel A. Tarr, directors of a program in “applied history” at Carnegie-Mellon University, have lauded historians who, by “applying historical thinking to the making of public policy,” thereby “depart from the discipline’s narcissism.”7

Vigorous though these manifestations of public activity have been, they have run up against a considerably stronger contrary emphasis, given its most unequivocal expression by Julien Benda. In his widely noted 1927 volume, La trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals), Benda deplored “contempt for the man who shuts himself up with art or science and takes no interest in the passions of the State.” The modern intellectual, he complained, was “violently on the side of Michelangelo crying shame upon Leonardo da Vinci for his indifference to the misfortunes of Florence, and against the master of the Last Supper when he replied that indeed the study of beauty occupied his whole heart.” Benda applauded the example of Goethe, who said, “Let us leave politics to diplomats and the soldiers,” and who in Dichtung und Wahrheit reported his response and that of his friends to the French Revolution: “In our circle, we took no notice of news and newspapers; our object was to know Man; as for men, we left them to do as they chose.” Benda demonstrated that he took that counsel literally when in 1941, at a time when Nazi troops were occupying France, he wrote André Gide, “L’inactuel, mon vrai domaine.” As the German scholar Wolf Lepenies has commented, “For Benda, avoiding being up to date was, for the intellectual, an important virtue which had almost been destroyed by the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath. The treason of the intellectuals consisted mainly in their attempt to enter politics and thereby exert an influence on the issues of the day.”8

Although few would go as far as Benda, many historians share his discomfort with the effort to be timely. In postwar America, the progressive school of history associated with Charles Beard fell out of favor, and, as John Higham remarked, “the label present-minded now loomed up as an epithet.” Oscar Handlin warned against promising that history “would equip citizens with the nostrums to dissolve current and future problems,” for “other, more flexible departments of knowledge could always outbid it in a marketplace geared to relevance.” Handlin extolled instead the example of “clerks in the Dark Ages who … by retiring from an alien world to a hidden monastic refuge” managed to “maintain a true record … [that] informed the future of what had transpired in their day.”9

Historians surveying the state of the discipline have reported pervasive sentiment for disengagement. In 1964, J. H. Plumb observed that “fewer and fewer historians believe that their art has any social purpose; any function as a coordinator of human endeavour or human thought.” Considerably more emphatic was Theodore Hamerow. In a book published just four years ago, he found “growing recognition that scholarship can offer no guarantees for the solution of social problems,” and that “we have had to recognize that history in this sense is ‘irrelevant.’” He wrote of historians today:

Now, after all the bold ventures and exciting experiments in historical investigation of the last generation, they are less certain than ever of the importance of history for the education of the citizen, the conduct of the government, or the guidance of the community. These doubts are so profound and persistent as to suggest a grave crisis, the gravest perhaps since the emergence of history as an organized profession about a hundred years ago.10

When I contemplate this predication of “crisis,” I do so, inevitably, from the perspective of a historian who has been engrossed in the public realm for fully half a century. So compelling did political concerns seem to me when I was young that for a time I abandoned graduate studies to pursue them. In the years I was in and out of graduate school, I served as Queens County Director, then State Youth Director, of the Liberal Party; as Assistant Editor of publications of the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, designed to provide material on foreign affairs to the labor press; as New England Field Representative for a civil rights lobby, the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission headed by A. Philip Randolph; as upstate New York petition canvasser for Governor Herbert Lehman and Senator James Mead; as National Executive Secretary of Students for Democratic Action; and as Rocky Mountain organizer for Americans for Democratic Action. Subsequently, I became ADA’s representative on the staff of Richard Bolling in Kansas City in his first campaign for Congress in 1948 and then State Director of its Massachusetts chapter, where I also functioned as speech writer for the governor, testified before legislative panels, chaired the United Labor Committee, and organized Boston’s first citywide committee against racial discrimination.

When I drifted back into the Ph.D. program at Columbia, I did so on the understanding that I could write a dissertation that was congruent with my political interests, and when, simultaneously, I moved from my ADA office on Beacon Street to a teaching job in Northampton, it was not in history but in political science. While teaching at Smith, I spent summers on the staff of a CIO union giving courses in current affairs and political action to factory workers, and was appointed campaign manager for a union leader in Holyoke who was Democratic nominee for Congress. (I might add that so sharply honed were my political skills by then that Anna Sullivan became the worst defeated candidate in the history of western Massachusetts.)

My teaching and writing have dovetailed with my political interests. At Harvard, where I held my first college teaching job in history, I invented a course called “The Progressive Tradition in American Politics,” and I have written almost exclusively in the field of recent American history so that I could keep one foot in the present, where I continued to be politically active. In the process of moving from Harvard to Columbia in the summer of 1952, I took a post as Western Field Representative for a presidential candidate in Utah and Wyoming, and at the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago worked, along with the pollster Louis Harris, as “delegate analyst” in charge of estimating how each state would vote on the first and succeeding ballots. Shortly after arriving at Columbia, I was elected Democratic county committeeman in Westchester County, and I consumed my first sabbatical as New York State chairman of Americans for Democratic Action.

I can only suggest the range of public activities in which I have been engaged since that time. I spent several November nights writing presidential election analysis for NBC, first for Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, then for John Chancellor; took part with other historians on the final day of the Montgomery march with Martin Luther King; sued Richard Nixon to deny him the right to destroy the Watergate tapes, and, again in league with other scholars and journalists, sued Henry Kissinger to prevent him from sequestering his transcripts of official telephone conversations; commuted to Washington for two years as the AHA’s representative on the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials chaired by the former Attorney General of the United States, Herbert Brownell; gave a featured talk to the Democratic Leadership Council on the vitality of liberalism (a message I very much doubt they wanted to hear); testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court; served on an Advisory Committee on Oral History headed by Robert F. Kennedy; participated in any number of secondary school programs and on the Bradley Commission on History in Schools as well as its successor, the National Council for History Education; honored the memory of Eleanor Roosevelt at ceremonies at Vassar College and elsewhere; entered into a discussion on whether the presidency was in crisis with Jimmy Carter at the Wilson Center; gave literally thousands of newspaper interviews—for example, to the Baltimore Sun about Reagan’s place in history; to the Detroit Free Press on morality and politics; and to the Wall Street Journal on the relation of private behavior to public performance in the White House; was consultant for a good number of documentary films, including The Civil War; spoke in the French Senate at the centennial of France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty; joined with William Chafe, John Hope Franklin, and Anne Firor Scott in raising many thousands of dollars from historians for Harvey Gantt’s campaign to unseat Jesse Helms; was heard on scores of radio programs in cities in this country such as Charleston and Cincinnati and abroad in cities from Vancouver to Melbourne; appeared on a great many television programs including CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, ABC Nightline, an NBC special, Walter Cronkite’s CBS Reports, BBC, and Norwegian Television; worked with Bill Moyers as a member of the CBS team covering the 1985 inauguration and with Paul Duke of Washington Week in Review on the PBS team covering the 1989 inauguration; and reminded members of Congress at the home of my former student, Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, of the shameful failure of the American government headed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide a haven for European Jews, millions of whom would be murdered by the Hitler government in the Holocaust.11

In the past months alone, I talked to a gathering of United States Senators, was interviewed by the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Atlanta Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, the Kansas City Star, the Washington Post, and USA Today, spoke on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, was consulted by one of Mario Cuomo’s advisers on how FDR managed to run for president while in the midst of a budget crisis in Albany, sent memos to Ken Burns for his forthcoming documentary film on the history of baseball, published an article in the popular history journal, American Heritage, consented to serve on a National Coordinating Council on setting standards for the teaching of history K through 12, and promised to give the keynote address at the next annual conference of the National Council on Public History.12

How then does someone with this background respond to the assertion that writing history is justifiable wholly apart from any utility to the public realm? I unequivocally agree. When Professor Hamerow states that “the importance of history is essentially intrinsic; it lies in the interest in the past which human beings instinctively feel as part of their humanity,” and that “the life of the community cannot continue without it,” I readily concur. For millennia, people have found history indispensable to comprehending who they are, and I anticipate that they always will. “A people without history,” say the Lakota tribe, “is like wind upon the buffalo grass.” Moreover, insofar as history is an art form, which the best historical writing surely is, it no more needs justification by good works than does a sonnet or a sonata.13

Those who insist that history is worthwhile only when it offers solutions to current problems reveal a hostility to the very nature of the historical enterprise. In the famous passage obliterating the Albigenses in the Robinson and Beard book, the fundamental objection was, as the philosopher Morton White has pointed out, that “the medievalist was interested in explaining medieval events when he should have been trying to illuminate modern events,” a judgment that suggests a passion for contemporaneity run amok. It would be hard to imagine anything more ill-advised than for all historians, including those in medieval history, to tailor their research to the morning’s headlines. The humanities, asserted the philosopher Charles Frankel, “have usually been at their best and most vital … when they have had a sense of engagement with issues of public concern,” and he demonstrated that belief by taking leave from Columbia to become Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Yet Frankel also declared, “Scholarship cannot and should not be shackled to problem solving. It must be free to follow crooked paths to unexpected conclusions.”14

Despite a lifetime of civic engagement, I also find totally repugnant any effort to politicize this organization or to impose favored orthodoxies on the classroom. Indeed, it is precisely those who have been most involved in public affairs who have been most resistant to such attempts. Few of us have a longer record of political participation than Arthur Schlesinger, whom I first met at the founding convention of Americans for Democratic Action more than forty years ago, but it was he and Kenneth Jackson, the pioneering head both of the Bradley Commission and of the National Council for History Education, who offered an eloquent remonstrance against New York’s unwise plan to warp the curriculum. At Columbia in 1968, those who were most vocal against the assault on the university were the historians and political scientists who had been working for two years against the Vietnam War under the leadership of Fritz Stern, a circumstance that accounts for our being known as “the Stern gang.” President Reagan’s intervention in Nicaragua appalled me, but when, while I was president of the Organization of American Historians, a resolution was introduced to put the OAH on record in opposition, I cast the lone vote on the executive board against it, because I thought it an abuse of our authority. And although in the past year I was outspoken in denouncing Bush’s actions in the Persian Gulf, I also insisted that this association should not take a stand, for I would no more want to inflict my views on others than have views inflicted on me, nor would I wish to see us torn apart by factional fights over such issues.

I hope never again to witness a night like the one at the AHA convention twenty-two years ago when historians grappled with one another for control of the microphone during the bitter debate over resolutions on Vietnam and civil rights with Vann Woodward, in the words of the New Republic, “presid[ing] over the cacophony with the puzzled air of a kindly Southern judge at a hearing for psychiatric commitment.”15 One memory of that turbulent night that sticks in my mind is of the man standing next to me in the crowded hall: my former colleague, Orest Ranum, whose years of research notes were deliberately incinerated in the Columbia uprising of 1968.

I saw all too painfully at Columbia that year, when I was a member of the faculty committee that ran the university after the chaos of the spring, and in later years what “politicization” could mean: the paralysis of a great university, the trashing of classrooms by hit-and-run marauders, and physical assaults on professors. Elsewhere, the consequences were sometimes worse, resulting even in death.

Historians long involved in the public realm have also been among the most forthright in underscoring the perils of such involvement for scholarship. When I first arrived at Columbia to teach in the fall of 1952, Richard Hofstadter was seeking to deny the president of the university, Dwight Eisenhower, the opportunity to become president of the United States, and years later we worked side by side in “the Stern gang.” Nonetheless, Hofstadter warned, “The activist historian who thinks he is deriving his policy from his history may in fact be deriving his history from his policy, and may be driven to commit the cardinal sin of the historical writer: he may lose his respect for the integrity, the independence, the pastness, of the past.”16

In his searching analysis of the progressive historians, Hofstadter wrote of the most prominent of them: “Today [Charles A.] Beard’s reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography. What was once the grandest house in the province is now a ravaged survival.” What had gone wrong? Beard had riskedtoo much on “a daring gamble,” Hofstadter maintained, for “he had never been content with the role of the historian or the academic alone; he had always hoped to be politically relevant, had always aspired to become a public force … And yet any man who makes written commitments year after year on difficult public questions will live to find some of his views evanescent and embarrassing.” Moreover, “Beard took a further and more gratuitous risk; he finally geared his reputation as a historian so closely to his political interests and passions that the two were bound to share the same fate,” and that fate was disaster. “In proposing not just to draw general moral lessons about the direction and meaning of history but to forge specific recommendations for policy upon which he believed the life and death of American democracy depended,” Beard, Hofstadter concluded, “became our supreme tragic example of the activist mind in history.”17

Scholars with the greatest experience in public affairs have been even more emphatic about the difficulties historians encounter when they seek to shape policy. Despite his close identification with such efforts, Arthur Schlesinger has asserted:

History … can answer questions, after a fashion, at long range. It cannot answer questions with confidence or certainty at short range. Alas, policy makers are rarely interested in the long run—“in the long run,” as Keynes used to say, “we are all dead”—and the questions they put to history are thus most often the questions which history is least qualified to answer. Far from offering a short cut to clairvoyance, history teaches us that the future is full of surprises and outwits all our certitudes.

Confronted by Ernest May’s proposition that “if history is to be better used in government, nothing is more important than that professional historians discover means of addressing directly, succinctly, and promptly the needs of people who govern,” Schlesinger retorted, “It may well be more important for professional historians to write the best professional history they can and trust to the multiplier effect.”18

The conviction that a greater role for scholars in the State would be advantageous rests on the assumption that they are more farsighted and more humane than those in power. We would do well to remember, though, that it was not so long ago that most members of this association sanctioned the institutions of white supremacy that emerged out of Reconstruction and an even shorter time ago that not a few historians were apologists for Stalin’s despotic regime, even though it stifled freedom of expression, sent dissenters to vile prison camps, and was responsible for millions of deaths. In the past generation, we have had reason enough to know that the country’s fate is not always secure in the hands of “the best and the brightest.” Furthermore, the reputation of historians for prescience has recently taken a bad battering. The pace of change in Eastern Europe caught almost everyone unprepared, and after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, one scholar confessed: “I am a chastened China watcher, as are many of my colleagues in universities and think tanks. Not since the Iranian revolution have the analysts been so surprised.” He added that “no China specialist—in or out of the government—foresaw the massive setback that occurred.”19

Scholars in turn have often been disappointed by their encounters with government. When Charles Frankel accepted a post at the State Department, JohnKenneth Galbraith told him, “You’ll find that it’s the kind of organization which, though it does some big things badly, does small things badly too.” There has arisen, Schlesinger has pointed out, “a certain—and understandable—skepticism on the part of intellectuals about the uses to which power seeks to put intellect. Most of the time power wants the intellectual not at all as an intellectual—that is, as a man with a critical and speculative interest in general ideas—but rather as a technician, as a man who can perform specified intellectual services.”20

Politicians are infinitely more likely to ask historians for confirmation of views they already hold than for examples from history that might lead them to change their opinions. Wielders of power, Otis Graham has pointed out, do not ignore history—indeed, they are historians of a sort themselves, though “quite poor ones”—but they are intent on “using the past mostly to reinforce bias and strengthen advocacy positions.” As the 1966 midterm elections approached, I was asked by the Johnson White House to prepare a memo drawing comparisons to the 1942 off-year contest, and I complied with a document pointing to the vulnerability of the administration so long as it persisted in the Vietnam War. I need not tell you that, predictably, it had absolutely no effect. In 1984, I was requested to provide quotations for Walter Mondale’s address in San Francisco accepting the presidential nomination. Most of those I submitted were from Franklin D. Roosevelt in the hope that Mondale would affirm liberal principles, but the only one he used came from Harry Truman: “A president … has to be able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and more often ‘no,’” because Mondale was primarily concerned with demonstrating that he was not the captive of liberal interest groups.21

Even when the viewpoints of scholars and officials are absolutely congruent, unanticipated consequences may ensue. In 1974, John Doar, chief counsel of the congressional inquiry into the impeachment of Richard Nixon, commissioned Vann Woodward to prepare a report on allegations of wrongdoing by American presidents throughout our history, and Woodward in turn called on me to supervise the twentieth-century section. We had only a few weeks to complete this large task, and I turned to four of my former graduate students who I knew could be counted on to do work of high quality in a hurry. In the final hours, they overran my Connecticut house and barn, but we met the deadline, as did all the others. So intent were we on seeing Nixon deposed that we sacrificed all our own projects to that end. Some have concluded that the final report was, in the words of one historian, “a major salvo in the assault on Richard Milhous Nixon,” for it suggested how much more monstrous were Nixon’s deeds than those of his predecessors, as indeed they were. But I have always thought that, so thoroughgoing and fairminded were the historians in revealing the many instances of wrongdoing in the past, that, if Nixon had actually stood trial, the document, in its total effect, would better have served him than the prosecution.22

The appearance of historians in the courts, either as expert witnesses or as advisers, has also been problematic. In 1962, one of the historians who assisted the NAACP in the Brown case created embarrassment when, in an address at the AHA’s annual convention that U.S.News & World Report spread over three pages, he confessed that “we were … sliding off facts, quietly ignoring facts, and above all, interpreting facts in a way to do what [Thurgood] Marshall said we had to do—‘get by those boys down there.’” Nearly three decades later, counsel in the Webster case (which featured a brief signed by more than four hundred historians, of whom I was one) admitted afterward that “factors constrained our ability to ‘tell the truth,’” in particular the “tension between truth-telling and advocacy.” The impression that historians are objective scholars who can certify the facts of the past much like scientists reporting on the contents of a test tube proved illusory when in a water rights case, one historian gave expert testimony for the plaintiff while another testified for the defense, and in the highly publicized Sears case, two prominent historians took opposite sides over the disposition of women to aspire to specialized job opportunities. In an important South Carolina voting-rights case, a historian who has worked intensively on Southern politics told the court that history revealed an intent by officials to discriminate racially, only to be flatly contradicted by the co-author of the country’s leading textbook in Constitutional history, who denied that the historical evidence supported such a conclusion. Critics have accused scholars of cooking evidence, and one authority has even charged, with exquisitely delicate phrasing, “Expert witnesses are whores.”23

Yet, while recognizing all of these vicissitudes, I am not persuaded that historians should eschew subjects of contemporary concern or avoid the political arena, nor is that the conclusion of a number of the very scholars who have warned of the dangers of engagement. Asked how, after “three decades of controversy, criticism, and misunderstanding,” he now felt about venturing to write The Strange Career of JimCrow, Woodward responded: “Pressed for an answer, I would confess to feeling somewhat chastened and perhaps a bit wiser for the experience, but on the whole quite unrepentant … Since the historian lives in the present he has obligations to the present as well as to the past he studies.” History, he said on another occasion, should not be conceived of as “a sort of verbal museum to preserve and display worthy relics of the past” or “confined to a passive role,” for “the fate of ideologies, empires, and rulers hangs on historical revelations and revisions.” Similarly, Schlesinger, though acknowledging that history should imbue statesmen with “a profound and humbling sense of human frailty,” concluded that “we are never relieved, despite the limits of our knowledge and the darkness of our understanding, from the necessity of meeting our obligations.”24

Expert witnesses, too, have vigorously refuted the charge that they are no more than hired guns for litigants. J. Morgan Kousser, who has maintained that testifying in court and before a congressional committee on behalf of voting rights permitted him “to tell the truth and do good at the same time,” has declared, “Social scientists’ virtue is no more at stake as they walk down the dark alleys of policy relevance than it is on the brightly-lit streets of the campus.” Similarly, Peyton McCrary has affirmed that “the courtroom helps keep the academics honest,” for “if experts do not testify fully, logically, convincingly, and honestly, then the process of cross-examination by skillful attorneys is likely to expose their faults.” “The standards of the courtroom,” he deduced from his own experience, “are as high as those of academe.” Despite, or more likely because of, the bitter experience of the Sears case, a Conference on Women’s History and Public Policy in 1989 explored “mechanisms for enhancing communication between historians of women and those in the political arena and in the courts.”25

Granted that their capacities are not unbounded, history professors do not have to remain immured behind campus walls. They can reach out to their colleagues not only in national but in state and local governments, as well as in the private sector; they can collaborate with teachers in elementary and secondary schools doing the indispensable work of instructing the young in understanding the past; and they can, in the tradition of Macaulay and Parkman, write not just for one another but for a literate public.

Such an obvious agenda, though, does not begin to encompass what is expected of us. As John Hope Franklin has pointed out:

Let a person move into a group of people and be introduced as an historian; and someone will raise a question that he knows is at least as profound as any that Socrates ever raised. To the historian it will sound like “Please, Sir, say something historical!” The actual words, carefully articulated, will be, “Please, Sir, tell me what the next four years will provide in the way of history.” It is no use to reply, “I am not a soothsayer; I am an historian.” For the reply is likely to be, “That is precisely why I put the question to you and not to someone else.”26

Making an effort to meet such expectations, if not as prophets then as guides to comprehending the sources of the predicaments of our time, may conceivably be of value not just to the nation but to scholars as well. “The vast majority of academics in traditional arts and science disciplines rarely venture forth to confront, enlighten, or change the world,” observed a historian who has taken a different course. “Monasticism does have its shortcomings. It contributes to excessively narrow specialization; it impedes teaching by making it too removed from the world most students hope to occupy; it denies the practical world the benefit of academic knowledge and thought; and it denies professors the benefit of having their work tested in the world of practice.”27

In a presidential address to this association thirty-two years ago, Allan Nevins, taking note of the question whether “the political historian who has never testified before a congressional committee, or written a speech for a governor or mayor, or haunted the city hall for a year, is not handicapped as compared with the man who has,” recalled Macaulay’s remarks on Gibbon, who had been a militia officer and a member of Parliament:

We have not the smallest doubt that his campaigns, though he never saw an enemy, and his parliamentary attendance, though he never made a speech, were of far more use to him than years of study and retirement would have been. If the time he spent on parade and at mess in Hampshire, or on the treasury bench and at Brooks’s, during the storms which overthrew Lord North and Lord Shelburne, had been passed in the Bodleian library, he might have avoided some inaccuracies; he might have enriched his notes with a greater number of references; but he could never have produced so lively a picture of the court, the camp, and the senate house.28

Quite apart from such considerations, scholars need to embrace an active role in national affairs because they have a vital professional stake in doing so. I would hate to think of what might have happened over the past several years if we had not joined in the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History and had not had the benefit of the talents of Page Putnam Miller. At this last session of Congress alone, under her leadership, the committee, an umbrella organization of fifty-one groups, was able to achieve legislation requiring the State Department to set up a systematic program to declassify documents, and only this morning we met at breakfast to discuss legislative strategy on bills before Congress of paramount significance for scholars, including measures reauthorizing the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s grants and clarifying “fair use” of unpublished copyrighted material by modifying a recent court decision that, as Anne Firor Scott has said, is “a time bomb waiting to blow up all our work in primary sources.”29

Charles Frankel once put this matter in a larger frame. “The right not simply to dissent but, if one pleases to be indifferent; the right to be private; the right to be useless from every respectable point of view; the right to be irreverent about what is officially sanctified—when have these rights ever been safe from the crowd?” he asked. “When have they been safe even from other intellectuals?” Frankel continued:

It may once have been possible for scholars to guard their independence by keeping their distance from power. It may be possible for individual scholars to do that still. But it is not possible for the scholarly community as such to maintain its independence by running away from government. For key decisions that affect scholarly independence will be made in any event. And if they are made without the participation of men and women who know something about the nature and necessary conditions of scholarly and intellectual life, they cannot be expected to be the right decisions.30

My conviction that historians have something to contribute to decision making rests primarily, though, not on such self-interested grounds but on a much more fundamental proposition: that movers and shakers act in part because of the history they carry around in their heads. In 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall declared, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom … regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” The president under whom Marshall served had a cruder notion of the past. “The oligarchy in Russia,” Harry Truman wrote his daughter, “is no different from the Czars, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Charles I and Cromwell. It is a Frankenstein dictatorship worse than any of the others, Hitler included.” Still more notorious was Lyndon Johnson’s preoccupation with historical analogy. The lesson Johnson applied in Southeast Asia came from what he had absorbed from the 1938 Munich crisis—that if leaders shirked their responsibilities abroad, they only postponed their problems, which wound up being worse. “We’re not,” he vowed, “going to have any men with any umbrellas.”31

It does not seem too much to suppose that historians, sensitive to the nuances of metaphor, can better that record. We ought to take on such assignments with full recognition that history is not an exact science and that historians are not seers. Still, as Carl Degler has asserted, “A recourse to history may well save governments and other agencies from ill-considered acts of policy, even if a knowledge of the past cannot tell us what action to take.” Although historians have shown themselves to be fallible, and can be counted on to be so again, Joseph Strayer has said of history: “We may go wrong in following the clues which it offers, but we would be lost without them … History at its best gives us a real chance of reacting sensibly to a new situation. It does not guarantee the correctness of our response, but it should improve the quality of our judgment.” Strayer reasoned: “A rough parallel may be found in certain card games. There is almost no chance that one distribution of cards will be repeated in a subsequent deal in bridge. Yet a man who has played several thousand hands of bridge should be able to make intelligent decisions and predictions even though every deal presents a new situation.” Furthermore, as Alan Brinkley has said, “Illuminating the past is a way of protecting individuals and society from the glib and self-serving analogies that politicians routinely use to justify their own interests,” and “a knowledge of history arms one to consider critically the claims of political figures.”32

The issue, I believe, is not whether historians should intervene but whether they can do so more effectively. Ernest May and Richard Neustadt have offered a manual on how policymakers can avoid the trap of beguiling historical analogies that has opened up a debate on that vexing matter, and at the Georgia Institute of Technology Robert McMath has introduced a course, taught at the Carter Library, on “The Uses of History for Policy-Makers” that could be a model for others. More than a decade ago, twenty-one prominent historians led by Robert Kelley urged President Carter to institutionalize a historical presence in the federal government, perhaps on the model of the Council of Economic Advisers. It will be objected that history is not as technically refined a subject as economics and that historians diverge widely in their views, but it has also been said that if all the economists in the worldwere laid end to end, they still would reach no conclusion; yet the CEA has proven to be a constructive innovation. The notion has some pitfalls—notably the possibility that historians in such an agency might become captives of the reigning administration—and it might well prove preferable to adopt the proposal in a more modest form. But it deserves more scrutiny than it has received. Governments might well benefit from an enhanced role for historians not because they are good predictors but because they are men and women skilled in retaining institutional memories, perceiving the complexity of problems, and placing events in the stream of time.33

In sum, in considering the long warfare between historians who favor engagement and those who oppose it, I would join issue on the one point on which they agree—that their positions are irreconcilable. Instead, I see a creative tension between the two attitudes. Scholars would do well to give a respectful hearing to both groups, for neither holds a monopoly of the truth. One can agree that history has value wholly apart from any utilitarian end it serves without accepting the conclusion that historians must refrain from public involvement, and one can acknowledge that historians have an obligation to their community without dismissing the sage admonitions that the skeptics raise.

The historians who reject involvement might well ask themselves if they truly believe that, devoting their lives as they do to the study of history, they have nothing to contribute to the compelling public concerns of their only time on earth. For all his criticism of the progressive school, Richard Hofstadter generously conceded that “at their best, the interpretative historians have gone to the past with some passionate concern for the future,” and even Julien Benda endorsed certain public actions by intellectuals: “When Gerson entered the pulpit of Notre Dame to denounce the murderers of Louis d’Orléans; when Spinoza, at the peril of his life, went and wrote the words ‘Ultimi barbarorum’ on the gate of those who had murdered the de Witts; when Voltaire fought for the Calais family; when Zola and Duclaux came forward to take part in a celebrated lawsuit (the Dreyfus affair).”34

On the other hand, those of us who do take part in public affairs need constantly to remind ourselves that we are not omniscient, and that we must never, no matter how worthy the cause, compromise our commitment to, in John Higham’s words, “the simple axiom that history is basically an effort to tell the truth about the past.” We who are professors ought to remember that there are advantages, not only for ourselves but for society, to the detachment the campus affords us, and that unceasing involvement may diminish our capacity to see the world more clearly. When we do speak out, and we should choose those times wisely, we must take care to distinguish between doing so as historians and doing so simply as politically active citizens. Above all, we should take care not to create an atmosphere in the classroom in which views that diverge from our own cannot freely be voiced, and we should respect the rights of others in the profession to express beliefs contrary to our own or to remain silent.35

The intellectual, Charles Frankel wrote, “may and should take sides in the political struggles of his time, but there is likely to be an edge of irony or regret in his attitude when he does so.” It seems inevitable that historians will always feel this tension—“caught,” in Hofstadter’s words, “between their desire to count in the world and their desire to understand it.” Their “passion for understanding” moves them toward “detachment” and “neutrality,” but “the terrible urgency of our political problems … plays upon … their desire to get out of history some lessons that will be of use in the world.” For my own part, I would commend the message Emerson left us in his celebrated Phi Beta Kappa oration, “The American Scholar”—that “action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential,” and that “there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.”36



The author is grateful to Allan Brandt, Alan Brinkley, Jean Anne Leuchtenburg, and Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., for insightful comments and is appreciative of materials sent to him by Leon Fink, Otis L. Graham, Jr., Michael Hunt, Robert Kelley, J. Morgan Kousser, David E. Kyvig, Peyton McCrary, Page Putnam Miller, and Raymond Wolters.


  1. Herman Ausubel, Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association, 1884–1945 (rpt. edn., New York, 1965), 24; John Herbert Roper, C.Vann Woodward, Southerner (Athens, Ga., 1987), 4, quoting the dean of the graduate school at Louisiana State University, Charles Wooten Pipkin; Robert Livingston Schuyler, “The Usefulness of Useless History,” Political Science Quarterly, 56 (March 1941): 23–37; Theodore S. Hamerow, Reflections on History and Historians (Madison, Wis., 1987), 33. For the wide divergence of views on the proper role for the historian, see Norman Graebner, “The State of Diplomatic History,” Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter (March 1973): 2–12. []
  2. James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard, The Development of Modern Europe: An Introduction to the Study of Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Boston, 1907–08), 1: iii. For especially ardent espousal of history geared to contemporary issues, see Robert S. Lynd, Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture (Princeton, N.J., 1939), 133; and Howard Zinn, The Politics of History, 2d edn. (Urbana, Ill., 1990), 309. []
  3. John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America (Baltimore, Md., 1989), 14, 124. Morey Rothberg discusses Jameson in a forthcoming edition of Jameson’s work for which I have written an introduction. For the role of scholars in the World War I era, see Lawrence E. Gelfand, The Inquiry (New Haven, Conn., 1963). []
  4. William L. Langer, In and Out of the Ivory Tower: The Autobiography of William L. Langer (New York, 1977), 180–93. []
  5. John Hope Franklin, “The Historian and the Public Policy,” in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938–1988 (Baton Rouge, La., 1989), 312–14. []
  6. Everett Carl Ladd, Jr., “American University Teachers and Opposition to the Vietnam War,” Minerva, 8 (October 1970): 545; Robert Kelley, Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy and the Sacramento Valley, 1850–1986 (Berkeley, Calif., 1989), xviii; J. Morgan Kousser, “Are Expert Witnesses Whores? Reflections on Objectivity in Scholarship and Expert Witnessing,” Public Historian, 6 (Winter 1984): 11; City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980); Peyton McCrary and J. Gerald Hebert, “Keeping the Courts Honest: The Role of Historians as Expert Witnesses in Southern Voting Rights Cases,” Southern University Law Review, 16 (Spring 1989): 101, citing decisions such as Bolden v. City of Mobile, 542 F. Supp. 1050 (S. D. Ala. 1982); Peyton McCrary, “Racially Polarized Voting in the South: Quantitative Evidence from the Courtroom,” Social Science History, 14 (Winter 1990): 507–31; Chandler Davidson, ed., Minority Vote Dilution (Washington, D.C., 1984). []
  7. Kelley, Battling the Inland Sea, 339–40; Robert Kelley, “Public History: Its Origins, Nature, and Prospects,” Public Historian, 1 (Fall 1978): 21–22; Barbara J. Howe and Emory L. Kemp, eds., Public History: An Introduction (Malabar, Fla., 1986); Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public (Philadelphia, 1986); David F. Trask, “The State of Public History in the Washington Area,” Public Historian, 1 (Fall 1978): 37–41; New York Times, June 7, 1980. “Public history” is often treated as a modern-day upstart, but as the chairman of the National Council on Public History pointed out, “History has been practiced outside the academy for generations.” Michael C. Scardaville, “Looking Backward Toward the Future: An Assessment of the Public History Movement,” Public Historian, 9 (Fall 1987): 37. []
  8. Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, Richard Aldington, trans. (New York, 1928), 46–47, 81, French edn. appeared the year before; National Humanities Center, Newsletter, 12 (Fall–Winter 1990–91): 8. []
  9. Higham, History, 132; Oscar Handlin, Truth in History (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), 415. []
  10. J. H. Plumb, “The Historian’s Dilemma,” in Plumb, ed., Crisis in the Humanities (Baltimore, Md., 1964), 25–26; Hamerow, Reflections, 12, 3. []
  11. William E. Leuchtenburg, Flood Control Politics: The Connecticut River Valley Problem, 1927–1950 (Cambridge, Mass., 1953); William E. Leuchtenburg, “The Montgomery March,” American Heritage, 40 (December 1989): 66–68; New York Times, February 11, 1977; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Jimmy Carter on the Presidency: A Wilson Center Conversation, March 5, 1984 (Washington, D.C., 1984). []
  12. Senate History (Fall 1991): 1; William E. Leuchtenburg, “The Conversion of Harry Truman,” American Heritage, 42 (November 1991): 55–68. []
  13. Hamerow, Reflections, 12, 33. Peter N. Carroll, Keeping Time: Memory, Nostalgia, and the Art of History (Athens, Ga., 1990), 178, quoted in David E. Kyvig, “Public or Perish: Thoughts on Historians’ Responsibilities,” PublicHistorian, 13 (Fall 1991): 13. See, too, Carl N. Degler, “Remaking American History,” Journal of American History, 67 (June 1980): 23. []
  14. Morton G. White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (New York, 1952), 50; New York Times, July 2, 1978. []
  15. C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (New York, 1989), 4. []
  16. Richard Hofstaclter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York, 1968), 464–65. For examples of how political commitments may affect scholarly writing, see Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War Guilt Myth (Chicago, 1928); Conyers Read, “The Social Responsibilities of the Historian,” AHR, 55 (January 1950): 283–84; Michael A. Bernstein, “American Economic Expertise from the Great War to the Cold War: Some Initial Observations,” Journal of Economic History, 50 (June 1990): 408. C. Vann Woodward has confessed that in his eagerness to develop the theme of The Strange Career of Jim Crow he overlooked the fact that, prior to segregation, blacks had no public space at all. “The oversight illustrates the dangers of allowing present‑day issues to shape or define historical investigation,” he has written. Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge, La., 1986), 96–97. One writer had no qualms about stating that “the public historian … may have to bend the findings to the whims of the project design that the client has in mind.” Lawrence De Graaf, “Summary: An Academic Perspective,” Public Historian, 2 (Spring 1980): 69. Public historians, however, have given considerably more sustained attention to ethical problems than have academic historians. See, for example, Ronald C. Tobey, “The Public Historian as Advocate: Is Special Attention to Professional Ethics Necessary?” Public Historian, 8 (Winter 1986): 21–30. []
  17. Hofstadter, Progressive Historians, 344–45, 464. []
  18. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941–1966 (Boston, 1966), 93; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Review of “Lessons” of the Past, Journal of American History, 61 (September 1974): 444. []
  19. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Greenwich, Conn., 1973); Michel Oksenberg, “Confession of a China Watcher: Why No One Predicted the Bloodbath in Beijing,” Newsweek (June 19, 1989): 30. See, too, W. R. Connor’s illuminating essay, “Why Were We Surprised?” American Scholar, 60 (Spring 1991): 175–84. []
  20. Charles Frankel, High on Foggy Bottom: An Outsider’s Inside View (New York, 1969), 11; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Powers and Violence in America (Boston, 1969), 83. []
  21. Otis L. Graham, Jr., “The Uses and Misuses of History: Roles in Policymaking,” PublicHistorian, 5 (Spring 1983): 7; personal communication, William E. Leuchtenburg to Hayes Redmon, May 1966; Washington Post, July 20, 1984. My views on Vietnam were stated more forcefully in a letter to Redmon on July 6, 1966. []
  22. C. Vann Woodward, ed., Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct (New York, 1974); Roper, C.Vann Woodward, 5. The four students were John W. Chambers, Robert P. Ingalls, James Boylan, and Mark I. Gelfand. The other two supervisors were Merrill D. Peterson and William S. McFeely. For the experience of one of the other historians on the project, see James M. Banner, Jr., “Historians and the Impeachment Inquiry: A Brief History and Prospectus,” Reviews in American History, 4 (June 1976): 140–49. For the “unease” of a “resident historian” on a project with the most worthwhile aims, see John Demos, “History and the Formation of Social Policy toward Children: A Case Study,” in David Rothman and Staton Wheeler, eds., Social History and Social Policy (New York, 1981), 301–24. Demos concluded: “Historical inquiry and policy formation made a new, awkward, and necessarily uncertain tandem. But practice may yet bring greater synchrony and increasingly substantial results”; p. 324. []
  23. Alfred H. Kelly, “An Inside Story: When the Supreme Court Ordered Desegregation,” U.S.News & World Report (February 5, 1962): 88; Sylvia A. Law, “Conversations between Historians and the Constitution,” Public Historian, 12 (Summer 1990): 14. For the water rights case, see Carl M. Becker, “Professor for the Plaintiff: Classroom to Courtroom,” Public History, 4 (Summer 1982): 69–77; Leland R. Johnson, “Public Historian for the Defendant,” Public History, 5 (Summer 1983): 69–77. For the South Carolina case, see McCrary and Hebert, “Keeping the Courts Honest,” 115–18. McCrary was the historian who found a discriminatory motive; Herman Belz testified for the defense in the immense literature on the Sears case, see Equal Opportunity Commission v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 428 F. Supp. 1264, 1308–1312 (Northern District of Illinois, 1986), affirmed 839 F. 2d 302 (1988); Joan C. Williams, “Clio Meets Portia: Objectivity in the Courtroom and the Classroom,” in Theodore J. Karamanski, ed., Ethics and Public History: An Anthology (Malabar, Fla., 1990), 45–56; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988), 502–10; Thomas Haskell and Sanford Levinson, “Academic Freedom and Expert Witnessing: Historians and the Sears Case,” Texas Law Review, 66 (June 1988): 1629–59; New York Times, June 6, 1986; Karen J. Winkler, “Two Scholars’ Conflict in Sears Sex-Bias Case Sets Off War in Women’s History,” Chronicle of Higher Education (February 5, 1986): 1, 8; Ruth Milkman, “Women’s History and the Sears Case,” Feminist Studies, 12 (Summer 1986): 375–400; Alice Kessler-Harris, “Equal Opportunity Employment Commission v. Sears, Roebuck and Company: A Personal Account,” Radical History Review, 35 (1986): 57–79; Rosalind Rosenberg, letter to editor, Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2, 1986): 22. Harold Green, director of the Law, Science, and Technology Program at George Washington University, is the source of the gibe about “whores” quoted in Kousser, “Are Expert Witnesses Whores?”, 5. See, too, Eleanor P. Wolf, Trial and Error: The Detroit School Desegregation Case (Detroit, 1981); Raymond Wolters, “Advocacy, Ideology, and Objectivity: Scholars as Expert Witnesses for the Plaintiffs in School Desegregation Cases,” unpublished paper. A professor of law has asserted that the efforts of Supreme Court Justices “to ground today’s decisions in historians’ history are fundamentally misguided.” Mark Tushnet, “Should Historians Accept the Supreme Court’s Invitation?” OAH Newsletter (November 1987): 12. []
  24. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, 1974); Woodward, Thinking Back, 98; Woodward, Future of the Past, xi; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “On the Inscrutability of History,” Encounter, 27 (November 1966): 17. []
  25. Kousser, “Are Expert Witnesses Whores?” 7, 19; Peyton McCrary, “Keeping the Courts Honest,” 128; Alice Kessler-Harris and Amy Swerdlow, “Report on the First Conference on Women’s History and Public Policy,” Perspectives, 28 (May–June 1990): 10; Final Report to the Ford Foundation on the Conference on Women’s History and Public Policy, June 15–17, 1989, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y. I am indebted to Professor Swerdlow for a copy of this report. Despite misgivings, the historians involved in the Webster case reaffirmed their belief that they had taken the right course. There is an excellent discussion in Public Historian, 12 (Summer 1990). See, too, Allan M. Brandt, “Writing Policy-Directed History,” unpublished paper presented at the History of Science Society meetings, Madison, Wisconsin, November 3, 1991. []
  26. Franklin, “The Historian and the Public Policy,” 309. One scholar has concluded, “In America, at least, although the pursuit of learning may well be its own reward, it cannot for long among the otherwise occupied citizens be its own justification.” Robert A. McCaughey, International Studies and Academic Enterprise: A Chapter in the Enclosure of American Learning (New York, 1984), 255. For the observation that “in the nineteenth century more than the twentieth, history was written for and read by large numbers of people other than academics,” see Mary O. Furner, Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisisin the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865–1905 (Lexington, Ky., 1975), 297. []
  27. Carl Brauer, “More Scholars Should Venture Forth to Confront, Enlighten, or Change the World,” Chronicle of Higher Education (March 14, 1990): B2. The former chairman of a state committee for the humanities urged greater collaboration between the academy and the public, not least because “it is through such engagements that scholars can discover whether the insights gained in their research are really communicable, pertinent, and lively.” Ron Perrin, “Humanists Must Forge Links between Their Work and the Public,”Chronicle of Higher Education (September 27, 1989): A56. []
  28. Allan Nevins, “Not Capulets, Not Montagus,” AHR, 65 (January 1960): 264–65. []
  29. Circular letter, Anne Firor Scott to “Dear Colleague,” November 1991, in the possession of the author. []
  30. Charles Frankel, “The Political Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in Paul Kurtz, ed., MoralProblems in Contemporary Society: Essays in Humanistic Ethics (Buffalo, N.Y., 1973), 174–75. For Frankel’s views, see William E. Leuchtenburg, “Charles Frankel: The Humanist as Citizen,” in John Agresto and Peter Riesenberg, eds., The Humanist as Citizen (Research Triangle Park, N.C., 1981), 228–54. []
  31. W. Robert Connor, Thucydides (Princeton, N.J., 1984), 3; Harry S. Truman to Margaret Truman, March 3, 1948, quoted in Margaret Truman, Harry S Truman (New York, 1973), 360. Hugh Sicley, A Very Personal Presidency: Lyndon Johnson in the White House (New York, 1968), 218. Senator J. William Fulbright replied to Johnson’s insistence that the situation in Vietnam corresponded to that at Munich by saying, “The treatment of slight and superficial resemblances as if they were full-blooded analogies—as instances of history ‘repeating itself’—is a substitute for thinking and a misuse of history”; Alfred Steinberg, Sam Johnson’s Boy: A Close-Up of the President from Texas (New York, 1968), 788. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has written: “I trust that a graduate student some day will write a doctoral essay on the influence of the Munich analogy on the subsequent history of the twentieth century. Perhaps in the end he will conclude that the multitude of errors committed in the name of ‘Munich’ may exceed the original error of 1938”; Schlesinger, Bitter Heritage, 89. See, too, Chalmers Roberts Oral History, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. For the Supreme Court’s misuse of history, see Alfred H. Kelly, “Clio and the Court: An Illicit Love Affair,” Supreme Court Review (1965): 119–58. []
  32. Carl N. Degler, “Is the New Social History Threatening Clio?” OAH Newsletter, 16 (August 1988): 5; Joseph R. Strayer, “Introduction,” in Strayer, ed., The Interpretation of History (Princeton, N.J., 1943): 14–15; Alan Brinkley to the author, January 13, 1992. “Historical generalizations,” Schlesinger has written, “will enlarge the wisdom of the statesman, giving his responses to the crises of the moment perspective, depth and an instinct for the direction and flow of events”; Bitter Heritage, 83. []
  33. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York, 1986); Gordon Wright et al. to Jimmy Carter, November 3, 1976. See, too, OAH Newsletter (January 1977): 4. At Kelley’s behest, the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians sent a similar communication to President Ronald Reagan, Executive Board Minutes, April 1, 1981; Richard Kirkendall, “Executive Secretary’s Report,” OAH Newsletter (July 1981): 11. I am indebted to Kirkendall, Arnita Jones, and Sharon Caughill for locating these materials for me. For a similar recommendation, see Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York, 1973), 172. One critic has objected, “A History Office in the West Wing would be ‘on the team,’ with the inevitable narrowing of vision and independence”; Graham, “Uses and Misuses of History,” 13. Graham, though, has shown the potentialities as well as the limitations of the role of historians in policymaking in “Intellectual Standards in the Humanities,” in Daniel Callahan, Arthur L. Caplan, and Bruce Jennings, eds., Applying the Humanities (New York, 1985), 261–69, and he has provided an example of sophisticated analysis of a policy question by a historian in Losing Time: The Industrial Policy Debate (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). I have also found informative Page Putnam Miller, “History in Government and Public Policy,” unpublished paper. For the difficulties but also the opportunities historians encounter when they try to predict, see Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method (New York, 1951), 264–71. []
  34. Hofstadter, Progressive Historians, 465; Benda, Treason of the Intellectuals, 50. For the responsibility of the scholarly community, see George McT. Kahin, “A Polarization of Knowledge: Specialization on Contemporary Asia in the United States,” Journal of Asian Studies, 33 (August 1974): 515–22. []
  35. Higham, History, 132. []
  36. []