I drew my title from an essay by Ronald H. Spector, my dissertation director at the George Washington University (GWU), in a piece he had written twenty years ago. With the essay in mind (and no further consultation with him on this blog!), what I’d like to do is highlight some of the key characteristics of being a government or “official” historian. In particular, I’ll try relating why I became one, and how this type of work has played out for me in the decade since I received my doctorate.
My B.A. was from the University of Toronto, a large, urban research institution in Canada’s biggest city. After graduation and non-academic employment at the university I applied for a Masters in military history at several U.S. schools (I’m an American citizen). Accepted to the University of Alabama, I completed an M.A. in Military and Naval History, and began a doctorate at GWU. Eight years later I earned the Ph.D. with a dissertation on German and American submarine logistics. A year of contract teaching followed, both at GWU and the University of Maryland, College Park. In spring 2000 I began working as a historian in what is now named the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), and have been there since.
Why make the move from teaching at good schools to U.S. government employment? What could possibly motivate such a personal change? My personal answers were rooted in several elements, for I wanted permanent full-time work as a historian, preferably in my chosen field of military history (broadly defined) and, having been raised in a big city, wanted to live in such a place during my working years. I already knew what the Navy’s historians did, having met them while using the service’s library and archives, and the chance to learn more and write about the service seemed interesting. Employment by the U.S. Navy’s history shop, in Washington, D.C., therefore satisfied all my constraints, and quite handily.
I can hear a question come speedily: what about teaching? My response is equally quick: I have taught as often as my time permits and hope to teach in the future. After starting full-time with the Navy, and not including my first post-doctoral year, after-hours I taught seven history classes at GWU and Maryland. These classes ranged from a lecture course in U.S. diplomatic history, to undergraduate research seminars and graduate readings’ seminars in the history of strategy and policy. I have also guest lectured at four universities, supervised an undergraduate’s independent studies program and an M.A. student’s Capstone paper, graded two Ph.D. students’ comprehensive questions in military history, served as outside reader for four M.A. theses and one Ph.D. dissertation, and contributed to a faculty tenure review. Given my location in Washington I could have done more teaching, but my time and energy didn’t permit it.
So what does a U.S. Navy historian do? Fundamentally the answer is research and writing, or much what other historians do. I co-authored Pentagon 9/11, a book on the 2001 terrorist attack, drafted another monograph yet to be printed, published essays, delivered scholarly conference papers derived from my dissertation, book or other research, contributed book reviews, peer reviewed articles submitted to scholarly journals, and authored essays for reference works. I have also written museum scripts for the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, answered history reference questions from service personnel or the general public and processed documentary collections to establish intellectual control of NHHC archival records. Most recently my official work took me to the Pentagon, where I served as the historian attached to the Navy’s Quadrennial Defense Review office. There I offered historical context for a process balancing U.S. Navy strategy, force structure and programs within the limits of Department of Defense constraints.
Are there drawbacks to being a government historian? Perhaps the foremost challenge to official historians stems from their parent organization: the U.S. government, especially its armed services, is ever-changing at a rapid tempo. The expectations for answers and products to support changes are, consequently, for very fast results. While my work primarily addresses the post-1945 world, it has covered the diplomatic roles of Cold War navies, complexities of multinational operations and the difficulties Pentagon victims faced in confronting the terrorist attack of 9/11. Few historians would publish on such diverse subjects over a career, but to support current policy discussions I have also answered enquiries on past U.S. Navy shipbuilding, personnel policies and strategic concepts. Other perennial reference questions are the Second World War’s U-boat campaign, the Pearl Harbor attack and the 1967 U.S.S. Liberty strike. Academic scholars are rarely asked to research and answer questions on such diverse questions on short notice, postponing their long-term research in the process to satisfy such requests for information, yet this is exactly what government historians must do.
More generally, the quick pace of change in government demands official historians pick and choose products to best serve our employer, in addition to academic historians and the general public. The desire to provide research and context that are relevant to current concerns means we are constantly searching for the closest historical approximations to today’s issues. While every historian views the past through a contemporary lens, the concerns of official historians often track definitions of importance defined by others, rather than an individual intellect. Fortunately each official historian retains full autonomy to shape their arguments as they see fit, and doing so without pressure to sugarcoat conclusions or avoid controversy. As further professional security, official historians may withhold their names from any product with which they disagree.
Working for the government opens a key opportunity we “official” historians enjoy, with the chance, sometimes, to speak to service-member military practitioners. The chance to learn directly from enlisted personnel and officers in the military, as well as from veterans, opens possibilities to understand how they think as individuals, to ask questions of technical detail and discern how their institutions function. One key method for gaining such understanding is the use of oral histories, which we employed heavily in the book Pentagon 9/11, formal interviews conducted by historians throughout the Defense Department. Such a grasp of the world view of military service-members also lends my own work greater depth, something our non-governmental colleagues must expend even greater effort to gain without benefit of a face-to-face conversation.
In addition to interview sources, government military historians also employ the records held in libraries, archives, curatorial holdings and art collections. Many of these materials are available to researchers of all stripes whose investigations often benefit from formal military records. Where official historians enjoy a further advantage, however, is in holding the security clearances needed to read still-classified records. Such classified archives especially apply for events and people for the period after 1945. Addressing many subjects from that era, at the depth they deserve, makes access to classified materials essential. The work of recent members of the military is hard to grasp without seeing such sources, and official historians’ ability to read them complements the other sources available to the general public, making the narrative more complete. These advantages allow official historians to be historiographic pioneers, creating works that set the path for other writers to follow, while teaching members of the government, including members of the armed services, about their history.
At least for the first decade of the 21st century, then, and as unlikely as it may seem, at least one military historian can find every element of the professional scholarly experience working for the U.S. government.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Blog XXIX (29): The History Ph.D. as a Government Historian: Still the “Improbable Success Story”?
The next guest essay comes from Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he did graduate work at the University of Alabama and the George Washington University. For the last decade he has been a historian with the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. A specialist on naval warfare during World War II, he has been an on-camera commentator for documentaries that have appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the DVD version of the film Tora, Tora, Tora (2001). After the terrorist attack on the Pentagon of September 11, 2001, he collaborated with the Department of Defense team that conducted thousands of oral histories of individuals that had been in the building on that day. He also co-authored Pentagon 9/11, the official history of the attack and response in the building. His comments are his own, and not those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or United States government. Here is his guest blog: