Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Blog CXCIX (199): Reviewing the Official Historian

HONOLULU, HAWAII—A few weeks ago I read an article that John M. Carland, a historian working in the office of the Secretary of  Defense, wrote in Headquarters Gazette, the newsletter of the Society for Military History.  In "Why the American Historical Review Will Not Review Official History and Why It Should" he documented his discovery that the journal of the American Historical Association will not review in its book review section official histories produced by the various armed services.

In his article Carland quoted at length from his correspondence with Robert A. Schneider, the editor of the AHR:  "Indeed, on the face of it, [he continued] there certainly shouldn’t be any distinction between scholarly books based upon their provenance—it’s the scholarship that should count. That is, if the book is scholarly—and if it meets our other criteria, then it should be reviewed by the AHR as well as other journals. The fact is, however, that these 'other criteria,' not the origins or publisher of the book, are often what disqualifies it."  The journal Schneider notes gets a lot of books and basically does not review biographies, collections of documents, edited volumes, textbooks, second editions, or books aimed at a general audience.

In crafting his response, Schneider also turned to his book review editor who was direct, if ill informed.  “It is the commission that is problematic: what are its terms and limitations? How much of the source material is publically [sic] available, and how much requires access only granted to scholars who agree to certain conditions?” In further communication, Schneider doubled down on this point.  The problem with official histories is that they "often rely upon sources that cannot be verified or often even consulted by outside historians. I think it’s reasonable at least to assert this as a potential obstacle. Furthermore, there is the question of the disinterestedness, independence, and autonomy of a historian who is employed by or belongs to the institution or enterprise which he’s investigating."

There are a number of problems with these responses.  First, as Carland discovered, the AHR has over the years reviewed official military history from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany and Russia.

A second problem is that it leads the journal to ignore major events on its own home turf.  McNamara, Clifford, and The Burdens of Vietnam by Edward Drea was a volume in the official series on the development of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  It got a lot of attention for its findings.  “This is not your standard, bland official history,” George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky, one of the leading scholars on the Vietnam War noted in a news story The Washington Post did on the book.  The coverage of that book was nothing compared to Black Soldier, White Army: The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea by William Bowers, William Hammond, and George MacGarrigle.  The 24th Infantry was one of the last segregated, all-black units in the U.S. Army and many veterans of the unit spent 17 years lobbying the U.S. Army to commission this book, arguing that the first volume of the Army's official history of the Korean War, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu gave a devastating account of the regiment's performance in combat when it stated the regiment broke under fire and ran from the enemy.  When Black Soldier, White Army failed to exonerate the unit, showing that the 24th had indeed collapsed in combat, veterans of the regiment threatened to sue to prevent the release of the book.  This controversy was the subject of news stories in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and USA Today.  This book was the subject of a four-page review from Russell Weigley, a former president of the Society for Military History, in Reviews in American History.  And yet, nothing in the AHR.  That seems wrong.

A final problem with the AHR's criteria is that it is based on ignorance and a tad bit of exaggerated self-importance.  In most ways, the official history program is designed to help large government agencies learn about what worked and what did not work, and why.  The program—at least in the U.S. Army—has been implemented to facilitate historical coverage, not offer sanitized version of what happened that glorify the military.  General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower made this point clear in the order authorizing the U.S. Army in World War II.  Historians working for the military—who almost always have Ph.D.s—have often been concerned about being considered court historians.  Ronald Spector, the first civilian ever to serve as the chief of Naval History and now a professor at George Washington University, pushed back against the court historian view in a famous article: Ronald Spector, "An Improbable Success Story: Official Military Histories in the Twentieth Century" The Public Historian vol. 12, no. 1 (Winter 1990), 25-30.  As Spector shows, the system they work in mitigates against such a development.  The regulations governing the official histories, require detailed citation to the documents.  These historians can use any source material they wish; memoirs, oral histories (that they often conduct themselves), and official documents.  If they use documents that are still classified, the publication of the official history becomes grounds for those documents to be declassified.  Forrest C. Pogue, who is considered by many public historians to be a pioneer in the field, said one of the reasons he worked on the official Army histories was to facilitate the declassification process.  One final point: many things make policy: state interests, politics, etc.  History is not one of them.  At least in the United States.  The Secretary of Defense—and his staff—are busy people, dealing with difficult issues involving Russians in the Ukraine and Iran's interest in nuclear weapons.  They do not really have time to worry about Black Soldier, White Army: The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea or even McNamara, Clifford, and The Burdens of Vietnam.  If the people at the American Historical Review think that historians have that kind of influence, or that components of the military that are dealing with contemporary issues are concerned about events from four to seven decades past, they are fooling themselves.  Americans—even those in the in military—just do not hold on to historical issues for long.

As you might tell, I have mixed reactions to this little controversy.  First, I am a book review editor myself for Presidential Studies Quarterly and I understand the American Historical Review perspective.  I really do.  We do not get the volume of books the American Historical Review does, but one of the first things you learn as an editor is how much of the literature you do not know.  If I am facing this problem with books about Theodore Roosevelt—is this book important? Who do I ask to review the book?—I suspect the folks at the AHR are facing this problem on a much, much larger scale.  The second thing is that you will get books that are just not appropriate for the journal.  You have to have criteria for saying no.  It must be professional in nature, and you have to be able to explain it clearly to people that are going to be disappointed with your reply.  (All of this has happened to me.)

On the other hand, it is the AHR.  Although people like to claim that this journal is the flagship publication in the historical profession, it is not.  There are just too many people, working in too many diverse sub-fields for one journal to claim to be the publication of record for all historical time periods and topics.  The AHR made sense the 1910s when the history departments at major schools like the University of Wisconsin or the University of Texas had four and five members, and one of them might have been "the Europeanist" or "the Americanist."  Even after the journal outlived its usefulness, book reviews in the AHR still served a real purpose when it reviewed major works in various fields.  The purpose of a book review is to let you know what books you need to read, and which ones you do not.  A journal that offered a comprehensive and broad collection of books about various historical topics and time periods was really, really useful.  The AHR managed to do that until sometime in the early to mid-1990s.  You can have a good career without getting reviewed in the AHR.  Of my five books, all listed to the side, only one—the Olympic book—has been reviewed in that journal. (This point was driven home during a research trip I took in August to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.  I was waiting for the archivists to deliver some documents I had requested and was thumbing through several journals that were available on the rack of current periodicals to which the Library subscribed.  The AHR was one of them and I went to the book review section, and was stunned at how nothing in the entire section seemed even slightly relevant to my research, teaching, or simple history buff interests.  Maybe that is just me, but it is generally not a good reaction for a journal that wants to be the main publication in the field of history.)

The criteria that the Review uses also seems to be counter to its own interests.  The AHR does not review biographies.  That seems quite shortsighted to me.  I do not even understand why.  There is an entire Pulitzer Prize category for biography.  Another wrong call, is the refusal to review books that are aimed at the general public.  Some of these are simplistic trash, but others are quite innovative and have significant impact on the historiography of their field.  Even if they are not that good, they get attention that the field has to respond to, if for no other reason than to dismiss it, and one of the ways it does that is through the review process.  Bad reviews have utility. Just to repeat myself: the purpose of a book review is to let you know what books you need to read, and which ones you do not.

The biggest reason the AHR and its staff are wrong is that the history profession might be on the verge of undergoing a fairly large transformation.  Back in October 2011 Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman, the president and executive director of the American Historical Association wrote an article "No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History" in which they said history departments need to realize that that many or maybe most of their graduate students would end up pursuing non-academic jobs and careers.  I was a bit skeptical about that article, but it does seem that the AHA has increased efforts to support initiatives in this direction.  If the AHA is serious about supporting scholars in non-academic careers, then the Review needs to be serious about treating scholars doing non-academic work seriously.  If people are writing about history and getting an audience, even if it is not through peer reviewed publications, the AHR needs to be offering assessments of those works.

Then again, maybe the Association is not serious about its Plan B efforts. Or maybe there is a schism in the AHA that I am not aware of; one branch of the AHR might be refusing to support the effortr of another branch.  I do not know.  One thing is clear: for their own good and the good of the profession the staff and editors of the AHR need to rethink their policy and/or offer a better explanation.

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