On the Writing of Contemporary History

The country has widely discussed the so-called "management of news." The controversy over William Manchester's Death of a President, together with lesser contretemps over earlier books, about President Kennedy and his Administration, suggests a companion subject: the management of history. When do contemporary affairs become history? What are the responsibilities and obligations of those who propose to write that history and of those who help to make it? One man's view is conveyed in this elaboration of an address to the American Historical Association. Mr. Schlesinger writes both as a historian (The Age of Jackson, The Age of Roosevelt) and as a participant in many of the events recorded in his widely read A Thousand Days, a chronicle of John Kennedy's presidency.

There is nothing new about man's recording the events of his own time. Indeed, this is probably the way the writing of history began; and if classical authority were required for contemporary history today, it would be amply supplied by the example of Thucydides, resting his narrative "partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me." Nonetheless, the controversies over the historical literature of the Kennedy years—beginning with the publication of the first memoirs in 1965 and reaching a climax with the legal contest over William Manchester's Death of a President—have raised serious questions about the method and ethics of contemporary history.

For, despite Thucydides, contemporary history has held a precarious status in the annals of historiography. As men like Thucydides began to fix a present and thereby to create a "past," it was this "past" which people increasingly identified as "history." The tendency to regard what was more remote as by definition more "historical" increased over the next two thousand years, despite the occasional Guicciardinis, Davilas, de Thous, and Clarendons, who had the audacity to imitate Thucydides nd write about their own times; and this tendency ''as finally institutionalized with the professionaliation of history in the nineteenth century, German scholarship, in consolidating both its methodologial triumphs and its concept of historians as a separate caste, strengthened the wall between the past, which was considered the estate of serious historians, and the present, which was left to a disorderly straggle of memoirists and journalists.

When a school of modern history was proposed at Oxford in the eighteen fifties, traditionalists asked, "Is the subject suitable for Education? Is it an exercise of the mind?" And, if modern history was eventually accepted as an exercise of the mind, its writ was not considered to run to the present. Even as late as the days before the Second World War, an American professor who carried a course of lectures up to his own time was deemed rash and unorthodox. Most scholars still felt that a generation or so was required before current events underwent the sea change into history. Ancient historians demanded at least a millennium.

Why, then, this recent emergence of contemporary history into academic respectability? Few colleges now would hesitate to offer courses which start with the Second World War and end with yesterday's newspaper. Only the most austere scholars object to attempts to write a serious account of the very recent past. However much contemporary history may at times distress outsiders, it has won, I think, surprising acceptance within the historical profession as a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry.

The ultimate explanation for the rise of contemporary history undoubtedly lies in the acceleration of the rate of change. The world has altered more in the last century than it had in the thousand years preceding. The transformations wrought by science and technology have acquired a cumulative momentum and an exponential effect, rushing us along by geometric, not arithmetic, progression. A simple illustration makes the point. How far can a man travel in an hour? For most of the span of human existence, he could travel only as far as he could walk; say four miles. With the domestication of the horse, he could perhaps triple that. Then with the invention of the steam-powered locomotive a bare century and a half ago, he could eventually make 70 or 80 miles in an hour. In the last half century with the airplane, he could begin to cover 1500 miles. Today with manned space vehicles he can make upward of 15,000 miles in the same hour. Nor can we suppose that this pace will slow down, as science and technology hurtle us on into the fantastic world of automation and cybernetics and nuclear energy.

The increase in the velocity of history means, among other things, that the "present" becomes the "past" more swiftly than ever before. If Rip Van Winkle had made a practice of coming back from the Catskills every twenty years, he would have found each new visit more perplexing and incredible. All this inevitably affects the psychology of the historian. Events which took place a few years ago may well seem as remote from the nineteen sixties as events which took place in 1800 seemed from the eighteen sixties. What we perceive as the "past," in other words, is chronologically much closer to us than it was when change was the function, not of days, but of decades.

Along with the acceleration of history has come the intensification of the means and volume of communication. This has meant the unceasing bombardment of the individual by signals of growing strength and significance; and, along with the side effects of stimulation and suffocation, this has vastly heightened the felt sense of the urgency of events. Nor is this urgency an illusion of the electronic age. For the scientific ingenuity which in our time has blessed humanity with the capacity to destroy itself has, in consequence, made the need to know more desperate than ever before. History, as a relevant form of knowledge, finds itself pressed into the service of crisis—hopefully less as a means of propaganda than as an effort at illumination. And the democratic need to know is accompanied by the constitutional right to know—the rights of the citizens of a democracy to have all possible information, favorable or not, regarding the character of public problems and the motives and effects of public policy. So the contemporary historian, when he faithfully discharges his task, serves not only his old cause of historic truth but his nation's cause of democratic responsibility.

Presented by

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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