On the Writing of Contemporary History

“The increase in the velocity of history means, among other things, that the ‘present’ becomes the ‘past’ more swiftly than ever before.”

David Pickoff / AP

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 and write about their own times; and this tendency as finally institutionalized with the professionalization 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.

At the same time, our age, for whatever reason perhaps again because the rapidity of change makes it so hard for us to take ourselves or our society for granted—has an unprecedented preoccupation with itself, its dilemmas, its agonies, its ecstasies. This propensity to self-examination, nurtured by competition among the organs, linear or electronic, of mass journalism, leads on to a morbid and often sick appetite for inside stories, sensational speculation, and prurient gossip. This has enlarged the market for contemporary history; and the new freedom of curiosity and comment exhibited in newspapers and magazines has diminished the inhibitions, which once restrained academic historians from pronouncing judgment until their dramatis personae were safely dead.

These have been alterations in the general intellectual atmosphere which have stimulated the writing of contemporary history. But it is important to note that they have been accompanied by developments within the historical field itself. For one thing, great manuscript collections tend to be open to scholars sooner than ever before. Franklin 1),. Roosevelt, in leaving his papers to the National Archives and providing for their early accessibility, to students, set a salutary, example followed by aU subsequent Presidents. Where the Adams papers, for instance, were closed for decades, where the papers of even so recent a President as Herbert Hoover were impounded for a generation, the Roosevelt precedent will make it difficult for public men of the future to lock up their manuscripts indefinitely. Hereafter the presumption will be in favor of making papers available to scholars as speedily as prudent standards of security and. discretion permit -or the alternative presumption will be that the deponent has something to hide.

Yet the very availability of contemporary manuscript collections has had another and somewhat paradoxical effect: it has demonstrated to scholar the inadequacy, of documents by themselves as sources for the history of the twentieth century. The revolution in the technology of communications especially the invention of the typewriter and the telephone—has eroded the value of the document. For most of American history, for example, the document remains a reasonably sufficient source In the early nineteenth century, if a public figure had something important to say, paper was the only means—save face-to-face conversation communication. Moreover, quill pen in hand, he could write only a limited number of letters. Historians studying these good old days can relax fairly comfortably in manuscript collections, confident that the documents will be competent sources and that they will not be too numerous to be read by a single person.

But those days, alas, are gone forever. In the last three quarters of a century, the rise of the typewriter has vastly increased the flow of paper, while the rise of the telephone has vastly reduced its importance. Far more documents have been produced, and there is far less in them. If a contemporary statesman has something of significance to communicate, if speed and secrecy are of the essence, he will confide his message, not to a letter, but to the telephone. Electronic waves, we have always, supposed, leave few traces; and, until wiretapping becomes a skill of the American Historical Association as well as of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we must assume that these vital historical moments will elude the documentary record.

Ironically enough, historians themselves, as Herman Kahn of the National Archives has forcefully pointed out, have contributed to the decline in the quality of historical documentation. The growing insistence that official papers should, as a matter of right, be immediately opened to scholars leads to a dilution and distortion of the written record. Public officials, fearing next decade’s graduate students, become reluctant to put in writing the real reasons behind some of their actions. Theodore Roosevelt was not the first politician to take the precaution of writing letters to friends or memoranda for the files in order to present his own version of public events or decisions; and the practice has greatly increased in the years since.

This combination of factors has created the technical need to supplement documents if we seek to recover the full historical transaction. So the contemporary historian acquires an indispensable function, if only to improve the record for the historian of the future. How can he best discharge this task? The interview is one obvious device, a method facilitated in our time by the invention of the electronic tape. We all know, of course, that an interview can be no better than a person’s memory, and that nothing is more treacherous than that. (For a rigorous and fascinating analysis of an oral history memoir, see Francis W. Schruben, “An Even Stranger Death of President Harding,” Southern California Quarterly, March, 1966.) Yet historians rarely hesitate to cite written reminiscences, which are quite as self-serving and often as unverifiable and as fallible. For all its unevenness, the materials accumulated by the Oral History Office at Columbia, by the oral history project of the John F. Kennedy Library, and by similar undertakings will surely be of inestimable benefit for historians of the twenty-first century. Think if we had equivalent material from the days of Lincoln or Emerson or Washington!

A person’s oral history interview becomes part of his papers, and the question inevitably arises about the conditions of access to such interviews as well as to more conventional manuscripts. This question has become much agitated in recent months as a result of the unfortunate and saddening contention between William Manchester, a gifted and conscientious writer, and the Kennedy family, which more than most presidential families has scrupulously tried to meet its obligations to the historians of the future.

Part of the trouble, no doubt, sprang from the original contract between Mr. Manchester and Robert F. Kennedy. The error in that contract did not lie in the provision for family review of the use of materials made available by the family. There is nothing novel or exceptional about this. Those who permit historians access to the papers of a contemporary public figure commonly, and understandably, retain the right to clear quotations from those papers or statements bared uniquely on them. Many of the notable biographies and histories of this century have been written under this stipulation. From the viewpoint of the historian, access under these conditions is a good deal better than no access at all.

The error of the contract lay rather in the provision for family approval of the entire text. For what a historical writer may establish by his own inquiry, what he may conclude on his own judgment, is his own responsibility. As the case developed, this distinction rose to the surface. Mr. Manchester has an unquestionable right to the conclusions of his independent research and interpretation. In the end, the Kennedys insisted only on what is equally unquestionably their right, the control of material uniquely derived from their own papers and especially from Mrs. Kennedy’s oral history interviews.

After the tragedy of Dallas, President Kennedy’s family and associates initiated a massive oral history undertaking in a determination to rescue and preserve for historians of the future the recollections of leading participants in the Kennedy years. One must hope that future Presidents or their families will follow this admirable example. But the basic premise of the oral history idea is that the person interviewed retains absolute and total control over the interview; it is self-evident that without such protection serious oral history would be impossible.

It fell to me to conduct the oral history interviews with Mrs. Kennedy concerning events up to the Texas trip. It would obviously have been cruel to subject her to the ordeal of two separate sets of interrogations regarding these last terrible days; and since Mr. Manchester was working on the book about the assassination and would have to talk to Mrs. Kennedy anyway, it seemed best to all concerned that he complete her oral history by interviewing her about the Texas trip. I remember saying to Mrs. Kennedy that this was the only time she would have to go through this experience, that she should hold nothing back, and that in talking with Mr. Manchester, as in talking with me, she was making a deposition for the historian of the twenty-first century. To what extent Mr. Manchester understood that he was engaged in completing Mrs. Kennedy’s oral history record, I do not know; but in any case, it is hard to believe that any interviewer in such circumstances would seriously suppose that he had gained all rights over the future disposition of the interview.

The central issue between Mrs. Kennedy, on the one hand, and Mr. Manchester, Harper & Row, and Look, on the other, became precisely the use of the material uniquely derived from this oral history interview; and the integrity of the entire oral history effort was therefore one of the matters at stake. The supposition that an oral history interview becomes the private property of the interviewer—that the interviewer, or the picture magazine or publishing house printing his work, should, rather than the person interviewed, decide how and when the interview should be used—runs contrary to the whole spirit of the oral history enterprise (as well as, in addition, to the letter of the contract which Mr. Manchester, wisely or not, signed with Robert F. Kennedy).

If the proposition were established that a person confiding his oral history recollections to the electronic tape loses to the interviewer all future rights over the interview, the oral history program, which promises so much to the historian of the future, would be dead. I may say that it never occurred to me that the tapes and transcripts resulting from my interviews with Mrs. Kennedy were mine, to be used at my discretion; and, while Mr. Manchester’s case differed in that he had every reason to suppose that he could draw on his interview for the purposes of an early book, this still hardly entitled him to use any material that Mrs. Kennedy did not wish him to use.

The character of the material involved raises still another question for the contemporary historian that is, the extent to which in writing public history he should enter into the private lives of the figures with whom he deals. Here the memoirist—the participant who records his own experience—has a different problem, since he is providing the raw material for the historian of the future. But for the contemporary historian the basic distinction is surely between writing about a public official in his public capacity, on the one hand, and writing about a private person in his (or her) personal life on the other. In occasional cases, the distinction may be hard to draw; but most of the time it is plain and self-evident.

A democracy must on principle deny the proposition that public officials, whether in office or out, be accorded immunity from historical truth. Only the most imperative and conclusive considerations of national security can be permitted to limit the free play of historical information and judgment on public figures acting in their public responsibilities. Nor can the allegation that adverse comment may hurt a public official’s reputation or his capacity to perform his duties be held to equal a breach of security. Reputable history has never been a conspiracy to protect the reputations of public officials; and in practice, it would be difficult to demonstrate that historical publication has ever prevented public officials from carrying out their assignments.

Comment on the public lives of public officials is thus one thing. But—and this is surely just as self-evident—the invasion of private life and sensibility is a wholly different question, at least for the professional historian, if not for the journalist or memoirist. However legal such comment may be, it is ordinarily not necessary to public history and becomes acceptable, as a matter both of aesthetics and of ethics, only with time. It would not have been either appropriate or honorable to write about Mrs. Lincoln three years after her husband’s assassination the things, say, Carl Sandburg could rightly feel free to write three quarters of a century later. I made this mistake myself in describing a scene between President and Mrs. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs in the serialized version of A Thousand Days, and belatedly realizing my breach of the historian’s principle, dropped it from the book.

The relationship of a Secretary of State to a President and to the conduct of foreign affairs is a legitimate concern of contemporary history. The relationship of a wife to her husband, even if he is a President, and to their children is a private matter, of concern to the ultimate historian (as Mrs. Kennedy recognized by recording her memories of those tragic days), but not essential to the historian writing in her lifetime.

Historians, I believe, would regard these propositions as self-evident. Yet most of the American press, that increasingly mysterious institution, apparently sees the matter exactly in reverse terms. Thus fifteen months ago the press almost unitedly rose to denounce and chastise a writer (me) for comment about public officials acting in their public capacities. The historical truth of the comment was not at issue; but historical truth was then brusquely dismissed in the interest, apparently, Of loftier considerations of public policy. Recently the press with almost equal unanimity has suddenly unfurled the standard of the full historical truth as an absolute, to be pursued at any cost, in order to rebuke the widow of a murdered President for guarding her own privacy against a writer who surely with the best intentions—had used her confidences without her permission.

In other words, the majority of American editorial writers evidently deem it vital in the sacred cause of the freedom of information to invade Mrs. Kennedy’s grief, but shocking to write frankly about a Secretary of State. So the Washington Post, which in 1965 had not rushed to defend historical truth as a criterion in writing about government officials, asserted in 1966, “The lives of public men—the records of their careers, the thoughts of others about them—are not the property of their families, but the property of posterity.” The Post rule is a little obscure, since it does not say when posterity is to come into its estate; but, judging by its own application to the Manchester case, the period is three years. A better rule, one would think, would be to say “the public lives of public men … are … the property of the people.” This would safeguard the democratic interest in full disclosure of matters of public concern while protecting the privacy of a President’s widow.

The test is whether the comment bears on the conduct of public affairs. This standard does not, of course, exclude private attitudes on public issues. “The public history of all countries, and all ages,” said John Quincy Adams, “is but a sort of mask, richly colored”; and the obligation of the historian, in Melville’s phrase, is to strike through the mask. As Charles Francis Adams wrote in 1840 in his introduction to his grandparents’ letters:

Our history is for the most part wrapped up in the forms of office. The great men of the Revolution, in the eyes of posterity, are many of them like the heroes of a mythological age. They are seen, for the most part, when conscious that they are acting upon a theatre, where individual sentiment be sometimes disguised, and often sacrificed, for the public good. Statesmen and generals rarely say all they think or feel. The consequence is, that, in the papers which come from them, they are made to assume a uniform of grave hue, which, though it doubtless exalts the opinion entertained of their perfections, somewhat diminishes the interest with which later generations study their character.

The solitary meditation, the confidential whisper to friend, never meant to reach the ear of the multitude, the secret wishes, not to be blazoned forth to catch applause, the fluctuations between fear and hope, that most betray the springs of action—these are the guides to character, which most frequently vanish with the moment that called them forth, and leave nothing to Posterity but those coarser elements for judgment that may be found in elaborated results.

Insofar as the contemporary historian or memoirist can rescue those guides to character which “most betray the springs of action” and “which most frequently vanish with the moment that called them forth,” he plainly places future historians in his debt.

And in achieving this result, the very act of publication becomes essential. Indeed, of all the objections advanced by laymen against contemporary history, the most shallow is the one that it is unseemly to write about public figures while they are still alive. “Over the dead,” Yeats once wrote, “I have an historian’s rights.” But what could be more unfair than to postpone the exercise of those rights—to suppress unfavorable information or judgment—until the subject has died and thereby lost the capacity, to reply? In a subsequent sentence (I quote from the preface to The Trembling of the Veil), Yeats expressed-the true historian’s creed: “I have said all the good l know and all the evil: I have kept nothing back necessary to understanding.” Certainly this is the proper practice, since this alone permits the public figure to make a rejoinder before the case is closed; and it is such debate which, more than anything else, enriches, clarifies, and completes the historical record.

Conteporary history in the late twentieth century is thus no longer, I submit, a personal whim or passing fashion. It is now a necessity—a psychic necessity to counter the pressures of life in a high velocity age and a technical necessity to rescue and preserve evidence for future historians. These are some, of the reasons, I believe, why contemporary history has acquired a new role in our academic life. The question -remains about the impact of this adventure on historical art and method.

That impact, I believe, has been wholly salutary. It has, for example, compelled all historians to ponder the limits of their craft. The comfortable old view was stated long ago by Aulus Gellius: “Alius quidam vet erum poetarum … Vent at em Temp oris fihiam esse dixit”—“Another one of the old poets … called Truth the daughter of Time.” Time, in other words, was counted upon to winnow out emotion and prejudice and leave the scholar, all passion spent, in calm command of the historical reality. The modern way of putting the point is to say that only the passage of time can give the historian the perspective he needs for objective analysis.

But our century has become increasingly dubious about the purifying effect of the passage of time. This is because it is not obvious in practice that time has been, in fact, the father of truth, if by truth we mean the agreement of historians. The passage of time, for example, does not liberate the historian from his deepest values and prepossessions. Wherever vital issues or strong emotions are involved, whether events are as remote from us as the fall of the Roman Empire, the life of Christ, or the rise of Pericles, distance does not create consensus or guarantee certitude. One comes to feel increasingly that historians agree only when the issues as well as the people are dead -and that the assurance with which historians are accustomed to pin down the past sometimes results from the happy fact that there are no survivors to challenge their reconstruction. Of course, time increases the amount of documentation available to the historian writing about the past, and this gives him a significant, and ultimately decisive, advantage over the historian writing about the present.

Yet, if the historian of the past has wider documentation and a longer view, the contemporary historian, especially if he has shared, in Holmes’s phrase, “the passion and action of his time,” offers a perspective that cannot be lightly rejected. It is wholly possible, for example, that contemporary writers, trapped as they may be in the emotions of their own age, may still, or in consequence, understand better what is going on than later historians trapped in the emotions of a subsequent age. So Tocqueville, reflecting on the French Revolution, observed that what contemporary writers

know better than does posterity are the movements of opinion, the popular inclinations of their times, the vibrations of which they can still sense in their minds and hearts. The true traits of the principal persons and of their relationships, of the movements of the masses are often better described by witnesses than recorded by posterity. These are the necessary details. Those close to them are better placed to trace the general history, the general causes, the grand movements of events, the spiritual currents which men who are further removed may no longer find since these things cannot be perceived from the memoirs.

Or Santayana:

It is not true that contemporaries misjudge a man. Competent contemporaries judge him … much better than posterity, which is composed of critics no less egotistical, and obliged to rely exclusively on documents easily misinterpreted.

Perspective, in short, is not a state of reality; it is a state of mind. What Hamilton in the seventieth Federalist well called “the dim light of historical research” is not a laser beam but a flickering candle. “Man is fed with fables through life,” wrote Jefferson, “and leaves it in the belief that he knows something of what has been passing, when in truth he has known nothing but what has passed under his own eye.” “Every true history,” said Croce, summing up the epistemological issue, “is contemporary history.” So in one age political conflicts are interpreted in religious terms, and in another religious conflicts are interpreted in political terms, and so on until one must conclude that if truth is the daughter of time, it takes a wise father to know his own children. In the words of Dewey,

We are committed to the conclusion that all history is necessarily written from the standpoint of the present, and is, in an inescapable sense, the history not only of the present but of that which is contemporaneously judged to be important in the present.

One must ask forgiveness for summoning high authority to labor so elementary a point, except that the point is all too rarely applied to the argument about the validity of contemporary history. Indeed, if one were in an aggressive mood, it would be possible, I think, to contend that contemporary history can be more exacting in its standards—of evidence, of precision, of judgment, of responsibility—than the history of the past; for contemporary history involves the writing of history in face of the only people who can contradict it, that is, the actual participants. Every historian of the past knows at the bottom of his heart how much artifice goes into his reconstructions; how much of his evidence is partial, ambiguous; or hypothetical; and yet how protected he is in speculation because, barring recourse to sances on wet afternoons, no one can say him nay, except other historians with vulnerable theories of their own. The farther back the historian goes, the more speculative his history becomes, until he gets to ancient history, which is a kind of brilliant ingenuity lavished on aimless and fragmentary remains, an exercise less in reconstruction than in creation.

No doubt I exaggerate, nor, in any case, is there any need to foment a gratuitous feud between contemporary and classical history. And contemporary history serves scholars perhaps in another way, by reminding them of the character of human motives It is not necessary to agree with Hurne about the uniformity of human nature to find in the comedy of the present an instructive check on the fancied grandeur of the past. “I have no expectation,” wrote Emerson, “that any man will read history aright who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense than what he is doing today.” The besetting sin of the historian is to tidy up the past—to impute pattern to accident and purpose to fortuity. Any conscientious student of the present will, when he turns to the past, know better and give adequate scope to the play of contingency chance, ignorance, and sheer stupidity. The sufficient defense of contemporary history is that it will serve historians of the future—as the first and greatest of contemporary historians, Thucydides so nobly serves historians today.