What's Wrong with the New History: An Interview with David Kaiser


Mr. Dragoni is an HNN intern.

This interview was prompted by a discussion on H-Diplo about the decline of diplomatic history. Professor Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, blogs at History Unfolding. His latest book is The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Harvard University Press, 2008).

I thought we could start with your post on H-Diplo of March 20th. Here, you express your concern for the "nearly total eclipse of the study of politics" over the last 30 years in the historical profession. What do you mean by this?

As I tried to make clear in my post, the relative eclipse of diplomatic history is one facet of a much larger problem: the near-disappearance of the study of what modern governments do, and how what they do affects their societies, based upon archival research.  One rarely sees books about the passage of domestic legislation or the effects of government economic policies anymore.  Compare the extent of scholarship about the New Deal era in the 1950s to the extent of historical writing about the Reagan Administration today--and keep in mind that the Reagan Administration is as far away from us now as the New Deal was then.  Compare Drew Faust's The Republic of Suffering to James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom--both books which were widely reviewed and at least briefly made best-seller lists. McPherson wrote a highly sophisticated political and military history of one of the great crises in American life, taking advantage of recent scholarship.  Faust took a social phenomenon--death--and analyzed it from various economic, social, and cultural aspects.  Not surprisingly, her book was far less interesting to the general public. Now in fact, American foreign policy remains a relatively robust field--journals are still devoted to it, it has a professional association, and books on various topics continue to appear dealing with the actual behavior of the American government.  But the whole idea of "international history" seems to me designed to provide an alternative to the study of government policy which will be more in line with the prevailing trends of the last thirty years.

To illustrate what I'm talking about by analogy I'd like to refer readers to a book that recently appeared, The Purpose of the Past, a collection of reviews and essays written by the colonial historian Gordon Wood.  He treats quite a few recent works about the colonial era to show how the scholarship of the last 20-30 years has projected contemporary concerns--especially concerns about race, gender, and the supposed political power of language--onto that era.  Often, as he makes clear, that can only be done by making very selective and creative use of evidence.  The result--and this is one of the things that concerns me the most--are books that will not have much resonance outside of the historical profession itself.

Do you feel that our study of history is becoming less objective through these new methods?

What you have to understand is that the new history has given up the idea that the past can be recreated as it really was. If you believe that every view of the past is political, then one view is just as good as another from the standpoint of accuracy. The new history uses the past—usually pretty small snippets of it—to try to illustrate contemporary concerns, not the concerns of the past. Wood wrote very eloquently about this not too long ago in an article about recent books about slavery and the Constitution. He began by noting that we’ve been obsessed with race for the last forty years, and then noted several recent books that argued, in effect, that one of the main purposes of the new central government was to be able to deal with possible slave rebellions, and that the future of slavery was critical to many of the decisions reached in the Constitution. He showed that the latter contention in particular was a misreading of the evidence—but this is typical of what is going on.

Do you fear that the new methods, such as gender, are steadily replacing instead of assisting in our study of the interactions between states?

I hate to revisit past controversies but they do make my point.  One of the first major debates on H-Diplo on these issues involved an article by Frank Costigliola about George F. Kennan's long telegram.  Pointing out that Kennan repeatedly used the word "penetration" to describe Soviet behavior in Eastern and Western Europe in the wake of the Second World War, Costigliola argued that this was gendered language characterizing the Soviets as rapists.  In a long exchange I asked him to say whether he was actually arguing that Kennan had that in mind, or whether he was just, in effect, adapting the word to his own purposes.  I don't think he ever clearly answered that question. And that's a problem with post-modernist history, looking for "gendered" language and such in the past: they are not studying the past as such, not asking what words meant to those who used them.

Meanwhile, with respect to what the new "international history" means in practice, I can't do better than to quote William Hitchcock in our recent exchange about how "international historians" would discuss President Obama's visit to the G-7 summit:

I was thinking today as I read the news coverage of President Obama's trip to Europe: how would "international historians" write about it? Of course, we'd want to read the State Department records that will have been created in preparing for the G-20 meeting, and those will be fascinating: the Obama effort to engage Russia, the tensions between the US and Europe over global monetary and fiscal policy, the influence of China in the meeting halls. But I think we'd also want to explain the "Obama effect" - how his image has been constructed and deployed in Europe; the transatlantic (mis)-understandings about race; the gendered readings of Michelle Obama's public role; the significance of Obama's gift to the Queen - an iPod - the ultimate emblem of American consumer and popular culture. (Will the Queen use it, I wonder?) And surely we'd want to address the intensity of the riots in the streets of London's financial district, the youth-generated anti-globalization movement, and the cross-cutting understandings at elite and popular levels of the origins of the world financial crisis.

 Now let me suggest a third alternative.  My hope would be that in 30 years, when archives are, I hope, open, that meeting would be studied like the World Economic Conference of 1933: one episode in a long story of global economic meltdown and, I hope, eventual recovery.  As William Hitchcock bows to traditional approaches in the second sentence of that paragraph, he does so with a very narrow focus on this meeting itself. That's one problem I see. But then (with considerably more enthusiasm, I would say), he raises a number of concerns which no one outside professional academia would be likely to understand.  Essentially he's talking about how postmodern academics would riff (I use that word advisedly) about today's headlines, just as they riff on isolated incidents from the past.  That, to me, is the essence of the "new history" of which international history is a part, and I do not find it inspiring.

I was in grad school when social history was having an impact.  It--like women's history, the history of sexuality, etc., later--was sold as a way to broaden out history by adding previously understudied topics.  But no, that isn't the way things have turned out. There's only so much room in the garden, and the new species are crowding out the old, and replicating themselves much faster, and "international history" is, as far as I can see, part of that process.

 I might add, by the way, that Professor Hitchcock reported that his Temple undergrads are very enthusiastic about the new approaches. Perhaps they are; but I found as a visitor at Williams College two years ago that undergraduates there were delighted to do detailed, and quite traditional, investigations of the American role in the two world wars and of the Vietnam War. I had one student whose ambition was to go to grad school and study 19th-century European diplomacy—but he knew what a tough time he would have finding a place to do it, much less a job, and he has not yet decided to give it a go.  I also found that, with the help of the web, I could teach those topics more effectively than I had at Harvard in the 1970s or Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s.

Courses on traditional subjects like American diplomacy, the Second World War, and the Civil War still survive on some elite campuses, and they are usually very popular. However, those who teach them are generally nearing retirement, and there will be no younger folks to replace them.

Why do you think students are seemingly more enthusiastic towards the traditional approaches?

History is real-life drama. Yes, it is more often tragic than comic or heroic; but there is an intrinsic interest to studying decisions that affect the lives of millions. Personalities of people like Wilson, Roosevelt, LBJ, Nixon, Westmoreland, etc., are also inherently interesting, as are the reactions of the Americans and other people. If you pay attention to such things it’s not difficult to show students how the events of the last century shaped the world in which they live. Students also love working with primary sources, which are now readily available at their computer. There’s not too much mystery to any of this.

On April 2, Sally Marks stated that the AHA program committee has lacked for sometime a diplomatic historian (according to her, 17 years); she goes on to list other areas of neglect by the AHA towards the diplomatic field. Do you feel that other historians have largely abandoned diplomatic historians?

All that is true. Sally Marx is (she’s retired) a European diplomatic historian, which is what I started out as. That field is completely dead as far as I can tell, with the exception of a few older people who are still hanging on. You could look through a great many catalogues without finding a course on European diplomacy in the first half of the twentieth century. I don’t think very many diplomatic historians belong to the AHA any more—I quit after the program committee had turned down two panels I submitted, one in the 1980s and one in the 1990s. That’s all discussed in an article published in Academic Questions in 2000 that I wrote called “My War with the AHA.

You study one facet of a narrative that seems to revolve around big names. Whether it is Metternich, Talleyrand or Kissinger; foreign secretaries, envoys and diplomats have become immortalized in the study of history - World War II is in fact a perfect example of this. With so many famous and 'great' actors do you support the 'great man theory' in some shape or form?

To say that they have become "immortalized in the study of history" is to give in to the postmodernist assumption that history is simply a matter of valorizing certain people over others. The issue is not whether such men are great, the issue is that they the ones who, by virtue of the positions they occupy, make decisions upon which the lives, property and happiness of thousands, and sometimes millions of people depend. To be sure, they don't make them with complete freedom of action, but sophisticated historians have always understood that. In Politics and War I looked at four periods of general European war and concluded that in two of the four--including the last and most destructive one, from 1914 through 1945--the powers were fighting for unachievable goals. I think that was an important conclusion to reach. In American Tragedy I showed how one President, Kennedy, had refused to get into full-scale war in Southeast Asia while another, Johnson, thought he had to do so. If that doesn't prove that who is President is important than I don't know what would.

Here and elsewhere you’ve stated the problems in academia, and specifically with your field of history. I'd like to ask you if you have any possible solutions. Is it as simple as going back a few decades in practice? Is there an alternative you'd like to propose? What would you like to see changed within your profession and within universities in regard to the study of history?

Some of the faults of the historical profession actually go back half a century--particularly specialization--although they have gotten worse. I would like to see significant numbers of historians return to the study of national and international political institutions, how they work, what their impact on society is, etc. One irony is that, as I have proven in my last book (and am now at work proving again), breakthroughs in information technology, including on-line data bases and Microsoft Excel, actually can allow a historian to record, process, and make use of information on a scale that would have been impossible even twenty years ago. But to use them, you have to want to do the research in the first place. (I have offered to demonstrate these techniques to one or two history departments but so far there have been no takers.) Most of all, if history is ever going to have any broader impact, we have to encourage and reward people who think big. That would be an enormous change.

Ironically, seeking out people who are really remarkable teachers as well as scholars would also have a good effect. Great teachers have to be able to understand many things and make them comprehensible to lay people. Those are actually critical intellectual skills. No one knows this any more, but around 1950, when James Bryant Conant started General Education at Harvard, he actually hired some stars for the purpose of creating these new courses--including David Riesman. Not even a liberal arts college, much less a major university, would make an appointment like that today. And as Alan Kors pointed out not long ago in the Wall Street Journal, a school that actually oriented itself around serious teaching would be on top of the world within five years.

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David E. Kaiser - 8/23/2009

The Cheney office was dominated by men (led by David Addington) who have been violently opposed to oversight and openness in government since the Nixon Admiinistration. I'm not surprised that they kept their own records and I think that a lot is going to be lost to history as a result.

The JFK Records Act, which allowed me to write my last book, should be a model for major controversies in recent American history. We are now 37 years away from Watergate--why not an Act that would create a board to release all the files on that famous case? The nation was founded by men who were skeptics about government and would have liked to see the citizenry see how the sausage has made. The sausage-makers often feel differently.

Maarja Krusten - 8/15/2009

The New York Times's Opinionator blog offers reactions from several observers to the news about Dick Cheney's memoirs. See

The observation at the end does not begin to cover the questions historians may try to answer: "Did George W. Bush try to forge consensus in his second term to heal a divided nation? Did he betray his cadre of visionaries to appease the apologists? Or was he simply too nice a guy?" It leaves out the President's need to be both the political leader of his party and chief executive. The roles have different stewardship obligations.

As archival material is released over time, I'll be interested to see how information flowed to and from the President within the White House. And how the decision making process worked. Those are elements which largely were opaque at the time historians voted in the poll described on HNN while Mr. Bush still was in office.

Interestingly, a lawsuit at the end of Mr. Bush's term revealed that Mr. Cheney's office operated separately from the White House Office of Records Management (WHORM), with its own staff responsible for records management. As someone who is very interested in primary sources and the life cycle of records, I'd like to know why that was the case. I've visited WHORM several times over the decades and also have learned a lot about it from my own work in records it administered. WHORM has been in operation for a long time (previously it was White House Central Files). That the VP's staff operated separately from it during the Bush administration is fascinating to me.

Maarja Krusten - 8/13/2009

Thanks so much! I did find a nice news obituary for Dr. Mark in the Washington Post, via Nexis. I'm a subscriber to the print edition but missed it when it appeared in June. I appreciate the tip about H-Diplo, I'll search its archives.

Did you know Roger Trask by any chance? Roger was a founding member of the Society for History in the Federal Government and a colleague of mine of the agency where I still work. Roger died in April 2008 in Florida, where he lived part of the year. Good man, I miss him as a friend and a former colleague in my history office. He retired from federal service in 1994 but worked for some time after that as a contractor with Al Goldberg at DOD/OSD.



David E. Kaiser - 8/13/2009


That is all very good news! So glad that the very traditional Mr Cheney documented his role! I hadn't seen that story, but I saw another one today--apparently a major theme of his memoirs will be disappointment with GWB during the second term! Who knew?
I know some one who worked with Addington during the Bush I years and based on his testimony, what you say makes sense. I think Cheney was especially motivated to keep anything to do with Iran-Contra secret.
I think you will find at least one obit of Dr. Mark and you can also find something about his death by searching H-Diplo.

best, DK

Maarja Krusten - 8/13/2009

Dr. Kaiser,

Many thanks for the very good response, much appreciated. I understand what you mean about responding as citizens versus historians. They're not mutually exclusive yet the poll, as conducted and reported out, made me very uneasy.

I am so sorry to hear of the death of Dr. Mark! He and I exchanged some very interesting emails a few years ago. I'll have to look in Nexis to see if there were any obituaries. He held very strong views on record keeping and history and expressed them vividly and forcefully, as advocates sometimes do.

I agree with you about the decline of H-Diplo, it's one reason I dropped out. Other H-Net lists reportedly have struggled, as well. T. Mills Kelly wrote about the decline of H-Net and listserv (email distribution) discussion forums at the Edwired blog a couple of years ago.

I think you've nailed it regarding the cycles in recent history and empiricism. There are jobs where you can move pretty far away from empiricism and jobs where it would be foolish to do so. I have no inclination to move away from it myself, as I said, I'm very comfortable in a data driven environment. I'd rather just go where the facts take me, even if it means revisiting some of my conclusions as new information becomes available.

Did you see the article in today's Washington Post which mentioned that Dick Cheney took and kepts notes during his White House tenure? They now are at the National Archives and on the fact of it, would appear to be statutorily controlled by the Presidential Records Act. Very interesting, given that Mr. Cheney once said in an interview -- somewhat laughingly, it appeared -- that historians had been looking in vain at the Ford Presidential Library for a paper trail from him on his earlier service. For today's article on Mr. Cheney, his notes, and his memoirs, see

For the sake of the archivists who will be reviewing the notes for public access and doing equity coordination, I hope the classified portions bear clean classification markings, using standard language under E.O. 12958, as amended. No "treat as if they were. . . ." markings, I hope. Of course, PRA-controlled materials can be requested by the public five years after a President and Vice President leave office.

Generally, I'm very interested to know if there is a paper trail indicating how Mr. Bush came to issue E.O. 13233 (since rescinded by the new administration) on assertions of privilege over PRA-controlled material by Presidents, Vice Presidents, and designees named by their heirs in pertetuity. One WaPo reporter said it is believed David Addington played a role in crafting the E.O. (Alberto Gonzalez then still was WH Counsel). I don't know whether that is solid information or simply is hearsay.

Again, thanks for the response and the very interesting Q&A responses. I hope they make readers think! Certainly had that effect on me. It was well worth checking back on the site during my lunch break to see your response.



David E. Kaiser - 8/13/2009

Well, regarding the Bush poll, I think it's possible for historians to respond as citizens without claiming that we have the kind of answers we would like. (I do wonder, though, whether any kind of thorough history of the Bush Administration will ever be written--there has really been no such history of any Administration, I think it's fair to say, since JFK!)

All this began with the events of the late 1960s, I have argued, which convinced so many of my contemporaries that anything our parents (or teachers) told us could safely be disregarded--including the idea of empiricism. The other problem with empiricism, as Henry Adams told the AHA more than 100 years ago, is that it tends to reach conclusions with narrow appeal. .

The decline of the profession can be followed in the H-Diplo archives. When I first signed on about 15 years ago it was a real hotbed of discussion of all sorts of critical historical topics. Later it became the site of very heated debates about postmodernism. Now many of those who made it go have retired or signed off, thus the lack of reaction to the late Eduard Mark, who died recently.


Maarja Krusten - 8/13/2009

Dr. Kaiser, I'm generally sympathetic to your concerns or at least understand why you views these issues as you do. I'm most comfortable myself in a data-oriented environment.

Do you think there is a ripple effect due to the lack of strong pushback against starting with a theory and looking for facts to support it? If historians argued more strongly for empiricism and the traditional approach to crafting narratives, would we even have seen polls asking where Bush ranked as President while he still was in office? http://hnn.us/articles/48916.html

Any historian who voted in the poll could only have based his vote on (1) interpretation of partial outcomes (events still were unfolding in places such as Iraq); (2) post-decisional, public documents, and (3) the same information available to any member of the general public who follows the news. No archival, pre-decisional information on decision making of the sort valued by historians was available yet. It's hard to imagine historians 40 or 50 years ago taking part in such insta-polls of Presidential rankings.

Do you think there also is a correlation between historians' seeming lack of interest in how the computer age and the potential chilling effect of public access legislation have affected record keeping and the way non-traditionalists approach history? Even on H-Diplo, to which I once subscribed but no longer do, posts by Dr. Eduard Mark, Air Force historian, drew no responses. Yet one would expect that traditionalists on the listserv -- those most accustomed to immersing themselves in archives in doing research -- would have been interested in what he wrote. Consider what Dr. Mark posted on H-Diplo in 2001 (http://shrinkster.com/nyd ) and 2005
( http://shrinkster.com/nyc). I still was a subscriber and was surprised and disappointed that his posts resulted in no discussion, much less the lively debate over what to do that I believed they deserved.

art eckstein - 8/12/2009

There are people who see the Global War on Terror as motivated by pure U.S. internal paranoia, and provide a cultural reason (starting with King Philip' War) for GWOT occurring.

To which the (Realist) answer is: did YOU lose anyone of the 3,000 murdered on 9/11?

Oh, but maybe the U.S. response was internally generated for cultural reasons towards violence, when the "proper and restrained" answer was "police style", i.e., deliver a an arrest warrant to OBL in his cave in Afghanistan.

Without the sarcasm from me, Jonathan,I see a persistent refusal on the part of post-Structuralists to confront what I see as the vicious reality of the world. Everything becomes symbolic, and every symbol is generated within U.S. culture, and is a sign of that culture's sickness, not a sign of the vicious realities of the world of power and ideology.

In addition, by insisting that transnational events are really "internal" U.S. cultural events, the outside world is denied existence in the U.S. Every foreign issue becomes an issue concerning how the U.S. society should be. It's hard to get more solipsistic than that, yet this is the basis of "cultural" analyses of post-9/11.

In addition, under this sort of analysis, outside third-world people are denied agency, or internal motivations themselves; they are ot subjects but are merely objects "reacting" ("reacting naturally") to U.S. sins. Another part of the condescending and solipsistic style of analysis, it seems to me.

In addition, it is easy to see politics masquerading behind this sort of "sophisticated" analysis. We once had a person who applied for a position in my Dept, an "expert" on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which she saw in this "culturally constructed" way. She didn't read Arabic. (Get the point?) The Dept offered her the position. (Luckily she turne it down.)

Jonathan Rodwell - 8/12/2009

Prof Kaiser,

If full disclosure is the order of the day I should openly admit that I have always been somewhat inspired by much of your work (especially on Vietnam), so hopefully what drives my responses is clear. Also, I am far from the greatest supporter of post-structural/modern approaches. I have criticised dominant post-modernism myself so I'm not at all unsympathetic to what you are saying.

But I still think you highlight a problem that doesn't bother me that much and I'm more worried about an overreaction to the problem which I think could lead (worryingly) to Art Ecksteins' 'acceptable categories of research' that he briefly summarised above. Generally I think you are half right.

There has undeniably been a growth of post-structural approaches and a number of institutions chase these 'trendy' approaches. But, at the same time, as far as I can tell, this is just what happens over the years. Academics follow trends as they always have. We have the trend for Realism after WWII, then the growth in radical 'Marxist' interpretations to be overtaken by post revisionism, then post-modernists in some areas, and rationalists in many more. Then in the 90's after the Cold War ended the further growth of relativism and the wheel keeps turning. If you ask me rationalism is on it's way 'back'.

In the UK, for example, we seem to be currently going through a rather contradictory phase. Socially, as encapsulated by the debates between Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton, we are in the middle of a rather philosophical debate between rationalist and relativists about religion. As 'faith' and relativism grows so rationalism pushes back. This is happening in our faculties too. And it happens to some degree out on the streets in reaction to the financial crises. For example, you posted an interesting recent blog post about whether Marxism still has something to tell us which effectively hinted at some of this. Nevertheless, I think it's still very hard to get a job if your work is based on a Marxist analysis though. So, what I am trying to say (it's hard to express fully in this space) is that I also think there is a more complex relation and a degree of it is reflected in society.

Also, I don't think the anecdotal evidence necessarily stacks up. In my experience (in the UK, of course) the least popular conference papers are concerned with theoretical perspectives and the most dominant work in History / Diplomatic History / I.R. is driven by a rationalist epistemology, not necessarily to the benefit of the quality of the 'History'. If I can add my own anecdote, I know a friend who in response to my gaining a permanent position in a Politics and Philosophy department (having concentrated my early teaching and studies in History) said "so does this now mean you understand 'ologies' and 'isms'".

To play around with your hypothetical interview process a little (with the hope of not being too glib) if the choice was between your post-modernist, or a Realist academic with copious papers in Foreign Affairs, I actually think the Realist would get the job. In my experience even if the 'post-modernist' had properly engaged with the theoretical discussion their work implies what would matter to the appointments committee was how often the applicant was published (regardless of quality). This, of course, might in part be your point. But, I think it cuts in more directions than simply to the detriment of 'traditionalist' work.


Jonathan Rodwell - 8/12/2009


I would firstly need to admit I'm talking about any approaches not based on rational epistemology and methodology. To me there is a rationalist epistemology, ontology and methodology and relativist ones. Neither better or worse than the other but the division, and muddled middle, poses important questions and has consequences.

So, I would argue post-structural work is the non rationalist stuff (hence being 'post' structuralist) . Of course you could think "but this isn't post-modernist / post-structural" and I would have sympathy with that. Somewhere on my computer I have a provisional argument I wrote that goes through the dichotomies pushed by both sides of the debate. My point is that dominant 'post-modernism' isn't actually a fair version of post-modernist / post-structuralism / relativist work (usually it seems to want to blind people to its own problems, as you rightly said a post or two ago).

Anyway, all this might be a sneaky qualification, but I think it stands. So, allowing for that qualification and to give you some concrete examples:

Firstly, I would question anyone who doesn't think some advancements have been made by acknowledging the important of gender and cultural analysis. Do we really still think the only important causal forces in foreign policy are decisions made by important men (and the odd woman) in the big roles? It seems to me that it's clear culture plays a role at some level (but, of course, not singularly). So, there are many examples of those who that looked at the 'state-private network' and I am particularly convinced by the notion that the direction of the Cold War (especially its end) was as much a consequence of social and cultural forces as it was nuclear weapons and diplomatic arguments. Moreover, could we really say that the current arguments and diplomatic wrangling (to put it mildly) between the Israelis and Palestinians doesn't have a cultural and ideological element? More specifically...

- In David Patrick Houghtons' ‘U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis’ he explored how the students reacted to American policy through conceptions and beliefs, rather than just through the simple material nature of the events. I thought he had a point.

- On top of this there is work such as Alan Wolfes' 'The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat' which places the motivation behind Soviet policy as domestic ideological forces in the U.S. There is something in that, surely?

- But, my greatest example is William Appleman Williams. His work was not purely empirical (how does one account for the conception and role of 'weltanschauung' in a traditionalist empirical analysis?). But, it wasn't post-structuralist either and to me is better than the majority of empirical and post-structural stuff. And it definitely wasn't a Marxist analysis. I'd like to think people who disagreed with his conclusions could appreciate the methodology he tried to develop.

Full disclosure: I did once write a messy and underworked paper describing post-modernist writers looking at the war on terror as 'trendy but empty'. Nevertheless I do, perhaps naively, think the theoretical direction is at some level worth persevering with. This is because I've still yet to read a genuinely empirical approach that adequately integrates ideology into an explanation of foreign policy. In the same vein I've yet to read a 'traditionalist' great power approach on which people agree about its empirical content and normative conclusions. This is really my point.

The challenge, I think, is squaring these epistemological circles and I don't think History as a field has managed it yet, certainly not the degree that it can just assume that relativism has nothing to contribute.

art eckstein - 8/12/2009

Jonathan, while you basically agree, you do say you do think that there's some good post-structural historical analysis out there. Give me an example of good post-structuralism historical analysis and I'll certainly take a look at it it.

I've added my own two cents to the new posting from Prof. Kaiser, based on bitter experience.

Jonathan Rodwell - 8/12/2009


A quick thought back (I'm just finishing a response to prof Kaiser). I absolutely agree with your second paragraph. I think in the end I want a better form of post-structuralism. I do think it's out there, I think the contradictions can be bridged, but in the end I am open to the notion that perhaps I am the naive one...


art eckstein - 8/12/2009

And what about the grad student who has done work in the Soviet archives and is applying for that job and his thesis is that (say) Stalin personally pushed Kim Il-Sung to attack S. Korea as part of the World Revolution? Will such a grad student even make the long short list of the search committee?

It is in in that way--revolution by search committee--that the choice in our hypothetical "America and the World" positon is reduced to Bruce Cumming's leftist agitprop, or the tiny cultural studies/gender studies topics that will interest practically no one in the general public.

art eckstein - 8/12/2009

Dear Jonathan,

Yes indeed, we're in basic agreement.

My main concern methodologically is something that Prof. Kaiser mentions below in his new posting--that those with a firmly set "theory" are looking at evidence for evidence to confirm it. I think that's simply instinctive, which is why it takes discipline (learned painfully in grad school) to accept evidence that disconfirms "my darling, my hypothesis"-- let alone to actually *look* for evidence that disconfirms it.

While my experience is that Realists have this intellectual/scholarly problem to some extent, my experience is also that Marxists have this problem much worse, much more intensely, and that it is backed by a moral imperative or world-view that they simply do not want to have challenged. Is that really a basis for scholarship?

As for the post-Modernists, sorry, Jonathan, but I've had to read a lot of them and in my view they are stuck in problems of empiricism which puzzle sophomores. Yet many have made a career out of it. Furthermore while all of them are bien-pensant lefists and even call themselves revolutionaries, they write in an impenetrable priestly jargon which can only be intentionally elitist. (Now, *there's* a contradiction in theory for you!) The purpose of that jargon is not to clarify via technical terminology, as is the case with the Realists with all their faults; In my view (you may not agree), the purpose of employment of jargon by them is to mystify and assert intellectual superiority over the reader through intentional obscurity of expression. Plus they have a tendency to "riff"--to take one incident and make a thesis out of it based on "theory", the classic "small n" fallacy--because that's a lot less leg-work than plowing through lots of archives.

Just some thoughts.



Jonathan Rodwell - 8/12/2009


First name terms is much better! I have to say we do, basically, agree. Cummingss wasn't the best example of what I was trying to say (though like Prof. Kaiser I have always appreciated the fact the never really hid his approach). The Carr quote is an excellent encapsulation of where we agree, I think.

All I was really trying to express was that reductionism through empiricism and theory are as problematical as one another. But, I do think we agree there.

From my own perspective though I just have a great deal of sympathy with anyone who proposes to peruse an hypothesis, based on the empirical evidence, and is prepared to allow for the flaws (and advantages) of that hypothesis. The danger is when people are so wedded to success of an hypothesis or theory that they can't see beyond it or see its flaws. But I still think there is a lot to be said for testing an hypothesis and seeing where it leads.

So, I do still think there is room for a Realist analysis of foreign policy, as well as a Marxist one, and also a Post-Modern one (and many others) non of these are wrong simply by their nature. Having said that i'm not sure we at all disagree here!

And I should say thanks for the replies, it's an enjoyable discussion. Still, I should reply to Prof. Kaisers recent clarification / emphasis...

David E. Kaiser - 8/12/2009

I agree with Prof. Eckstein that historians must try to eliminate bias, and that surrendering to it on the grounds that "everyone does it" leads to a disastrous situation. I also agree that "theory" seems to involve reaching the conclusion first, and trying to find archival evidence to match, another slippery slope. The points I was trying to make in the interview, however, go well beyond the issue of Bruce Cumming's uses of evidence. (For the record, I always enjoyed reading his work because it did include a lot of data and I thought he was always frank about when he was speculating.)
The real point is this. Let's suppose Bruce Cummings were emerging from graduate school right now, having written a dissertation on Korea and the great powers in the late 1940s or early 1950s, more or less in the vein of the books he has written. Let's assume that he applied for a job in "America and the World," and that other candidates included (let's say) historians who had written dissertations about the racial and gender implications of a 1958 rape case involving a young Korean woman and an American soldier, and a study of media images of Koreans in American culture, focusing on the movies Falling Down and Do the Right Thing. In today's climate, I think it is extremely unlikely that Bruce Cummings would get that job. The students at that college would soon lack any opportunity to learn about great power rivalries in northeast Asia (or, very likely, anywhere else.) And that is the larger problem that I was addressing.

David Kaiser

Maarja Krusten - 8/12/2009

The use of archives is dependent not just on the hoped-for eventual release of some portions of the records, but what happens to them throughout their entire life cycle. It's not just about how you disseminate those portions of records that the government releases to you. It's how the government handled their creation and preservation in the first place.

A number of factors can affect this, including technology and the creating officials' reactions to public access legislation. You need to consider the initial decision to write something down (as opposed to deliberating, briefing or de-debriefing orally). Data capture (how robust is the creating agency's enterprise architecture, its ERMS system and culture of record keeping. And preservation (emulation, migration).

At the 1998 Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History, Mike Miller, then director of the Modern Records Program at the National Archives, explained how the central file historians are used to working with is disappearing. He also pointed to metadata capture: ". . . .there is a question for historians to think about. We are dealing with new kinds of records. In the world of the Internet would you, as a historian, like to be able to track where the President was on the Internet--this is where he went, this is what he looked at? Would you like to know the Internet sources I looked at in preparing this paper? Would it be handy to know the number of times I edited it, how much screen time I spent on it? Maybe not this paper, but what about something from the National Security Council? What about some major policy documents prepared within the federal government? Is this something that you need to know, or is it something that would be nice to know? There are lots of different kinds of documentation out there that we haven't had available to us in the past."

But Miller also pointed to a potential downside to electronic recordkeeping. He told the story of a federal agency head who upon being told that a system had been set up to automatically capture and preserve his email (which fell under the Federal Records Act) stopped using email altogether.

To read Miller's paper and consider the challenges in federal record keeping that the National Archives was grappling with already ten years ago, see

Also worth considering are the comments offered by James Hastings (for whom I once worked). He discusses the use of email by the State Department and the inconsistencies between guidance and practice in creating records at the department. See
Some progress has been made since then but many challenges still remain.

I attended the conference and found it worthwhile, in no small part because it brought together historians specializing in diplomatic history and government employees. See
for the program and links to other papers presented in 1998.

Maarja Krusten - 8/12/2009

Dr. Bornet,

Many thanks for posting this. I'm glad to see you mention Norman Graebner. As a government historian, I had the honor and pleasure of working with Dr. Graebner on a federal advisory panel during the early 1990s. That he saw value not just in writing and teaching, but also in helping to enhance the use of applied history in the federal sphere, spoke so very well of him. We public servants are better off for his having been willing to do that. My eyes lit up when I saw his name on your list.

Best regards,

Maarja Krusten

art eckstein - 8/11/2009

Dear Jonathan (if I may),

We probably agree more than we disagree.

My problem is that Cummings is just about the last person in the world one should bring forward (or to bring himself forward) to elevate theory over evidence from the archives.

To be sure, no one can be totally objective. But graduate school training is supposed to work to remove one's personal biases from one's work as much as possible--except of course there are people who elevate those biases, which are based in emotion, into "theory". Cummings was one. We cannot approach Truth completely, but at least we can be competent in our field; and grad school is supposed to train us restrain our proclivities for seeing what we want to see, etc. Cummings saw what he wanted to see because of his ideology.

As E. H. Carr said, the truth is like a mountain: it has a complex shape, and it looks somewhat different, depending upon one's perspective. But that doesn't mean it has an infinity of shapes, nor does it mean it has no shape. I think this is correct.

Now, Bruce Cummings saw that mountain upside down. And one must ask why. And "theory" is the answer. He sneers at objectivity in that article you cite: but is he really an inspiring example of what happens once one disregards objectivity even as an ideal? The problem with theory is that in defense of theory one can end up, as Macaulay says, with "my darling my hypothesis", my darling which I will do anything to save. I'm sure you see the problem with that. Cummings did ignore very obvious facts to save his ideology, and many more facts have come forward now from the archives to make him look foolish. And now he lectures others on the importance of superior theory?

This isn't meant ad hominem, or not totally anyway, it's to make a point about method.
Archives are better than theory. Theory cannot be made to rule.



Jonathan Rodwell - 8/11/2009

We probably agree on more than we disagree, frankly. But, maybe not!

I have no argument with archival research at all. Bad work is bad work (whether it is History, or, say Sociology, like the Bell Curve). All I was trying to say was that I think it is rather simplistic and naive to suggest there are Historians out there who neutrally weigh up all the facts and those that come with ideological baggage. Everyone has ideological baggage and the challenge is the degree to which any researcher can look beyond that ideology (or, more accurately, theory). Bad work doesn't, good work does.

Cummings point criticising Gaddis wasn't about the quality of the archival work, it was that Gaddis used the defence of archival work to shield himself from theoretical weakness. What the argument was about was what the archives told us and how we draw those conclusions, not what was literally in the archives. Cumming's point was that the Post-Revisionism that Gaddis adopted was essentially contradictory. It wasn't the archives work that was flawed, it was the epistemological justification for the conclusions drawn from those archives. And, if you think I am coming at this as a lefty, the same criticisms were correctly levelled at AJP Taylors' understanding of Nazism by WWII Historians (once people got past calling him names like Marxist and actually engaged with his flawed arguments). One doesn't have to be left or right to see that the conclusions of Post-Reivsionism as expressed by Gaddis are theoretically contradictory and therefore wrong. Whether Gaddis' archival work was good enough is besides the point for that argument.

So, my worry with what Kaiser was saying was that he oversimplifies the process. I would fundamentally question whether it is ever possible to be truly neutral. Everyone adopts a theoretical perspective and if they claim to be theory neutral,whilst making a conclusion about causation I think they just don't understand what their theory is. I am instinctively wary of anyone who seems to be arguing they are as theory 'neutral' as Kaiser seems to be saying here. I fundamentally think that is a nonsensical position.

This is my objection with Kaisers discussion. It's a false dichotomy to suggest researchers can be categorised in two ways, one as one group of ideologues selectively picking evidence and the other simply neutrally reporting what is there. Both extremes produce rubbish History.

As far as I can tell in this discussion Kaiser isn't suggesting we start with the archives as you suggest, but he's suggesting that we end with them too. But, I always though History was about trying to draw some normative conclusions about the world around us; that we were supposed to 'learn' from History and understand why stuff happened, not just recall the dates and figures of what happened. He's right to criticise those that are ignorant of the facts (and archives). But he's wrong to propose that the answer is to just go back to burying ourselves in the facts and he is also wrong to be so dismissive of the conclusions and theoretical points raised by post-structuralism. I think he is very wrong if he thinks we'll know what happened by just recording the facts. To me that is an impossibility in History and has never actually happened.

art eckstein - 8/11/2009

Mr. Rodwell, the problem wasn't that Bruce Cummings was misled by what was in the archives, and hence one must be wary of what's there. The problem was Cummings' ideologically-weighted (mis)reading of what was there. Now, that is indeed something one must be wary of--and perhaps Gaddis is guilty of the same thing. That's a fair point.

Still, it seems to me dubious to put forth as an authoritative critic of archival work a historian whose main achievement, the pillar of his career, was a heavily-ideological hypothesis that has been totally discredited by... archival work. I don't think that's happened to Gaddis yet. Of course, it may.

The problem isn't so much the archives (though they contain problems, yes, and do not have the whole story), it's more, in this case, the ideologically-weighted historians who are looking through them. But that latter problem can be dealt with by good training in graduate school, including in ideological and methodological self-restraint.

As for Tony Judt, he too comes to us with heavy ideological freight; it's no accident he's critical of Gaddis, anymore than it's an accident that Cummings is. Again this simply means we must be careful about what we want to find when we go into the archives, and must read them very carefully, conscious of our biases (and their biases). But the archives is certainly where one must start.

Jonathan Rodwell - 8/11/2009

Cummings' flawed work on Korea proves the point though, that one should be weary of the 'truth' discoverable in archives.

And, you also prove the point by not engaging with his argument in 'Revising Post Revisionism' which had nothing to do with his work on the Korean War. A flawed argument about one event does not disqualify one from making an historiographical argument about another.

If you have a problem with his theoretical points that he raised against Gaddis fine, let's have that discussion. Of course, it's not just Cummings. I did also mention Tony Judt, and could have mentioned the points raised by Steve Smith about the theoretical shortcomings of I.R in and around the late 90's (points still largely unanswered by I.R. and History).

So, if you disagree with those arguments good because this is the discussion History should be having. But you need to engage with those specific arguments not ad hominem points about other pieces of work.

art eckstein - 8/10/2009

I'm amazed that Mr. Rodwell would dare to mention Bruce Cummings.

Isn't Cummings the person who was the idol of the 1970s and 1980s bien pensant left for arguing that South Korea invaded the North in June 1950? Hasn't that been shown by--how dare I say it!--archival work in the USSR to be simply and totally bogus? Yes wasn't that the basis of his entire career?

(See Kathryn Weathersby, "Stalin and the Decision for War in Korea", in Strauss and McCann 2001.)

vaughn davis bornet - 8/10/2009

First, Thomas A. Bailey. His Diplomatic History of the United States was my bible beginning in the 1940s. Students loved his huge lecture courses. His many books are highly readable and very carefully edited.

Then, Norman Graebner. He produced an army of students in Iowa, Illinios, and Virginia.

Samuel Flagg Bemis was, from Yale, a towering figure.

I know there are many others to be mentioned, but these came to mind as among the important in yesteryear.

Hand Bailey's many times reprinted text to a student and he will be converted!

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Jonathan Rodwell - 8/10/2009

Coming from perspective of being staff at a British University (in a Politics / I.R. department, but having studied History) and with a sympathy for the perspective David Kaiser takes in this interview, I still can't help but be disappointed. I think it is true that there is a significant amount of poor scholarship wrapped up in what might be termed 'post-structuralist' History. I also think Kaisers work is consistently of the highest standard, hence why I am slightly confused by way he seems so bothered by what he sees as damage being done to the profession. My main problem is that I think this interview continues a trend of developing (and reinforcing) a rather false dichotomy.

Firstly, in my experience what Kaiser sees as 'traditionalist' approaches to History (more narrative but no less valuable, and I agree with that) are, as afar as I can tell, as central as ever. In Britain one only needs to have a quick look at the bookshelves of local high street book stores to see endless volumes on what archives reveal out the role of the important 'men'. I know of History departments in 'elite' and non-elite Universities that teach NO post-structuralist History at all. If anything in my experience rather than engage with any theoretical challenges raised by post-structuralism History has grabbed for the comfort blanket of narrative and empiricism.

Having said that, even if we accept the premise of Kaisers concern about the dominance of post-structural work over traditional Historical methods, I would be worried about the degree to which Professor Kaiser is undermining the crucial role of epistemology and theory in History. Specifically, as I said, I do think he is pushing a false dichotomy as all History has perspectives and approaches that favour evidence to some degree. My worry is if we follow his warnings about the crisis in History the profession will become atheoretical, forget to discuss historiography, and simply be obsessed with finding artefacts, be they trinkets or documents.

The first and most obvious name I would recall here is William Appleman Williams. Wrongly labelled a 'Marxist' Historian, the crucial point Williams made was that the course of History is not just dictated by brute material facts. Williams' work has good archival stuff in it, but in introducing the concept of Weltanschauung he produced one of the more nuanced and revealing understandings of U.S. Foreign Policy. If we were to place all our concentration in archives and descriptive narrative we would not have been open to an argument such as that produced by Appleman WIlliams. He was no post-modernist, but he wasn't just concerned with empiricism or narrative either. And he was, of course, 'of his time'. It is still brilliant work.

In a similar vein one also cannot help but bring up the criticism of John lewis Gaddis' Cold War scholarship. Specifically, Bruce Cummings (and Tony Judt) questioned Gaddis and his concentration on archives to produce his conclusions. They demonstrated how his emphasis on good archival work hid his worrying theoretical contradictions. The points raised by Cummings in 'Revising Postrevisionism': Or, The Poverty of Theory in Diplomatic History' should not be forgotten and I worry that Kaisers anti-History straw man will mean we also have less sympathy for discussions like those prompted by Cummings and Judt, as well as the arguments of Williams.

What fundamentally bothers me is that the last thing the History profession needs is more proposals that 'We Now Know'. I am not saying Kaiser is saying this, but his argument could be easily used to support this. There are huge flaws with elements of post-structuralism, but there are also major flaws with rump empiricism as an approach that too often can be used to justify a staus quo.

From my own perspective it would be far more useful to engage with the challenges of post-structuralism and the complexities of epistemology rather than simply dismiss them as 'outside' of the History profession and something to worry about. Bad scholarship is bad scholarship be it rationalism or relativism (full disclosure: I'm very happy to join a criticism of Frank Costigliolas' arguments and I have done). But, we get nowhere if we simply regard some approaches as beyond the pale.