Does history need a ‘Marshall Plan’?

Does history need a ‘Marshall Plan’?

In December 1939, as World War II began to convulse Europe and the public debate accelerated in the United States over whether America would enter the war, the new Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall gave an address to the American Historical Association. Reflecting on the role of history in national security, Marshall observed that “it is to the historian … that we must turn for the most essential service in determining the public policy relating to national defense.” Lest this sound like Marshall was merely flattering his audience of history professors — we academics are notoriously susceptible to hearing about our own importance, after all — Marshall then excoriated the assembled historians for writing books that were unduly celebratory of American history, and thus had offered little genuine insight. Specifically, he charged historians with abdication of duty by telling only of America’s previous victories in wars, while ignoring the many past mistakes that had unduly prolonged past wars, or left the United States vulnerable and susceptible to defeat. As his nation once again faced the prospect of war unprepared, Marshall worried that “if we are to have a sound organization for war we must first have better school histories and a better technique for teaching history.”

Many policymakers today would share Marshall’s concern that too few academic historians are producing history that is useful for national security policy. Although to oversimplify the problem, it is now nearly the opposite from Marshall’s time. Very little of academic history today focuses on matters of war and diplomacy, and for academic historians a contemporary cardinal sin is to write “celebratory” history (or its related iniquities of “triumphalist” or “Whiggish” history). If anything, many historians are perhaps now gratuitously critical of the American past.

History at its best should of course avoid the twin distortions of either cheerleading or sneering at the past, and instead should work to ascertain the truth about the past in all of its complexities, vanities, and virtues. And while not all fields of history should aspire to the potential seductions of “policy relevance,” the responsibilities of citizenship and the realities of the past suggest that history holds rich insights for foreign policy today. General Marshall was not the only one to think so; a pantheon of other Cold War policymakers, such as Kennan, Kissinger, Acheson, Truman, and Eisenhower looked to history as well, as have many of their contemporary successors.

Inspired by the spirit of Marshall’s admonition, yesterday the University of Texas-Austin announced the creation of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft. The Clements Center (which in full disclosure I will direct) will be designed to support teaching and research in diplomatic, military, and international history and its relevance for national security policy. In the coming months we will be announcing a number of programs and initiatives; aspiring graduate students and post-docs especially might want to keep us in mind.

The life and career of the Center’s namesake, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Clements, exemplifies an appreciation for history’s bearing on statecraft. An avid reader of history, Clements served at the Pentagon from 1973-77 under presidents Nixon and Ford, and he stewarded American defense policy during a perilous period when the U.S. was a diminishing power. Yet mindful of the “long view” that history cultivates, during these years of managing decline, Clements oversaw the development of new weapons platforms such as the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, M-1 Abrams tank, Aegis cruiser, and Tomahawk cruise missile, that would form much of the backbone of American force projection for the next four decades. He also worked with Kissinger and others to recalibrate America’s strategic posture in regions such as the Middle East. In our current era of debate over the defense budget and American decline, this is a history that merits attention.