Tim Weiner's "Enemies": The Final Say
Susan Rosenfeld served as the FBI’s first official historian from 1984 to 1992. Since 2002, she has been the principal consultant to the Society of Former Special Agents Oral History Heritage Program.She received her PhD in history from Georgetown University, and has also taught US constitutional history. Currently she is a historian with the U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard.
First, I agree that Mr. Weiner did NOT “neglect” (my word) the bombings by the Weather Underground and other nefarious acts by more extreme members of the so-called “New Left.” Second, I noted that Mr. Weiner, unlike some FBI critics, demonstrates that presidents influenced the Bureau to conduct the kinds of investigations that skirted or broke the First and Fourth Amendments.
But I have other problems with Weiner’s book. I am a historian, and I tend to judge works of historical nonfiction, whether or not they deal with the FBI, by how their authors use sources. My major criticism of Enemies was, regardless of how many notes Weiner wrote, many of his citations were deficient -- when indeed they existed at all -- making it impossible in many instances to assess the credibility of assertions that I considered problematic. His mother and his professors may themselves have been excellent historians, and of course I don’t know if he ever wrote any papers requiring notes for them. He is after all a journalist, not a professional historian. But good historians know that you do not just use citations for quotes. You cite sources of information. Especially for controversial topics, a good historian will give citations that a careful reader can check. Sometimes Weiner did just that, as I pointed out, for example, with the reels of microfilm FBI files. But the frequent citation “FBI/FOIA” was no help at all. I too have drawers full of files from the FBI FOIA, the National Archives, and presidential libraries, as well as access to online materials. I even tried to find some of the documents, but without case file and serial number, the task proved impossible. And if there is no citation at all, as was often the case when nothing was quoted, there was no way to test the accuracy of whatever Weiner was contending.
Regarding the use of oral history, any good historian knows that, especially when dealing with long ago memories, it is always a good idea to try and find other documentation for significant or controversial information. Those of us who participate in the ongoing FBI Oral History Heritage Project are aware of the pitfalls, but we feel it is very important for FBI agents to get their stories in their own words out to researchers and the public and leave it to others to check their credibility when possible. Where there are doubts, a historian should express them or just not use the interview. In the case of the one of Dan Bledsoe that I cited, a serious allegation was made: that John Ehrlichman had ordered him to cut off the Watergate break-in investigation. Bledsoe does not appear anywhere else in any Watergate writings I have seen except for the handwritten notes I cited in my review. His allegation, expressed so positively, brings new information to the Watergate story. It is certainly something worth researching further to determine its credibility. However, I have not seen any evidence that Weiner has done so.
Last, it is sad to me when all federal employees are under attack, to have Weiner disparage federal historians: “official history is to history as military music is to music.” I came to study the FBI as an archivist. Those of us looking at a statistical sample of the Bureau’s then 25 million records had no agenda except to describe the various file classifications and decide how to determine their historical significance. That experience and much of my subsequent research gave me a different perspective of the FBI than the view of the Bureau taken for granted as accurate by many scholars and the media. When I became the FBI’s first official historian, I made it clear that I did not deal in “favorable” or “unfavorable;” only in accuracy. My successor, Dr. John Fox (whom Weiner consulted) does the same, and has been instrumental in bringing FBI documents to the public regardless of what they tell about the FBI. The federal historians I know shun being “court historians,” even if it means holding their ground with higher-ups. They leave the hagiography to the publicists. I have not been an official historian of the FBI since September, 1992, and I am disappointed that in criticizing me, Weiner felt he had to resort to disparaging an important group of professionals. And besides -- I think Stars and Stripes Forever is a fine piece of music.
Tim Weiner: Susan Rosenfeld's response is a fine and fair-minded way to conclude this discussion. I wish to point out that I did not intend to disparage government historians -- quite the opposite. As you know, I write in the afterword to Enemies that Rosenfeld's colleagues and her successor "have performed a public service" and "deserve acclaim" for their work (p. 449). Rosenfeld's original review implied that people like me have no business reading and interpreting government documents. I think we would have less knowledge of how agencies such as the CIA and the FBI perform their work in the name of national security if that were so. We cannot leave the work of writing history to official historians.
comments powered by Disqus
- Russian History Receives a Makeover That Starts With Ivan the Terrible
- Parsing Ronald Reagan’s Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer’s
- Here's a look at history of 'religious freedom' laws
- ‘Hamilton’ Puts Politics Onstage and Politicians in Attendance
- Earth Tectonic Plate Simulation Reveals Our Planet Has Changed A Lot In 200 Million Years
- Historians make it easy for visitors to DC to understand the history of the Mall
- History's Grandin Wins Bancroft Prize for "The Empire of Necessity"
- Nobel prize-winning scientist writes a history of science
- Ken Burns tackles history of cancer
- If historians have their way, Americans will soon learn how important religion has been in US history