Blogs > HNN > What History Tells Us about "The Verdict of History"

Sep 5, 2007 4:09 pm

What History Tells Us about "The Verdict of History"

[Mr. Kimball is a professor of history at Miami University and the author of To Reason Why, Nixon's Vietnam War, and The Vietnam War Files.]

Defending the invasion of Iraq and his persistence in occupying this devastated and divided country, President George W. Bush has often invoked the authority of The Verdict of History, insisting that it will at some point in the future prove that his Iraq policies were both noble and correct.

But how does he know that the verdict of history will prove him right? When people use this argument, they usually mean that historians of the future will be able to reconstruct and assess the true history of today's policies and events with the benefit of more abundant empirical evidence, a knowledge of how things turned out, and the perspective and wisdom of hindsight—that is, a perspective that is not only informed but also free of the petty partisan disputes that accompany all present-day events. But how can Bush know the future? How can he know what historians will say? And isn't he also partisan? Does he have a crystal ball? A time-machine? Evidence he cannot share with us for fear of undermining the "war on terror"? ( What kind of evidence could that possibly be ?)

Of course, we all know that those who appeal to The Verdict of History are desperate. Bush is desperate, and that is why he is embracing this historical security blanket. The overwhelming majority of his compatriots do not believe he can or will succeed in Iraq even if the troops stay there for years or decades. They do not even know what Bush means by success. In any case, they question the costs of the war in relation to its putative necessity. His former aides and allies are bailing out or jumping ship. A recent survey revealed that 45 percent of active-duty personnel in America's volunteer army report low morale compared to 19 percent reporting high morale, and an unusually large number have called the war a failure. Bush's poll numbers are also way down. His credibility is gone. Therefore, he tells us—the citizenry and soldiery—to trust him, hang on, and await The Verdict of History. Not only does he take refuge in the future but he may even believe it's true: history will judge him to have been Churchillian; his presidential legacy will be redeemed.

Even Nixon was more honest—or at least more honest with himself if not the public. When Kissinger told him in 1974 that despite his Watergate-forced resignation history would judge him one of the great presidents, Nixon responded, “That depends, Henry, on who writes the history.” For the rest of their lives, Nixon and Kissinger expended an enormous amount of time and energy trying to rewrite that history and obstruct others from getting at the truth. Perhaps G. W. Bush intends to rewrite the history of his administration after he leaves office, and maybe Karl Rove resigned his office in order to get a head start on the process.

In any case, Bush's invocation of The Verdict of History ignores the history of The Verdict of History. Long ago, observant and thoughtful historians like Bernadotte Schmitt, Pieter Geyl, Thomas J. Pressly, and Page Smith pointed out that the interpretations of the historians who wrote long after the historical event in question pretty much replicated the interpretations of the historical actors in the event and the first generation of pundits, journalists, and historians who originally wrote about the event. In other words, the writing of history is an"argument without end" in the sense that the original arguments or interpretations about a great historical event, such as a war, are fated to be repeated ad infinitum. The debate goes on—and on. So, what is said about George W. Bush's war now—whether pro, con, or neutral—will be repeated in the future. There is no Verdict of History.

I hasten to qualify this observation. Although the vying interpretations about a historical event tend to be repeated into the future, these interpretations are not created equal. Some are better—i.e., truer—than others. Normally, one is superior—depending on the questions asked and answered and the availability of evidence on the event. Contrary to post-structuralist/postmodernist relativism and Fox News, what happened in the past is “not your truth or my truth”—to borrow a phrase from author Thomas Mallon. There is one truth (depending on the questions asked and answered—and I am not talking about truth with a capital T, as in the meaning or purpose of life and the universe).

The reason that history is an argument without end (even though one version is truer than others) is that it is virtually impossible to convince others of the truth of one's logic and evidence if those others refuse to be convinced—even if they share one's historical methodology, and often they do not share one's historical methodology. It is different in most of the sciences, where other scientists can repeat the experiment, therefore proving that the theory is correct or incorrect. But one cannot repeat history.

What this means is that President Bush will not be redeemed by The Verdict of History, although he will no doubt try to write history that concludes he was right.

Oh, by the way, ofttimes the perspective of future hindsight is not superior to the perspective of those who live in the present; and sometimes the passions of the present that are lacking in the future lead one to ask the right questions that in turn lead to the right answers; and, usually, those future historians and observers who will render their verdicts on history will be just as partisan as we allegedly are in the present.

Related Links

  • Jeffrey Kimball: Historical Objectivity, Partisanship, and Fairness

  • Jeffrey Kimball: History and Morality

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    More Comments:

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Of course, there is never really one single and everlasting "verdict of history" on anything. There are verdictS of history, and often they they are odds with one another, to some degree at least. But, it is also extremely rare to have a multitude of balanced historical verdicts evenly distributed along some fad-based "political spectrum" in accordance with the facile fantasies of ill-informed journalists.

    Few historians of any repute have ever written up "verdicts" concluding that there truly was a late 19th century global conspiracy accurately accounted for in the "Protocol of the Elders of Zion," or that Germany was defeated in World War I because its politicians delivered a "stab in the back," or that the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II was an unavoidable necessity of US national security, even though all of these lame and buck-passing "verdicts" enjoyed widespread popular support at various times and places in the past.

    The likelihood of more than a oddball handful of future historians coming to a "verdict" that the rush to invade Iraq in 2003 was well-planned, adequately studied, and skillfully executed by the administration, carefully considered beforehand by Congress and national press, justified because of an imminent threat of Saddam Hussein deploying weapons of mass destruction, or allying his regime with Al Qaeda, or that it in any significant way enhanced the national security, military strength, or international influence of the USA is nil.

    There are verdicts of history, and dustbins of history, and it does not require a C average in college courses in the subject to figure out towards which of these two historical collections this administration's foreign policies are headed.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Good point, Maarja, but the point of the original piece was desperate and doomed to fail partisan appeals to the "verdict of history," not the more diligent chronicling and sober interpretations of straightforward professionals.

    For Mr. MM, here is some less cheery but more honest weekend reading:

    Thousands of GIs cope with brain damage
    AP Medical Writer Sept. 9. 2007

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The war in Iraq is not over, but one legacy is already here in this city and others across America: an epidemic of brain-damaged soldiers...

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Good point, Maarja, but the point of the original piece was desperate and doomed to fail partisan appeals to the "verdict of history," not the more diligent chronicling and sober interpretations of straightforward professionals.

    For Mr. MM, here is some less cheery but more honest weekend reading:

    Thousands of GIs cope with brain damage
    AP Medical Writer Sept. 9. 2007

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The war in Iraq is not over, but one legacy is already here in this city and others across America: an epidemic of brain-damaged soldiers...

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    If Bush were an honorable statesman and a devoted leader instead of an incompetent dupe, he would stay in Iraq, resign the office he has disgraced in Washington, and help clean up the mess he has created, and thus show his respect for the thousands of Americans who have died for his reckless blunder-ridden folly there. And support the impeachment and conviction of the crooked and corrupt traitor he picked as his VP.

    His "Asian and African policies" have been a total disaster. Nuclear proliferation is now rampant: North Korea, Pakistan, India and Iran, all far further along towards WMD build-up than before. His hot air on AIDs in Africa and Darfur does not mean squat on the ground in these places he can hardly find on a map. America's name is in the mud thanks to him, and true American patriots can only be ashamed.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    A country can elect a pro-American president for any number of totally unrelated reasons. The whole world is not obsessed with America, just because some Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world. In any case the implicit equation pro-America = pro-Bush is almost too laughable for words. You might as well try to claim pro-America = pro-Michael Moore. Facile and asinine linkages, both of them. Whoever becomes the next American president -no matter which of the two birdbrain political parties he or she is affiliated with- is going to put a high priority on restoring respect and admiration for America around the world, and as surely as the blazing hellfire which scorches the desert wastelands of Texas won't do it by reciting pitiful propaganda soundbites from disgraced and dismissed Junior Bush advisor Karl Rove.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    If you are impressed by Cuba, Mr. MM, be my guest: move there. This will make room for one more foreigner who wants to "come here and live." Some immigrants to the U.S. are "ignorant," of course, but most are not even close to the lower levels of native-born couch potatoes successfully targeted as the prime focus of the Bush for President campaign (one of few things over the last 6 1/2 years which he did not make a horribly botched mess of). How many of them are in Iraq now to fight and die for the idiocy they voted for, I wonder? The dust bins of history are going to get a lot more crowded in the near to medium term future.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "Democrats took us into WW2, Korea, Vietnam and the Balkans. Once the decision was made, the republicans supported the president."

    This is not true at all. There was massive criticism from Republicans in all these cases. It was and is part of the American "right to criticize the government."

    I have no problem at all with Americans volunteering for military service: indeed, we are going to need more of that kind of volunteering thanks to the military disaster being inflicted on America in Iraq courtesy of the hypocrite chickenhawks and thieving liars who threw our guys into that everlasting mess.

    Saddam killed a heckuva lot of people before 1991, and was much closer to having deliverable WMDs then too, but Daddy Bush (a Republican who took us into a war that you no doubt remember well) had the hog-sense not to try to do nation-building for desert tribes with an army built for stopping the Russians at the East German border, and no viable plan whatever for how to do it. In contrast to the current "war," that war in 1991 achieved all its objectives, and America got other countries to pay for nearly all of its costs.

    The U.S. policy against Saddam in 2002 was not working very well, but it was nothing like the disaster we now have.
    We had control of his airspace and his oil revenues, and had UN inspectors all over his "palaces" and high-school petri dish "biological weapons laboratories." But this wasn't enough for the egomaniacal neo-cons. The Chickenhawk-in-Chief had to strut across the aircraft carrier grazing the butts of surfers off San Diego, and a lot of Americans have died in vain, while Al Qaeda has been given new strength. The verdicts of history are betrayal and shame.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    A fountain of slogans is better than a fountain of lies.

    Maybe "life is good" is not a "slogan" and maybe it is even true in the remote and largely useless base in the Iraq desert where Junior Bush touches down for a photo-op, but in case Stars and Stripes forgot to mention it to hou, Iraq IS on the move: its people are getting their behinds the Heck out of there as fast as they can. It was one of the worst countries in the world to live in under Saddam. It takes a special brand of incompetence, and an special brand of stupid blind loyalty lining up behind it, for an American president to make such a basket case worse, but Junior Birdman Bush has done it, big time. Darfur is only one of many places that is suffering and will suffer from the destructive squandering of American military power in the Chickenhawk's Failed Cakewalk to Baghdad.

    Another fact you may have missed reading Stars and Stripes or watching Fox News: Many, many times more US soldiers have been killed in Karl Rove's bogus "war in Iraq" than in either Desert Storm or Kosovo. Put that in your pipe with whatever you are smoking.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    It WAS a political question in the 2004 election. To a lesser extent it will remain a political question in 2008 and beyond. But, it is also increasingly and overwhelming becoming a historical question too.

    Bush won the political issue in 2004 largely by skillfully seeking out the most gullible and uniformed non-voters, and getting them to polls on his behalf, with a sordid mixture of trickery, fear, homophobia, and all-purpose snake oil. Thanks to some long gone Republicans (who on THIS point are NOT rolling in their graves), this most incompetent of all Republican presidents ever will not be able to run for that office again. Instead he is now focused on trying to rescue his disastrous legacy from the dustbins of history. That is the reason for his recent BS about Vietnam, and for this discussion here.

    In that ongoing contest, the odds look much lower for him.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Hillary voted for the blank check to authorize Cheney-Bush's asinine Iraq Cakewalk. The dumbest and most cowardly move of her lie-and-hypocrisy drenched career. If you think I am going to vote for her, you are probably smoking something far more dangerous than health care in a Cuban hospital.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    What should have happened is a d--d good question, legitimately addressable as a counter-factual history question. It is not the same as "Was Bush right to invade Iraq?" which is slightly trickier than "does 2+2=88?"

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Mr. Johnson, you have obviously thought long and hard on these matters, and come up with some salient conclusions. The problem indeed runs much deeper than GW Bush, whatever happens in his remaining lame duck months in the White House, or with which shades of condemnation historians assess his reign thereafter.

    As unsavory as it certainly is, it is hard to see an alternative to a "volunteer" e.g. mercenary army, increasingly subcontracted out and staffed by foreigners. America is not likely to experience another World War II type conflict, best handled by a great mass egalitarian-like collective effort, for a long time. Smaller but nastier, and messier sorts of challenges are much more likely. I don't think Kosovo and Afghanistan will be the last situations of their types, and thornier predicaments, including ones involving real WMD -not just hyped-up possibilities of them, as with Saddam in 2003- cannot be ruled out at all.

    The real damage of the reckless, stupid, and cowardly invasion and horribly botched occupation of Iraq is not that it was unnecessary, or massively hypocritical, or badly bungled at nearly every turn, or "marketed" to the public with disgraceful and arrogant deceit, nor that it has made Iraq worse off, helped Al Qaeda and the like, and weakened America's position in the Mideast and globally, even though all of these are true and will not be ignored by future historians of the worst, or one of the worst, US presidents ever. The much bigger disgrace and disaster will be experienced in coming military interventions, which will be much harder for America to prosecute, and to get international allies to help with, because of the senseless squandering of lives, goodwill, and energy on a bogus nation-building charade dressed up as a "war" by Cheney, Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, et. al., and shamefully sucked up to by spineless Democrats in Congress.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I agree with the thrust of your last post, Mr. Johnson, but am rather less optimistic about the future prospects for the US. Without signing on to the relativistic perspective of Mr. Kimball, in the article occasionally being discussed on this page, I would readily concede that it is very hard for historians or anyone else to predict the future, especially the future spirit and psyche of a nation -or as you put it, "that crises tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people." There is, in other words, still a range of possibilities open for America within the growing complex of opportunities and threats ahead. It does seem to me, however, that the upside potential within that range has been trimmed considerably over the last 7 years or so.


    1) The almost pathological devotion to often irrelevant if not completely misleading Vietnam War era rhetoric by both the so-called “right” and “left,” when discussing the Iraq fiasco,

    2) As the most egregious example of point 1) above: the slavish devotion of practically the whole country to the Orwellian characterization of a failing "flavor of the month" law-and-order or nation-building campaign as a "war,"

    3) the towering hypocrisy of a John Kerry, who made his first great historic speech, in the early 1970s, castigating Congress for surrendering its war-making powers, then voting in 2002 for the asinine blank check Iraq invasion authorization (to list one representative example of many from the Democratic Party),

    4) the alacrity with which Colin Powell was ready to flush down his own "doctrine," in front of the UN, America, and the world (to list one representative example of many from the Republican Party) and

    5) the astoundingly near total lack of willingness of any American politician, military commander, media pundit, or think-tank theorist to take responsibility –five bloody and serial disaster years later!- for what Washington Post reporter Rick’s book rightly, in my view, calls “the worst foreign-policy decision ever taken.”

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    If you are still poking around here, Mr. Johnson, here is an interesting theory that I think touches on some of your points. I am by no means ready to endorse it, but it is a likely candidate for a HNN page of its own soon, and offers food for thought (if the link below fails, try googling "America’s Guardian Myths"):

    America’s Guardian Myths
    New York Times, September 7, 2007

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    The examples of Condi Rice reading history to scounge up some way to salvage her lousy record as Sec of State, fit in with the Greco-Roman hubris-to-tragedy theme touched in David Johnson's post. The Neo-con retreads took effective control of the Executive Branch after 9-11-01 with pompous claims about how "everything had changed" and a totally new era of American foreign policy was being ushered in under their stridency.
    What they actually managed to do was to set new records for bumbling disaster, making a mess out of almost everything they touched. Now they are grasping desperately for any quickly usable rerun from the past, in order to achieve something -anything!- that might be called a success. I doubt that many historians, public, private, academic or amateur, will fall for such stunts, even if a few are somehow pulled off.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/18/2007

    Hellooo out there in POTUS land.

    More good news in Iraq. This time from Reuters.

    Read and rejoice. Things are definitely improving. How about that General Petreaus and President Bush.

    "Last month the fall was particularly dramatic, with 70 percent fewer bodies and half the number of wounded brought in compared to July, hospital director Haqi Ismail said.

    "The major incidents, like explosions and car bombs, sometimes reached six or seven a day. Now it's more like one or two a week," he told Reuters.";feedName=worldNews&pageNumber=2

    Mike A Mainello - 9/18/2007

    Hopefully one of you overly educated historians will read this and see that a lot of good things are happening in Iraq.

    Liberals are always talking about compassion and children. Wake up and take your medication. Stopping thinking that this will help President Bush or the republicans. This is about people helping themselves and people helping people.

    This is what real leadership is - not giving up when the going gets tough, but re-evaluating and implementing proper tactics.

    This from an independent reporter (again, read the whole article, it is fascinating):

    “We hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,” one Marine told me. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

    The literacy class for women and girls may have been cancelled, but the local would-be students wanted me to take pictures of them at their desks. So the classroom was opened and they sat in their seats for staged photos. We had no language in common. It was just obvious, from their beckoning hand gestures, what they wanted me to do. They seemed to be proud that they were learning to read, and that women and girls were allowed to be schooled again now that Al Qaeda is gone.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/14/2007

    It is unfortuneate that highly educated individuals are so blind to what is really going on in Iraq.

    Here is a snippette from an article written about Ramadi. The article provides a glimpse of AQ tacticts and why it has taken a long time for Iraqi's to help us and take over responsibilty for their country. A link to the entire article is provided below.

    “Al Qaeda hit a six month old baby with a mortar when they were trying to hit us,” Lieutenant Hightower said when he got off the phone. “They also hit a six year old girl. We went in and medi-vacced the victims, and we made lots of friends that day. It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis.”

    It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis because they had been raised on virulent anti-American conspiracy theories and propaganda from Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. They truly believed the Army and Marines were there to steal their oil and women. Americans saving the lives of children wounded by fellow Sunni Arabs who passed themselves off as liberators was not what many Iraqis ever expected to see.

    “The six month baby had shrapnel in his head,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “The six year old girl had shrapnel in her leg. It was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen since I got here.” This from a man who saw one of his own men shot in the head by a sniper.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/10/2007

    Hi, thanks for the thoughtful response.

    The public information that I have seen about federal history offices mostly is retrospective in nature. One good article that comes to mind off the top of my head is the one by Dr. Roger Launius, formerly Chief Historian at NASA. See
    and the link to his history of the NASA history office at

    Dr. Launius provides in his 1999 article an overview of the NASA history office, noting how managers have drawn on the expertise of historians:

    "[Eugene] Emme also established the precedent of offering historical perspective to NASA executive leaders to help inform their decisionmaking, but not so much to participate in it. These staff support activities took the form of answering information requests on a timely basis, researching and writing short historical papers on issues of significance in the agency, and delivering briefings and lectures to agency personnel on contemporary concerns that could be illuminated with historical information. All successors to Emme - Monte D. Wright, Sylvia D. Fries, and I - have enthusiastically supported this endeavor as well. A notable example of this type of staff support occurred in January 1986 when the Challenger exploded. Sylvia Fries prepared within a matter of hours a detailed historical paper for the NASA administrator on how the agency had handled previous disasters. The
    information helped shocked administrators regain their composure and rise to the occasion, and at the same time considerably boosted the standing of the agency’s historians.

    But the task of providing 'real-time' historical perspective to senior officials has a price. All those who have served as historical staff seek to hold these tasks in creative balance, equalizing the demands for information with the limited resources available to accomplish them. This has not always been possible, and the unfortunate outcome is that success in providing timely historical information of value to NASA officials most assuredly begets more requests until the deluge of requests could not be fulfilled on either the time
    schedule or in the detail required because of limited history resources. While this has been a decidedly difficult issue to manage, it is nevertheless a problem that the agency’s historical staff would rather tackle than to be classed as an irrelevant NASA organization."

    I can suggest a few other articles by federal historians whom I know, myself. If you have access to JSTOR, you might want to look up articles by Roger R. Trask (who has written several articles about federal history offices), George Mazuzan, J. Samuel Walker, and Gerald Haines in publications such as The Public Historian, The History Teacher, etc. (Walker and Haines once were colleagues of mine at NARA before moving on to become historians at other federal agencies.)

    These provide, either by example or in summary narratives, a sense of what federal history offices do. Especially useful is Dr. Mazuzan's , "Official Government Historians and Standards for Scholarship," in Government Publications Review 15 (1988). Also useful is Dr. Trask's "Small Federal History Offices in the Nation's Capital," The Public Historian (Winter 1991).

    Again, published histories of history offices tend to be retrospective. I recognize that some of these citations go back a few years. I mentioned the Kessler piece because it is one of the few places where I have seen a contemporary public description of the work of State Department historians.

    I would urge young people who are interested in history not to focus only on academic positions but also to consider public service positions in applied history. Of my 34 years and counting of government service, I've spent 31 years working in the field of history: initially 14 years as a federal archivist, now in my 17th year as a federal historian.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/10/2007

    Ms. Krusten;

    You posted: "I know what the original point of the post was. What is striking to me, however, is how many people who comment on HNN seem to approach these issues with the assumption that there are two separate categories of individuals which never interact, the people who make policy or "make history," if you will, and the armchair analysts who now or later sit back and assess what happens."

    I think you did a fine job of detailing my simple idea. Thanks. It would be fun (and useful) to know, even anecdotally, which public figures have extensively used the resources provided by professional historians. Do you know of any examples or books on the topic?

    Regarding another post of yours: When I read Dana Priest's "The Mission" I thought to myself that I'd much rather vote for Zinni than Clark.

    I understand and appreciate your thought with respect to your "Thanks" for having served as a member of the Armed Services. Please don't misunderstand me, though, no thanks are required. There's nothing inherently special about being in the military. It is just another manner in which citizens perform their duty.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/10/2007

    I forgot to mention that I also had posted early on about LBJ. Later release of some records about him revealed a President more troubled by what he faced in Vietnam than had been apparent while he was President. That's part of what I meant when I referred to the passage of time and the later availability of records and evidence.

    It's like hearing that a couple has filed for divorce. If you don't know the people well, or have seen them only in public in social settings and aren't attuned to reading subtle signs of trouble, you may be surprised to hear they are splitting.

    They may have put on a big show in public to convince others that all was well when it was not. Or they may have signalled in small ways that things were not. Whichever was the case, the split is an outcome. When the split occurs, can observers say what led to it, especially on first hearing of the outcome? Of course not. That doesn't keep some people on the outside from guessing or offering opinions on the matter.

    Some facts or assertions by the principals may come out later in court documents filed in relation to the split. Or in your conversations with the principals or those who know them well. A lot of what you find out depends on the temperament of the people (some individuals are much more private and quiet about handling internal problems, others cry on the shoulders of anyone who will listen). And where you stand in relation to them. Some information may be obscured forever, bystanders may never know much of what led to the split, only that it happened.

    History is the same way, we initially judge events primarily based on outcomes. Then, as information becomes available about internal deliberations, we sometimes learn more about what led to specific decisions, why things played out as they did.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/9/2007

    Hi, Peter,

    I know what the original point of the post was. What is striking to me, however, is how many people who comment on HNN seem to approach these issues with the assumption that there are two separate categories of individuals which never interact, the people who make policy or "make history," if you will, and the armchair analysts who now or later sit back and assess what happens.

    Yet at one time, a guide for federal officials explained, “The passage of time often gives an aura of inevitability to program structure and operations. Historians are concerned with identifying the reasons why events happen, and distinguishing between inevitability and managerial choice. A full understanding of institutional history [enables] managers to identify where change is desirable and possible and where it will meet with resistance.” Source: The Society for History in the Federal Government, "Federal History Programs: A Guide for Heads of Government Agencies" (1987).

    I sought to remind HNN's readers in my first post, over a week ago, that the verdict of history depends not just on outcomes but on what contemporaneous records, if released in the future, might show about how decisions were made.

    My later point was that there are, as Kessler suggests, and Harden confirms, areas of the government, as at State, in which historians now play a role -- or have the potential to play a role -- inside. Some contribute to policy analysis, others play a role in preserving records.

    At least when I was in grad school, academic historians didn't rely on contemporary news accounts or their own perceptions in assessing history. They dug into the records or hoped that their successors would be able to dig into the records.

    If that still is the case, I wish articles posted here drew more comments about standards of evidence in the digital age and how one might write credible conclusory narratives that a broad audience might want to read and ponder one day. Without a credible methodological approach, available records and solid scholarship, it doesn't matter what anyone writes about the verdict of history. He or she merely may be contributing to argument without end even more than historians have in the past.

    And of course, the writer has to persuade the public that he or she has something useful to say on the verdict of history in the first place. I hope I'm not unusual, but I've even read and learned something from books about Presidents against whom I've voted. I want to know who they were and why they acted as they did. I have a great deal of curiosity about leadership, management, and how those with power act.

    Unfortunately for someone such as I, as often is the case on HNN, people who choose to comment on article such as this one by Dr. Kimball largely bypass the issues I raise above. There is some value to many of the comments -- they provide interesting and useful snapshots of the public's thinking -- but as you've noted here earlier, little discussion, especially of evidence, by those who actually write history books.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/9/2007

    2 Points

    1. Thanks for article. I am glad to see you read articles about our military. I am also grateful that the military is working on treatment for the soldiers. Serving in the military is an honorable profession. I am willing to bet the treatment will help others that are affected by blast waves. I also dont believe for a second you care anything about the soldiers.

    2. What is your opinion about the INDEPENDENT COMMISSION findings about the progress in Iraq? We now have democratic congressman and Brookings Institute fellows seeing real progress in Iraq. They believe a stable government can be established. Isn't a stable democracy in the middle east more important than your BDS rantings?

    Maarja Krusten - 9/8/2007

    Peter, when I read through Mr. Johnson's comments, they obviously led me to think of different issues than you thought about when you read them. My point simply was that the State Department employs academically trained historians. I mentioned Kessler's article simply to illustrate how the Secretary has drawn on their work. It is one of the few examples I've seen in the press where this type of governmental resource is mentioned.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/8/2007

    Mr. Clarke, more bad news for your isolationist eyes and partisan mind. A congressionally sponsored independent commission (let me repeat CONGRESSIONALLY SPONSORED INDEPENDENT COMMISSION) is reporting improvement along military training lines and ultimate self sufficiency. It did identify problem areas, but overall the situation is improving. While I recognize this will not be sufficient for most readers of this site, it continues to highlight how the change in strategy as recommended by the Iraq Study Group and implemented by President Bush is working. Read the link and have a nice weekend grinding your teeth.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/8/2007

    You note that “It seems to me that beyond the natural desire to have a reasonably accurate record of the past, History has the ability to inform ‘deciders’ by laying a substrate of relevant material for their examination. Thus, while History is not a predictive discipline, it is, imo, capable of providing an array of forecast probabilities.”

    Earlier this week, blogger PhDinHistory posted an essay, “The Mismatch Between Public History and PhDs" at
    (This is cross posted at ) The blogger noted that many history majors hope to become professors but there also are career options available in the field of public history.

    Although the discussion in the comments centered on historians working in museum settings, there also are historians who work in archives, screening, declassifying or otherwise processing government records. And there actually are GS-170 job series civil service historians who work within the federal government. Some have internal functions, others also have an external presence. (Towards the end of my comments I'll provide a link to an article by Dr. Victoria Harden which illustrates the range of duties.)

    In his recent profile of Condi Rice in the Washington Post, Glenn Kessler noted that “In early 2007, as the Iraq war ground on with few prospects for breakthroughs or success, Rice huddled with top aides and looked for other spots where she could deliver diplomatic results in their final two years. She decided to focus on ensuring a nuclear deal with North Korea, resolving the conflict over Iran's nuclear program and making progress toward a Palestinian state. Rice even spent the 2006 Christmas holiday reading stacks of reports from the office of the State Department historian, trying to glean lessons from President Bill Clinton's intensive Middle East diplomacy in his waning days in office.”

    Kessler also noted that

    “Rice assigned a key role to Jim Wilkinson, a hyperactive, media-savvy young aide. He put together a color-coded calendar for her first 100 days, noting when she would travel and with whom she would meet. No detail was too small for Wilkinson, whose slogan was "No wasted motion!" He asked the State Department historian for studies on what made secretaries of state successful. (Proximity to the president, the historian responded.)” Kessler’s piece is available at

    Richard G. Hewlett, often referred to as the dean of federal historians, once noted that some academic historians question the very idea of becoming a government historian. Dr Hewlett wrote that they ask: “How can one trust the faceless bureaucracy? How can a historian on a government payroll maintain his independence?” [For some academics] a common way of speaking about government employment is ‘selling one’s soul to the devil.’” However, Dr. Hewlett believed “we need more historians who are willing to commit themselves to a career or at least to a period of several years as government historians.” (Richard G. Hewlett, “Government History: Writing from the Inside,” in Frank C. Evans and Harold T. Pinkett, eds., Research in the Administration of Public Policy (Washington: Howard University Press, 1975)

    Hewlett wrote that “The government historian leads an exciting if precarious existence. He must maintain his independence and fight his own battles. He must be discreet in choosing topics for research, and he must evaluate the practicalities of publishing the results of his work. If he is reckless, he will probably not survive as a government historian; if he is too cautious he will fail to achieve his purpose.”

    Victoria Harden has a useful piece on “What Do Federal Historians Do” at
    If you're interested in this subject, Hewlett’s older piece, “The Practice of History in the Federal Government,”
    The Public Historian, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), also is worth reading, through JSTOR or a library.

    There actually is a Society for History in the Federal Government. See Posted on the site are “Principles and Standards for a Federal History Program,”

    In 1991, SHFG’s Directory of Federal Historical Programs and Activities listed more than 150 government history programs. Some 50 of these were located in Washington, DC, the remainder, such as those in major commands of the army, the navy and the air force, were scattered throughout the United States and at overseas installations. In 1998, SHFG reported that “historical activity taking place in nearly 500 organizations and involving more than 1,500 individuals. All of these professionals, operating as federal archivists, curators, editors, historians, librarians, and preservationists, contribute to institutional history, perform policy research, compile documentary collections, conduct oral history interviews, manage records and information, provide reference service, and administer and interpret the contents of museum collections.”

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/8/2007

    Mr. Clarke;

    Very curious article. I've read many captivity narratives, including Rowlandson's, and have sporadically (over a couple of decades) maintained an interest in Native Indian/European relations, concentrating primarily on events east of the Mississippi through Tecumseh's death in 1813.

    Faludi's approach is not really my cup of tea. It isn't that I think that prior events ought not be examined through the prism of current themes--all the more power to someone who wishes to do so; it's just that I wonder just how useful it is to develop hypotheses along those lines. In this case, comparing current events and early westward movement through the concept of a "terror dream"--with a dash of gender-based commentary--does not help me understand the malaise in the US post 9-11. Granted, I haven't read her book, so I am probably not doing justice to her ideas, but it seems to me that she is overreaching a little bit.

    My studies in this area have been motivated by two more mundane questions:

    1) What happens when a neolithic culture and a more advanced culture interact?

    2) Was there even a period in which the neolithic culture could have tossed the advanced culture out of North America? I came to a provisional conclusion on this question, thinking that there was a brief window of time in which the Iroquois had the upper hand and could have conceivably hindered the progress of the English colonists a great deal, circa 1700, as the Iroquois transitioned from a position of strength towards their later neutrality, which for a while allowed them to successfully play the French against the English in favor of their own interests. Yet, the inexorable dynamic implicit in my question #1 precludes any long-term success when such cultures collide, no matter which moment in history one considers, imo. And so, the Iroquois slowly lost their relevance, strategically speaking, and led, at least in part, to Handsome Lake, who is eloquently dealt with by Anthony F.C. Wallace in "The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca."

    While I have some time, let me respond to your previous post.

    What I have to suggest may seem trite on a board frequented by professional historians, but I'll give my layperson's view and let the chips fall where they may.

    I think we are in proximate agreement on some of the troublesome portents respecting events over the past 7 years. I certainly agree with you that our (optimistic) options have narrowed somewhat given some of the policy blunders on both sides of the aisle. I'll even go further to suggest that we are entering a period of severe economic dislocation which may appear to limit our options even further. And, as a further constraint, at least for some portion of the population, I think there is a general agreement that we cannot "destroy the country to save the country." (Sometimes invoking old cliches is useful.) So some options are out (even if pactions within the current admin, with some collusion from important parts of the Democratic Party, are pushing the boundaries of domestic liberty as well as established international law.)

    That said, let me try to restate what I suggested the other day, in better fashion.

    I agree with Dr, Kimball's view on the verdict of history. It seems to me that there is an ebb and flow in the currents of historiography which tend to dictate the orientation from which history is written. Who knows what will be in "fashion" 50 or 100 years from now? Thank Clio for the fuddy-duddy-ness factor in historiography, which suggests that at least some future historians will not be swayed by the flavor of the day, instead pursuing more mundane tracking down of facts and figures, accompanied by some plain unassuming narrative.

    Of what use is History? Again, I'm speaking as a layman. It seems to me that beyond the natural desire to have a reasonably accurate record of the past, History has the ability to inform "deciders" by laying a substrate of relevant material for their examination. Thus, while History is not a predictive discipline, it is, imo, capable of providing an array of forecast probabilities.

    I hope the way I am writing this makes sense. The events of the past three admins have often caused me to turn my thoughts towards Rome, particularly the period from the deaths of the Gracchi, through Marius and Sulla, and onwards through Caesar to Augustus. In other words, I have been thinking about the degeneration of the Roman Republic--its causes and its consequences. Likewise for the period in Greece from 490 through the death of Alexander and Greece's submission to Macedonia. Ruminating over that period has led to a mini-contrarian position that, with regard to Athens, the Periclean period does not represent the height of Athenian greatness, but more of the beginning of the end.

    I suppose the reasons I have honed in on those two periods is as much due to my own predilections as it is to my nagging worry: Is the US in a similar arc? Is there any relation between the attitude of Athens as it conquered Melos with our recent adventures in Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, and Gulf Wars I and II? Individual human nature being somewhat universal, as well as some aspects of group dynamics which rise above the peculiarities of any particular period and culture, are there warning signs which flash prominently in relative harmony between then and now?

    That's what I'm suggesting when I say History can provide a forecast. It can describe the contours if not the exact terrain.

    Next. Human beings are willful and while this means that there are too many variables to accurately predict what will happen, it does mean that the variety of policy choices available to a polity are not ultimately bound by anything except the intelligence and will of that polity. I emphasize ultimately because naturally there are specific constraints inherent in a given situation/moment in history. This is the source of my optimism. If we can think it, we can do it, generally speaking. So, even though we face a lot of problems--most of which we have brought upon ourselves--we can collectively, if we choose, find solutions which are equitable and just. I'm not suggesting that would be easy, nor that it would be probable even, given the current climate among our population. I am suggesting that if we do hit a discontinuity in the regular flow of current history (and I do think that is what is happening in slow motion), then radical ideas can flourish and perhaps even be adopted. (I mean radical in the classic sense of the term: to get to the root of.)

    I've been rambling long enough, so bless you if you have read this far. Once again, I pretty much agree with you that we have a lot to overcome and that the constraints seem pretty tight. But I just want to preserve that part of me which, when someone yells "9-11" causes me to reply, "1776."

    Mike A Mainello - 9/7/2007

    Thank you for the article. I will study it over the weekend.

    I have heard a lot of good things about General Zinni, but I never served under his command.

    My background in leadership is more at the tactical level. I have had the honor to lead some decent size organizations - upward of 500 soldiers.

    Thanks again for the article and I bet your boss was honored that you came to his defense. Also, I should warn you about posting anything for my review. The anti-Bush / Iraq crowd here is very hostile.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/7/2007

    Hello Dr. Kimball;

    I read about Dr. Shaw in the alum magazine and was saddened. He was not only a scholar, but he had heart.

    Please do tell Max that I send my best wishes. After so many years, he may not remember me, but I was the kid he let teach the Greek intellectual portion of his Western Civ surveys when I was his grad assistant. I think of him often.

    Tom Matijasik and I played a lot of tennis together in those days and we lovingly referred to Max as the "Russian Bear."

    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/7/2007

    Hi David. I just happened to check "comments" related to my original post and noticed yours. As you may know, Ron Shaw passed away a few years ago, but I'll tell Max that you wrote and said some kind things.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/6/2007

    Mr. Mainello:

    I've followed with interest your discussion with Mr. Johnson about leadership. Let me say first, I’d like to thank you and Mr. Johnson, both, for your service to the nation. My 34 years (and still counting) of public service have all been as a civilian. From 1976 to 1990, I was an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), for part of that time as an archivist team leader. Archivists typically have graduate degrees in history.

    I’m very interested in leadership and management and also in records, which provide the underpinning of the work historians do in studying the past. At the National Archives, where I was a team leader, I had some experience with both. InterestingLY, leadership eventually affected our work in ways our bosses did not anticipate at the beginning of our careers. For many years, things went smoothly at NARA. We operated quietly and serenely. But then the waters got very rough, indeed. That’s why I found your comments interesting. I’ve given a lot of thought to unit cohesion, morale, what makes people stick with a boss, or not, and so forth.

    Of course, I understand that the decisions we made as archivists did not have the same consequences as those made by you and by others who have served our nation in the military. Our job as federal archivists was to screen Richard Nixon's White House tapes and documents to decide what could be released to historians and the public in general and what had to be restricted and withheld. Such work still goes on, not just with President Nixon's unreleased materials, but also the records of other former Presidents (Ronald Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton) at NARA-administered Presidential Libraries.

    Our decisions and those of our colleagues did not involve the lives and health and welfare of men and women on the same level as the decisions made in military service do. But I do understand what you mean when you say a person sometimes has to make decisions based on the information available to him or her. One learns to live with one’s decisions and accept responsibility for them, rather than shifting blame and making excuses. Or at least in my experience, that is what many good civil servants strive to do. It also is useful to assess risks, weight options, and, most importantly, consider carefully who might oppose you and why they might oppose or misunderstand you. To this day, I'm still trying to learn about what happened to my colleagues and why Nixon acted as he did in dealing with us.

    During the 1980s, my boss in the NARA Nixon Project’s tapes unit, a Vietnam veteran and academic history major named Fred Graboske, was judged so highly by his governmental superiors that he was asked to serve on a NARA detail at the White House in the late 1980s. (Sy Hersh mentioned that detail in a published article about NARA in the New Yorker.) Graboske left NARA’s employ in 1992 and then served very successfully as Chief Archivist at the Marine Corps Historical Center during the period when it still was located in the Washington Navy Yard.

    While the former President still was alive, Nixon's lawyers quite naturally fought the National Archives to limit what could be disclosed from his White House records. I imagine the process of handing over one’s records to archivists to screen so that historians later can do research in them is difficult for many former Presidents. So I understand why Nixon acted as he did. But in opposing NARA, Nixon, unfortunately, did not always use tactics that I respected -- for one thing, I’ve never been a fan of mud flinging.

    A former President can be a powerful figure, even years after leaving office. Nixon’s lawyers aimed a lot of verbal fire at Graboske in 1992, when Professor Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit asking that the Nixon tapes be released. Professor Kutler later said that it appeared that Nixon did not want his White House tapes released during his lifetime.

    When Dr. Kutler filed his lawsuit seeking release of the Nixon tapes, Nixon’s lawyers implied that Graboske was biased against Nixon. Some people within the government fell silent in the face of such fire. I did not fall silent, even when I was subpoenaed as a witness in a lawsuit in which Nixon was a legal Intervenor. I could have shrugged and said, well, Graboske was the boss, let him take the fire alone, this is above my pay grade. Instead, I faced off with Nixon’s lawyer and spoke up strongly to defend Graboske. I was well positioned to do that because I understood the underlying premises of the work done during his tenure at NARA. Of course, it wasn’t easy or fun to duel with Nixon’s lawyers over the then still undisclosed records that historians hoped to study in order to ponder “the verdict of history.”

    I knew that far from being biased against Nixon, Graboske had voted for Nixon in 1968 and, I believe, also in 1972. I was too young to vote in 1968 but did vote for Nixon in 1972. But actually, whom we archivists had voted for was irrelevant in terms of our archival assignments. Our job was to screen Nixon’s White House tapes and files in an objective, nonpartisan fashion. We did not create the historical narrative, Nixon and his aides did, through their actions and decisions while in office. But most of all, I defended Graboske and took verbal fire myself from Nixon on his behalf, as a team leader who once had worked for him, because he had won our trust at NARA and been a good boss. Most of Graboske’s subordinates speak highly of him to this day.

    All of which is a very long way of saying, I’m very interested in leadership, what makes a good leader, and why, without imposed discipline and a highly hierarchical setting coming into play, people of their own free will and based solely on judgments formed over tinme, might choose either to stick with a leader or bail on him when the going gets tough. I wasn’t even a NARA employee when I testified about Graboske and the work he and I and other archivists had done. I had left NARA’s employ two years before Dr. Kutler filed his access lawsuit.

    So, I’m intrigued by the fact that most of Graboske’s former team stuck together and still do. I’ve heard some colleagues say that Graboske was the best boss for whom they ever worked. When we started out at NARA, we didn't anticipate the fights with Nixon to flare up as they later did. Most of us were quite young, I was 25 when I started at NARA in 1976. But Graboske's wise leadership, humor, and instinctively good people skills paid off big time when trouble later came. His staff stuck with him. People on HNN usually aren't interested in management science – I’ve been rebuffed in raising that topic in the past-- so I’ll leave it at that.

    More generally on leadership, Mr. Mainello, since you’re interested in it and know something about it from your experiences, you might want to look at the presentations at a conference on leadership and governance at Villanova in 2004: One of the speakers was Gen. Anthony Zinni.

    Maarja Krusten
    Historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist

    Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2007

    Mr. Johnson, I learned a lot from your post. I also learn a lot from other posts as well.

    I attempt to understand how someone can support the troops but not the war, etc. But I usually read the usual blather about Bush is stoopid, doesn't know what he was doing, duped the congress, etc. Anytime you disagree or bring up a difference of opinion you are called a troll, arrogant, stoopid, etc. Maybe we just cant have a difference of opinion on this site.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2007

    You have pegged it.

    War good, peace bad.

    USA never make mistake, rest of world wrong.

    me just simple caveman not understand ways of nuanced historians. I work to become better reeder of history.

    Please forgive this humble grasshopper.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/6/2007

    LOL. My panties are in a knot because you are a classic troll which, to my chagrin, I didn't immediately notice.

    Shame on me.

    What I find amusing is that I could possibly contribute a few ideas to a real conversation about about the distinctions between intelligence methodologies and historiography. You might even have discovered that we are not too far apart re the "decisive" nature of the leadership question.

    Instead, you have missed an opportunity to broaden each other's horizons. But that never was your goal in the first place, was it?

    Shame on you.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2007

    What you call arrogance, is what I call the real world.

    You may have been to many military funerals, but I have participated in making decisions that put soldiers lives at risk. It is one thing to attend a funeral of a colleague, but it is another to be the cause of the funeral.

    It is a decision that is not entered lightly, but one that has to be made. President Clinton repeatedly let events roll over him and decisions were made for him. Just read the books by LTC Patterson, a White House military aid.

    History is a superb tool to analyze decisions, but as I said decisions are made with the information on hand. If the Department of Transportation had stopped the terrorists, I am sure civil libertarians would have screamed bloody murder over profiling. But with the intel information restrictions (remember Clinton's DOJ restricted information sharing) and technology (FBI was behind in this area), the terrorists were able to exploit the system.

    So you may have your panties in a knot because I disagree with you, but that is life, get used to it.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/6/2007

    I'll try to be courteous in the face of your arrogance, though I suspect I will fail miserably.

    Given this latest response of yours, all I can say is that I did give you a clear answer with respect to the conditions under which I would support a declaration of war. So, troop, get off your Rumplestiltskin and work your way through Augustine, Aquinas, Bodin et al.

    Or, I could say, stop being like Thracymachus and start being like a genuine statesman. Don't confuse activity for leadership.

    And don't presume that folks who may not agree with your take on events are mere underlings, Horatio. The world is not a bar brawl, though I suppose some would like it so.

    For others on this board, please accept my apologies for this intemperate response. It won't happen again.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/6/2007

    Thanks, I have thought about this a great deal, especially because I have some experience with the human effects of policy decisions on the "common" person.

    One of the elements which makes me angry is the blithe manner in which the "elitists" who compose policy tend to view the consequences of their contrivances. I've been to enough military-themed funerals to last a lifetime.

    If I know one thing about history, it's that there is a long, sad trail of wrecked lives as a result of poor decision-making.

    So, in my view--which may not be very scholarly, nor "practical" at a political level--I cannot help but think that the political system devised by the Founders is the best possible means of self-governance under such conditions. It may be messy, but at least it demands something of its citizens beyond blind obedience.

    It's easy to be pessimistic about what the future may hold--at times I'm tempted to extrapolate our current craziness towards conclusions along the line you have suggested. But I try to remind myself that human events are not necessarily "linear" and that crises tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

    I'm not a historian; I've been in the business world for the past quarter century. Yet, I wouldn't trade my liberal arts background for anything. Studying history is a serious and ongoing avocation and it's useful, too! I've been mentored by some very keen people and I have done my best to return the favor to younger folks working their way up the ladder. Part of that is trying to evince the utility of knowing our past, but also to suggest that there is much of beauty to be found, too.

    As we muddle our way through this clearly critical period in US and global history, I try to think of the discontinuities we face as opportunities for bringing out the best in ourselves. And I do this knowing that some historical processes take place over extended periods of time--in some cases, longer than a single lifetime.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2007

    My question was very straight forward.

    In my career I have lead soldiers, advised commanders, and even lead my own small business. The one thing that stands out about leadership is that leaders make decisions with the information available. I have watched many a boss ask for more information only to watch events roll over the requirement for a decision, hence the decision was made for the person.

    So my question was simple, when would you use force. I even made it even easier, use a real example, not a hypothetical one. You asked for more information, buying time. Many faux leaders do the same. Being the boss or in charge is nothing more than a title, being a leader is difficult.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/6/2007

    LOL. What a provocative response! Was that easier to compose than clarifying your question, as I requested?

    Thanks for the tips on leadership. I'll take them to heart, just as you have taken to heart my attempt at suggesting some of the underpinnings of my thinking.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2007

    Mr. Johnson, thanks for the answer. It highlights the difference between leadership and being lead by the ship. Leaders make decisions based upon the information they have at the time. Others let events happen and try to get in front or find ways to avoid the blame.

    Take 9-11, after the horror died down, President Bush's critics kept demanding how he could have missed the obvious and allow this to happen. The same with Iraq. While no credible evidence has been provided that he willfully mislead anybody or cherry-picked the intel provided to congress, his critics keep saying they never would have gone to war with Iraq. These are the same people that would have been claiming credit if everything went perfectly. Hindsight is helpful, the administration used hindsight to adjust their tactics in Iraq (just like the critics demanded) and it is improving in Iraq.

    So a simple question is asked, but a long explanation is provided. One that cant be easily dissected. It is an answer that someone likes to use to justify why a decision was not made - Leadership or Lead by the ship. One is easy the other is hard.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/5/2007

    I'm not certain of your orientation here. Are you asking about my assessment of the past or of potential conflicts in the future? Until you clarify, I'll respond more philosophically.

    The criteria for declaring war, as well as the conduct of war-fighting, has a fairly long tradition in modern times. I don't think one can reasonably ignore theories of "Just War" as developed by Aquinas, Augustine and others in the Catholic Church. Nor can one ignore the secular tradition which developed from such theorizing, particularly the commonwealth/republican/natural and positive law traditions exemplified by the work of Bodin, Grotius, Pufendorf, Vattel, et al. My reading of the Federalist Papers suggests that those authors were certainly influenced by those traditions and, if I remember correctly, there are some direct citations of Vattel within.

    This is simply my opinion, but the explicitly republican tradition established by our Founders allows one to infer that the rule of law must prevail with regard to not only domestic affairs, but also in foreign diplomacy. As a practical matter this means that end runs around our Constitutional traditions must be opposed. This is so even given the debates within the US legal community with respect to interpreting our Constitutional tradition, which tend to oscillate within the premises laid out by our Founders.

    Thus, "History's" judgement of Bush's behavior will rest upon the attitude and orientation of his administration towards traditional concepts and values, upheld by our law, respecting Liberty, the separation of powers doctrine, and more conventional notions about the concept of "imminent threat."

    So, speaking generally, I'm not opposed to Congress' declaring war upon a nation which has attacked us, or presents a truly imminent threat, in which the pre-war intelligence has not been stovepiped, and which serves as a last resort in order to protect (what I perceive) as the proper role of the US in international affairs. And while I'd be willing to make sacrifices in support of that war effort, that support does not extend into areas in which our Constitution is trampled by an arrogance of power.

    I know that begs a question or two! But it is late and I must be off to bed.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/5/2007

    Please name one country or situation in which you believe military intervention is justified.

    Please try not to be hypothetical because the intel could be wrong and then you will be savaged by the all knowing opposition.

    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/5/2007

    Mr. Callahan, I agree with your comment, but I didn't have the space in my original posting to deal with the question you raise. You wrote:
    <<The real problem here is not that history can't resolve questions properly its own, but that a question like "Was Bush right to invade Iraq?" is not an historical question at all, but a political one>>, but with a couple of qualifications.

    I agree that political and moral questions are not easily decided because they are normative issues---unless of course the debaters agree on the political or moral frame of reference. But, yes, you are absolutely right: normative issues are different than factual issues, which can be resolved with logic and evidence.

    However, (1) normative issues have been historical issues, i.e., historians have debated them as part of a general historical debate; (2)and regarding factual issues, my original point about "argument without end" still holds because even if, say, I prove a factual historical issue with logic and evidence, another historian may, if he or she wishes or is determined, refuse to accept my argument. This is the point those historians I mentioned in my post were making. And I can tell you that in my experience as a professional historian, this happens time and time again.

    I've written about these things in some of my paper publications. But also see these on HNN:

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/5/2007

    Thanks. It's substantially the same argument I made with a currently serving member in the service.

    I wasn't explicit about Bush, as my comments were more a condemnation of the US as a whole in the post-WWII world, but I'm relatively certain that a great many future historians will not be kind to the current President. But that is only part of the story: I'm also relatively certain that History will be unkind to the US in a similar way. After all, we citizens tolerate way too much funny business. One could argue that this has ever been so in US politics, but it has been very pronounced in the past 50 years.

    Gene Callahan - 9/5/2007

    History attempts to answer the question "What happened?" When historians try to answer "What should have happened?" they have stepped out of their specialty and are answering a political or practical or moral question. It is similar to a physicist who tries to say what the *purpose* of electrons is.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/5/2007

    Maybe you understand why I am very excited about her being the front runner for Democratics ticket.

    Go Hillary in 2008!!!!

    Mike A Mainello - 9/5/2007

    I really wish I had time to properly respond to your thoughtful post.

    Having experienced both volunteer and draft forces, I prefer the volunteer force hands down.

    People in America have many different opportunities to volunteer for community service both locally and nationally.

    I disagree with your premise that President Bush will not be redeemed by "The Verdict of History". As of right now, only a current assessment can be made. The final verdict is far from over. If WW2 had ended in 1942 or 1943, then FDR would have been a failure. Luckily for me the war continued and Europe was liberated. If you read my earlier posts you will see my Grandfather fought as a German soldier in WW2.

    So the bottom line is criticism can be leveled on President Bush for his actions, that is easy looking backwards, but the final verdict has not been decided no matter how hard his critics try to push the issue.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/5/2007

    I now see the liberals true feelings about the military, you dont want to bring them home because you "care about their families" blah blah blah, you just crave power and love sucking off the government dole. Well, 2008 should be interesting with Hillary running for the democratics. She has such a positive message for America that the voters will be coming out in droves.

    You guys are joke.

    David Hamilton Johnson - 9/5/2007

    I'm going to jump in here, for what it's worth.

    I had the privilege of taking a History degree at Miami U. in the late 70s/early 80s. I particularly enjoyed working under the tutelage of Ronald Shaw and Max Welborn. Though never having taken a class with Dr. Kimball, I can assure anyone who might question his integrity that his reputation as a historian was well established then and that he was highly regarded by his peers. If it were not so serious, I'd be amused by the assumption that a historian cannot make judgements based on the nature of his craft. Don't get me wrong, I think it's possible to be a lousy historian and thereby have impaired judgements as a result; these flaws do not apply to Dr Kimball, even though I have disagreed with a few of his conclusions in the past.

    I earned the privilege to study at Miami by virtue of having been a volunteer for our Armed Services in the early and mid-70s. I'm just as honored to have been a citizen-soldier as I am to be a Miami grad. Without the GI Bill (as it stood then for Vietnam Era vets)I never would have gotten to Miami.

    Now I'll suggest why I favor national service. I'm not unmindful of the objections to a draft. But, imo, what obviously does not work--for America as a whole--is the all-volunteer force.

    I've seen the effects of war upon my peers from the Vietnam period. I've also known a shell-shocked vet of WWII, who, forty years after his experiences, was still clearly defined by them.

    My point is simply this: the human effect of war is not something one generally wants to impose upon someone, or even volunteer for. Not if one has empathy.

    And yet, what's the big difference between WWII and our later, less justified conflicts? In human terms, probably not much, but in policy terms, we've seen the rise of the military-industrial complex and its corresponding influence on policy since Korea. All these "limited wars" have not necessarily been in the interest of the nation as a whole, but they surely have been in the interest of segments of our population. Now we are being sold the bogus idea that our current "limited war" (in terms of engagement) is also a generational war--a war that will take decades to win.

    Of course that's baloney, and a lot of wise people know that. Still, our citizenry seems unable or unmotivated to put a stop to this nonsense. A lot of that has to do with the "support the troops" mentality on one side and on the other side, a misguided mentality that suggests "even though I am vocally opposed to the war, I can't stop it, but at least I tried." The common denominators which unite both of these attitudes are many. I'll mention two: First, both attitudes alienate and treat the military as a class of society that is distinct from their "part" of society. Second, both attitudes are to some extent impotent. It's war as a spectator activity (I won't call it sport.)

    But none of this goes to the essence of the matter, which is this: our civilian policy-making in the period since WWII has been flawed and subservient to the interests of our elite class, but not necessarily in the interest of our nation as a whole. (It's just sold to the nation as a bill of goods in our interest.) That says nothing about the character or caliber of our volunteer force, which is excellent.

    So, how do you treat the disease and not the symptoms? How does one cultivate the kind of citizen participation which has a greater influence on where, when, and how we employ our military? How does one do one's duty to fulfill Lincoln's injunction, to do our share of the "unfinished work" of this Republic?

    I don't have all the answers, but I do know that it starts with having the greatest part of the citizenry invested in the development and outcome of our policy-shaping. And that means shouldering part of the burden, as a matter of course, and as a duty one has as a citizen.

    And insofar as the military goes, that means that if our society agrees that it's time for "Johnny to get his gun," then even those who are not particularly enamoured of that idea have to do their share, too, if they want to be viewed as a citizen in good standing by the rest of the community.

    Last anecdote to support the above remark: In the months before my father died (we knew it was coming) we had many talks and some of them had to do with his experiences as a Squid during WWII. Ther pertinent part here is that by 1944 it was fairly clear what the outcome would be, though not certain by any means. My Dad dropped out of high school to join the Navy in 44 because, as he put it, it was pretty unthinkable not to want to get into the war in one way or another. How much of that notion was the maunderings of a naive kid and how much was a standard set by society, I'll leave for others to ponder.

    All I know is, if we are to deal with the slow, long-term decline of this nation, economically, morally, and otherwise, then we have got to get people off the sidelines. It's what Lincoln and Washington demand of us. I won't say it's a small price to pay, because it is not--it can be substantial and final, sadly. And if that means that volunteer "lifers" have to work a little harder to integrate and assimilate draftees into our military, then so be it. They'll do their job as well as any volunteer, provided the stakes are honest and the game isn't rigged.

    Gene Callahan - 9/5/2007

    "but over 50% of the population voted in the President (something President Clinton cant say), so your smart ass is in the minority. "

    And now about 30% approve of his conduct in office, so I guess it's your smart-ass that's actually in the minority.

    But, of course, twenty years in the military would pretty much destroy anyone's ability to think for themselves.

    Gene Callahan - 9/5/2007

    "Few historians of any repute have ever written up "verdicts" concluding that there truly was a late 19th century global conspiracy accurately accounted for in the "Protocol of the Elders of Zion," or that Germany was defeated in World War I because its politicians delivered a "stab in the back," or that the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II was an unavoidable necessity of US national security..."

    The first two issues are genuine historical questions, but the third is not. ("Practical necessity" is not a category of historical thought.)

    Gene Callahan - 9/5/2007

    The real problem here is not that history can't resolve questions properly its own, but that a question like "Was Bush right to invade Iraq?" is not an historical question at all, but a political one.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/5/2007

    You sir are nothing more than fountain of slogans.

    I respect your right to spew your venom and pray you stay in the minority for a long time. So sit back, take another toke, turn up the volume on a protest song and enjoy the next 16 months. Who knows maybe another honorable republican will get voted back into office and you will have 4 more years to hone your protesting craft.

    At least the men and women who volunteer for military service will be able to look back and say they helped bring democracy to another country. People free to live and work, raise their children, and improve the world. You will be able to look back and say you wrote a bunch of hate filled garbage that made you feel better. Oh well what ever makes you happy.

    Oh yeah, we control the skies over Darfur also, I guess there is another problem that can be ignored. Must be easy to be a liberal. Another problem solved. Pass the stash, so I can fire up another one. Life is good.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/4/2007

    Hey I love the US and everything it stands for. Served 20 years in the military and the vast majority of soldiers I served with are not couch potatoes or ignorant. I also served so you would have the right to criticize this government, something those in Iraq could not do before our war.

    This war has been conducted by an all volunteer force with the fewest casualties of any war waged in history. Democrats took us into WW2, Korea, Vietnam and the Balkans. Once the decision was made, the republicans supported the president.

    Sadaam killed thousands of people and was pursuing WMD. You don't like it, fine, but over 50% of the population voted in the President (something President Clinton cant say), so your smart ass is in the minority.

    If liberals (and please dont call yourself progressives, this is code for communist) in this country succeed in pulling us out of Iraq, not only will the Islamic terrorists win, our ability to go into Darfur or any other humanitarian effort impossible.

    So peace out.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 9/4/2007

    A desire to live here does not necessarily equal a love of what we do abroad, a point made by Mark Twain during the conquest of the Philippines and by many others since.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/4/2007

    Wow, lots of bile in your body. If America is such a bad place I wonder why so many people want to come and live here. Sure are a lot of ignorant people that want to come to America.

    I trust you are taking medication for your symptoms, I would hate to see you have to go to the hospital, though I understand Cuba has a great system. Have a great day, I know I am.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/4/2007

    incompetent dupe - 4.6% unemployment, longest post-recession growth period in history, rebuilding a military ignored by his predecessor in the middle of 2 wars, executing 2 wars with an all volunteer force with the lowest casualty rate in history, protecting the country and not experiencing a single terrorist attack in almost 6 years.

    Nuclear proliferation - The 6 party talks just announced Korea would totally cease all nuclear programs. This problem was inherited after President Clinton's failed NK nuclear policy. Pakistan and India already had nucs. However, the administration did avert a crises between the 2 countries.

    With regards to Africa, even that statesman Bono said President Bush has done a lot for Africa. Besides the AIDS money, the President has been working on market based approaches to distribute foreign aid to countries.

    If our name has been drawn through the mud as you describe, why did France and Germany elect pro-American leaders and why did Australia re-elect a pro-American leader?

    Oscar Chamberlain - 9/3/2007

    "It is a simple and truthful recognition that what seems bad in the present paves the way for a better future and what seems easiest and best in the present, paves the road to disaster."

    1. Not always.

    2. Yes, there are some people who see withdrawal as a simple option. I think that are a scattering of supporters of the war who see staying the course as the simpler option, too.

    The last time I looked a withdrawal was going to be exceedingly difficult, both militarily and politically. The question is whether, despite that, it is the better course.

    3. As I and many others have been saying since 2003, WWII is not a good point of comparison. The occupations at the end of the war were in vastly different circumstances. Nor is the late 1930s; Hitler's Germany was increasing in power each year. Iraq under Saddam and partially embargoed by us was decreasing in power.

    4. The Vietnam analogy also has flaws. Our entry into Vietnam, horrid as the war turned out to be, flowed pretty naturally from a larger and largely accepted Containment policy. In the case of Iraq, Americans were still, as a people, in the very early stages of defining for ourselves the scope and nature of the enemy that we faced when the Bush administration pushed for an invasion. (I fear we have defined too broadly in the post 9/11 world, but that is another debate.)

    The aspects common to both are the hubris of American political and military leadership that seriously underestimated the force and dedication needed to do the job and the related unwillingness to try to consider carefully in advance just what we would do to Iraq in the process of liberating it.

    Nancy REYES - 9/3/2007

    You have repeated the democratic talking points, but there isn't much about history in the essay.

    Or Geography. Ever hear about a place called Asia?

    Bush's legacy will be his Asian and AFrican policies.

    The country with the second largest number of terror attacks is India, and Islamic terrorists are active in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

    Bush's policies help all these countries. Thanks to BUsh, the Dutch just decided a murderous "insurgent" of our belongs in jail.

    And Bush's program has saved many Africans. Ever hear of Dafur? Bush and Blair have been at the forefront of that fight, and now China is getting on board. And Bush's HIV funding rarely gets praise in the press, but Africans remember.

    Jason Blake Keuter - 9/3/2007

    The left generally looks to Vietnam and ignores World War II. When Bush talks about the verdict of history, he's clearly referring to the historical period leading up to World War II and crticizing the short-sightedness and willfull ignorance of peace at any cost people and appeasers and realists, who assumed that Hitler was just another statesmen.

    When the left invokes Vietnam, they assume that the fate of Vietnam minus any US intervetnion would have necessarily been good. Central to the left's Vietnam history is a willfull ignorance of the historical context of the era - namely the assumption that neither the Soviet Union nor China were imperialistic nations.

    The verdict of history is not for the desperate. It is a simple and truthful recognition that what seems bad in the present paves the way for a better future and what seems easiest and best in the present, paves the road to disaster.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/2/2007

    Thank you for updating me.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/2/2007

    Since I never know what someone will blast another commenter on, just thought I would correct peak to peek, pre-emptively.

    Maarja Krusten - 9/2/2007

    HNN readers may find of interest this article from Sunday's New York Times. On the second page, he is quoted as saying of his leadership that "Mr. Bush has often said that will be for historians decide, but he said during his sessions with Mr. Draper that they would have to consult administration documents to get to the bottom of some important questions."

    Here is a link to the NYT article, I believe this should work even for those who aren't registered to read the NYT. See

    Maarja Krusten - 9/1/2007

    Of course, studying Presidential history involves looking at process as well as outcomes, both of which can look different over time.

    How much a Presidential historian learns about some aspects of the governmental process (the decision making apparatus, a President's management style, his relations with aides and advisors) depends in part on the type of records created and preserved. Sometimes there are surprises. I don't think any of us imagined during the Vietnam War that there were tapes which vividly captured LBJ's struggles. See, for example,
    The question is, of course, if created, when should such material should be opened?

    Since he left office at a time when a President's White House records still were considered his personal property (now no longer the case, after the passage of laws in 1974 and 1978), LBJ asked that his tapes be sealed for 50 years after his death. Lady Bird Johnson permitted the National Archives to start screening them for disclosure in the early 1990s. She could have kept them under seal longer -- until 2023 -- but since she didn't, we've gained some interesting insights into the Johnson White House. As with Nixon's tapes, of course, the disclosure process still is ongoing.

    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/1/2007

    Mr. Mainello, my previous post (Aug 25) on Republican moderates has been re-posted, i.e., we had to re-post my file copy of my original blog. Unfortunately, all or the comments you, Oscar Chamberlain, and I wrote are lost in cyberspace. We don't know how this happened, but it wasn't intentional.

    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/1/2007

    OK. Thanks for the reply. I hear you. Good luck to you, too.

    Mike A Mainello - 9/1/2007

    I appreciate the response.

    As a retired active duty soldier of 22 years I don't support re-instituting the draft. I experienced the quality of the force. To the say the least, it was terrible. People that want to join the military are much better employees. We don't draft people for compulsory community or national service i.e. Americorps for the same reason. The military in countries with mandatory service are generally dismal in quality and are easily defeated.

    With regards to congressional debate, I dont have any problem with Congress debating it. I truly think it is helpful. The downside is the media. I actually watch CSPAN to get a flavor of the debate, not some 15 to 30 second interpretation on the evening news.

    Lastly taxes - I wish that higher taxes brought in higher revenue. It does sometimes, but is not always the case. When the capitol gains rate was lowered it unlocked a lot of money that was taxed. One of the problems with the current tax structure is not enough people participate. The top 50% of tax payers pay in around 95% of all revenue to the federal government.
    A lot of the citizens don't care what the government does because they don't pay taxes into the system - unless you count lottery tickets. I also think the fair tax would bring in more funds because the federal and state governments could concentrate on collecting taxes through fewer businesses than trying to get all businesses and individuals to comply to a complex tax code.

    Afghanistan is proceeding well. The amount of attacks on our military is low. Joint efforts to improved the infrastructure are on going. Could things improve, yes.

    The military is stretched right now because during the 90's President Bush and then Clinton decided the military was too large. The military budget stayed constant for 10 years while the size of the force was reduced. Just like it takes time to teach democracy to the Iraqi and Afghani people, putting a new division in place takes time.

    Short answers for complex problems, yes, but I believe debate important. However, once the decision is made - congress and the UN did pass supporting legislation - then let the proper agencies put it into action.

    Good luck on the book

    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/1/2007

    Don't get paranoid. My Aug 25 post inexplicably disappeared. The editor and I cannot figure it out. He will re-post it asap. (I'm writing this 9/1, 9:30 a.m.) I thought you had sabotaged the site after I wrote you a nice note (just kidding; that's a joke).

    The jist of what I wrote was this (now this was a response to your last missive):
    -I've tried to answer your questions in the spirit of friendly discussion or debate. Don't interpret counterarguments as insults.
    -You usually reject the answers out of hand, accuse me of some evil plot, get insulted when I haven't attacked you personally or given an insult, or you change the subject and ask your own question, which has little to do with the main point of my original post. (Didn't we have this discussion last year?)
    -Anyway, I thought I would use your technique: I'll try one last time to respond to one of your myriad questions. How about I answer a question of yours with a question? Here it is. You claim the volunteer army wants to fight and supports Bush's goals, which you claim include high-minded ideals, and then you say, what's my beef. Here's my answer in the form of a question: If you, Mr. Mainello, believe so much in the supposed idealistic cause, why don't you support the reinstitution of the draft, the mobilization of the nation, and, while you're at it, a full debate on the war in Congress and between the prez and Congress in order to pass the requisite legislation, including higher taxes to pay for it all (and don't forget the war in Afghanistan)? That's my answer in the form of a question. Plus, I'm moving on to my real work: writing a book.

    Mike A Mainello - 8/31/2007

    If your last post was accidentally deleted, I apologize for what I am about to write, but if it was deliberately removed, then it just proves the left does not have the ability to engage in a discussion.

    Each time you write a post, you have difficulty accepting someone can disagree with you. I am sure you are respected in your field by your fellow fawning historians, but to the general public you are rigid in your thinking and one dimensional in your logic.

    Good night. I hope that America continues to be the bright shining light to the rest of the world.