Blogs > Cliopatria > AHA 2008: Philip Zelikow

Jan 7, 2008 2:36 am

AHA 2008: Philip Zelikow

The HISTORY NEWS NETWORK ( recorded this appearance of Philip Zelikow at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington DC on January 5, 2008.

He spoke at a luncheon sponsored by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. While the members of SHAFR ate tasty Lebanese dishes at Taverna's across the street from the Marriott, Zelikow reflected on how his experiences in government and his research into the Cuban Missile tapes have reshaped his understanding of history.

He did not come prepared to rehash 9-11 or the Iraq War and he barely touched on the subjects. Though he still dressed the part of a high government official, and he speaks with the command of someone who has wielded immense power, he concerned himself with the kinds of questions ordinary historians face all the time: How do we know what happened? What kind of evidence should we use? Have we overlooked something important?

His considered judgment, based especially on his experience as the executive director of the 9-11 Commission and as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's counselor, is that contingency plays a critical role in history and that historians can only understand how big a role that is if they undertake a robust investigation of what he repeatedly called microhistory. For it's by digging in the details that you find out how people thought, who they got along with, how decisions were made, and when they were made.

Do historians usually get things right? Zelikow's judgment is that historians work in most cases at so great a distance from the events they describe that they generally have gotten no better a view than can be had from 10,000 feet up. What's needed, he said, is the view from a helicopter ... 100 feet up--as historians of the Cuban Missile Crisis were lucky to obtain when the Kennedy tapes became available. What those tapes demonstrated beyond question, he argued, was that decades of research hadn't been able to uncover some of the critical forces shaping the outcome. As an example, he noted that until the tapes appeared no historian had understood that the Berlin crisis had fundamentally shaped Kennedy's decision to confront the USSR in Cuba. If it wasn't Cuba in October '62, it would be somewhere else later: that was the lesson of Berlin.

Here are extended excerpts from Zelikow's speech, which was entitled,"For Want of Knowledge": Microhistory and Pivotal Public Choices.

Part 1

Part 2

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Maarja Krusten - 1/8/2008

For all intents and purposes, I sat inside the White House when I worked with thousands of hours of Richard Nixon’s tapes as a National Archives’ employee. So I like Mr. Zelikow’s image of a helicopter. He is right in saying some (not all) historians write from too great a distance. In writing, you need the right mix of details and big picture view.

Some historians do well in vividly portraying the decision making process. Good historians not only do their homework, they piece together known facts into a narrative that presents the principals as real people, not as figures on a stage who are observed from a balcony far away. But not everyone can do this. Occasionally, when I read essays or comments about recent Presidents here on HNN and on other sites, I wonder why the Presidents and their advisors come across as stereotypes or as cartoonish figures, not as real people. I occasionally find myself thinking, “Didn’t the person who wrote this ever hold a job where he and the people around him struggled with what to do? Or had to make hard choices and then live with their consequences? Or encountered problems with flawed data, poor information flow or inability to speak truth to power? Or generally had to make the best of a bad situation? Can't he see that it's the same way in the White House, or State Department, or whatever?”

Sometimes the real people are missing altogether. Jeremy Kuzmarov's essay last week about Charlie Wilson’s War referred to aggressive policies followed by “Washington.” But the essay gave me no insights of the sort offered by Michael Beschloss in his very readable book, _The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963_ into how and why earlier events unfolded as they did. Perhaps some day someone will write about Reagan-era foreign policy as well as Beschloss did about the early 1960s.

Granted, it takes time to gain access to archival records (if such were created in the first place). And releasing such records can be fraught with problems. (Since I didn’t attend AHA, I would like to hear from anyone who attended the panel on advocacy. What was said about archival issues and access to records?) And skill to sort out what the revealed facts mean. All the more reason to note when writing about recent events that we don’t yet know everything about what went into the decisions made.

So, I found myself nodding when I saw that Zelikow said that you get insights from a distance of 100 feet away that are not available at 10,000 feet. Of course, it takes time and great effort to reach the 100 foot level. Some aspects of governance always will remain somewhat murky. Obviously, there aren’t tapes and detailed predecisional records for every action taken.

But Zelikow is right in stating, “For it's by digging in the details that you find out how people thought, who they got along with, how decisions were made, and when they were made.”