The Oval Office Desperately Needs a Historian

tags: presidential history, public history, White House history

The Harvard Political Review is an undergraduate publication of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. 

The COVID-19 pandemic invokes Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu all over again.” American plans for pandemics, partially informed by the previous Spanish Flu, were discarded, and the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit of the National Security Council could not perform its job — because it had been disbanded two years earlier by the Trump administration. Memories of past pandemics failed to prepare the U.S. government for future infectious diseases, and medical interventions such as masking and social distancing — which successfully stemmed the 1918 pandemic — were forgotten until several months after COVID-19 began circulating in the United States. In the coronavirus pandemic’s postmortem, the American government’s failure to adequately consult historians about the problems facing the United States must rank among the top missed opportunities.

The benefits of consulting historians extends beyond our pandemic response: In 2016, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argued in The Atlantic that U.S. presidents should receive advice from a council of historians. Their suggestion remains relevant as the U.S. grapples with historic challenges, including a national reckoning on race, a global climate crisis, rising crime, an economic recession, rising inflation, and divisive partisanship that threatens to derail any solution to the panoply of problems facing the country. 

Presidents already make decisions in consultation with economists who analyze the fiscal ramifications of proposed programs, lawyers who determine the legality of executive actions, scientists and experts who assess the efficacy of various policies, and pollsters who determine the popularity of new initiatives. Historians can draw upon the lessons of the past to craft solutions for current problems. They deserve a seat at the table too.

Advice from historians is valuable both because it provides precedent for contemporary problems and because it incorporates a breadth of knowledge and context that extends beyond a presidential administration’s narrow concerns. Historians look past short-term solutions and seek the lasting ramifications of current approaches: They can appraise the historic legacy of present policy.

In the past, presidents have sought historians’ advice with varying success. Richard Neustadt drew upon President Franklin Roosevelt’s eventful first 100 days while recommending the newly elected John F. Kennedy set an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days as president. President Kennedy heeded Neustadt’s advice, establishing the Peace Corps and setting the goal of a manned moon landing during his first 100 days in office, but Kennedy’s overzealousness also led to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion during the early days of his presidency.

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