Tag Archives: history

Where to draw the line between history and journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

As an author with a foot in both camps, I often wonder where the dividing line can be drawn between history and journalism. After all, both fields are devoted to empirical research into the past — just along different timelines.

Journalists want to know what has just happened — within, say, the previous day or so. Some journalists also want to explore what those developments might mean.

Historians want to know what has happened beginning at some time prior to the present, going as far back as the evidence can go. Most historians also want to comment on the meaning of those facts.

Because these inquiries overlap so much, it’s often hard to say who’s who. Many journalists explore historical topics. For example, my colleague in the B.U. Journalism Dept. Mitch Zuckoff, a veteran journalist, has written two best-selling books involving WWII topics and a brand-new best seller about the disaster at Benghazi in 2012. Is he a journalist or a historian? [As for me, I've written a history of industrialization and a history of journalism, but I do not have an academic appointment in a history department.]

Thanks to the BBC, we now have some data about how non-specialists (at least Brits) view this issue. In a recent survey, the BBC History Magazine asked folks to specify when events become part of History. Their answer: about 10 years.

Here are the results:

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The BBC also rounded up some expert opinion, and here are some of those thoughts:

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What’s your view? When does history start?

Leave a comment.

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The secret history of the Manhattan Project

By Christopher B. Daly 

Better late than never: the U.S. government has finally declassified its official history of the Manhattan Project, the vast and Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 3.16.57 PMsecret program undertaken during World War II to build an atom bomb. (Which was intended, first and foremost, for use against Germany, but as it happened, the bomb was not ready by V-E day in May of 1945, so it ended up being used against Japan in August.)

As it happens, the Manhattan Project was a major focus of my master’s thesis in U.S. History at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 1980s. At that time, none of these documents were available. Instead, I had to rely mainly on Hewlett and Anderson’s multi-volume history of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was the main successor to the Manhattan Project and which oversaw the conversion of the bomb-making project into two new, separate enterprises: military efforts to make bigger and better bombs and civilian efforts to make cheap nuclear energy available.

Even after all these years, it is still remarkable how few “atomic secrets” slipped out during WWII and reached hostile powers. Of course, that depends on how you define such secrets and how you define hostile powers. In one sense, there is no “atomic bomb secret.” Before the war, physicists had pretty well worked out the basic science of atomic fission. After that, it’s all engineering, and there are in fact many different ways to apply the science to create weapons. The issue of “hostile powers” turns out to have been the more vexing issue. During the war, the U.S. naturally worried about maintaining secrets from the Germans and the Japanese, our avowed enemies. They did not pay enough attention to maintaining secrets from the Soviets, our putative allies.

I have no intention of re-fighting the Cold War battles over atomic espionage (in which a small number of misguided leftists cooperated with Soviet spies and probably made the world a worse place).

All I want to do today is draw attention to the belated but still welcome declassification of this report.

BUT NOTE: there are almost certainly more parts that the government has not declassified and will not even acknowledge. That’s the nature of secrecy. 

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The Roosevelts and the media — a historian weighs in

By Christopher B. Daly

[Update: Here's a thoughtful, tough evaluation of Ken Burns from an academic historian. It makes some points I have been struggling to articulate. H-t to Harvey Kaye.]

Could either Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt get elected today? That’s a fun question to kick around as the epic new video documentary by Ken Burns unfolds on PBS.

A rare view of FDR using crutches. PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC. Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

A rare view of FDR using crutches.
PBS identifies this as a photo taken in 1924 when FDR nominated Al Smith a the DNC at Madison Square Garden, NYC.
Photo is credited to the Roosevelt Little White House state historic site, located in Warm Springs, Ga.

The lead writer of the series is the redoubtable Geoffrey C. Ward, who is probably one of the most successful, most familiar, and least known American historians of recent decades. Ward, who apparently has never had an academic appointment in a university history department, has a real knack for writing history in a way that lots of people appreciate. A graduate of Oberlin and former editor of American Heritage, Ward has an impressive track record: 18 books (including a 1989 biography of FDR, A First-Class Temperament), a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Parkman Prize for history, seven Emmys, a bunch of other prizes and the “Friend of History Award” from the Organization of American Historians.

Among his many talents, I would say Ward excels at the majestic, omniscient note needed to introduce Big Subjects in our national drama like the Civil War or the Roosevelts. One arrow in Ward’s quiver is the “historical conditional” verb tense, as in: “His When his words are read by Peter Coyote, you better listen up.

As this recent NYTimes piece notes, Ward has a special connection to FDR — Ward suffered from polio as a child and still wears braces as a result — that perhaps gave him a special affinity or empathy with the president. Although it is not taught much in school, empathy may not be a bad quality in a historian.

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns PBS photo

Geoffrey C. Ward (left) and Ken Burns
PBS photo

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“Into the Wild” : A journalism classic revisited

By Christopher B. Daly 

As usual, I’m using the summer to catch up on my reading. Here’s a look back by Jon Krakauer, revisiting his break-out work on the death of Christopher McCandless, which became the basis for Krakauer’s best-seller Into the Wild. Krakauer makes a good case about the scientific validity of his original hypothesis — that McCandless died from ingesting wild foods that poisoned him.

This piece points up the importance of something we do too rarely in journalism — that is, stop chasing the next thing for a moment and go back over the ground we have already plowed. We should test and validate our work more often than we do.

So, kudos to Krakauer for both the original and the look-back.

Chris McCandless, the subject of "Into the Wild"

Chris McCandless, the subject of “Into the Wild”

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Iraq: Why journalists should study history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I like to say: History keeps happening.

The events of recent days in the part of the world known as Iraq cannot be understood or explained without mastering a lot of history, going back well before the U.S. invasion and occupation. A good starting point for journalists covering the region (or merely pontificating about it) and for news consumers would be this map, drawn up in secret by the Great Powers who won World War I. In this historical map from 1919, British and French diplomats literally drew lines across the sand and decided how to divvy up the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

(Don’t miss: the notation “secret” on the upper left.)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.  (British Library)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.
(British Library)

This map shows how the European powers essentially created Syria (A) and Iraq (B) without regard for traditional ethnic, religious, tribal, or commercial interests. There was no plebiscite, no consultation with local leaders. That’s the fundamental (modern) problem in the region.

To zero in on Iraq at present, here’s a valuable recent map from the Washington Post, showing a much-needed degree of granularity that goes beyond the artificial “national” boundaries. At a glance, the grey area suggests the need for an independent Kurdistan. The green area from Baghdad to the Gulf suggests the contours of a smaller country populated by Shiites. The yellow areas may well make more sense as a new Sunni country that includes parts of Syria.

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.  Washington Post

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.
Washington Post

 

My suggestion: Don’t listen to any journalist, analyst, or U.S. politician who could not intelligently discuss these maps for at least an hour in an informed way.

[My personal view: these are not real countries with genuine borders, so they cannot be effectively governed by anyone until borders are brought in line with social reality. In any case, this is not a U.S. problem. This region belongs to the people who live there. If they want to have a civil war or a religious war, they are entitled to have one. If any outside parties bear any responsibility, it would be the British and the French.]

 

 

 

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Data viz: 19th Century Edition

By Christopher B. Daly 

Thanks to TNR and this terrific piece by Susan Schulten about two very powerful maps that could have (and should have) shaped the settlement of the United States. Essentially, they tell the same story: do not attempt European-style agriculture west of the long-grass Great Plains. 

Here’s a map made by the great one-armed Western explorer John Wesley Powell for the U.S. Geological Survey:

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In it, he drew a north-south line from the middle of North Dakota to Houston and warned against even attempting to farm those areas (except for the far West Coast). The wonderfully colored areas depict the watersheds of the region’s major rivers.

 

And here’s an earlier map showing rainfall totals across the country. Again, the message is pretty clear.

U.S. rain chart

U.S. rain chart

 

 

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D-day media roundup

By Christopher B. Daly

On this historic occasion, here’s an array of historic media images from D-Day and the following couple of momentous days as the Allies fought their way off the beaches and began the horrible “hedgerow campaign.”

–Robert Capa’s iconic photos for LIFE magazine can be seen at this memorial page maintained by Magnum (the photo agency Capa helped to found.) These are the highest quality I have found yet.

D-Day invasion photo by Robert Capa

D-Day invasion photo by Robert Capa

–Recently discovered are these rare color moving images made by Hollywood film director George Stevens while he was volunteering to aid the war effort. (Thanks to The Telegraph (U.K.), via HNN.) Stevens directed “Shane” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” among many others, including “Gunga Din” with Cary Grant and “Woman of the Year” with Hepburn and Tracy.

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–Here is an image of the NYTimes special “extra edition” on June 6, 1944, with a “time stamp” of 6 a.m..

NYT D-Day Extra

 

Here is the front page from the following day:

D-Day plus 1

D-Day plus 1

–Here is the Times‘ own version of the June 6 paper.

–Here is a gallery on Google’s new “Cultural Institute,” where I compiled more images from the U.S. National Archives. (This is my first use of this feature. What do you think?) This gallery includes some great images of Higgins boats, which carried the day on June 6, when many of the heavier tank-landing craft (LSTs) got bogged down. Amazing fact: most of the Higgins boats were made of plywood, not steel.

–One more, from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division:

Americans in Times Square learn the news about D-Day

Americans in Times Square learn the news about D-Day

 

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