By Christopher B. Daly
BY TRADITION, today is the day that marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, a towering figure in American history known for his journalism, his public speaking, his opposition to slavery, his support of women’s rights, and much more. But in fact, no one can be sure of the date of Douglass’s actual birthday, for a simple reason: He was born into slavery, and most slaves were never told the exact date of their birth.
As Douglass wrote in the powerful opening to his Narrative:
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. . .
I have always found that line comparing the status of a slave to that of a horse to be stunning. It epitomizes the evil of chattel slavery.
By Christopher B. Daly
After a summertime hiatus, I want to revive this site. As ever, there is much to say about journalism, history, and the assorted other topics that show up here from time to time (NCAA, fossil fuels, etc.)
Today, I want to praise the NYTimes business columnist Eduardo Porter for his smart and effective use of history to inform what was essentially a political column about Donald Trump.
Porter begins with the premise that we all have our own histories and that our individual histories are entwined with the broader histories of our times. In Trump’s case, that personal history involved a coming of age at a very unusual period in American history — when the fraction of the foreign-born population was at an all-time low.
When Donald Trump was reaching adulthood in the mid-1960s, the United States was a less diverse place. By 1970, the share of the population born overseas had shrunk to 4.7 percent, the slimmest on record. Only about 0.4 percent of the population had been born in Mexico.
For a person of Trump’s time, that experience helps define a norm, against which all change is experienced as a deviation. Thus, for Trump and the slice of the population that is about his age (69, about the oldest possible slice of the baby boom), the last few decades represent a disorienting change in the composition of American society. Incidentally, there is nothing inevitable about his perception that such change represents a decline. He might see it as a plus. The fact that he interprets the change as a harm tells us a lot about Donald Trump as an individual. The times in which we live do not dictate everything about us; they just give us material to work with.
My only gripe with Porter’s column has to do with an issue that pervades the Times. Why won’t the paper include more links to source material? Most of the links in the online version link to other Times stories or to backgrounders prepared by the Times. In the Porter piece, it would make sense to link to the works of some of the experts he cites or to link to the Pew study he relies on. I suppose the paper is worried that readers will depart from the Times‘ site via links and never return. But I think that’s wrong. I think more readers would value the Times more if it included external links.
Besides, if the Times is going to write using a historical perspective more often, the writers will have to meet the standards that historians have for evidence. Footnotes anyone?
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
― George Orwell
With that epigram in mind, let’s consider the recent experience of James Risen, the New York Times
national-security reporter who is battling to stay out of jail for refusing to reveal his confidential source (or sources) in a case the government is bringing against someone else. [That would be former CIA officer Jeffrey A. Sterling, whose case I wrote about last summer in an earlier post
In court this week, Risen complied with a subpoena and testified in federal court. He testified that he would not reveal his sources. Well done.
Here’s why what he is doing is so important: Unless reporters find out secrets, they are not really doing their job. Without those stories, we would have next to no idea what our government is doing.
In Risen’s own words (according to the Times story
Mr. Risen, in the speech last fall at Colby College, noted that many of the most controversial aspects of the government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — drones, waterboarding, secret prisons, prison abuses in Iraq and more — took place in secret.
“If you took away all the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the history of the last 13 years,” he said. He said that the government was less likely to prosecute leaks of classified information that made the government look good, such as the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
“Stay on the Interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems,” he said. “Try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment.”
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:
The BBC also rounded up some expert opinion, and here are some of those thoughts:
What’s your view? When does history start?
Leave a comment.
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 secret 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.
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.
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
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”