25 September 2012

The Misery and Joy of Doing Recent History

I am an historian of recent events. Well, relatively recent events. Some of the people who participated in the events I study are still alive. In the past day I've been reminded of the statement that real historians don't study anything that has happened in the past X years (where X is a real number between 1 and 100 that is arbitrarily chosen by the speaker of the admonition). I still don't agree with the statement, but I have new reasons for believing that recent history is hard.

First, let's deal with the nonsense that is the belief that real historians don't touch recent events. The idea behind this belief is that historians require perspective, and the only way to acquire adequate perspective is time. Time allows us to separate the winners from the losers, the lasting trends from the flashes in the pan. However, if we narrate our stories as the inevitability of progress or victory, we're derided for presentism or a naive fabrication of determinism. So, at least in this hypothetical sense, time offers no advantages to perspective.

Take for instance the history of Canada's defence policy under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The finest book on the topic was written by Jon McLin in 1967. I have heard more than two young historians argue that it would be easy to improve upon McLin's work, because McLin wrote his book in 1967. They assume that McLin's perspective was tainted by his proximity to events, and that current historians have access to more of the historical materials than McLin did. The second half is patently false; although McLin only includes footnotes to newspaper articles, his book was informed by complete access to Department of National Defence papers. Many of those papers no longer exist, or are still classified. From the bits of documents that are being released, it's pretty clear that McLin, who as an American was an outsider to the situation, was reasonable and fair. In other words, the historian McLin got the story 'right' shortly after it unfolded, the way excellent journalists have been doing for a very long time.

Having dismissed the technical objections to recent history, many historians are still averse to working with recent history. I think this is largely because doing recent history well requires both the skills of an historian and a journalist. The latter responsibility arises from the fact that the historical actors, or people who knew them, are still alive and it becomes possible, even necessary, to add a human touch to the story. These are real people we're writing about in our recent histories, and they have real thoughts and emotions, and we can talk to them and find out what they currently believe they used to think and feel. Sure, memory isn't the most reliable of things, but we can combine their memories with documents to weave a more interesting and compelling tale.

When I started the research for my history of the Defence Research Board of Canada I supplemented archival and secondary source research with interviews. The biggest roadblock to oral history, aside from memory, is mortality. Many people I wanted to interview were dead or dying, but this was more of an abstract problem. They were historical actors with names and dates; they weren't real people and they were never going to be real people, because I wasn't going to be able to interview them. I was attached to them the way other historians are attached to their own subjects like Newton or Napoleon.

I interviewed around two dozen people. They all provided useful insights into the institutional culture. Every single one of them independently described the DRB as paternalistic. This description reinforced the archival documents, which all presented the DRB as a top-down organization - one that rewarded excellence, or at least being well-connected. I think there is still a story to tell from the bench up, but the first full history of the DRB had to be a top-down analysis.

After I completed the interviews and the archival research I set down to writing, which is to say that I had a nice long battle with writer's block. A few of my interviewees checked in with me occasionally, but most of them went on with their lives and left me to write about them. I promised them all, as part of the interview agreement, that I would notify them when I finished the project.

I started contacting them all yesterday, and the difference between normal historical actors and the ones that I interviewed struck home. I already knew that one of the more significant actors that I had interviewed died. He received an obituary in national newspapers, so it was hard to miss his death; he was well connected, afterall. Having spent time in his home, eaten a delicious lunch prepared by his wife, and reluctantly turned down a significant portion of his collection of books, it felt personal. He reminded me of my great uncle, who also died while I was writing my thesis, because they were both veterans of the Second World War; veterans who were fortunate to only sacrifice their long-term hearing rather than their lives.

As I go through my contact list I find that where there is one there are more. I've had emails bounce, which is more an indication of the impermanence of technology than anything else, but the replies that trickle in bring congratulations and bad news. Hospitalizations. Deaths. These aren't just historical actors with names and dates, these are people. People who were kind enough to share their stories with me over food and/or drink. People who had friends and families. People I knew, if only a little bit.

I suddenly understand why so many historians want to avoid recent history. When you have a chance to meet the people you write about, you are connected to them. You learn about them, you evaluate their personalities and their reliability, and you measure their actions against their capabilities. They are real people, and when the inevitable happens you experience normal human emotions.

To those who callously suggest that knowing our historical actors brings our perspective into question, I worry. For me history is, at its core, the study of people - what they did, when and why they did it. For all the dangers of memory and emotion, I would still rather meet and measure the people I'm writing about. I will gladly experience the misery of grieving the deaths of my historical actors, if it means I was able to enjoy the pleasure of learning about them as real people and being able give the past an added degree of humanity.


  1. Hi Jonathan, I came across your blog via the History Carnival and have found this post really interesting. My research has been on contemporary British political history and although many people invovled are still alive, I did find that one of the problems was that several key players are no longer with us and it was for that reason that I chose to focus on archival documents, rather than oral history.

    One of the other problems of doing contemporary history is the availability of relevant archival material. I am assuming that with your research in the field of national security issues, there is still a lot of archival documents that are classified and unavailable to historians. I would be interested to hear how you have dealt with this problem.

    I wrote something about this issue on my blog as well: http://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/historians-and-the-contemporary-record/

  2. Thanks for reading Evan. I took a quick look at your post, and it's quite interesting. I'm not surprised there is so much literature and conference discussion, but most of what I learned on the topic came from my helpful committee.

    I had two strategies for accessing stuff. First, the main reason Canadian archival material is classified is because it contains foreign-origin material. Check out the Jeffrey Delisle espionage case for how seriously we treat our obligations to the US and UK (and Aus and NZ). Fortunately for historians, the US and UK are not as rigid about restricting access to Canadian-origin materials, so I found lots of useful stuff abroad that is still classified here.

    Second, I had the full support of Defence Research and Development Canada to write the history of their forerunner (the Defence Research Board). I got tours of all the establishments, they setup interviews and provided contact information for former employees, and they granted me complete access to their archival documents. Once I'd read the documents then I put in a request to have them declassified so I could use them in my thesis. It was a more efficient method of handling declassification for everyone involved.