Good History Takes Time

And it should

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D.
4 min readOct 4, 2021

Two weeks ago, the FBI released the first of several formerly-classified document about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The FBI released this information in accordance with President Biden’s executive order. These documents offer an important reminder about the process of history — it takes time.

There are many obstacles that prevent historians from writing substantive history right away. For some stories, we are too emotional and it’s too hard to be even remotely objective as possible. If you’ve been following along for a while, you know I think full objectively is impossible, but it’s important to be aware of your biases. At least for me, that’s impossible to do right away. Which is why I haven’t attempted to write a book on the Trump administration. I can write op-eds, but I don’t have the mental balance to write longform substantive scholarship.

It’s also hard to write history when you don’t have all the information. This challenge is particularly acute when we are talking about politics, government, and national security. It takes time to collect all the data and high-level documents are typically classified for at least twenty years. If not more. If you don’t have the sources, how can you write the story?

Let me be clear that I think classification is essential. It is necessary for the nation’s security to protect undercover sources, keep our technology secret, and avoid revealing if we’ve broken another country’s code. How and when and why we classify data is another question, but there is no doubt some classification is required. So we just have to be patient.

Let me give a historic example. Shortly after President Dwight Eisenhower left office, he ranked in the bottom of those presidential ranking polls. Everyone thought he was old, out-of-touch, and managed by his advisors. In the next several decades, as intelligence and government documents were declassified, historians realized that Eisenhower had actually cultivated that disinterested, doddery persona for political and diplomatic purposes. In reality, he was firmly in control and a strict task master over the entire executive branch. Accordingly, newer scholarship has reflected this interpretation (my favorite is The Age of Eisenhower by William Hitchcock) and Eisenhower has sky-rocketed in the presidential rankings.

That’s not to say we should just remain silent. Journalism and first takes play a really important role. They help uncover the information, create essential oral histories, and get the process of recording what happened started. In some ways, they almost serve as a primary source themselves or at the very least an early secondary source.

For example, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker have written several books on the Trump administration, most recently I Alone Can Fix It. To write the book, they conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews, with the actors in the book. Those interviews are essential to capturing the firsthand accounts of events while memories are relatively fresh, and people are still alive. Does that mean every single interview is perfectly accurate? Probably not, as we know that memories are inherently flawed and problematic. But as documents are declassified, historians can compare them to the interviews and fill in the holes.

This subject has been on my mind lately as American forces leave Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years. There have been many hot takes and quick assessments of what happened, why the departure unfolded as it did, and what might have been done differently. That makes sense and I get it. I have no problem with citizens asking questions of their elected representatives or criticizing policy. That’s just part of democracy.

But I think we should keep in mind that we likely won’t really know what happened for quite some time. David Priess, former CIA agent, national security expert, and the source on the President’s Daily Brief, wrote a great article about intelligence for Lawfare. He argued (persuasively in my opinion) that you can criticize the Biden administration for leaving Afghanistan, but you can’t really say it was an intelligence failure. At least not yet. We don’t know what intelligence was shared with decision makers and we don’t know how they acted upon it. That information won’t be declassified for quite some time.

So what does that mean for our society? Our interpretation and our understanding of events is going to change over time. That will mean that a history you learned in school might be different than what is taught today. As an educated society, we should applaud that development. We should encourage people to change their mind when faced with new information. To do otherwise is the height of ignorance.