Good History Takes Time
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…