Diplomacy and the Academy: A Renewed Case for Court Historians

by Kenneth Weisbrode

An odd but familiar complaint was heard recently: political history contra mundum. It appears so regularly that it has become trite. Someone – usually a prominent journalist – asks why students are not being taught anything “relevant.”[1] Just as one can graduate from the best universities not being able to recite a single line of Shakespeare or, as Harvard’s former president, Larry Summers, noted, without “knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome,” familiarity with major political events and important figures of the past now eludes many of our students.[2]

The reason, the critics have said, is that university faculties are in thrall to ideology, notably one that eschews “hegemonic narratives” punctuated by the deeds of individuals (men, usually). The charge long ago descended to the level of caricature yet students are still urged to examine the history of ordinary people, social forces, and nearly any other subject besides those (in)famous deeds.

It should be obvious that political history has not suffered entirely from ideological bias in favor of social and cultural history – certainly “ordinary” people figure in political history, too – but that the bias is really against events. Historians today tend to let events speak for themselves while devoting more attention to how various individuals or groups of people “experience” those events or even how their life experiences supersede major events altogether. That would not be a problem but for the failure to explain how and why the origins of some events matter and how they may be revised by the introduction of additional actors and perspectives. Uncovering and celebrating one more group “left out” of standard historical accounts, while condemning those doing the leaving out, only teaches us so much. This bandwagon of inclusion appears to some people to have stalled.

The New Diplomatic History network nonetheless has jumped on the bandwagon by calling for the study of diplomats, their vocation, and their social and cultural worlds. We have done so, admittedly, with a similar motivation: to save our favored subjects from obscurity; to understand their experiences; to mark their lives more prominently in the historical record.

That’s fine, as I recall someone telling me when I was a graduate student, but “obscure people are obscure for a reason, don’t you think?” Well yes, I told him (in reference to maroon communities), but that’s the point. Yet the issue with everyday diplomats is that they are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as privileged members of an elite, so while they may be obscure, they are not usually disadvantaged and are able to look after their own historical reputations. Which is to say, diplomats are not properly or sufficiently marginal. Moreover, they may be a bit too close to “great events” for comfort.

This particular bias has subsided, thankfully, from our point of view. A look at this year’s conference agenda for the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations shows a number of panels – and the keynote address by the Society’s president – featuring diplomats. As befitting a society devoted to the international history of the United States, there are an even greater number of panels about subjects that have little or nothing to do at all with diplomacy or major political events. That is probably as it should be because many more things happen in the world. But one can already sense the grumbling of the political-history-contra-mundum crowd. And they also probably have a point.

The point, from our perspective, again is not that the academy neglects political history so much as it has diverted the history of political events, major as well as minor, away from understanding the causes and consequences of those events on their own terms and toward the ways in which various subjects have perceived and experienced them. Events, in other words, have become the objects or even the conditioning agents, rather than the principal subjects, of much historical inquiry.

This is not to invite a metaphysical digression into causation and related concepts.[3] It is instead to underscore that the academy’s preoccupation with novelty has clashed with its habit of self-critique.

Both the preoccupation and the habit are praiseworthy, to an extent. The health of any profession is boosted by regular innovation, even in radical directions, and by introspection. In principle the latter should advance the former. In practice, with regard to political history, the former has muddled the latter.

To put the case bluntly, it is not uncommon in the academy to hear, still, the term “traditional” used as an insult with reference to a book, a curriculum, a syllabus, and even a scholar. It is less common but still acceptable to disparage any of them as “new.” There is still an almost Manichean addiction to zero-sum identifications: narrative versus analytical historians; academic versus popular historians; political versus socio-cultural historians; conservative versus liberal historians; national versus global historians; big historians versus microhistorians.

So here we point our finger at one of the more obscure and maligned groups of all: court historians.[4] Who would want to rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity?

One historian who tried was the late Ernest May. In a 1969 article, he lamented, in reference to the US government, the “uncommon paradox” in which court historians find themselves:

The government, abstractly conceived, needs and could use carefully written histories of recent international relations. Historians who specialize in that field would be eager to write these histories. If they produced solid narratives, Congress, the scholarly world, and the public at large would benefit. People involved in policy-making would benefit even more. At the very least, some hard information would take the place of gossip and legend. Yet this large collection of interests seems unlikely to be served because the object in view does not have great importance for any of those who stand to gain. So long as this remains so, an accumulation of relatively minor administrative, bureaucratic, and political complications forms a seemingly unbreakable logjam.

Those complications appear to have multiplied in the decades since. Archives, not only in the US, are suffering from shortages of funds and staff, greater demands for classification, and, in the post-WikiLeaks era, probably a greater tendency by officials to obscure their views, ban notetakers from meetings, or stop recording them altogether. The exercise of diplomacy also now takes place at so many times and places outside the catalogued realm of foreign ministries that keeping track of diplomatic communication, let alone reconstructing any event from the written record, would appear close to impossible.

Who will curate the millions of tweets and other electronic commentary that may affect, influence, or cause a particular event? How will they be rated and interpreted alongside diplomatic cables and other sources? What if, for example, Stalin had not told Churchill to save the small piece of paper on which was recorded the “percentages agreement” in 1944? What if it had been verbal, or had come as a private electronic text that self-destructed two minutes later? Worse yet, what if somehow the tiny scrap of paper had survived but there was nobody who could say what it meant? Who, then, will guide later efforts to reconstruct, interpret, and understand the significance of events such as these affecting the lives of millions? And who will shape the historical education of the leading participants?

Historians have been asking these questions in one form or another for a very long time. They are accustomed to separating the wheat from the chaff in this respect. It is difficult to name a serious diplomatic historian working during the past fifty years who has restricted her or his sources to official, written communications. The scale of the problem – and Professor May’s logjam – may have grown, perhaps, but the problem is familiar.

Therefore we still need court historians to shed light from the ‘inside’ on how policies are designed, decisions are taken (or avoided), and events are made to happen. That includes the ways and means by which significant actors communicate. Court historians must be trained to elaborate practices, nuances, languages, symbols in this way. They fill in blanks of which political (or better put, policy) historians may not be aware, and for which they may need a wide reading in the humanities and social sciences to understand. They can tell us as much about social history and international society as about politics and decision-making by elaborating the conditions – material as well as the emotional, literary, intellectual, and ideological – behind such decisions. One need not apply a label (high politics, geopolitics, statecraft, etc.) to them to acknowledge their historical significance. Qualifying the label (good, bad, wise, foolish, “hegemonic,” etc.) is another matter. Historiographical neglect, however, is not a proper response to qualification. The academy should welcome such history from within as much as history from below.

That is not to say that distinguishing types of historical research and writing, and their various methods, cannot be valuable and useful. Diplomatic historians and other political historians may have a particular burden, however, in advertising their receptivity to other fields and subfields, just as some practitioners of social and cultural history still must try to set aside their bias against history written “from above” and the counter-reaction that continues to provoke.

We historians may still be beholden to the legacies of Fernand Braudel and E. P. Thompson, and to the heavy contextualization, if not the attenuation, of historical events and elites. Yet, just as the cultural turn in international history did not bury diplomats or diplomatic history, so too should political historians not insist that the marginalization they may have suffered in the academy is permanent. We can all get along. We can commit ourselves to doing “relevant” scholarship. We can even train ourselves to add before we subtract. So can we not finally dispense with qualifying various labels and stick to writing history – all of it, or as much of it as we choose to emphasize – as it actually happened? A good court historian would say yes.

In memoriam Professor Norman Stone, 1941–2019


[1] The complaint is usually accompanied by statistics on declining university enrollments in history courses and by the charge that academic historians cannot or will not write on topics that appeal to a wide audience. The reasons for the former are complex and the latter is untrue. Most academic historians have teaching and administrative duties, declining enrollments notwithstanding, and some lack the time, resources, inclination, and talent that “popular historians” have for marketing, promotion, and sales that are required nowadays to reach a wide audience.

[2] Summers’s charge recalls a story about another Harvard eminence, William Yandell Elliott, who was said to have declared during a formal dinner that no one ignorant of the immortal words of Homer could call himself a gentleman. Then he recited some lines in Greek. At the far end of the table a young woman – the only woman present – raised her hand and said, “Pardon me, Professor Elliott, but that is the Gospel of John.”

[3] I would direct readers to a personal favorite – Historical Consciousness by John Lukacs, whose recent death we also mourn.

[4] This refers to both meanings of the term: those who write from or for the court, i.e., official historians, and those who write about it.