“I do not claim omniscience” – The historian’s proper persective

This last weekend was the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The seventy-fourth anniversary, to be exact.  Just one short of the dodranscentennial observance… or semisesquicentennial, if you prefer.

The passing of the day prompted me to pick up Samuel Elliot Morison’s volume covering that portion of World War II.  If you are not familiar with his work, Morison wrote the fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations of World War II shortly after the close of that war. These were published from 1947 through 1962.  There is an interesting back story as to how the history came about. The short version is that Morison served as a naval staff officer during the war, allowing him access to the history “first hand” in some cases, with aim to produce a the work. The product of those years was a history still considered as defining within the subject.

What makes the work stand out, in my opinion, is exactly why I pulled Volume IV off my shelf for the anniversary, is the style of writing.  Morison’s history may be dated somewhat, but his prose is elegant.  Indeed, I could have selected one of the more recent histories produced in more recent years.  Those works that followed have largely addressed many shortcomings and flaws in the Morison’s work.  And to that point, something Morison wrote in the preface of the volume stands out for consideration:

Several books and articles covered by this volume, by able and gifted writers, have already appeared.  Most of them contain important errors, largely because the authors lacked sufficient information to tell the story correctly. In particular, they lacked information from the Japanese side; and any attempt to describe the air battles – such as Coral Sea and Midway essentially were – from one side only is fatally handicapped. Instead of taking time out to refute these errors, I have simply gone ahead and told the story as it happened, to the best of my knowledge and ability.  I do not claim omniscience. As fresh data appear, mistakes will be found and later writers will make new interpretations. It is the fate of all historians, especially those who take the risk of writing shortly after the event, to be superseded.  Far safer to write about an era long past, in which all the actors are long since dead!

Morison wrote that in 1953.  But the sentiment is one that applies well for a historian working at any time and towards any subject.

Indeed, replace the battles with respective turning points from the Civil War and, of course, Japanese with Confederate, perhaps.  Do we not see this as a “truism” to relate towards studies of the “War of the Rebellion”?  Revision is the nature of history.  And we would do well to recognize how that force need play out against the subject.  The first “revision” of history occurs when the first-person reports are written down!  To label something as lesser history because of “revisionism” is to misunderstand how the product is derived.

Proper history is based on material – sources, data, information. As that follows, a proper revision considers new, unused, or reanalyzed material.  Such revisions offer sound, logical steps through the subject.  And those are healthy evolution of the subject. At the same time, we must also keep in mind that today’s revision will be revised tomorrow!

No historian is granted the complete history to work with. What is most important is to remain true to the subject.  The historian’s work will be revised.  Such is inevitable.  But the historian’s handling of the subject will remain fixed. Thus the latter is the true legacy to consider. I think we can say something similar in regard to notable Civil War histories by notable historians.  Catton and Freeman stand on pedestals for a reason.  Any serious student of the Civil War who has not read those respective trilogies is simply missing the point of studying the Civil War to begin with!

But there are two other, perhaps more subtle, messages from that paragraph.  Morison didn’t feel the need to engage, point by point, in a refutation of earlier histories.  However, even a short read through the text will demonstrate he was willing to demonstrate corrections where needed.  Morison was not aloof from the opinions of contemporaries.  Rather he placed that discussion where it needed to be – in the notes and to the side – rather than allow it to consume the center place of the reader’s attention.  I dare say that some of our contemporary historians would do well to heed that approach.

The other subtle point made by Morison is to the production.  His is not synthesized history.  It was written whole cloth from what source material he had.  And he was not ashamed of that. We can criticize him for being a “homer”… that is being bias towards his “team” and what he’d seen those members of the United States Navy accomplish during the period of 1941-45.  Later historians have called out his slights of the British and other allies… and the U.S. Army, of course.  Still others have pointed out that he had access to some information which remained classified at the time of writing or was otherwise compartmentalized.  At most, those lead to errors of omission.  Maybe a greater part of the story might have emerged at Morison’s time.  But regardless of bias or source selection, Morison avoided more egregious errors that befell… and still befall… historians… historians with or without direct contact with the subject on which they are writing.

I think that is reflective in Morison’s greater work.  His focus was to produce, using the sources and perspective he held, a history of the events that was readable.  He wanted the story to be approachable… not obscured.  That he accomplished.

 

 

4 thoughts on ““I do not claim omniscience” – The historian’s proper persective

  1. Morison’s work is remarkable. His pre-war work on Columbus is a classic, although now long surpassed by more recent scholarship in tone and focus.

    A nautical archaeologist colleague of mine told me about a volunteer he worked with in the late 1970s/early 80s, who was a retired naval officer — specifically, a retired naval intelligence officer — who worked as a sort of graduate assistant to Morison while he was compiling and writing his History of Naval Operations. This former officer had been privy, during the war, to codebreaking operations and had knowledge of Ultra. But of course that was all still classified when Morison was writing, so the former intelligence officer could only shake his head and think to himself, you don’t know the half of it.

    • There is evidence that SE Morison knew about the code-breaking activities and was “read on”, as we would say today, to some code-breaking subjects. However, he would have been subject to all restrictions to the use of such information.

      A similar issue of classified information came into play with regard to U-Boat operations off the US coast. Morison’s history omitted some key event, downplaying the magnitude of the U-Boat effectiveness. However, we know from Morrison’s associates that at the time (the 1950s) the US Navy was keen to avoid open discussion of the events. They feared some other power (i.e. the Soviets) would pattern their plans after those of the Germans. So, the story goes, Morison pretended not to know.

      Perhaps, then, it was a case where Morison and the former intelligence officer were both thinking “you don’t know the half of it!”

  2. Morison (as I believe the name is spelled) knew about Ultra? What’s the evidence on that? What I’d heard about his naval career suggested that it was very much “stand over in the corner and don’t get in anyone’s way” (not that there is anything wrong with that- if a random guy off the street can become a productive senior staff officer in a year our entire theory of the military is wrong).

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