Politicians and Historians

by David Lowe,
Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University


Why don’t politicians listen to historians? Perhaps the key word in this question is ‘listen’. We know that politicians do, indeed, draw on historians’ works. A well-known Australian example is of historian Don Watson penning some of the more memorable of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speeches, including the extraordinary ‘Redfern speech’ of 1992, in which Keating recognized the role of white Australians in dispossessing Aborigines. Historian Henry Reynolds’ multiple works on the same theme have influenced policy-makers in relation to indigenous land rights. And politicians often invoke history for persuasive effect and legitimacy, especially when they are claiming ‘turning points’ or claiming the status of harbingers of new eras.

But it is one thing to be invoking historians occasionally and another thing to be embracing contextual sensitivity and to be alive to the potential for alternative policy options for the future. Take, for example, the recently departed former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who brought a formidable, academically-trained mind to bear in the prosecution of US foreign and defence policy. McNamara had studied economics, mathematics and philosophy before completing a Masters in Business Administration and then spending most of the Second World War wielding statistics in assessing the effectiveness of US aerial bombardments. I wonder what difference it might have made had he been inclined to think historically. As Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, McNamara brought in civilian experts to undertake ‘systems analysis’ of defence requirements, and he supported the massive US military escalation in Vietnam largely as a war of attrition that could be won by superior numbers and measured ‘body counts’ of the enemy. In relation to Vietnam, McNamara was not especially historically minded. In the middle of 1965, when US President Lyndon Johnson asked his inner circle of advisers for their interpretation of what the US faced in Vietnam, there was a brief and finely balanced battle over the historical metaphor most appropriate to the moment. Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy saw it as a ‘Munich’ moment akin to the Western Allies’ failure to take a tough stand against Hitler in 1938. In 1965, the risk of not standing up to an aggressor in Ho Chi Minh was the prospect of expanding communist ventures in Asia. George Ball was more inclined to recall the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam in 1954, suggesting that full-scale war waged by a foreign power in Vietnam was unwinnable. McNamara, on the other hand, waited until 1995 to reflect historically in his book on the ‘Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam’. His reflections then, in his book titled In Retrospect read like an apology for having no sense of historical perspective. In the incremental decisions by which escalation seemed the logical next step, he wrote, no one ‘had truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us,’ or explored ‘other routes to our destination’.

Hand-wringing and apologies after the event are no substitutes for action that leads to engagement between historians and policy-makers. Historians can and should take some initiative in making themselves more easily accessible. Relying on busy politicians and public servants to buy books or attend conferences is not realistic. In order to be heard, historians need to find ways of engaging with politicians and policy-makers. On this note, the burgeoning ties between historians and policy-makers in Britain point to what we might hope to see develop in Australia. Since the 1980s — when British historians played significant roles in shaping the British government’s response to the arrival of the AIDS virus, outlining the limitations of policing according to what worked and what didn’t in past cases of infectious diseases, and suggesting other means of modifying behaviour — there have been closer connections between historians and Whitehall. The latest organizational effort, the ‘History and Policy’ group founded in 2002, distills latest historical work with policy significance and paves the ways for meetings between historians, media representatives and policy-makers. This coalition of historians is constantly on the lookout for good history writing that encourages perspective in current policy contexts. If, for example, we have reached the point at which households need to start thinking about rationing carbon emissions, policy-makers might like to know what worked and what didn’t when rationing was applied to households during the Blitz in the Second World War.

There will no doubt be sources of scepticism about what historians can offer policy-makers, who are often so pressed for time and so locked into the present that they succumb to a ‘presentist’ mind-set, convinced that that the challenges facing us today — global warming, an ageing population, post-Cold War international relations — are so unprecedented as to be incapable of any guidance from the past. Yet, this is precisely when history and historically ways of seeing are more important than ever. The life of Robert McNamara, one of ‘the best and the brightest’ stands as a reminder of what opportunities can be missed when historians are not listened to.

Citation: David Lowe, Politicians and Historians. Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/politicians-and-historians

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