Credibility, Controversy, and History

Some of these academic posts are without the original questions which were to be discussed in the online forums. With this one, I think the original intention was to facilitate a conversation about the importance of historians in modern society and the social challenges faced by studying controversies of the past.

The importance of the past is valuable in understanding where a society, nation, or group came from, the challenges faced, and the changes undergone from a specific point in time to the present. A good example is the controversy of the recent removal of Confederate statues and monuments in New Orleans.[1] While the causes and rationale surrounding the origins of the American Civil War are wrapped in emotion on either side of the issue are strong, it is easy for many to overlook the fact that, though the conflict represents a painful period of American history, it remains a valuable part of the path American society has traveled. In the 152 years since the end of the war, the United States has experienced significant difficulties in moving beyond the issues and conditions which set the stage for the conflict, and this progress towards becoming a better society is far from complete. However, in understanding the past it is possible to appreciate and acknowledge the efforts responsible for the changes within our society since 1865, and in the process of learning history, it may be possible to choose a course which will not repeat many of the lessons of the past.

Historians – proper historians – will always be vital to the process. As interpretation is a critical element of the study of history, historians can avoid the problems posed by the cultural and societal disconnect between the past and the present. Facts will always be facts, and their manipulation to support or deny elements of the past will always be a danger to the subject of history. An excellent example of the challenges in interpretation is the difficulties posed in the 1994 display of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. With the original wording of the exhibition script by the museum was viewed as their attempt to be “practicing political correctness” in an effort to be “safe and rewarding to liberal audiences.”[2] Returning to the issue of judgements and qualifications of the past, it is imperative that historians do not lose sight in the interpretation and perseveration of the past for the sake of future studies of the events and people which have shaped the present.

Recently, a conversation about the Confederate icons inspired an analogy: history is like cooking – the end result is flavored by everything added during the process. Once something is added, it can never be taken away. You can add more to counteract too much of one “bad” ingredient, but that original ingredient is still there.

When it comes to the evils of the past, I choose to focus on what has made us better in spite of everything that has been done to mire us in those sins.

However, while I do not think we should forget about slavery, because it teaches us valuable lessons from the past, I do not think we should romanticize it in any way.  I am not saying these statues do this, but there is a line that should be looked at for this time period.

I must admit, this topic has been making me a bit cranky lately. The cooking analogy was probably the best part of that whole conversation, and as the days continue to pass, I find myself becoming even more irritated that I am effectively placed into the “voice of reason” role between two friends who are willing to let this matter complicate the bond forged 20 years ago in the Army. As a result, my rants carried on throughout the last day and included grumblings about “tearing down every slavery museum and plantation” due to their involvement in the Civil War. As you said, it is an emotional topic, and it can tax even the most moderate folks.

There is a difficulty in determining the fine line between “romanticizing” the topic and using it for interpretation. A good example of this was the efforts by Harry Bridges, head of the San Francisco Port Commission, in preventing the USS Pampanito from becoming part of the Maritime Park located at Fisherman’s Wharf. The debate over what Bridges called “disgraceful symbol of war” was successful only in delaying the Pampanito in opening as a museum honoring the service and sacrifices of American naval personnel which contributed greatly to San Francisco’s wartime economic boom.[3]

In regard to the statues and monuments, these are symbols of the same timeframe as the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans – only the latter serves as one of the nation’s few dedicated slavery museums.[4] I have a hard time understanding why these statues and monuments could not be viewed as counterpoints for two of the most damaging, misunderstood, and emotional eras of American history – the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed.

As you have said, this is a difficult topic to discuss – especially when it is extremely easy to misconstrue one’s position and emotional disposition. To be clear, I agree with you in honoring of both Union and Confederate leaders… However, it would be close to impossible for most folks to be open-minded enough to see how doing so would be a means to educate for the sake of prevention.

Do you think that Military Historians have different skills than general Historians when it comes to interpretation or is interpreting History the same for all Historians?

In my opinion, there is not much difference between “Military Historians” and the run-of-the-mill regular “Historians,” in general. Research is research, and studying one particular battle is effectively the same thing as looking at one non-military event. Yes, delving into the Battle of Midway is not exactly the same as looking at the Kennedy assassination, but the individual historian, regardless of their focus, should be looking at presenting a factual interpretation of the past, to include acknowledging the contemporary and present biases involved in the subject.

 Even when it comes to the discussion of single artifacts, a historian can illustrate the function, origins, impact, and subsequent evolutions of that artifact.

One of the more fascinating aspects of studying history is the fact that one has to pull from a variety of sources to complete their own interpretation. In the above example of the icons from the Civil War, it is nearly impossible to discuss that conflict without illustrating the economic, social, political, and ethical factors involved. In the case of my thesis, it is likewise challenging to incorporate the submarine’s origins in the Civil War in providing an understanding of how it influenced doctrine in the Second World War. For historians, regardless of their focus, I think that the most important skill to have is how to make what they have learned in their studies relevant to the present and the future.

I typically quote part of the post I am responding to with what I agree with or dispute, but in this case, there was plenty I completely agreed with – especially the word “credibility.”

As I have stated before, I tend to lurk on Facebook and read what people post – especially the memes which involve history. Much of what I have been finding is that people find that one detail of a larger event and emphasize that in order to illustrate a point. A good example of this was a post regarding the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, which were used for the sole purpose of stating that “the U.S. Army bombed black neighborhoods.” The source of the post – a “non-historian” as you put it – has proven that he is as far removed from credibility as he could be without falling into the category of “foil-hat conspiracy theorist.” Yet he still makes an effort to pass judgement on an event which is larger than the small portion of what he shares. 

Did it happen? Indeed it did, however, one source suggests that they were dropped on the “angry white mobs,” while another states that they were dropped “on the buildings in the black community.”[5][6] Because of this, it would be easy for the average person to support whatever perspective of the event they chose to. However, to be a credible historian, one has to look at more than one source and understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources as well as the challenges and hazards involved with all three. Even then, the motivations of the “credible historian” can and will be brought into question – especially when the information presented runs counter to the common and accepted versions of a controversial event such as the riots in Tulsa.

“At the end of the day however, when any of us make judgement on the past we are only giving our opinion, albeit an educated opinion.”

By looking at the past society can see mistakes and learn the signs that preceded them, the mindset of those that perpetrated them, and thus prevent them from happening again.

I have been mulling over a lot of our current political directions and I cannot help but wonder if any of these politicians have ever read any of these books. Seeing how law degrees are held by 37.8% and 55% of the House and Senate, respectively,[7] I would venture to guess that very few have. Kautilya, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mahan, and the veritable smorgasbord of theorists all share a certain amount of similarities in their recommendations for effective statecraft and diplomacy which, in my academic progress thus far, has had me shaking my head when I read the news. Historians are, as you put it: “the tie that binds society together,” and that I would never dispute. However, historians are usually the second to last people actually listened to by politicians and the general public (intelligence analysts are dead last, in my opinion) when it comes to information which directly challenges and contradicts the expected views.

Perhaps the next generation of college students may yield a modified crop of future leaders steeped in such classics…

[1] Tegan Wendland, “With Lee Statue’s Removal, Another Battle of New Orleans Comes to a Close,”, 2017, accessed May 22, 2017,

[2] Otto Mayr, “The Enola Gay Fiasco: History, Politics, and the Museum,” Technology and Culture 39, no. 3 (1998): 462-473, accessed May 22, 2017,, 464.

[3] Mike Dunstan, “Bridges Fights Submarine,” Independent (Long Beach, CA), July 2, 1976, accessed May 23, 2017,

[4] John J. Cummings, “The U.S. Has 35,000 Museums. Why Is Only One About Slavery?”, 2014, accessed May 23, 2017,

[5] Justin Juozapavicius, “Tulsa’s Former Black Wall Street Tries to Remake itself,” St.Louis Post – Dispatch, Feb 23, 2017,

[6] Anonymous, Tulsa Race Riots, in Tony Brown’s Journal, Tony Brown Productions, 2000,

[7] Jennifer Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile,”, 2017, accessed May 28, 2017,, 4.

2 thoughts on “Credibility, Controversy, and History

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