George W. Bush and the Historian's Craft

[updated below]

Daniel Larison has a new post addressing a comment made by former President George W. Bush about how future historians will come to view his legacy. According to the former commander-in-chief, “I won’t be around, because it will take a while for the objective historians to show up.” Larison correctly notes that the historical profession has never been a fully objective enterprise. For instance, in That Noble Dream, his excellent study of the American historical profession and the role objectivity played in its development, Peter Novick traces the way “objective” history became a professional norm among historians as a means to assert their authority, but historical study was and is shaped by numerous cultural and political factors that shape how the past is interpreted.

In that sense, Larison, who himself has a PhD in history, is certainly correct—if too generous—when he says, “it may take a very long time for [objective historians] to appear on the scene.” However, his conclusion that future historians are unlikely to be “more sympathetic” to the 43rd president than they are today is overstated for several reasons.

First, Larison’s assertion that future historians will base their assessments of the Bush presidency on those accounts written today ignores the fact that new sources will become available in the coming years and decades that will affect how the administration’s performance is viewed. Future historians, if they have any respect for their craft, will certainly take into account the prevailing negative view of the Bush administration. However, from these accounts, they will develop new arguments and interpretations based on newly available sources—particularly as documents are declassified and become available at the new George W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.

Larison is correct that a recent wave of positive reassessments of the Bush administration come from political supporters, former officials, and ideological partisans looking to rehabilitate the administration’s image to boost their own causes. But revisionism is not limited to supporters. One of the most important trends in the history of American foreign relations over the past three decades have been the positive reassessments of President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy. Long-viewed as an absentee president whose views on international affairs were wholly the product of his influential secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, historians in recent decades have come to find that Eisenhower was a fully-engaged commander-in-chief whose policymaking process helped shape almost all aspects of a grand strategy that underpinned American foreign policy for the remainder of the Cold War.

Which brings up the second reason Larison’s conclusion may be overstated: history is not static—it is dynamic and how historians interpret the past changes based on a variety of different factors. As noted previously, new sources will provide new opportunities to reassess the performance of the Bush administration. As time puts some distance between historians and the Bush administration some of the animus currently directed at it will begin to wane. Changing political dynamics can change the way past events are viewed. For example, Novick discusses at length prevailing scholarship regarding the Civil War at the turn-of-the-century that whitewashed the Southern cause during a time when sectional reconciliation was a desirable political goal. In another sense, imagine a situation in which Iraq becomes a viable and thriving democracy  [stop laughing, I said “imagine”…]. Historians would have to view the Bush administration’s record, so dominated by its ill-conceived Mesopotamian adventure, in light of that development

There are also incentives within the historical profession itself to make bold, often contrarian arguments on any number of subjects. In a discussion of the Eisenhower revisionism mentioned above, prominent historian and Eisenhower scholar Richard Immerman noted, “Revisionism, of course, revisionism of anyone or anything, is on the agenda of many historians struggling to launch their careers.” Two or three decades from now, up-and-coming historians looking to make a name for themselves might find challenging the prevailing negative assessment of the Bush administration a tempting—perhaps even career-making—opportunity. Even now, at least one prominent historian has already begun taking a dispassionate, if still critical, look at the administration’s foreign policy. In a recent article in Diplomatic History, Melvyn Leffler draws upon memoirs of former Bush foreign policy officials and publicly available sources to arrive at a basic thesis about the motivations behind many of the administration’s most controversial policies—concluding that a combination of guilt from September 11th and desire to prevent further attacks were what most animated the administration. The subsequent book Leffler—who served in the Carter administration and is hardly predisposed to agree with the Bush administration—is working on will serve as a baseline for future historians who will challenge and supplement its conclusions in a variety of ways, both negative and positive.

Moreover, as the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has noted on multiple occasions, historians studying the presidency most often reward those who expand the power of the office—a category of president to which W. would certainly belong. Discussing Bush’s attempt to craft his legacy at the end of his second term, Healy wrote, “Asked how his presidency will be remembered, Bush typically insisted that ‘history’ will be the judge. He’s right—and he’s right as well that historians may be kinder to him than his abysmal approval ratings suggest.”

To conclude, I largely agree with Larison that history is unlikely to look kindly upon the presidency—and particularly, the foreign policy—of George W. Bush. Given, the generally left-leaning orientation of most historians, and the academy’s revulsion at the generally anti-intellectual posture of the former president, the idea that the Bush administration will be viewed with disfavor for some time to come certainly has merit. From a normative perspective, I also believe administration should be viewed unfavorably. However, this outcome is far from predetermined, and for several reasons related to the historical craft itself, the notion of a positive—or at least, more sympathetic—reappraisal of Mr. Bush cannot be dismissed entirely.

UPDATE: Larison offers a thoughtful response here.

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