Eric Foner

Who Controls the Past, Part II

VTR Date: July 24, 1988

Guest: Foner, Eric


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eric Foner
Title: “Who Controls the Past…”, Part II
VTR: 7/24/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Few of us doubt that whoever it is who controls our view of the past, controls what we do about the present and what we permit ourselves for the future, too. That’s why a discussion with a chronicler of the past can be so informative and so valuable. And it’s why today I’ve invited back for the second of our OPEN MIND programs Dr. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and author of Harper & Row’s recent “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”.

Thank you for staying with me, Dr. Foner. There were so many interesting things that came up in our first program. I’m glad we have the opportunity to go on. One of the most interesting ones had to do with something you said. You said, “We are losing our audience’, talking about historians. And I know in…back in ’81 you had written about history in crisis. What do you mean?

Foner: Well, what referring to there is the notion that there used to be, and to some extent still is, but perhaps less than in the past, a tradition of professional historians writing narrative history for a broad audience. People like Allan Nevins, like Richard Hofstadter, many others of a past generation who thought I was part of their responsibility to educate broadly through their writing, Americans about their own history. Now today, unfortunately, too many historians write more technical or arcane kinds of essays and books which are really only of interest to other historians. This is partly because some of these works are based on statistical analysis and they’re filled with tables and formulas, and presented in a way which very few people really would find particularly enlightening. It’s partly because the study of history itself has become so compartmentalized. We have…there seems to be a narrowing of the subject in so many works of history that people have…we’ve gotten away from writing broader, interpretive accounts of an entire period or an entire issue in American history. So this connection between professional historians and a broad, educated public is in danger. That’s really what I meant when I said “history is in crisis”.

Heffner: When you say “in danger”, endangered by what? By an attitude on the part of historians? By a…an increasing inability to broad-stroke history as Nevins and others used to?

Foner: Well, there are many things which have contributed to this. I don’t think historians are necessarily any less interested in reaching abroad audience than in the past. I think it really flows from changes I the nature of history, itself. In the past decade or so, or two decades, we have become much more awe of the diversity and the complexity of
American history, which, of course, is an extremely good, salutary thing. Previous broad accounts of American history tended to generalize from the experience of one group, usually those in power or perhaps one ethnic group, dominant WASP groups, etc., to generalize about the experience of all Americans. So, for example, David Potter, a great historian of the past generation, could write a book “People of Plenty” arguing that prosperity, abundance is the sort of key attribute of American history. Now once you begin to include in your historical analysis those who weren’t necessarily benefiting from abundance, the poor, the slave, the immigrant, then you history becomes much more complex, it’s difficult to write in these broad generalizations anymore. You gain a great deal in terms of presenting a complex, rich tapestry of the history, but you lose somewhat in that many historians who do that today find it impossible to generalize at all. They say, “Well, the history is just all these different groups out there pursuing their own interests and there is no American history. There’s just the history of various, discrete parts of it”. So what we need to do is pull the discrete histories back together in a broad…to get some kind of coherent sense of the American experience as a whole.

Heffner: I bet there are those who are watching us who will think, “What is he talking about? There is just one history, and it’s his job, whether he’s writing about Reconstruction or whatever, to connect us to the past”.

Foner: Well, in a way I would say “yes”, that is the aim. And in this book I try to include the history of various, different groups. Blacks, of course, play a central role in that period because the aftermath of slavery is the…is really the critical issue of the Reconstruction period. But one has to talk about what was happening to other groups, immigrant groups, women, the Women’s Rights Movement, even American Indians who were engaged in, you know, many wars with…at that period with the White society. Right, the aim is to present it as one history, but it’s not so easy to do because all these diverse experiences seem to be going in differing directions.

Heffner: So that’s the problem. It’s not an insuperable problem, but I think the fragmentation of historical scholarship is why academic history has lost a great deal of its broad popular audience.

Foner: Something you said in the last program that we did that had to do with…well it reminded me of Charles Beard’s notion that all written history is an act of faith, and that, indeed, you bring to “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” a certain point of view, and others bring differing points of view, which is a…almost a disillusioning notion for a great many people.

Heffner: It is a disillusioning notion, but I think it’s actually…one should view it quite happily and optimistically. I think no historian approaches history purely with a blank slate, simply a compiler of facts and say, “let the facts speak for themselves”. The facts cannot speak for themselves because your presuppositions, your point of view determines what you think the important facts are in the first place. What are the issues that you’re gathering facts about? That’s a judgment which different historians make in different time periods. For example, previous historians writing about Reconstruction not only held very racist views about Blacks, but viewed, let us say, the struggle between the President and Congress as a critical issue. Who should control Reconstruction? The President or Congress? I don’t talk about that very much in this book. That issue is in there, but it’s certainly not a crucial question of Reconstruction in my opinion. I don’t see that as a major problem of the period. Now, therefore, I don’t write bout it, I didn’t gather very many facts about it. So, in other words, what I think is important in history helps to determine the contours of the book. So, no historian goes into history with a blank slate. One hopes that you go at it unprejudiced enough that if you find evidence, as we all do, which contradicts your presuppositions, you change your mind; you alter your view. You go with a set of hypotheses, a set of assumptions, but there’s a constant dialogue between the historian and the evidence, and you’re constantly changing to some extent because you never can predict what’s going to be out there in the evidence. But if you don’t have a series of questions to ask of the past, then you’re just going to be lost in a morass of facts and details and never be able to pull it together.

Heffner: You’re a young man, you’re a young historian. Have you had a chance to change your mind about the fundamental ideas that inform your history writing?

Foner: Well, in writing this book I changed my mind about numerous things. I mean I was constantly astonished in what I found in the evidence about this period. For example, Reconstruction is often…I assumed when I started writing this book that the major political debates were the ones going on in Congress, that there was a struggle between President Johnson and Congress, that over the civil rights for Blacks, over the nature of the Federal Union, over the Constitution. There was where the real political struggle was going on. I was astonished to find, and what I now think is the case, is that the real, the most interesting political conflict was going on at the grass roots, in the South, in local communities which takes a lot of digging to get at.

Heffner: But that’s a…almost a factual matter. I wonder, really, whether your own orientation, your basic fix on that nature of human nature, on the nature of American history, call it what you will, whether that has been modified over the years? Whether you’re a different person, as you come to Reconstruction, from the person who came to Tom Paine?

Foner: Probably. My fundamental presuppositions haven’t changed that much. I think the way I write history and what I look for in history has changed. I think this book is a much richer and broader book than some of the others I’ve written. It tries to deal with the total period, the political history, the social history, the intellectual history, the economic history, it tries to pull those together. In previous books I’ve tended to look at one aspect of a period, whether it was political ideology, or social structure or things like that. So, to that extent, I think it became more and more aware, as I said before, of the need and the desirability of trying to write history whole; of trying to give a complete, of course, it never can be…totally complete, but a full, coherent portrait of a period of history. That’s what I think historians ought to be trying to do now. So, my presuppositions about what’s important in history in terms of economic change of political conflict, things like that, probably haven’t changed. But my beliefs about how you ought to write history have changed, and that’s why this book is a rather different book than many of my previous ones, in trying to give a portrait of a period altogether.

Heffner: You know, let’s go back a minute to what we were talking about in our first program. Again, we were talking about television, we were talking about popular media, in talking about Reconstruction and what we have as a people historically been taught about Black Reconstruction – mythology, largely, and about slavery – mythology, largely. We talked about the role of the popular media, whether it’s “Gone With the Wind” or a docu-drama. Do you feel that the people who write docu-dramas for television, who write films that touch on historical matters come to these with an agenda, a political agenda, for instance?

Foner: Well, very often they do. And I don’t say that as a criticism at all. I think often it’s a political agenda which invigorates your writing, and which really makes you look at issues in a new and distinctive way. And when I say “a political agenda” I mean that in a broad sense, not whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, but how you view social change and the prospects for social change, either in the present or in a past period of history. Certainly the people who wrote “Roots”, for example, both Part I and Part II, had a political agenda in the sense they wanted to present the struggles of Black people for dignity and for equality in a positive light. Now that’s a political agenda. It’s an agenda I happen to agree with, but it’s a presupposition. Without that agenda you wouldn’t have gotten “Roots”, you know, presented in the way it was, and perhaps it wouldn’t have had quite the resonance it did with a mass audience in the mid to late 1970s. I think the most dangerous thing is for the writer, whether it’s a television writer, or the historian, to fool himself and say, “I don’t have any agenda. I’m just looking for facts. I’m just presenting facts. I don’t have any presuppositions. I have a kind of a completely open mind, and I’m just presenting the facts”. But that is never the case, and it’s much better to be open and honest with your reader and with yourself about what your assumptions are.

Heffner: Of course, in talking last time about that conference that you attended on “faction”, fiction and what is made up and what is true, you indicated that many of the people there said “No, we don’t have this point of view”. What does that lead to? Or “a point of view”…

Foner: I think it leads…I think if you have…if you think that you don’t have a point of view you are fooling yourself and then your assumptions shape the way you write the history, just as they do with everyone else, but you’re not even aware of it. For example, in writing about Reconstruction, the previous generation, or the older generation of scholars, their writing which was very distorted, as you’ve said mythologizing, was based on a fundamental assumption of Black inferiority and that the great error of Reconstruction was to try to bring Blacks into political and civil rights. But that was based, as I say, in fact I quote one of them saying, “Negro incapacity”, that was the basis of their interpretation. Now if you believe that, then much else in your interpretation of the period follows. Now I, of course, don’t…today scholars don’t hold that, they view that Blacks s being people like anyone else, who are capable under various circumstances, of achieving, you know, whatever other people are capable of achieving. And that bringing them into political and civil rights was not a crime, it was actually an admirable endeavor. Now if you believe that, then your account of the period is going to be very different then what it was in the past. So just that…the change in that fundamental racial attitude has very profoundly changed how the history of that Civil War Reconstruction period has been written. But, in both cases, the assumptions of the historian are pretty straight forward, are pretty up-front. If the historian says, “No, I don’t have any assumptions about these things”, then, as I say, I think he’s just fooling himself.

Heffner: Do you think, and this is a mad jump, but let’s make the mad jump for a moment, do you think that the accusation that has frequently been made about Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, that there was an agenda, a hidden one, but an agenda, do you think the accusation was correct? Whether you share or you don’t share…

Foner: Yeah. I probably don’t know enough about Hollywood films in the 30s and 40s to be able to answer that with great certainly. I’m sure there were plenty of writers of Hollywood films who held certain progressive values which they attempted to project in their films. But that is no different than today. Isn’t there a political agenda in “Rambo”, part one, two, three, four and however many other “Rambos” there have been? Isn’t there a political agenda in “Platoon”? Isn’t there a political agenda in many of the …in “Hanoi Hilton”, in many of the films that come out of Hollywood, or even ones which are not as explicitly political, there are statements about what social values ought to be, what relationships between men and women ought to be. I don’t think there’s anything unusual or peculiar about the writer of a film projecting his or her social and political values in some way.

Heffner: Nothing peculiar and yet you, yourself, have said that when you were together with a group of people who write docu-dramas indeed, that they were sort of saying, “No one in here but us chickens”.

Foner: Right. I don’t know why that is. I think that’s because they have a distorted view of how historians operate. As I say, if they were writing a drama based on their own imagination they wouldn’t have any…it wouldn’t occur to them to say, “This doesn’t reflect my point of view”. But they believe, and this is a widespread belief as you said, which I think is erroneous, they believe that if you’re doing history, factual history, you have to be open minded, which is true, but being open minded means you have no presuppositions, you have no assumptions, you just are gathering facts, you’re empirically looking out there, “Okay, I’m writing about Kennedy and the missile crisis. All I’m going to do is read all the documents and I’ll gather the facts”. But, of course, that’s not how a historian operates and nobody can operate that way.

Heffner: What do you do to put your reader on guard, or your student on guard to the fact that you aren’t a computer, into which go the past, the remnants of the past and out of which comes the statement about the past?

Foner: Well, I think, certainly when you’re teaching you do this all the time, most teachers do it. You’re constantly…one of the key points of teaching, one of the things you’re trying to teach is to teach students how to think for themselves. And the way to do that is not to say, “Here I am, I’m giving you the gospel truth and all this information has been fed into a computer and now this is the result”. No, you say, “This is my opinion, this is where I’m coming from, but I’ll tell you why this is what I think. By the way, other people think differently”. I often present to my students different opinions of the same events, the same developments and say, “Well, okay, why do these historians, looking at the same documents, the same developments, why do they differ so profoundly?” They know the information. It’s not that the facts are different, but the interpretation, the assumptions, the presuppositions are different. But I’m constantly trying to tell students they must think for themselves, judge the evidence themselves, and don’t believe anybody, including me, just because they’re standing up there with a Ph.D. and the title “Professor”, and, you know, happen to be saying certain things. Now when you’re writing a book…I think in this book and in others in the preface, in the introduction you lay out pretty clearly what are the assumptions, what are the major themes of the book. But most readers can sort of pick this up pretty well just by reading a book, can see what the author’s assumptions are. Sometimes more carefully than the…better than the author himself is aware of.

Heffner: Standing back, just a bit, and looking at your profession, the profession of teaching first and then historians, gathering together and interpreting the past – do you think that there is a kind of agenda, a kind of political fix that we could identify today? Certainly the charge has been made, but here we are talking together, forget the charges…

Foner: Yes.

Heffner: …do you think you could?

Foner: Not at all, I don’t think so. I think linking the two things together…I think, for example, the teaching of American history today is so rich and so diverse because of the changes I mentioned before, because of the opening up of American history in the past twenty years to include the experience of Blacks, of women…of laboring groups, of many groups that had really been pretty much shunted to the sides of the historical narrative, up to that point. There is no particular party line or common agenda among historians today. There’s just this sense of richness, of diversity, an complexity in the American past. I think that those who criticize teachers of historians for a supposed attempt to promote a political agenda are, themselves…they, themselves, like, for example Secretary of Education Bennett, they have a political agenda, which is that they want to go back to the old kind of history. The history which is heroic, the history which says, “America’s the greatest country in the world, and yeah, sure, we’ve had one or two problems, but basically the history of the United States is the history of progress, equality, democracy, and you know, let’s create a history, they say, which can be useful today in stirring up patriotism among, among our students”. But they don’t want the complex, nuanced and contradictory history which is now being produced by American historians. So I don’t think the charge of, of a single kind of political agenda or secret, hidden direction has any merit at all.

Heffner: Well, you say, you refer to Secretary Bennett as saying, “Let’s teach history or let’s work up a history that’s going to be useful”.

Foner: Right.
Heffner: Henry Ford said history is bunk. Do you think that history can be useful?

Foner: Well, yes, I think history is…I don’t agree. History is bunk if you believe that by studying history you’re going to solve all your problems. History doesn’t give you the answer to a present day problem. What history does is enable you to think in more intelligent ways, more creative ways, about our current society. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t believe, sincerely, that it helps us to understand our won society to know where it’s been, where it’s come from, how have things changed in the past and, also very important, what have been the alternatives, the roads not taken. Because the writing of history is not just about the victors, it’s about the alternatives, the Populists in the 1890s, the Socialists in the World War I period, those who proposed agendas which were different than the victors. They didn’t win, but they laid out possibilities which are still with us. I think if one understands that, then one can overcome one of the most debilitating ideas which many students have today which is that there’s really no way of accomplishing change, this sort of cynicism that everything is preordained, and the powers-that-be are too powerful, and there’s no point in getting involved in any effort to promote social change. I think if you study history you can see the vitality and perhaps the reasons for the failure, at various points, of some of these alternative movements. But just knowing that they were there helps you think more creatively, I think, about the present.

Heffner: Then, in a sense, you’re more, more positive and optimistic than Secretary Bennett in your, your uses of history.

Foner: Oh, I would think…I think so, but, of course, Bennett doesn’t want people criticizing the society as it is today. Bennett wants a celebratory history. And it’s not only Bennett. I don’t mean to single out a single person, you know. President Mitterrand of France, a Socialist, said much the same thing. He said, “French historians should stop studying peasants and, you know, these lower class people. Why don’t we have more histories of kings and presidents, and a sort of…the great tradition of French history?” It seems like anyone who’s in power wants a history that glorifies power, and glorifies the status quo.

Heffner: There’s a certain utility to that, you must admit.

Foner: There’s a great utility from their point of view, but I don’t think that historians…I don’t think that’s the job that historians ought to take, and generally, when historians do become the handmaidens of power, and we’ve seen some of them in our own lifetime, I think their history suffers very substantially.

Heffner: Wait a minute…we have just a few minutes left. What does happen? What has happened when historians have become the handmaidens of power? And what are you referring to?

Foner: Well, I don’t want to single out any particular people, but there are…some historians have gone to Washington and have served in Presidential administrations, and, unfortunately, the result of that is, as with anybody else, their history subsequently then becomes a justification, a retrospective justification for what they did and for what the people that they were working for did. And, I think, a historian needs to have that distance and that critical attitude in order to take, you know, an open minded approach to the past. If you’re involved in making history, I don’t see how you can then go and write about that history.

Heffner: Well, that’s put an incredible limitation…some of the best writings about the past have come from the pens who participated. Presidents, perhaps.

Foner: Well, President Grant wrote a wonderful set of memoirs…

Heffner: Right.

Foner: …you’re absolutely right. Really, quite a good book. But I don’t think…nobody would…we understand that that is Grant’s memoir just as we understand that Nixon’s memoirs are Nixon’s memoirs, and that it’s filtered through a particular personal point of view and a particular personal set of, you know, self-interests.

Heffner: Do you want a banner on the book, “I sat at Kennedy’s elbow or at Roosevelt’s feet”?

Foner: I don’t have to put that banner on…that’s what…these guys put that on themselves in order to sell the book. That’s what makes it attractive.

Heffner: You know, you know in our other program you said something about “I don’t want to sit in an ivory tower”…

Foner: Yes.

Heffner: …I was going to say to you, why not? But now, it seems to me you’re saying historians should be there.

Foner: No. I suppose what we’re getting at is a personal…this is a personal point of view, obviously, and I’m not trying to lay down…

Heffner: What else are we talking about?

Foner: Right. I’m not trying to lay down a pattern for all the stars. I…look, many historians, for example, in the 1960s were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and their history benefited from it, because it made them more aware of the, of the problems of racial injustice in our society. And then they began looking back into history, looking for that and finding racial injustice in the past in ways which they hadn’t been quite aware of its power. So, no, not an ivory tower, but when you become directly involved in serving the government, in serving the, those who hold power I think you’re critical attitude, which a historian ought to have, is going to suffer. It may not completely disappear, obviously, but I think it’s going to suffer, and I think…I think historians are better off not being in government, or if they are in government, they should put aside their pen as a historian for a while, or just act as a citizen, and like any other citizen and give their advice and try to promote their own policies, etc. But doing both at the same time will, can run you into problems. Not in…maybe some people can avoid it, but I’ve seen it too often happen.

Heffner: Memoirs rather than histories, thereafter?

Foner: Sure, memoirs. Although everybody…nobody…does anyone think that Nixon’s memoir is really what happened? Everyone understands that that is Nixon’s self-justification. Nobody thinks Nixon is a historian, but they know he was the president.

Heffner: However, Eric Foner, you really don’t think that “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” is really the past, to you?

Foner: It’s about as good an approximation of that past as I am capable of presenting, although I’m sure there are many people who would disagree with it, and I hope they will come up with their own presentation of that past.

Heffner: And that’s the point at which I thank you very much for joining me again today.

Foner: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.