Lifted from: Kent Roberts Greenfield, The Historian and the Army, (Kennikat Press, Port Washington, New York, reissue, first published 1954, trustees of Rutgers University).
Greenfield was Chairman of the History Department of Johns Hopkins University. In 1942, he was commissioned as a major and appointed historical officer of the Army Ground Forces. After the war, he became Chief Historian of the newly created Historical Division and oversaw the crucial groundwork for The United States Army in World War II. As co-author, Greenfield was directly responsible for The Army Ground Forces: The Organization of Ground Combat Troops.
For the story of Greenfield's service to our country, see Stetson Conn's Historical Work in the United States Army 1862-1954 (Part Two).
Within six months after V-Day the War Department gathered together a group of historians, admitting them to its records, and gave them the task of writing the history of the performance of the War Department, the Army, and the Army Air Forces in World War II. The undertaking was nothing if not ambitious. We were to proceed at once to write the history of almost four years in the life of 8,000,000 Americans organized for war and engaged in waged it all over the globe. This history was to be comprehensive, including the operations of the whole military establishment, as well as the operations of its field forces. It was, in other words, to be an institutional history of the war as well as a history of campaigns. Another decision regarding its scope was that, although it was to be a history of the Army (I shall use the term "Army" throughout as including both its air and ground forces), it must reach out to include the operations of the Navy and Marines and reach up to include strategic plans and performance of the Army.
It was decided that this ambitious mission would require the preparation of about a hundred volumes. If a history of such scope and magnitude was to be written and published, it could not be left to private enterprise. It had to be written under the sponsorship and control of the Army. It had to be an official history.
This was necessary in order to solve two problems. One was the problem of dollars and cents. The War Department, which recognized its need of having an accurate record of its performance at an early date, was the only institution ready and willing to foot the bill. The other was the problem of giving a large group of historians access to the records of the War Department. This was a poser because a massive proportion of these papers had been subjected to "classification" for reasons of security during the war. The problem of melting down this enormous iceberg of frozen records by a process of review and declassification was insuperable. But all the records of the War Department could be thrown open to historians on its own payroll by simply clearing those authors for access to the most secret records. Clearing for publication the histories they wrote would be a much simpler matter—and has been.
The undertaking that I have sketched is unprecedented in several respects important enough to make it an enterprise of general interest to scholars and the public.
Considered together with the history of Naval Operations being written by S.E. Morison and his staff, the Army's history is unprecedented in being the first sustained effort to produce a systematic history of our military services in war. Before World War I the writing of such history was left to private initiative, which failed to produce it. It has been remarked that the United States has been one of the most belligerent but one of the least military of the great nations. This attitude has been reflected in the lack of serious interest in military history among American historians. During World War I an ambitious plan for a history of the war was sponsored by the General Staff but collapsed shortly after the war when the War Department failed to sustain it.
Another consideration that makes our enterprise a matter of general interest derives from the fact that we are writing contemporary history. The war history programs of our armed forces, and of the British, represent the largest attack on the field of contemporary history that is being made in our time. It is a field into which historians have been reluctant to push their scholarship forward on a broad front. Nowadays almost every historian has to write a textbook, and in his textbook even the most conservative historian has to write contemporary history, since no publisher will let him off without a chapter that includes Truman, Atlee, Stalin, Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek and Malenkov. In the field of monographs the lid on contemporaneity blew off long ago if only because of the pressure to find subjects for the dissertations of innumerable candidates for the doctor of philosophy degree. But in the middle zone, between the high, thin generalities of the textbook and the ground cluttered with unassembled blocks of monographs, historians are still timid about undertaking projects that look toward the synthesis of information on major subjects in contemporary history. Ours is such a project.
One reason alone seems to me, as a historian, conclusive for taking the offensive in this field: if we do not do so at once, and on a grand scale, we will lose irretrievably much of the vital evidence needed to answer questions that the future will raise. One would think that the historian had documents enough for the history of World War II. The army alone produced 17,120 tons of records, enough to fill 188 miles of filing cases set end to end. Nevertheless, one of our main efforts has been to supply the defects and shortcomings of this documentation. Gaps in the written record have been multiplied in our time by the use in war of telephonic and radio communications and of fragmentary or oral orders. More than ever before, many of the most important records are written on the air. A prompt and systematic interrogation of surviving participants has been necessary to fill gaps in the written record. On the other hand, the mass of records that has survived is so enormous as to make it increasingly doubtful whether history can be successfully written except by the generation that has created the records and knows how to use them selectively. I am convinced, in short, that unless history is written promptly it cannot be written either correctly or adequately.
Since military history has not been cultivated in this country, either in or out of the Army, when we undertook our history of World War II we had to develop the historians who could write it, and since the intensive study of contemporary history is a relatively uncharted area of scholarship, we have had, in considerable measure, to create our own precedents in that field. Facing these problems we had a great advantage which we exploited. This was the fact that in World War II the War Department had put too many historians in uniform as historical officers, to carry out the President's March 1942 mandate that a record of the Government's administration of the war was to be prepared, and prepared at once. From these historians who had been in uniform we recruited most of our staff. They had learned to know the Army and Air Forces in action, which qualifies them to make military sense of what they are writing. Also they learned by observation how the records they use are generated. They have had, furthermore, an immediacy of interest in what they are writing that has given it realism, and they have a professional interest in giving lasting substance to great events in which they themselves played a part. Under these circumstances we have developed a nucleus of highly competent military historians—something the United States never had before. And these historians have had an experience and acquired a skill in writing contemporary history that would be hard to match.
The most challenging task that faced the professionals in 1946 was to make official history honest. The problem is real and basic. How can any agency of Government avoid issuing self-serving declarations or be expected to clear statements of fact that its officers regard as contrary to their own interest? This may not, indeed, be possible in the long run. But regarding our adventure let me say at once for the Army and Air Forces that if we have not succeeded in putting out honest history it has been our own fault.
We enjoyed a basic advantage in the fact that in World War II the Army wanted a history of its experience in that war for its own guidance, and for this it needed a full and frank history. But such history might have been produced for internal use only. The remarkable fact is that we encountered no disposition not to publish what we had written or were to write.
In 1945 The Infantry Journal offered to publish the studies that my own historical section had written during the war. I took the matter to General Devers, who was at the time, Commanding General of the Army Ground Forces. I explained to him that our studies, then classified "Secret," had been written for internal use and that we had called the shots as we saw them. His answer was: "How is the Army going to progress unless its mistakes are seen and studied?" I warned him that living—and quite powerful—officers might have their feelings hurt. "Well," he shot back, "isn't that the kind of wound a soldier has to take?" I would not mention this incident if we had not found it typical of the Army high command.
General Eisenhower, then Chief of Staff, made this attitude official. When I was offered the position of Chief Historian of the Department of the Army and went to him with the problem of inducing competent professional historians to write under government control, he immediately recognized and took action to meet the conditions that would have to be met if they were to do a professional job. These were three: freedom of access to all records of the War Department necessary to write a comprehensive history; freedom to call the shots as they saw them; and the individual responsibility of the author, signed and sealed by putting his name on his book. This adds up to academic freedom. The only restriction on the contents of our books is that they cannot include information which—to quote one of General Eisenhower's directives to his staff—would "in fact endanger the security of the nation." (The italics are his.) That same directive made the exercise of our "academic freedom" not optional but imperative. "The History of World War II," it runs, "must, without reservation, tell the complete story of the Army's participation" [in the war]. "The foregoing directive," he added, "will be interpreted in the most liberal sense with no reservations as to whether or not the evidence of history places the Army in a favorable light." *1*
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have had some angry generals on our hands, but have never altered a statement that the historian could document unless the aggrieved party has presented new and reliable evidence to support his criticism. The serious reviewers of our books have testified, with some surprise, but without exception, to our success to date, in making official history honest. The Army can well take pride in the expression which General Lestien recently used in a review of our series, when he wrote in the Revue d'histoire de la deuxième guerre mondiale that the American Army's history has the character of an "examen de conscience." *2*
One final condition had to be met before we could write our history. We had to know what the enemy was doing. Lack of this knowledge has in previous wars indefinitely delayed the writing of conclusive history until it could no longer be contemporary. We have that knowledge as an unintended by-product of the much debated policy of unconditional surrender. This put all our enemies' records at our disposal. We have rounded out this documentary evidence, as we have our own, by extensive and systematic interrogation. As a result we have learned promptly as much about "the other side of the hill" as it will ever be possible to know.
Given all these advantages and the mountains of records at our disposal, the question still remains whether the record available to us is complete enough and accurate enough to permit us to expose the nature of war as Americans fought it in 1942-1945.
We can write its institutional history, with reasonable hope of success. But in military history, as in war, "the battle is the pay-off." What about the battle? As one of my historians has put the question: "Is the Tolstoyian view of warfare, that the confusion of battle is so great and the din of battle so loud that no commander, let alone a historian writing [never so soon] after the event, can give a true picture of what was going on?" Have we succeeded any better than our forebears in penetrating "the fog of battle"?
To get the testimony of participants and get it as soon as possible is one method of doing this. We pushed this method hard during the war, and we have exploited it diligently since, in reference to all the subjects of our endeavor.
S.L.A. Marshall, military editor of the Detroit News, long a student of war, and 1944-45 Chief of the Historical Section of the European Theater of Operations, first applied the method on a large scale to the 7th Division on Kwalalein in 1944. He conducted mass interrogations of groups of soldiers when they came out of battle. *3* The results convinced the commanders of the inadequacy of the Army's battle reports as evidence of what had happened in battle. Marshall's mass interviews were inapplicable in Europe, but the interrogation of survivors was extended to all theaters. The Army organized teams of historical officers who were sent to the scene of every action they could reach that seemed likely to be decisive. They interviewed survivors, studied the terrain, and collected fugitive records. The pay-off of the method appears in our American Forces in Action series, fourteen volumes devoted to small-unit actions, as well as in the battle pictures in our big history. Of the Omaha Beachhead volume in our American Forces in Action a veteran wounded on that cruel beachhead wrote us: "It is the only book or treasure I have of my own experiences and it is positively an accurate description of events, which surprises me." I like to believe that the Saturday Review of Literature was right when it characterized our small-unit narratives as "...the most exact descriptions of battle ever written."
As I have said, we continued to apply the method of interviewing the participants after the war and have applied it to all the subjects of our research. We have amply demonstrated its value as a technique that could and should be applied much more widely to research in recent history. But it yields diminishing returns as time passes. Even the most honest memory quickly fades and becomes distorted. "On the actual day of battle naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have already begun to get into their uniforms." *4* As our recent Chief of Military History, Major General Orlando Ward, liked to put the matter: "Hindsight, tricks of memory, and new information lend reason to happenstance."
But valuable as they are, interviews are only a supplementary resource. Accurate and detailed exposition of battle action depends on written records and the skills and imagination with which the historian uses them. The experience of our historians to date has led us to the conclusion that the inadequacy of military records is often exaggerated and that an alert and well-trained historian can make these records, checked and supplemented by interviews, yield the picture that the Army and the public so eagerly desire.
Let me restate this conclusion in the words of Dr. Philip A. Crowl, whose name is on two of forthcoming combat volumes. *5* "After action reports are often defective or unreliable. But, we have a basic record in the journal that every Army unit in action keeps. This is the equivalent of a ship's log. In its rough form, it is kept by an enlisted man, and if properly maintained is a minute by minute recording of all radio and telephone messages that come in or go out of the command headquarters. The man who writes these entries is strictly neutral. He neither know nor cares enough about plans, tactics, etc., to be able intelligently to distort the record. True, his superior office may come along later and erase a message or lose a sheet of the journal, but any such tampering with the record would go hard on the tamperer if discovered. Army regulations as well as custom, tradition, and fear of discovery would normally militate against it.
"These journal entries are of course often erroneous because of mistakes made either at the sending or receiving ends. Company commanders report their locations incorrectly, give mistaken impressions of the size and composition of the enemy they are facing, etc. Some, in fact many of these errors, can be corrected or eliminated by the orthodox historian's device of checking the eyewitnesses against each other. The journal of one unit must be checked against those of adjacent units, and if the Navy is operating in the area, against ships' logs and naval action reports. The American accounts must be checked against whatever enemy records are available. Finally, the interviews conducted on the spot, or shortly afterwards, are often valuable not only in filling gaps in the official records, but in correcting some of the errors that have worked their way into those records.
"All this adds up to the conclusion that however correct Tolstoi's views of the conduct of war may have been for the early nineteenth century, they are no longer valid. The reason is simple. Technological improvements in communication have made it possible for the historian if not the commander to see pretty well what went on in the heat of battle, since the facts or reported facts upon which the commander based his judgments are on the record. The historian can examine this record at leisure, collate it with other records, and submit it to the usual tests of historical evidence.
For an interesting unit journal on this site, see 16th Infantry Journal: 7 May 1945.