I found out today that many historians have lied. The San Jose Mercury News
report I read, "Right on Crusade to 'Correct' History," states that conservatives believe liberal professors tainted our understanding of America's past. Of course, liberals believe that conservatives got it all wrong to begin with and corrections are long overdue. The battle came to a head recently when conservatives pushed Texas state school boards to rewrite the guidelines for classroom history books. Liberals are concerned about these changes, which include a downplaying of Thomas Jefferson's historical role and a less than favorable view of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has introduced, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the idea that Roosevelt actually caused
the Great Depression. Regardless of who's right, the winners of this war of interpretations could reshape history as we know it.
Texas buys more history books than any other state. As such, textbook publishers tend to write their history books, used in all states, based on input from the Texas state school board. If the conservatives get their way, we'll all soon learn that Jamestown settlers were socialists and that ill-informed professors made up the fact that Alexander Hamilton advocated a strong central government. George Santayana once stated that "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there." Ted Koppel hit the nail even harder in saying, "History is a tool used by politicians to justify their intentions." My father, William J. Reed, always used to quote Ambrose Bierce when he said, "History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools." My dad was a historian and author and often told me that as long as humans remain imperfect, history will follow suit. After all, who doesn't recall that schoolyard game where boys and girls pass facts on down the line until they are completely warped by kid number 10?
When I wrote my latest book, Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War (William Morrow), I interviewed almost 200 veteran submariners, cryptographers, Navy divers, and "spook" intelligence operatives, and most had impressive recollections. Still, many could not recall a few dates, places, names, and minor facts, which spurred considerable digging and fact verifying on my part. In light of the Texas school board situation, I'm hoping that the facts I did uncover weren't inaccurate. What if the website references I used were written by conservatives? What if the books I read were penned by liberals? What if most of these history writers were influenced by Ambrose Bierce?
Part of my research for the book led me to heretofore top-secret information about Project Azorian, recently unclassified by the CIA. One of the documents was an eyewitness account of an event that is considered by historians as one of the most ambitious and costly programs of the Cold War. This account, written by an anonymous operative, documented the creation of Howard Hughes's Glomar Explorer salvage ship and the advanced equipment needed to raise a Soviet submarine from a watery grave some 16,500 feet down. Although the report contained numerous redacted sections, the story was riveting. I interviewed operatives involved in this project for Red November, and used the CIA document to verify facts and dates. The result, I believe, was neither liberal nor conservative, just fascinating. In my opinion, history is not only about facts, but also about feelings and personal experiences.
We all know that if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it still makes a sound. But lacking a human witness, the event records no emotion. No stories are told to young children about how the tree moaned in a whistling wind, fought to stay alive but finally succumbed to the power of Mother Nature with a crack and a thunderous boom. Liberals might wish to point out that the wind velocity could not have been high enough to fell a tree, while conservatives could argue that the leafy ground cover surely would have dampened the magnitude of the crash. I would point out that neither was there, so they felt nothing, experienced nothing, and have no say in the matter.
The Project Azorian account is an excellent example of how and why the recording of history should be the responsibility of its participants and why we historians should take great care not to taint or bend the accounts to our wills. The CIA got it right. Instead of insisting that the world be kept in the dark forever due to national security concerns, they realized that the gloves should be removed someday. To that end, they commissioned a participant to record what happened, through their own eyes and the eyes of others. Documented were names, dates, and facts, but also feelings and opinions (the report contains several personal excerpts from actual operators). We now have a record of what happened during one of the most momentous events of the Cold War, as told firsthand by those who were there.
In writing Red November, my goal was not to break a news story, imprint my opinions on history, win an election, or become rich. My heartfelt desire was to honor those who undertook the most daring, dangerous, and decorated missions of the Cold War. To tell the world about what really happened to submariners like me, who stalked Soviet subs from a few dozen yards away and who, like me, ran into a few. To record how some of us were harassed and depth charged for days by Soviet forces or were stuck in the mud during storms and were certain we'd spend eternity in a metal coffin. To deliver the breathtaking accounts of deep sea "saturation" divers who wiretapped Soviet communications cables at 700 feet deep in the Barents Sea.
This is what history is really about. Whether these sailors, officers, and operatives were conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, blacks or whites, or sided with my beliefs makes no difference. That they volunteered, sacrificed, and survived, does. My duty as a writer of history is to tell their stories. Percy Bysshe Shelley put this mandate best when he said, "History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man." I can only hope that the poem I wrote does justice to those who inspired the words.