Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project, and the Project Officer, Danny Millum, will be speaking to Professor Sir Michael Howard about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and academic profession of history.
May we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Michael Howard: I was born into a very orthodox upper-middle-class English family; I went to an English public school before I went to Oxford; I served in the army. I was involved in the campaign in Italy from 1943 to 1945, which I suppose gave me my initial interest in military affairs. I then returned to Oxford and got a not very good degree – I was fortunate enough to scrape an assisted lectureship at King’s College, London. There, after five years, the university decided that they wished to start a department or sub-department to be called ‘War Studies’. I was invited to put my name forward to do this, largely I think because I had had military experience and had actually written a book on the history of the operations of the regiment in which I served. This had involved a certain amount of original research and made me familiar with the problems of researching and writing history. But it was made clear that they did not wish to engage me as a military historian in the generally accepted sense. They wanted someone who was interested in the problem of war in a very much more general sense, and I was advised to enlist the co-operation of lawyers, scientists, theologians, economists, and sociologists, in order to create an overall pattern of ‘War studies’.
Simultaneously, and I suppose linked with this, there was emerging the subject of ‘War and Society’. Where that originated I’m not quite sure – I suspect it may have been in the United States – but it was obviously a spin-off of the experience of the Second World War, which had made it clear that war was a matter not simply for Generals. Every level of society was involved in it in some way or another; and the experience of conducting and being involved in war generally illuminated our understanding about the way in which society developed as a whole.
At the same time – this is the third leg of the tripod – there was developing an independent subject called ‘Strategic Studies’. This arose from the development of nuclear weapons and the problems it created in thinking about the conduct of war. The Ministry of Defence was headed by an extremely intelligent figure, Dennis Healey, who was anxious to encourage a general understanding of this subject in the British public as a whole – and was enthusiastic about its development within universities.
So, by the time I had established a Department of War Studies at King’s, interest was being sparked in many other places, and a certain amount of seed-corn money was being fed by the Ministry of Defence into universities to persuade them to take the subject seriously.
PO: I’d like to pick up on one of the threads you were talking about there. In your pursuit of the evolution of this new subject, or new subjects, I was wondering if you could name any of your main influences?
MH: The first person I consulted was the then Professor of the History of War at Oxford, Cyril Falls, a retired soldier and a very fine operational historian. He put me in the way of various books, especially Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Edward Mead Earle. That gave a fascinating introduction to all kinds of aspects of the study of war with which I was totally unfamiliar – including a seminal article about Clausewitz. I realised that Clausewitz was the vital person to study, in the same way that if one wanted to study economics one had better have a look at Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or, for philosophy, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Simultaneously, I came in touch with the leading military theorist in England at the time, Captain Basil Liddell Hart. He was a man of sparkling intellect, with deep interest in military affairs at every level. He had been a very significant figure in advising the British army in the 1930s, but since many people thought his advice to be extremely bad he was somewhat in eclipse when I came to know him in the early 1950s. But his reputation recovered; he had written an enormous amount of very penetrating studies about the nature and development of war and continued to do so, and spared a great deal of his time for me to consult and ask him questions. Although we disagreed about quite a number of things, I would regard him as being in the position of Doktovater – if had I been writing a doctoral thesis, he was the man who I would have wished to supervise it.
I had as my tutor when I was an undergraduate Hugh Trevor-Roper, as he then was. He was a man of such range, such knowledge of so many cultures, so many languages, with so holistic an approach to history – that I knew that if I was going to be any good as a historian, I had to start from a pretty broad basis and understand as many languages and cultures as I could – which was not as many as I would have wished. This encouraged me to write my first work on the Franco-Prussian war, a war between two distinct European societies; which involved learning their languages, and studying their social backgrounds. Since war is as much a matter of cultural as it is of military or political history, I owe that understanding very much to him.
Otherwise I was on my own. There was no other academic who appeared interested in this subject at all; I was just thrown into the middle of it and told to sink or swim. But I did find to my astonishment when I came to the Institute of Historical Research, that there was an excellent collection of military history which nobody had looked at for decades. So I started life by simply cataloguing that and going through it, which gave a good grasp of the bibliography of the subject. Based on that, I instituted a seminar here in co-operation with a number of colleagues, in particular Professor Donald Cameron Watt at the London School of Economics, a diplomatic historian. Between us we put together a seminar on international relations seen as conflict (I think that’s the best way that one can put it).
At the same time I became involved in the creation of the International Institute for Strategic Studies that was dealing with contemporary strategic affairs, and that put me in touch with like-minded people in the United States. I paid many visits to the United States and became part of a transatlantic community, concerned with studying the problems of contemporary war. But as far as I was concerned the historical dimension was always the most significant. The fact that I was involved also in the study of contemporary problems prevented me from being purely academic in my approach to the topic. I was equally concerned with understanding how war had developed, how the development of social structures affected the nature of war, and how far any of this was going to be of the slightest value today.
When the service war colleges discovered what was happening here, they wanted to take advantage of it. Serving officers were sent on the one year MA courses that I instituted at Kings, but at first they were a bit disappointed. They wanted to know what lessons were there to be learnt? I had been brought up, as a good, liberal, academic historian, to believe that history does not teach lessons. You don’t study history in order to learn lessons, you study it in order to understand the past, and by understanding the past to understand yourself and your own society. So that was a further problem to be resolved, to persuade them that I couldn’t teach them any lessons; at least not quite those they were hoping for!
PO: That’s interesting, because that brings me onto something else that I wanted to ask. In these areas in which you moved, all related to war studies and military history, I was wondering what you saw as being the major debates or even the points of contention?
MH: The immediate one was very obvious. Should we or should we not have nuclear weapons? If we did, how should we use them? How do you deter others from using nuclear weapons? Should we use them? Have nuclear weapons any purpose except to deter others from using them? Can they be used operationally at all? It was all very much focused on the Cold War context, which was extremely narrowing. One of the values of approaching it from the historical aspect, was to realise that this was not the totality of history or the totality of war: it was a particular phase which had arisen because of the development of the technology of weapons – and because of certain social and ideological developments which have to be examined. One of the arguments which I was constantly having with my American confrères, was that we were dealing not with vague diabolical figures called ‘Soviets’; we were dealing with Russians, who had been around for quite a long time, and had a history and ideas of their own. If we wanted to understand why they behave in the way that they did you had to look at their history and understand the way in which they look at us. You could not regard them simply as Marxists with nuclear weapons.
PO: I think in your book you say that you might learn as much from reading Dostoevsky as you would from reading Marx.
MH: Exactly. That I found one of the more rewarding, although sometimes infuriating, aspects of the debate. In the United States one was often dealing – and still is – with brilliantly clever people who know everything about technological developments, but know nothing whatever about any culture outside their own – and indeed did not believe that any culture did exist outside their own. A knowledge of history was sometimes a great help!
PO: I think, along with Hedley Bull, and on a committee with Herbert Butterfield, your views became loosely known as the English school …
MH: I did get involved in that and felt totally out of my depth, but it did make me think about the nature of the state, of political obedience, and of international relations. Most of the discussion was on a stratospheric level that I couldn’t follow at all! But the lesson which I drew out from that, and tried to hammer home in dealing with international relations as an academic discipline whole, is that international politics is about dealing with foreigners. It is not simply relations between states; it’s relations between cultures. And the first thing you must understand is that different states will have different ways of regarding problems, their minds work in different ways, and the best way you can understand them is to study their history.
I got involved in all kinds of enterprises. There were not very many of us around in the 1950s who were thinking about these things, so I found myself a maid of all work. Being at King’s College helped an enormous amount, because there one was at the centre of events. The press were still based on Fleet Street just down the road, and they were constantly ringing up and asking ‘You’re head of the Department of War Studies? What do you think about the development of tactical nuclear weapons by the Iranians?’
PO: And you had to have a view.
MH: And one had to have a view. And I got hired by respectable newspapers to write articles on the subject. At times I wondered whether I was a historian at all. My historical knowledge and study, such as it was, was simply a contribution to an ongoing debate in which historians did not play a very considerable part.
PO: It’s interesting that you should say that because I wanted to move a little bit away from your field of specialism to ask you about the history profession in general, the one which you’ve just slightly disavowed being a complete member of! I just wondered, from that perspective, if you’ve observed any trends in the discipline or the profession over the time of your career?
MH: When I joined the history profession in 1948, it was still parochial and conservative. Past & Present was not really heard of, and Annales barely known in this country at all. We were, as Hugh Trevor-Roper put it, crouched in positions of foetal admiration before our own archives, and all people seemed interested in was the actual study of English history, note English history, from the archives. The Institute of Historical Research was dominated by the micro-politics of Namier and Neale. Historical research consisted in finding out in great detail about individuals and their political interaction – very important and very interesting for those who are interested in it, I would not discourage people who enjoy that kind of thing, but it was not for me.
Then I was hoiked out of all this and put into something totally different where I could define my own field and the way in which I approached it. For many years I didn’t really notice or know very much about what other professional historians were up to. I was having to master so many other things –read so many articles, take so many periodicals – that I was barely conscious of the developments which were happening – about the contempt for histoire des évènements, the importance of la longue durée, and then all the Derrida and Foucault stuff, that history doesn’t really exist at all.
PO: You came across that later then?
MH: I came across that when, having established a Chair in War Studies here, I was hired by All Souls to do in Oxford what I had been doing in London, and put War Studies on the map I was given the title of Fellow in Higher Defence Studies. When asked ‘What are Lower Defence Studies?’ I would reply, ‘Well, that’s what the soldiers do’. Then I was made Regius Professor of Modern History to my astonishment, and had to discover what had been happening to history over the last 30 or 40 years. I was astounded: I’d had no idea that so much had been going on.
PO: So did that gap, in a sense – because you were preoccupied with other things and then came back to it in the late seventies –give you a perspective and you could see how much had changed?
MH: Well, it did. I am an old-fashioned narrative historian. I believe that the business of the historian is to discover what happened and put it into a pattern that makes sense. You know that the narrative will be partial and incomplete; you know how much more there is to discover about it; and you know and hope that a new generation will correct your narrative. Our job is to create a narrative in order to teach people what has happened. The navel-gazing of the historians worried me because I believe that historians have a responsibility to communicate their findings in an intelligible fashion because it is important for a society to understand its past. Here again, Hugh Trevor-Roper was a great influence for me: his inaugural lecture was about that: history for the laity. There was much happening in Oxford which I knew was important and exciting, but I couldn’t really connect with it. But Oxford, being a house of many mansions, large numbers of people can do their own thing and co-exist very happily. Also Oxford is a university which does not take professors at all seriously. One of the things which I did find repellant about the University of London when I was there 80 years ago was it consisted of ‘God Professors’. At Oxford professors regarded themselves as the oppressed classes.
PO: This might be a fitting moment to ask you, talking of the oppressed classes, what your views are on the pressures on academics and how they might have changed over time?
MH: I was extraordinarily lucky in that my academic career ended here in 1989, and the full horror of the pressures being brought on the academic world had not yet revealed themselves. They had got going, however, almost simultaneously with my becoming Regius Professor in 1978–9. Up to that point, money had been doled out to universities as if there were no tomorrow. It was wonderful! Then Mrs. Thatcher came in, and everything was ‘frozen’. A great deal of my time was then spent on committees having to resolve such problems as this: if the salaries for two academic posts were frozen and we were allowed to appoint one, which would it be: the only Chair in the western world of some highly esoteric subject, or a college lectureship in, say, Modern European History, in which the demand was overwhelming?
PO: Difficult questions.
MH: Very difficult questions that demanded political skills, rather than anything else. That was bad enough but we somehow managed. But when I used to return to Oxford from Yale where I had five very happy years, and discover the kind of pressures my former colleagues and pupils were under to produce quantifiable I thought thank God, I don’t have to do that!
PO: You’d contrast that then with your experience in the United States? Would you say that those pressures are not there on academics?
MH: Well, they have different kinds of pressures on academics, largely imposed by the academics themselves – on being politically correct and studying socially acceptable subjects. As a military historian, I would have been quite unacceptable at many American universities, but Yale set out to try and reverse the trend. The American universities have oodles of money and on the whole they use it very well. In particular they take graduate studies seriously; that is to say that they regard a doctorate as being a criterion not simply of scholarly, but of teaching, ability – not simply a matter of producing a thesis. It’s a matter of studying history in both width and depth, of studying historiography, of having teaching experience: you cannot get anywhere near a doctorate until you’ve had five years at it, whereas here if you haven’t finished within three years, you don’t get any more money.
PO: That leads me to another point: do you think that in this country there’s been a change in the relationship between teaching and between research?
MH: Well I myself go back a very long way, not quite to before the war but to the early war years. Then not much research was done in British universities. British universities, especially Oxbridge, existed primarily to teach undergraduates, and it was not expected that people should stay on and do research. That only developed after the war in the liberal years when cash became available to anybody who got a good first degree and wanted to go on and ‘do research’. That was not in itself a good thing. It meant that people who didn’t know what else to do with their lives, but were fairly good at passing examinations, thought ‘Well, if I’m paid to stay in university for another three years I shall ‘do research’’; at the end of which they were disqualified from doing anything else much. They didn’t produce particularly good theses and they didn’t find it very easy to get jobs. So there was that period when the scales were weighted far too heavily in favour of people ‘doing research’, and it was generally believed that ‘doing research’ was enough to qualify you for teaching in a university, which it is not.
I am afraid that there still remains this belief that universities should produce ‘x’ numbers of people who have ‘done research’. There may not be much money for them and there aren’t going to be very many jobs for them at the end of it, but in order to show that we’re up there in the right class of universities, we have to produce ‘x’ per cent of people who get research degrees.
PO: So it’s the quantity of research, as you see it?
MH: And more means worse. Not that there isn’t an endless amount to be done –the more you know, the more you realise how ignorant you are – but the quantity does not produce better quality. There were a lot of people in my own time who would have been very good as school teachers and were drawn off from the teaching profession. The same applies to the civil service and probably other occupations. But they just ‘did research’ because it was there.
PO: And that injection of cash skewed what might necessarily have been better for universities and for society?
MH: I am very much afraid so.
PO: I just wanted to ask you quickly for your views about academic history and popular history, and if the relationship between those two has changed at all?
MH: Well, I think that academics should be able to write popular – that is, readable – history. I think that popular history also should have high standards of scholarly respectability. There are certain academic kinds of history which will never be popular; never mind. There are certainly kinds of popular history which academics will disdain. But no matter: what is important is there should be a really good overlap. I think that any first-rate historian should be able to write a good popular history.
PO: And if you contrast, say, the immediate post-war period with now, would you say that there are more or fewer academic historians participating in popular history?
MH: Well, there are so many more academic historians. In 1945–1950 there was Oxbridge, a dozen so-called ‘red brick’ universities, there were the great Scottish universities, and that was about it. Now, inevitably, a thousand flowers have bloomed. There are many more academic historians and among them there are those who do write good popular histories. I would like in an ideal world to make it almost a condition of promotion, to a really senior job, that an academic should have written a good, readable history which has sold! One would make allowances for those who work in very recondite fields, although one would be surprised: consider the amount of popular archaeology which is written for example. There are many specialties one would have thought no-one would really be interested in. But they can be made interesting.
PO: My last question, again on a slightly different tack, just casting your eyes over the discipline, I wondered if you had any ideas as to its future direction? I guess both the discipline and the profession as well?
MH: As I always tell everybody, the historian’s the last person to ask about the future. We know the record: if we say it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen. But the prospects are good. It seems to me that activity is flourishing everywhere. Excellent, interesting articles are being published on all kinds of subjects, and in spite of the pressures being brought to bear by governments, good scholars are still producing good research and very readable history indeed. They’re getting braver: take John Elliott’s magnificent Empires of the Atlantic World comparing the impact of Spanish culture and of Protestant culture on the New World, and seeing how those things worked out; Christopher Duggan’s book on the making of Italy, The Force of Destiny –brilliant; John Darwin’s on After Tamerlane. These are really broad subjects which are tackled with narrative skill, with passionate interest, and with great scholarly expertise. The fact that books of that kind are being published makes me feel that the history profession is not in bad shape after all.
PO: On that optimistic note, we shall stop. Thank you Professor Howard