war on the rocks

Historians and Policymaking: A New Chorus Singing an Old Ballad

February 15, 2018

Between May and August 1918, as World War I entered its final months, a 32-year-old historian named Charles Kingsley Webster, then on wartime leave from the University of Liverpool, drafted a monograph on the Congress of Vienna for the Foreign Office. This was a subject upon which the young scholar had cut his teeth, first as a modern history undergraduate and later as a doctoral student at King’s College, Cambridge. For him, this was the first great diplomatic interaction between modern European powers and the single greatest precedent available to 20th century statesmen. Writing in December 1918, just a month before the peace conference that would conclude four years of war, he noted that the Congress of Vienna was the “only assembly which can furnish even a shadowy precedent for the great task that lies before the statesmen and peoples of the world.”

One junior official in the British delegation perused the text on the way to Paris and found that after reading it, he “knew exactly what mistakes had been committed by the misguided, the reactionary, the after all pathetic aristocrats who had represented Great Britain in 1814.” Others, including Woodrow Wilson himself, ignored the work entirely. Upon hearing of the circulation of Webster’s monograph, the American president, determined to negate the balance of power politics that had consumed the 19th century, proclaimed that there would be “No odor of Vienna … brought into the proceedings.” Ruffled at the president’s remark, Webster, who had worked his way into the British delegation to Paris, countered in his diaries that Wilson’s “historical knowledge was about thirty years out of date.”

While the role of historians during the Paris Peace Conference may have been negligible in the end, the occasion marked one of the first great mobilizations of historians into the formal policymaking realm. “Historians were as thick as bees, and some of them played a distinguished part in the diplomacy of the Conference” Webster later recalled. It is here that practitioners began to view historians as an untapped resource, while scholars themselves began to seek more substantive ways to influence the policymaking process, understanding full well that much of their knowledge could be applied to future international relations. Far from spontaneous opportunism, however, these historians were manifestations of an academic lineage that had long advocated such connections between history and policy.

Today, the idea that history can be a tool for policymaking is gaining some renewed enthusiasm. The “return of geopolitics” and debates over the “Thucydides trap” — set against the backdrop of an American president with a loose grip of the past — may have something to do with this resurgence. Regardless of the catalyst, however, it is important for those advocating history’s modern relevance to understand earlier legacies. A study of the figures, the events they sought to influence and the intellectualism they aimed to instill offers significant insights for the new chorus championing the linkages between historical study and modern policymaking.

Asked by a high school reporter which subjects students should be studying in order to become “politically active and aware adults,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, whose own expansive readings habits have been profiled, replied that the study of history was most useful. He added, “I wish now looking back on it, if I’d known what waited for me in life, I would have put a lot more attention into history.”

The secretary’s response was music to the ears of many in the academy. American scholars from Hal Brands and Niall Ferguson to Francis Gavin, Margaret Macmillan and Philip Zelikow have discussed the merits of “applied history,” “historical sensibility,” and “thinking historically.” Building on the work of earlier historians such as Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, they have taken up the modern initiative to bring more historical study into practical politics.

According to Gavin, developing a “historical sensibility” can “provide many benefits and insights to the decision-maker facing complex issues and radical uncertainty about the future, not the least of which is humility and prudence.” Brands, along with co-author Jeremi Suri, recently edited a volume with 12 scholars and former policymakers writing on case studies in which history did or did not inform policy. Ferguson and Allison went as far as recommending that the president create a White House of Council of Historical Advisors. Institutions such as the Clements Center for National Security, the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, and the Initiative on History and Public Policy are aiming to become epicenters for such historically minded research and teaching, all with an eye towards training the next generation of policymakers. Research centers and academic programs across Britain — from the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London to the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge — echo similar themes.

It is worth noting however that such advocacy has its own legacy. The study of history has long been held in regard for its practical application. In describing the rise of Rome in The Histories, the Greek historian Polybius proclaimed that “the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of history.” A century later, the future Roman emperor Claudius was encouraged to read and write history by his tutor, the renowned historian Livy. Napoleon even held history in a similar regard, once declaring: “Let my son often read and reflect on History: this is the only true philosophy.”

The 19th century, however, marked major transformations in the way that history was taught and the way that historians contributed to contemporary political debates. Into the first decades of the following century, this trend continued, and by the end of World War I, academic historians experienced their first — and perhaps greatest — formal inclusion into the policymaking sphere. Many of these scholars involved in the British war effort and the peace conference that concluded it were the products — and in some cases even the catalysts — of a lineage within the British academy.

By the time Charles Webster walked the halls of King’s College, Cambridge as an undergraduate, the foundation for a new approach to history had already been laid. The champion of this movement at Cambridge, and indeed the greatest of this generation to link the study of history and the practice of politics together was John Robert Seeley, Regius Professor from 1869 to 1895. “Politics,” he once declared in a lecture to a group of undergraduates, “are vulgar when they are not liberalised by history, and history fades into mere literature when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics.”

From the time he took the chair of Regius Professor, Seeley was adamant that the institution would serve to educate next generation of scholars and statesmen. In his inaugural lecture in 1870, Seeley christened history as “the school of statesmanship” and stated:

Here are assembled to prepare themselves for life the young men from whom the legislators and statesmen of the next age must be taken … During the years they spend here, and through influences that operate here … their preparation for political life is made.

Following Seeley in the Regius Chair was Lord Acton, a man the four-time prime minister William Gladstone had said he trusted “more entirely than any other man.” Like his predecessor, Lord Acton encouraged students studying modern history to go beyond the confines of the past. In his inaugural lecture in 1895, Acton said,

For the science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the stream of history, like grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to the making of the future.

It was more than simply the Regius Chairs, however, who developed a new approach to history.

Men such as Oscar Browning, who along with G.W. Prothero, had helped to develop the Historical Tripos at Cambridge in the 1870s, also encouraged his students to read and write history with an eye towards practical ends. As a tutor at King’s College, Oscar Browning, according to one of his biographers, sought to “mould the minds of the great” and “rock the cradles of the sons of kings.” One of his most important contributions to the college at the time was his founding, in October 1876, of the “Political Society,” an organization that he would oversee for the next 30 years. The group was made up of a dozen undergraduates, each of whom was required, once a term, to present a paper on an agreed topic. Questions ranged from “Should we fear the hug of the Russian Bear?” to “Is it desirable that England should remain an Empire?” With bottles of port invigorating the debate, the object of the group, according to Browning, was “to promote the scientific discussion of political questions.” Initiatives such as these marked an important development in a concerted effort to encourage undergraduates to “think historically” about contemporary issues.

Although Webster never came into contact with Seeley or Acton, he had been included in the Political Society as an undergraduate and recalled in later years that with the encouragement of figures like Browning, there was, among his classmates, “a sense of social duty higher than that of any of its predecessors and a greater belief that remedies could be found for the evils of the time.” In the inaugural lecture of his first professorship a decade later, Webster echoed calls from the Seeley and Acton schools of history:

If it is also true, as Lord Acton has said, that “the recent past contains the key to the present time,” then for Englishmen of the twentieth century, the history that is most worth studying is that of the nineteenth century, and few will, I think, be concerned to deny that its proper understanding is of vital importance for us to-day.

Webster’s statement received its credence, when, in the summer of 1917, the Foreign Office brought on a number of academics to assist in its work. The idea had come from Arnold Toynbee and Alfred Zimmern, both trained classicists and then serving as Oxford history dons. They drafted a proposal calling for a “Peace Terms Intelligence Section” which might begin preparations for a postwar settlement. There reasoning was simple:

Whichever party is in possession of the most detailed knowledge regarding the economic and political facts, the plans of the enemy, and the bearing of these facts upon their own, will have a formidable advantage over its opponents in making peace.

From this, the Historical Section of the Foreign Office was created in the summer of 1917, under the direction of G.W. Prothero, the editor of the Quarterly Review and who, over 40 years earlier, had helped Oscar Browning design the first modern history degree at Cambridge. The section’s task was to produce detailed background accounts which might aid British officials both before and during the postwar peace conference. Between 1917 and 1919, the group drew up 174 of these “handbooks,” as they were called, which covered topics as diverse as “Islam in India and Islam in Africa” and the history of the Danzig corridor. A number of these historians who contributed to the political handbooks would go on to attend the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, and as noted above, one in particular would be slighted by the president of the United States.

The Paris Peace Conference marked the culmination of British historians’ role during World War I. While the influence of the historical handbooks on the proceedings was largely insignificant in the end, the fact that historians were present and consulted in such a fashion was a watershed moment.

The Foreign Office, despite disbanding the Historical Section a year after the peace conference, appointed its first full time historical advisor, James Headlam-Morley, another Cambridge-educated classicist, in the same year. Elsewhere, the historians who had been involved in the Historical Section and the Paris Peace Conference returned to lecture halls armed with practical experience. Arnold Toynbee joined the Royal Institute of International Affairs and later became its director in 1926, while Alfred Zimmern, just months after the war, took up the first ever chair in international relations, a post created at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and endowed by the outspoken internationalist Lord David Davies.

Called the Woodrow Wilson Chair in International Relations, it was to be led by a historian and its goal was “the study of those related problems of law and politics, of ethics and economics, which are raised by the project of a League of Nations, and for the encouragement of a truer understanding of civilizations other than our own.” Thus, with a classicist at the helm — and well before it was lost to cumbersome theories and methodologies— the nascent discipline of international relations grounded itself in historical study and focused on the questions of future world order.

While still formally outside of policymaking spheres in the interwar years, these historians were again called into more active government positions as war enveloped the continent in 1939. This time, the group was led by Arnold Toynbee, first under the name the Foreign Research and Press Service and later the Foreign Office Research Department. As in the final years of World War I, the group of academics which again included Zimmern and Webster was to buttress the work of diplomats and government officials. Similar to their work in the Great War, their task was to furnish detailed reports for government officials. Topics varied but included relevant case studies such as the “Maintenance of the Order of Europe, 1918-19” to the “Causes of the Failure of the League of Nations.”

Within this group of historians, Charles Webster was arguably the most important contributor to the work of the Foreign Office. This disciple of Seeley, Acton and Browning who, earlier in his career, sought to aid the “men of action” at the Paris Peace Conference, now became one of the key players. Just as in 1917, his expertise on the Congress of Vienna — not to mention his commentary on the League of Nations in the interwar years — led many in the Foreign Office to consider him the foremost expert on international organization. In the spring of 1943, Webster was brought on to the Economic and Reconstruction Department within the Foreign Office, a body responsible for addressing major postwar questions. It was led by Gladwyn Jebb, who over 20 years earlier had graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern history. Although generally not fond of “wholly-minded” academics, Jebb viewed Webster — in his words, this “Roman-nosed, chinless extrovert” — as a “great power man” and thus capable of contributing to his designs for a postwar international organization.

Together Jebb and Webster served as the chief architects of the British plans for the United Nations, an organization which they played an indispensable role in cultivating through trying deliberations with their American and Soviet counterparts at the Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco conferences in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Webster’s work during the early drafting stages in 1943 through the signing of the Charter in June 1945 offers perhaps the most prominent example of a full-time historian influencing politics. In this case it happened to be a scholar of the Concert of Europe putting forward recommendations for the construction of a new world order.

As historians today seek to build schools of statesmanship — or attempt to school statesmen — it may be useful to first mine the depths of those who have done it before. The experience of historians such as Webster — to say nothing of Zimmern, Toynbee, and others — offers an important case study for scholars and practitioners advocating applied history, historical thinking, and the like today. Perhaps in the mold of Oscar Browning’s Political Society, modern-day groups might encourage the next generation of history undergraduates to become the next “men and women of action.” And for those already in such positions, maneuvering as they are in this new age of geopolitics, they might borrow from the precedent of the Foreign Office 100 years ago and find utility in the advice of scholars who, like those in the Historical Section during World War I, rooted their approach to the future in an accurate understanding of the past.


Andrew Ehrhardt is a PhD student in the War Studies Department at King’s College, London where he works with the Centre for Grand Strategy.

Image: Cornell University Library/Flickr