History Majors Make the Civil War “Legible and Searchable” for the Future

“What is a gabion?”

“Where are the Bolivar Heights?”

“What does ‘N. f. r. A. G. O.’ stand for?

“Is that word ‘gout’?”

These kinds of questions were asked every Friday afternoon around 2:30 in Professor Hugh Dubrulle’s office this semester. Why? Four student research assistants—history majors Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19 (from left to right in the photo above)—prepared materials for the research project that will be assigned in History 352: The American Civil War and Reconstruction which Dubrulle will teach next semester (Spring 2018). This project will require students in the course to do research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and write papers explaining the degree to which the regiment’s experiences match up with what current Civil War historiography claims about a variety of topics. These topics will include studies of the regiment’s participation in various battles and biographies of its leading officers. Other papers will look at topics such as desertion, politics, discipline, leadership, recruitment, medicine, and so on.

Why choose the 5th New Hampshire? Dubrulle says there are several reasons: “First, it lost more combat fatalities over the course of the Civil War than any other unit in Federal service. We ought to remember and honor this distinction, but it also raises the following question: what made it possible for this regiment, which was a typical product of its time and place, to compile such an outstanding service record? Second, much primary source material is easily available in local archives or online. Third, there are some excellent secondary sources about the unit in print, particularly Mike Pride and Mark Travis’ My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (2001).”

Williamson, Batchelder, Valcourt, and Bearce assisted Dubrulle with a number of important tasks, including transcribing letters and entering information from regimental service records into a searchable database. As Valcourt put it, their job consisted of making “the past legible and searchable for the future.” Williamson and Batchelder first transcribed the letters (34 of them) of Pvt. Miles Peabody (born and raised in Antrim, NH) who enlisted in Co. K of the 5th New Hampshire in 1861 at the age of 21. Williamson and Batchelder then moved on to transcribe selected portions of Lieut.-Col. James E. Larkin’s correspondence. A coach painter from Concord, NH, Larkin was mustered in as a 1st Lieut. when the regiment was organized in October 1861. He eventually became the commander of the unit in June 1864.

Both Batchelder and Williamson enjoyed getting to know Peabody and Larkin through their letters. Williamson commented that “I became really attached to the soldiers while reading their correspondence! I felt for them and found myself really invested in their stories that were told over a century ago.” Batchelder also felt an affinity for the men whose letters she read. On occasion, however, she was startled by what they wrote: “A lot of people assume that the Northerners were ‘the good guys,’ but there were times when I transcribed the letters and I would see these people fighting for the Union making a racist comment or saying something completely unexpected.” Such moments made her realize that while she shared a common humanity with these soldiers, they lived in a very different world.

Although Batchelder noted that “some people have the messiest handwriting,” Williamson pointed out that reading handwriting was actually affecting: “There is a lot of emotion in these letters, and much of it is expressed in the handwriting.” Not only that, Williamson felt that reading the letters helped illuminate Civil War history in a striking way that other sources could not. As she put it, the correspondence allowed her to study the conflict more broadly than one might have thought. The letters show “what they [the soldiers] were eating, what they were doing with their time, how they slept, what the weather was like, their experience on the battlefield—along with other important moments, all seen from different perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Bearce and Valcourt scoured Augustus D. Ayling’s Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (1895) for the abbreviated service records of all the men who served in the 5th New Hampshire during the war. They then transferred this information to an Excel spreadsheet that is both searchable and sortable. Arrayed in this fashion, the data can yield all sorts of interesting patterns. For instance, Bearce quickly noticed that substitutes and foreign-born soldiers seemed much more likely to desert than volunteers and the native-born. Valcourt was stunned by the large number of casualties the regiment lost in the last days of the war at the Battle of Farmville (otherwise known as the Battle of High Bridge)—a fight he’d never heard of. Both research assistants recognized that intriguing trends in the data could prove very useful to students writing papers on any number of topics. At the same time, Bearce also saw that the “the quantitative information [from the database] complements the qualitative data from the transcription of letters.” Among other things, “one can use the service records to contextualize the letters and vice versa.” Valcourt was struck by the strange stories “and colorful cast of characters” that seemed to emerge from the spare notes of the abbreviated service records. His favorite person was Oliver Grapes, an original volunteer in the regiment who deserted in July 1863 and, using the alias Oliver Vine, volunteered the next month as a Wagoner in the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. As Valcourt explained it, “you learn about the ‘small’ people in order to understand ‘big’ people and events.” At the end of the day, though, through the exercise of data entry, Bearce learned how “quantitative history can be, and how the quantitative aspects of history comes to be.” And, of course, both Bearce and Valcourt brushed up on their Excel skills.

Throughout the semester, all of the research assistants were intrigued with finding out “the rest of the story.” Batchelder and Williamson were crushed to learn that Peabody died of illness in November 1864 near Alexandria, VA. They were relieved to learn, however, that Larkin survived the war. Unfortunately, as a result of his military service, he suffered from ill-health, particularly rheumatism, for the rest of his life. Larkin floated between a number of jobs before dying in 1911. From his very different perspective of having dealt with the service records, Bearce was interested in finding out what happened after the war to the soldiers he studied. Noting that Ayling’s Revised Register had addresses for many veterans who had survived to 1895, Bearce stated, “I would really like someone to take on the challenge of doing research using the post office addresses listed in the registry for some purpose. These just seem absolutely tantalizing to me, and I think a paper trying to find out how people adjusted after the war would be very interesting.” One can only hope that future students working with these sources will take on that challenge as well as some of the others presented by the material.

And by the way, what are the answers to the questions above? A gabion is a wicker basket filled with earth and used to shore up fortifications. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town of Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. “N. f. r. A. G. O.” stands for “No further record Adjutant General’s Office, Washington DC.” And yes, the word in the letter was “gout.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


Labbe and Miller Transcribe the Kimball Diaries

Psychology major and History minor Lisette Labbé ’18 (left) and History major Dena Miller ’20 (right) spent part of their semester in the Saint Anselm College Archives transcribing the 1891-1892 diary of Edwin C.H. Kimball.  One Thing After Another caught up with them to learn more about this campus history project.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about the project and how you got involved?

Dena and Lisette:  We are working on producing a literal transcription of the Edwin C.H. Kimball Diaries. Kimball recorded his day-to-day activities from January 1891 to December 1894. For our class project, we are focusing on the 1891-1892 diary. The ultimate goal of the project is to transcribe and digitally scan both diaries to have original pages of the dairies aligned with their transcriptions for viewing on the web.  We were both interested in being involved with the history of Saint Anselm College. So we chose this project as the final project in our History 363: Public History course.

Q: So, what did you know about Edwin C.H. Kimball when you started, or what have you learned about him?

Lisette: I did not even know he was a young farmer of 23 until about 20 pages into the diary. I assumed that he was much older and a parent based on how serious he was and his involvement in local and national politics. After reading further into the diary, it appears that he had a mother, a father, and a sister named Ethel. He was also unmarried. He was very interested in politics and would report voting rankings of political candidates from local and national elections. He would also report events that happened nationally which made me wonder if this was information he learned from his visitors who would stay at his family’s inn. He did not seem to deal much with the inn, focusing most of his efforts on the farm. It was interesting to see him interact with the Monks of the college as he was not Catholic but perhaps Baptist.

Dena:  I get the impression that Kimball was a very intelligent man. So much so that I did not even realize how young he was when I started reading his diary. I would have sworn that the diary was written by someone in his 40’s until he mentioned celebrating his 23rd birthday. Despite this initial confusion, I feel that as the project progressed I got a clear picture of who Kimball was. Kimball seemed to be a very family-oriented young man, judging by the amount of work he did for his family on their farm and in their house. Along that same line, he also seemed to care deeply about his community and his neighbors, since he spent hours a day working on their behalf, especially for Rev. Fr. Hugo Paff, O.S.B. Kimball also seemed to be very interested in politics, both local and national. Overall, my impression of Kimball is positive and I think that, judging by his political interests and community sensibilities, he would fit right in on the Saint Anselm College campus today.

Q: So, no juicy details in these diaries?

Lisette:  The psychology major in me wants to know more about the man behind the diary. But I have learned from this project that his diary was more of a journal or a records book than what we view as a diary in the 21st century.

Dena:  The Kimball family owned the property on Shirley Hill Road that was once used as an entrance to the College. Kimball recorded in his diaries the comings and goings of friends, family, and guests at his family’s inn and boarding house, the Maplewood Farm. Kimball also recorded his economic exchanges with the Monks of the college, usually days spent plowing or haying the monastic fields.  These diaries are essential to the school’s history because they are the only primary documents that recorded the fire that burned down the only college building where Alumni Hall is located in 1892.  But we only got through 1891, so we did not get to read that part!

Q: What does an average day of transcription look like?

Dena and Lisette:  So one of us will go into the Archives and typically Keith has printed out the other person’s transcriptions for us to edit. We will edit them by looking at the original document to check for errors, like a missed or an accidently capitalized letter. Afterwards, there may be edits on our own transcriptions for us to review and fix in the transcription document. So we would have to look at our partner’s edits and the diary to cross-compare before fixing the errors on the transcription document. There is also a working log where we post comments, questions and concerns for our partner, such as “what do you think this word is on page 54 line 4?” After all these steps are done we start transcribing again. If we have any questions, we typically ask Keith, or just text each other.

Q:  That is a lot of detail work! What skills do you think you have acquired through this work?

Dena and Lisette:  We learned how to transcribe exactly from a handwritten source to a digital file, which requires careful detail orientation, an understanding of cursive, and specialized knowledge of Microsoft Word. We also learned many other work-flow and project management skills. The diaries needed to stay in the College Archives, and digital pictures and copies could not be made. Hence, we had to go into the archives to do the transcriptions with the College Archivist, Keith Chevalier. Unfortunately, we could not go in at the same time because we were both working on the same diary and the same transcription document. As a result, we had to learn to schedule shifts around our three different schedules. Because of this problem, we learned how to collaborate as a team, even when the team was never in the same place at the same time. We also learned how to create a transcription and editing log to track our work as well as a style and process guide to help those who come after us maintain a consistent transcribing process.

Q:  You make it sound pretty easy. What obstacles did you encounter?

Dena and Lisette:  One of the major obstacle we have is his handwriting. Kimball forms his letters in very confusing way, where letters could look very different on different pages or pieces of the letters could look like punctuation. For example, when he writes an “a”, it often looks like “,a” because he connects the beginning of the letter to the line on the paper. This has caused confusion and in some cases has made punctuation a judgement call. Other obstacles that we’ve found is that he misspells words and we often find ourselves writing the correct word instead of the literal transcription of his misspelled word.

Q:  What do you think is important about your project? 

Dena and Lisette:  This project is important to the college’s history because we are preserving essential parts of the early life of the college. We are also working towards having the diaries online for the public to view. This initial process is to have the metadata of each page image. Metadata is data that describes and gives information about other data. We have created a catalogue record of each page. Ultimately, when each page of the diary is uploaded, typing keywords will cause all relevant pages and items to appear. These transcriptions are just the first step towards this major archival project.

Q:  So what are possible next steps for continuing this project?

Dena and Lisette: There are many ways in which future students could expand upon the work we have done. First they could continue the transcription—there are three more years to go!  After that, they could create annotations within the text of the diary. Annotations could be used to give context for the people and the situations that he describes in the diary. For example, annotations could shine a light on the political importance of James G. Blaine [a congressman and senator from Maine who was the Republican nominee for president in 1884; he served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1892], who was mentioned many times. Another way that the project could be expanded upon would be the creation of a searchable index. If a future researcher wants to find all the times that a name or a term is mentioned in the diary (for example, Ethel), the index would refer the researcher to every mention of her name. This index could be expanded even further to include the misspelled versions of common words that would typically be left out of a common search because it was misspelled.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Stedman Teaches History–and Football–at BC High

Some weeks ago, One Thing after Another received a friendly note from alum Bernie Stedman ’08 who now teaches history at his alma mater, Boston College High School. As is often the case, this blog could not let Stedman get away without an interview, especially after it reviewed his Rate My Teachers ratings. Stedman kindly acquiesced, and what follows is the result.

Q: One Thing after Another recalls that you were simply a history major as an undergraduate and that you were not involved in the secondary education program at Saint Anselm College. Were you always interested in teaching, or did you head in that direction after graduation? In other words, how did you become a teacher?

A: I can say that I knew I wanted to become a teacher pretty early in my freshman year. I had always entertained the idea, as my mother, uncle, and grandfather were all teachers and, obviously, the notion of summers off was tremendously appealing! But I would say that during my freshman year I experienced a confluence of finding a strong interest in studying history as well as feeling the pull towards a career in teaching. However, I found that pursuing education classes would diminish my experience in history, so I chose to fully invest myself in a history major and take some education courses when I could spare the time.

Q: Boston College High School is a prestigious institution. How did you position yourself to obtain a job there?

A: I count myself blessed to be a part of Boston College High School. Obviously, I feel that my being an alumnus of the school had a great deal to do with my being able to secure an interview for the job opening, but I also benefited from having been a history major. Since BC High is a college preparatory school, it often focuses on finding candidates who majored in the field they teach and who have had at least some experience in the classroom. Fortunately, I had been a substitute teacher in the Quincy public school system for a couple of years, so I had both the degree and the classroom experience. In addition to that, I had been coaching football and basketball during my time as a sub. Many educators view coaching as an extension of the classroom, and in this particular case I believe the school was looking for someone with experience in both coaching and teaching.

Q: In the school directory, you are listed as a Social Studies teacher, but you got in touch with our department because you are teaching a new course on World War II. What does your teaching rotation look like? What is your favorite class to teach?

A: At BC High, teachers have a lighter course load (four total classes) than most school teachers who typically have five classes. This year, I am teaching a senior elective on WWII, two sections of US History AP (which consists mostly of juniors), and one section of freshman world history. I generally ask to have three different classes because I enjoy having students in different class years. My favorite class to teach is US History AP because I have always been partial to that field, and the course is made up of high-achieving students who are very committed to doing well. This dynamic affords me the opportunity to teach it as a college-level course and put a particular emphasis on the material itself. This was the environment I experienced  at Saint Anselm College, and it’s why I loved studying history.

Q: One Thing after Another’s sources, which are omniscient and omnipresent, indicate that you coach football for Boston College High School. Coaching is a form of teaching; do you find much crossover between instructing students in the classroom and on the football field?

A: I take great joy in coaching football for many of the same reasons that I enjoy teaching US History AP. It is most definitely an extension of the classroom and a form of teaching. And, like US History AP, it is full of kids who are devoted, and willing to work hard and learn. That creates an atmosphere that cultivates strong bonds between you and your students, which is the basis of good teaching. One of the challenges of coaching football is to stress the importance of the teaching dynamic in such a highly competitive environment. Many coaches are not teachers by trade and so it is all the more important to be a classroom teacher on the field in order to maintain the culture and identity of the school. This is a challenge and a task I take very seriously and enjoy very much.

Q: To what extent do you believe your liberal arts education and your major in History helped prepare you for your current position?

A: I would not be in my current position without my liberal arts education. All of the abilities I possess that make me an effective teacher I owe to my education. The ability to think critically, analyze material, engage in discourse, and see situations from different perspectives are skills that my liberal arts education honed for me. I always try to put these at the forefront of my teaching because these are paramount. This is what I try to impart to my students more than details and material from class, because I feel that without the ability to think, write, and speak, knowledge of history, literature, or religion would be useless.

Q: According to Rate My Teachers (yes, we have stooped so low as to check that site), your students think the world of you, and in their inimitable way, their comments indicate that you are hilarious in the classroom. Why do you think you’ve made such an impression on your students?

A: When I teach, I always try to remember the teachers who made me want to be a teacher, and I simply try to emulate them in my own way. At the risk of embarrassing Professor Dubrulle, he was one of my primary inspirations. I always admired the way he was able to incorporate who he was into the material he taught, so whenever I took one of his classes, it felt like something other than a professor conveying material. There was always a richness to lectures because it was obvious that he loved what he studied and what he taught. I try to be the same way in my classroom. I try to incorporate who I am into what I teach so that the subject matter and the exercise of studying history can be more rewarding for both me and my students. I always try to remember the sage advice a teacher gave me: if you are not having fun and sharing a few laughs every now and again, then all you have is history, and most teenagers don’t want that.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Kelly Studies abroad in Sevilla

History major Elizabeth (Liz) Kelly, ’19 is currently studying abroad in Seville, Spain. One Thing After Another would have loved to interview her in person in sunny, southern Spain, but settled for a long distance conversation about her studies and travels. She had just gotten back from a weekend trip to Paris when the conversation began.

Q: What brought you to Saint Anselm College? How did you decide to enroll here?

A: I came to Saint Anselm based on the opportunity to pursue a liberal arts education and continue as a student-athlete. I play lacrosse. Being able to balance sports and academics was important to me, and Saint A’s was the perfect fit.

Q: What made you decide to be a history major? Has something in the major stood out thus far?

A: I chose to be a history major because I am interested in law school. Aspects of the major, such as reading, analyzing, comprehending, and writing will be helpful in preparing for a career in law. In regards to the history department at Saint A’s, I have really enjoyed all the professors I’ve had. I would say that my history professors strongly influenced me in choosing this major. They have made all the history classes I have taken interesting and intriguing!

Q: Tell me about your program in Spain. 

A: I am studying at the University of Sevilla in Sevilla (or Seville, as it’s referred to in English) which is located in the Andalusian region of Spain. It is an important city in the history of Spain and the world because all people and imports coming from the New World had to pass through this port. I study mostly with other American or English students in classes taught in both English and Spanish. I came here with a program called ISA (International Studies Abroad) who have been super helpful in this crazy transition, and I’ve also planned many excursions for us to see other cities in Spain.

Q: So you have gotten to travel while studying abroad?

A: Yes, of course! Traveling in Europe IS SO EASY. In Spain, I’ve been to Madrid, Toledo, Cadiz, Barcelona, and, of course, Sevilla. I’ve spent the last two weekends in Munich and Paris. Finding deals to make travel easy and affordable is not at all difficult, and this is definitely the opportunity of a lifetime. I have plans within the next couple weeks to visit Lagos (Portugal), Amsterdam, and Morocco.

Q: Being in Spain must be pretty exciting right now with the Catalan independence vote and the police violence in response. Are those events affecting you in any way?

A: The independence referendum in Catalonia has obviously been a huge topic of conversation here, and there are Spanish national flags, along with democratic “Si!” flags (supporting Catalan independence), everywhere. Every local Spaniard has an opinion on this matter. On the anti-independence side, people argue that Catalonia IS a part of Spain and should remain that way. If Catalonia leaves Spain what is stopping every other region from doing the same? On the pro-independence side, people argue that Catalans are culturally different from the rest of Spain, and their unique culture should be recognized as such.

The weekend of the vote, my friends and I actually went to Barcelona because we had to travel from there. We were in Barcelona the Thursday before the vote and the Monday after the vote, and we were able to tour the city, go to the beach, and arrive and leave from the airport completely unaffected. We are aware of the police violence that occurred, but were surprised to see how “normal” everything appeared the day immediately after the vote.

Q: What is it like to be an American in Spain? Do you find people ask you questions about American politics or culture?

A: Being an American in Spain has been interesting. The second people hear my accent, they ask me my opinion on Donald Trump, and are eager to tell me how entertaining they think his campaign was and how his presidency is. I have been told that all we do is complain and work in America, and I am starting to believe they are right.

Q: Is there something you are looking forward to doing before you come home?

A: I am definitely looking forward to visiting Morocco. I think that will be a very cool experience and unlike anything I have seen before. I also am looking forward to the Christmas season and how that is celebrated in Spain as well as the United Kingdom.

Q: Is there something you miss about the US or the Hilltop?

A: Honestly, I am so happy to be here. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to study like this, and there is constantly so much to do that I don’t even feel like I’ve had the opportunity to miss home. The weather in Sevilla is so beautiful, and I am honestly dreading the day I have to leave. I will be happy to be back with my friends and family come December, but until then I am going to try and make the most of every day I am here!

I would 10/10 recommend the study abroad experience to anyone who can make it work with their schedule. To realize how small I am in this huge world, and how much more there is to do and see outside of my tiny and protected reality, has been a beautiful and eye-opening experience. Especially for people who are trying to excel in another language, the only way you can truly learn it is to immerse!

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Grant as the American Ulysses

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.

The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.

White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.

That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.

A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.

No, “Outlawing War” Did Not Work

Recently, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro (both law professors at Yale University) in the “Gray Matter” section of the Sunday Review. Entitled, “Outlawing War? It Actually Worked,” this essay argues that the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) proved far more effective in changing international behavior than most of its critics would allow. For those of you who do not remember your 20th-century European diplomatic history, the pact required signatories to renounce war “as an instrument of national policy” and to resolve all differences through “pacific means.” In other words, it more or less outlawed war. Hathaway and Shapiro concede that the Kellogg-Briand Pact appears to have done little to prevent World War II, but they argue that in the post-1945 era, the behavior of states changed dramatically, largely because countries could no longer establish their right to rule a territory “by brute strength” alone. The authors proceed to get all political science-y on the reader by pointing out the following:

We found that from 1816 until the Kellogg-Briand Pact was first signed in 1928, there was, on average, approximately one territorial conquest every 10 months. Put another way, the average state during this period had a 1.33 percent chance of being the victim of conquest in any given year. . . . The average amount of territory seized between 1816 and 1928 was 114,088 square miles per year. Since World War II, conquest has almost come to a full stop. The average number of conquests per year fell drastically — to 0.26 per year, or one every four years. The average size of the territory taken declined to a mere 5,772 square miles per year. And the likelihood that any individual state would suffer a conquest in an average year plummeted — from 1.33 percent to 0.17 percent, or once or twice a millennium.

Before it goes any further, this blog wishes to signal that it has nothing but the greatest respect for those who study politics. Indeed, any field whose greats include people like Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville must have something going for it (although One Thing after Another admits who to a special partiality for Discourses on Titus Livy, Democracy in America, and The Old Regime and the French Revolution). But One Thing after Another believes there are serious problems with the argument presented in this article by Hathaway and Shapiro

For one thing, this argument is insufficiently nuanced. Yes, the Kellogg-Briand Pact played a role in delegitimizing conquest, but the authors have stripped away the context within which the pact could play such a role. Matters could have turned out very differently; in other words, the influence of the agreement depended a great deal on contingency. For example, had the Axis powers won World War II, you can bet that we would never have heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact again. But the Allies won and used the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prosecute Axis leaders for “crimes against peace” during the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials. Allied victory, of course, was succeeded by a bipolar world and the emergence of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had an interest in avoiding a major conflict shortly after World War II, and this instinct was reinforced by the development of nuclear weapons. This situation, of course, meant that the superpowers had an interest in limiting armed conflicts (which contributed, among other things, to the era of détente), and this interest made wars of conquest much less likely. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the erection of a liberal world order whose aspirations corresponded with those that informed the men who signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But as we have seen in the recent past, that order is a fragile one whose staying power depends on much more than the pact. There are those in 2017 who, like many in the 1930s, refrain from conquest not because of their respect for principles or international law but because conditions are not yet propitious. If the seizure of the Crimea is a harbinger of things to come, the world will witness much more violence and larger chunks of territory will change hands with greater frequency. To summarize, then, outlawing war alone did not make armed conflicts less likely—a host of factors, a number of which had nothing to do with the pact—made this state of affairs possible.

Granted, Hathaway and Shapiro do “not deny the importance of many other causes that have been offered for the end of conquest and decline of war, such as the advent of nuclear weapons and the considerable rise in free trade.” But, they go on to claim that the pact has created an atmosphere more receptive to the idea that “might no longer makes right.” We see this spirit at work, the authors continue, when statesmen use nuclear weapons to deter aggression or impose sanctions on other states. One Thing after Another, however, is not entirely sure how the deterrence of nuclear weapons and sanctions embody the spirit of Kellogg-Briand; these are instruments of force designed to compel our opponents to bend to our will. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was about employing “pacific means” to settle disputes. And that point brings us back to the question of just what has played the preponderant role in keeping the peace for most of the twentieth century—law (in the form of the Kellogg-Briand Pact) or the balance of international power.

Deemphasizing crucial context is one reason that Hathaway and Shapiro’s essay does not fulfill the promise of its title. Another reason is that the authors lose sight of what the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to do and why wars are fought. The main thrust of the piece’s argument is that the pact reduced the prevalence of fighting by making wars of conquest less frequent; since any power contemplating such a war knew it would enjoy an uncertain title to captured lands, so the argument goes, it often thought twice about engaging in aggressive behavior. Fair enough, but such an argument is a far cry from what the title of the essay and its opening paragraphs suggest. Outlawing armed conflict did not actually lead to its extinction which is what the signatories to the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to achieve. Rather, it appears, placing war beyond the pale merely added a disincentive to a potential aggressor’s calculations—an altogether different and somewhat smaller achievement. The reason that discouraging wars of conquest did not end all wars is because, contrary to the authors’ assertions, many wars are not clearly about conquest at all. War is a tool by which to achieve a wide variety of political objectives of which conquest is only one among many. Think of the most disruptive and destabilizing conflicts in our own time—Syria and Afghanistan. Neither can strictly be classified as a war of conquest. Think of the major wars associated with decolonization as well (Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, and so on). It is also hard to argue these were wars of conquest.

Hathaway and Shapiro are law professors, and one can see why they would be inclined to stress the significance of diplomatic agreements (by the way, the Yale Law School Library supports the wonderful Avalon Project, a website with a very large online collection of primary-source documents revolving around law and diplomacy). People who subscribe to a particular discipline often see what that field of study teaches them to see; psychologists, historians, and physicists are no better than law professors in that respect. Law, of course, is only one factor among many at work in international relations. For that reason, we should not oversell its role to the point where it appears to be a prime mover in diplomatic affairs—lest we forget the utility of force, trade, and the other influences that make the world go round.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.