Courtesy Reuters

The Shackled Historian

In the foreword to his book "Speaking Frankly," former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes wrote: " I have tried, in short, to give you a seat at the conference table. Some critics may say it is too early for these facts to be made known. My answer is that if it were possible to give the people of this world an actual, rather than a figurative, seat at the Peace Conference table, the fears and worries that now grip our hearts would fade away."

Such avowals by officials of belief in the desirability of open channels of information are common. But all governments make it hard for historians, as chroniclers and informants, to validate them. Usually, they are compelled to extract the truth as best they can from incomplete, random and eroded records. Of these there is no lack. But bountiful bibliography is not the equivalent of bountiful knowledge.

Public American and foreign figures engaged in international affairs give out current accounts of what they are or may be doing. They tell, explain and justify their policies and acts and those of their governments. They correct, contradict and rebut the comments of adversaries and critics. The columns of the press are clogged with their presentations. The airwaves, if they were not already bent, would bend under their weight. The TV screens, if they did not already shimmer, would do so under their fluency.

These are essential sources of information, especially for the texts of pertinent documents and communications. But the historian must grope warily among them. For the authorities themselves decide whether and when the world is let into their confidence, how it is to be let in, and whether shallowly or in depth. Historical completeness is only an incidental consideration-incidental and often troublesome. Only the officials concerned know what they are not telling; only they could convey the whole circle of circumstances in which the statements and documents they issue were born and grew.

This continuous current flow of "news"

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