Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link World History Group RSS feed World History Group Subscriptions Historynet Home page

Letter from Military History - March 2010

By Michael W. Robbins 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: January 12, 2010 
Print Friendly
1 comment FONT +  FONT -

Too Good to Be True

When President Ronald Reagan repeated his favorite bit of wisdom, "Trust, but verify," he was quoting an old Russian aphorism also favored by Vladimir Lenin. Reagan used the expression wryly as a sign of his skepticism when negotiating with Cold War counterparts.

The comment has a commonsense wisdom about it—Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne (aka "Mr. Dooley") coined a folksier version: "Trust everybody, but cut the cards." It is a cautionary note that writers, editors and readers of history would do well to heed, especially when dealing with oral history.

Cynics might say oral histories are not worth the paper they're written on, but when verified, they can bring personality, firsthand observation and human detail to otherwise rote accounts of military actions. But the verify part is, for historians, the most important part. Verification, or fact-checking, is what distinguishes facts—those building blocks of truth one relies upon when assembling a true historical narrative—from charming fables. It is the onerous unseen task that stands behind responsible publishing. And there are few reporters, authors and editors who have not felt the "this is too good to be true" reaction when listening to an account of some striking action that occurred long ago and far away and lives on only in the words of that individual relying solely on his own memories—or, perhaps, on his own imagination.

Subscribe Today

Subscribe to Military History magazine

Alas, imagination is often a lot more engaging than the recorded prosaic facts of most historic events, be they military or civilian; after all, most history is like everyday life—just as boring or irritating—except that it happened a while back and most everyone has forgotten the details.

Oral history is sometimes said to be the most democratic form of history, as anyone can participate. Indeed, anyone can not only participate freely but also freely create his own history with a starring role for himself. And that happens all too often; no one knows how many people have created wholly fictitious service records, including bogus awards, but the percentage is surely high, which for historians means that their challenge does not end when they've researched new information on a battle or found new eyewitnesses—it is just beginning.

One Response to “Letter from Military History - March 2010”

  1. 1

    [...] Letter from Military History opens with these lines: When President Ronald Reagan repeated his favorite bit of wisdom, [...]

Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.

Related Articles

History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet? is brought to you by World History Group, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
World History Group

World History Group Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer!
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 World History Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy