Letter from Military History – March 2010

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.

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.

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