Oral History, Policy History, and Information Abundance and Scarcity
Patrick Sharma, April 2012
When Allan Nevins established the United States' first oral history office at Columbia University in 1948, he intended for the program to, in his words, document the lives of those who "created and carried out policy."1 Since that time, however, political and diplomatic historians have demonstrated considerable skepticism towards oral history. Because government officials have an interest in burnishing their reputations and are more adept than most at using interviews to their advantage, many consider oral history a suspect form of evidence. Add to this the frailty of memory, and sitting in archives sifting through written documents seems like the only way for policy historians to conduct research.
Nevertheless, some signs point to oral history assuming a more prominent place in the policy historian's toolkit over the coming years.
Information Abundance and Scarcity
One of the main challenges facings historians of public affairs is that of information overload. Governments tend to produce copious amounts of written material. To give just one example, since 1980 the United States government has declassified between 20 million and 200 million documents each year. The onset of the digital age has made the issue of information abundance even more pronounced. Consider that some U.S. government agencies produce over two billion e-mails annually.2
What solutions present themselves for historians, who as Roy Rosenzweig put it a few years ago are "groaning under the weight of their sources?"3 One, it seems, is oral history. Interviews conducted during the early stages of research can help historians determine what, exactly, to look for in the archives as well as give a sense of what was not written down. Additionally, interviews conducted during the later stages of research can fill in gaps in a researcher's knowledge and add flavor to the story that has emerged from the textual record.
Oral history can also help policy historians grapple with problems of information scarcity. Although written documents can often explain when or how an individual or an institution came to a particular decision, the crucial, behind-the-scenes maneuvering that precedes such choices is usually not written down. As Russell Riley of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs has noted with respect to research on the modern American presidency, "the accumulated archive of paper and electronic records may be inadequate" for current and future historians, since the White House "operates largely as an oral culture" where "most important business occurs only in spoken, not written, words."4
A related issue is institutional secrecy. In the United States organizations as diverse as the National Security Agency and the Federal Reserve System maintain strict disclosure rules, and it seems likely that transparency problems will grow more pronounced in the future. A prime example can be seen in the shadow national security state described by investigative journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin in the Washington Post last year. In a series of articles on "Top Secret America," Priest and Arkin outline the post-9/11 growth of an intelligence and counterterrorism network that they estimate numbers over 1,000 government organizations and nearly twice as many private companies located in about 10,000 locations across the country.5
For historians, the existence of a "top secret America" raises troubling questions about the limits of traditional evidentiary sources. Specifically, Arkin and Priest's reporting—based largely on interviews—points to researchers' dependence on declassification laws, which are often unevenly implemented and whose future remains in doubt. As diplomatic historian Brad Simpson recently asked about future research on U.S. homeland security policy,
How do we as historians... get an analytical handle on this phenomenon, when the vast majority of 'evidence' needed to understand and analyze it will never be declassified? . . . What sort of methodological tools are going to be appropriate?6
As with the issue of information abundance, oral history is one possible, though admittedly imperfect, means of answering Simpson's question. Indeed, short of significant changes in the declassification process, on- and off-the-record interviews seem to constitute one of the only ways that future scholars will be able to gain insight into the inner workings of the American state.
A Role for Public Policy Oral History
Although not dealing with national security issues, an interview-based research project housed at the Regional Oral History Office of the University of California Berkeley provides one example of how oral history can enhance our understanding of the policy process.7 Begun in the summer of 2010, "Slaying the Dragon of Debt: Fiscal Politics and Policy from the 1970s to the Present" attempts to historicize contemporary fiscal policy debates by analyzing key themes in the recent history of American budgeting. Taking as its starting point the notion that fiscal policy has constituted a central battleground in modern American politics, the project seeks to deepen our understanding of a range of budget related issues, from the evolution of the federal budget process since the passage of the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act to the operations and impacts of the Congressional Budget Office. Additionally, the project is investigating the fiscal policies of presidential administrations from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. In the process, the project is enhancing our understanding of contemporary American history. To cite just one of the main findings from the project's more than two dozen oral history interviews, former members of the Reagan administration have held that both the president and his close advisers never believed in "Laffer curve" claims that reductions in income tax rates would, through enhanced economic growth, increase government revenues. This finding, which would be difficult to document through traditional archival methods, lends credence to the notion that the Reagan administration misled the public about the effects of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.
By creating a resource for scholars interested in late 20th-century budgetary politics, "Slaying the Dragon of Debt" hopes to encourage others to engage in policy-oriented oral history interviewing. Surprising as it may seem, there exist few institutionalized public policy oral history projects in the United States. To date, the Senate and House historical offices have made available only a handful of oral histories of former American congressmen and their staff, while interviews conducted under the auspices of the presidential oral history programs tend to be general in focus and, as such, of limited use to scholars.
Looking ahead, it seems clear that there is ample room for oral historians and policy historians to work together. Problems of information abundance and scarcity increase the relative importance of research methodologies such as oral history. Whereas oral history has long been closely associated with social history, particularly that which focuses on examining the past "from the bottom up," those interested in "top down" political and diplomatic history would do well to incorporate oral history into their research. Lest this hearken for a return to the midcentury vision of Nevins and others who saw oral history as a means to record the memories of the "great men" who presumably made history, policy historians should strive to use personal interviews as a means to obtain a broad understanding of the policymaking process. Particularly through interviews with knowledgeable yet often unconsulted individuals, such as former congressional staff, policy historians can obtain a more thorough understanding of government in which cultural factors and group dynamics can be considered alongside individual personalities and structural forces.
Patrick Sharma is a postdoctoral fellow in the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his PhD in history from UCLA in 2010.
2. William McAllister, "The Documentary Big Bang, the Digital Records Revolution, and the Future of the Historical Profession," Passport: The Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 41:2 (September 2010), 12–17.
5. Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, "Top Secret America: A Washington Post Investigation."
6. Brad Simpson, "Analyzing the National Security State," H-Diplo (July 20, 2010).
7. Regional Oral History Office, UC Berkeley, "Slaying the Dragon of Debt: Fiscal Politics and Policy from the 1970s to the Present."