In a recent post I called attention to three history books that were based on primary sources and, through the scholarly apparatus, let the reader check the interpretation against the sources. Moreover, all three books contributed a new and deeper understanding of their subjects and a provided fresh interpretations. The direct relationship between the usefulness of the interpretation and the reliance on primary sources is unavoidable.
Let us consider a recent history book that was well reviewed and successful in the market place that did not contribute a new and deeper understanding or suggested a fresh interpretation: David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion), 2007. Halberstam was a long-time, successful journalist, a capable narrative writer, and winner of many awards. He was intelligent, a good interviewer, and an above average writer.
The book is based mostly on secondary sources with a few author interviews. Halberstam’s book has 200 entries in the bibliography and 849 endnotes. Reviewing the endnotes, twenty-one percent reference the author’s personal interviews; five percent reference oral history interviews; two percent reference primary documents; and seventy-one percent reference secondary sources.
The five percent that reference oral history interviews are from tapes or transcripts in presidential libraries or the United States Army Institute for Military History. The two percent that reference primary documents are limited to personal letters, personal journals/diaries, popular magazine articles, and newspaper stories.
The author’s own scholarly apparatus shows that he based his knowledge and conclusions mostly on other authors, only a few of his own interviews, and even fewer primary sources. Even though the Korean War is a topic rich in primary sources, many of which have yet to be fully used, with the exception of an occasional personal letter, Halberstam makes no reference to them at all. Further, all the references he cites are in English even though the Korean War is an international event. In other words, Halberstam takes no personal responsibility for his knowledge; he lets others do the actual research and assumed they all knew what they were doing.
Meanwhile, Halberstam’s portrayal and interpretation of the Korean War is, in its essential characteristics, the same interpretation he has used in all of his books and articles: History is caused by elites. The elites, driven by hubris, and make decisions that inevitably victimize the non-elites. The non-elites, in this case American soldiers and Korean civilians, nobly sacrifice themselves in the service of this arrogant, imperial power.
Those who write history but avoid primary sources risk missing the chance to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of history. “Good history”, that is, articles and books that add to our knowledge or understanding, are more likely to come from those who read the primary sources in whatever language is required, and draw their own conclusions rather than re-cycling the research of other authors. Halberstam missed the opportunity to write a good history book.