Drawn from the anthology History Makers, this interview of David McCullough is the first in a series encompassing those who have participated in historic events as well as those reporters, writers and filmmakers who have helped us to understand history. All interviews were conducted by Proceedings Managing Editor Fred Schultz and included in the pages of Proceedings or Naval History.
‘The Old Water Pull’
An Interview with David McCullough, February 1994
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and host of the PBS televisions series “The American Experience” hinted recently to Naval History editors Fred L. Schultz and Scott E. Belliveau that “the old water pull” is tugging at him as he considers his next book topic. The latest biographer of Harry S. Truman, McCullough was in Annapolis to deliver a Forrestal Lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy. In the course of his presentation, he stressed the importance of literature and history to the Brigade of Midshipmen: “All readers are not leaders; but all leaders are readers” he told the future naval officers.
Naval History: What role do you see Naval History magazine playing in the education of the American people?
McCullough: Publications of this kind are fundamental to improving the teaching and the understanding of American history, which is in seriously bad shape right now.
Naval History: Could you be specific, as far as Naval History goes?
McCullough: I don’t think you can understand the history of the country if you don’t understand naval history. The Navy is often a barometer of how technology is changing our way of life. The shift from a wooden to an all-steel Navy between the Civil War and World War I, for instance, was one of the major events in the history of this country, not just because it changed the Navy, but also because of what it did to the steel industry. Naval history is always about our place in the world.
Naval History: Our place in the world, both physical and philosophical?
McCullough: Exactly. Some of the best books ever written have been about the Navy and naval history. I love The Caine Mutiny and Admiral [Samuel Eliot] Morison’s marvelous histories of World War II. I love everything from the Hornblower series up to and including The Cruel Sea, Monsarrat’s wonderful book.
One of the things you get in good books about the Navy is the intensity of human relations, because they’re all in the same boat, literally and figuratively. It’s a writer’s and a dramatist’s dream, because the stage is defined and confined, and relationships are accentuated in a way that they aren’t necessarily on land. It is uncertain, timeless. Something about the sea always spells adventure.
In my view, our country has given too little attention to the sea and to the importance of our merchant fleet. The great days of the clipper ships and American seafaring were some of the most wonderful chapters in our whole story.
You’re talking to a guy who wrote a book about the Panama Canal. It’s much of our identity. Our sense of who we were at the turn of the century was tied up in creating that canal. Why? Because of our dream of sea power, all that Admiral [Alfred Thayer] Mahan had been writing about and all that Theodore Roosevelt was brimful of. You can’t be around ships and not have a sense of history. I don’t see how you can. Anywhere you have ships you are going to have stories. Even the great storied cities are seaports.
Naval History: Of all the periods in American history, which most interests you?
McCullough: Until I began work on the Truman book, I would have said the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. It’s been my beat for most of my writing life. But I imagine myself being pulled kicking and screaming into the 20th century by Mr. Truman. The fact that he was in so many ways a 19th-century person was chief among his most appealing qualities for me. But having written about his part of the 20th century, I’m torn.
I love that time after the Civil War, because it was so protean, so productive, so expansive, and in the main positive and creative. That’s not to say there weren’t tremendous problems, discontent, and anguish.
Naval History: Would you say the Industrial Revolution had anything to do with that?
McCullough: That time was both the light and the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. I don’t think anyone could have grown up in Pittsburgh as I did and not feel both the exhilaration of all that industry and productivity, but also find something fearful and dehumanizing about it.
History is really about change, and change is the rule of life. So history is about life, if you take it logically. And that was a period of such dramatic as well as fundamental change. Civil engineers were at the forefront of a tremendous shift in emphasis toward science and technology and a romantic aura that Jules Verne made so much of. Science and technology were conferring on mere mortals the powers of the gods. There seemed no end to the possibilities up until World War I, when suddenly, all those powers were creating mechanized slaughter—scientific, technological slaughter. We saw the tank, poison gas, and the machine gun used for the first time. Barbed wire no longer just fenced off cattle; it was tearing bodies apart. The dream went sour. But no one knew that in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s. All this was still over the horizon.
It was in a way our adolescence. We were discovering how strong and virile we were and how exciting our life was going to be as a consequence. I don’t think there was doubt in anyone’s mind then that tomorrow was going to be better than today. That’s powerful medicine. It’s a tonic for a nation to think things are going to be better for its children.
Naval History: Which would you say is the most neglected time period in American history?
McCullough: I think that period is. It’s still wide open. There was a time when many historians dispensed with it as an era of putrid, corrupt politics, gingerbread architecture, and general Gilded-Age hypocrisy. Its painting, its music, and its literature must be taken seriously.
Naval History: Do you think oral history tends to get more to the truth than diaries, letters, and memoirs?
McCullough: A historian working in the 20th century can often gain more from interviews with those who were there than from hours of conventional archival or library research.
Many academic historians disparage and dispense with interviews. Their argument is that we’re all inclined to deceive ourselves about what happened, or to put a better shine on our own part in some event.
Naval History: It seems the temptation might be greater if one had time to think about it before writing it down, rather than responding off-the-cuff in an interview.
McCullough: The academics say that subjects of an interview will tell you a lot of baloney, a lot of nonsense. That’s all quite true, but if you’ve done the homework, if you’ve done the necessary preparation before you go into the interview, you can spot that when it comes along. Once in awhile you can be taken in like others could be, but that’s a minor risk compared to the enormous gains to be had. I was talking about this point with [historian] Walter Lord, who went on at some length about the need to prepare yourself before an interview. A Night to Remember, his excellent book about the Titanic, drew praise especially for its wonderful first-person accounts. He told me that, in order to prepare himself for those interviews, he wrote the whole book before he conducted them. Then he took what was valuable or pertinent or useful from the interview and put it into what he had already written.
Naval History: Have you done that yourself?
McCullough: I’ve never gone that far. Before I wrote about the entire course of Harry Truman’s war in France, I did go to all the battlefields and the bases where he had been. And I wrote that particular chapter before I went to France for that very reason—so I’d have it in my head.
As you know, nothing fixes things in your mind quite the way writing does. I was an English major. When I started out, I thought that the way you go about it is to do all the research, then write the book. But I haven’t worked that way since finishing my first book. I do maybe 60% of the research, then I start writing, because it’s then that you find out what you don’t know and need to know. I think it’s a much more effective way to target your research. So I’m researching and writing the whole way through the book. I’m still doing research when the book’s in galleys.
Naval History: Wow!
McCullough: That’s what my editor says.
Naval History: How can historians and editors get young people interested in history?
McCullough: I think Barbara Tuchman was the one who put it best. She said, “Tell stories.” Do everything possible to convey that these were real people, with all the strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, talents, failings, and emotions that we have. What’s more interesting than people? I don’t know of anything. Who they were and what they did bears directly on who we are, what we do, what we believe, and what we stand for. We walk the same ground, we look up at the same sun, moon, and stars. Even the food we eat tastes no different, really, than it did to them. We have far more in common with them than we have differences.
If you want to convey the reality of the past, do not look upon history as just social issues, politics, and the military. It’s everything. And it’s essential to understand how everything affected everything else. We can’t possibly understand our own time without understanding the impact of science and technology on earlier times. How many history courses even mention, let’s say, the advent of the skyscraper, an entirely American phenomenon that completely changed our cities, how we work, where we work, and our notion of American accomplishment?
Naval History: Young people tend more and more to expect instant gratification and visual support. If you were confronted with that sort of attitude, how would you handle it?
McCullough: I think if you look back on your own experience, you’ll find that the courses and subjects you liked best were taught by teachers you liked best. And the teachers you liked best were those who were the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject they were teaching. If the teacher conveys that the subject is interesting, exciting, and worthwhile, the student feels that, too.
If I were to recommend a way by which we could solve this problem nationwide—and it is a nationwide problem in which we are becoming historically illiterate—I would teach the teachers. I would organize two- or three-week seminars for all over the country for teachers to hear first-rate lecturers and speakers—and other teachers. I think we’ve got to do much more of what you might call the lab technique in the teaching of humanities. We can learn a lot from the teaching of science and technology. If the student is to learn about something that involves research, by definition that student is going to have to learn a great deal about a lot of other things, too.
I wrote a book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. To learn about the bridge, you have to learn about why they built it, the mood of the era in which it was built, what it cost, where the money came from, what happened on each side of the bridge as a consequence of its having been built, and so forth. That’s the way you get inoculated. That’s the way you catch it.
For a term paper in the course I taught at Cornell I gave every student a photograph—just a simple photograph. No two students got the same one. Each had a simple caption. One might say “American Oil Tanker Being Sunk by German Submarine off the Coast of Florida February 22, 1942.” Whatever it was, that was your photograph and that was your term paper subject. Since no two people had the same photograph, every student was working on an individual, original project. There was no right or wrong answer. They loved it.
Naval History: But that still would not work with many of today’s younger students. The pictures must move and speak.
McCullough: There’s nothing wrong with the students. They have certain expectations of the kind you’re talking about, but I think it’s relatively easy to go beyond that. Too many teachers assigned to teach history know nothing about history and have no interest in it. Many schools turn teaching history over to the athletic coaches. Now five states in the country do not require the teaching of American history at all. I’m involved with an organization set up to confront this problem. We have a distinguished group of people assembled.
Naval History: What is the name of the group?
McCullough: It’s the National Council for History Education. We’ve gathered material on the current state of history in education that’ll make your hair stand on end. This movement began with high school teachers in Ohio. My feeling is that the real progress, the real dramatic change, has to be made at the grade-school level.
Naval History: Is there a place for television and other electronic media in teaching history?
McCullough: Of course. I wouldn’t be involved with the American Experience series if I didn’t feel strongly about it. The programs we’ve been doing have been used extensively around the country. I think we—or somebody—should be doing shorter programs. Ours are an hour. I would like to see half-hour and even 15-minute programs. I think someone could do a great deal with what you might call one-person plays, in which a character from the past tells about his life or her experience. I would also like to see a publisher develop a series of plays that children can put on themselves in school, historic plays with maybe 10 or 15 parts. If you’re cast as George Washington or Frederick Douglass at age nine, you’re never going to forget it.
Naval History: How would you describe the general state of popular—as opposed to academic—history today?
McCullough: I think it’s very good. I have to say that, because that’s what I do. I feel that I work in a school with a long tradition of nonacademic writers who write history. People like Margaret Leech, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, obviously Barbara Tuchman, Paul Horgan, Wallace Stegner, and more recently, Robert Massie, Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, and William Manchester, are almost without exception people who began as writers. Many started as journalists who later found their territory, so to speak, in the past. They tend to write very well and their research is as good or better than the rest. And they reach a larger audience. One way to interest more Americans in history is for historians to start talking to people—not just to other historians. They have more of a public responsibility to fulfill, in my view. Their duty is not just to themselves.
I can’t understand how anyone could not be interested in history. And I don’t think it ought to be strictly the franchise or the territory of a select priesthood. It belongs to all of us, and the more we understand it, the more we communicate it, the better for everybody. The system of academic life does not reward the academic historian for reaching the general public. In fact, in some quarters the attitude is that if it’s popular, it can’t be very good.
I hope I write for everyone. I try to write the kind of book that I, as a reader would like to read. After all, we were all readers before we were writers, and we like to think we’re pretty discriminating. So I struggled and found it not only possible, but enormously stimulating and invigorating. I loved it. And I was hooked. Now, the pull of our country’s story is irresistible to me.
The people involved were what drew me to each of my subjects. I am convinced that if you don’t understand the people, then you don’t understand why things happen the way they happen.
To me, it was thrilling to discover how much I could learn about people who, even when they were alive, were not well known, or were not figures in history, with a capital H.
Naval History: You discovered those people just by the trail they left behind?
McCullough: Yes. Their wonderful letters and diaries give you the thrill of holding the original letters in your hand and or sorting through the memorabilia, the scrapbooks, the field notes, and the remnants of a life.
The subject matter is inexhaustible. Once having written about a subject, I never lose interest in it. I’m still very interested in new material about Panama or the Brooklyn Bridge, and I know I will always be interested in new material that turns up about Truman. And it will turn up. Things will come to light that I don’t know about, that maybe nobody knows about right now.
Naval History: It seems as though the reputations of historical figures go through cycles. When he first left the presidency, Truman was considered a failure by many, a well-meaning man who just didn’t measure up. Even you said at one time that many people took him as a sort of cosmic hick—a sort of Will Rogers in the White House. Then, in the mid-1970s, he suddenly became a cult figure. And after John F. Kennedy was killed, he was practically deified. Now, suddenly, a recent biography paints a rather unpleasant portrait. What would you say contributes to those cycles in a figure’s historical reputation?
McCullough: Part of it is the effect of comparison. We see Truman now not just as he was, but in contrast to those who have come after him in the same office. He becomes a rare commodity, in effect. I think it takes about 50 years before the dust settles and you can start to see how it looks. It’s like standing back from an Impressionist painting. You have to stand back from it to appreciate it properly. It’s much too soon to tell about Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Jimmy Carter. We’re also building on new material and new interpretations. There is no such thing as a “definitive biography.” It’s like “the foreseeable future.” It doesn’t exist.
Naval History: In your opinion, who are among the most overrated and the most underrated figures in American history?
McCullough: I think the most overrated figure is George Armstrong Custer.
Naval History: He’s still interesting, though.
McCullough: Oh, you bet! And he’s box office, he’ll always be box office. He takes the dive. He’s the Evel Knievel of military history.
The most underrated would be Jimmy Carter. I think his stock will continue to rise, in part because of his exemplary conduct since he left the White House. I don’t think anyone has been a more admirable former President than Jimmy Carter has been. He’s an example that the others should take to heart.
Generally speaking, I’ve felt strongly for a long time that the civil engineers—the technicians of American life in the period after the Civil War before World War I—were greatly underrated. The most underrated person in American life, or one of the most underrated figures, is Everyman, the ordinary anonymous American citizen of the last 200 years.
Naval History: Why do you say that?
McCullough: It’s hard to be celebratory in portraying someone if you have very little to work with. And we don’t pile up vast quantities of historical fodder from just ordinary folks. While it’s easy to rhapsodize about seeing history from the ground up, or seeing the enlisted view of life more than we have in the past, it’s also very hard to do it accurately without writing from conjecture and sentiment. That’s why it’s so important when a great body of letters comes to light from one of the unsung people. Part of the power and appeal of what Bruce Catton did so long ago was his writing about ordinary Civil War soldiers.
But people today don’t write letters and keep diaries. Future historians are going to find it virtually impossible to write about us. What are we going to leave? They’re going to think we talked like a business memoranda. They’re going to think that’s the way we talked, and worse, the way we thought. The modern Everyman could be lost to historians.
Naval History: That brings to mind a quote from Herbert Hoover that went something like, “When you celebrate the common man, too often you celebrate mediocrity.” How do you respond to that?
McCullough: In part, Harry Truman is the argument against that thesis. If Harry Truman was an ordinary fellow, then the ordinary is extraordinary. When I was working on the Panama Canal book, I read all the reports filed by the expedition to Central America. Most of these went out during the Grant administration, led almost with exception by naval officers. I was so impressed, so in awe, not only of what the expeditions accomplished under difficult and dangerous conditions, but by the clarity and grace of the writing in what they filed. And they didn’t have any public relations adviser brushing up their prose and cleaning up their syntax. These were written by relatively young Naval Academy graduates, who clearly had been well educated in the use of the language. Those were admirable people. Extraordinary people turn up in the least likely places, in all forms and in all professions.
I like a good story. That’s what really draws me. It’s all well and good to say something was very important or someone was very admirable, but if it isn’t a story it doesn’t interest me. That’s number one on my list of priorities.
Naval History: Speaking of good stories, can you give us a preview of any projects you’re working on?
McCullough: I’m poking around in about a dozen different ideas. So far the bug hasn’t bitten, but it will. It just sort of has to resolve itself. It may sound strange, but I sometimes think my subjects pick me. It can be a chance remark at lunch, or happening upon some newspaper article, or hearing something that somebody down at the Naval Institute says in passing.
Some of my friends kid me for being obsessed with water. Justin Kaplan in a review once called me the Herodotus of hydraulics, or something to that effect, because of my having written about the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal—first you’re inundated by it, next you go over it, then you channel it. I think I wrote the Truman book in part to prove him wrong. But I feel the old water pull at work again. It would be great fun to write a really rip snorting sea story. If I see the right thing, it sort of clicks. The bug bites. It just happens.