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Chapter I | Origins of World War II Historical Program

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At the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the Army's historical function was regarded primarily as the collecting and publishing of documents.1 The responsible historical agency was the Historical

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Section, Army War College, headed by Brig. Gen. Oliver L. Spaulding. This agency since 1918 had been engaged in indexing and collating the records of World War I. It had published two volumes of an order of battle series and from its inception had had in mind as an ultimate objective the publication in many volumes of a mass of operational documents. Owing to a number of considerations, including inadequacy of staff, shortage of funds, lack of status in the military hierarchy, and the disinterest of ranking military leaders, none of the documentary volumes had been published, or was to be ready for publication before 1948.2 Hence, the nation entered its second world conflict with no published record of its experience in the first on which to draw.

The archival and documentary concept of the historical function dated back to the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the War Department had collected and published (1880-1901) in 128 volumes The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.3 In a directive to the Historical Section,

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Army War College, of 30 October 1939, The Adjutant General specifically stated that "In the collation and arrangement of the official records of the World War [I], the general plan and the arrangement ... followed in the preparation of the Official Records of the "War of the Rebellion will be adopted as a guide."4

The pre-World War II concept specifically excluded the preparation by the Army of a narrative history. In promulgating this view in August 1919, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker stated: "Such a history would be incomplete unless it undertook to discuss economic, political and diplomatic questions, and the discussion of such questions by military men would necessarily be controversial, and many of the questions ... would be impolitic and indiscreet for treatment by the War Department." Four days after Pearl Harbor General Spaulding set forth the "no-narrative" formula for World War II in a letter to The Adjutant General which stated: "No historical writing of any kind is contemplated.5

General Spaulding was not unaware of the fact that the United States in its war history program suffered by comparison with other countries. In a communication to The Adjutant General of 5 February 1942, he stated: "All the great nations make it a practice to publish

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narratives and documentary material as soon as possible after the close of any important war, both for the general information of the people and for the training of their post war armies." Perhaps with the record of personnel cuts, lack of interest, and other circumstances that had wracked the historical program after World War I in mind, he added: "The United States has always been slow in this work, for lack of plans, such as other countries make."6

At least one person in the pre-World War II military establishment tried to do something about the unhappy historical situation. This person was Maj. Julian F. Barnes, who while a student at the Army War College in 1930 drew up a detailed scheme for the historical function in a future war and recommended its consideration as a part of mobilization planning. Major Barnes's recommendation called for the establishment of a historical branch in the General Staff to set up a record system, collect data, and "supervise and coordinate all historical work done by any War Department agency." It specified various types of records to be kept, including war diaries, journals of events, daily operations reports, and special situation reports;

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it also provided for the supplementing of these records through personal interviews of key participants by historical officers.7

Major Barnes's plan, which in many ways anticipated the organization and program provided by the creation of the Historical Branch, G-2, in August 1943, got a cool reception from high-ranking officers to whose attention it came. Their comments are highly significant of the hard road that history had to travel in the Army both then and later. Maj. Gen. W. D. Connor, commandant of the War College at the time, wrote on the study: "When I recall the mud and rain and darkness and guttering candles of dugouts ... the dirt and difficulties in which we had to do all that we did accomplish, this plan to write up 'historical data' in the heat of military operations makes me feel more than ever that many officers at GHQ did not know how the war was being fought. All the important data is somewhere and there is more time to look it up after the war than there is to make a beautiful record of events in the difficult situation of active operations. I lack sympathy with this whole idea."

When Maj. Gen. Malin Craig, future Chief of Staff, took over direction of the War College in 1935, he endorsed General Connor's

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remarks with the terse but conclusive comment: "Me too."8

At the outbreak of World War II, then, the Army was committed to the concept that its history function was limited to the collection, collation, and publication of documents, with publication an ultimate postwar objective. Narrative, interpretive writing was specifically excluded from the historical mission. During war historians and history were to walk softly and keep out of the way. In peacetime, they could have more latitude theoretically, but actually, when peace came, if history repeated itself, economy and lack of interest within the Army would relegate them to a lean and ineffectual existence. To all practical effects history in the Army was governed by the motto: "Last in war, last in peace."

The "new history," as the type which came into vogue in the Army during World War II might be called, had its origin in the Bureau of the Budget. In the fall of 1941, Dr. E. Pendleton Herring, Secretary of the Graduate School at Harvard University, was directed by the Director of the Bureau of the Budget to compile the history of administrative developments in the war program. A principal reason

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for initiating this undertaking was the dearth of information about administrative experience in World War I. Not only were descriptive narratives of that experience lacking, but valuable sources bearing on the subject also could not be located. Hence, responsible administrators were forced to depend to a large extent on the unrecorded recollections of persons who had hold key positions in government twenty-five years before. These, to say the least afforded an incomplete picture of the way things had been done.9

Dr. Herring's initial activities were centered in the Bureau of the Budget itself, where steps were taken to assure systematic collection and preservation of records and to provide an analysis of administrative experience. As circumstances permitted he also sought to stimulate comparable activity in other government agencies.10

These efforts aroused the attention and support of leading scholars and organizations concerned with the preservation and use of records. The National Archives, whose staff was bombarded by requests for documents throwing light on World War I experience,

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and the executive secretary of the American Historical Association manifested special interest in the undertaking.11 The most effective boost of all came from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who on 4 March 1942 wrote a letter to the director of the budget expressing a deep interest in the steps that had been taken "to keep a current record of war administration," and urging further expansion of the program. Specifically the President suggested the appointment of a committee on records of war administration to be made up of representatives of appropriate learned societies and interested government agencies. Mr. Roosevelt stated as the program's main purpose, "The preserving for those who come after us of an accurate and objective account of our present experience."12

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance in the War II historical effort of this timely and forceful expression of the President's attitude. The Bureau of the Budget immediately began to use it by enclosing a copy in letters addressed to agencies whose co-operation was sought. Later, in January 1944, when the historical endeavor was suffering from neglect in some organizations, and the fact was reported by the budget director to Roosevelt, the President again

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came through with a pointed letter reaffirming his abiding interest in the program and his earnest desire that "a full and objective account" be made "of the way the Federal Government is carrying out its wartime duties."13

These statements by the President were important not only for the support that they gave to an activity which some administrators regarded as academic pettifoggery and others as harmful annoyance, but also, insofar as they affected the military, for the part which they played in changing the character of that activity. The historical function envisioned by the President went far beyond the collecting and arranging of documents specified by Secretary Baker in 1919, and subscribed to by the Army thereafter. It clearly defined as the main objective a full, accurate, and objective account of war experience. Hence the goal specified for historians of World War II was a narrative history which pulled no punches but recorded fully and frankly how the nation fought the war.

In conformity with the President's letter of 4 March 1942, the director of the budget on 27 May announced the appointment of an Advisory Committee on Records of War Administration, of which Pendleton Herring was executive secretary. Herring was also made chief of an

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enlarged research staff, whose mission was to analyze development in all major fields of war administration "exclusive of the strictly military." The memorandum of 27 May also stated that a principal responsibility of Herring and his associates was "the more active encouragement of individual agencies to keep a complete story of their own administrative changes."14

Herring soon brought the weight of his new authority to bear on the Army's historical program. On the suggestion of Lt. Col. Otto L. Nelson, whose dissertation on the history of the General Staff Herring had directed at Harvard, he sought the advice of Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy thus bringing the new historical program in its infancy to the attention of two influential officials who later were to be its powerful advocates concerning the best means of accomplishing the historical mission within the Army.15 The result of this communication was a memorandum from McCloy's office to General Spaulding, 25 June 1942, suggesting that the Historical Section Army War College, take the lead in implementing Herring's objectives insofar

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as they applied to the Army and addressing to the general a request to "submit your ideas for doing the work."16

General Spaulding, influenced by President Roosevelt's letter to the director of the budget, and by a desire to have his agency supervise any historical program that the Army might undertake, acted immediately. On 26 June he submitted to McCloy's office a plan for the appointment of historical officers in War Department agencies.17 Spaulding made contact on the same day with Pendleton Herring and during the next few weeks consultation of the two appears to have been frequent.18 The result of these activities was the issuance on 15 July 1942 by The Adjutant General of a revolutionary directive requiring the commanding generals of the three major commands in the United

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States the Army Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces, and the Services of Supply to appoint historical officers who should "record the administrative activities of their respective headquarters

during the current war." The directive stated that historical officers should have access to War Department files. It also designated the Historical Section, Army War College, as the advisory and co-ordinating office for all historical activities. Finally, and most important, it specified that "in form the writing will be narrative."19

The emphasis in this directive on "administrative history" was to prove the source of considerable difficulty, for few if any of those affected by its provisions then or later had a clear conception of what was meant by the term.20 But this difficulty does not detract

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from the tremendous importance of the order. This document, which derived directly from President Roosevelt's letter of 4 March 1942, provided the basic machinery and set the wheels in motion for producing the history of World War II. The first two volumes of the "official history" published those treating of the organization and training of the Army Ground Forces were a direct result, and the character of the whole series was affected. The directive clearly committed the Amy to a new type of history, a narrative, and in view of the background of the order it is not too much to state that the narrative was not to be a mere chronicling of facts but was to include an analysis of them.

Under the provisions of the 15 July directive, historical officers were soon designated in the three major commands. Kent Roberts Greenfield, Chairman of the History Department of The Johns Hopkins University, was commissioned in the grade of major and appointed historical officer of the Army Ground Forces. Col. Clarence B. Lober (later succeeded by Capt. Clanton W. Williams, Professor of History of the University of Alabama) was appointed to a similar position in the Amy Air Forces, and Maj. John D. Millett, Associate Professor of Administration and Public Law in Columbia University, then working with the National Resources Planning Board, was selected by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell as historical officer of the Services of Supply. Each of these officers initiated plans for developing historical programs in his own headquarters, and those of the Ground and Air Forces within a few months of their appointment were supervising the preparation of histories in principal subordinate commands. The

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Historical Branch of the Army War College on 4 August 1942 issued a brief memorandum on procedure for the guidance of historical officers, and Greenfield, Millett, and Williams consulted informally with each other as they saw fit.21 But for the most part, the historian of each major command proceeded to work out his own salvation.

The War Department directive of 15 July 1942, far reaching and important though it was, failed to provide historical coverage of one tremendously important area, namely, overseas operations. The impetus behind the 15 July directive was provided by those whose interest was primarily administrative, and General Spaulding interpreted the history that they sought as being restricted to the zone of interior. In his memorandum on procedure of 4 August 1942 he stated that "military operations will be covered when the documents become available."22 This and other statements of General Spaulding in 1942 and 1943 indicate

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that, as far as operations were concerned, his concept of the historical function was still an archival one patterned after the procedure followed in World War I.

This concept was not shared by all those interested in the historical program. In the latter part of 1942, some of them began to express dissatisfaction with it. On 16 November 1942, only one month after his assignment, Major Greenfield, in accordance with a request from his immediate superior, Col. Giles R. Carpenter, G-2 of the Army Ground Forces, prepared for that command a memorandum which surveyed fully the historical mission of his own headquarters. Greenfield wrote this memorandum after seeking the guidance and counsel of Dr. Douglas S. Freeman in Richmond. In it he took the position that it was impossible to write an adequate history of the Army Ground Forces without reference to the way in which units trained by that headquarters performed their overseas missions. The historians of the other two major commands, he stated, had similar convictions concerning their own organizations. He went on to point up the tremendous importance, for guidance in future emergencies, of providing historical coverage of all major military activities, including General Staff planning as well as overseas operations. He also recommended that coverage in the zone of interior, and by implication in overseas theaters, should include "first narratives."23

On 18 November 1942, two days after Major Greenfield submitted

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his memorandum, Brig. Gen. Robert McClure, G-2 of the European Theater of Operations, wrote an official letter to G-2 of the War Department, recommending that something be done to assure a more adequate history of overseas operations. While his specific suggestions were limited to the gathering and cataloging of information, he made three observations that had broader implications: first, his four years as executive officer of the Historical Section, Army War College, convinced him that "preparation of documents for eventual publication was started too late"; second, both the British and Canadians "have historians now working on the operations of their forces in this country"; third., historical officers "ought to be appointed immediately in Europe to assemble and index records of American experience there." General McClure did not mention the fact that the mission of the British historical officers was to prepare "first narratives" of operations, but he must have been aware of that fact, as were many others in the American Army.24

General McClure's letter was referred to General Spaulding for appropriate action. On 11 December 1942, Spaulding submitted to G-2 of the War Department a memorandum reviewing what had been done to provide historical coverage of zone of interior activities and suggesting that commanding generals of overseas theaters appoint historical officers to select key records for synopsis and forward the synopses to the Historical Section, Army War College. General Spaulding also offered to prepare instructions for the guidance of

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theater historical officers. As previously noted, this memorandum specifically excluded the preparation of narratives from the wartime historical function.25

A short time later, the powerful Operations Division (OPD) of the General Staff called on General Spaulding to submit the instructions referred to in his communication of 11 December 1942.

On 2 January 1943, Spaulding sent to Col. Thomas North of OPD a lengthy memorandum listing types of documents deemed of historical importance and making suggestions as to their indexing.26 On the basis of this document OPD on 16 January 1943 sent a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of Staff, recommending that General Spaulding's suggestions be adopted and including a draft directive for the Deputy Chief's signature to be distributed at home and abroad by The Adjutant General.27

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The effect of this directive would have been to commit the Army in preparing the history of operations in World War II to essentially the same procedure as was followed in World War I. But the directive was disapproved by the Deputy Chief of Staff, and other steps were initiated which led to the establishment of a new historical agency in the War Department. This organization was charged with supervising the new type of history implied in President Roosevelt's letter of 4 March 1942 and believed by some of the leading historians both in and out of government to be a necessary part of the total war effort.


  1. 1. This and other statements about the pre-World War II historical organization and functions, except as otherwise indicated, are based on Royce L. Thompson, Establishment of the War Department Historical Program for World War II, and the accompanying volume of documents, both in the OCMH files. Thompson's narrative volume will be cited hereafter as Thompson Study and the volume of documents as Thompson Documents.
  2. 2. The first volume of World War I documents was sent to the U.S. Government Printing Office on 23 April 1948. Ltr, R. S. Thomas to Chief Military History, 14 Sep 51, sub: Rpt on Completion of World War Documentary Publication Project, OCMH files.
  3. 3. WD Ltr, AG 312.12 Hist Sec AWC (7-29-39) MC, to Commandant Army War College, 30 Oct 39, sub: Directive for Hist See Army War College, Thompson Documents.
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. Memo, Newton D. Baker for CofS, 4 Aug 19, Thompson Documents.
  6. 6. First Ind, Gen Spaulding, 5 Feb 42, on WD Ltr., AG 321.12 Hist Sec AWC (l-6-42) MB, 30 Jan 42, sub: Utilization of Record Material Pertaining to Present War for Historical Purposes, Thompson Documents.
  7. 7. Maj Julian F. Barnes, The Functions of the Historical Section, Army War College, in War, 3 Apr 30, Sec. 5, Recommendations.
  8. 8. Ibid. Neither the Connor nor the Craig comment, written on the Barnes plan, is dated, but the period of incumbency of each officer as commandant of the Army War College makes possible an approximate dating of the remarks. Connor's name is erroneously spelled "Connors" in the Thompson Documents.
  9. 9. Bureau of Budget Memo [12 Mar 42], HB 314.72 Records of War Administration, OCMH files.
  10. 10. Ibid. See also other papers in HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin, especially Bureau of Budget Office Memo 56, 27 May 42, sub: Establishment of Advisory Committee on Records of War Administration.
  11. 11. Bureau of Budget Memo [12 Mar 42], HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin; Statement, Dr Kent Roberts Greenfield to Lt Col Bell I. Wiley, 6 Jun 53.
  12. 12. A copy of this letter is in Thompson Documents.
  13. 13. A copy of this letter is in HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  14. 14. Bureau of Budget Office Memo 56, 27 May 42, HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  15. 15. Ltr, Heering to McCloy, 11 Jun 42, HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  16. 16. Memo, Col Ralph H. Tate for Gen Spaulding, 25 Jun 42, HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  17. 17. Spaulding for Tate, 26 Jun 42, HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  18. 18. Ltr, Herring to Spaulding, 26 Jun 42, and other papers, HB 314.72 Recs of War Admin.
  19. 19. WD Ltr, AG 210.31 (6-26-42) MR-F-PS-M, to CGs AGF, AAF, and SOS, 15 Jul 42, sub: Appointment of Hist Officers, Thompson Documents.
  20. 20. See comments of Col. Allen F. Clark on the lack of understanding of the term "administrative history" in his report, Historical Division G-2, 1943-1945, p. 9, OCMH files. This report is hereafter cited as Clark Report.
  21. 21. Memo, Spaulding for WD Hist Officers, 4 Aug 42, sub: Procedure, Thompson Documents; Memo by Greenfield, 16 Nov 42, sub: Plans for Hist Sec AGF, Thompson Documents.
  22. 22. Memo, Spaulding for WD Hist Officers, 4 Aug 42, Thompson Documents.
  23. 23. Memo by Greenfield, 16 Nov 42, Thompson Documents.
  24. 24. Ltr, Gen McClure to WD G-2, 18 Nov 42, sub: Hist Recs.
  25. 25. Memo by Spaulding, 11 Dec 42, sub: Hist Recs in Opns Overseas, Thompson Documents.
  26. 26. Memo, Spaulding for North, 2 Jan 43, sub: Elaboration of Par. 7 of Memo From Hist Sec Army War College, 11 Dec 42, on Hist Recs in Theaters of Opns Overseas, Thompson Documents.
  27. 27. Memo, OPD for DCofS, 16 Jan 43, sub: Hist Recs, OPD 314.7 (1-2-43). Copy in Thompson Documents.

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