19 [II-1]
Chapter II
Establishment of Historical Branch, War Department G-2

 

When the OPD memorandum of 16 January 1943 came to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, it was turned over to Col. Otto L. Nelson for study and recommendation.1 Colonel Nelson's background and contacts were such as to incline him to question the desirability of perpetuating World War I philosophy and practice as recommended by General Spaulding. His academic training and his association with Pendleton Herring had indoctrinated him in the importance of analytical, narrative history. He had also been impressed by the fact that the old

20 [II-2]

formula had produced no record of America's World War I experience, while other nations following a different procedure had achieved much more satisfactory results. Another important influence bearing upon him at this time was the recent action of the Navy in appointing Samuel Eliot Morison, one of the nation's most distinguished historians, to write a narrative history of American naval operations in World War II.2 It is reasonable to conclude, though documentary evidence on the point is lacking, that Colonel Nelson discussed the OPD memorandum with his friend and former professor, Pendleton Herring.

In any event, Colonel Nelson did not go along with the action proposed by OPD, and the outgrowth of his disapproval was a recommendation for the Chief of Staff, dated 20 February 1943, from Nelson's superior, Lt. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, which took quite a different line. General McNarney's memorandum pointed up the fact that American practice in recording its war experience compared unfavorable with that of the British, that Army schools could not study factual lessons without an adequate history, that a satisfactory plan had been adopted for the history of War Department administration by that it did not extend to military operations, and that a history of American

21 [II-3]

naval operations was already under way. General McNarney recommended that some eminent men of academic, journalistic, and military background be asked "to organize a system of writing a history of our military operations that will provide a first narrative and a proper documentation of source material, and that an appropriate organization be provided in Military Intelligence, OPD, or the Office of the Secretary of War to direct the historical program."3

No action on General McNarney's memorandum was immediately forthcoming. Fearing that the proposal might die from neglect or be improperly handled, Colonel Nelson sought the aid of Assistant Secretary of War McCloy in securing for the proposed historical program the support which he thought it deserved. In Colonel Nelson's opinion, the program to be established needed the powerful backing that McCloy could give it "because the tendency was for everyone to feel that they were so busy fighting the war that they could not take the time to preserve historical records and compile a history."4

Mr. McCloy's response to Colonel Nelson was prompt and aggressive. Within two months of the dispatching of the McNarney memorandum the

22 [II-4]

Assistant Secretary of War had assumed direction of plans to achieve its objectives.5

On 23 April 1943, Mr. McCloy held an informal meeting in his office to talk over the formation of a War Department agency to supervise the writing of the history. Present at the meeting were Col. Ernest Dupuy of the Bureau of Public Relations, Lt. Col. John E. Bakeless and Maj. Charles H. Taylor of the Military Intelligence Service, and Maj. Hoffman Nickerson of OPD. Bakeless was an outstanding journalist well known in historical circles for his biography of Daniel Boone, and Taylor was a distinguished medieval historian at Harvard. After agreeing on the desirability of setting up an agency to produce small-scale studies of particular operations while the war was in progress and taking preparatory steps for a large-scale history to be written later, each of the officers was requested to submit detailed recommendations for implementing this general aim.6

The proposals submitted by Major Taylor appear to have had the most influence in shaping the plan that was eventually adopted. Major

23 [II-5]

Taylor recommended that the historical activity, after a pattern followed by the British, should be directed jointly by a historian and a committee composed of civilian historians and officers. The main function of the committee would be to direct preparation of operational monographs, "inspirational narratives," and other studies designed for current use. To accomplish this mission the committee should be empowered to collect source materials, to set up a staff of analysts and writers of assignment to special projects both at home and abroad, and to co-ordinate the over-all historical program. The historian's principal function would be to "lay the basis for a definitive, large-scale history for publication after the war." He might be a member of the committee, but the authority of historian and committee was to be coequal. Major Taylor further suggested that a group of historians and officers be appointed to sketch the main features of the new program, to recommend the procurement of personnel, and to report its findings to the Secretary of War.7

To supplement the suggestions growing out of the 23 April meeting, Mr. McCloy called on General Spaulding for comment on the proposed revision of the historical setup. Spaulding submitted some proposals but clung firmly to the idea that no new agency was deeded and that the

24 [II-6]

objectives sought could be obtained through the Historical Section, Army War College.8

Mr. McCloy, influenced no doubt by a conviction that General Spaulding was too deeply imbued with the archival philosophy followed in the World War I historical project, and by the belief that the new program needed greater prestige than the Historical Section, Army War College, could bring to it, decided otherwise.9 On 30 April 1943, a memorandum was sent by the Deputy Chief of Staff to the War Department G-2, directing that officer to establish in the Military Intelligence Division the necessary organization for planning and supervising the preparation of the history of World War II. Specifically McNarney directed that the planning should comprehend preparation and publication of a first narrative of military operations, dissemination for training purposes of information concerning operations, accumulation of sources for an official history of the war, the establishment in the various

25 [II-7]

theaters of the necessary personnel, co-ordination and supervision of agencies engaged in writing the administrative history of the war, and determination of the place of the Historical Section, Army War College, in the revised organization. The Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, was also instructed to submit a detailed directive for implementation of the new system.10

The decision to locate the new historical agency in the Military Intelligence Division requires some comment. Maj. Gen. George V. Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, had advised against placing it in any General Staff division and had stated flatly that it did not belong in the Military Intelligence Service. He recommended that the historical organization be made a part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War.11 Brig. Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer of OPD also favored this location of the new activity, as did others.12 Mr. McCloy

26 [II-8]

himself seems to have been responsible for overruling these protests and making the historical agency a part of G-2. The immediate basis of his decision apparently was the fact that G-2 had the machinery for administering the program, while his own office did not.13 The fact that his was a civilian office may also have been considered. Certainly it seems logical to assume that the Assistant Secretary would have thought it desirable to place a conspicuous military label on an activity that depended so much, especially in wartime, upon the active support of Army personnel.

When the Deputy Chief of Staff's memorandum of 30 April 1943 was received in G-2, General Strong directed Lt. Col. John M. Kemper, his assistant executive officer, to act for him in its implementation, though Strong again stated his opposition to the location of the historical organization in his office and suggested that action be suspended pending his further effort toward getting it placed elsewhere. A conference of Colonel Kemper with Colonel Nelson convinced the former that G-2 would be compelled to acquiesce in the arrangement as directed, and he began actively to plan the setting up of the program.14

27 [II-9]

Colonel Kemper, who was thus introduced to the historical project, was to be associated with it for a long time and in an increasingly important capacity. Though he was noticeably young, he possessed qualifications that were to stand him in good stead, including an M. A. in history at Columbia, a period of history teaching at West Point, an excellent mind, an unusually attractive personality, and good contacts among smart, young subordinates who did the spade work for the various staff sections.

From the time that he was directed by General Strong to take charge of the historical planning, Colonel Kemper worked closely with Colonel Nelson. The latter, in turn, consulted freely with Mr. McCloy. As a result, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of War became the dominant force in determining the character and functions of the new organization, as it had been in bringing it into being.15

Influenced probably by the recommendations which Major Taylor had made several weeks before, Mr. McCloy and his collaborators, Colonel Nelson and Colonel Kemper, concluded that the appointment of a small planning committee was an essential step in their initial activities. They also agreed that Col. T. D. Stamps, Professor of History at West Point, and Pendleton Herring, whom Colonel Nelson introduced to Mr. McCloy about this time, should be members of that committee. With a view to turning up other desirable prospects, a conference was held in Mr. McCloy's office on 19 May 1943. This meeting was attended by Mr. McCloy,

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General Spaulding, General Strong, Colonel Nelson, Colonel North, Colonel Stamps, Pendleton Herring, Colonel Kemper, Colonel Livingston Watrous of the Army Service Forces' Special Services Division, and the historical officers of the Army Ground Forces, Army Air Forces, and Army Service Forces. A decision was reached to designate a committee of six members, three military and three civilian, which should "recommend a program of organization for the compilation of the military history of the (current) war" and also act as a "permanent advisory committee." Mr. McCloy designated as the three military members General Spaulding, Colonel Stamps, and colonel Kemper. He also requested those attending the conference to recommend to these three military members nominations for the three civilian positions. The persons rating highest in this poling were James Phinney Baxter, President of Williams College (five votes), William L. Langer, Professor of History at Harvard (four votes), and Allan Nevins, Professor of History at Columbia (four votes). Other nominees were Pendleton Herring (three votes), Edward M. Earle (three votes), Charles Seymour (three votes), Henry Steele Commager (two votes), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (two votes). From this list the three military members recommended to Mr. McCloy the names of Baxter, Herring, and Earle. Mr. McCloy who, as noted above, had already decided on the first two, accepted them as the fourth and fifth members of the committee, designating Baxter as chairman. For reasons not revealed in the records, but probably because of Professor Commager's great renown as a popular writer (one of McCloy's special objectives for the program being a popular history of the war), McCloy selected

29 [II-11]

Commager rather than Earle as the sixth member.16

The committee thus appointed proved to be an exceedingly able and helpful one. Indeed, the historical program could hardly have succeeded without its wise counsel and the tremendous influence that it was able to exert in times of crisis. James Phinney Baxter, a highly respected historian as well as a distinguished educational administrator, proved to be especially effective as the committee chairman. Using the direct access to the Assistant Secretary of War (and through him to the Secretary) deliberately provided by McCloy (though by implication only) in setting up the historical organization, he was able time and again to obtain removal of seemingly insurmountable barriers to the history program. In 1945 when the historical mission seemed doomed to failure, owing to the Historical Branch's inability in its submerged status to fight effectively against reduction of manpower and other formidable hazards, it was Baxter's interposition, backed by the high position that he held in the world of scholarship and the confidence reposed in him by the War Department, that saved the day and won for the historical activity a place in the Special Staff organization.17

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On 23 May 1943, McCloy briefed Baxter and his associates on the results desired of the historical program. These included: a good system for the preservation of records; up-to-date monographs that would be useful in the Army schools and worthy of publication; a good popular history to be published soon after the close of hostilities; and necessary measures during the war for eventual publication of an authoritative official history. During the month following, the committee surveyed historical activities then in progress, made inquiries concerning the records of various agencies and commands, and held consultations with staff officers and scholars whose positions, attainments, or interests made their advice especially desirable.18

On the basis of the information thus obtained, the committee on 16 June 1943 made a report to the Assistant Secretary of War. This report outlined the organization and functions of the historical program essentially as later promulgated in the War Department memorandum of 3 August 1943. The report also contained the suggestion that Henry F. Pringle be appointed to the post of chief civilian historian in the proposed organization. Pringle's nomination was based on his record as Professor of Journalism at Columbia and his

31 [II-13]

eminence as a biographer and magazine writer.19

But subsequent negotiations with Pringle revealed divergences of viewpoint that seemed irreconcilable, and he was not appointed. The crux of the disagreement seems to have been the relative status of the military head of the branch and the chief civilian historian. The committee's report provided that the former should be superior, which in the view of the location of the historical activity in a General Staff section seemed imperative, but Pringle was dubious of any agreement that would give him less than equal authority with the military chief. Appointment of the civilian historian was not made until November 1943.20

In the meantime Colonel Kemper had been selected as military chief of the organization set up as a branch of G-2. In its report of

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26 June the committee had recommended that the branch be headed by a general officer, but several factors combined to defeat this proposal. Younger general officers were not readily available owing to the tremendous demand for them in combat commands and key staff positions. Older generals were regarded as of doubtful desirability as they were likely to be imbued with World War I concept of history—a concept which had been found unacceptable by those responsible for the new organization. It was also feared that an officer of advanced age might be lacking in aggressiveness and flexibility—qualities deemed essential in implementing the new program.21

The committee eventually decided that the best procedure was to select a colonel eligible for promotion. Several such officers were proposed, but all were disapproved by either McCloy or Nelson. At this unpromising state of proceedings General Strong and Colonel Kemper one night remained late in the G-2 office to read the first reports of the Sicily landings. During a lull in this activity Kemper told the general of his difficulties in finding a colonel to head the historical program. According to Kemper's recollection of the occasion several years later: "General Strong put his feet up on the desk and thought the thing over for a minute and said finally 'Johnnie, why don't you take it.'" This suggestion came as quite a shock for Kemper, who, like

33 [II-15]

most Regular Army lieutenant colonels of his age, was thinking in terms of leading a battalion in combat. But as a former history teacher, secretary of the advisory committee, and pioneer participant in the establishment of the new organization, he was vitally interested in the historical program. After thinking General Strong's proposal over for a night, he agreed to accept the headship of the new branch. His appointment was officially approved on 16 July 1943.22

Colonel Kemper's appointment was followed in a little over two weeks by the War Department memorandum of 3 August 1943, which officially announced to major commands in the United States and overseas the establishment of the Historical Branch, G-2, and defined its organization, functions, and objectives. The responsibilities of the Branch were specified as the preparation of operational monographs, theater and campaign histories, administrative histories, a general popular history, an official history, and documentary works. The Branch was also charged with formulating methods for accumulating essential documents, establishing in the various theaters the necessary personnel and organization for collecting and forwarding historical data, co-ordinating and supervising the agencies engaged in writing the administrative history of world War II, determining the functions and responsibilities of the Historical Section, Army War College, consulting with the Advisory Committee (whose membership and responsibilities were included in the memorandum), and editing and

34 [II-16]

approving all historical manuscripts prepared for publication by all War Department agencies. The memorandum also outlined in general terms the duties of the Chief Historian.23

This document was of outstanding importance in that it provided an authoritative framework for the writing of a history of World War II which differed markedly from any that had been written before in this country. because it involved so much that was new and unknown its terms were broad, and its implications even broader. This was unquestionably a wise arrangement. As Col. Allen Clark, the second chief of the Branch later sized it up: "This memorandum was a very fine one since it gave the Historical Branch authority to do almost anything in regard to the history of the war which it desired to do."24 How the program would work out obviously would depend on how the G-2, the chief of the Branch, the Chief Historian, and the Advisory Committee with its direct access to the Secretary of War could make it work; and it was probably just as well that the many difficulties ahead could not be anticipated.

35 [II-17]

The most urgent business confronting the new organization was the selection of a Chief Historian. The importance of securing the right sort of man for this key position was obvious. To be the right sort he should be widely known and thoroughly respected by the historical profession; an able administrator; one who could command the confidence of high officials in the War Department; one who could feel at ease in atmosphere that was predominantly military and could work well with both the military and civilians; an accomplished editor; and if the original intent of the founding fathers was adhered to, one who could write.

James Phinney Baxter took the lead in searching for a suitable Chief Historian. After Pringle's appointment failed to materialize, he approached Henry Steele Commager, but an interview with Commager revealed a disinclination to take over a position that entailed heavy editorial responsibilities.25

About the time of the interview with Commager, Baxter and Kemper reached a tentative decision that it might be desirable to eliminate the writing function as a principal consideration in choosing a Chief Historian. About this time also Walter Livingston Wright (known as "Livy" to nearly all his acquaintances) was proposed for the position.

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The suggestion seems to have originated with Baxter, who had worked with Wright in 1941-42 in the Office of the Coordinator of Information. Wright, a Near Eastern historian, was author of a book on Ottoman statecraft and an ex-president of Roberts College, Istanbul, Turkey. In 1943 he was Consultant on Near Eastern Affairs in the Library of Congress.26

On 16 September 1943, only a few days after learning that Wright had returned from Turkey and apparently was available, Baxter wrote McCloy a letter strongly recommending him for the position of Chief Historian. He advised McCloy to check on Wright's qualifications with William Langer of the Office of Strategic Services, Archibald MacLeish of the Library of Congress, and other prominent officials who had knowledge of his reputation and work.27 McCloy reported on September 21 that MacLeish had given a favorable estimate of Wright and that both McCloy and Nelson were almost certain of his nomination.28

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In the meantime Kemper and Charles Taylor had talked twice with Wright and "agreed that he would make a top-flight Chief Historian." Wright was officially appointed to the position on 18 November 1943.29

 

NOTES

1. Thompson Study, p. 56.
2. Memo, J. T. M. [Lt Gen Joseph T. McNarney] for CofS, 20 Feb 43, sub: History of Second World War, Thompson Documents. For Nelson's authorship of this memorandum, see Ltr, Nelson to Col John M. Kemper, 17 Mar 47, Thompson Documents.
3. Ibid.
4. Ltr, Nelson to Kemper, 17 Mar 47, Thompson Documents.
5. Thompson Study, p. 62.
6. Ibid. The suggestions submitted by the various officers are in Thompson Documents.
7. Memo by Taylor, 26 Apr 43, sub: Program for a Military History of the Present War, Thompson Documents.
8. Memo by Spaulding, 27 Apr 43, sub: Current History, Thompson Documents.
9. This statement is supported by Otto Nelson's letter of 17 March 1947 to Col. John W. Kemper, Thompson Documents.
10. Memo, McNarney for WD G-2, 30 Apr 43, sub: Establishment of a Hist Sec, Military Intelligence Div, Thompson Documents.
11. Memo, Strong for CofS, 15 Apr 43, sub: History of Second World War, Thompson Documents.
12. Memo, Wedemeyer for McCloy, 26 Apr 43, Thompson Documents.
13. Ltr, Kemper to Maj Leonard O. Friesz, 4 Jun 53, OCMH files.
14. Thompson Study, pp. 82-84.
15. Ibid., pp. 85 ff.
16. Ibid., pp. 88-93; Memo, Kemper for McCloy [24 May 43], sub: Military History of World War II, Thompson "Documents; Ltr, Kemper to Friesz, 4 Jun 53, OCMH files.
17. Ltr, Kemper to Friesz, 4 Jun 53, OCMH files. See also Col Clark, Diary for the Period September-November 1945, OCMH.
18. Thompson Study, pp. 98-101.
19. Memo, Kemper for Asst Secy War, 26 Jun 43, sub: Military History of Second World War, Thompson Documents. General Spaulding on 24 June 1943 filed a minority report, for which see Thompson Documents.
20. For an exposition of Pringle's position, see Ltr, Pringle to Baxter, 16 Jul 43, Thompson Documents. See also Ltr, Baxter of Maj Gen Albert C. Smith, Chief Military History, 25 Mar 53, OCMH files.
21. Ltr, Kemper to Friesz, 4 Jun 53, OCMH files; Thompson Study, pp. 107-08.
22. Ibid.
23. WD Memo, 345-21-43, 3 Aug 43, sub: Military History in Second World War, Thompson Documents.
24. Clark Report, p. 2.
25. Ltr, Baxter to McCloy, 16 Sep 43, Thompson Documents; Thompson Study, p. 116.
26. Ibid.; Memo, Kemper for Asst Secy War, 22 Sep 43, sub: Chief Historian, Thompson Documents; Ltr, Kemper to Friesz, 4 Jun 53, OCMH files.
27. Ltr, Baxter to McCloy, 16 Sep 53, Thompson Documents.
28. Ltr, McCloy to Baxter, 21 Sep 43, Thompson Documents.
29. Memo, J. M. K. [Kemper] for Nelson, 17 Sep 43, sub: Walter Livingston Wright, Thompson Documents.
 

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