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Cantaloupes And Atom Bombs

July 2024
3min read

HISTORIANS GOT THEIR instructions early. In the second century B.C. the Roman historian Polybius issued these orders: “Directly a man assumes the moral attitude of an historian he ought to forget all considerations, such as the love of one’s friends, hatred of one’s enemies. … He must sometimes praise enemies and blame friends … if you take the truth from History, what is left is but an improfitable tale.” He stated the historian’s duty clearly and forcefully and then lived long enough, until he died at the age of eighty-two in a fall from his horse, to see that in ancient Rome his rule often was ignored.


How much of the rigor demanded of the modern historian applies, or should apply, to the journalist? All of it, I would say. But how much of it actually does? How much of it can be?

Historians and journalists are not often found in the same family, though both occasionally have been found in the same person (Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins), but both are found in my own family. I have been a journalist for forty years, long enough to take pride in seeing my son grow up to teach history at Harvard. Hence these few thoughts about the differences between his work and mine.

What are the differences?

The most obvious is that the journalist deals with the triumphs and follies of the human race and with the behavior of the natural world every day and is not always allowed the time to reflect on them, to consider what they will mean, if anything, when the acid-filled newsprint of today’s newspaper has begun to yellow and crumble and when the electromagnetic vibrations of tonight’s news broadcast have forever disappeared somewhere into the ether. He deals with events he knows absolutely will have no significance beyond the next edition or next broadcast, as when every week or so a truck piles up on some highway and commuter traffic is delayed by tons of molasses or cantaloupes strewn on the road. But on other days, in my own experience, there were events that started as journalism and ended as history—when wars started, wars ended, Presidents were murdered or forced to resign, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A noted newsman ponders the often inscrutable differences between journalism and history

None of us who wrote, printed, and broadcast the news from Hiroshima that day had any idea of what we were doing, not for any lack of professional rigor or any lack of professional pride, but purely and simply because of the absence of full information due to the U.S. military’s censorship restrictions and refusal to answer questions, because few of us were knowledgeable in nuclear physics, and, above all, simply for lack of time. The next edition or the next broadcast never is more than hours away. We knew it was a new and complex kind of bomb, yes. A vastly more destructive bomb, yes. But its hideous threat to the future of the human race, no. At that point a genuinely epochal event passed from the hands of the journalist to those of the historian, and this, it seems, is the process.


One of journalism’s numerous critics, but one wittier than most, said that an editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff. The historian (even if also guilty of turning out a good deal of chaff) is then called on to ignore the chaff and the trivial, to ignore the overturned truck and the spilled cantaloupes, to look it all over and decide at leisure and in the fullness of time what it all means, what one event in one place means in relation to others in other places, what actually happened as compared with what people in the excitement of the moment thought happened, and to report the final result, if there ever is any final result. It is a noble enterprise, worthy of the historian’s best efforts as scientist and artist.

But compared with even the best journalism, history is a luxury. None of us is willing to wait years to learn what happened today. And what seems trivial now may not be trivial to history. On June 28, 1914, it seemed of less than overwhelming importance that Archduke Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo, and journalists on that day, as on other days since, had no choice but to deal with the day, the moment. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States, it seemed relatively trivial that in that same year and month—March 1933—the Germans had given dictatorial powers to a new chancellor named Adolf Hitler.

The differences between journalism and history? There is, of course, the fact that one is a tightly structured profession requiring substantial academic credentials while the other respects these credentials yet, except in a few specialized fields of journalism, does not require them. But the more interesting difference, it seems to me, is that we journalists happily do the work and spend the millions to gather—often indiscriminately and sometimes without knowing what we have—news from the entire world every day of every year and pass it on in one form or another for whatever use people care to make of it or for them to ignore, as they choose. And then later the historian can, as journalists cannot, pick and choose from this mass of information and reduce it, or expand it, into a coherent and informative and, we hope, graceful recounting of what happened, why, and with what result. There is enough work here for both of us. Finally, in my own family, what will I put out as news today that my son will treat as history years from now? Neither of us knows.

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