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Memory As History

May 2024
13min read

Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one

The chords of memory may be mystic, as Abraham Lincoln described them, but how accurate and reliable they are as evidence is a dilemma every historian must face. From the time Herodotus walked through Asia Minor two thousand years ago, asking questions, tapping the recollections of hundreds of eyewitnesses, historians have depended on the retentive faculty of the human mind for information about the past, and they have learned that such reliance has its minuses as well as pluses.

I first encountered the negative side of how much to lean on an eyewitness’s memory when I was doing research for the book Decisive Day, about the battle for Bunker Hill.

Considering the number of people who saw that 1775 engagement, as either participants or onlookers (most of the latter on the housetops of Boston a mere third of a mile away), it is astonishing that so few credible contemporary accounts have survived. The best of these are British; from the American side one of the most complete chronicles is a document prepared shortly after the battle by three clergymen and submitted to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for transmittal to Great Britain, obviously for the propaganda impact it would have. But this is not what you’d call a historian’s delight, since the young pastor who did most of the writing saw only snatches of the engagement from an unsatisfactory vantage point on the Malden side of the Mystic River.

Given these circumstances, it was essential to look to other sources, and one that appeared promising at first blush demonstrates the potential risk of depending on memory. In 1825, fifty years after the battle, when the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument was laid, some 190 survivors of the Revolutionary army attended the festivities. Of these, 40 had been, or claimed to have been, present on the fateful seventeenth of June, 1775, when the British stormed the rebel redoubt. The directors of the Monument Association, hoping to obtain a full picture of the events of that day and clear up disputed points about what happened, decided to tap this lode by collecting depositions from the battle veterans.

For reasons that are unclear, the results lay fallow for seventeen years. Then, in 1842, three volumes containing these depositions were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a committee of three was appointed to report on the nature and historical value of the acquisition. The committee’s findings were dispiriting, to say the least—so much so that the volumes were ordered sealed and “deposited in the Cabinet as curiosities.” The explanation given for such short shrift appeared in a report by the historian George Ellis, a committee member who had examined the testimonials with care. His remarks are worth quoting.


The contents of the three books, he observed with a mixture of shock and anger, were “most extraordinary; many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue; mixtures of old men’s broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvelous. Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners as grandfathers’ tales, and as petted representatives of ‘the spirit of ’76,’ that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done and what they had read, heard, or dreamed. The decision of the committee was that much of the contents of the volumes was wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable, as misleading and false.”

Happily, not all old men’s memories are knit from the same yarn as those of the Bunker Hill “veterans.” After all, what inspired Bruce Catton to the writing of history was listening to “men to whom nothing but memories mattered any more” in his hometown of Benzonia, Michigan. As he put it, “I began my work on the Civil War by trying to figure out what made the old veterans tick when they were young men. It was as simple as that.” Mind, he did not say the men’s memories were flawed, only that the former soldiers were living in the past.

Every normal person knows some history,” Carl Becker observed, and he defined his chosen discipline by stating, “History is the memory of things said and done.” What makes it worth recording, he argued, is the way the pattern of remembered events that constitute history enlarges and enriches the present.

Some while ago I found myself relying heavily on the memories of my own contemporaries and elders while gathering material for a book. Off and on over a period of eighteen years, I interviewed—usually in person but also through correspondence—survivors of the Depression and pre-World War II period for what became The Borrowed Years, 1938-1941: America on the Way to War. These recollections were, of course, supplemented by a broad spectrum of other original source materials, but nothing else had quite the same quality of spontaneity or surprise, the potential to reveal personality, as the information that emerged from conversations with participants in the events of that critical period.

As Robin Winks, author of The Historian as Detective, writes, however we may view the past—however improbable or unbelievable it may strike us—it was real to the people who lived it. In order to get at the truth as other people knew it, we need to collect beliefs, as well as facts, since myths that become sufficiently popular have a way of becoming accepted as the truth.

Anyone who is past the age of sixty begins to realize that the long-range memory often is less impaired than the one that is expected to recall yesterday’s events. On the other hand, memory is selective; certain scraps of information are screened out, set aside, probably because they lack significance or relevance or utility. Some people seem to have little facility for retaining salient facts or significant details. Others incline, like the Bunker Hill “veterans,” to exaggerate or embellish, especially when recounting their own participation in an event. And we must not forget Winks’s caveat to consider “beliefs.” So how can the verity of a source’s information be assessed?

Usually it is possible to corroborate the verisimilitude, if not all the particulars tossed up from a person’s memory, by testing his or her account against those of other witnesses or reports in newspapers, magazines, journals, diaries, memoirs, broadcasts. If the source’s story is unique, however, and unattestable by other means, the only option is to make a judgment based on the individual’s credibility and the logic or reasonableness of what he or she has to tell. It goes without saying that the wise interviewer will use a vivid recollection when it meets the test of plausibility but does not affect substantive conclusions.

The past was real to the people who lived it, and in order to get at the truth as they knew it, we must collect beliefs as well as facts.

Memory, we know, plays tricks, and I have encountered several distinct varieties of memory while writing history that is within recall by living people. I purposely omit the so-called Photographic Memory, which I suspect few of us possess, and certainly we may set aside the Manufactured Memory, typified by the grandfathers’ tales of Bunker Hill.

In quite a different class, however, are Conflicting Memories—stories told by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event that do not agree even though the several parties present saw or heard the same things. Another category is what might be called the Serendipitous Memory, in which the historian makes a happy discovery entirely by accident, thanks to a question that happened to produce an unexpected answer. Closely related to it, but not quite of the same cloth, is what I’ll term the Unsolicited Memory—a piece of information that comes in out of the blue, totally unsuspected, because its very existence was unknown and therefore unsought.

Consider, first, Conflicting Memories. Even with the best intentions, two or more witnesses to the same event may disagree on what they saw or heard, as I discovered while interviewing individuals who were present at the Republican National Convention of 1940, when Wendell Willkie was chosen to take on “the champ”—Franklin Roosevelt, who was about to run for an unprecedented third term. Thanks to talks with numerous eyewitnesses and to the voluminous press coverage, it was a fairly simple matter to reconstruct most details of Willkie’s astonishing triumph in what was called the Miracle of Philadelphia. Where I encountered a snag was in tracking down how Sen. Charles McNary happened to be selected as Willkie’s running mate.

According to Samuel Pryor, who was then a vice president of Pan American Airways and a Republican national committeeman from Connecticut, Wendell Willkie telephoned him at 5:00 A.M., just three hours after being nominated, to say he was in a jam. That was a considerable understatement. Of the forty-eight state delegations, only Connecticut had given Willkie all its votes from the first ballot onward. It had done so in the firm conviction that Willkie was committed to Connecticut’s governor, Raymond Baldwin, as his vice-presidential running mate. But Willkie, who was astonished to find that he was regarded by most Republicans at the convention as an Easterner, even though he came from Indiana, found that he was expected to pick a Westerner to balance the ticket.

“What shall I do?” the embarrassed nominee asked Pryor.

“Wendell,” Pryor replied, “you’re pledged to Baldwin. I’m not going to tell him. That’s one job you’ll have to do yourself.” And that, Pryor recalled, was how McNary, not Baldwin, got the nomination.

My uncle Carlton Ketchum, a fund raiser for the Republican party, who attended the convention with the delegates from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told me a very different story of how McNary was selected. Portions of this version he heard himself; the rest he learned from John Hamilton, the party’s national chairman, who, like Pryor, was in a position to know what occurred.

As Hamilton told it, he and Ernest Weir—the boss of Weirton Steel, a big contributor to the GOP, and an early Willkie backer—and several others met in a hotel room immediately after the nomination to discuss the vice-presidential candidate. Because Hamilton was chairman of the party, the group thought it was up to him to warn Willkie that he must decide quickly on his running mate, since it was then between 2:00 and 3:00 A.M. and the convention would reconvene that very day to select the vice-presidential nominee.

What Hamilton got when Willkie answered the phone was a man who was exhausted and annoyed at being awakened, who said that he had given no thought to the Vice Presidency and asked whom Hamilton would suggest.

Hamilton replied that it was Willkie’s choice, not his, to which the nominee replied that Tom Dewey would be an asset to the ticket. Now Hamilton knew Dewey, a little man with a big ego and a sharp temper, and had a good idea how the New York district attorney would react to the idea of playing second fiddle to a Republican arriviste who had just given him a humiliating beating. Willkie insisted, however, and Hamilton phoned Dewey, only to hear in a few explicit words exactly how little he appreciated the suggestion.

Wearily Hamilton called Willkie again and woke him from a sound sleep. After telling the party chairman under no circumstances to disturb him again, the nominee said that he had always admired Bob Taft and that Hamilton should try him.

Taft, the senior senator from Ohio, who—like Dewey—had been a frontrunner until the Willkie boom caught fire at the convention, would react just the way Dewey had, Hamilton knew, and once again he tried to beg off. Willkie persisted, however, and a few hours later the attempt was made.

John Hollister, one of Taft’s principal aides at the convention, told me that the senator was approached that morning by a small group led by Sen. Warren Austin of Vermont. The Ohio delegation was caucusing at the time, and Hollister was called to the door, where Austin asked him to find out if Taft would accept the vice-presidential nomination. The answer Hollister brought back “was an immediate ‘No.’”

An abortive effort was also made to sign up Hanford MacNider of Iowa, an isolationist and former Assistant Secretary of War. At last someone proposed Charles McNary to the presidential nominee.

“Who’s he?” inquired Willkie.

The reply: A senator from Oregon, highly thought of in Republican circles, who would balance the ticket.

And now, to return to Samuel Pryor. When I recited the Hamilton account to him, he commented that none of the men mentioned—Dewey, Taft, or MacNider—was ever mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Yet the interview with Hollister indicated that Taft had certainly been approached.

Still another piece of the puzzle was the reaction of McNary’s wife, Cornelia, when a reporter cornered her in a grocery store in Salem, Oregon, that day. When told of her husband’s selection as Willkie’s running mate, she replied, “I can’t believe it. Charles wired me this morning that he wouldn’t accept the nomination.”

Probably we will never know exactly what transpired before Charles McNary—who, in pre-senatorial days, was known for developing the world’s largest prune—received the plum he did not want. What we do know is that getting at the ultimate truth is not always easy. Yet of one fact there is no doubt: Everyone agreed on the prospective Vice President’s initial reaction to the invitation. “Hell no!” said Sen. Charles McNary. “I wouldn’t run with Willkie!”


Lately I have been talking with some elderly Vermonters in an effort to discover what farming was like in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the advent of mechanized agriculture. It has been revealing to see that what strikes me as being worthy of recollection, or at least easy to recall, is often of no importance to them and has been discarded or forgotten. To put it another way, what is more commonly remembered is the unusual or the colorful, which sometimes gives a rather different twist to the answer I sought. I like to think of these byways as examples of Serendipitous Memory.

Talking with my friend Chet Baldwin, I asked what he could tell me about one of the farms that adjoin his.

“In those days it was owned by Hial Blackmer,” Chet replied, after a moment’s thought. But then, instead of elaborating on the Blackmer farm, he recalled that “Hial always had two pair of mules” and described the mountain road he always took when he traveled to Danby or Pawlet—two towns to the north.

On the other side of Chet’s place was the George Wilkins farm, and I inquired about that: How many cows was he milking? And what other livestock did he have?

Chet began by recalling how George used to arise every morning at three o’clock and walk up on the mountain to fetch his cows; but what really stuck in his memory was how George liked hard cider—always had a cellar full of it. One day, when Chet was a little boy, he and a friend were playing near the Wilkins place and saw, at the foot of a steep bank, George Wilkins “lyin’ out flat.” Chet ran and told his father what they had seen and asked if George was dead.

“Yep,” said his father. “Dead drunk.”

That led to a story about a blacksmith in the neighborhood who made home brew. Every so often in the middle of a shoeing job this fellow had to go outside to the springhouse to quench his thirst (“best water anywhere around,” he would tell his visitor), and when he came back and picked up the horse’s hoof, Chet recalled with a grin, “Oh, how you could smell that water on his breath.”

You don’t always get the answer you seek, in other words, but you may acquire serendipitously a useful anecdote or background information that lends color and authenticity to an account.

In writing of how Japan, before World War II, encouraged the notion that all Japanese must look up to their emperor as a father, I was struck by a set of images that emerged from a conversation with Dr. Agnes Niyekawa of the University of Hawaii. As a young girl she attended school near where the emperor and his family vacationed from time to time. Whenever the royal personages were scheduled to arrive, their route from the railway station to their villa was covered with small pebbles, because they made such a pleasing noise when the carriage rolled over them. When the royal family departed, the pebbles were swept up and collected for the next visit.

What strikes me as being worthy of recollection, or at least easy to recall, is often of no importance to these Vermonters and is forgotten.

Before the procession began, Agnes and her schoolmates lined up and stood for a long time, awaiting the great moment. When the carriage approached, all the girls made a deep bow and held it until the vehicle was almost out of sight, which meant that they never even saw the godlike royal personages.

Another conversation—this one with the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner—provided rare texture for an event I was describing. In July 1939 Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who had recently concluded that “the largescale liberation of atomic energy was just around the corner,” was desperately trying to find a way to keep uranium ore from the Belgian Congo from falling into the hands of the Nazis. He discussed the dilemma with Wigner, a physics professor at Princeton, and they decided to ask their mutual friend Albert Einstein to write a letter to the queen of the Belgians, whom he knew, warning her and—through her—the Belgian government against selling any uranium to Germany. Unfortunately, when they had this idea, Einstein was away on vacation.

They learned that he was staying at the cottage of a Dr. Moore in Peconic, on Long Island, so on a beautiful day the two physicists set off in Wigner’s car to find him. By mistake they drove to Patchogue on the south shore, where they were told that Peconic was near Cutchogue on the northeast tip of the island. When they finally reached Peconic, no one could tell them where the Moore house was. They had been driving around for an hour or so when Szilard saw a little boy standing on the curb, leaned out the window, and asked, “Say, do you by any chance know where Professor Einstein lives?” The eight-year-old did and led them to the great man’s door on Old Grove Road. Einstein, dressed in an undershirt with his trousers rolled up, greeted them and invited them to sit down on the screened porch, where his two visitors explained their fears. As Szilard said later, “This was the first Einstein heard about the possibility of a chain reaction. He was very quick to see the implications and perfectly willing to do anything that needed to be done.”

The upshot of that July visit was a letter from Einstein, sent not to the queen of the Belgians but to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was the first step in a process that led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb.

To hear Professor Wigner describe his trip from Princeton to Peconic on that hot July day in 1939 was a privilege, for his story was rich in details that made it more than just a meeting of scientists. It became as well the comedy of two Hungarian refugees trying to unravel the mysteries of Indian place-names on Long Island, their chance meeting with a little boy who knew the way, and the unexpected bonus of learning how the renowned Einstein was dressed when he greeted them at the door and that this was his first knowledge that a chain reaction might be possible.

Not long after publication of The Borrowed Years, I began receiving letters from readers who were stirred to write by what they had read and who wanted to share their memories with me. Such stories, which I have called the Unsolicited Memory, were too late to be of use in my book, of course, and some dealt with events that took place outside the period about which I had written. Yet they are reminders of the tenacity of memory and the way an association of ideas can conjure up details that lodged in the mind years earlier.

One came from a Californian named Daniel Jenkins, whose military experience began in the obsolescent horse cavalry on maneuvers in 1940, at a time when Polish cavalrymen were being slaughtered by Nazi tanks. Five years later, as a major on Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger’s staff, he found himself standing beside his boss in a makeshift field hospital near Yokohama, at the bedside of Hideki Tojo, the Japanese general who, as prime minister, war minister, and army chief of staff, had been responsible for the conduct of the war.

Japan had surrendered, and Tojo had attempted suicide, only to bungle it. When he came to, he recognized Eichelberger, who had commanded the U.S. I Corps in the Pacific from 1942 to 1944 and then led the 8th Army in the invasion of the Philippines. In Daniel Jenkins’s words, Tojo “began to mutter something in Japanese. An interpreter explained to Eichelberger that Tojo was apologizing for the inconvenience he had caused him. The general looked down at him with a rather icy smile and said, ‘You little son of a bitch—are you talking about tonight or the last four years?’” For Major Jenkins, that comment marked the end of a long, long war.

History, after all, is not simply what happened. It is also a memory of how it was.

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