A new project from American Diplomacy—
By MATTHEW JACOBS*
As a fifth year graduate student studying U.S.-Middle Eastern relations between 1945 and 1967, I have had (and will have) many opportunities to read transcripts of oral histories. Like Professor Hunt, I have generally found them only half-helpful. Without question oral histories can shed light on important events or reveal some keen insights about specific individuals but, by and large, they seem to serve more as opportunities for individuals to relive experiences than they do as a critical research tool. Sharing Hunt’s frustration, I gladly participated in this “memory project” to see if we could make oral histories more productive by bringing academics and retired Foreign Service officers together. Of course, I also hoped to find good material for my own dissertation. Ultimately, I did find the effort to connect these two communities fruitful, although the road between them was not always smoothly paved.
As I embarked on the project, I immediately became aware that this region—central North Carolina—is an excellent place to conduct such an effort. There are numerous retired Foreign Service officers in the area. An initial review found no less than six potential candidates (three of whom I interviewed) within an hour’s drive who had some experience with Middle Eastern issues. Having so many candidates to choose from offered two blessings, one of which I was unaware of until I had nearly concluded my interviews. I had chosen to meet three people who had significantly different levels of experience with Middle Eastern issues. Curtis Jones was trained as an Arabist and spent his entire career dealing with the Middle East. Ambassador William Dale spent roughly half of his career dealing with the Middle East and half dealing with other areas of the world. Ambassador Findley Burns served only once in the region—as ambassador to Jordan during the June 1967 War.
The significance of that diversity in experience can be demonstrated best by looking closely at an issue important to my own research. One aspect of my dissertation considers how policy makers form their impressions of the places and peoples with which they are dealing. In short, where do they get their knowledge, and what type of knowledge is it?
The point here is that the differences in the content of the information and the ways in which it was acquired influenced these officers’ understanding of the region and of America’s relationship to it.
Interviewing people of different levels of experience also emphasized to me the point that we, as scholars, can never assume a unity of voices, even within a single organization. While we would readily expect, for example, the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency to view issues differently, we might assume that each of these organizations would themselves speak with a reasonably unified voice. These interviews made clear to me that such is not the case. Each interviewee had an entirely different take on U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, even though they had all risen through the same bureaucracy and served in the same types of positions. These interviews have thus demonstrated to me that I need to take all instances of internal differences seriously, and that I must look just as closely for areas of contestation as I do for points of consensus.
The second blessing offered by the existence of such a large local community of retired Foreign Service officers was that all of the people I interviewed had continued to think about and discuss U.S.-Middle Eastern relations since their retirement. Jones has published quite widely on the subject, while Burns and Dale have participated in various formal and informal meetings in which U.S. foreign relations have been a prominent topic of discussion. In fact, as I concluded one interview at an individual’s home, one of my other interviewees arrived for lunch. Perhaps because of these pre-existing ties and opportunities to contemplate issues with which I am concerned, I found each of my interviewees to be more engaged, prepared, and ready and willing to talk than I had expected.
That continuing concern with U.S.-Middle Eastern relations also helps explain why I decided not to utilize the documentary approach originally suggested by Hunt and Mattox. As I progressed through the interview process, I became less convinced that doing so would actually make much difference. Jones is clearly familiar with current scholarship and the relevant documents. Burns began our meeting by stating that he recognized the human memory could be quite inaccurate after thirty years, and then proceeded to give me a thoroughly enlightening day-by-day rundown of how he handled things during the Six Day War. And Dale in fact loaned me something he had written that addressed many of the issues I would likely want readings to pose. I therefore doubt that the documentary approach would have jarred many fresh memories and it might have consumed time better used in the conventional interview format.
That said, it might be helpful here to think through other even less orthodox ways in which the “readings” approach might have proved useful. Part of my research explores the impact of cultural stereotypes on U.S. foreign relations. One possibility might be to have the interviewees read material from unofficial sources rather than from government documents. Providing excerpts from a book by T. E. Lawrence, for example, or from a popular work such as Leon Uris’ Exodus could allow me to get at the critical but difficult area of culturally rooted perceptions of the region. The important methodological point here is that there is not a single way in which the “readings” approach can be applied, and that one must think carefully about how it might best be utilized.
There were, of course, some problematic aspects of the interviews—some the result of general problems associated with oral history and others related to my specific area of interest. Perhaps the most significant methodological challenge any interviewer faces is how to formulate questions to address specific research topics without assuming answers to those questions and not tipping your hand to the interviewee about the type of material you would like to hear. My research explores the development and characteristics of an American mind set for dealing with the Middle East between 1945 and 1967. I formulated questions that I hoped would lead the interviewees to think in these terms, but not give away any assumptions I might have had going into the interview. Of course, I was also trying to leave room for answers that worked against those very assumptions. Some typical questions were, What were your first impressions of the Middle East and its peoples? On what information were those impressions based? How had your understanding (or impressions) of the region changed by the time you were finished dealing with it as a Foreign Service officer? These questions proved worthwhile in most cases, although I occasionally had to redirect them to give a greater indication of where I wanted the conversation to head.
Another challenge of doing oral history is remaining in control of the interview. It quickly became clear in one conversation that the interviewee, while gracious, polite, knowledgeable, and engaging, had his own agenda to promote. Having expected that something along these lines might occur, I had decided in advance to seize the initiative and ask the interviewee to elaborate on how and why he had arrived at his position. Doing so, I believed, would allow me to garner what valuable information I might while also getting the issue out of the way for the rest of the conversation. The interviewee readily addressed my questions with valid points and relevant information, but occasionally foiled my attempts to guide the conversation into fresh areas of interest to me by referring to it afterwards.
There were two difficulties that I experienced because of the specific topic of my research. Few issues of foreign affairs generate more heated discussion today than U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, with the Arab-Israeli conflict at the center. In my interviews, I had hoped to be able to de-emphasize that issue. That proved difficult with each of the individuals I interviewed. Again, this was not completely unexpected, as two of my three interviewees had been stationed in the region (Tel Aviv and Amman) during the June 1967 War. To circumscribe discussion of that topic, I formulated only one or two specific questions addressing it for each interviewee. That tactic proved quite successful in one case, where the subject offered to loan me his written reminiscences on the issue and thereby limited our discussion of it. That the Arab-Israeli conflict proved so central in the other conversations, however, lends credence to the importance it is given in scholarly works, and suggests the difficulty I will have in disentangling Israel from American views of the Middle East.
The second challenge I faced as a result of my specific interests turned out to be more imagined than real. Through my own reading of the relevant literature (particularly Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists), I am fully aware that the relationship of State Department Arabists to other Foreign Service officers, the Jewish lobby in America, and policy formulation. One of my subjects is an Arabist and has commented extensively elsewhere on the difficulties he and his colleagues have encountered since the late sixties in their dealings with other members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I began each interview, I was unsure of the depth of feeling each of my subjects would have on this issue and was thus anxious about discussing it. To handle that anxiety, I told myself that my objective was to hear what my subjects had to say, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not, and therefore I would be as accommodating as possible so as to elicit their views. As it turned out, though, I discovered that each of the interviewees was comfortable with the issue and was willing to discuss it in a frank yet sensitive manner. They made their positions clear in a professional way that did not denigrate their former colleagues.
The positives and negatives of my experiences in this “memory project” have led me to the following conclusions about the uses of oral history and attempts to bring academics and former policy makers together:
First, and most importantly, it is normally up to the interviewer to make a conversation successful. Most good interviewers take the initiative to learn as much as they can in advance about their subject and the likely topics that will come under discussion. What takes time to learn, however, is how to overcome the apprehension that one inevitably feels at the start of the interview. Generally, those fears result from the interviewer’s assumptions about the interviewee and the issues, and are normally unfounded. In short, and as the example of the Arabist issue illustrates, be informed and check your assumptions at the door, leaving yourself open to all possibilities. I was well into the interview process before I felt comfortable taking this crucial step.
Second, while a successful conversation does normally depend on the interviewer, it is not always possible for him or her to control the flow or direction of the meeting. The fact that an interviewee pushes his or her own agenda, however, should not be taken as an indication that the interview is unhelpful or otherwise unsuccessful. It does, however, make it more challenging for the interviewer to acquire the type of information he or she is searching for. In addition, as I discovered with the discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a little frustration during the interview stage can prove quite productive later on and helpful for the larger research project.
As for using oral history to connect two communities, I found it to be most useful. I learned more from these interviews about how the State Department and the Foreign Service work and about the nature of crisis management during an event such as the June 1967 War than I ever could from reading alone. At the same time, the interviews confirmed many of my ideas for my research, while also forcing me to confront new issues and ways of thinking about those ideas. Of course, as with Mr. Endy, I cannot surmise how helpful the project might have been for the people I interviewed, but I did get the sense that they generally enjoyed the opportunity to speak about their experiences with an informed individual who could ask intelligent questions and probe their minds. All in all, I think that participating in this project gave me a sense of the ways in which oral history can not only provide researchers with information, but also serve to bring two distinct communities into closer contact with one another.