Convergence Conversation: Rethinking History with Richard P. Hallion
Richard P. Hallion (Dick) was born in an interesting time. It was the end of World War II and the early emergence of the Cold War. Dick grew up in a family of readers and every weekend, his parents took him to their local library. He was a voracious reader from early in his childhood, and it fueled tremendous interest in all aspects of flight. That interest turned into a passion, ultimately leading to a life-long profession focused on history and aviation.
Dick’s professional history is as interesting as the history he studies. He has been a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, a historian with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the chief historian for the U.S. Air Force. He has taught military history at the Army War College and has been a special advisor for air and space issues for numerous organizations, including the Air Force’s Directorate for Security, Counterintelligence, and Special Program Oversight, the Air Force Chief Scientist, and the Institute for Defense Analyses. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Royal Aeronautical Society, and the Royal Historical Society, and is an Honorary Member of the Order of Daedalians. Dick has also authored, co-authored, or edited approximately two dozen books.
I had the incredible fortune to work with Dick on the recent National Academies effort, Adapting to Shorter Time Cycles: A Workshop Series for the United States Air Force. This Convergence Conversation follows on that work and offers an incredibly powerful discussion about the importance of studying history when making decisions for a better future.
The Historical Context of Decision-Makers
Deb: There is a saying that history is written by the conquerors or the winners. How should we study history to understand the cause and effect of our decisions and actions? How can we better analyze lessons learned for a better future?
Dick: It’s critical to understand that history is the workings of people through time. Oddly enough, historians themselves have not emphasized that enough. British historian Thomas Carlyle is considered one of the great fathers of modern historiography. But increasingly he has been denigrated in the academic community for being the proponent of the so-called “Great Man,” which posits that history is shaped by great individuals in various fields who are naturally born, not made. But if you look at figures like Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, or Lincoln, you see people who shaped everything around them.
If you want to see how things and organizations change and how things progressed, you must look at the people who made history.
In the modern sense, if you want to understand the invention of flight, you must understand the lives and workings of pioneers like the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. It’s also important to understand the foreign developments that were going on during that time and not just the technological ones; but the very important social and cultural ones, such as those made by the female French aviator Baroness Raymonde de la Roche, the first woman to receive a pilot’s license. I think many people believe that history is just some sort of unfolding of a rolling, ongoing anonymous process. Ironically, this is a very Marxist interpretation—that history is some sort of an inexorable and inevitable force leading to a certain conclusion. But when you see a report or a study that states, “back in 1971, the U.S. Air Force decided to do X with NASA,” you need to understand that was a course of action decided by human decision-making.
Who decided to take the actions? It wasn’t a bureaucratic structure: it was living, breathing, thinking people. A group of people was involved with the decision, and many were probably on the fence about which way to decide. But most likely, there were three or four members of that group who were hard-charging, driving forces that tipped the scales on the ultimate decision. We have to ask—Who were those people? What was their motivation? What did they want to achieve? Was it wise? Was it misguided? All that reflects the “Who and why” that is the heart of history.
Another example closer to the world we are in is to look at, say the history of low observables (LO). To understand how we got to where we are with this “stealth” technology, we must understand command relationships during the military buildup. How did the major players work together? Not just within the U.S. Air Force, but across all the services; the international dimension (both threat and need); the state of radar technology and countermeasures; the developments in computer-controlled flight, materials technology, and performance prediction that enabled designing LO aircraft and missiles; and the international security dimension. In all of these, there were an awful lot of things taking place there that were largely personality-driven. I think that for people looking at stealth decision-making today and looking at trying to incorporate that past into their thinking, they have to understand what the decision-makers were thinking of at the time, and then relate it to how we are pursuing advanced programs today.
Unfortunately, this is getting harder to do, in part because of changes in how documents are produced. We used to be able to understand the historical contexts for decisions and the mindsets of decision-makers relatively easily because people wrote memoirs or autobiographies. However, today we have gone to electronic communication, which is very perishable. There are federal requirements for federal agency records to be maintained, but access to those records, even the medium that they exist in is getting harder to maintain. Indeed, some records may be in formats that are no longer supported by current machine technologies. An example of this is the literal miles of computer tape from Vietnam-era military records produced on special-purpose computers that sit in the National Archives and cannot be read by existing computer systems. The long-term guarantee of the preservation of this valuable information is very shaky.
I can still go to the Library of Congress Manuscript Division and access papers of all the generals and political decision-makers before and through the Second World War. I can read their personal diaries, letters, memos, and studies. Information also exists in various Presidential libraries and military archives such as documents that were signed or letters that were sent. I can even go and visit overseas archives to study what their opponents are doing at the time. Will we be able to do this 50 years from now? It is hard to say because in the present day we’re dealing primarily with things like emails and flash messages, and the protocols and structure for preserving these—what, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we might call the “tactics, techniques, and procedures” (TTP) of the historical process—are currently either non-existent, lacking, and/or sporadically followed.
History, Information, and Context
Deb: We’re very close to being one degree of freedom. Technology has given us the ability to connect to anybody in the world. History is being made by the actions of groups of connected people, which leads us to ask if decisions are becoming more demassified? Is public opinion and activism becoming more a voice in decision-making? And how does this create history?
Dick: Our information domain is expanding geometrically. In the 19th century, scientists were called natural philosophers. There was a British natural philosopher named William Whewell who proudly claimed to be the last man to know everything. It sounds ridiculous. But if we think about it, it was towards the end of the Enlightenment that Diderot prepared the first encyclopedia. His encyclopedia was supposed to be the summation of all human knowledge. That’s ludicrous now, but at the time it was not. Throughout the 20th century, a tremendous amount of development in information and communications technology happened. Governments put money into research, development, and testing which led to more technology. Then came the abstracting of information. Various professional societies started sprouting up. Monthly journals full of abstracts of new reports from around the world encapsulated new research and discoveries. We’re way beyond that point now. We’re able to access a tremendous amount of editorial, but at the same time, there’s so much of it that you can get swamped. Can any practicing scientist and technologist today honestly say that they are completely cognizant of all that is going on in their field? Perhaps some very few, if at all.
In the early 1930’s Carl Becker wrote a very important essay called Everyman his Own Historian. The idea presented in the essay is that history only exists if someone believes that the event or fact is relevant or important and gets others to believe it. Becker wrote, “Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist, not really, since for all practical purposes there is no fact until someone affirms it.” In the past, we had these giants in the historical field who wrote about events or facts that they deemed important. Because they wrote about these events, others came to believe their importance. History takes form when others believe what is said about the past and it is passed on to others as truth. It becomes the common narrative, the commonly accepted view of the past.
Now, most everyone can access information and publish their views and interpretations. It’s very easy for people to put things together. The problem is reliability. Some of the insights and observations may not be very reliable. On the other hand, I think there is an opportunity in this platform. I believe there’s a problem with the professional historical field, which doesn’t seem to be receptive to exploiting the technological means of communication and data acquisition. When I started working professionally in the field in the late-1960s, I had colleagues—and by no means just older ones!—who were still writing out notes and books by pen, then getting some professional typist to type it all up. I was astonished at the inefficiency.
The equivalent today are those who have a blinkered attitude towards electronic communication. Many people still try to lock into an old framework, relying on the archives and looking at personal papers and documents. But by limiting their information to these resources, they’re missing an awful lot because of the massive amount of communication happening amongst people of the world. We need to ensure that the organizations that have a stakeholder interested in history also understand what is being communicated across these modern, connected stakeholders. I’m not thinking in terms of their reputation, but rather in terms of how they do their work and fulfill their purpose. It’s an efficiency issue, not just a historical one.
Today’s organizations should recognize they need an established historical process or an office within their organization to address history. At the very least, archives need to be established and controlled to keep from losing knowledge about decisions and the people who made them. And the knowledge also needs to be interpreted. Have a person on the team who organizes information in a way that’s presentable and accessible. Cast the information resource as necessary for contemporary and future decision-making.
Very often people confuse history and heritage. They’re both noble things, but they work for very different purposes. Heritage makes you proud of an organization. History makes you wise in terms of determining where the organization should go.
Future forecasting is rooted to a great degree in the past. It’s about how well we understand where we’ve come from. If you do understand where you’ve been, not only does it ground where you are now, but it also gives you a base to make projections about the future. For example, planning the future of space privatization may best be achieved by studying the commercialization of aviation going back to the Kelly Act of 1925 and the Air Commerce Act of 1926. I predict, with great confidence, that we’re going to relearn lessons of the past, including how to regulate and support the commercialization of space.
I’ve been polling people on what we really need to be looking at for the future of space commercialization. In a recent conversation with a mediation lawyer, we discussed how long it took to build an understanding of aviation over water, mainly by studying past maritime law. That information is relevant as we explore the rights of people traveling in space. What are the over-flying rights that need to be considered? We can learn from these issues being addressed for aviation law in the 1920s. Of course, we’re going to need to expand thinking about common carrier issues, liability issues, international issues, and capital issues to translate it to terms of rocket services that can do various things. There’s a whole lot of complexity to understand and study.
At least take a look at the past. It will give a strong foothold to figure out where to focus effort and energy for solving tomorrow’s issues. And contextualize. What was the context of why, how, and who, decisions were made? Then put that understanding into the context of now.
History and Historians
Deb: Do you believe the field of history is becoming more specialized?
Dick: When I went through graduate school, I was interested in the history of flight. It was (mistakenly) seen by many of my professors as a very narrow interest. I realized even then that this was a perception problem. People were coming into a field they were interested in, but the established historical community could not relate: they were seeing it as a hobbyist field, not a legitimate field of inquiry. In a larger sense, this blinkered mindset afflicted the entire historical community. The European historians didn’t talk to the Asian historians. The American historians wouldn’t necessarily talk to the Russian historians. The modern diplomatic historians wouldn’t talk to the Medievalists. There were all these little camps and tribes. It was intriguing to see the best instructors and colleagues were the people who maintained a much broader study of a focused piece of history, what some call today “intersectionality,” but which, if you look at it, has always characterized the best kind of history, the kind we associate with the great names of influential history, people like Samuel Eliot Morison.
Michael Maccoby wrote a book a number of years ago about organizational culture, which delineated four kinds of managers. The Craftsmen treasure the work they do, the physical manifestation of their craft. The Organization Men are proud of the organization they work for. Jungle Fighters are extremely energetic but look strictly at things in terms of their own needs and desires. . And then there are the Gamesmen, who are sort of laid back and look at every day as giving its own set of challenges. Overall, the Gamesman tends to put challenges in a longer-perspective win or lose terms and tries to be on the winning side of things but does not believe in fighting to the death over every small issue. They are more adaptive, more flexible, more strategically focused, and open to change.
Maccoby points out the strengths and weaknesses of each of these managers. Craftsmen are very slow to accept change because they are about the perfection of what they know, what they are familiar with, and what, frankly, they treasure above all else. Organization men don’t challenge the organization because it might be viewed as criticism, and can be very hostile towards agents of change. Jungle fighters are great, as long as they are getting what they want, but once they get it, they build walls and seal themselves off. The Gamesmen, on the other hand, are cognizant of the past, incorporate its lessons in the present, and look strategically to the future. Breakthroughs come from challenging ourselves. We may be comfortable with what we are currently doing but we need to think about breaking paradigms and doing something else. It is the same with historians.
The Impact of History on Current Decisions
Deb: Some of the dynamics you are describing create obsolete knowledge within an organization. Does the U.S. Air Force understand its obsolete knowledge so it doesn’t get in the way of making better decisions for the future?
Dick: Bureaucracies slow down the identification of obsolete knowledge. I’ve always sought to find historians who understood what the Air Force is about. Not in the public affairs sense, but rather in terms of the major transformations that have taken place over time, why they were made, and who the people were behind them. Air Force leaders don’t need to have a background in history, but they need to least have an appreciation for it. History has important lessons to know, such as the debates between services on roles and missions. It’s important to understand what the breakpoints were and why there were changes in directions and decisions being made.
Focusing only on the future creates a disconnect between what we’ve learned and what the future should be. The problem can be replacement thinking, which can creep into decision-making. For the military, we think about the next tank, or the next destroyer, or the next aircraft carrier. This thinking is about singularities and not about how things fit together in a broader regional and global battlespace, what is really the modern battlespace. History teaches us about the most successful programs, the most successful doctrines, transformational changes, etc. But we must recognize that having the imagination to pursue fanciful things is worthwhile. These behaviors can help identify obsolete knowledge, and enable us to shed it before it hardens into chains that constrain our future transformation.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Dick: The older I get, the more reflective I have become. My greatest hope is as a global community we grow together better than we currently are. My hope is we see the end of the kind of extremism—ideological, religious, ethnic, nationalist, tribal, etc.—that’s led to appalling violence. We now have the ability to incorporate incredibly advanced technologies into weapons and continued violence involving these could be truly catastrophic for the world. Something could be launched with virulent intent: chem, bio, AI—the threats and prospects are multifold and daunting. This type of event could be profound. I hope that somehow, we’ll start to see ourselves as part of a global community that needs to work together. For one thing, as Americans, we need to stop being so critical of ourselves and our past. We need to recognize and understand that people of the past functioned in the context of forces, values, attitudes, and the reality of the times in which they lived. It reflects a number of factors. This is why we should not straitjacket ourselves by looking at the past as only what happened but also seek to understand the why. We need to understand why decisions were made by the people who made them and then use them to help shape contemporary decisions for a better future. We need to build upon what we know and not be complacent about where we have been, or where we are.
Dick reminds us that future forecasting for better decision-making is rooted to a great degree in the past. While many parts of the modern organization feel unprecedented, they are not. We can learn from critical points in history when the emergence of new threats or opportunities causes organizations to evolve. But it is not enough to only look at the decisions that were made and critical points in history. We must also look closely at the people who made these decisions to understand the context of why the decisions were made the way they were.
If it is critical to understand that history is the workings of people through time, it is also true that the future is a human-centric endeavor. People and groups of people have their direction and momentum. The human system interacts and influences countless other systems, including our organizational systems. Leaders who cultivate a need for understanding of how we make decisions and why we make them the way we do it are critical for decision making that creates our future as well as our history. Studying those that came before us will increase our probability of success.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
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