Monthly Archives: February 2015

William L. Shirer, reporter

Today’s is the 111th anniversary of the birth of a great reporter and writer, William L. Shirer (1904-1993).  On June 22, 1940, a German photographer captured this image of Shirer, seated

Waffenstillstand von Compiègne, Berichterstatter

on the right end of a plank, pipe in mouth, typing his story of the day for broadcast on CBS radio.  The location was the forest outside the village of Compiègne, France.  The story, which Shirer thought would be recorded and reviewed by censors before it was transmitted, accidentally reached New York and the world live.  He reported that France had, that day, signed an armistice with Nazi Germany.

Robert H. Jackson’s 123rd Birthday

Today marks the 123rd anniversary of Robert Houghwout Jackson’s birth, at his family’s farm in Spring Creek Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania.

For Jackson Birthday reading, here are links to some previous Jackson Birthday-related posts to my Jackson List:

“Birthday” (click here)

“Jackson Birthdays 2006, 1946 & 1892” (click here)

“Birthday Bonds, Appreciation, Treasure” (click here)

“Turning 54 at Nuremberg”(click here)

“Birthday Cake in Chambers (1952)” (click here)

These and many more posts are on the Jackson List archive site, which is word- and phrase-searchable:

Many happy returns of the day, and happy weekend,

Attorney General Order: Keep a Diary

When Francis Biddle became a senior U.S. Department of Justice official (first Solicitor General, then Attorney General) in the 1940s, he “ordered” top lawyers to start keeping diaries.  He explained that diary-keeping would improve performance—having personal records would help everyone “later” when they needed to revisit topics and remember accurately, in detail, what things had happened, how and why.  (Biddle also had an artistic, literary temperament and a strong sense of history; I suspect that he advocated writing not just for its value to management, but also because engaging in the writing craft can bring pleasure to the writer, and because writing lasts.)

attorney-general-francis-biddle-working-at-his-desk_i-G-60-6052-V55D100Z cropped

Warner W. Gardner, a leading, great federal government lawyer in the 1930s and 1940s, including in Biddle’s DOJ, told me of Biddle’s edict.  In his old age, Gardner—himself a great writer of briefs, articles, and a superb memoir—lamented that he never complied very well with the order to keep a diary.  He wished he had, but he said that he just never had time and never developed the habit of making the time.  He made some notes now and then, but in hindsight he found them much too spare.

As Gardner realized, Biddle was right.  Days, moments, people, events and words fly by, and often a “later” comes, in places ranging from the workplace to private reflection, when memory is less than a person wants to have.  And of course history loses everyone in the end.  It needs—in the arresting title of Gardner’s memoir—“pebbles from the paths behind.”  (One chapter of Gardner’s memoir is here, and here is an oral history he gave to the Truman presidential library.)

This all comes to mind as I work with 1945-1946 Nuremberg trial documents and personal records.  I’m grateful for every word that “Nurembergers,” including Francis Biddle (who, after his stint as Attorney General, served as U.S. judge there) and of course Robert Jackson, made time to jot amidst their hard post-war work and living conditions.  Such words have solidity and power that memory can’t match.  They permit historians (me and many others) to do their work, and to do it better than they could otherwise.  Contemporaneous words—and specifically the ones that, on assessment, seem reliable—help me to figure out things about Nuremberg such as who really did, saw and said what, how people thought day by day about what they were doing there, and whose later memory is trustworthy and whose is faulty.

This also comes to mind as I read about newsman Brian Williams’s misstatements about what he saw and experienced as a reporter visiting Iraq and the war in 2003.

If some experience or thought might matter, and also for the pleasure, and also for history, try to make time to make some notes.