Inside the Division of Historical Defense

by Eric on February 13, 2013

In the sub-basement of the old State, War, and Navy building in Washington, DC, there’s a door with a small, yellowing card next to it reading, in Selectriced letters, “AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.” (There is, of course, an ongoing debate between the authenticity faction and the archival preservation faction over whether the card ought to be replaced with one made of acid-free paper.) Inside the room is – well, is a lot more dust than there should be, actually, but also an agglomeration of black boxes wired to a console distinguished by its steel heft and Bakelite knobs. There’s a row of lights across the top of it, each with a paper label underneath – 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, and so on – years extending back to the dawn of the republic and forward, with the limited foresight of the original engineers, to 1976. Fortunately, that year – with a special bicentennial appropriation – the AHA was able to add an auxiliary console, carrying the lights forward to the millennium. But no further; nobody works here full time anymore.

The room was built during the war, when the AHA worked with the Office of War Information to construct it. During the heyday of the profession at the middle twentieth century it was manned day and night. An array of antennae on the roof – of another building, for security reasons – connects here. If these mechanical feelers pick up a signal, a lamp on the console begins to blink. In the old days a trained technician would look at the dials above it and determine just what assault was being made on the history of that year, and how intelligent people ought to respond. That was how C. Vann Woodward came to write The Strange Career of Jim Crow, of course, to meet head-on the distortions of history propounded by opponents of desegregation. The room saw most of its use during the war and the Cold War, when National Defense was deemed to require it.

It’s no longer classified, but no longer funded or used either. Occasionally one of the few who still have a key pops in to run a desultory sleeve across the surfaces, and to flip the test switch, which runs through each of the lamps in sequence. Some of them burn out quite frequently – the ones for 1941 and 1861 forever need replacing – and fortunately there’s a generous stock of surplus bulbs, each wrapped in paper and packed in excelsior sometime back during the war mobilization.

I mention it to you now because the light for 1963 has been blinking incessantly for some weeks. This kind of thing happens on an arbitrary anniversary of some momentous occasion – the effusion of ill-informed commentary sets the poor thing off. Normally the dials allow you to pinpoint the occasion and the source of the insult – but this time it’s the whole year that’s awash in ignorance, from all quarters. You see, 1963 brought us the onset of the sixties, proper – so people say, anyway – and we are going to have frowny-faced foot-stamping and po-faced remarks aplenty this year. The March on Washington is going to set off the machinery; so is the John Kennedy assassination. There will be a set of offensively contrarian, but ignorant, “Kennedy is overrated” pieces that will bury the needles.

Just at the moment, the 1963 light is flashing double-time because Kathleen Parker can’t understand the fuss over Betty Friedan’s focus on “the toils of sad, wealthy women.” Here’s the clever part:

Thus, the feminist movement left the station without me — except to the extent, as readers sometimes remind me, that I benefited from the protests of my foremothers. Indeed, I am grateful for the suffragists who thought my vote should be equal to any man’s. And I am thankful that the workplace I entered recognized my value. But the world in which I grew up never suggested otherwise.

Parker moves from noting that “the feminist movement” left her behind, to acknowledging “readers” who remind her that she benefited from it, to thanking “the suffragists” (not those wacky 1960s feminists, no) and noting her gratitude that her workplace recognized her. Then she begins the concluding sentence, saying she did not grow up in a “world” that needed feminism, with a “But.” Parker attributes the woman-friendly parameters of her world to her enlightened widower dad, who cooked and cleaned and brought her up to think women could do whatever they pleased and their abilities warranted (well, except for the “combat exception”). It is to sigh. Parker père, of course, explains the house in which she grew up. But he doesn’t explain the world in which she grew up; for that, she needs to acknowledge feminism and Friedan.

It’s going to be a long year, isn’t it?



MDH 02.13.13 at 10:00 pm

If every “someone on the internet is wrong” post was prefaced by a setup this wonderful and lovely, I wouldn’t mind them near as much.


js. 02.13.13 at 11:42 pm

So… it’s been kind of a long day, and maybe I’m just a bit slow right now. But is this for real? Like the antenna and all that? It’s a fantastic piece either way, but I am now quite curious whether what seems like an awesome bit of Pynchonalia really exists.


pedant 02.13.13 at 11:49 pm


The room was built during the war, but the sign is “Selectriced”, and the IBM Selectric only came out in 1961, so: kerning!!

It’s clearly another lie-beral fraud, man!


William Burns 02.14.13 at 12:03 am

Kennedy isn’t overrated?


John Quiggin 02.14.13 at 12:35 am

@William Burns – not by me, I’m sure


Eric 02.14.13 at 12:52 am

The card isn’t original with the room; it was put up after the government turned HALDAR over to the AHA to run in 1971.


bianca steele 02.14.13 at 12:53 am

Shorter Parker: If only Betty Friedan had had some familiarity with psychoanalytic theory.


Salient 02.14.13 at 1:21 am

I got as far as “With that book, Friedan helped propel a revolution led by, of all people, unhappy housewives. One feels silly even writing such a sentence” before my brain would physically not let me continue.

Hmm. Wow. But I guess it gives us a template to work with:

With that book, Stowe helped propel a revolution led by, of all people, unhappy farmhands.

That sort of thing.

(It was hard to find a way to end that sentence that was as wrong as what Parker gave us, and wrong in the right ways, whatever that means. Refinements and expropriations are welcome.)


Salient 02.14.13 at 1:30 am

One feels silly even writing such a comment, but devolutions have to start somewhere.


rf 02.14.13 at 2:00 am

“Kennedy isn’t overrated?”

Well there’s only one other hypothetical Presidency as highly rated, which also involves one man overcoming the system, stopping a war and preventing a financial crisis


ponce 02.14.13 at 8:22 am

Maybe the “Dad” Parker is talking about is Gawd.


Harald Korneliussen 02.14.13 at 9:02 am

Long set-ups like these are a good predictor of preaching to the choir and little actual argument. I see it a lot more on right-wing blogs than on Crooked Timber.


rea 02.14.13 at 12:36 pm

“only one other hypothetical Presidency as highly rated, which also involves one man overcoming the system, stopping a war and preventing a financial crisis

That would be Bizarro-world G. W. Bush, right?



rf 02.14.13 at 12:43 pm

Na, John P Hale


rf 02.14.13 at 2:04 pm

“Refinements and expropriations are welcome.”

With that declaration, Jefferson helped create a nation led by, of all people, unhappy Americans.


Matt Regan 02.14.13 at 2:42 pm

With that declaration, Marie Antoinette helped create a nation led by, of all people, cakeless Frenchmen.


Barry 02.14.13 at 3:42 pm

It never ceases to tick me off; barring the feminist revolution, Parker would at most be writing a column on ‘How to please your husband’ in a “woman’s” magazine, for pocket change (or ‘mad money’ as those crazy ladies called it back then!). She could emphasize things like cooking good meals, and making sure that your husband was, ah – ‘well fed at home so he doesn’t need to satisfy his hunger elsewhere’ (like with his secretary).


JRHulls 02.14.13 at 4:19 pm

Back in 2009, I had proposed that we create a Historical Protection Agency, similar to the EPA in piece entitled, “Assume a Cabinet Position”
One of the functions of the agency would be to make it clear which historical precedent was being ignored or distorted. Unfortunately, Obama created no such position, which is the only secretarial post that would have interested me.
Here’s an exerpt from the piece….

“Take the most pressing current example: Wall Street and Washington denizens who claim that the current financial crisis is unprecedented and requires unimagined rape of the taxpayers purse to avoid fiscal Armageddon. In such cases the Secretary of History would issue a press release containing a historical quote such as the following with the underlined words having been changed to make sure that the reader knows which supposedly unprecedented current situation has already happened:

“The Congress presiding over the dying months of the Bush administration will, we hope, end the fatuous secrecy staining the record of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In very act of its birth the TARP was struck dumb by the President. For five months it dispensed hundreds of billions of dollars of public money to banks and Wall Street without giving, either to the public or even to Congress itself, a grain of information about the identity of the objects of its bounty.”

It is easy to see how HPA would revitalize the press, nourish academia and, eventually, improve the quality of government. For instance, reporters will know that finding actual versions of the underlined words will put current actions of Congress into historical perspective. (You’ll have to go to the linked article to get the underlining) More sensible members of the media will consult their local university’s history department, raising the academic’s stock in trade. The media will understand why, when Hoover threw money at banks and financiers, it failed to halt the economic slide which followed the Crash of 29.”


bianca steele 02.14.13 at 8:31 pm

No, men would be writing those articles. (If only Betty Friedan had given some thought to the plight of women who want to write for women’s magazines!) Maybe they’d let Parker have a by-line for a ghostwritten column, make the ladies feel they’re understood.


Barry 02.15.13 at 1:31 pm

Good point.

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