WILLIAM L. LANGER: HISTORIAN OF DIPLOMACY 1896-1977
Memorial Minute adopted by the Faculty
of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.
John K. Fairbank, Franklin L. Ford, Edward S. Mason, Ernest R. May,
Richard Pipes, Robert Lee Wolff, Chairman
Disturbed by students' inability in the late 1960's to find their
identity, William L. Langer was moved to write his autobiography.
Believing with the immigrant families of his generation that America
was still a land of freedom and opportunity, he harked back to
the events of his childhood and youth. It was his last book --
In and Out of the Ivory Tower -- and a copy reached him
just before he died, on December 26, 1977, in his eighty-second
year. Even those who thought they knew him well found much to
surprise them and much to explain his extraordinary career.
Born in South Boston on March 16,
1896, he was the second of three sons of Charles Rudolph and Johanna
(Rockenbach) Langer, both recently arrived in this country from
Germany. C.R. Langer was prospering but, when Bill was three years
old, died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Langer pregnant with their third
son and without money. She supported and cared for the three boys,
taking boarders and working as a dressmaker to make ends meet.
Langer affectionately recalls a Spartan but happy childhood: good
food, demanding household chores, and -- from the age of nine
onward -- a series of part-time jobs. And always there was school.
The third-grade teacher with the rattan cane that hurt his hand
nonetheless interested Langer in history, geography, and spelling.
Afterwards came the Boston Latin School, an arduous three mile
walk, and then Harvard, worlds away from South Boston, though
only an hour by the newly completed subway. Determined to be practical,
Langer concentrated in modern languages instead of the history
and classics that had become his real interest. As for student
life, he notes, "I simply did not have it."
In his freshman year, Bill got high
marks in seven courses. When the Dean maintained that this was
impossible, Bill won the argument by pointing out that he had
done it. He also hypnotized the Dean into admitting Rudolph Langer,
the eldest brother, who had left high school to help support the
family. Rudolph got four A's his freshman year and became a distinguished
mathematician. The third son, Walter, later became a psychoanalyst.
Without Langer's autobiography, one could not have imagined the
inspiring story of his youth, his own role in his brothers' careers,
and behind all three youngsters the indomitable figure of Mrs.
Receiving his A.B. in 1915, Langer
taught German for two years at Worcester Academy. With the first
World War underway, intensely curious about its origins, and already
Wilsonian in his thinking, he simultaneously studied international
relations at Clark University. In December 1917, he enlisted,
serving in France in a chemical warfare unit, whose history he
wrote immediately after the Armistice: his first book. Then he
returned to Harvard as a graduate student in history -- "a Subject"
he says, "every aspect of which aroused my interest and engaged
my thought." Archibald Cary Coolidge, the first scholar in America
to see the importance of studying Russian, Near Eastern, and Asian
history, became his mentor and close personal friend.
Langer did research for his Ph.D.
thesis in the imperial archives in Vienna during the frigid winter
of 1921-1922 and studied Russian on the side. He received the
Ph.D. degree in 1923 and after four years teaching Modern European
history at Clark, he returned to Harvard as Assistant Professor.
When Professor Coolidge died early in 1928, Langer succeeded to
his course on the Near Eastern question, dealing with the Ottoman
Empire and its many subject peoples, Christian and Muslim, viewing
Europe from Constantinople, and assessing the centuries-long diplomatic
and military impact of the Turks on international affairs. Every
year, Langer also lectured on modern European history from 1815-1914.
In 1931, he became Associate Professor and in 1936 the first incumbent
of the Coolidge chair, founded by his beloved teacher's own bequest.
Nothing could have given Langer greater pleasure or have been
L. Langer in the conservatory of his home at 1 Berkeley
Street in Cambridge,
As a lecturer, Langer was easy,
fluent, pungent, his material lucidly organized, each sentence
ending on a curious rising tone at the moment where other men's
voices drop, a style that tempted successive generations of undergraduates
to efforts at imitation. In his autobiography, Langer later described
the sudden attacks of "stage-fright," beginning in 1938, that
beset him while lecturing, and turned each class into a nightmare
for him. Such was his iron control, however, and so unaffected
was his actual performance that this revelation astounded even
colleagues who had taught courses jointly with him and attended
all his lectures.
Langer's seminar met in the evening
in his own study at home, the students working within a field
of modern diplomatic history so circumscribed that all could gain
a general acquaintance with the source materials and the monographic
literature. Each student would deliver his report orally and submit
to criticism first by all the other students and finally by Langer
himself. Woe betide the young scholar whose report seemed to neglect
some useful avenue of approach: once, when all the student critics
had offered admiring comments on a report, and Langer's turn came,
he said to the author, "Well, Mr. X., it is a pretty good paper,
but did you use the Italian sources?" When X replied, "But Mr.
Langer, I don't read Italian," Langer's ringing rejoinder was
"How do you know, Mr. X? Have you ever tried?" By lunchtime next
day, this reply was reverberating among the graduate students
in history and has continued to echo down the ages. Langer subjected
the final written papers to the most searching scrutiny: a rigorous
professional training for future professionals. On seminar evenings
themselves, however, Mrs. Langer appeared in the doorway at ten,
with beer and coffee. Discussions would become general, and relaxation
would set in.
Langer's writings had the same magisterial
quality as his teaching. His monograph on The Franco-Russian
Alliance, 1890-1894 (1929) explored the first stages in the
unravelling of Bismarck's system of alliances, the rapprochement
between Tsarist Russia at one of its most reactionary moments
and the French Third Republic as one of its most liberal ones.
European Alliances and Alignments, 1870-1890 (1931) described
the building of the intricate Bismarckian system of security down
to the Kaiser's dismissal of its architect in 1890. The Diplomacy
of Imperialism in two volumes (1935) carried the subject down
to 1902, into an era when friction was replacing equilibrium.
Langer performed a prodigious amount of research, using all the
appropriate languages, and then achieved a splendidly organized,
clearly written, and almost preternaturally objective, even detached,
treatment of the complex material. Unlike any other historical
studies of their scope, these books have remained standard for
more than forty years.
the Japanese, Italian, and German aggression of the mid and later
thirties, Langer turned his attention to current developments,
writing shorter articles for a wider audience. Many appeared in
Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign
Relations, in whose pages during the eleven years between 1925
and 1936, Langer had written brief incisive comment on approximately
600 new books a year. With the help of other scholars during the
1930's, Langer wholly revised Ploetz's Epitome of History,
which reappeared in 1940 as An Encyclopaedia of World History
and is still going strong in its fifth edition. He also undertook
the planning and editorship of a twenty-volume series on the Rise
of Modern Europe, reserving for himself a volume on the two decades
between 1832 and 1852.
As World War II moved into its most
threatening phases, President Roosevelt in the summer of 1941
appointed Colonel William J. Donovan as chief of the first United
States coordinated foreign intelligence service in our history.
Langer became Deputy Chief and then Chief of the Research and
Analysis Branch of this agency, by 1942 known as the Office of
Strategic Services. The R and A branch became as large as a university
faculty, with its own offices overseas and its members attached
to offices of other OSS branches.
The analysts worried about the effectiveness
of their work, and often grumbled because it seldom drew immediate
audible applause. Once, Langer called them together and encouraged
them, using a metaphor from his own experience in World War I,
"If one shot in ten hits anything worth hitting," he declared,
"the artillery's doing fine." The mere sight of him and the sound
of that gravelly voice did some good, but the discovery some weeks
later that the R and A study of North African seaport had played
an essential part in the American landings in Africa did much
more. Now wholly declassified, the work of Langer's branch can
be judged by students of the United States in World War II.
second from the left, in 1965. Courtesy of the Boston Public
Library Print Department.
In autumn, 1943, Cordell Hull, Secretary
of State, invited Langer to write a study of American wartime
relations with the French, offering free access to all the documents.
Continuing to run the R and A branch all day, he now spent two
to three hours every evening at the State Department. His book,
Our Vichy Gamble, appeared in 1947. Its soundness as a
work of history compelled even those who vehemently disliked its
message to treat it more respectfully than he had expected. In
1946, Langer undertook, with the collaboration of S. Everett Gleason,
to write for the Council on Foreign Relations a history of American
policy during World War II. Undeterred by the Chicago Tribune,
which called him a "hired liar," in 1952 and 1953 he and Gleason
produced two massive and lucid volumes, The Challenge to Isolation,
1937-1940 and The Undeclared War, 1940-1941, which
remain the basic account of American foreign policy in the years
before Pearl Harbor. But Langer had to stop there. As he put it,
"The writing of contemporary history is like the work of Sisyphus."
In 1950, Langer obtained an additional
year of leave to organize the office of National Estimates in
the newly established Central Intelligence Agency. But except
for membership after 1961 on the President's Foreign Intelligence
Advisory Board, the year 1952 marked the end of Langer's government
service. He was awarded the Medal for Merit by President Truman
in 1945. It would be hard to think of any productive scholar-historian
who ever made so extensive a contribution to government in war
courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department
Back at Harvard in the early fifties,
Langer became intimately connected with the Regional Studies Programs
and their affiliated research centers, established for Russia
and East Asia after the war. In 1954 he was instrumental in founding
the new center for Middle Eastern Studies, and in 1955 became
Director of the Russian Research Center and chairman of the entire
Regional Studies effort. These enterprises still flourish and
owe him a debt of gratitude.
Langer's deep curiosity about men
and affairs turned in the fifties and sixties to new fields of
inquiry. As President of the American Historical Association,
he delivered at Christmas 1957 an address on the importance of
depth psychology as a tool for historians seeking to explain human
motivation. He discussed in some detail the childhood and youth
of Martin Luther, and argued that, if one had correspondence or
diaries written by an author with no inkling that it might be
read with psychical analysis in mind, one should make judicious
analytical use of it. After the address, which came as a bombshell,
Langer learned that Erik Erikson was working on a full-length
analytical study of Luther, which Erikson then invited him to
read in proof. Langer also asked whether psychoanalytical techniques
could be helpful to historians in their study of larger currents
of history, such as, for example, the aftermath of great plagues
like the Black Death of 1348-1349. This brilliant portion of the
address, discussing the impact of the plague on religion, art
and literature, went almost unnoticed. Langer next explored demography
and related Europe's first population explosion to the spreading
cultivation of the potato. In 1969 his former student, Professor
Carl Schorske of Princeton, and Mrs. Schorske edited a volume
of Langer's previously uncollected papers called Exploration
in Crisis, with a fine introductory appreciation. And in the
same year Langer published his own often-postponed volume in his
own series on the Rise of Modern Europe, Political and Social
Aron, a French Historian, and Langer at Harvard Commencement.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
Honors naturally poured in upon
Langer. He cherished his membership in the American Philosophical
Society. Harvard and Yale awarded him LL.D. degrees, Harvard in
1945, at the Commencement just after the end of World War II.
The University of Hamburg followed in 1955, its gown including
a starched white ruff that turned Langer into a living portrait
Langer's first marriage, in 1921,
to Susanne Knauth, ended in divorce. They had two sons, Leonard
and Bertrand. In 1943 he married Rowena Morse Nelson, who had
four children by her first marriage. The Langers took adventurous
trips abroad, played golf on two continents, shared in a love
of literature, art, and good company, and enjoyed Bill's arduous
life of scholarship and public service as much as the holidays
at Annisquam or overseas. For years he played the viola in quartets,
and was always a regular concertgoer. When illness struck him
repeatedly in the 1970's, he fought back staunchly and resumed
his work and his recreation as if there had been no interruption.
Former students and younger colleagues found in him the most attentive
of listeners and the kindest of advisers. He set a standard of
excellence and probity that few could match; but lesser men found
it stimulating to ask themselves from time to time if what they
were saying or writing would meet with his approval and to hope
that occasionally they were measuring up. This formidable man
was paradoxically gentle, this realist and Realpolitiker was romantic
and imaginative, this proud and self-made man with so much to
be sure about was sometimes as uncertain and insecure -- he says
so himself -- as the rest of us. His life and his achievement
were from first to last a triumph and a fulfillment.
William Langer and
his wife, Rowena, were regular Unitarian congregants at The First
Parish in Cambridge, MA; during his years of government service
in Washington DC, they attended All Souls Church and especially
appreciated the prophetic ministry of A. Powell Davies.