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Langer, William L. (1896-1977)

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Harvard University Faculty Memorial Minute

William LangerDisturbed 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. Langer.

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 more appropriate.

Langer at home
William L. Langer in the conservatory of his home at 1 Berkeley Street in Cambridge, circa 1970.

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.

Langer portraitWith 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.

Langer and peers
Langer, 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 and peace.

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.

William Langer
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

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 Upheaval, 1832-1852.

Aron and Langer
Raymond 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 by Holbein.

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.

— 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.