RECAP: “Do Leaders Make History, or Is It Beyond Their Control,” with Harvard Prof. Fredrik Logevall

The question of how historians should conceptualize the role individual agency plays in history was at the heart of the Kinder Institute and Novak Leadership Institute’s co-sponsored March 2 lecture, delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Fredrik Logevall. In the past two decades, Prof. Logevall showed, historians have shied away from biographies and have instead embraced structural history, crafting works that are broad in scope and that tend to emphasize a grander storyline. History and its lessons, such works posit, are larger than any singular person, and as a result of this conclusion, Prof. Logevall added, structural history responds to the idea that profound developments must have profound causes.

While he noted that structural history certainly provides an important analytical framework for understanding human history, he likewise contended that it trends, perhaps overly so, toward deterministic impressions—i.e., that what happened had to happen. Hindsight bias feeds into the illusion that the course of history is inevitable and that human beings are simply characters playing out scripted events. Essentially, structural history precludes the possibility of other conclusions or explanations for world affairs. As a way to push back against this bias, Prof. Logevall offered counterfactual analysis, or “what-if” questions. What if Johnson deescalated the Vietnam War? What if Kennedy stopped anti-Castro foreign policy? Do the answers to these questions change events in history? For Prof. Logevall, the answer is ‘yes’. By implementing counterfactual analysis into his work, he has found that individual agency and individual choice impact history in quite substantive ways, meaning that certain historical events were not, as structuralists might suggest, inevitable. Moving forward, he drew out the latter of the two aforementioned case studies as a way to illuminate his methodology.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

On October 14, 1962, the world came perilously close to nuclear war after the U.S. photographed Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. The knowledge that nuclear missiles were pointed toward the states began a 13-day crisis during which the U.S. and the Soviet Union feverishly (and successfully) negotiated for a peaceful conclusion. On October 28, an agreement between the two countries was reached, in which the U.S.S.R. would remove their missiles from Cuba if the U.S. in turn removed their missiles from Turkey.

Instead of portraying the Cuban Missile Crisis as another inevitable event in Cold War history, Logevall highlighted the role individuals played in both creating and ending the crisis. He argued, specifically, that there is a paradox inherent in this particular historical moment: JFK’s continuation of Eisenhower’s anti-Castro policies directly contributed to Cuba’s decision to let the U.S.S.R. build missiles in Cuba. Consequently, it was JFK himself who both caused and resolved the crisis. To contextualize this paradox, Logevall played an audio recording of a conversation between JFK and former-president Eisenhower, in which JFK listens with affirming silence to Eisenhower and his anti-Castro analysis of the situation. Logevall then described a second audio clip, in which JFK argues to accept the proposed tradeoff to end the crisis but to keep it a secret from the public. For Logevall, in solving the crisis, Kennedy thus insistently perpetuated its cause, as JFK continued to employ counterproductive anti-Castro policies even after an agreement with the U.S.S.R. was reached (a policy which, down the road, had significant impact on the Vietnam War).

The Historian’s Task

Not every historian is a fan of counterfactual analysis. History is already hard enough to interpret without throwing other possibilities into the mix. But, as Prof. Logevall emphasized, saying nothing counterfactual equates to saying nothing at all, and by refusing to examine what other possibilities might have occurred at a particular moment in time, historians will struggle more to understand why certain events happened the way they did. Put more simply, historians need to seriously consider what did not happen in order to account for what did.

Going forward, historians must take account of reality and balance structural history with individual agency. Individual choice impacts history, just as history impacts the choices people make. Here, Prof. Logevall noted how he was heavily influenced by Karl Marx, who famously said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstance existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” By weaving together the personal with the impersonal, historical narratives can take on a deeper, more contoured understanding of events. Instead of shying away from biographical stories, historians should embrace individuals and consider how they have influenced history.