Timelines as Investigative Tools

General Outline of CFR Policy and Practice to the End of the Second World War

In keeping with the theme of my last post, I decided to pull some data out of Imperial Brain Trust and put it on a timeline. I usually have a high tolerance for technical history books, but the book is so dense that the authors had to put much of the information in tables; otherwise, the bulk of the book would just be paragraph after paragraph of listing the same names over and over in different contexts. Even though I only used about 10% of the book, I had difficulty building a timeline without resorting to mind-numbing repetition of “who-what-when-where.” Unfortunately, the “why” argument in this book is a function of who did what, when, and where; the totality of the data is an extremely compelling argument in and of itself, but trying to keep track of so many parallel threads is admittedly daunting. To the authors’ credit (yes, there are two of them), the book features several useful appendices of key figures, but only with regard to those individuals’ membership in a few key organizations listed in the book. But Imperial Brain Trust was published in 1977, when the best means of data visualization available to the authors was a big cork-board and a lot of note cards and red string. Because of that, the book is terminally difficult to navigate – we can’t follow every one of the strings, because we can’t see the authors’ note cards. If they included all of the relevant connections about Norman H. Davis or John J. McCloy every time their names were mentioned, the book would be thirty thousand pages long.

So, did my timeline work to clarify things? No, not really. It provides a vague thread of continuity between events, but it’s far less coherent than book. The exercise did make me curious, however, what might be possible with a more multi-dimensional data visualization tool. The information embodied in this book clearly took thousands of hours of research, and would provide a great jumping-off point for a research project on the socioeconomic makeup of the 20th-century Atlantic ruling class. With four to six historians and a couple data scientists working full-time on the project, you could create a beautiful interactive web of connections, mapping out every relationship – who went to the same prep school, who worked at the same white-shoe law firm, who financed whose South African mining project, etc. – but that kind of project would never get off the ground. Nobody with enough money to fund that kind of research has any interest in doing so, because the conclusions of any such study would paint a target on their own back.

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