The U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) first developed a concept for an oral history handbook in the mid-1980s. Its objective was to provide Department of the Army (DA) oral history guidance for the growing number of historians tasked with conducting interviews. Since that time, Army historians, military and civilian, have conducted thousands of oral history interviews. Because of the increased importance of oral history in documenting the history of the U.S. Army-as exemplified by the efforts to capture the Army’s response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the ongoing operations in the Global War on Terrorism-the Center of Military History deemed the time was right to revise its guide to practicing oral history in order to disseminate lessons learned from this wealth of experience.

Washington, D.C.
15 September 2006
Chief of Military History

The U.S. Army has a long tradition of using oral history to preserve historical information and to enrich its official written histories with material otherwise unavailable in the documentary record. In fact, one could say that the Army’s oral history program actually began before the Army existed: in April 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned a series of interviews (called “depositions”) with participants in the engagement at Lexington.(1) In doing so, the Provincial Congress harkened back to useful practices at least as old as Herodotus. Since World War II, oral history has been an integral piece in the U.S. Army historian’s toolbox. Today Army historians benefit from the increased popularity and institutional acceptance of oral history both within and outside the Army and from the technological advances that make capturing and preserving the spoken word easier than ever before.

Front Cover: Oral History in the Field. Maj. Jack McKenna (left), 126th Military History Detachment (MHD), interviews Capt. David Stone (center), 3rd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division, and an unidentified combat engineer about improvised explosive devices along the infamous BIAP (Baghdad-International Airport) Road in Baghdad, Iraq, December 2005. (Photographer: Sfc. Patrick R. Jennings, 126th MHD)


Moreover, the demand for oral history has never been greater. In addition to providing important information for official historians to supplement official records, oral histories today are used in a variety of ways ranging from informing soldiers and leaders about their predecessors’ experiences to “bringing to life” museum exhibits with the words (and sounds) of participants. The result is a fuller appreciation and understanding of the events and experiences that constitute the history and heritage of the U.S. Army.
This publication reflects the Army’s long-term experience with oral history, particularly the prodigious work of Army historians to document Army history since 1989 in the words of participants. To create a document encompassing the surprisingly strong thoughts and emotions that oral history evokes among historians can be a perplexing challenge. Stephen Everett prepared the Center of Military History’s first oral history guide, Oral History: Techniques and Procedures, which was published in 1992 and offered Army historians a common point of reference. This revision builds on that first effort by including updated information and incorporating insights and lessons gleaned from the experiences of Army historians. The purpose of the guide is to provide a concise user-friendly handbook that can aid experienced hands and novice historians alike by offering general guidelines and methods that have proven effective. The focus of the guide throughout is on practical advice and suggestions that will enable the novice to get started with confidence and the experienced user to refine and improve his or her methods and practices.
The U.S. Army Guide to Oral History is in accordance with Army Regulation 870-5, Military History: Responsibilities, Policies, and Procedures (29 January 1999), and FM 1-20, Military History Operations (February 2003), yet its primary intent is to suggest procedures that have been proven effective. Obviously, no one method or approach is suitable for each oral history program or interviewer, and readers should pursue those styles and techniques that best suit their own programs, needs, and skills. Proposals for improving the guide or questions concerning its contents should be sent to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, ATTN: DAMH-HDS, 103 Third Avenue, Fort Lesley J. McNair, D.C. 20319-5058.
The author would like to thank the following members of the Army historical community for their assistance in preparing this guide: Diane Sedore Arms, Stephen A. Bourque, Stephen E. Bower, Anne W. Chapman, Patrick R. Jennings, Benjamin D. King, Christopher N. Koontz, John C. Lonnquest, J. Britt McCarley, Beth F. MacKenzie, James C. McNaughton, Richard W. Stewart, Frank R. Shirer, Charles E. White, and Robert K. Wright, Jr.

Washington, D.C.
15 September 2006


When the U.S. Army Center of Military History first published a guide to oral history in 1992, Chapter One was titled, “What is oral history?”(2) Today few in the Army-and certainly no Army historians-would find it necessary to ask that question. An integral part of the Army Historical Program since World War II, oral history has assumed an even more important role in documenting Army history in the post-Cold War era. Indeed, oral history interviews are at the center of accounts of the Army’s numerous, diverse, and challenging operations and institutional initiatives since the end of the Cold War. From Panama and Operation JUST CAUSE through Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, and from the post-Cold War drawdown of the Army to transformation and modularity, Army historians have sought to supplement meager documentary records with the insights and spoken words of knowledgeable participants in these historical events.(3)
Oral history interviews preserve the perspective of the individual. The purpose of oral history, therefore, is to interview individuals in order to capture and preserve their spoken perspectives, judgments, and recollections. As explained in Army Regulation (AR) 870-5, Military History: Responsibilities, Policies, and Procedures, oral history activities “are conducted to obtain historical information that may not otherwise be recorded.” Interviews supplement the written record, which all too often slights the role of individuals in important decisions and events and generally omits the detailed information that nonparticipants require in order to understand what happened and why. Command reports, press conferences, and memoirs of senior officers, for example, while useful in providing a high-level perspective, cannot adequately portray the course and confusion of a battle at the level of the soldiers who waged it. Nor can PowerPoint briefings, information papers, and press releases adequately chronicle the complexities and nuances inherent in senior leader decision-making-particularly in this period of sweeping change for the Army. Interviews help elucidate the background of important events and place decisions in context. Interviews that explain, for example, how previous Army Staff and Secretariat principals dealt with problems and issues also can provide insights for current and future Army leaders confronting similar challenges.
It is important to note that “oral history” and “interview” are not synonymous. An interview is the recording of an individual’s words in response to the questions of the historian. The interview, in whatever form it is recorded, constitutes an official record and must be treated (and preserved) as such. The “oral history” is a collaborative venture that reflects the twin efforts of the interviewer and interviewee to create a unique historical source through reviewing and editing the transcript of the interview. An unedited transcript of an interview is neither an oral history nor a substitute, from the perspective of Army records management, for the original recording.
Like all historical sources, oral history has inherent strengths and weaknesses. The greatest strength of oral history is its ability to capture and preserve information that may not otherwise be saved, particularly personal perspectives and anecdotes that will not be found in official records. The weaknesses of oral history are often overstated and usually attributable to human failings-that is, shortcomings on the part of either practitioners or users. All historical sources-from command reports to after-action reviews (AARs) and unit records-contain biases and shortcomings. The historian’s responsibility and obligation is to weigh and compare multiple sources before rendering judgment. The historian must approach a completed oral history, therefore, with the same analytical standards that would be used to assess any source. Interviews will reflect personal biases: interviewees may be unwilling to address directly controversial issues or mistakes and errors they made, while the passage of time may render the interviewee’s memory suspect on points of fact. (Evidence of personal bias or touchiness on a particular topic, it should be noted, may prove useful information at a later date.) Similar problems exist with written records, and the historian simply must go about the business of discerning the truth in the old-fashioned way: comparing and analyzing all the available sources to distinguish between the likely and the improbable.
The obligation of the historian conducting an oral history interview is to keep in mind the interests and needs of the historian who will use the oral history. Regardless of the focus or topic of a particular interview, the interviewer should concentrate on eliciting the interviewee’s thoughts and opinions as comprehensively as possible. Statements that reflect the interviewee’s belief, for example, such as, “I thought that X would happen,” should be followed by questions to determine why the interviewee believed that at the time. Similarly, generalizations such as “We always had problems with Y,” should be followed by a request for a specific example. Such details will increase the likelihood that an interview proves useful for historians at a future date. A related issue, and one that is often highlighted by detractors of oral history, is the diminished memory of individuals when interviewed many years after the event. Memories are malleable and can be influenced and changed over time. The task of the historian in such instances is twofold: to determine the relative accuracy of the interviewee’s account, for example, by asking questions that can be corroborated by other sources, and to focus the interview on topics that are less susceptible to the passage of time. While an interviewee may not remember accurately the specific time or date of an event, certain details about the event itself will be inscribed in the interviewee’s memory for all time.
Any interview can produce useful historical information. It is the task of the oral historian to discover and record that information; it is the responsibility of the historian who later uses that information to determine its significance.

Over the years the Army has accumulated a wealth of oral history interviews that have helped preserve the record of its activities in peace and war. Without these materials, reconstructing many events in the Army’s history would be difficult. Beginning with World War II, Army historians have interviewed soldiers of all ranks in order to fill holes and discover information not available in unit records. Confronted with the challenge of documenting and understanding the actions of an organization of millions that was spread across the globe, Army historians quickly recognized the value of oral histories for capturing individual perspectives and supplementing unit records. Perhaps the most important initiative these historians undertook was to interview soldiers immediately after they had been involved in combat actions. Such interviews proved of crucial importance in enabling Army historians to write knowledgeably and accurately about combat operations after the war. “This corpus of Combat Interviews,” wrote one author of an official World War II history, “is one of the most valuable sources of information available to the historian. It fleshes out the framework of events chronicled in the unit journals and provides additional testimony to help resolve disputed questions of fact.”(4) The final product-the United States Army in World War II series known as the Green Books demonstrated the value of these historians’ work.
This practice of collecting firsthand accounts continued in subsequent wars and conflicts, particularly in Korea and Vietnam where technology, in the form of the portable tape recorder, facilitated the historian’s task. Equally important was growing institutional acceptance in the U.S. Army that oral history was a necessary requirement for capturing the experiences of war and organizational history.
In 1970 Army Chief of Staff General William C. Westmoreland directed the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Army Military History Institute to sponsor jointly a peacetime interview program. This program, which became known as the Senior Officer Oral History Program, was expressly designed to gather and preserve the memories of selected individuals for the benefit of the Army. Students at the Army War College performed background research on the careers of important retired general officers and then, after oral history training by the staff of the Military History Institute, interviewed them about their experiences and their careers. The students, mostly lieutenant colonels who were expected to advance to future leadership positions, learned oral history techniques from the institute’s staff. The Senior Officer Oral History Program was the most visible Army interview program during the 1970s, although other historical programs, like that of the U.S. Army Medical Department, had been collecting interviews since the early 1950s.
By the late 1970s the range of Army oral history activities had begun to expand. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established an active biographical and subject interview program in 1977. During the early 1980s the establishment of full-time historians at most of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s centers and schools provided greater opportunities to record new military developments using oral history. Today, in Army commands, Army service component commands, and direct reporting units historians use interviews to collect data for preparing monographs or to teach lessons learned to young soldiers.(5)
In 1986 the Department of the Army directed that exit interviews be conducted with departing school commandants as well as division, corps, and MACOM commanders. This effort, known today as the End-of-Tour (EOT) Interview Program, is designed to make interviews available to incoming commanders so they can better understand the issues faced by their predecessors. Through the guidance and support of successive Army Chiefs of Staff-Generals Carl E. Vuono, Gordon R. Sullivan and Dennis J. Reimer-an expanded EOT program ensures that selected members of the Army Staff are also interviewed.
Recognizing the expanding role of oral history, the Center of Military History created an Oral History Activity in 1986 to coordinate issues concerning the Army’s oral history programs. The Center’s oral historians established interview guidelines and oral history policy for Army historians, initiated EOT interviews with members of the Army Secretariat and Army Staff, and advised the Army on the uses of oral history. In addition to those ongoing responsibilities, today the Center’s oral historians monitor the contemporary history of the Headquarters, Department of the Army, and conduct special oral history projects such as interviewing witnesses to and participants in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. They also compile indices of oral histories conducted throughout the Army, assist historians in using proper oral history techniques, and aid researchers searching for oral history resources.(6)

(1) Robert K. Wright, Jr., “Clio in Combat: The Evolution of the Military History Detachment,” Anny Historian 6 (Winter 1985): 3-6. The depositions are listed in Arthur B. Tourtellot, William Diamond’s Drum (Garden City, New York: Doubleday &Co., 1959). 287-89. See also Peter Force, ed., American Archives: A Collection of Authentic Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Public Affairs (Washington, D.C.: M. St. Clair Clarke & Peter Force, 1839-1853), 4th ser., 2:487-501. The U.S. Army, of course, was not formed officially until 14 June 1775-afterthe battles at Lexington and Concord Bridge.
(2) Stephen E. Everett, Oral History Techniques and Procedures (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1992).
(3) Examples include Frank N. Schubert and Theresa Kraus, general editors, The Whirlwind War: The United States Army in Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1995); Gregory Fontenot, E.J. Degen, and David Tohn, On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005); David McCormick, The Downsized Warrior: America’s Army in Transition (NewYork: New York University Press, 1998); Walter E. Kretchik, Robert F. Baumann, and John T. Fishel, Invasion, Intervention, “Intervasion”: A Concise History of the U.S. Army in Operation Uphold Democracy (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1997); R. Cody Phillips, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995-2004 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2005), and Operation Just Cause: The Incursion into Panama (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2004); Robert H. Scales, Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1994); Richard W. Stewart, The United States Army in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, October 2001-March 2002 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2003); James I. Yarrison, The Modem Louisiana Maneuvers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1999).
(4) Hugh M. Cole, The Lorraine Campaign, U.S. Army in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1950), p. 617. Cole conducted after-action interviews as a combat historian in the European theater and subsequently used and evaluated many interviews in the preparation of his combat histories. For a brief biography of Cole, see “In Memoriam, Hugh M. Cole (1910-2005),” Army History 62 (Winter 2006): 59.
(5) In 2006, the Army reorganized commands and specified headquarters to create the three categories of Army command, Army service component command, and direct reporting unit. The term, major command (“MACOM”), ceased to be an official category.
(6) In 2005 the Oral History Activity became part of the Historical Support Branch of CMH’s Histories Division. For an overview of oral history in the U.S. Army and current practices, see Stephen J. Lofgren, “The Status of Oral History in the Army: Expanding a Tradition,” Oral History Review 30 (Summer/Fall 2003): 81-98.

By Stephen J. Lofgren
Center of Military History, United States Army
Washington, D.C, 2006

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