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Dream Team of Historians Proposed to Advise U.S. President

Imagine a dream team of the nation's top historians, recruited by the White House to advise the president on major decisions. That's the idea being pitched by two Harvard University scholars who say many United States leaders know alarmingly little about history, both of their own country and of others.

Professors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson are calling on the next U.S. president to create a Council of Historical Advisers that would tackle present problems by looking to the past.

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Trying to take down a terrorist group? The council would scour historical records to find similar groups, and then analyze which strategies worked against them.

Facing a financial crisis? The council would glean lessons from past meltdowns and report their findings to the president.

"I think there would be more than enough work for a council of applied historians," said Allison, a professor of government and director of Harvard's Belfer Center, a university think tank.

Image: Obama smiles during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S.
President Barack Obama smiles during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 4. JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

In an online manifesto published this month, the professors said they aim to close a "history deficit" in the White House. They contend that few leaders from any presidential administration have shown a deep understanding of history in the Middle East, for example, or of the United States' involvement in the region.

The scholars are urging U.S. presidential candidates to promise they will create the council if elected. Campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not respond to requests for comment. The White House did not immediately comment on the proposal.

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U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and a former history professor, said in an interview that the council would have value only if the president wanted its advice. Still, Cole said he supports the idea.

"We need leaders to understand the importance of making historically informed decisions. Most of them don't," Cole said.

Tom Cole
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, gestures as he speaks during a Town Hall meeting in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Others question whether academic historians could keep up with the pace of the White House, or if they could all agree.

"The idea that historians would reach consensus on anything is a lovely idea that's not well borne out in practice," said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and a former State Department staff member under President George W. Bush.

George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush
President-elect Barack Obama is welcomed by President George W. Bush for a meeting at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009, with former presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Alterman, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, added that "the kind of history that is useful to policymakers is the kind of history fewer and fewer historians are doing."

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The Harvard professors modeled their proposal after the Council of Economic Advisers, a White House agency led by three economists who are appointed to advise the president. Allison said that if economists and foreign policy experts are allowed a regular spot at the president's table, historians deserve a place, too.

"There's nobody around with a crystal ball, so the question is whether they can add value compared to the competition, and I believe they can," Allison said.

Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Trump reacts during news conference at Old Post Office Building in Washington
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts during a news conference at the construction site of the Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office Building in Washington, March 21, 2016. Jim Bourg / Reuters

By making the proposal, the professors are also trying to revive the practice of "applied history" — using history as a tool to tackle modern predicaments.

The idea has fallen out of favor at many U.S. colleges, Allison said, but he believes it could draw interest to history departments with lagging enrollment numbers.