William L. Langer

For the North Dakota politician, see William Langer. For the Wisconsin politician, see William Langer (Assemblyman).
William Leonard Langer
William L. Langer
Born (1896-03-16)March 16, 1896
South Boston, Massachusetts
Died December 26, 1977(1977-12-26) (aged 81)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Monuments William Langer Award (Central Intelligence Agency#Directorate of Intelligence)
Occupation academic historian, intelligence analyst, policy advisor
Home town South Boston, Massachusetts
Religion Unitarianism
  • two, with Susanne:
  • Leonard C. R. Langer
  • Bertrand W. Langer
  • Karl Rudolf Langer, a florist
  • Johanna Rockenbach

Military career

Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service December 1917-
Rank engineer Sergeant

William Leonard Langer (March 16, 1896 – December 26, 1977) was the chairman of the history department at Harvard University. He was on leave during World War II as head of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services. He was a specialist on the diplomacy of the 1870-1900, and the 1937-1941 periods. He edited numerous books including a series on European history, a large-scale reference book, and a university textbook.

Early life

Born in South Boston, Massachusetts, he was the second of three sons of recent German immigrants, Charles Rudolph and Johanna Rockenbach. His elder brother, Rudolf Ernest Langer, became a mathematician and his younger brother, Walter Charles Langer, a psychoanalyst.[4][7]

When William was only three, his father died unexpectedly, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, his mother, who supported the family by working as a dressmaker, made education a priority for her children.

Education and career

After studying at the Boston Latin School, Langer attended Harvard University.

Langer was fluent in German, and taught German at Worcester Academy while furthering his own education with courses on international relations at Clark University.

His job and education were interrupted by military service World War I. After the war, he returned to his studies and obtained his Ph.D. in 1923. In 1921 he married Susanne Katherina Langer (née Knauth) who became a noted philosopher. They had two sons together before divorcing in 1942.

He taught modern European history at Clark University for four years before accepting an assistant professorship at Harvard. In 1936 Langer became the first to hold the Archibald Coolidge chair.

Langer was remembered at Harvard especially for his History 132 course on modern European history, History 157 on the Ottoman Empire, and the graduate seminars held at his home.[8][9]

With the help of other scholars during the 1930s, Langer completely revised the Epitome of History by German Scholar Karl Ploetz. Langer's massive work was published in 1940 under the title An Encyclopedia of World History.[10] Its fifth edition (1972) is the last to be edited by Langer. Peter N. Stearns and thirty other prominent historians edited the sixth edition, published in 2001. Stearns paid tribute to Langer's great achievement in the introduction to the new edition.

Later career

In 1957, Langer urged historians to expand their insights with techniques from modern psychology.[11]

War service

Langer was an enlisted man in the United States Army Chemical Service in World War I, and saw combat in a chemical weapons unit on the Western Front in France. He described the experience in a book he wrote with another man in his company.[6]

During World War II, Langer served in the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as deputy chief and later chief of the Research and Analysis Branch until the end of the war. In correspondence he was identified as OSS 117,[12] a codename which entered French popular culture in 1949 for an unrelated iconic fictional character of books and film. He was special assistant for intelligence analysis to U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. In 1950 Langer organized the office of National Estimates in the newly established Central Intelligence Agency[13] Langer then returned to academia, but from 1961 to 1977 he served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.


William Langer was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 1954. Postwar, both Harvard and Yale University awarded Langer LL.D. degrees as did the University of Hamburg in 1955. Among his many involvements, Langer served as president of the American Historical Association for 1957.



  1. "William Leonard Langer". Dictionary of American Biography (fee, via Fairfax County Public Library). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1995. Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310009409. Retrieved 2014-02-03. Biography in Context. (subscription required)
  2. Greer, William R. (July 19, 1985). "SUSANNE K. LANGER, PHILOSOPHER, IS DEAD AT 89". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  3. Vetter, Herbert, ed. (2007). Notable American Unitarians 1936-1961. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Square library. pp. iii, 134. ISBN 978-0-6151-4784-0. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  4. 1 2 "William L. Langer: Historian of Diplomacy". Notable American Unitarians. Archived from the original on 2013-12-30. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  5. "CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence Marks its 50th Anniversary". Central Intelligence Agency. November 4, 2002. Retrieved 2014-02-03. William Langer Award for outstanding analytic contributions to the DI. Langer - a distinguished scholar and pioneer OSS analyst - was the first chairman of CIA’s Office of National Estimates and later served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). During his career, Langer demonstrated the feasibility of performing intelligence analysis by combining information from multiple intelligence collection disciplines, including imagery, signals intercepts, and human intelligence.
  6. 1 2 "Gas and Flame in World War I: The New Weapons of Terror". George Washington University. Retrieved 2014-02-03. Langer served as an engineer in Company E of the 1st Gas Regiment, Chemical Warfare Service, of the U.S. Army.
  7. Waggoner, Walter H. (July 10, 1981). "WALTER LANGER IS DEAD AT 82; WROTE SECRET STUDY OF HITLER". New York Times. Walter Langer was born in Boston on Feb. 9, 1899, the son of Charles Rudolph and Johanna Rockenbach Langer. He was a practicing psychoanalyst from the late 1930's until about 1960, and he was the The brother of William L. Langer, the Harvard historian, and Rudolph Ernest Langer, chairman of the mathematics department at the University of Wisconsin.
  8. Kann, Peter R. (June 9, 1964). "Historian Langer Enters Retirement After 37 Years On Harvard Faculty". Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
  9. Ostro, Ernest A. (May 25, 1951). "Emeritus Professors Continue Work, Return from Retirement to Teach Fay Came Out of Retirement On Two-Day's Warning to Give History 132 for Langer". Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2014-02-05.
  10. "Preface to the First Edition. 2001. The Encyclopedia of World History". Archived from the original on 2008-09-06. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
  11. Rogow, Arnold A. (September 8, 1985). "The World on a Couch". The New York Times. (review of Gay, Peter. Freud for historians.)
  12. Petersen, Neal H. (ed.). "OSS Code Number Identifications". From Hitler's Doorstep: The Wartime Intelligence Reports of Allen Dulles, 1942-1945. Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 543. ISBN 0-271-01485-7. LCCN 95-34966. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  13. "Minutes of Meeting held in Director's Conference Room ... at 1100 hours" (PDF). December 26, 1950. Retrieved 2014-02-03. William L. Langer, Asst. Dir. for National Estimates
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