William Leonard Langer (March 16, 1896 – December 26, 1977) was the chair of the history department at Harvard University and the World War II volunteer head of the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services. He was the older brother of psychoanalyst Walter Charles Langer.
Born in South Boston, Massachusetts, he was the second of three sons of recent German immigrants, Charles Rudolph and Johanna Rockenbach. His elder brother Rudolph Langer became a mathematician and younger brother Walter Charles Langer, a psychoanalyst.
When William was only three years old, 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. After studying at the Boston Latin School, Langer attended Harvard University. Being fluent in German, he then 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 service in the United States Army on the frontlines in France during 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, though later divorced.
He then taught Modern European history at Clark University for four years before accepting an assistant professorship at Harvard. In 1936, Langer was appointed the first incumbent of the Archibald Coolidge chair.
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. 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.
War service and honorsEdit
Following America's involvement in World War II, Langer was asked by the U.S. government to volunteer his skills with the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he was listed as OSS 117, an identifier which entered French popular culture in 1949 for an unrelated iconic character of books and film. Langer served as chief of Research and Analysis Branch with the OSS until the end of the war after which he was appointed special assistant for intelligence analysis to the U.S. Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes. In 1950, Langer organized the office of National Estimates in the newly established Central Intelligence Agency. 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. Post-war, both Harvard and Yale University awarded Langer LL.D. degrees as did the University of Hamburg in 1955. Among his many involvements, Dr. Langer served as president of the American Historical Association for 1957.
- With "E" of the First Gas [Memoir (1919), revised as: Gas and Flame in World War I (1965)]
- An Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Chronologically Arranged. © 1972, 1968, 1952, 1948, & 1940.
- The Franco-Russian Alliance 1890-1894 (1929)
- European Alliances and Alignments 1870-1890 (1931)
- The Diplomacy of Imperialism (1935) (two volumes)
- Our Vichy Gamble (1947)
- The Challenge to Isolation, 1937-1940 (1952) with S. Everett Gleason
- The Undeclared War, 1940-1941 (1953) with S. Everett Gleason
- Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969)
- In and Out of the Ivory Tower: The Autobiography of William L. Langer (Neele Watson Academic Publications, 1977) ISBN 0-88202-177-X