Revisionism and the Historical Blackout - Henry Elmer Barnes

Charles A. Beard: The 'Isolationist' Smear

Due to the fact that Beard was a trained and venerable scholar and, hence, obviously not a juvenile amateur in using historical documents, that he had a world-wide reputation as one of the most eminent and productive historians and political scientists the United States has ever produced, that he had served as president of the American Political Science Association and of the American Historical Association, and that he was awarded, in 1948, the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for the best historical work of the preceding decade, it required more than usual gall and trepidation to apply the smear technique to Beard and his two splendid books on American foreign policy.

Yet Beard did not escape unscathed, though his facts and objectivity cannot be validly challenged. As Louis Martin Sears pointed out in the American Historical Review: "The volume under review is said to give annoyance to the followers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If that be true, their faith is scarcely founded upon a rock, for no more objective treatment could readily be conceived. The author nowhere injects a personal opinion." Any testimonials as to Beard's historical prowess are, invariably, a red flag to the Smearbund bull. Only this consideration makes such things as Lewis Mumford's resignation from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, because of the award of the above-mentioned medal to Beard, or Harry D. Gideonse's explosion in the New Leader, at all explicable.

The difficulty of attacking Beard relative to his status as an historian diverted most of the smearing of him into the allegation that his work is invalidated and unreliable because he was an "isolationist." The absurdity of this charge is obvious. Beard did, from 1937 onward, courageously and sanely warn against the manner in which the Roosevelt policies were deliberately leading us into a foreign war against the will of the overwhelming mass of the American people in what was supposed to be a democratic system of government. Beard's stand may not have been wise, though the facts today overwhelmingly prove its soundness, but such an attitude has nothing whatever to do with any literal isolationism unless one defines internationalism as chronic meddling abroad and unwavering support of our entry into any extant foreign war.

Any attempt to brand Beard as a literal isolationist is, of course, completely preposterous. Few men have had a wider international perspective or experience. In his early academic days he helped to found Ruskin College, Oxford. He had travelled, advised, and been held in high esteem from Tokyo to Belgrade.

The irresponsibility of this form of smearing Beard is well illustrated by the innuendo of Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller that Beard was an ignorant isolationist with an archaic and naive view of world affairs because he was deaf and lived on a farm with his cows, thus implying that he had shut himself off from the world and human associations and did not know what was going on about him. That such charges were utterly without foundation is well known to anybody with any knowledge whatever of Beard and his mode of life and must have been known to be untrue by Admiral Morison and Professor Miller, themselves.

Beard provided himself with a most efficient hearing instrument which enabled him to carry on personal conversations with the utmost facility. He probably enjoyed wider personal contact with scholars and publicists than any other American historian down to the day of his death. He was visited at his suburban home constantly by a stream of prominent academic and scholarly admirers. He travelled widely and spent his winters in North Carolina. His deafness did not affect his personal relations or scholarly interests and activities in the slightest. His mode of life, at the most, only gave him the occasional quiet and detachment needed to digest and interpret the mass of information which came to him as a result of his wide reading and his extensive personal contacts with American and foreign scholars, both young and old. His dairy farm was located some twenty miles from his home.

I was present a few years ago at a conference on foreign affairs attended by about forty leading savants. Most of them wrung their hands about the sorry state of the world today, but only two or three were frank and candid enough to discern and admit that the majority of the conditions which they were so dolorously deploring stemmed directly from the foreign policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his Chicago Bridge speech of October, 1937, to the Yalta Conference of early 1945. Beard was assailed for his "isolationism" and "cultural lag" by both the chairman and the chief participant for no earthly reason save that he opposed the policies which had led to the chaos over which the conference was holding the coroner's inquest—but with no intention of declaring it a homicide or seeking the culprit. They vented their spleen on a man who had advised against risking the ambuscade which led to the murder.

It is both vicious and silly to brand a person an "isolationist" merely because he opposed our entry into the second World War. Personally, I opposed our entry with all the energy and power at my command—just as vigorously as did Beard. But it also happens that I wrote one of the longest chapters in the first important book ever published in behalf of the League of Nations and that I have ever since supported any move or policy which seemed to me likely to promote international good will and world peace. Sane internationalism is one thing; it is something quite different to support our entry into a war likely to ruin civilization mainly to promote the political prospects of a domestic leader, however colorful and popular, to satisfy the neurotic compulsions of special interests and pressure groups, and to pull the chestnuts of foreign nations out of the fire.

The whole issue of "isolationism" and the epithet "isolationist" has been a very effective phase of the smearing technique invented and applied by interventionists between 1937 and Pearl Harbor, and so naively exposed and betrayed by Walter Johnson in his book, The Battle Against Isolation. The absurd character of the whole process of smearing by the method of alleging "isolationism" has been devastatingly revealed by George A. Lundberg in his article on "Semantics in International Relations" in the American Perspective. Senator Taft put the matter in a nutshell when he asserted that to call any responsible person an isolationist today is nothing less than idiocy—one might add, malicious idiocy.

The only man of any intellectual importance who ever believed in isolationism was a German economist, Johann Heinrich von Thunen (1783-1850), author of The Isolated State (1826), and he espoused the idea only to provide the basis for formulating economic abstractions. In short, isolationism is no more than a semantic smear fiction invented by globaloney addicts.

Governor Adlai E. Stevenson, of Illinois, is reported to have said in a commencement address in June, 1952, that "Isolationism has not lost all of its emotional appeal, but it has lost its intellectual respectability." Unless one is willing to lapse completely into "Nineteen Eighty-Four" doublethink, it would seem that exactly the opposite is the truth. From Woodrow Wilson's war address on April 6, 1917? to President Truman's denunciation of cuts in the 1952 European aid allotment, interventionism has rested entirely on propaganda and emotional appeals. It has never been able to stand for a moment on the ground of empiricism, logic, and fact. If results are any test of the validity of a position, no program in human history has had less confirmation and vindication than has the intervention of the United States in foreign quarrels. On the other hand, isolationism, which means no more than international sanity and the avoidance of national suicide, has never been able to appeal to war excitement, the propaganda of fear, and other emotional fictions. It has always been compelled to rely upon reason and sanity. It may be that emotionalism is a better guide for public policy than rationality, but to claim that interventionism and globaloney can claim priority in respect to rationality is palpably preposterous.

The internationalists of the earlier era, for whom I wrote and lectured from coast to coast for twenty years after 1918, were true believers in internationalism, good will, and peace, and worked to secure these objectives. The globaloney and interventionist crowd, while prating about internationalism and peace, have done more than anybody else, except the totalitarian dictators, to promote nationalism and to revive and direct the war spirit. They have created an unprecedented spirit of interventionism, militarism, and intolerance in the United States and have helped to provoke a similar development in Soviet Russia. While blatant nationalism was checked temporarily in Germany and Italy, it has been stimulated elsewhere, from England to Indochina, eastern Asia, and South Africa.

The United Nations have steadily become more nationalistic and less united, and the world trembles and shivers on the brink of the third world war before the peace treaties have all been negotiated to conclude the second. There is all too much truth in the statement of an eminent publicist that Alger Hiss's long-continued activities as an aggressive internationalist of the recent vintage did far more harm to the United States than handing over any number of secret State Department documents which he could have transcribed and transmitted to the Russians. The columnist. Jay Franklin, has given us a good summary picture of the fruits of interventionism by contrasting the twentieth-century American casualty record under five "isolationist" Republican presidents and under three interventionist Democratic presidents:

Republican Presidents Casualties
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9) 0
William H. Taft (1909-13) 0
Warren G. Harding (1921-23) 0
Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) 0
Herbert Hoover (1929-33) 0
Total for 24 Republican years 0

Average U.S. war casualties per Republican year, 0.

Democratic Presidents Casualties
Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)   364,800
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) 1,134,527
Harry Truman (1945-53)   129,153
Total for 28 Democratic years 1,628,480

Average U.S. war casualties per Democratic year, 58,160.

Though Catholic circles have been unusually fair in tolerating the truth about the causes of the second World War, the pressure on the editors was so great that even the enlightened Commonweal permitted Mason Wade to attack Beard in its columns. But the most irresponsible attempt to attack Beard as an "isolationist" came with almost uniquely bad taste from the pen of Harry D. Gideonse, who reviewed Beard's President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941, in the New Leader.

Beard was a native-born American who labored mightily for over fifty years to improve many phases of American intellectual and public life. No American historian, past or present, had a more honorable record as an active and effective intellectual patriot. He had never written a word which placed the interests of other nations above those of our country. Gideonse, on the other hand, is Dutch-born, surely an honorable paternity. But there is little evidence that he has ever become completely immersed in Americanism or has taken on a thoroughly American point of view. In his public statements over many years he has always given evidence of a robust internationalism which has little primary regard for American institutions or traditions. His internationalism appears to have a twofold basis: a hangover of the Dutch imperialism of the Dutch East India Company tycoons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the virus of current American globaloney. Anyhow, it has paid off remarkably well, for Gideonse was summoned from Chicago to Columbia University and then, to the amazement even of his friends, suddenly catapulted into the presidency of Brooklyn College in 1939.

While Gideonse finds other nonfactual grounds for assaulting Beard, he holds that Beard's alleged isolationism is all that is needed to brush the book aside. Indeed, all that is required for that is the fact, as Gideonse tells us twice in the course of his review, that it has been praised as a very great book by the "isolationist" Chicago Tribune. It might be cogently observed that the Tribune has also praised the Bible, Shakespeare's works, and Einstein's writings on relativity. But Gideonse has not laughed this off yet. If praise by the Chicago Tribune were not enough to destroy the validity of Beard's book, then, in Gideonse's view, it would be amply disposed of by the fact that he quotes, even sparingly, statements by eminent "isolationists" like Senators Burton K. Wheeler and Gerald P. Nye. Not even the fact, which Gideonse concedes, that he also cites Eleanor Roosevelt frequently and with respect, could redeem Beard after he had revealed his acquaintance with the statements of allegedly nefarious "isolationist" personalities.

Though, as we have made clear, reviewers have, naturally, been a trifle hesitant in daring to minimize Beard's status as an historian, Walter Millis and Gideonse have not been dismayed or sidetracked even here. In his review of Beard's President Roosevelt and the Coining of the War, 1941, in the Herald Tribune Book Review, Millis contended that Beard is not entitled to rank as an objective historian according to formal academic fictions, but really belongs back with Tertullian, Orosius, Gregory of Tours, and other "Dark Age" exemplars of the "Devil theory of history."

But it remained for Gideonse to sail in and seek to divest Beard of all claims to any standing as an historical scholar. Just why Gideonse should presume to pass on questions of historiography and to grade historians is not quite evident, though he has been doing so for some years. Professionally, though admittedly a very talented classroom orator and an effective "rabble-rouser" of the student body, he was only a somewhat obscure economist when he strode into Flatbush with his mace. But Gideonse did not hesitate to administer a sharp slap to the members of the American Historical Association, who elected Beard to their presidency in 1933, by pooh-poohing the general scholarly opinion that Beard was the "dean of living American historians." This notion and pretension, says Gideonse, is purely "fictitious." Actually, according to Gideonse, Beard has only been a lifelong pamphleteer, and his books on Roosevelt's foreign policy are cheap journalism.

In the light of all this, one could read with considerable amusement and sardonic humor an announcement in the New York Times of September 8, 1948, that Gideonse opened the college year at Flatbush with an address to entering Freshmen in which he gravely and sternly asserted that "truthfulness" is a main and indispensable quality of a college teacher; one which does not, perhaps, extend to college presidents.

There were many other attacks on Beard's last two great books. They usually took one of two forms. First, there were efforts to dispose of them by brief, casual Jovian or flippant smears, without giving any attention whatever to the facts or meeting the arguments of the books. Such was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s smear in the Partisan Review, implying that Beard sought to justify collaboration with the Nazis; Max Lerner's slur to the effect that they were "two rather weird affairs"; Perry Miller's description of them as "two frenetic indictments of Franklin Roosevelt" (implying, if Miller knew the meaning of the words he was using, that Beard must have been insane); and Quincy Wright's even briefer disposition of them as "a strange argument" (strange, presumably, to Wright in that the argument was based on facts).

The other type of approach has been to smother the book under a vast welter of side issues, non sequiturs, and irrelevant scoldings. This was well illustrated by the procedure of Charles C. Griffin, an expert on Latin American history, who was selected to review Beard's last book for the American Historical Review. He buried the book under four and a half pages of impenetrable, irrelevant, and disapproving fog, rarely coming to grips with the essential facts and arguments. About the only fair and scholarly review that the book received was by the chief authority in the field, Charles C. Tansill, in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.

On the occasion of Beard's death one might have supposed that the opportunity would have been taken to pay a tribute to his greatness as a teacher, historian, political scientist, and liberal, at least in those journals to which Beard had been for years one of the most honored contributors, and that there would have been articles by writers who had long been admirers of Beard, until he began to examine Roosevelt's foreign policy. Instead of this we were treated to an obscene performance which reminded fair observers of jackals and hyenas howling about the body of a dead lion. Especially in point were the articles by Max Lerner in the New Republic, October and November, 1948; by Perry Miller in the Nation, September 1948; and by Peter Levin in Tomorrow, March 1949.

In these articles most of the smears which had been irresponsibly thrown at Beard during the previous several years were amalgamated and he was portrayed as a senile, embittered, and confused "isolationist" and a traitor to the liberal cause. There was even an effort to undermine confidence in Beard's monumental books which had preceded his volumes on the foreign policy of President Roosevelt. Lerner held up to ridicule Beard's social and civic ideal: "A continental economy, spaciously conceived, controlled in a common-sense way, yielding a gracious life without all the horrors of foreign entanglements." As of 1953, such an ideal might well evoke the heartiest enthusiasm on the part of any thoughtful American. Lerner characterized Roosevelt's foreign policy as a consistent attempt to promote "the collective democratic will reluctantly having to shape a world in which it could survive." How well it succeeded in achieving this result will be apparent from an examination of Chamberlin's America's Second Crusade, and Chapter 8 of this volume.

The campaign of vilification and distortion against Beard has continued long after his death. One of the most absurd attacks appeared in 1952 in a book by John B. Harrison, a teacher of history at Michigan State College, entitled This Age of Global Strife. Harrison writes:

"This prominent historian undertook in the last days of his eccentric old age to prove by ponderous documentation that President Roosevelt set out from the beginning of the war in Europe to stealthily and deceitfully maneuver the United States into a war whose outcome was of no real concern to the American people. It is a deplorable collection of half-truths and distortions. Anyone who reads it should read also Samuel E. Morison's brilliant analysis of it in the Atlantic Monthly, August, 1948."

A book containing material of this sort could be published by the old and reputable firm of Lippincott seven years after V-J Day.