Revisionism and the Historical Blackout - Henry Elmer Barnes

How War Has Transformed the American Dream into a Nightmare

The first World War and American intervention therein marked an ominous turning point in the history of the United States and of the world. Those who can remember "the good old days" before 1914 inevitably look back to those times with a very definite and justifiable feeling of nostalgia. There was no income tax before 1913, and that levied in the early days after the amendment was adopted was little more than nominal. All kinds of taxes were relatively low. We had only a token national debt of around a billion dollars, which could have been paid off in a year without causing even a ripple in national finance. The total Federal budget in 1913 was $724,512,000, just about one percent of the present astronomical budget.

Ours was a libertarian country in which there was little or no witch-hunting and few of the symptoms and operations of the police state which have been developing here so drastically during the last decade. Not until our intervention in the first World War had there been sufficient invasions of individual liberties to call forth the formation of special groups and organizations to protect our civil rights. The Supreme Court could still be relied on to uphold the Constitution and safeguard the civil liberties of individual citizens.

Libertarianism was also dominant in Western Europe. The Liberal Party governed England from 1905 to 1914. France had risen above the reactionary coup of the Dreyfus affair, had separated Church and State, and had seemingly established the Third Republic with reasonable permanence on a democratic and liberal basis. Even Hohenzollern Germany enjoyed the usual civil liberties, had strong constitutional restraints on executive tyranny, and had established a workable system of parliamentary government.

Experts on the history of Austria-Hungary have recently been proclaiming that life in the Dual Monarchy after the turn of the century marked the happiest period in the experience of the peoples encompassed therein. Constitutional government, democracy, and civil liberties prevailed in Italy. Despite the suppression of the Liberal Revolution of 1905, liberal sentiment was making headway in Tsarist Russia and there was decent prospect that a constitutional monarchy might be established. Civilized states expressed abhorrence of dictatorial and brutal policies. Edward VII of England blacklisted Serbia after the court murders of 1903.

Enlightened citizens of the Western world were then filled with buoyant hope for a bright future for humanity. It was believed that the theory of progress had been thoroughly vindicated by historical events. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in 1888, was the prophetic bible of that era. People were confident that the amazing developments in technology would soon produce abundance, security, and leisure for the multitude.

In this optimism in regard to the future no item was more evident and potent than the assumption that war was an outmoded nightmare. Not only did idealism and humanity repudiate war but Norman Angell and others were assuring us that war could not be justified, even on the basis of the most sordid material interest. Those who adopted a robust international outlook were devoted friends of peace, and virtually all international movements had as their sole aim the devising and implementing of ways and means to assure permanent peace. Friends of peace were nowhere isolationist, in any literal sense, but they did stoutly uphold the principle of neutrality and sharply criticized provocative meddling in every political dogfight in the most remote reaches of the planet.

In our own country, the traditional American foreign policy of benign neutrality, and the wise exhortations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to avoid entangling alliances and to shun foreign quarrels were still accorded respect in the highest councils of state.

Unfortunately, there are relatively few persons today who can recall those happy times. In his devastatingly prophetic book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell points out that one reason why it is possible for those in authority to maintain the barbarities of the police state is that nobody is able to recall the many blessings of the period which preceded that type of society. In a general way this is also true of the peoples of the Western world today. The great majority of them have known only a world ravaged by war, depressions, international intrigues and meddling, vast debts and crushing taxation, the encroachments of the police state, and the control of public opinion and government by ruthless and irresponsible propaganda. A major reason why there is no revolt against such a state of society as that in which we are living today is that many have come to accept it as a normal matter of course, having known nothing else during their lifetimes.

A significant and illuminating report on this situation came to me recently in a letter from one of the most distinguished social scientists in the country and a resolute revisionist. He wrote:

"I am devoting my seminar this quarter to the subject of American foreign policy since 1933. The effect upon a Roosevelt-bred generation is startling, indeed. Even able and mature students react to the elementary facts like children who have just been told that there is (or was) no Santa Claus." This is also an interesting reflection on the teaching of history today. The members of the seminar were graduate students, nearly all of whom had taken courses in recent American and European history which covered in some detail the diplomacy of Europe and the United States during the last twenty years.

A friend who read the preceding material suggested that laboring men would be likely to give me a "horselaugh." That some would is no doubt true, but the essential issue would be the validity of the grounds for so doing. Being a student of the history of labor problems, I am aware of many gains for labor since 1914. I can well remember when the working day was ten hours long and the pay was $1.50. But I can also remember when good steak cost fifteen cents a pound and the best whisky eighty-five cents a quart. Moreover, the father, even if he earned only $1.50 a day, had every assurance that he could raise his family with his sons free from the shadow of the draft and butchery in behalf of politicians. The threat of war did not hang over him. There are some forms of tyranny worse than that of an arbitrary boss in a nonunion shop. Finally, when one considers the increased cost of living and the burden of taxation, it is doubtful if a man who earns $8.00 a day now is any better off materially than his father or grandfather who earned $1.50 in 1900.

For the sad state of the world today, the entry of the United States into two world wars has played a larger role than any other single factor. Some might attribute the admittedly unhappy conditions of our time to other items and influences than world wars and our intervention in them. No such explanation can be sustained. Indeed, but for our entry into the two world wars, we should be living in a far better manner than we did before 1914. The advances in technology since that time have brought the automobile into universal use, have given us good roads, and have produced the airplane, radio, moving pictures, television, electric lighting and refrigeration, and numerous other revolutionary contributions to human service, happiness, and comforts. If all this had been combined with the freedom, absence of high taxation, minimum indebtedness, low armament expenditures, and pacific outlook of pre-1914 times, the people of the United States might, right now, be living in Utopian security and abundance.

A radio commentator recently pointed out that one great advantage we have today over 1900 is that death from disease has been reduced and life expectancy considerably increased. But this suggests the query as to whether this is any real gain, in the light of present world conditions: Is it an advantage to live longer in a world of "thought-policing," economic austerity, crushing taxation, inflation, and perpetual warmongering and wars?

The rise and influence of Communism, military state capitalism, the police state, and the impending doom of civilization, have been the penalty exacted for our meddling abroad in situations which did not materially affect either our security or our prestige. Our national security was not even remotely threatened in the case of either World War. There was no clear moral issue impelling us to intervene in either world conflict. The level of civilization was lowered rather than elevated by our intervention.

While the first World War headed the United States and the world toward international disaster, the second World War was an even more calamitous turning point in the history of mankind. It may, indeed, have brought us—and the whole world—into the terminal episode of human experience. It certainly marked the transition from social optimism and technological rationalism into the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" pattern of life, in which aggressive international policies and war scares have become the guiding factor, not only in world affairs but also in the domestic, political, and economic strategy of every leading country of the world. The police state has emerged as the dominant political pattern of our times, and military state capitalism is engulfing both democracy and liberty in countries which have not succumbed to Communism.

The manner and extent to which American culture has been impaired and our well-being undermined by our entry into two world wars has been brilliantly and succinctly stated by Professor Mario A. Pei, of Columbia University, in an article on "The America We Lost" in the Saturday Evening Post, May 3, 1952, and has been developed more at length by Garet Garrett in his trenchant book, The People's Pottage.

Perhaps, by the mid-century, all this is now water under the bridge and little can be done about it. But we can surely learn how we got into this unhappy condition of life and society—at least until the police-state system continues its current rapid development sufficiently to obliterate all that remains of integrity and accuracy in historical writing and political reporting.