Revisionism and the Historical Blackout - Henry Elmer Barnes

Revisionism After Two World Wars

The readjustment of historical writing to historical facts relative to the background and causes of the first World War—what is popularly known in the historical craft as "Revisionism"—was the most important development in historiography during the decade of the 1920's. While those historians at all receptive to the facts admitted that Revisionism readily won out in the conflict with the previously accepted wartime lore, many of the traditionalists in the profession remained true to the mythology of the war decade. Not so long ago one of the most eminent and revered of our professional historians, and a man who took a leading part in historical propaganda during the first World War, wrote that American historians had no reason to feel ashamed of their writings and operations in that period. That they had plenty to be ashamed of was revealed by C. Hartley Grattan in his article on "The Historians Cut Loose," in the American Mercury, reprinted in the form originally submitted to Mr. Mencken in my In Quest of Truth and Justice, and by Chapter XI of my History of Historical Writing. In any event, the revisionist controversy was the outstanding intellectual adventure in the historical field in the twentieth century down to Pearl Harbor.

Revisionism, when applied to the first World War, showed that the actual causes and merits of that conflict were very close to the reverse of the picture presented in the political propaganda and historical writings of the war decade. Revisionism would also produce similar results with respect to the second World War if it were allowed to develop unimpeded. But a determined effort is being made to stifle or silence revelations which would establish the truth with regard to the causes and issues of the late world conflict.

While the wartime mythology endured for years after 1918, nevertheless leading editors and publishers soon began to crave contributions which set forth the facts with respect to the responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914, our entry into the war, and the basic issues involved in this great conflict. Sidney B. Fay began to publish his revolutionary articles on the background of the first World War in the American Historical Review in July, 1920. My own efforts along the same line began in the New Republic, the Nation, the New York Times, Current History Magazine, and the Christian Century in 1924 and 1925. Without exception, the requests for my contributions came from the editors of these periodicals, and these requests were ardent and urgent. I had no difficulty whatever in securing the publication of my Genesis of the World War in 1926, and the publisher thereof subsequently brought forth a veritable library of illuminating revisionist literature. By 1928, when Fay's Origins of the World War was published, almost everyone except the die-hards and bitter-enders in the historical profession had come to accept Revisionism, and even the general public had begun to think straight in the premises.

Quite a different situation faces the rise of any substantial Revisionism after the second World War. The question of war responsibility in relation to 1939 and 1941 is taken for granted as completely and forever settled. It is widely held that there can be no controversy this time. Since it is admitted by all reasonable persons that Hitler was a dangerous neurotic, who, with supreme folly, launched a war when he had everything to gain by peace, it is assumed that this takes care of the European aspects of the war-guilt controversy. With respect to the Far East, this is supposed to be settled with equal finality by asking the question: "Japan attacked us, didn't she?"

About as frequent as either of these ways of settling war responsibility for 1939 or 1941 is the vague but highly dogmatic statement that "we had to fight." This judgment is usually rendered as a sort of ineffable categorical imperative which requires no further explanation. But some who are pressed for an explanation will allege that we had to fight to save the world from domination by Hitler, forgetting General George C. Marshall's report that Hitler, far from having any plan for world domination, did not even have any well-worked-out plan for collaborating with his Axis allies in limited wars, to say nothing of the gigantic task of conquering Russia. Surely, after June 22, 1941, nearly six months before Pearl Harbor, there was no further need to fear any world conquest by Hitler.

Actually, if historians have any professional self-respect and feel impelled to take cognizance of facts, there is far greater need for a robust and aggressive campaign of Revisionism after the second World War than there was in the years following 1918. The current semantic folklore about the responsibility for the second World War which is accepted, not only by the public but also by most historians, is far wider of the truth than even the most fantastic historical mythology which was produced after 1914. And the practical need for Revisionism is even greater now than it was in the decade of the i920's.

The mythology which followed the outbreak of war in 1914 helped to produce the Treaty of Versailles and the second World War. If world policy today cannot be divorced from the mythology of the 1940's, a third world war is inevitable, and its impact will be many times more horrible and devastating than that of the second. The lessons learned from the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials have made it certain that the third world war will be waged with unprecedented savagery.

Vigorous as was the resistance of many, including powerful vested historical interests, to the Revisionism of the 1920's, it was as nothing compared to that which has been organized to frustrate and smother the truth relative to the second World War. Revisionists in the 1920's only risked a brisk controversy; those of today place in jeopardy both their professional reputation and their very livelihood at the hands of the "Smearbund." History has been the chief intellectual casualty of the second World War and the cold war which followed.

In many essential features, the United States has moved along into the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" pattern of intellectual life. But there is one important and depressing difference. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Mr. Orwell shows that historians in that regime have to be hired by the government and forced to falsify facts. In this country today, and it is also true of most other nations, many professional historians gladly falsify history quite voluntarily, and with no direct cost to the government. The ultimate and indirect cost may, of couse, be a potent contribution to incalculable calamity.

It may be said, with great restraint, that, never since the Middle Ages, have there been so many powerful forces organized and alerted against the assertion and acceptance of historical truth as are active today to prevent the facts about the responsibility for the second World War and its results from being made generally accessible to the American public. Even the great Rockefeller Foundation frankly admits the subsidizing of historians to anticipate and frustrate the development of any neo-Revisionism in our time. And the only difference between this foundation and several others is that it has been more candid and forthright about its policies. The Sloan Foundation later supplemented this Rockefeller grant. Charles Austin Beard summarized the implications of such efforts with characteristic vigor:

"The Rockefeller Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations . . . intend to prevent, if they can, a repetition of what they call in the vernacular 'the debunking journalistic campaign following World War I.' Translated into precise English, this means that the Foundation and the Council do not want journalists or any other persons to examine too closely and criticize too freely the official propaganda and official statements relative to "our basic aims and activities" during World War II. In short, they hope that, among other things, the policies and measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt will escape in the coming years the critical analysis, evaluation and exposition that befell the policies and measures of Woodrow Wilson and the Entente Allies after World War I."

As is the case with nearly all book publishers and periodicals, the resources of the great majority of the foundations are available only to scholars and writers who seek to perpetuate wartime legends and oppose Revisionism. A good illustration is afforded by my experience with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which helped to subsidize the book by Professors Langer and Gleason. I mentioned this fact in the first edition of my brochure on The Court Historians versus Revisionism. Thereupon I received a courteous letter from Mr. Alfred J. Zurcher, director of the Sloan Foundation, assuring me that the Sloan Foundation wished to be absolutely impartial and to support historical scholarship on both sides of the issue. He wrote in part:

"About the last thing we wish to do is to check and frustrate any sort of historical scholarship since we believe that the more points of view brought to bear by disciplined scholars upon the war or any other historical event is in the public interest and should be encouraged."

In the light of this statement, I decided to take Mr. Zurcher at his word. I had projected and encouraged a study of the foreign policy of President Hoover, which appeared to me a very important and much needed enterprise, since it was during his administration that our foreign policy had last been conducted in behalf of peace and in the true public interest of the United States rather than in behalf of some political party, foreign government, or dubious ideology. One of the most competent of American specialists in diplomatic history had consented to undertake the project, and he was a man not previously identified in any way with revisionist writing. My request was for exactly one thirtieth of the grant allotted for the Langer-Gleason book. The application was turned down by Mr. Zurcher with the summary statement: "I regret that we are unable to supply the funds which you requested for Professor _________'s study," He even discouraged my suggestion that he discuss the idea in a brief conference with the professor in question.

A state of abject terror and intimidation exists among the majority of professional American historians whose views accord with the facts on the question of responsibility for the second World War. Several leading historians and publicists who have read my brochure on The Struggle Against the Historical Blackout have written me stating that, on the basis of their own personal experience, it is an understatement of the facts. Yet the majority of those historians to whom it has been sent privately have feared even to acknowledge that they have received it or possess it. Only a handful have dared to express approval and encouragement. It is no exaggeration to say that the American Smearbund, operating through newspaper editors and columnists, "hatchet-men" book reviewers, radio commentators, pressure-group intrigue and espionage, and academic pressures and fears, has accomplished about as much in the way of intimidating honest intellectuals in this country as Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, the Gestapo, and concentration camps were able to do in Nazi Germany.

The mental stalemate produced by this state of mind is well-illustrated in the review by Professor Fred Harvey Harrington of Professor Charles C. Tansill's "Back Door to War" in the Political Science Quarterly, December, 1952. Harrington, in private a moderate revisionist, goes so far as to state that there is "no documentation" for Professor Tansill's statement that the "main objective in American foreign policy since 1900 has been the preservation of the British Empire." This may be compared with the appraisal of the book by a resolute and unafraid revisionist, the eminent scholar, Professor George A. Lundberg, who, in a review in Social Forces, April, 1953, said with regard to the above contention by Tansill: "This thesis is documented to the hilt in almost 700 large pages."

Moreover, the gullibility of many "educated" Americans has been as notable as the mendacity of the "educators." In Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, as well as in Fascist Italy, and in China, the tyrannical rulers found it necessary to suppress all opposition thought in order to induce the majority of the people to accept the material fed them by official propaganda. But, in the United States, with almost complete freedom of the press, speech, and information down to the end of 1941, great numbers of Americans followed the official propaganda line with no compulsion whatever. This is a remarkable and ominous contrast, especially significant because it has been the "educated" element which has been most gullible in accepting official mythology, taking the population as a whole. And this situation has continued since 1945, though of course the public has been less able to get the truth from the avenues of information since V-J Day than it was before Pearl Harbor.

The opposition to Revisionism—that is, to truth in the premises—stems in part from emotional fixation on the mythology built up after 1937 and in part from personal loyalty to President Roosevelt and the naturally resulting desire to preserve the impeccability of the Roosevelt legend. In regard to the latter, the Roosevelt adulators are much more solicitous about defending their late chief's foreign policy than they are in upholding the infallibility of his much more creditable domestic program. There is, of course, a powerful vested political interest in perpetuating the accepted mythology about the causes, issues, and results of the second World War, for much of the public policy of the victorious United Nations since 1945 can only make sense and be justified on the basis of this mythology.

In the United States it was made the ideological basis of the political strategy of the Democratic party and the main political instrument by which it maintained itself in power until 1953. It has also been accepted by many outstanding leaders of the opposition party. It has been indispensable in arousing support for the economic policies which have been used to ward off a depression, with its probably disastrous political reverberations. The eminent railroad executive and astute commentator on world affairs, Robert R. Young, has stated the facts here with realistic clarity in the Commercial and Financial Chronicle:

"The clash between a foreign policy which makes sense to Americans and a foreign policy which makes sense to those who seek to perpetuate political office (patronage or prominence) is one which will only be resolved by prohibiting re-election. We are very naive when we describe American foreign policy of recent years as stupid. Indeed, that foreign policy has accomplished its object for it has kept in power (patronage and prominence), election after election, those who conceived and facilitated it."

Powerful pressure groups have also found the mythology helpful in diverting attention from their own role in national and world calamity.

In addition to the opposition of public groups to the truth about responsibility for the second World War, many historians and other social scientists have a strong professional and personal interest in perpetuating the prewar and wartime mythology. One reason why numerous historians opposed the truth relative to responsibility for the first World War and the main issues therein was that so many of them had taken an active part in spreading the wartime propaganda and had also worked for Colonel House's committee in preparing material for the peacemaking. A considerable number of them went to Paris with President Wilson on his ill-fated adventure. Naturally they were loath to admit that the enterprise in which they had played so prominent a part had proved to be both a fraud and a failure.

Today, this situation has been multiplied many fold. Historians and other social scientists veritably swarmed into the various wartime agencies after 1941, especially the 'Office of War Information' (OWI) and the 'Office of Strategic Services' (OSS) [Editor's Note: These agencies were later combined and evolved into the CIA]. They were intimately associated with the war effort and with the shaping of public opinion to conform to the thesis of the pure and limpid idealism and ethereal innocence of the United States and our exclusive devotion to self-defense and world betterment through the sword. Hence, the opposition of historians and social scientists to truth about the responsibility for the second World War and its obvious results is many times greater than it was in the years following the close of the first World War. Since the war several corps of court historians have volunteered to work to continue the elaboration of official mythology.

In addition, the State Department and the Army and Navy have a great swarm of historians dedicated to presenting history as their employers wish it to be written, and at the present time there is a new influx of American historians and social scientists into our "Ministry of Truth."