Revisionism and the Historical Blackout - Henry Elmer Barnes

Smears of Sandborn and Tansills

Frederic R. Sanborn's concise, elaborately documented, and closely reasoned volume, Design for War, devoted chiefly to an account of President Roosevelt's secret war program after 1937, was treated much like the Morgenstern and Chamberlin books, though it was more extensively ignored in the press. When not ignored, it was smeared in most of the reviews. The New York Times thought that it had taken care of the matter by handing the book over to Samuel Flagg Bemis for reviewing. By this time, however, Bemis had read the latest edition of my Struggle Against the Historical Blackout, with its account of his foot-swallowing feat in his Times review of the Chamberlin volume. So Bemis, while rejecting Sanborn's version of American diplomacy from 1937 to Pearl Harbor, was relatively cautious and respectful.

Months after the book appeared, the Herald Tribune finally and reluctantly reviewed it, after much prodding by Sanborn. It handed it over to another warhorse among the hatchet men, Gordon A. Craig, of Princeton. He indulged mainly in the shadow-boxing for which Walter Millis had shown such talent. The review, while of the smearing variety, was evasive, as had been Craig's review of Morgenstern's book in the Times years before. He refused to confront the facts and even went so far in historical humor as to accept Cordell Hull's statements at their face value.

The Sanborn book was smeared in most of the Scripps-Howard papers that reviewed it at all (vide the Rocky Mountain News , February 18, 1951), though this chain had been in the vanguard of prewar "isolationism." A characteristic newspaper slur was that of the Chattanooga Times, which proclaimed that the Sanborn book was "as impartial as the Chicago Tribune or Westbrook Pegler."

Felix Wittmer reviewed the book in the New Leader (March 26, 1951). The editors had, apparently, become bored themselves with the monotonous uniformity of the unvaried dead cats thrown at revisionist books by Harry Gideonse. The Wittmer review was a masterpiece of "doublethink." He smeared the book as "a sad spectacle," and "a biased and myopic account of diplomacy in the guise of objectivity." He accused Sanborn of "amazing ignorance of modern Japanese policies." Yet, a little later on, he expressed himself as in almost complete agreement with Sanborn's account of the crucial Japanese-American negotiations in 1941: "It is perfectly true—as Dr. Sanborn proves—that in 1941 the Japanese seriously wanted peace and that Roosevelt and Hull used every possible device to forestall it, and to provoke an open attack by Japan." He even admits that Roosevelt and Hull anticipated this attack. He excuses all this on the ground that our entry into the war was obligatory for American security from Nazi invasion and for the salvation of humanity, and that the provocation of the Japanese was only "penetrating foresight," because Hitler and Mussolini were just mean enough not to rise to Roosevelt's war bait in the Atlantic. Hence, we had to incite Japan to attack us in order to get into the war through the Pacific back door. Even the New Leader felt impelled to publish a rejoinder by Sanborn.

We have already pointed out that virtually all the important periodicals—Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker, the Saturday Review of Literature, the Nation, the New Republic, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly—had wisely decided that they could protect the Roosevelt and interventionist legend better by ignoring the book entirely than by smearing it in reviews. The American Historical Review did not even mention the volume in a book note.

The reviewing of the book by Charles Callan Tansill, Back Door to War, ran true to the form established with reference to revisionist volumes. The Tansill tome is more outspoken and more heavily documented than any other revisionist treatise. So, while it more violently enraged interventionist reviewers, it intimidated and restrained them in some cases. At least they were more restrained than they would have been if the book were not so formidable an exhibit of arduous and exhaustive scholarship.

Dexter Perkins reviewed the book about as gingerly and cautiously in the New York Times Book Review (May, 1952) as, earlier, Bemis had handled the Sanborn volume. He was, apparently, also somewhat concerned about a possible comment on his review in future editions of my Historical Blackout. Aside from reiterating his well-known theme, to the effect that President Roosevelt was reluctantly pushed into war by the force of an ardent and alarmed public opinion, Perkins mainly contented himself with berating the "animus" and "bitterness" shown by Mr. Tansill. This bitterness appeared to consist, actually, in producing documentary proof that the Roosevelt-Hull diplomacy constituted one of the major public crimes of human history.

The review by Basil Rauch in the Herald Tribune Book Review (June 1, 1952) was as brash and reckless as was Rauch's own book, Roosevelt from Munich to Pearl Harbor. It was not unfairly referred to by one reader as "a masterpiece of misrepresentation," As the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, earned the title of "Basil the Bulgar-Slayer," so Rauch can surely be awarded the title of "Basil the Creator." As I have shown in my brochure, Rauch on Roosevelt, Professor Rauch, in his book, created for Mr. Roosevelt a foreign policy which bore very slight resemblance to the one which the President actually followed. So, in his review of the Tansill volume, he created a book which had little relationship to the one he was supposed to be reviewing. The book and the review must both be read to allow one to become fully aware of the extent to which this is true. Rauch accused Tansill of making statements and drawing conclusions which had no documentary support whatever, though in the book itself hundreds of footnotes and references to acres of documents were presented to buttress Tansill's statements.

Back Door to War was tardily and loftily smeared in the Saturday Review of Literature of August 2, 1952, by Professor Lindsay Rogers of Columbia University. Professor Rogers is not a "court historian," but he was the leading court political scientist and court jester in the original New Deal "brain trust." He pays tribute to "the enormous industry of five years which this ponderous tome required." But he tells the reader that it has been "largely wasted" because Professor Tansill has outdone the late Dr. Beard in espousing the "devil theory of history" and has interlarded his book with distressing diatribes.

The devil theory of history appears to reside in the fact that Professor Tansill adopts a critical attitude toward the Roosevelt foreign policy and that he assigns considerable personal responsibility to President Roosevelt for the course of our foreign affairs after 1933. The "diatribes" are occasional penetrating comments on Roosevelt and his foreign policy which, had they been directed against the critics of Mr. Roosevelt, would have been praised by Professor Rogers as distilled wisdom and brilliant bons mots.

The Tansill book was belatedly reviewed at length in the Nation (October 4, 1952) by Professor Charles C. Griffin, who had reviewed the Beard volume in the American Historical Review. It is evident from the opening sentences of the review that Professor Griffin regards any comprehensive marshalling of the facts relative to Roosevelt foreign policy as a "Violent attack" upon them. The gist of the review was much the same as that by Professor Rogers in the Saturday Review of Literature. Both reviewers are compelled to recognize the vast amount of research which went into the preparation of the Tansill book, but Professor Griffin, like Professor Rogers, holds that all this is vitiated by Professor Tamili's cogent and penetrating characterizations, which are variously described as "opprobrious and objectionable terminology," "invective," "innuendo," "insinuation," and the like. Doubtless Professor Griffin, like Professor Rogers, would have regarded this material as brilliant and praiseworthy verbiage if it had been written in praise of the Roosevelt policy. But, at least, Professor Griffin's presentation of his views on the Tansill volume constitutes a formal and ostensible review, not a brief and casual smear, and he does concede at the end of his review that the Tansill volume has value in that it corrects the fantastic mythology which prevailed during the second World War.

The review by Arthur Kemp in the Freeman, May 19, 1952, was friendly and commendatory.

Professor Tansill's book was harshly reviewed in the American Historical Review, October, 1952, by Dean Julius W. Pratt. That the latter had lined up with our "Ministry of Truth" could have been ascertained in advance of the review by comparing his early, trenchant, anti-imperialist writings, in his books and in his articles in the American Mercury, with his recent America's Colonial Experiment. The flavor of his review could readily be anticipated. However, Dean Pratt did concede that the book was the most "weightily documented" of the revisionist works on the second World War and that "Professor Tansill has produced a book of great learning."

One statement in the review calls for corrective comment:

"The fact that a scholar with Professor Tamili's well-known views on American foreign policy was allowed the free run of confidential State Department files should lay at rest the theory that there exists a favored group of 'court historians' who speak only kind words of Rooseveltian diplomacy."

While Professor Tansill did examine more documents than any other revisionist historian, he had nothing like the free access to archives and diaries which was accorded to men like Professors Langer and Gleason and Dr. Herbert Feis. Dr. Beard's attacks on the State Department favoritism eased his entry, and some of his former graduate students were in charge of important sections of the documents. Even so, he was barred from many, his notes subjected to scrutiny, and some of them confiscated.

One of the most extreme smears of the book was written by a professional historian, Professor Richard W. Van Alstyne of the University of Southern California, and published in the Pacific Historical Review, November, 1952. Van Alstyne concluded that Back Door to War is "a striking monument to pedantic scholarship, but it is built on a tiny mound of historical understanding" He did, however, make one sound point: that the book has a misleading title, in that it is more a study of the origins of the second World War than specifically of Roosevelt foreign policy.

The New Republic did not review the book, but the editor, Michael Straight, subjected it to the lowest and most amazing smear that any revisionist book has yet received. In the issue of June 16, 1952, Straight delivered himself of the following material, suitable for presentation by the late Mr. Ripley:

"This book is part of the devious attack on American diplomacy directed by Dr. Edmund Walsh, S.J., from Georgetown University. Tansill argues that the U.S., not Germany or Japan, was the aggressor in the Second World War. . . . These are the superstitions that occupied Beard in his senility and focused John T. Flynn's mania for hatred. It would be easily dismissed, were it not such useful material for demagogues in the 1952 campaign."

Nothing better illustrates the shift in attitude on the part of the New Republic since the 1920s, when it took the lead in promoting Revisionism under Herbert Croly and Robert Littell, even though Mr. Straight's mother was also financing the journal at the time.

Very interesting and relevant, as bearing on Mr. Straight's charge that Professor Tansill's book was the product of a Catholic plot to smear Rooseveltian foreign policy, is the fact that the Catholic periodical, America, reflecting the interventionist wing of American Catholic opinion, published a rather bitter attack by Father William A. Lucey upon the Tansill volume in its issue of June 14, 1952.

A very amusing and instructive example of the length to which interventionists will go in quest of smears of revisionist books is provided in the case of the Christian Register. This periodical is edited by Melvin Arnold, a liberal Unitarian and the head of the Beacon Press which has published the books by Paul Blanchard that have so vigorously attacked Catholic political power. Yet, being an ardent interventionist and adulator of Roosevelt foreign policy, Mr. Arnold reached out eagerly for this hostile review of the Tansill book by Father Lucey in one of the leading political organs of Jesuit Catholic journalism and reprinted it in the December, 1952, issue of his own magazine.

Professor Tansill's book was reviewed in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, December, 1952, by Professor Ruhl Bartlett. Professor Bartlett had been put on the program of the American Historical Association at Chicago in December, 1950, to criticize the paper presented at that time by Professor Tansill on the background of the American entry into the second World War. He was somewhat roughly handled by Professor Tansill in the discussion that followed. All this was well known to the editor of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Nevertheless, he chose Professor Bartlett to review Professor Tansill's book, and the result was just what could have been expected. The flavor of the review is shown by the closing lines: "The book is unredeemed by humor, art or insight. To read it and to write about it are unrewarding tasks."

Thus far, the Journal of Modern History has not reviewed the book.

In the criticisms of the Tansill volume by such professional historians as Professors Harrington, Pratt, and Van Alstyne, there is one slightly humorous item, namely, the charge that Tansill does not support all of his contentions by citations from confidential archival material. As a matter of fact, the only honest and fair criticism of Tansill's procedure is that, like so many professional diplomatic historians, he relies too much on archival and allied materials when other sources of information are often far more illuminating and reliable. Nevertheless, his professorial critics contend that he never proves an assertion unless he brings archival material to his support, even though he may cite scores of more important types and sources of evidence. One might be led to suppose that Tansill could not prove the guilt of President Roosevelt relative to Pearl Harbor unless he could produce from the archives a confession signed in the handwriting of the late President.

From what has been set forth above, it is evident that not one professional historical journal has provided readers with a fair and objective appraisal of Professor Tansilbs monumental volume, Back Door to War.

The majority of the newspaper reviews smeared the book, though it was warmly praised not only by the Chicago Tribune but by some other papers like the Indianapolis Star. In the newspaper reviews the dominant note was Tansill's alleged bias and bitterness—in other words, his devotion to candor and integrity. Interestingly enough, the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was apparently so displeased by the unfair reviews that he wrote an editorial (June 8, 1952) praising the Tansill volume and commending Revisionism in general.