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Home | Library | The Story of American Revisionism

The Story of American Revisionism

May 29, 2009

Tags BiographiesEducationU.S. History

  1. The Birth of American Revisionism and the Rise of Harry Elmer Barnes
  2. Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams: From Progressivism to the New Left
  3. Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin: From Progressivism to Libertarianism
  1. James J. Martin: Historian and Pamphleteer
  2. The Libertarian Historians and Their Colleagues on the New Left

[This article is excerpted from Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.]

'Parson Weems'
Fable' by Grant Wood"Parson Weems' Fable"Grant Wood's 1939 painting illustrating Parson Weems telling the story of George Washington's honesty

I. The Birth of American Revisionism and the Rise of Harry Elmer Barnes

The six volumes of Gore Vidal's "American Chronicle" series, which depicts the history of the United States from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century, were originally published over a span of nearly thirty years, beginning in the early 1970s and ending at the very end of the 1990s. During the '70s and early '80s, the first three books in the series — Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984) made a brilliant critical and popular success. Burr was the fifth biggest fiction bestseller of 1973[1] ; it was so successful that three years later the Book of the Month Club acquired its sequel, 1876, "sight unseen" and before the manuscript had even been completed; and the club's gamble paid off handsomely, for, upon publication, "1876 quickly went to the top of the bestseller list."[2] In 1984, when the third volume in the series, Lincoln, was published, Vidal found that he was faced with another "huge bestseller," another "critical success, reinforced by … immense sales."[3] Four years after its first publication, Lincoln was adapted as a made-for-TV movie. In the '90s all three of these novels were confirmed as modern classics by being reissued in Modern Library editions. The later volumes in the series — Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Golden Age (2000) — enjoyed less spectacular sales than the first three, but all the novels have sold briskly, and the entire "American Chronicle" enterprise has been a profitable one, both for Vidal and for his publishers and producers.

This is all the more remarkable when we remember that these books of Vidal's are more than a little subversive in character. This is not the familiar American history — the triumphant tale of a people fervently devoted to peace, prosperity, and individual liberty, a people whose hard work and boundless generosity had made their nation a beacon of hope to the entire world. No. This is another sort of American history altogether — a sad and somewhat cynical tale of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, by means of which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded were gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores. The tale told by Gore Vidal in his "American Chronicle" novels is a tale of how we became the people our Founding Fathers warned us (and attempted to protect us) against.

Partisans of the America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace mythology have attacked Vidal's novels, of course, but Vidal has made it quite clear in a couple of detailed replies to his critics (first published in the New York Review of Books) that he knows at least as much about the history of the periods he depicts in his novels as any of them do — PhD's and members of the professoriate though they may be.

Still, a reasonable question would seem to remain: is Vidal's version of American history the truth? Is it merely a fictional creation by a writer who has long devoted part of his professional career to political polemics — a fictional creation designed to justify the criticisms of US policy, especially US foreign policy, so frequently contained in those polemics? Or could one, if one chose to look, find published, credentialed historians whose work lends credibility to Vidal's vision? In a word, does Vidal's vision of American history rest on a solid foundation in historical scholarship? Or doesn't it?

The short answer to this question is that, yes, Vidal's vision of American history does rest on a solid foundation in historical scholarship. But there is also a long answer to the question, and it runs as follows: the historical scholarship that verifies Vidal's account of American history is scattered throughout the historical record of the last century and a half, but most of it is the product of one or more of the three closely interrelated "revisionist" movements that emerged in American historiography during those years. These three movements are the "New History," whose leading practitioners later came to be called "the Progressive historians"; the rebellion of the "New Left Historians" that began creating consternation within the historical profession during the 1960s and '70s; and the closely related revisionist movement established in the 1960s by a new group of libertarian historians — a movement which only now, nearly half a century later, is at last gaining the adherents and generating the excitement that have long eluded it.

Before describing these three "revisionist" movements in more detail, it would perhaps be advisable to define the term revisionism as it applies to the study of history. "Revisionism," according to Joseph R. Stromberg, "refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation."[4] "The readjustment of historical writing to historical facts" is the succinct definition offered in 1953 by one of revisionism's most notorious practitioners, Harry Elmer Barnes.[5] Thirteen years later, he offered a slightly longer and more thoughtful definition: "the effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude."[6] Even in his slightly longer and more thoughtful formulation, however, it is noteworthy that Barnes places great emphasis on the facts of the case. We need to revise the historical record when we have new facts.

Yet, as William Appleman Williams argued in 1973, "it is only rarely that the belated discovery of new documents revolutionizes some part of history." Accordingly, for Williams, "[t]he revisionist is one who sees basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships."[7] In 1967, Warren I. Cohen had seen the issue similarly, and had written, in the Preface to his book The American Revisionists that "the revisionist revises an existing interpretation of an event in history." On the other hand, Cohen had wondered aloud, later on in the selfsame sentence, whether the designation revisionist was really of any value to the student, "who realizes that every generation of historians tends to give new interpretations to the past."[8] Richard Hofstadter, a year later, echoed this theme in his book The Progressive Historians, writing of "that perennial battle we wage with our elders." As Hofstadter saw it, "If we are to have any new thoughts, if we are to have an intellectual identity of our own, we must make the effort to distinguish ourselves from those who preceded us, and perhaps pre-eminently from those to whom we once had the greatest indebtedness."[9]

Perhaps this is the reason Harry Elmer Barnes was able to report, when he sat down in the last decade of his life to write "Revisionism: A Key to Peace," that "revisionism dates from the beginnings of historical writing" and that "the first true historian" in Ancient Greece (Hecataeus of Miletus) "is known chiefly as a revisionist of traditional Greek tales about Hellenic origins." Barnes also noted that

[r]evisionism has been most frequently and effectively applied to correcting the historical record relative to wars because truth is always the first war casualty, the emotional disturbances and distortions in historical writing are greatest in wartime, and both the need and the material for correcting historical myths are most evident and profuse in connection with wars.

According to Barnes, writing in 1966, "[r]evisionism was applied to the American Revolution many years ago," and has been applied to every other war in which the US government had been involved since.[10]

Barnes, as has been seen, placed great emphasis on the importance of newly discovered facts as a justification for the revisionist's work. On occasion, however, he too stressed the importance of re-interpreting long-known facts. "By the close of the nineteenth century," he wrote in 1937 in his History of Historical Writing,

the student of history was in a condition not unlike that in which the physicist, chemist, or biologist would find himself if supplied with a vast number of notebooks containing carefully set down records of countless experiments and observations, but without any real attempt to interpret the significance of this mass of material or to derive from it scientific laws of general applicability.[11]

Such interpretation was necessary, Barnes believed, because without it history could never be useful. "The great majority of historical works down to the present time," he wrote in 1926,

have been filled with a mass of meaningless details with respect to the origins, succession, and changes of dynasties, or have dealt almost exclusively with battles, diplomatic intrigues, and personal anecdotes and episodes which have little or no significance in explaining how our present institutions and culture came about, in indicating their excellence and defects, or in aiding us to plan a better and more effective future.[12]

As an example of what he meant, Barnes turned to the history of his own nation. "The vast majority of the writing on American history," he wrote, "has been concerned with its political and legal phases." And this, he argued, had been a mistake. For

[u]ntil one understands that, however important Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln, U. S. Grant, James G. Blaine, Elihu Root, or Theodore Roosevelt may have been in American history, they have done less to shape its chief tendencies than such men as Franklin, Eli Whitney, Fulton, Morse, McCormick, Kelley, Field, Bell, J. J. Hill, Edison, Goodyear and Henry Ford, there will be little hope of any serious approach to a vital grasp of the nature of the development of American society.[13]

Barnes's list of the true shapers of American society implies a certain interest in the economy and in the influence of technology on economic progress. And this interest seems only fitting when we recall that Barnes had done his graduate work in history "at the prewar Columbia of Robinson and Beard."[14]

The "Robinson" to whom Peter Novick refers here is James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936), who taught at Columbia University from 1895 to 1919 and during those years founded, with Charles Austin Beard (1874–1948), what came to be known as the New History. Robinson was adamant that history should be of real utility to the living. "Our books," he wrote, "are like very bad memories which insist upon recalling facts that have no assignable relation to our needs, and this is the reason why the practical value of history has so long been obscured."[15] To remedy this situation, Robinson proposed that historians make more extensive use of the social sciences, particularly economics, sociology, and psychology, in their efforts to understand the past. Beard illustrated this approach to history in his scandalously successful 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in which he defended the thesis that

the Framers had pursued their task less under the spell of the high ideals of 1776 than with their eyes trained on the main chance. Encouraging commerce and manufactures, protecting private property, establishing financial instruments essential for economic development — these were the issues that preoccupied those participating in the secret deliberations in Philadelphia — issues in which they themselves had a large personal stake.[16]

Barnes had a background in sociology as well as economics. Born in 1889 "on a farm near Auburn, in the Finger Lake district of central New York State," he "entered Syracuse University in the fall of 1909," equipped "with the aim of preparing himself to be a high-school history teacher."

When he graduated from Syracuse in 1913, he achieved all of the academic honors available for a history major: graduation summa cum laude at the top of his class, not only in Liberal Arts but in the University as a whole, first honors in history, and the annual Historical Essay Prize for his essay on Alexander Hamilton. After graduation he remained at Syracuse for two years as an instructor in sociology and economics.

Sociology and economics were, of course, disciplines that could introduce "new facts" into the historical record and thereby create a need for revisionism. In 1915, Barnes applied for admission to graduate study at Columbia. William Harrison Mace, the chairman of the history department at Syracuse, wrote to the Columbia Graduate Faculty that "Harry Elmer Barnes is probably the ablest student and most tireless worker the Department of History has ever graduated."[17]

In 1918, after three years immersion in the New History of Robinson and Beard (an outlook that his earlier interest in economics and sociology suggests came naturally to him), Barnes submitted his dissertation and was awarded his PhD. He was thus a member of what Peter Novick calls "the second-generation New Historians," but he was destined to become, along with Beard, one of the two best known members of the movement. Preserved Smith of the Cornell University history department called Barnes's History of Western Civilization (2 vols., 1935) "incontestably the masterpiece of the New History."[18] As late as 1968, the year of Barnes's death, when a group of his former students, former colleagues, and fellow scholars contributed to a festschrift in his honor, the resulting volume was entitled Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History in Action.

Barnes "spent 1919–1920 as one of the original staff of the New School for Social Research," and spent a few years thereafter at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, first as an associate professor of European history, then as Professor of the History of Thought and Culture. Later, "[i]n 1923, Barnes left Clark to go to Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts as Professor of Historical Sociology. In addition to his regular position at Smith, he taught at Amherst for two years at the request of Dwight Morrow, who asked him to teach an introductory social science course known as 'Social and Economic Institutions.'"[19]

Meanwhile, he was writing voluminously on a freelance basis for both the scholarly and the popular press — for the American Journal of Sociology, the Political Science Quarterly, and the American Historical Review; for The Nation, the New Republic, and the American Mercury. And sometime in 1921, he found the subject for which he would ultimately become most famous: the origins and significance of World War I. During that war, as a graduate student in history at Columbia and a budding part-time journalist and polemicist, he had been loud in his support of US involvement in the conflict. As William L. Neumann notes,

Like many young men of his time he was a partisan of Woodrow Wilson. Like many of his older Columbia colleagues, notably … Charles A. Beard, he favored American entry into the European war before April of 1917. For his hometown New York newspaper, the Port Byron Chronicle, he wrote a long pro-intervention article in the winter of 1916–1917 which he later recalled as being "as ferocious in content, policy, and language as anything contributed by any sane person at the time." He also contributed to the pamphleteering work of the National Security League, the National Board for Historical Service, the American Defence Society, and several other propaganda agencies favorable to American entry into the European War.[20]

Then, in 1920 and 1921, Barnes read a series of articles in the American Historical Review by Sidney B. Fay of Smith College entitled "New Light on the Origins of the World War." Only a short time before, as Warren I. Cohen describes it,

the opening of the Russian archives was followed by the opening of the archives of the defeated Central Powers. Numerous historians sat down to years of laborious research. The publicists and historians of lesser patience took a quick look and began writing. Almost all concluded what every intelligent American had known all along: that the Germans had not been one hundred per cent "evil," nor France and her allies one hundred per cent "good." But the "revisionist" interpretation often went further, to the extent of shifting primary responsibility for the origins of the war from the Central to the Allied Powers — and, ultimately, condemning American intervention.[21]

Fay was one of the less patient historians; he had taken a quick look and had begun writing. Barnes took a somewhat slower look at the new evidence, but within three years he was not only a convert to Fay's revisionism but also its chief apologist in the popular press. An article under Barnes's byline on "Assessing the Blame for the World War" appeared in the May 1924 issue of Current History. It was followed a year later by a series of twelve shorter articles on the same subject in the Christian Century. The last of these Christian Century pieces had no sooner appeared (in the issue for December 17, 1925) than Barnes was busily at work revising and expanding the series for publication as a book: "[B]y June of 1926, the first edition of The Genesis of the World War was in the hands of reviewers, seven hundred and fifty pages long and selling for four dollars." Two years later, in 1928, Barnes "collected many of the controversial reviews of the first edition of the Genesis, his own rejoinders, some of his earlier articles, and an American Mercury article by C. Hartley Grattan" into a second book on World War I, In Quest of Truth and Justice.[22]

If Barnes took a slower and closer look than Sidney Fay at the new evidence about the war that became available after the Armistice, Charles Beard, Barnes's old professor at Columbia, took an even longer time than Barnes did to change his view of the Wilson administration's "war to end war." But change it he did, in the end. By 1930 Beard had become firmly convinced "that U.S. entry into the war had been a mistake and that Wilson's peddling of the elixir of internationalism had been tantamount to fraud." He had, moreover, become convinced that US wartime policies had been

self-serving, reflecting an eagerness to cash in on Europe's misfortune. A phony neutrality permitted a massive trade in arms with the Allies, propped up by American loans. The result at home was large profits for bankers and arms merchants and a general economic boom, sustainable only so long as the slaughter on the western front continued. By 1917 those policies culminated in intervention at the behest of Wall Street tycoons who would face ruin if Great Britain and France lost the war.

Now Beard enthusiastically joined his former student in attempting to sell World War I revisionism to the American public. As Andrew Bacevich notes, "Beard could wield his pen as 'either shillelagh or stiletto' and was equally adept at writing for academics, policy professionals or the general public." And now that his mind was made up, he held nothing back. "Throughout the 1930s Beard devoted his formidable talents to averting" a recurrence of the disaster he now believed had taken place in 1917 and 1918. "In a torrent of books, pamphlets, and articles, he warned against being dragged into problems that were Asia's or Europe's, but not America's. He labored furiously to alert his fellow citizens to the folly — and the danger — of reviving Woodrow Wilson's project."[23]

II. Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams: From Progressivism to the New Left

Beard was a fearsome talent to be deployed on behalf of the revisionist cause. A native of Indiana, Beard had studied at DePauw University, Oxford University, and Columbia. He had taught at Columbia for thirteen years, then resigned to become "an independent scholar and commentator on events of the day."

Over the course of his career, Beard published forty-two volumes of history and political science and coauthored another thirty-five. His masterful overview of U.S. history, The Rise of American Civilization, written with his wife, Mary R. Beard, became a bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection. His histories alone sold 11.3 million copies during his lifetime. Beard's articles and reviews — numbering in the hundreds — appeared in virtually all the leading scholarly and general-circulation journals of his day.

Altogether, "[t]hrough the first half of the twentieth century, Charles A. Beard … was by common agreement the most influential historian in America."[24]

With such intellectual firepower as Beard could muster, combined with that of his precocious and fabulously productive former student Barnes, anyone would expect that their case for World War I revisionism would have resoundingly carried the day. And, indeed, according to some accounts, it did. James J. Martin writes, for example, that the revisionist campaign "during the two decades prior to the outbreak of the Second World War" was "a success by almost any standard." For "in the main, the field was carried by Revisionism, its position being adopted generally throughout the country by the majority of the nation's most influential journalists and publicists. A very large part of the academic world as well accepted its general conclusions of divided war responsibility." Moreover, "the stubborn unwillingness shown by an immense majority of Americans to become totally immersed in the [following] war until the Japanese attack on Hawaii on December 7, 1941, was due in large part to popularized revisionist lessons, disseminated between 1924 and 1937."[25] Similarly, Cohen refers to the revisionists' battle for the minds and hearts of the American people during the interwar years as "[t]he battle won in the 1920's and 1930's by men like Harry Elmer Barnes, Charles Beard, C. Hartley Grattan, Walter Millis, and Charles Tansill."[26]

Barnes himself was never so certain that the battle had been won. "At the outset," he wrote,

American revisionist writing was somewhat precarious. Professor Fay was not in peril, personally, for he wrote in a scholarly journal which the public missed or ignored. But when I began to deal with the subject in media read by at least the upper intellectual level of the "men on the street," it was a different matter. I recall giving a lecture in Trenton, New Jersey, in the early days of revisionism and being threatened bodily by fanatics who were present.

"Gradually," Barnes acknowledged, "the temper of the country changed, but at first it was caused more by resentment against our former allies than by the impact of revisionist writings."[27]

Like Beard, Barnes put much energy during the 1930s into an attempt to persuade the American public of the dangerous folly (as he saw it) of becoming involved in yet another world war. When, late in the '20s, Barnes was given an opportunity to place this message before a much larger audience than he could ever command from the front of a college classroom or the pages of an intellectual weekly, he jumped at it. As Marguerite Fisher tells the story, "In 1929, during a sabbatical leave of absence" from his job at Smith, "Barnes went to New York to experiment for a year as an editorial writer, columnist, and book reviewer with the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain … then a powerful and liberal newspaper chain." The experiment was deemed a success, by both Barnes and his new employer, and was continued for another four years. In 1934, "he left the general organization of Scripps-Howard" and "was then taken on as a columnist, editorial writer and book reviewer for the World-Telegram, the New York City Scripps-Howard newspaper and the most important one in the chain. … Barnes finally left the World Telegram in May, 1940," determined to do as Beard had done and carve out a career for himself as a freelance intellectual — writing books, contributing to magazines and newspapers, and taking the occasional appointment as a visiting lecturer at such colleges or universities as might be interested in his services.[28]

"His departure" from the World-Telegram, according to Fisher, "was hastened by the controversy aroused by his anti-interventionist editorials, columns, and book reviews."[29] It was perhaps inevitable, then, that he would next turn his revisionist attention to the very Second World War that he had tried so valiantly but failed so miserably to keep the United States out of. After all, that was what his old professor, Charles Beard, had done. As Bacevich puts it, Beard

closed out his career by denouncing as fraudulent the text most crucial to sustaining the myth of the reluctant superpower: the orthodox account of U.S. entry into World War II. In two scathing volumes — American Foreign Policy in the Making (1946) and President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948) — Beard accused Franklin Roosevelt of outright deception in his conduct of foreign affairs.

For, according to Beard, "even as he was promising to keep the country out of the war, Roosevelt was conniving to maneuver the United States into it."[30]

Barnes agreed entirely with Beard's analysis. And "[j]ust as in March, 1922, Barnes had demanded that the current interpretations of the causes of World War I be revised, so now, at the end of 1947, he made a similar demand with regard to World War II, only to find that the difficulties in the way of getting any truth published about the responsibility for World War II were all but insuperable." Still, by 1953 Barnes was able to find a publisher for his most ambitious revisionist project on the second great war. This was a nearly seven-hundred-page collection of essays by diverse hands, "dedicated to the late Charles Austin Beard who had suggested its title, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. The specific content of the book was then illuminated by its subtitle, A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath."[31]

Barnes continued to work out the details of his revisionist account of World War II for the rest of his life. But he knew by 1953, even in the hour of his greatest triumph (successfully getting Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace into print), that his cause was a lost one. He wrote, from that time on, in the interest of recording the truth, as he saw it, as an end in itself. He held out no hope for the sort of victory in the court of public opinion that his earlier World War I revisionism had enjoyed. "However much we may recoil from the prospect," he wrote in 1953 in the opening chapter of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,

there seems a strong probability that we are now entering the twilight of historical science. … History has been an intellectual casualty in both World Wars, and there is much doubt that it can be rehabilitated during the second half of the century. Indeed, there is every prospect that it will become more and more an instrument and adjunct of official propaganda — a supine instrument of our "Ministry of Truth."[32]

Little did Barnes realize — little could he have realized — that all was not lost. For only a year before, the seed of an entirely new revisionist movement had been planted by a much younger but comparably prolific and polemical historian named William Appleman Williams, a movement that would shortly enjoy the kind of currency and influence which Barnes's own early works had enjoyed back in the 1920s and '30s. Williams (1921–1990) grew up in a small town in Iowa, won an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and served aboard a US Navy ship during the last year of the great war that was to bring Harry Elmer Barnes so much sorrow. "In 1947," Andrew J. Bacevich notes, "Williams left the Navy to study history at the University of Wisconsin, an institution famous, among other things, for its 'notorious loyalty' to the teachings of Charles Beard."[33] Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, from whom Bacevich drew the phrase "notorious loyalty" in the passage just quoted, go even farther in their 1995 biography of Williams, paraphrasing an unnamed "graduate alumnus" as saying that in those days "[a]ll a Wisconsin history student had to do for preliminary examinations … was to read Beard carefully."[34] Peter Novick writes of the University of Wisconsin history department that it "was dedicated to the defense of Beard's reputation, and, with some qualifications, of his teachings."[35] At Madison "Williams earned a doctorate in US diplomatic history. His first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781–1947, published in 1952, implicitly questioned orthodox views of the Cold War's origins, much as Beard had questioned the conventional wisdom about American entry into World War II."[36]

But Williams's questioning of the conventional wisdom would not remain implicit for long. By 1959, when the first edition of his most influential book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, appeared, he was clearly articulating, with considerable polemical vigor, the views that would characterize the rest of his long career. American foreign policy in the 20th century, according to Williams, had been based on the Open Door Policy first enunciated by John Hay, secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The problem, Williams argued, was that the Open Door Policy had evolved "from a utopian idea into an ideology," and the gist of that ideology was "the firm conviction, even dogmatic belief, that America's domestic well-being depends upon … sustained, ever-increasing overseas economic expansion."[37] This expansion could only be assured if the United States could be assured that the doors of all nations would be open to her goods, her culture, her social and political ideals, even her military. In Williams's view, "[o]f all the twentieth-century American presidents, only Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the dangers inherent in such an approach."[38] But Roosevelt's successor in the White House, Harry S. Truman, "was … an enthusiastic and militant advocate of America's supremacy in the world. He seemed, indeed, to react, think, and act as an almost classic personification of the entire Open Door Policy."[39] Unsurprisingly, Truman "and his advisors pursued ends that made the Cold War inevitable."[40]

"After a series of short teaching appointments elsewhere," Bacevich writes, "Williams returned to Wisconsin in 1957 and quickly established himself in the front rank of American historians." Over the next eleven years he also "became the founding father and abiding inspiration of the 'Wisconsin School' of revisionist history that examined the underside of US foreign policy and found there an American variant of imperialism."[41] This Wisconsin School of revisionist history also came to be known by another name, because so many of its leading figures were perceived as members of the New Left. As Novick puts it,

The new, left-oriented historians who became visible within the profession during the 1960s came to be capitalized, reified, and often tacitly homogenized as "New Left historians." This was a largely empty and misleading designation, lumping together individuals of the most diverse orientation, and often, innocently or maliciously, associating them with the most extreme wing of the student movement. … In fact, although there were some dissident historians who had ties to the student and youth insurgency which was labeled "New Left," at least as many either had no connection with the movement, or viewed it with a jaundiced eye.[42]

One of those who might well be counted as viewing the New Left movement "with a jaundiced eye," in fact, was Williams himself. As Joseph R. Stromberg writes, "Even in the turbulent 'sixties,'" Williams "was critical of New Left excesses. He would have hated the present university climate of political correctness."[43] This assertion is echoed by Henry W. Berger in his "Introduction" to A William Appleman Williams Reader. Berger writes:

Late in the 1960s, in the midst of frustrated opposition to the Vietnam War and increased domestic upheavals, Williams became disenchanted with many in the New Left, protesting a number of their actions which he believed contradicted and damaged efforts to change American society and the nature of United States relations with the world. He especially deplored "random nonsocial violence" as self-defeating and was disturbed when members of the New Left "tried to impose [their] consciousness on the rest of society through what [they] considered "vanguard" actions in a crisis situation.[44]

According to Bacevich, Williams's disenchantment with the New Left began even earlier. "Though an avowed man of the left," Bacevich writes, "by the mid-1960s Williams found himself increasingly out of sympathy with the political views of the Vietnam-era student radicals, among whom he had achieved the status of icon. He considered the antics of the counterculture to be childish and self-indulgent. He found the sexual revolution to be repugnant."[45]

Nonetheless, for better or for worse, the revisionist historians of the 1960s and '70s who were followers of William Appleman Williams have come to be called the New Left Historians. And there can be no doubt that it was Williams to whom they looked as the creator and leader of their movement. Several of the most prominent among them — Walter LaFeber, Gabriel Kolko, Ronald Radosh — did their graduate work in history under Williams at Wisconsin. Others, like Gar Alperovitz, earned their undergraduate degrees in history at Wisconsin during Williams's time there. As Robert James Maddox has written,

[b]y far the most influential American revisionist interpreter of the origins of the Cold War has been William Appleman Williams. … It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that much of the existing revisionist, or "New Left," literature on the subject amounts to little more than extended footnotes on interpretations Williams first put forward.[46]

III. Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin: From Progressivism to Libertarianism

Williams, as has been seen, was a follower of Charles Beard. And at about the same time in the late 1940s when Williams entered the University of Wisconsin and began undergoing rigorous graduate training in history as that subject was understood by Charles Beard, another young historian, James J. Martin (1916–2004), was making the acquaintance of Beard's former student and fellow World War I and World War II revisionist, Harry Elmer Barnes. Martin was uncertain at this time whether he wanted to pursue a career as a revisionist historian, despite the fact that what might be called the seeds of revisionism had been sown in his mind and temperament early on. Even as late as 2002, when he was eighty-six years old and his career was long behind him, he told me, near the beginning of our first telephone conversation, that he didn't really regard himself as a revisionist. He was, he said, an "additionist" — the fellow who comes along after the historical accounts have been written and adds what's been (inadvertently or deliberately) left out. It was a good line — and quite accurate, too — but it seems likely to have been one of those clever lines that come to us sometimes like a bolt from the blue, ornamenting the conversation or the manuscript at hand but having no lasting life, no lasting influence. For, in all our subsequent conversations, Martin never repeated it or referred to it in any way. In those later talks, he always referred to himself and his intellectual comrades at arms as "revisionists," and never as anything else.

He himself had first been drawn to revisionism, he told me in March 2003 in a face-to-face conversation that took place over the course of an unsettled, forboding afternoon, while in his last year as an undergraduate history major at the University of New Hampshire. It was the weather that was unsettled and forboding that afternoon: the sky was the blue/grey of slate and the weatherman was forecasting a blizzard (by the time it hit, my wife and I had driven up the road a piece, as far as Denver, so it was there that we got snowed in for three days). But inside Martin's unpretentious suburban-style home the atmosphere was very different — warm, hospitable, with a bottomless pot of spaghetti and much good company. He had been born in 1916 (September 18, to be exact), he told me, "in New Brunswick, Canada. My father was an unschooled, Irish immigrant laborer, and my mother was a Maine school teacher. I don't know how those two ever hooked up. Looking back on it, I couldn't imagine two persons less likely to have hit it off — in terms of background, that is. I couldn't see how they ever made any sense out of it."

They didn't, for long. "Eventually, my father sold what he had going there in Canada and bought a farm in New Hampshire, just about in time to experience the total collapse of the agricultural price scene in 1921." At about that same time, Martin's mother took ill and died. He was five years old. For the next several years, he "ended up being passed around from one housekeeper to another" — and also, more importantly, from one Catholic school to another. "I spent eight years in Catholic schools. My father was not known to have ever been in a church of any kind. He despised all churches. But he thought that Catholic schools were better, so he put me in them." Then "I went to a Catholic high school in the '30s — two of them, in fact: one taught by Christian Brothers and the other taught by nuns. Looking back, I can see they weren't easy. They hit you with a lot of stuff. I had five years of Latin. Today, you prescribe Latin, you'd probably be shot in your tracks."

Rigorous though the educational program might have been, however, Martin was not inspired by it to pursue a life of scholarship. "I was a football player. I wasn't interested in books. I was a football player, and I had a high school reputation in New Hampshire." That high school reputation won him a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire, where he was no more scholarly than he'd ever been up to this time in his life. Then he got sick.

In June of '39 during the final exams, I came down with pneumonia. I was the only sick kid out of two thousand students. I was in the school hospital, Hood House, donated by a big dairy producer in Boston, H. P. Hood. I was the only patient in it. I kept the whole place open for weeks. I was on what they called the "danger list." That meant you weren't expected to live the rest of the week. I was on that list for seven weeks. Eventually they shipped me in an ambulance to the nearby city of Dover, which had a much bigger hospital, and I eventually got well there.

By the time it ended, however, the illness had taken a fearsome toll. "I lost 50 pounds. I lost all my hair. I had to go to bed at six o'clock every night for a year and a half." And even after he had got well, he wasn't really that well.

They couldn't use me in the war, you know. I remember one recruiting officer looked at my x-rays, and he said, "Go home." He said, "If we're invaded, we'll call you." That's how bad they thought I looked. I wasn't declared fit again until 1947.

There was, as a result, a sort of silver lining in that long period of convalescence.

I had been in an ROTC regiment at the University of New Hampshire which was in the advance wave of the invasion of Casablanca in November 1942, and I would have been in that for damned sure, and the beach was littered with guys who got killed that I played football with. I told myself, "Well, you lucky bastard, you lost your football career, but you survived the war."

The loss of the football career was, nevertheless, a difficult cross for Martin to bear. "I was a psychological wreck. Everything I had lived for I couldn't do anymore." Then, "to do something, I learned all about books, and then started reading, and became a historian."

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Up to the time of his illness, Martin had changed majors frequently; his focus wasn't on graduating, but on taking classes that interested him and playing football. Now "I looked back on it. I said, 'Well, you're going to be here forever if you don't figure out what the hell you're going to major in. You're going to be here that long just to get enough credits to graduate.' So I looked over my record, and I had more good credits in history than anything, so that's the direction I went." He had the credits in history because "I liked history, and I was good at it, and I got good grades. I could remember. I had a good memory." So he majored in history. And by the time he was in his long-postponed senior year and getting ready to graduate, he had begun to notice that "people were neglecting this, and that, and the other thing. The establishment was ignoring things. That had something to do with my getting into revisionism."

For example,

I remember running across the first American-Korean War. It wasn't in 1950. It was in June 1871. The Far East American fleet of five ships landed four hundred marines, who tackled a whole bunch of Koreans in a fortress at the mouth of the Han River and killed six hundred of them in one day. There were a lot of big battles that didn't have six hundred dead in them. Yet I had never heard a word about it.

I remember the first time I ran across the big story about all the Americans that deserted the trenches in World War I. A whole bunch of them just walked off. There were so many, the military police cooperated with the French to create two big camps to put them in when they rounded them up. They were never tried. They were never shot. I first read about it going through The New York Times in microfilm looking for something else, and there was a big spread on this story over a period of about four months. There was a congressional investigation planned but it was abandoned, and I gather these guys figured, "Look, this will cause more trouble than it will solve. Let's just forget about it." And as a result, this episode has disappeared from the history books.

Nor was this all. There was more.

I didn't know the United States had a poison gas factory in World War I, an immense factory in Aberdeen, Maryland. It's northeast of Baltimore. It outproduced Germany, Russia, Italy, France, and Austria combined — and England, too.

By now, Martin was in Tucson, doing graduate work at the University of Arizona.

How I happened to go to Arizona from New Hampshire? The main reason was they had a summer semester in Tucson. You could get a whole semester's work in one summer. Usually you could only get half that, and that was the main reason I went there. Also, just to get a change of climate.

The experience proved frustrating, however, because of what Martin called

the deportation of the young teachers. The young professors were taking commissions in the Navy to escape getting drafted into the Army, and I exhausted their resources in one semester. The courses I needed for my master's degree were taught by men who weren't there anymore. They were on leave. And no school fired anybody who took a Navy commission like that. They all returned there as a rule.

So Martin dropped out.

I came back home and took a job teaching at a New Hampshire high school, and then started fishing around for another school, and wrote letters to various places. And I got a favorable response from Michigan after they saw my grades from Arizona. I transferred some of them and went there three summers to get a master's degree.

By now Martin had come upon a few more of those inconvenient facts that tended to be neglected or ignored by most historians.

One subject I got interested in that I was going to write about, and I took a lot of notes on, was how much of the Civil War was fought by boys, twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. I found a piece by a nurse. She was so shaken by what had happened to her that she couldn't write about it for thirty-five years. She was on a floor where every kid died of gangrene after having an arm or a leg lopped off — twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds. The Union Army was loaded with children. I'm sure the same was true in the South too. Big farm kids who passed themselves off as two, three years older. A lot of this we know because, after the war, when Congress passed the pension bill, I think in 1882, covering the Union veterans, they had to verify the birth dates of the surviving veterans to qualify them. And there was a whole operation run by a general, a Union general, that verified these birth dates and as a result of that, we know a great deal about the extreme youth of a whole bunch of people who qualified for pensions though they were just boys during their term of service. Gettysburg was fought mainly by boys. Now it's reenacted by forty-year-old drunks.

Martin had also come upon interesting evidence of "who made the big bucks out of" the US Civil War.

And boy, there were immense fortunes made out of that. There was an economist named White who used to write about this in the immediate years right after the war, '66, '67, '68, '69. He wrote a series of articles dealing with some of the people who made big dough. You know, the stock markets got so busy they had to have two sessions. They had to have both a downtown and an uptown stock market — the New York Stock Exchange. And of course, the people who sold gold to the government made a real killing. There were a number of multi-millionaires and billionaires. All the post-Civil War fortunes had their origins in supplying the Northern armies. Actually there's a succession of economists, historical economists, in the post-Civil War period who keep bringing this subject up all the way down into the administration of Benjamin Harrison. They were still confronting the people who made the money. But by that time, everybody had decided to forget all about that. We were all heroes. We were all giants.

Then there was the inconvenient information Martin had turned up regarding

how eager the young men of the nation were to join the army in 1917. Over a million young men dodged the draft. The army never found a one of them. Of course, they didn't have any machinery to look for them. The majority took isolated work on farms, other places where they weren't concentrated, and the army authorities never found a damned one of them, as near as I can figure out. And the gang they did round up — God, horrible pieces, terrible examples, of humanity. The intelligence tests they administered, in particular. I think the whole bunch combined, Black and White together, ranked moron. A lot of soldiers made money in the first war if they could write. The great majority could not write a letter home, so a lot of guys made a few bucks on the side writing letters home for A, B, C, D, and E, whoever couldn't write. They charged them a small sum, but they had so much business that they didn't have to charge them much. A great many letters written home were not by the writers, were not by the authors. Somebody else wrote for them.

Perhaps most fascinating of all there was the vast treasure trove of neglected lore Martin had begun unearthing about an amazing human dynamo named Benjamin R. Tucker (1854–1939) — journalist, editor, printer, publisher, and bookseller. The progeny of Quakers, Unitarians, and Abolitionists, Tucker was suckled on radicalism and deflowered while still a youth by early feminist radical Victoria Woodhull. An ardent exponent of freedom in all its forms — free love, freethought, and, of course, the political freedom of the individual — Tucker sought to eliminate marriage, God, and the State. He founded and edited Liberty, in its day (1881–1908) the largest-circulation anarchist periodical in the world. He gathered around him an extraordinary group of writers and intellectuals and became the spearhead for what probably should be regarded, from our vantage in time, as the first, almost entirely forgotten, libertarian movement. Tucker commissioned and published (and, in some cases, personally created) the original English translations of Proudhon's What Is Property?, Bakunin's God and the State, Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, and Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own. He brought out American editions of works by Oscar Wilde, Herbert Spencer, Emile Zola, John Henry Mackay, and many others. He studied and helped to popularize the work of earlier American individualists who had come to reject the State — Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Lysander Spooner — thereby establishing the first serious claim to a genuinely libertarian tradition in American intellectual history. And all of this had been neglected, ignored, utterly forgotten. Martin decided to go for a PhD and do his dissertation in one of the "neglected" fields once vigorously championed by James Harvey Robinson: intellectual history. Published as a book in 1953 under the title Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827–1908, Martin's dissertation galvanized scholarly interest in uniquely American libertarian traditions and remains today, more than half a century after its original publication, a standard work in the field.[47]

It was while he was finishing up his work on this dissertation that Martin received a mailing from the noted historian and polemicist Harry Elmer Barnes. Barnes had written to graduate students and faculty in history departments all over the United States, advertising a new pamphlet he had just written and self-published: Revisionism and the Historical Blackout. Martin ordered a copy and, once he'd read it, wrote to Barnes commenting on it. Barnes wrote back. Before long, the two men were corresponding regularly, sometimes as often as four times a week, and Martin had become a frequent guest in Barnes's home, first in Cooperstown, New York, then in Malibu, California.

Reading Revisionism and the Historical Blackout that fateful year in the late 1940s seems to have had a powerful effect on James J. Martin. His dissertation on the American individualist anarchists was the last book he ever wrote on intellectual history. After reading Barnes, making his acquaintance, and becoming his close friend and protégé, he turned his attention instead to what had long preoccupied Barnes: the two major wars of the first half of the 20th century. Martin's second book, published in 1963, was a mammoth two-volume study of American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931–1941: Liberalism's Press and Spokesmen on the Road Back to War Between Mukden and Pearl Harbor. His third, Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical Tradition (1971), focused entirely on issues relating to the two world wars. His fourth, The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History (1977), did the same. His fifth, Beyond Pearl Harbor: Essays on Some Historical Consequences of the Crisis in the Pacific in 1941 (1981), bears a title that speaks for itself. So does 1984's The Man Who Invented "Genocide": The Public Career and Consequences of Raphael Lemkin, the 20th-Century Polish academic and bureaucrat who coined the term that has become so ubiquitous in the years since. And so does An American Adventure in Bookburning: In the Style of 1918 (1988).

In short, the influence of Barnes seems to have transformed an intellectual historian interested in 19th-Century America into a World War I and World War II revisionist on the pattern of Barnes himself. There was one important difference, however. Barnes was an early 20th-Century "progressive." He believed that government had a positive, valuable role to play in "correcting" the "market failures" and other "deficiencies" of "capitalism." He supported the domestic programs of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, objecting only to his foreign policy. Martin, by contrast, was a libertarian — an individualist anarchist whose most important intellectual influences where political philosophy was concerned were Benjamin R. Tucker and Max Stirner (1806–1856), the German philosopher whose magnum opus, Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum (1845), Tucker had published in its first English-language edition (The Ego and Its Own) in 1907. Barnes practiced revisionism in order to advance his views on war and peace, in order to make the world a better, safer place to live in. Martin, on the other hand, was never much of a do-gooder, much less a world-saver. As he explained to a panel of interviewers from Reason magazine late in 1975, "my interest in [revisionism] is not necessarily activated by ideological considerations. It's more of a technical interest in getting the record straight." He had never, he said at that time, been much concerned with

doing good or bringing about a set of better social conditions, an improvement in the race or any long-range programs of that sort. My friend Harry Elmer Barnes was very much so motivated. But I was nowhere nearly as involved in his objectives as I was in his work. We often worked for totally different reasons at the same thing. I have no compulsions to save the world or save the human race.[48]

Still, it seems evident that if Martin ever harbored any hopes about the effect his writings might have on his readers, what he hoped for was very different from what Barnes hoped for. Barnes wanted to steer American government away from what he regarded as wasteful and destructive policies. Martin, if he wanted anything other than just to get the record straight, wanted to steer American society away from government. Barnes sought to publicize the truth about the world wars in order to convince his fellow Americans that their government should use the resources it was wasting on unnecessary and destructive foreign conflicts to make improvements at home, improvements like ending poverty and stamping out crime. Martin sought to publicize the truth about the world wars in order to get the record straight — and perhaps to convince his fellow Americans that it was dangerous and foolhardy to trust any group of men, even if they called themselves "the government," with the kind of power you need to commit destruction and carnage on that sort of worldwide scale.

Martin was awarded his PhD by the University of Michigan in 1949. He began writing his books and embarked on a series of teaching assignments. Northern Illinois University was on his itinerary, as were San Francisco State College and Deep Springs College in the Southern California desert, the school Newsweek once described as "the most isolated, obscure, and selective college in the entire U.S."[49] He ended up in Larkspur, Colorado at Rampart College, an institution founded and run by the legendary libertarian journalist, broadcaster, author, editor, and teacher Robert LeFevre (1911–1986). LeFevre had founded what he originally called the Freedom School in 1957, building the campus part time with a crew of volunteers and a few paid workers while he labored full time as the editorial page editor of the daily Gazette-Telegraph in nearby Colorado Springs. At first, once the physical plant was ready for use, he conducted only summer sessions, employing a roster of part-time lecturers that included such prominent libertarian intellectuals as "Rose Wilder Lane, Milton Friedman, F. A. Harper, Frank Chodorov, Leonard Read, Gordon Tullock, G. Warren Nutter, Bruno Leoni, James J. Martin, and even Ludwig von Mises."[50] But the Freedom School prospered, attracting new funding and a steady stream of students. LeFevre decided it might be possible to quit his full-time job and devote his entire energy to this educational project. In 1965, he renamed the school Rampart College, launched a quarterly journal, and began hiring full-time faculty for his planned expansion into a regular, four-year, degree-granting liberal arts college.

IV. James J. Martin: Historian and Pamphleteer

One of his first hires was James J. Martin, whom he lured away from Deep Springs by offering the chairmanship of the Rampart history department. Martin quit his job and moved to Colorado, only to discover that LeFevre's plans had been bigger than his resources and Rampart College was not going to become a full-fledged college after all. In 1968, three years after his arrival, the former Freedom School folded for good. As LeFevre tells the story in his autobiography, he first discussed the situation with the chairman of his economics department, W. H. Hutt, and released him from his contract. Then he called Martin "into my office and released him from his contract, too."

Martin stalked from the office. A day later, I received a letter in which he informed me that he was prepared to hire legal representation and that no matter how hard I tried, he was going to hold me to the contract. … I had four more years in which I would pay his full salary plus provide him with housing. Any failure on my part and he'd see me in court! Martin had been among those most ardent in insisting that government was totally unnecessary. But not if he needed it in dealing with me.[51]

As might be imagined, Martin's version of the debacle is a little different. "I had read so much stuff by LeFevre over the years," he told me that afternoon in Colorado Springs,

all the bawling about the sacredness of contracts, that I said to myself, "Well, for once I'm going to hold him to one and see what he does." And I think he began to realize the absurdity of his situation — spending years saying all these kinds of things about contracts, and then trying to run out on one. He could easily have done it. I didn't have the resources to chase him. And he knew it. I didn't threaten to sue him. I didn't. I expected him to just walk away. But he had the backing of two, three, four millionaires … and sixty-thousand dollars was no money to them. Hell, they spent that maybe at the casinos on weekends.

So Martin got his sixty thousand. And he decided to stay on in Colorado.

I just got tired of running. I ran back and forth across this country from coast to coast, including both coasts, and I said to myself, "What's the point of all this? Aren't you tired of it?" And I said, "Yeah, I am." I had no dependents. So I said, "I'll just stay here and revert back to my old way of living." I put myself through three university degrees by living like a concentration camp rat, and I said, "Well, I'll just go back to that again. Cut down on this, cut down on that, live within my means, bank interest, whatever." And here I am. I've survived thirty-five years living like that. I've stayed off the labor market, felt pretty good, wrote a lot of books. I've published over two million words.

He also published at least a dozen books by other writers in that thirty-five-year span, most of them in the first decade after his departure from Rampart College. For Martin put only a portion of his sixty-thousand-dollar windfall into an account, in order to earn the "bank interest" he referred to. The rest of it he invested in an enterprise that never earned him very much, if anything, unless perhaps it was the title of most influential libertarian book publisher since Benjamin R. Tucker — an accolade I fancy he would have liked. Rampart College, as has been noted, shut down in 1968. Harry Elmer Barnes died that same year, aged seventy-nine. And later in 1968, Ralph Myles, Publisher of Colorado Springs, Colorado issued its debut volume, a festschrift in Barnes's honor, featuring essays by former students, former colleagues, and fellow scholars. Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History in Action was followed in short order by reprints of various revisionist works Martin felt were neglected or ignored: Barnes's In Quest of Truth and Justice, William Henry Chamberlain's America's Second Crusade, Arthur Ekirch's seminal The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition. In 1970, Martin issued a revised and enlarged edition, the first edition in paperback, of his own Men Against the State. In 1975, he teamed up with the younger libertarian historian Leonard P. Liggio to edit together a book from the texts of a series of papers presented at a "conference held in 1971 at Gibson Island under the chairmanship of Dr. Felix Morley and sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies." The resulting volume, Watershed of Empire: Essays on New Deal Foreign Policy, was published by Ralph Myles in 1976.

As Martin recalled it that afternoon in Colorado Springs, "I began Ralph Myles to print just one thing" — the Barnes festschrift —

and then it just ballooned, and I found myself saying, "Well, I've got to get this out, I've got to get that out, this hasn't been done for years." And I ended up with a string of titles. We went in two directions. Originally I was going to deal mainly with what you might call revisionism and then I got into — I had already been involved for years with — libertarianism.

In addition to his own Men Against the State, Ralph Myles reissued Benjamin R. Tucker's "State Socialism and Anarchism" and Other Essays, Lysander Spooner's No Treason, Etienne de la Boetie's The Will to Bondage, and numerous other volumes of immense interest to anyone concerned with the libertarian intellectual tradition, both in this country and in Europe. Each of these titles was graced by a James J. Martin introduction, and each of those introductions was a small marvel of esoteric information and sound scholarship. It is difficult to imagine what the would-be historian of libertarian thought would be up against if James J. Martin had never written Men Against the State and had never founded Ralph Myles, Publisher. All those who care about such matters owe him a profound debt of gratitude.

I found Jim Martin cheerful, if more than a bit cynical, when I visited him that unsettled afternoon a little more than a year before his death. I also found him still mentally sharp as ever, that amazing memory seemingly unimpaired, engaged as ever with the issues and events of the day. "What Barnes and I liked to think," he told me that afternoon in Colorado Springs,

we didn't say, we never got into it to any degree, but I believe, essentially, we thought we were the supporters of the Republic. Like Gore Vidal does now. Gore Vidal sounds just like we did. I have both of his last two books here. He's not a scholar, but he's such a good writer that, in each case, I just sat and read right through the whole book. I didn't put it down. He understands history as well as anybody I've ever known, Ph.D. or no degrees at all; it's irrelevant for our purposes to know that he didn't go through the rat race that we did.

Anyway, the attitude Barnes and I generally had was that we were just like Vidal thinks of himself now — a bulwark of the Republic. We were supporting George Washington's foreign policy — stay home, keep the hell out of other people's affairs, no alliances with anybody, improve your own country, and so on. You see? The opposition to us captured the country in 1917 and they've had it ever since.

V. The Libertarian Historians and Their Colleagues on the New Left

As Martin saw it, he and Barnes "were fighting a rear-guard action against a crowd of imperialists and world meddlers." And they'd lost that rear-guard action. But Martin's lead as a revisionist was taken up by several younger men who shared both his individualistic and anarchistic views and his admiration for Barnes and Beard. Chief among these was Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995), an economist who had earned his PhD at Columbia and nursed a strong secondary interest in history (strong enough to carry him through a number of purely historical works, including a four-volume narrative of America from colonization in the 17th century to the end of the revolution in 1784). There were also Leonard P. Liggio, Ralph Raico, and Ronald Hamowy, all born in the early-to-mid 1930s and destined to pursue academic careers in history; and four members of the Baby Boom generation — Robert Higgs (a borderline boomer, born in 1944), Joseph Stromberg, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, and Thomas J. DiLorenzo.

Since both the New Left historians and the libertarian historians derived from Beard and Barnes, it might be expected that their scholarly and polemical paths would cross — that they would know of each other and, perhaps, even collaborate on projects of mutual interest and benefit. And so, in fact, it was. Referring to Williams's pioneering Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), Buhle and Rice-Maximin note that "[t]he year of the publication of Tragedy saw the appearance of Studies on the Left, the first of the U.S. 'new left' publications, engineered principally by Williams devotees."[52] Novick calls Studies on the Left "the first, and in many ways the most important, organized vehicle for the new historiographical left."[53] In the summer of 1966, Rothbard contributed a review of The Poverty of Abundance by A. U. Romasco to Studies on the Left. A few years later, he was invited by Studies on the Left editors James Weinstein and David Eakins to revise and expand his review for inclusion in an anthology they were putting together. "The Hoover Myth" duly appeared in a volume entitled For a New America: Essays in History and Politics from Studies on the Left, 1959–1967, edited by Weinstein and Eakins, which was published in 1970 by Random House.

Meanwhile, Ronald Radosh had contributed an article on "America's Entry into World War II" to Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought, which was edited by Rothbard. He also collaborated with Leonard Liggio on an article on "Henry A. Wallace and the Open Door," which appeared in 1971 in an anthology called Cold War Critics. The following year, in 1972, Radosh and Rothbard co-edited a book, A New History of Leviathan, which included an Introduction by William Appleman Williams and an essay on "American Foreign Policy and National-Security Management" by Leonard Liggio. In 1975, Radosh published Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism, including essays on Senator Robert A. Taft, John T. Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, Lawrence Dennis, and Charles A. Beard. Since Radosh acknowledges that "Beard was part of the old Progressive tradition," that he "believed that the Depression would continue and worsen" because the Democrats "would not deal effectively with it by radical measures, such as nationalization of the banks." and that the status Beard desired for the United States was that of (quoting fellow historian Samuel Eliot Morison) "a socialized, collectivist state in isolation," it may seem somewhat difficult to make out in just what sense Radosh believes Beard can be reasonably described as a "conservative."[54] (This is an issue to which I will return in Chapter Five.) But no matter. Prophets on the Right is dedicated to William Appleman Williams, and its Acknowledgments section begins with the following sentence: "I am particularly indebted to those two stalwarts of the libertarian Old Right, Leonard P. Liggio and Murray N. Rothbard." Three years later, in the summer of 1978, Eric Foner, whom Novick describes as "[p]rominent in the second wave" of New Left Historians (just as he describes Barnes as a "second-generation New Historian"), contributed the lead bibliographic essay to the then-current issue of Literature of Liberty, a scholarly journal edited by Liggio: a discussion of "Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War."[55]

Though the lessons they drew from history differed, as did their policy prescriptions, the New Left Historians, the Libertarian Historians, and the New Historians (or Progressive Historians) all agreed fundamentally on what it was that had actually happened in those periods of American history to which they had all devoted study — and, moreover, about which aspects of what had happened were significant. Charles Beard argued, for example, that large corporations worked for a system of centralized federal regulation of their own businesses, late in the 19th century, because they considered such a system preferable to the existing "anarchy" of different state regulations.[56] In 1963, in The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900–1916, Gabriel Kolko, one of the most prolific and influential of the many protégés of William Appleman Williams, argued that, "contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it." According to Kolko, "many key businessmen" at the turn of the 20th century "articulated a conscious policy favoring the intervention of the national government into the economy," in an effort to put their smaller competitors out of business and create a monopoly-like power for themselves.[57] Or, as libertarian journalist and editor Roy A. Childs, Jr. put it in 1971 in his essay "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism," a "trend in the last three decades of the nineteenth century … towards growing competition in the United States" led "various big businessmen in different fields" to lobby "the state to regulate the economy on their behalf."[58]

$15 $12

 

In fact, one can assemble the revisionist works of the New Historians, the New Left Historians, and the Libertarian Historians into a coherent narrative of American history from the Revolution through the early days of the Cold War. In effect, this is precisely what Gore Vidal has done, in his American Chronicle novels. This is not to say that Vidal has been directly influenced by all the historians mentioned in this chapter — though he definitely has been directly influenced by some of them. In a January 1998 interview with the online magazine Salon, for example, he called William Appleman Williams "our greatest historian."[59] He wrote in the Afterword to The Golden Age of "our preeminent historian, Charles A. Beard" and of "furtive signs of a revival among younger academics of the realist historians — anti-ideologues like Richard Hofstadter and William Appleman Williams."[60] In his short essay "Japanese Intentions in the Second World War" (originally written as a pair of letters to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement in December 2000), Vidal recommends "the latest, if not last, word on the subject" of Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan: "The Decision to Use the Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth by Gar Alperovitz."[61] And the title Vidal chose for the small paperback compilation of topical essays he published in 2002, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace — a phrase taken from Charles Beard which had been used previously as the title for another collection of essays on US foreign policy edited by Harry Elmer Barnes — may perhaps be said to speak for itself. "One of the interesting things about Vidal's little book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," James J. Martin told me that winter afternoon in Colorado Springs, "is that he didn't realize that the revisionists had used the same title fifty years before he did." But, like the revisionists, he saw its appropriateness.[62]

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This article is excerpted from Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.

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Notes

[1] See "Making the Bestseller List."

[2] Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 686–87.

[3] Ibid., pp. 738, 740.

[4] Joseph R. Stromberg, "Harry Elmer Barnes (1889–1968): Progressive and Revisionist," February 7, 2000.

[5] Harry Elmer Barnes, "Revisionism and the Historical Blackout" in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, ed. Harry Elmer Barnes (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1953), p. 7.

[6] Harry Elmer Barnes, "Revisionism: A Key to Peace" in Revisionism: A Key to Peace and Other Essays, ed. James J. Martin (San Francisco: Cato Institute, 1980), p. 1.

[7] William Appleman Williams, "Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist" in A William Appleman Williams Reader: Selections from his Major Historical Writings, ed. Henry W. Berger (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 338. [emphasis in original]

[8] Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. vii. [emphasis added]

[9] Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Knopf, 1969), p. xiv.

[10] Barnes, "Revisionism: A Key to Peace," op.cit., pp. 1–2.

[11] Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938), p. 355.

[12] Harry Elmer Barnes, History and Social Intelligence (New York: Revisionist Press, 1972 [1926]),

p. 271.

[13] Ibid., pp. 294, 293.

[14] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 178.

[15] Ibid., p. 98.

[16] Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities & Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 13.

[17] Marguerite J. Fisher, "Harry Elmer Barnes: An Overall Preview" in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History in Action, ed. Arthur Goddard (Colorado Springs, CO: Ralph Myles, 1968), pp. 1, 3, 4.

[18] See Harry Elmer Barnes, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, op.cit., p. 2.

[19] Fisher, op.cit., p. 15

[20] William L. Neumann, "Harry Elmer Barnes as World War I Revisionist" in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader, op.cit., p. 262.

[21] Cohen, op.cit., p. 2.

[22] Neumann, op.cit., pp. 266, 268–69, 270, 272, 279.

[23] Bacevich, op.cit., pp. 14–15, 11, 16.

[24] Ibid., p. 11.

[25] James J. Martin, "History and Social Intelligence" in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader, op.cit., pp. 241, 246.

[26] Cohen, op.cit., p. ix.

[27] Barnes, "Revisionism: A Key to Peace," op.cit., pp. 10, 11.

[28] Fisher, op.cit., pp. 17, 21.

[29] Ibid., p. 21.

[30] Bacevich, op.cit., p. 12.

[31] Henry M. Adams, "World War II Revisionist" in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader, op.cit.,

pp. 295, 303.

[32] Harry Elmer Barnes, "Revisionism and the Historical Blackout," op.cit., p. 58.

[33] Bacevich, op.cit., p. 23.

[34] Paul M. Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin, William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 37.

[35] Novick, op.cit., p. 346.

[36] Bacevich, op.cit., p. 23.

[37] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Dell, 1972 [1959]),

pp. 206, 15.

[38] Robert James Maddox, The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 15.

[39] Williams, Tragedy of American Diplomacy, op.cit., p. 239.

[40] Maddox, op.cit., p. 16.

[41] Bacevich, op.cit., p. 24.

[42] Novick, op.cit., p. 418.

[43] Joseph R. Stromberg, "William Appleman Williams: Premier New Left Revisionist," November 16, 1999.

[44] Henry W. Berger, "Introduction" in A William Appleman Williams Reader, op.cit., p. 28–29.

[45] Bacevich, op.cit., p. 24.

[46] Maddox, op.cit., p. 13.

[47] See, for example, William O. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976), pp. viii-ix. See also David DeLeon, The American As Anarchist : Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 173.

[48] "Introducing Revisionism: An Interview with James J. Martin." Reason January 1976, pp. 14–15.

[49] Ibid., p. 14.

[50] Llewellen H. Rockwell, Jr., "The Wisdom of LeFevre," July 2001.

[51] Robert LeFevre, A Way to Be Free: The Autobiography of Robert LeFevre, Vol. 2. (Culver City, CA: Pulpless.com, 1999), p. 475.

[52] Buhle and Rice-Maximin, op.cit., p. 117.

[53] Novick, op.cit., p. 420.

[54] Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Free Life Editions, 1978 [1975]), pp. 11, 25. 40.

[55] Novick, op.cit., pp. 420, 179.

[56] Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, A Basic History of the United States (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), pp. 316–19.

[57] Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (New York: Free Press, 1963), p. 5.

[58] Childs, op.cit., pp. 30–31.

[59] Chris Haines, "Gore's Wars," Salon, January 14, 1998.

[60] Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (New York: Doubleday, 2000) pp. 466, 467.

[61] Gore Vidal, "Japanese Intentions in the Second World War" in The Last Empire: Essays, 1992–2000 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 462.

[62] At least one other author also saw its appropriateness between Barnes and Vidal. This is longtime University of Texas historian Robert A. Divine, whose Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace was published in 2000 by Texas A&M University Press. I am indebted to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel for information about this volume.


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