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Revisionism and the Historical Blackout

Tags Legal SystemThe Police StateWorld HistoryInterventionism

02/17/2010Harry Elmer Barnes

[Chapter 1 of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, 1953]

The First World War and American intervention therein marked an ominous turning point in the history of the United States and of the world. Those who can remember "the good old days" before 1914 inevitably look back to those times with a very definite and justifiable feeling of nostalgia. There was no income tax before 1913, and that levied in the early days after the amendment was adopted was little more than nominal. All kinds of taxes were relatively low. We had only a token national debt of around a billion dollars, which could have been paid off in a year without causing even a ripple in national finance. The total federal budget in 1913 was $724,512,000, just about 1 percent of the present astronomical budget.

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

Libertarianism was also dominant in Western Europe. The Liberal Party governed England from 1905 to 1914. France had risen above the reactionary coup of the Dreyfus affair, had separated church and state, and had seemingly established the Third Republic with reasonable permanence on a democratic and liberal basis. Even Hohenzollern Germany enjoyed the usual civil liberties, had strong constitutional restraints on executive tyranny, and had established a workable system of parliamentary government. Experts on the history of Austria-Hungary have recently been proclaiming that life in the Dual Monarchy after the turn of the century marked the happiest period in the experience of the peoples encompassed therein.

Enlightened citizens of the Western world were then filled with buoyant hope for a bright future for humanity. It was believed that the theory of progress had been thoroughly vindicated by historical events. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in 1888, was the prophetic bible of that era.1 People were confident that the amazing developments in technology would soon produce abundance, security, and leisure for the multitude.

In this optimism in regard to the future no item was more evident and potent than the assumption that war was an outmoded nightmare. Not only did idealism and humanity repudiate war but Norman Angell and others were assuring us that war could not be justified, even on the basis of the most sordid material interest.

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

Unfortunately, there are relatively few persons today who can recall those happy times. In his devastatingly prophetic book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell points out that one reason why it is possible for those in authority to maintain the barbarities of the police state is that nobody is able to recall the many blessings of the period which preceded that type of society.2

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

I am devoting my seminar this quarter to the subject of American foreign policy since 1933. The effect upon a Roosevelt-bred generation is startling, indeed. Even able and mature students react to the elementary facts like children who have just been told that there is (or was) no Santa Claus.

While the First World War headed the United States and the world toward international disaster, the Second World War was an even more calamitous turning point in the history of mankind. It may, indeed, have brought us — and the whole world — into the terminal episode of human experience.

It certainly marked the transition from social optimism and technological rationalism into the Nineteen Eighty-Four pattern of life, in which aggressive international policies and war scares have become the guiding factor, not only in world affairs but also in the domestic, political, and economic strategy of every leading country of the world. The police state has emerged as the dominant political pattern of our times, and military state capitalism is engulfing both democracy and liberty in countries which have not succumbed to Communism.

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

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

The readjustment of historical writing to historical facts relative to the background and causes of the First World War — what is popularly known in the historical craft as "revisionism" — was the most important development in historiography during the decade of the 1920s. While those historians at all receptive to the facts admitted that revisionism readily won out in the conflict with the previously accepted wartime lore, many of the traditionalists in the profession remained true to the mythology of the war decade. In any event, the revisionist controversy was the outstanding intellectual adventure in the historical field in the 20th century down to Pearl Harbor.

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

While the wartime mythology endured for years after 1918, nevertheless leading editors and publishers soon began to crave contributions which set forth the facts with respect to the responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914, our entry into the war, and the basic issues involved in this great conflict.

Sidney B. Fay began to publish his revolutionary articles on the background of the First World War in the American Historical Review in July, 1920. My own efforts along the same line began in the New Republic, the Nation, the New York Times Current History Magazine, and the Christian Century in 1924 and 1925. Without exception, the requests for my contributions came from the editors of these periodicals, and these requests were ardent and urgent. I had no difficulty whatever in securing the publication of my Genesis of the World War in 1926, and the publisher thereof subsequently brought forth a veritable library of illuminating revisionist literature.

By 1928, when Fay's Origins of the World War3 was published, almost everyone except the die-hards and bitter-enders in the historical profession had come to accept revisionism, and even the general public had begun to think straight in the premises.

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

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

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

Vigorous as was the resistance of many, including powerful vested historical interests, to the revisionism of the 1920s, it was as nothing compared to that which has been organized to frustrate and smother the truth relative to the Second World War. History has been the chief intellectual casualty of the Second World War and the cold war which followed.

It may be said, with great restraint, that never since the Middle Ages have there been so many powerful forces organized and alerted against the assertion and acceptance of historical truth as are active today to prevent the facts about the responsibility for the Second World War and its results from being made generally accessible to the American public.

Even the great Rockefeller Foundation frankly admits the subsidizing of historians to anticipate and frustrate the development of any neorevisionism in our time.4 And the only difference between this foundation and several others is that it has been more candid and forthright about its policies. The Sloan Foundation later supplemented this Rockefeller grant. Charles Austin Beard summarized the implications of such efforts with characteristic vigor:

The Rockefeller Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations … intend to prevent, if they can, a repetition of what they call in the vernacular "the debunking journalistic campaign following World War I." Translated into precise English, this means that the Foundation and the Council do not want journalists or any other persons to examine too closely and criticize too freely the official propaganda and official statements relative to "our basic aims and activities" during World War II. In short, they hope that, among other things, the policies and measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt will escape in the coming years the critical analysis, evaluation and exposition that befell the policies and measures of Woodrow Wilson and the Entente Allies after World War I.5

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

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

In the light of this statement, I decided to take Mr. Zurcher at his word. I had projected and encouraged a study of the foreign policy of President Hoover, which appeared to me a very important and much needed enterprise, since it was during his administration that our foreign policy had last been conducted in behalf of peace and in the true public interest of the United States rather than in behalf of some political party, foreign government, or dubious ideology. One of the most competent of American specialists in diplomatic history had consented to undertake the project, and he was a man not previously identified in any way with revisionist writing.

  1. My request was for exactly one thirtieth of the grant allotted for the Langer-Gleason book. The application was turned down by Mr. Zurcher with this summary statement: "I regret that we are unable to supply the funds which you requested for Professor ——'s study." He even discouraged my suggestion that he discuss the idea in a brief conference with the professor in question.

A state of abject terror and intimidation exists among the majority of professional American historians whose views accord with the facts on the question of responsibility for the Second World War. Several leading historians and publicists who have read my brochure on The Struggle Against the Historical Blackout have written me stating that, on the basis of their own personal experience, it is an understatement of the facts. Yet the majority of those historians to whom it has been sent privately have feared even to acknowledge that they have received it or possess it. Only a handful have dared to express approval and encouragement.

Moreover, the gullibility of many "educated" Americans has been as notable as the mendacity of the "educators." In Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, as well as in Fascist Italy, and in China, the tyrannical rulers found it necessary to suppress all opposition thought in order to induce the majority of the people to accept the material fed them by official propaganda. But, in the United States, with almost complete freedom of the press, speech, and information down to the end of 1941, great numbers of Americans followed the official propaganda line with no compulsion whatever.

In many essential features, the United States has moved along into the Nineteen Eighty-Four pattern of intellectual life. But there is one important and depressing difference. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mr. Orwell shows that historians in that regime have to be hired by the government and forced to falsify facts. In this country today, and it is also true of most other nations, many professional historians gladly falsify history quite voluntarily.

  • 1.
    New edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941.
  • 2. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1949. See especially pp. 86–93.
  • 3. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928.
  • 4. Annual Report, 1946, pp. 188–89.
  • 5. Saturday Evening Post, October 4, 1947, p. 172.

Harry Elmer Barnes

Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968) was a pioneer of historical revisionism, meaning the use of historical scholarship to challenge and refute the narratives of history promulgated by the state and the political class, or as Barnes himself termed it, "court history." Long regarded as a progressive intellectual leader of the American Left, Barnes became associated with the Old Right for his opposition to the New Deal and to American entry into World War II. His work has had a profound influence on New Left historians such as William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko, as well as on the historical writings of Murray Rothbard and other libertarians.

See Murray Rothbard's obituary, "Harry Elmer Barnes, RIP."