Mises Review

The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method, by Marc Trachtenberg

The Mises Review

New Support for Revisionist History

Mises Review 12, No. 2 (Summer 2006)


Marc Trachtenberg
Princeton University Press, 2006, x + 266 pgs.

Marc Trachtenberg's guidebook is intended as a "how-to" book for students of diplomatic history and political science. But much of it is of great value to anyone interested in a revisionist brand of history. Trachtenberg, an authority on twentieth-century American diplomacy, teaches by example. He shows students how to analyze historical arguments by considering a number of case studies. Although Trachtenberg seldom cites standard revisionist historians--Charles Tansill and Charles Beard are not mentioned at all---his illuminating discussions lend strong support for their work.

The German historian Fritz Fischer created a sensation with a book published in 1961, translated into English under the title Germany's Aims in the First World War. Fischer overthrew the dominant historical interpretation of the origins of war in 1914, which argued that responsibility for the onset of war was shared by both the Entente and Central Powers. According to the leading American proponent of this view, Sidney Bradshaw Fay, none of the major European powers wanted a world war in 1914: the war resulted through mistakes and misunderstandings on both sides.

Not so, said Fischer. Germany, pursuing a policy of European dominance, deliberately instigated war in July 1914: the war was, as the German title of Fischer's book puts it, "Germany's grasp for world power". Fischer's interpretation now dominates the field. If Fischer is right, does this not lend support to the supporters of American intervention into the war, as against their isolationist opponents? If Germany wanted to impose its will on the world, was it not wise for the United States to confront it? Supporters of the traditional American policy of nonintervention could of course retreat to a second line of defense. They could plausibly argue that America had no need to fight Germany unless directly threatened. But the isolationist case would be strengthened if Fischer's thesis were false.

Fischer did not carry the entire historical profession with him; Murray Rothbard, e.g., never accepted it. Trachtenberg shows that the skeptics were right. He tests Fischer's claims against the documents he cites in its support, and the results are devastating. Trachtenberg shows again and again that Fischer distorts the documents. Fischer argues that "the German government had actually decided in early July----that is, very soon after the archduke's [Franz Ferdinand's] assassination---to start a continental war. . . You thus turn to the section called 'The Occasion is Propitious---The First Week in July." The seven-page section can be examined quite closely. As you read it, you want to approach it with a particular question in mind: does Fischer really show that the Germans had decided at that point to start a war?"(p.68)

Fischer begins the section by citing a "conversation between a high Austrian Foreign Ministry official and the well-connected German publicist Viktor Naumann. . . Naumann happened to be in Vienna when the archduke was assassinated on June 28, and he met with the Austrian official a couple of days later. Fischer has Naumann picturing the German government as ready, even eager, for war." (pp.68-9)

Fischer's paraphrase of the conversation does not correspond to the document he cites. Fischer alleges that according to Naumann, the German government believed that public opinion would force it into war with Russia. In fact, all "Naumann had said was that public opinion would force the Foreign Ministry to support Austria in a showdown with Serbia." (p.69)

Again and again, Fischer misreads German support in July 1914 for decisive Austrian action against Serbia as support for general European war. He acknowledges that according to one report, Kaiser Wilhelm favored preserving the peace, but he claims that this was not a correct account of the emperor's position. Did not the Kaiser add a handwritten note on a report from the German ambassador to Vienna that "now or never . . . we must make a clean sweep of the Serbs and soon"? Trachtenberg points out that the "emperor's comment, however, scarcely proves (as Fischer had implied both here and his use of the phrase in the subtitle of the chapter) that the emperor wanted a European war. The 'now or never' referred simply to a showdown between Austria and Serbia, which was not the same thing at all." (p.70)

Trachtenberg shows his skill as an analyst by not stopping here. Fischer has mistaken German intransigence against Serbia for support for a European war. What assumption would explain this mistake? Fischer might assume that the Germans believed that if Austria cracked down on Serbia, Russia would inevitably come to the aid of her Slavic ally. "So you ask yourself whether Fischer ever explicitly makes this assumption. . . and sure enough, you find Fischer saying at one point that 'as innumerable documents show, Germany knew that Russia would never allow Austria-Hungary to act in the Balkans unopposed.'" (p.71) Trachtenberg argues that Germany "knew" no such thing. Germany, according to documents that Fischer himself quotes, hoped to localize the conflict.

Our author presses further. Even if the Germans hoped to localize the conflict, perhaps this was a completely unrealistic assessment. "The Germans might have pretended, even among themselves, to believe that localization was possible while at the same time realizing that it was not. . .It therefore makes sense to consider whether it was a simple political reality that Russia was bound to intervene. If that was the case. . .one might reasonably conclude that a bellicose policy vis-à-vis Serbia could therefore be taken as proof of Germany's desire to provoke a general war." (p.72)

Trachtenberg's account has all the excitement of a good detective story. He continually poses questions that, once answered, generate new questions. But the question just posed is his last. He concludes that the German assessment of Russia's aims was not completely unrealistic. There "was still a bit of softness in the Russian position even late in the crisis, and... it might consequently have made sense for the Germans to think that a localized war was not out of the question. Evidence that the Germans were pressing for a war in the Balkans thus cannot be taken as evidence that the Germans were really trying to engineer a European war." (p.72) Trachtenberg has struck the Fischer thesis a fatal blow.

 Trachtenberg's support for revisionism goes further. The thesis most identified with American revisionism concerns the entry of the United States into World War II. Far from being the victim of unprovoked Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor, the United Sates pursued a deliberate policy of provocation, designed to maneuver Japan into war. President Roosevelt wanted to enter the war in Europe, but he realized that isolationist sentiment among the public made impossible a direct effort to do so. If, however, Japan could be induced to attack, Roosevelt's problem would be solved: America could enter the war through the "back door".

This interpretation has hitherto not won much of a hearing among mainstream historians; despite the eminence of Beard and Tansill, the consensus view rejects it as extremist. As I have already mentioned, Trachtenberg does not find these revisionist historians worthy of citation. (He does, though, discuss the mildly revisionist work of Paul W. Schroeder, The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, 1941.) Nevertheless, he develops a strong argument of his own for the revisionist thesis.[1]

He proceeds in his customary dialectical manner by a continual process of raising new questions. First, the revisionist thesis assumes that Roosevelt wished to enter the war in Europe. Is this in fact correct? No one doubts that he wished the Allies to win. But Gerhard Weinberg, perhaps the foremost opponent of the revisionists, maintains that Roosevelt endeavored to avoid American entry into the war. Weinberg notes that "from April 1941 the Americans were able to read intercepted German naval messages. The knowledge that the U.S. government acquired in this way, he [Weinberg] writes, 'was regularly and carefully used to avoid incidents, when it could very easily have been used to provoke them.'. . . This is a point, he believes, that nearly everyone has overlooked, in spite of the fact that the 'relevant records have been available for decades' and had been analyzed in an account by the German scholar Jürgen Rohwer published 'many years ago.'"(p.85)

Readers should by now be able to surmise the next step in Trachtenberg's argument. He considers the article by Rohwer that Weinberg cites and asks: does Weinberg accurately report its findings? Weinberg, he contends, has misread his source: "What emerges [from Rohwer's article] is a picture of a very active American policy in late 1941. . . The Americans, however, had clearly not adopted a policy of avoiding confrontations with German warships." (p.86) America, far from avoiding conflict, carefully followed the British lead in deciding "how the convoys would be routed. . .So the evidence in the Rohwer article does not prove that Roosevelt was trying to keep America out of the war. If anything, it suggests exactly the opposite." (p.87)

Trachtenberg's revisionist thesis has thus successfully met its first challenge: contrary to Weinberg, Roosevelt wanted to enter the war in Europe. But how was he to do so? Hitler, knowing that the American president viewed him as an enemy, carefully avoided incidents with American ships.

For this reason, Trachtenberg thinks, Roosevelt looked to Japan. He imposed an embargo on oil exports that posed a mortal threat to the Japanese economy. Was this not a provocative move designed to induce the desperate Japanese to attack the United States? Almost all mainstream historians reject this revisionist claim, and Trachtenberg offers a step-by-step account of various objections that have been raised to it.

The first of these objections is obvious. The American embargo was not the Machiavellian stratagem that revisionists have made of it. It had a perfectly straightforward explanation: America wanted to contain Japan's policy of imperial expansion in China and Southeast Asia. "America's policy toward Japan is thus interpreted essentially as one of containment. The goal, it is alleged, was to deter Japan from making further advances, both toward the south and toward Russia."(p.91)

Trachtenberg rejects this interpretation. If the embargo had been designed to deter Japan, would not the Japanese have been warned that further expansion on their part would lead to sanctions? Further, would not the Japanese have been informed that if they refrained from further expansion, the sanctions would be lifted? "The deterrent threat, after all, could carry weight only if the Japanese understood that they could avoid war if they bowed to the threat. If war would result even if they agreed to forgo further advances, what incentive would they have to pursue a moderate policy? " (p.91)

In fact, the Japanese received no such warnings or promises of remission. The "Americans decided explicitly not to warn the Japanese that sanctions would be imposed if they moved into southern Indochina. . . the sanctions were not lifted when the Japanese government made it clear that it was willing to halt its advance. . .rather than face war with the United States." (pp.91-92) The aim of the sanctions, then, cannot plausibly be taken as deterrence.

I shall not rehearse in detail the various steps of Trachtenberg's argument. He considers and responds to a large number of objections. Is not American policy explainable as a response to an unwavering Japanese policy of aggression? No, Japanese leaders such as Prince Konoye sought to meet with Roosevelt and would likely have accepted America's terms. So, at any rate, the American Ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph Grew, believed. But did it matter what Konoye and other civilians wanted? Was not Japan in the iron grip of the military, who willingly preferred war to withdrawal from China and Asia? No, says our author: the military leaders, well aware that a war with America would probably be disastrous for them, were quite willing to compromise. Besides, they knew that the Emperor favored peace, and obeying the Emperor was to them a high imperative. Did Roosevelt know that the oil embargo was likely to result in war? Yes, he did.

If Trachtenberg has successfully met all these challenges to his thesis, he must confront one final objection, a point that most historians regard as decisive against the "back door to war" thesis. Roosevelt, it is alleged, wanted war with Japan in order to enter the war in Europe. But why should he have thought that war in Asia would lead to war with Germany? Suppose that Hitler had not declared war on the United States. Then Roosevelt would have not have secured the alleged goal of his provocative policy toward Japan. America would have had a war on its hands with Japan and been no closer than before to entry into the European war. If one counters that Roosevelt had reason to think that Hitler would, in the event of an American war with Japan, come to the aid of his Axis partner, was this not still an enormous gamble? Only a fool would have tried to enter the European war through this madcap plan.

Trachtenberg has a brilliant response to this powerful objection. It rests, he holds, on a false assumption. Once America and Japan were at war, why would the decision for war with Germany rest only with Hitler? Would not Roosevelt have then been able to overcome isolationist resistance and secure from Congress a declaration of war against Germany? "The Axis alliance. . . came to be seen as much tighter than it actually was. And it was in large part for that reason that Pearl Harbor was widely blamed on the Axis as a whole. Indeed, many people throughout the country. . .were convinced at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack that the Japanese were 'Hitler's puppets.' And Roosevelt, of course, would not have been unaware of something this basic.. . .He might well have reached the conclusion that Germany would not be able to stay out of a U.S.-Japanese war, no matter what decision Hitler made. And what this means is that a back-door strategy, if that is what it was, might well have been workable in that political context."(pp.127-28)

I should like to supplement Trachtenberg's argument with an additional point. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, not even the America First Committee thought that there was a realistic chance of separating war with Japan and war with Germany. It mounted no campaign to confine the war to Asia, and the Committee disbanded on December 11, the day that Germany declared war on the United States.

Trachtenberg is not a conventional revisionist. He suggests that Roosevelt's policy may have been a reasonable way of coping with a possible future threat from Germany[2]; and he is elsewhere in the book quite critical of A. J. P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War (1961), a pioneering revisionist work. Nevertheless, he offers penetrating arguments for several key contentions of revisionist history. Murray Rothbard would have been delighted.


[1]Trachtenberg is not at all sympathetic to the revisionist claim that Roosevelt knowingly allowed the Japanese to attack the fleet at Pearl Harbor, a view he dismisses as "an absurd and baseless charge." (p.123). Unfortunately, he offers no discussion of Beard, Tansill, Morgenstern, Sanborn, Kubek, and Barnes, among other writers who have made careful arguments for the "absurd and baseless charge".

[2]For an excellent anticipatory response to this argument, see Garet Garett, Defend America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening Post, 1939-1942 (Caxton Press, 2003) and my review of this in The Mises Review, Fall 2003.



Gordon, David. "New Support for Revisionist History." Review of The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method, by Marc Trachtenberg. The Mises Review 12, No. 2 (Summer 2006).

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