- Historic Sites
Revising The Twentieth Century
THE GREAT STRUGGLES of our century have all been followed by tides of revulsion: Americans decided we were mad to have entered World War I; Russia should have been our enemy in World War II; the United States started the Cold War. Now another such tide has risen in Europe, and it may be on its way here.
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
By that time the first wave of revisionism among American historians had begun to form. Of the four waves of revisionism in the twentieth century this was the longest and the strongest one. It began as an intellectual and academic (and sometimes also a political and an ethnic) reaction against the extreme condemnation of Germany in 1917 and 1918 that had been broadcast from many sources, including the Creel Committee, Wilson’s own propaganda machine, with many exaggerations and falsehoods. It was a reaction by liberals and radicals against superpatriotism, not very different from (and often allied with) their opposition to American conformism, to the postwar Red Scare, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the American Legion of the twenties. As early as 1920, for example, The Nation started to attack the dangers of French, not of German, militarism. In September 1921 the magazine raised the question: “Who has contributed more to the myth of a guilty nation plotting the war against a peaceful Europe than the so-called historians who occupy distinguished chairs in our universities?” They were “willing tools” of “professional propaganda.” The young and later distinguished Sidney Bradshaw Fay, then of Smith College ( not a typical revisionist, I must add), had already published three successive articles in The American Historical Review (“New Light on the Origins of the World War”), a result of his reading of the recently published German, Austrian, and Russian documents. Within five years this first wave of revisionism swelled into a tide. From a scattered group of mavericks, revisionists now included respected members of the historical profession and reputable intellectuals: the prominent Charles A. Beard, the University of Chicago historian Ferdinand Schevill (who wrote in 1926 that “there are today among reputable historians only revisionists”), the sociologist turned historian Harry Elmer Barnes, whose Genesis of the ‘World War was published by the reputable house of Knopf in 1926. Their cause was supported by amateurs such as the German-American judge Frederick Bausman ( Let France Explain ), by literary figures such as Albert J. Nock and H. L. Mencken, and by the editors of The Nation and of The New Republic , while the lumbering Atlantic Monthly was tacking over gradually to that side too.
B Y the late twenties the revisionist tide was further swelled by the predictable confluence of another historical argument, about 1917 and not 1914. The time had come to revise not only the thesis of German war guilt but the story of American involvement in the war. Much of that argument had already been suggested by the above-mentioned historians, especially by Barnes; but the first substantial book denouncing Wilson and American intervention, Why We Fought , was published in 1929 by C. Hartley Grattan, a onetime student of Barnes. By the early thirties article after article, book after book, was attacking American intervention in World War I. The most serious work was Walter Millis’s The Road to War in 1935. The most determined book by a professional historian was Charles Callan Tansill’s America Goes to War in 1938. By that time their arguments had filtered down from the margins of academia and from intellectuals’ periodicals through the reading public to the broad lowlands of popular sentiment. The Road to War was a best seller, with as many as sixty thousand copies in print by 1936. A few months later Dr. Gallup reported that 70 percent of Americans thought it had been wrong to enter World War I. Meanwhile Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese were rising in power.
I N 1938 and 1939 another current in the revisionist tide came to the surface. Many revisionists were now worried over what they saw as an ominous change in Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy. (In 1932 Roosevelt ran as an isolationist, and as late as 1935 he went so far as to suggest his acceptance of the revisionist thesis.) Foremost among them were Barnes, Tansill, and the big gun among American historians, Charles Beard. In September 1939 Beard published a powerful blast against American intervention in Europe, Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels (the Republican senator D. Worth Clark, of Idaho, used his franking privilege to distribute ten thousand copies of this little book). Yet by 1940 the revisionist camp was badly split. Many of the liberals were coming around to support Britain against Hitler. Others were not. In 1940 Beard came out with another book, A Foreign Policy for America . Eleven years later Sen. Robert A. Taft published a book with a virtually identical title, but already in 1940 it was evident that the formerly radical and Jeffersonian Democrat Beard and the rigid Republican Taft were seeing eye to eye. But before the next year was out, the news of Pearl Harbor roared over them both.