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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
Revisionism was submerged but not sunk. After 1945 came the second wave of American revisionism, attacking Roosevelt for having maneuvered the country into war, indeed, for having contributed surreptitiously and willfully to the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. Many of the historian figures were the same ones as before, the two principal professionals among them Beard ( American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932–1940 and President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War ) and Tansill ( Back Door to War ). There were many others; but this second wave of revisionism received relatively little attention; many of the revisionist books were now printed by minor publishers. Yet the effect of this kind of revisionism was wider than what the publishing record might indicate. The majority of the so-called conservative movement that began to coalesce in the early 1950s was composed of former isolationists and revisionists. The principal element of the Republican surge after 1948 was a reaction against Roosevelt’s foreign policy, including such different figures as Joseph R. McCarthy, John Foster Dulles, and the young William F. Buckley, Jr. It was part of the emergence of the New Right in American politics. Still, Hitler and Tojo had few public defenders, and this second wave of revisionism failed to swell into an oceanic current.
The third, and much larger, wave of revisionism came not from the New Right but from the New Left. These were the historians who during the fretful sixties attempted to rewrite the origins of the Cold War with Russia, arguing and claiming that American foreign policy and aggressiveness were at least as responsible for the coming of the Cold War as was the Soviet Union. The principal ones (again, there were many others) of those New Left historians were D. F. Fleming ( The Cold War and Its Origins ), William Appleman Williams ( The Tragedy of American Diplomacy ), Gar Alperovitz ( Atomic Diplomaty ), David Horowitz ( The Free World Colossus ), Gabriel Kolko ( The Politics of War ), Diane Shaver Clemens ( Yalta ), and Lloyd C. Gardner ( Architects of Illusion ), all their books issued between 1959 and 1970 by the most reputable , university presses and trade houses.
U NLIKE the revisionists of the 1920s and 1940s, these authors had little opposition from most of their historian colleagues, for such was the, generally Leftist, intellectual tendency of the American sixties. These authors were praised, and portions of their works anthologized in college readers and textbooks. Whereas the revisionists of the 1920s and 1930s had their greatest effect among general readers, most of the consumers of this third wave of revisionist prose were college students. When Robert Maddox, in his calm and serious The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (1973), pointed out some of the dishonesties of the documentation and the inadequacies of scholarship in these books, he was treated with tut-tutting and fence-sitting by most academic reviewers, so many vicars of Bray. However, as with so many fads and fashions of the sixties, the tide of Cold War revisionism, though temporarily overwhelming, did not endure for long.
DURING THE FRETFUL SIXTIES, historians of the New Left attempted to rewrite the origins of the Cold War.
T WENTY or more years later we may detect the rise of a fourth wave of revisionism, coming again from the so-called Right rather than from the Left. Again this began in Germany, in the mid-1980s, developing there in Historikerstreit (historians’ quarrel), whose main figures have been German professional historians who, while unwilling to whitewash Hitler and his regime (that has remained the work of self-appointed extreme pamphleteers for decades now, as well as of fanatical amateur historians such as the English David Irving), attempted to make their case against the uniqueness of the crimes committed by the Germans during the Third Reich. This tendency to revise some of the lately accepted and hitherto hardly questioned histories of the Second World War has recently appeared in Britain, with historians such as Maurice Cowling (in The Impact of Hitler and elsewhere: “the belief that Churchill had understood Hitler … was not true”), the younger Andrew Roberts ( The Holy Fox—A Biography of Lord Halifax : “Churchill as Micawber,” simply waiting for something to turn up; “Britain finally won, but at appalling cost, and ruin for her standing in the world"). John Charmley in his recently published Churchill: The End of Glory goes much farther: he questions not only Churchill’s personal character but his policy to resist and fight Hitler’s Germany at any cost; Charmley goes so far as to suggest that not to acquiesce in Hitler’s domination of Europe was a mistake.