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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
R EVISIONISTS such as Barnes were often obsessed with the idea of a conspiracy against them. He called the anti-revisionists the “Smearbund.” When the Chicago historian Bernadotte Schmitt first criticized his Genesis of the World War , Barnes wrote: “There is the very important fact [fact?] that Mr. Schmitt seems to live in daily dread of being mistaken for a member of the detestable Teutonic breed.” Barnes even thought that there was a conspiracy among booksellers not to reorder his Genesis . Mencken’s relationship to Barnes (they corresponded for decades) is also telling. In May 1940, when the German armies lurched forward into Holland, Belgium, and France, Mencken wrote Barnes that the American press “would be hollering for war within two months”; in June he wrote that “Roosevelt will be in the war in two weeks, and … his first act will be to forbid every form of free speech.” Mencken, like Barnes and other revisionists, was bitterl against a war with Hitler’s Reich, but after the war he thought that the United States should go to war against “the Russian barbarians.” That inconsistency—if that was what it was—was typical of the inclinations of almost all the post-World War II revisionists. The opposite was true of the Cold War revisionists of the 1960s, who accused the United States of having provoked the Cold War with Russia, while almost all of them approved the American involvement in the war against Germany. They, too, did little else but project backward their then widespread and fashionable dislike of the Vietnam War to events that had happened twenty or more years earlier, manipulating that record for their own purposes. In the 1970s most of them turned to other topics, and at least one of them (Horowitz) became’a neoconservative publicist.
T HERE is, however, more involved here than a few historians adjusting their ideas to a prevalent climate of opinion. In some instances their writings affected American history, through a momentum that was slowly gaining ground. In the 1920s the writings of the revisionists had an influence on those members of Congress, mostly Western populists—George W. Norris, Gerald P. Nye, William E. Borah, for example—who had opposed the war and the Versailles Treaty. By 1934 the isolationist and revisionist tide ran so strong that a congressional committee, presided over by Nye, found it politic to investigate the doings of bankers and munition makers and other villainous promoters of the American entrance into the war seventeen years before. (One of the Nye Committee’s counsels was an ambitious young lawyer, Alger Hiss.) In 1935 Congress passed the first Neutrality Act, a definite reaction against the memories of World War I. It was extended in 1937. By that time Sen. Homer Bone of Washington could report “a fact known even to school children in this country: Everyone has come to recognize that the Great War was utter social insanity, and was a crazy war, and we had no business in it at all.”
THE SLOWNESS WITH WHICH ideas move gives the lie to the famous saw about Ideas Whose Time Has Come.
T HIS illustrates a significant phenomenon to which few, if any, historians have yet devoted attention. It is the time lag in the movement of ideas, the slowness of the momentum with which ideas move and then appear on the surface at the wrong time, giving the lie to Victor Hugo’s famous saw about Ideas Whose Time Has Come. The high tide of revisionism occurred from 1935 to 1938, when the German danger was rising anew—not, say, in 1919 and 1920, when there had been cogent reasons to mitigate a mistreatment of Germany. The high tide of Second World War revisionism occurred in 1954 and 1955, when the reputations of Franklin Roosevelt and of Yalta were at a low ebb. The high tide of the revisionism about the origins of the Cold War came around 1965, when American-Russian relations were actually improving.