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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
Of course, it takes time for historians to complete their researches and produce their books, but there is an agitated tone in many revisionist works that stands in odd contrast with the slow momentum of their eventual effects. One reason for this is the often weak and tergiversating reaction of the revisionists’ historian opponents. At the beginning the seemingly radical performance of the former is often ignored, but then, gradually, the revisionists’ ideas may be adopted by respectable historians when it seems politic for them to do so or when they feel safely convinced by their judiciousness. Thus, for example, Tansill’s radical and Germanophile America Goes to War was praised in The Atlantic and the Yale Review and by such eminent historians as Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager: Tansill traced, “in magisterial style, the missteps which carried the United States along the road to war. It is an impressive performance, conducted with skill, learning, and wit, illuminating the present as well as the past .” The italics are Cohen’s as well as mine, for this was written by Commager as late as 1938, the most ominous and successful year in Hitler’s career along the road to another war. The title of Beard’s trenchant 1939 Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels is not really appropriate. So many of his colleagues’ minds were not at all giddy; they were alarmingly slow. Even more disheartening was the reaction of many historians to the New Left revisionists of the 1960s, when the scholarship of those books was wanting. As Maddox wrote, “Reviewers who have been known to pounce with scarcely disguised glee on some poor wretch who incorrectly transcribed a middle initial or date of birth have shown a most extraordinary reluctance to expose even the most obvious New Left fictions,” including false statements to which tens of thousands of students were subsequently exposed in our colleges and universities. Finally, when it comes to the newest wave of revisionism, lamentably few historians have taken the trouble to track down and point out the selective methodology and frequently sloppy scholarship of Charmley’s denigration of Churchill. Spending, instead, long paragraphs and pages debating his thesis, they pursue the obvious, as Wilde once said, with the enthusiasm of shortsighted detectives.
In science it is the rule that counts; in history, often the exceptions. And there have been exceptions to the shortcomings of scholars involved with revisionism. Millis, who, as we saw earlier, was the author of the most successful revisionist book in 1935, a few years later found himself appalled by the use people were making of his work, which, after all, had dealt with 1917, with the past and not with the then present. By 1938 Millis stood for resistance against Hitler and other dictators. “1939 is not 1914” was the title of his article in Life in November 1939, when Roosevelt had to struggle against a senseless Neutrality Act. Maddox, whose study of the New Left revisionists was ignored or criticized by other historians, refused to make common cause with the New Right; he remained unimpressed by the selective argumentation of Leftist and Rightist, of Marxist and anti-Communist, of neoliberal and neoconservative historians alike, because of his personal integrity, the essence of human integrity being its resistance to temptations, perhaps especially to intellectual ones.
S UCH temptations are the bane of historians, and not only of those who are in pursuit of attractive intellectual novelty. This does not mean a defense of “orthodox” history, because there is no such thing. Historians should be aware of the inevitably revisionist nature of their thinking and work. But the revision of history must not be an ephemeral monopoly of ideologues or opportunists who are ever ready to twist or even falsify evidences of the past in order to exemplify current ideas—and their own adjustments to them.