Much can be learned about a country from its attitude toward history. Some nations revere the past, some seem indifferent, while others try to tamper with it. For the temptation that besets a tyrant is continually to rewrite the historical record. He not only insists on being infallible, he wants always to have been infallible. If he should change his mind, history must be revised accordingly—even it patriots must be portrayed as traitors, black described as white, and the truth reduced to a patchwork of lies. In George Orwell’s nightmare novel about the future, 1984, history is totally in the hands of a single political party, in accordance with the party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
To be sure, history is always being rewritten. Perspectives change: judgments mature. But it is a far cry from this gradual, openly argued process to the doctrine proclaimed today in the Communist societies. “Historians are dangerous people,” Khrushchev has said. “They are capable of upsetting everything. They must be directed.” When William Benton, publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, interviewed the editors of the Soviet Encyclopedia in 1955, they told him quite frankly that all their articles were “of course written from the position of our world outlook—Marxism-Leninism.”
As an illustration of how the Communists currently regard the American past, AMERICAN HERITAGE publishes in the pages which follow the official Soviet view on six of our notable figures, together with comments and corrections by leading American scholars. Five biographical entries, translated in full, are from the current Large Soviet Encyclopedia. In the sixth example, we compare two accounts of the same man from the Small Soviet Encyclopedia, as printed before and after an abrupt change in the party line.
The America which emerges from these extracts is a strange place. Not simply that the Communists criticize us, which should be expected, but that their dogma presents the average Russian reader with a world in which the only real forces are economic determinism and the class struggle. The Soviet Encyclopedia is the final authority on facts and ideas for over 800,000,000 people. The majority, as Adlai Stevenson has written, get from it only this “curiously dehumanized account of history in which a stereotyped pattern of impersonal force supplants individual ellort.” For many, this is the only American “history” they will ever know. — The Editors