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Revising The Twentieth Century

June 2024
15min read

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.

HISTORY IS REVISIONISM. IT IS THE FREQUENT —nay, the ceaseless—reviewing and revising and rethinking of the past. The notion that the study and the writing of history consist of the filling of gaps or the adding of new small bricks to the building of the cathedral of historical knowledge was a nineteenth-century illusion (“We have now histories of the Federalists in every New England State, except for Connecticut. You must do Connecticut”), allied with the fantasy that once the scientific method has been followed precisely, with all extant documents exhausted, the result will be definite and final (“the definitive account of Waterloo, approved by British as well as by French and German and Dutch historians”). There are important differences between historical and legal evidence, one of them being that the historian deals in multiple jeopardy that the law eschews; the former is retrying and retrying again. There is nothing very profound in this observation, since that is what all thinking is about. Not the future, and not the present, but our past is the only thing we know. All human thinking involves the rethinking of the past.

BY THE TIME HITLER was rising in power, 70 percent of Americans thought us wrong to have entered World War I.

There may be five hundred biographies of Lincoln, but there is no certainty that the 501st may not furnish our minds with something new and valid—and not necessarily because its author has found a new cache of Lincoln documents. What matters more than the accumulated quantity of the research (note the word: “re-search”) is the crystallizing quality of the revision. What is its purpose? Is it exposé, scandal, sensation, or the more or less honest wish to demolish untruths? Is it the author’s desire for academic or financial success, to further his advancement in front of his colleagues or in the greater world of affairs? Or (as is, alas, often the case) is it to further the cause of a political ideology? This is where the subject of this article comes in.

T HE term revisionism is of German origin. It was first applied to those German socialists who, around 1875, chose to mitigate the doctrine of the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. This Marxist usage does not concern us. But the other, and still present, use of historical “revisionism” has a German origin too. It arose after 1919, reacting to the punitive and condemnatory treaty imposed on Germany and on its World War I allies. The wish to revise their terms, to change the then drawn frontiers of Europe was a powerful impulse, eventually leading to Hitler and to World War II. However, the aim of this historical revisionism was not directed at injustices of geography; it was directed at injustices of the record—that is, at the unjust condemnation of Germany as responsible for the war, stated in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans had every reason to combat that. As early as 1919 the new republican and democratic German government began to publish documents to prove that the guilt for the coming of the war in 1914 was not Germany’s alone. A much more extensive and scholarly documentation was published in a series of volumes a few years later. The Germans felt so strongly about this that in 1923 a German amateur historian, Alfred von Wegerer, began issuing a scholarly journal, Die Kriegsschuldfrage (The War Guilt Question).

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.

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.

These books are more scholarly in their equipment than are the productions of pamphleteers who, among other things, deny the existence of the Holocaust. Excessive attention directed to such fanatics may be as useless as the criticism aimed at the new revisionists’ theses without a detailed analysis of their sources and a careful refutation of their methods. Three years ago in my The Duel: May 10–31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler I could write that “we are at (or, more precisely, already beyond) a watershed in the political and intellectual history of the world because of the evident collapse of the reputation, and consequently, of the influence of Marxism as well as of ‘Leftist’ liberalism; and this is bound to lead to all kinds of novel, though not necessarily salutary, tendencies of historical interpretation.” This is a symptom of the rise of a New Right, not only in Germany and Britain but throughout Europe and Japan, when people, disillusioned with the malfunctioning liberal and socialist policies of their governments, project their disappointments backward, to the Second World War; when, for example, the condemnation of Churchill’s statesmanship, at least indirectly, suggests some kind of a rehabilitation of Hitler’s. During the Reagan years in this country we saw, here and there, a tendency to question not only the evident problems of the American welfare state but the establishment of its tenets by Roosevelt and the New Deal, and there is reason to believe that new indictments (and I fear not always well-warranted or judicious ones) of Roosevelt’s foreign policy before and during the Second World War are also due to appear—in sum, that this newest wave of revisionism about the war will spill over to this side of the Atlantic too.

W HAT revisionist historians claim, or at least emphatically suggest, is that their scholarship is better and their intellectual independence stronger than that of the majority of their opponents. Yet this has seldom been true. To the contrary, few of the revisionists have been immune to the ideological tendencies of their times. In the preface to The American Revisionists , Warren I. Cohen, the careful historian of what I have called the first wave, wrote in 1967: “I am equally convinced that if I had graduated from Columbia College in 1925 instead of 1955, the revisionist cause would have had one more adherent. It is not a question of the logic of the revisionist argument but… largely a matter of the prevailing climate of opinion.…” Or as W. J. Ghent (cited by Cohen) wrote in his 1927 attack on the revisionists in an article called “Menckenized History”: “Vociferous and sweeping denunciation of existing beliefs, customs, standards, and institutions is the current mode, and ‘revisionism’ is merely one of its phases.” After the First World War there was a growing revulsion to war and an embracing of new ideas, including pacifism. After the Second World War there was another reaction, against Roosevelt and the sometimes unspoken question of whether America should have entered the war against Germany, and on the side of Russia, at that. During the sixties there was the reaction against the Vietnam War and against the ideology of the Cold War. During the nineties nationalism is on the rise, and we shall see…

In 1917 Beard was an extreme interventionist: The United States “should help eliminate Prussianism from the earth. …” Germany represents “the black night of military barbarism … the most merciless military despotism the world has ever seen.” By 1926 he was a Germanophile, influenced not only by the revelations of the German diplomatic documents but by German philosophies of history. Beard was not an opportunist, and even in the 1930s he insisted that he was not really an isolationist; rather, he was struggling with that seemingly concrete but, alas, often malleable concept of national interest. (In 1932 Beard received a twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant—a very large sum then—from the Social Science Research Council for the precise definition of “national interest.” The result was one of his few unreadable books.) At that time he was a fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, but soon he turned even more fervently against him. The case of Barnes is more telling. His first revisionist articles appeared in 1924, arguing for a division in the responsibilities for the outbreak of the war. By 1926 he was going farther: France and Russia were responsible. Thereafter he became more and more extreme and violent. He was invited to lecture in Hitler’s Germany, as was Tansill. In 1940 Barnes volunteered to promote the circulation of German propaganda volumes. After the war he became an admirer of Hitler: “a man whose only fault was that he was too soft, generous and honorable.” The Allies had inflicted worse brutality on the Germans “than the alleged exterminations in the gaschambers.” This, of course, was the extreme case of a once talented but embittered man, driven to such statements by what he called The Historical Blackout , one of his later pamphlets. Everything was grist to his mill, including the most dubious of “sources” and “evidences.” The same was true of Tansill, who in 1938 wrote in his introduction to America Goes to War : “Crusading zeal is hardly the proper spirit for an impartial historian.” Yet Tansill was the prototype of a zealous crusader, in both of his big revisionist works about the two world wars. Eventually he became a member of the John Birch Society.


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.

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.

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