Revisionism and the Historical Blackout

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Chapter
1 of Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace
, 1953

The First World
War and American intervention therein marked an ominous turning
point in the history of the United States and of the world. Those
who can remember "the good old days" before 1914 inevitably
look back to those times with a very definite and justifiable feeling
of nostalgia. There was no income tax before 1913, and that levied
in the early days after the amendment was adopted was little more
than nominal. All kinds of taxes were relatively low. We had only
a token national debt of around a billion dollars, which could have
been paid off in a year without causing even a ripple in national
finance. The total federal budget in 1913 was $724,512,000, just
about 1 percent of the present astronomical budget.

Ours was a
libertarian country in which there was little or no witch-hunting
and few of the symptoms and operations of the police state which
have been developing here so drastically during the last decade.
Not until our intervention in the First World War had there been
sufficient invasions of individual liberties to call forth the formation
of special groups and organizations to protect our civil rights.
The Supreme Court could still be relied on to uphold the Constitution
and safeguard the civil liberties of individual citizens.

Libertarianism
was also dominant in Western Europe. The Liberal Party governed
England from 1905 to 1914. France had risen above the reactionary
coup of the Dreyfus affair, had separated church and state, and
had seemingly established the Third Republic with reasonable permanence
on a democratic and liberal basis. Even Hohenzollern Germany enjoyed
the usual civil liberties, had strong constitutional restraints
on executive tyranny, and had established a workable system of parliamentary
government. Experts on the history of Austria-Hungary have recently
been proclaiming that life in the Dual Monarchy after the turn of
the century marked the happiest period in the experience of the
peoples encompassed therein.

Enlightened
citizens of the Western world were then filled with buoyant hope
for a bright future for humanity. It was believed that the theory
of progress had been thoroughly vindicated by historical events.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking
Backward
, published in 1888, was the prophetic bible of
that era. People were confident that the amazing developments in
technology would soon produce abundance, security, and leisure for
the multitude.

In this optimism
in regard to the future no item was more evident and potent than
the assumption that war was an outmoded nightmare. Not only did
idealism and humanity repudiate war but Norman Angell and others
were assuring us that war could not be justified, even on the basis
of the most sordid material interest.

In our own
country, the traditional American foreign policy of benign neutrality
and the wise exhortations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson,
John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay to avoid entangling alliances
and to shun foreign quarrels were still accorded respect in the
highest councils of state.

Unfortunately,
there are relatively few persons today who can recall those happy
times. In his devastatingly prophetic book, Nineteen
Eighty-Four
, George Orwell points out that one reason why
it is possible for those in authority to maintain the barbarities
of the police state is that nobody is able to recall the many blessings
of the period which preceded that type of society.

A significant
and illuminating report on this situation came to me recently in
a letter from one of the most distinguished social scientists in
the country, a resolute revisionist. He wrote,

I am devoting
my seminar this quarter to the subject of American foreign policy
since 1933. The effect upon a Roosevelt-bred generation is startling,
indeed. Even able and mature students react to the elementary
facts like children who have just been told that there is (or
was) no Santa Claus.

While the First
World War headed the United States and the world toward international
disaster, the Second World War was an even more calamitous turning
point in the history of mankind. It may, indeed, have brought us
– and the whole world – into the terminal episode of human
experience.

It certainly
marked the transition from social optimism and technological rationalism
into the Nineteen Eighty-Four pattern of life, in which
aggressive international policies and war scares have become the
guiding factor, not only in world affairs but also in the domestic,
political, and economic strategy of every leading country of the
world. The police state has emerged as the dominant political pattern
of our times, and military state capitalism is engulfing both democracy
and liberty in countries which have not succumbed to Communism.

The manner
and extent to which American culture has been impaired and our well-being
undermined by our entry into two world wars has been brilliantly
and succinctly stated by Professor Mario A. Pei, of Columbia University,
in an article on "The America We Lost" in the Saturday
Evening Post, May 3, 1952, and has been developed more at length
by Caret Garrett in his trenchant book, The
People’s Pottage
.

Perhaps, by
the mid-century, all this is now water under the bridge and little
can be done about it. But we can surely learn how we got into this
unhappy condition of life and society – at least until the
police-state system continues its current rapid development sufficiently
to obliterate all that remains of integrity and accuracy in historical
writing and political reporting.

The readjustment
of historical writing to historical facts relative to the background
and causes of the First World War – what is popularly known
in the historical craft as "revisionism" – was the
most important development in historiography during the decade of
the 1920s. While those historians at all receptive to the facts
admitted that revisionism readily won out in the conflict with the
previously accepted wartime lore, many of the traditionalists in
the profession remained true to the mythology of the war decade.
In any event, the revisionist controversy was the outstanding intellectual
adventure in the historical field in the 20th century down to Pearl
Harbor.

Revisionism,
when applied to the First World War, showed that the actual causes
and merits of that conflict were very close to the reverse of the
picture presented in the political propaganda and historical writings
of the war decade. Revisionism would also produce similar results
with respect to the Second World War if it were allowed to develop
unimpeded. But a determined effort is being made to stifle or silence
revelations which would establish the truth with regard to the causes
and issues of the late world conflict.

While the wartime
mythology endured for years after 1918, nevertheless leading editors
and publishers soon began to crave contributions which set forth
the facts with respect to the responsibility for the outbreak of
war in 1914, our entry into the war, and the basic issues involved
in this great conflict.

Sidney B. Fay
began to publish his revolutionary articles on the background of
the First World War in the American Historical Review in
July, 1920. My own efforts along the same line began in the New
Republic, the Nation, the New York Times Current
History Magazine, and the Christian Century in 1924
and 1925. Without exception, the requests for my contributions came
from the editors of these periodicals, and these requests were ardent
and urgent. I had no difficulty whatever in securing the publication
of my Genesis
of the World War
in 1926, and the publisher thereof subsequently
brought forth a veritable library of illuminating revisionist literature.

By 1928, when
Fay’s Origins
of the World War
was published, almost everyone except
the die-hards and bitter-enders in the historical profession had
come to accept revisionism, and even the general public had begun
to think straight in the premises.

Read
the rest of the article

March
1, 2010

Harry
Elmer Barnes (1889–1968) was a pioneer of historical revisionism,
meaning the use of historical scholarship to challenge and refute
the narratives of history promulgated by the state and the political
class, or as Barnes himself termed it, “court history.” Long regarded
as a progressive intellectual leader of the American Left, Barnes
became associated with the Old Right for his opposition to the New
Deal and to American entry into World War II. His work has had a
profound influence on New Left historians such as William Appleman
Williams and Gabriel Kolko, as well as on the historical writings
of Murray Rothbard and other libertarians. See Murray Rothbard’s
editorial in Left
& Right
, “Harry
Elmer Barnes, RIP.”
See Harry Elmer Barnes’s article
archives
.

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