Rothbard’s Revisionism

A transcript of the Lew Rockwell Show episode 332 with David Gordon at the 30th anniversary of the Mises Institute talking about Murray Rothbard and revisionist history.

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ROCKWELL:  Recently, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Mises Institute and Dr. David Gordon, who is editor of the Mises Review, a senior fellow of the Institute, talked to us about Murray Rothbard and revisionist history.

GORDON:  It’s great to be here speaking about Murray Rothbard because Murray Rothbard was the person who influenced my thinking on political and economic questions more than anybody else ever since I first read Man, Economy, and State 50 years ago.  And I’m also delighted to be here at the Mises Institute because the Mises Institute, and especially its founder, Lew Rockwell, have supported my work over many years.

I want to talk today about Murray Rothbard and revisionism.  We want to ask the question:  Why was Rothbard interested in revisionism?  As you know, Rothbard is a Libertarian who was, of course, very strongly opposed to war because, in wars, there are massive aggressions violations of peoples’ rights and also war is a great promoter of the power of the state.  Remember, Tom DiLorenzo talk yesterday, he mentioned Randolph Bourne’s famous essay, War is the Health of the State.  We know from Robert Higgs’ great work, Crisis and Leviathan, and other works of his on how state power has grown through war.

So where does revisionism come in?  Well, in the wars that the U.S. has been involved in — sometimes this is true for other countries as well — there’s been an attempt to show that each war is not just a struggle between contending states for power but that wars of the U.S. are somehow moral crusades, that we’re facing an evil power bent on world conquest that we have to oppose.  So Rothbard, as someone — an opponent of war, was naturally concerned to counter that.  But one thing in his attempts to counter this I think is crucial, that he wasn’t taking the point of view, well, we can just deduce that all such accounts are false, that it’s always false that one side, or the U.S., is right — it’s always false to say that the U.S. is engaged in a moral crusade.  What if it turned out to be true in particular cases?  This is not something we could just deduce a priori was false.  What he thought was that it was necessary for each war to do a detailed study of the historical evidence.  In each case, we would have to look at the facts.  We couldn’t just say, well, the state is always going to propagandize so we can just dismiss what they say.  We have to look at the evidence.  And this is where the revisionist movement came in.

When we talk about revisionism, we want to know, well, what is it the revisionist historians were trying to revise.  And when the movement came in after World War I, they had in mind particularly to revise Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, and this said that the blame or the responsibility for World War I rested entirely with Germany and her allies.  So the revisionists were those who favored revising that.

At the time when World War I was going on, there was a picture that the Germans, particularly under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II, were bent on the conquest of Europe and perhaps the world as well, and there was a need for the United States to counter them.  There were all sorts of movies on attacking the Kaiser and the Germans generally.  And, in fact, in the treaty — I think it’s Article 227 — there was a call to try the Kaiser for war crimes.  This wasn’t successful. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm lasted a very long time.  He didn’t die until 1941.  He was an exile in Holland.

But in the 1920s and 1921, there were three articles published in American Historical Review by Sidney Bradshaw Fay, who was a professor at Harvard, that challenged the Versailles war-guilt thesis.  And Fay pointed out in one of the articles that there was a claim that, in July 1914, right after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand the previous month, there had been a crown council meeting at which the kaiser along with the various people in the German Foreign Office and general staff applauded war, and he was able to show that that account rested on a misleading report by the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Ambassador Morgenthau.  So Fay’s work attracted some attention.

And then the leading publicist of the movement was another historian, Harry Elmer Barnes.  And he was not only a historian and sociologist, he was a public figure.  And he was a newspaper columnist.  He was an associate of H.L. Mencken and wrote very widely on journalism.

I remember when I was in high school, I once asked Barnes — this was in the — we were having the 1964 election where it was Goldwater against Johnson.  And I asked him what he thought of the election, and he said, “As my old friend, Henry Mencken, once said, I think I’ll sit this one out.”


I can tell you one story about Barnes that Murray Rothbard told me.  Murray was in charge, at one time, of editing a volume of essays in honor of Barnes and it later went to some other — Arthur Goddard took over the editorship.  He also was the one who helped — Goddard helped Mises on Human Action.  But in any event, Barnes said that when contributors would send in essays, if they had anything critical of Barnes, Barnes would insert comments in the person’s essay.  He would put in things like, “Professor Barnes would respond to this point in such-and-such a way.”


And Murray said, “Hey, he wrote his own festschrift.”


So Murray Rothbard became friendly with Barnes and he accepted Barnes’ views on the origins of the war, World War I.  What I want to go into in my talk today is give Rothbard’s views on origins of World War I, American entry into the war and then World War II and American entry into that, into World War II as well.

Rothbard didn’t write all that much on war origins but he did talk about it, so I know what his views were.


GORDON:  He accepted the view that Barnes promulgated in his 1926 book Genesis of the World War, which was revised two years later in 1928.  And according to Barnes, the primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war rested not on Germany but on France and Russia.  Barnes particularly pointed to the desire of the French president, Raymond Poincare, to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been surrendered to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.  And Poincare, in conjunction with Alexander Izvolsky, who was the Russian ambassador to Paris — he had previously been Russian foreign minister.  The Russians were very anxious to gain control of the Straits of Constantinople, which were under the control, of course, of the Ottoman Empire.  So according to Barnes, it was France and Russia that instigated the war in order to secure Alsace-Lorraine for France and control of the straits for Russia.

I should say this thesis wasn’t accepted by Sidney Fay in his book Origins of the World War, which also came out in 1928.  He wasn’t as strong a revisionist as Barnes but he said there was a more divided responsibility for the war.  I mean, in the 1930 edition of his book, he criticizes Barnes on this point, but Barnes replied to it.  But Rothbard was inclined to accept Barnes’ view of the war.

Now, on American entry into World War I, here Rothbard largely followed the great work of Charles Callan Tansill, America Goes to War, which came out in 1938.  Tansill was probably one of the two or three foremost American diplomatic historians of the 20th century along with William L. Langer, who Gary North mentioned yesterday, and Samuel Flagg Bemis. But what Tansill stressed particularly was that America, under Woodrow Wilson, adopted a very un-neutral policy from the beginning in which British violations of American neutrality, such as the –


GORDON:  I guess someone doesn’t approve of Tansill’s thesis.


So British violations of American neutrality were largely ignored but Wilson insisted on a very strict interpretation of German violations of American neutrality.  And in fact, his un-neutral policy led the Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to resign.  Tansill’s work was based, as always with him, on exhaustive research into the archives, and it became the generally accepted view that America had pursued this un-neutral policy.

I should tell you one story about Tansill since I’ve given one about Barnes.  Tansill was a Texan.  He had very strong views in favor of the South in the Civil War.  And once, by some odd quirk of events, he was asked to give the annual Lincoln Day speech –


– in Washington, and he gave a very furious denunciation of Lincoln.  And I think the controversy over his speech was so great that he almost lost his job.  I think at that time he was teaching at Fordham.  He later went to Georgetown.  But he almost lost his job.

So Rothbard relied in his views on American entry into the war principally on Tansill.  Although he did emphasize more than Tansill did the influence of the Morgan banking interests.  Tansill thought the Morgan banking interests were important but he didn’t place as much stress on it as Rothbard did.

Now turning to World War II, we have a situation where there was a very evil regime in power in Germany.  But one point Rothbard made — I remember there was a speech in San Francisco in 1979 where he emphasized this — was you can’t argue from saying that a totalitarian power is necessarily aggressive.  You can’t say the more the totalitarian the government, the more aggressive it is.  We have counterinstances to that.  For example, Cambodia under Pol Pot was extremely destructive and totalitarian but it wasn’t aggressive in foreign relations.

So on World War II, Rothbard thought that Germany was not aiming at the world war that broke out on September 3, 1939, that Hitler was trying to reach a settlement with Poland.  He wanted a return of the free city of Danzig to Germany and a motor road across the Polish Corridor.  But the Poles, under the influence of — especially under the foreign minister, Jozef Beck, refused to negotiate.  So Rothbard here followed the work of A.J.P. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War that came out in 1961, in saying that World War II had largely come about by improvisation; it wasn’t a deliberately planned event.

And another book that very strongly influenced him was one by the American economist Burton H. Klein — Germany’s Economic Preparations for War – that came out in 1959, which argued that Germany had not built up an extremely large armament, contrary to the propaganda of Winston Churchill, but, in fact, they just had enough armaments for very quick campaigns as in the one against Poland.  So Rothbard did not accept the usual view, which is the prevailing view today that Hitler was deliberately aiming at a world war.

Then on American entry into the war, he again followed the views of another book by Charles Tansill, which is Back Door to War, which came out in 1952.  And what Tansill argued was that Roosevelt wanted to enter the European war, which began, as I said, in 1939, but he realized that the American people wouldn’t support such a move because America favored non-intervention in the European war following the bad experiences of World War I.  So to get into the war, Roosevelt followed a deliberately provocative policy towards Japan, knowing that if he did that and was able to get the Japanese to attack the U.S., then the Axis Powers would come in on Japan’s side, and that’s, indeed, what happened.

So in conclusion, Rothbard felt that by examining the historical evidence on World War I and World War II, it was clear that the mythologies that had supported America’s participation in both wars were not correct, and substantially, he found that there was support for his Libertarian view that war is to be avoided nearly at all costs.

And thank you.


ROCKWELL:  Well, thanks so much for listening to the Lew Rockwell Show today. Take a look at all the podcasts. There have been hundreds of them. There’s a link on the upper right-hand corner of the LRC front page. Thank you.

Podcast date, December 18, 2012

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