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Why American History is Not What They Say

Why American History is Not What They Say

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by Jeff Riggenbach
by Jeff Riggenbach

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Published by: mkizzort on Jan 31, 2013
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Altogether, then, it seems fair to say that Zinn’s very successful People’s
History of the United States conveys much the same vision of American
diplomatic history that one finds in Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle
novels and the works of the revisionist historians. Nor is Zinn’s text the
only current text that does this to one extent or another. Consider, as a
case in point, Give Me Liberty! An American History by Eric Foner, pub-
lished by W. W. Norton and Company in 2005.
Foner (born 1943) was a classic red diaper baby. “Shortly before I was
born,” he writes, in an autobiographical essay included in his book Who
Owns History?,

my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, both historians
at City College in New York, were among some sixty faculty mem-
bers dismissed from teaching positions at the City University after

437 Ibid., p. 593.

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THE NEW AMERICAN HISTORY WARS

informers named them as members of the Communist party at hear-
ings of the state legislature’s notorious Rapp-Coudert Committee, a
precursor of McCarthyism.

The Rapp-Coudert Committee had been established a year earlier to
investigate “subversive activities” in New York public schools, colleges,
and universities. On the same day his father and his uncle lost their jobs,
another uncle, Moe Foner, who worked in the ccny registrar’s office,
lost his. Still another uncle, Henry Foner, a New York City high school
teacher, was questioned by the committee but allowed to keep his job.
“A few years later,” Eric Foner tells us in Who Owns History?, “my mother
was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher. During
my childhood and for many years afterward, my parents were black-
listed and unable to teach.” 438
Eric Foner earned both his B.A. and his Ph.D. in history during the
1960s at that hotbead of revisionism, where Charles Beard had taught
and Harry Elmer Barnes had studied, Columbia University. His first
book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican
Party before the Civil War, was published in 1970. He went on to publish
many more books and articles and to hold down the presidencies of both
the Organization of American Historians (1993-1994) and the American
Historical Association (2000). Peter Novick sees Foner as one of the
“ New Left historians,” but as part of “the second wave” of that move-
ment. The sensibility of the first wave “had been shaped in the fifties,”
while the second, in which Foner was “prominent,” was characterized
by “a countercultural sensibility.” Moreover, the members of this second
wave “were more likely than those in the previous group to have an
activist orientation.” 439
As we have seen, the New Left Historians of the first wave looked
on the u.s. Civil War as a sectional conflict with principally economic
origins and not as a holy war against the moral evil of slavery. They tend-
ed to view Abraham Lincoln as a power-lusting tyrant, bent more on
creating an invincible, centralized American State than on freeing slaves.
Foner begs to differ. “The attack on Fort Sumter,” he writes, “crystal-
ised in Northern minds the direct conflict between freedom and slavery
that abolitionists had insisted upon for decades. The war, as Frederick
Douglass recognized as early as 1862, merged ‘the cause of the slaves
and the cause of the country.’” Nor was Lincoln’s conduct of the war

438 Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New
York: Hill & Wang, 2002), p. 4.
439 Novick, op.cit., pp. 418-420.

194

WHY AMERICAN HISTORY IS NOT WHAT THEY SAY: AN INTRODUCTION TO REVISIONISM

overly high-handed. Foner acknowledges that an “intense new nation-
alism made criticism of the war effort—or of the policies of the Lin-
coln administration—seem to Republicans equivalent to treason.” He
acknowledges that during the war years “[a]rbitrary arrests numbered
in the thousands. They included opposition newspaper editors, Demo-
cratic politicians, individuals who discouraged enlistment in the army,
and ordinary civilians like the Chicago man briefly imprisoned for call-
ing the president a ‘damned fool.’” He acknowledges that Lincoln “ twice
suspended the writ [of habeas corpus] throughout the entire Union for
those accused of ‘disloyal activities.’” He acknowledges that Lincoln had
Clement Vallandigham, a Democratic Ohio Congressman “known for
his blistering antiwar speeches,” brought up on charges of treason before
a military court, and, following his “conviction,” had him deported to the
Confederacy. Yet Foner concludes that “Lincoln was not a despot. Most
of those arrested were quickly released, the Democratic press continued
to flourish, and contested elections were held throughout the war.” 440
Somehow all the very same sorts of repressive and unconstitutional
behavior became much more objectionable half a century later, however,
when they were being committed by Democratic politicians in the Wil-
son administration. “More than any other individual,” Foner reminds
us, “ Woodrow Wilson articulated […] the conviction that […] greater
worldwide freedom would follow inevitably from increased American
investment and trade abroad. Frequently during the twentieth century,
this conviction would serve as a mask for American power and self-
interest.” And the masquerade began early on in the century. “American
involvement in World War I,” Foner writes,

provided the first great test of Wilson’s belief that American pow-
er could “make the world safe for democracy.” Most Progressives
embraced the country’s participation in the war, believing that the
United States could help to spread Progressive values throughout the
world. But rather than bringing Progressivism to other peoples, the
war destroyed it at home. The government quickly came to view crit-
ics of American involvement not simply as citizens with a different
set of opinions, but as enemies of the very ideas of democracy and
freedom. As a result, the war produced one of the most sweeping
repressions of the right to dissent in all of American history.441

A few pages on, and the superlatives are applied without further re-
course to such sickly, wishy-washy phrases as “one of the most.” A few

440 Foner, Give Me Liberty!, op.cit., pp. 524, 527, 528.
441 Ibid., p. 721.

195

THE NEW AMERICAN HISTORY WARS

pages on, and it’s a flat out certainty that “the war inaugurated the most
intense repression of civil liberties the nation has ever known.” Look at
the case of Eugene Debs: sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918 at the age
of 63 for the “crime” of speaking out publicly against the war. Even “[a]fter
the war’s end, Wilson rejected the advice of his attorney general that he
commute Debs’s sentence. […] It was left to Wilson’s successor, [Republi-
can] Warren G. Harding, to release Debs from prison in 1921.” 442
The moral of the story seems clear. It is an intolerable affront to
constitutional principles if a spokesman for a self-evidently righteous
cause like keeping America out of a World War is silenced by govern-
ment; it is no big deal if a spokesman for a self-evidently evil cause like
protecting slave owners from getting their just desserts is silenced by
government. Eugene V. Debs is a martyr to the cause of American free-
dom; Clement Vallandigham—well, it’s too bad that he wasn’t among
those who were “quickly released”—most of those who were arrested
were quickly released, you know, and just because one slips through the
net here and there doesn’t make Lincoln a despot. Freedom of speech,
maybe the whole First Amendment, is for the politically correct, not the
politically incorrect.

Still, Foner’s treatment of World War I, for all its apparent hypoc-
risy, is quite comparable to the treatments of the same subject written
by members of the first wave of New Left historians. “[T]hose who
believed that the United States must prepare for possible entry into the
war,” he writes,

included longtime advocates of a stronger military establishment, like
Theodore Roosevelt, and businessmen with close economic ties to
Britain, the country’s leading trading partner and the recipient of over
2 billion dollars in wartime loans from American banks. Wilson him-
self had strong pro-British sympathies and viewed Germany as “the
natural foe of liberty.” 443

And, once America was in the war for these less-than-idealistic rea-
sons—a chance to build up national military power, a chance to guar-
antee the financial gambles various big financiers and big corporations
had made in enabling England’s war effort—it quickly became apparent
that the conflict, bloody and long as it was, would not advance any
worthwhile ideals anywhere else in the world, but would only under-
mine American freedom here at home. Foner’s treatment of American
involvement in World War I is yet another instance of the historical

442 Ibid., pp. 739, 741.
443 Ibid., p. 729.

196

WHY AMERICAN HISTORY IS NOT WHAT THEY SAY: AN INTRODUCTION TO REVISIONISM

vision of Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle novels and the American
revisionist historians making its way into major, mainstream textbooks.
Foner’s treatment of American involvement in World War II, like
his treatment of the u.s. Civil War, is another kettle of fish altogether.
Where Vidal and the revisionists argue that Franklin Roosevelt delib-
erately maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor so he’d
have a publicly acceptable reason for entering the war—something he’d
been scheming for years to find a way to do—Foner assures his read-
ers that “ Pearl Harbor was a complete and devastating surprise” and
that though “conspiracy theories abound suggesting that fdr knew
of the attack and did nothing to prevent it so as to bring the United
States into the war,” the fact is that “[n]o credible evidence supports
this charge.” 444

Vidal and the revisionists are relentless in their condemnation of
President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on the Jap-
anese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They portray this deci-
sion as having been not only utterly unnecessary to end the war but also
motivated in truth by a desire to impress Joseph Stalin with the reality
of American power. Foner tries to straddle the fence, briefly describing
the arguments for and against Truman’s decision, without taking any
position on the issue himself—and without even mentioning the all-
important Stalin connection.

IV

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