Revisionism - World war i revisionism




Harry Elmer Barnes To a generation accustomed to a globalist foreign policy, large defense budgets, and foreign military-assistance pacts and involvement, the postwar reaction to World War I might seem perplexing. Almost immediately after the end of that conflict, after having accepted this as a "war to end all wars" and "to make the world safe for democracy," and the portrayal of the Germans as "barbarous Huns," many Americans became disillusioned with the war's consequences and began to reappraise what had been unquestioned beliefs about the nation's proper international role. Harry Elmer Barnes was one such American. He had written propaganda tracts for the American Defense Society and the National Security League during the war that extolled the morality and necessity of U.S. participation to defeat Germany.

Influenced by Sidney Fay's article "New Light on the Origins of the World War, I. Berlin and Vienna, to July 29," published in the American Historical Review (1920), which demonstrated the inequity of the Versailles Treaty's war guilt clause, Barnes reassessed those judgments he had helped to popularize during the war years. In a series of book reviews and articles published during the 1920s, he questioned whether Germany was solely responsible for the war and called for a multicausal conception of responsibility. These themes were summarized in his important study Genesis of the World War (1926), a book that the publisher Alfred Knopf solicited on the basis of a series of articles Barnes had published in Christian Century.

In Genesis of the World War, Barnes argues that the revisionist interpretation was the "correct one" and that his book demonstrates the "dishonesty and unreliability of diplomats and statesmen." Conceding Germany's partial responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, Barnes also chronicles French, Russian, and Serbian culpability. The errors of men, the irrational consequences of nationalism, the influence of propaganda, and the economic interests of munitions makers combined to provide the catalyst for war. Barnes reiterated these themes in the foreword he wrote for H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen's influential Merchants of Death (1934), contending that the authors had not singled out the armaments industry but the "broader forces, such as patriotism, imperialism, nationalistic education, and capitalist competition, [which] play a larger part than the armament industry in keeping alive the war system."

Focusing on the outbreak of the war in Europe, Barnes discusses only peripherally the factors leading to U.S. involvement in 1917. Just as he challenged the conventional view of German war guilt, representing the German invasion of Belgium as the precipitating event, but not the real cause, of a general European war, so Barnes debunks the then conventional wisdom that German submarine warfare was the basis for U.S. involvement. He argues instead that "unneutrality, lack of courage, or maladroitness of the Washington authorities in regard to English violations of international law … produced German submarine warfare that actually led us into war."

Mistakes in judgment, emotionalism, and unthinking patriotism, and not any threat to the national interest (whether defined in economic or strategic terms), were the bases for war. Believing that war was the consequence of myopia, and thus was avoidable, Barnes particularly emphasizes World War I's harmful legacy. It had not extended democracy or ensured against future wars, but had undermined world order and stability. Detailing but one of these revolutionary consequences, Barnes describes the war's "most unfortunate reaction upon the British Empire by stimulating nationalistic and independence movements everywhere."

Barnes's writings impelled other historians to consider these conclusions. His polemical tone, based on a conviction that this was no mere academic exercise, but involved the vital issue of war and peace, shaped his general approach to the study of war and his optimism that this research and writing could prevent the recurrence of war.

By the end of the 1930s, the dominant interpretation of World War I was that of the revisionists. In part, their writings provided a rationale for congressional enactment of the Neutrality Acts of 1935–1937. Yet despite this success, the United States would once again become involved in a major world war. This factor, as much as his conclusions about the causes and consequences of World War I, shaped Barnes's response to the debate precipitated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's successful efforts of 1937–1941 to alter the nation's foreign policy course, first from one of neutrality to one of aid to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and then to involvement as a cobelligerent.

World War II had a searing effect on Barnes. He was far less confident that he was speaking from a majority position, and the tone of his works after 1944 was more defensive and alienated. During the post–World War II period, Barnes also abandoned the multicausal approach characteristic of his writings on World War I. Instead, he attributed U.S. involvement in that later conflict to President Roosevelt's duplicitous conduct of the nation's foreign relations.

Central to Barnes's analysis was the conviction that the national interest did not require that the United States go to war. Quite the opposite; involvement in war would undermine national security and create continuous tensions that would inevitably ensure a militarized society. Minimizing German responsibility for World War II, as he had for World War I, in the introduction he wrote for Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Barnes bluntly claimed: "Sane internationalism is one thing; it is something quite different to support our entry into a war likely to ruin civilization merely to promote the prospects of a domestic leader, however colorful or popular, to satisfy the neurotic compulsions of special interests and pressure groups, and to pull the chestnuts of foreign nations out of the fire." Presidential duplicity had been only one of the themes (and not a central one) in his earlier writing—witness his critical comment on the dishonesty and unreliability of statesmen and diplomats. Minimized in, if not totally absent from, Barnes's post–World War II writing, were his earlier emphases on competitive nationalism, emotionalism, and economic interest.

Resurrecting the correctness of the revisionist interpretation of World War I, Barnes attributed U.S. involvement in World War II partly to the decisions leading to that earlier conflict. World War I and U.S. involvement in that conflict, he argued, constituted "an ominous turning point" in American and world history. Barnes then returned to the principal theme of his writings about World War I: the war's disastrous consequences. He emphasized that both wars had inevitably resulted in "the rise and influence of Communism, military state capitalism, the police state, and the impending doom of civilization."

Barnes continued these themes in a later, more detailed study of how the nation became involved in World War II: "Pearl Harbor After a Quarter of a Century," published in 1968 in the right-wing libertarian journal Left and Right. He then emphasized still another theme: the truth about U.S. involvement in World War II was not more widely known owing to the "blackout" and "blurring" resorted to by "court historians," publishers, and book reviewers.

By the 1950s, Barnes had abandoned the qualifications underpinning his dogmatic analyses of the 1920s for the posture of an aggrieved proponent and seeker of the truth. In his earlier writing, he was convinced that research, thoughtful analysis by experts, and publication could avert war's recurrence. This confidence and these themes were virtually absent from Barnes's more conspiratorial and defensive analysis of World War II. There was a simpler explanation: the power and principles of President Roosevelt. This shift in tone coincided with and contributed to the emergence of a more restrictive revisionism that could properly be labeled Right revisionism.

Charles Austin Beard Unlike Barnes, Charles Beard had not been greatly concerned during the 1920s about German war guilt or the process by which the United States became involved in World War I. He first focused on foreign policy matters during the 1930s and 1940s and concentrated thereafter on U.S. involvement in World War II. Beard's published works on American foreign policy of the 1930s, however, differed markedly in tone and emphasis from his writings of the 1940s.

Although sharing Barnes's critical views on the uses of propaganda and the role of special interest groups in shaping U.S. foreign policy, Beard's analyses of the 1930s were broader and less conspiratorial. What particularly distinguished Beard from Barnes were his interests in the evolution of a more interventionist foreign policy and in the conceptions of national interest held by important political leaders. Unlike Barnes's more narrowly political and personalist approach, Beard's was more broadly cultural and economic. In this sense, Beard did not view certain men as culprits, war as irrational, and education as sufficient to avert undesirable developments. The principal themes of his writing on American internationalism were that an interventionist foreign policy was an outgrowth of domestic affairs more than of foreign developments, and that foreign policy decisions were the product of particular values that reflected the interests of powerful special economic interest groups. This was not, however, simply an economic interpretation of foreign policy decisions. Beard was interested in understanding the relationship between social and economic change and politics, and he denied that particular responses were foreordained. There were alternative policy options, but the specific direction that a nation pursued was based on its established national priorities.

In addition, Beard emphasized that "official foreign policy is always conducted by a few persons…. In this respect, democracies may differ little from dictatorships." Not representing policymakers as manipulators or as acting contrary to the national interest in his writings of the 1930s, Beard explored how the national interest (and hence foreign policy) was conceived and formulated. Foreign policy, moreover, could not be understood as a separate process; international involvement had far-reaching consequences both for republican principles and for reform. In Open Door at Home, Beard stressed the "control" that governments could exercise over domestic policies and national priorities. From these findings he offered a specific recommendation: "The argument thus far advanced is directed to the proposition that an efficiently operated commonwealth offers the best escape from the crisis in economy and thought in which the American nation now flounders."

In a different sense than Barnes, Beard advocated a restrictionist foreign policy. His recommendations, like those of Barnes, were rejected. Between 1937 and 1941, the Roosevelt administration successfully altered the noninterventionist stance of the American public and Congress. Beard became an active participant in the resultant debate over the wisdom of a course that risked involvement in an ongoing foreign war. After 1939 his writings became increasingly polemical. No longer directly assessing the intellectual framework within which the national interest came to be formulated, whether in Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels or President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, Beard moved closer to Barnes's focus on the actions of particular individuals and to the duplicity of policymakers. His discussion increasingly centered on the rhetoric and policy decisions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Beard's post–World War II books contrasted the disparity between President Roosevelt's rhetoric and reality. In a highly moralistic tone, Beard argues in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: "President Roosevelt entered the year 1941 carrying moral responsibility for his covenants with the American people to keep this nation out of war—so to conduct foreign affairs as to avoid war." Roosevelt had not followed that course while, at the same time, publicly minimizing the risks of his policies. In conclusion, Beard pointedly questions the consequences of this abuse of power: "Was it within the legal and moral competence of President Roosevelt in 1941 so to conduct foreign affairs as to maneuver a foreign country into firing a shot that brought on war—indeed to make war on his own authority?"

In his later years Beard no longer emphasized the domestic sources of foreign policy decisions, whether economic interest or value choices. By then he had become concerned principally with process issues: how the conduct of foreign policy affected a system of checks and balances and constitutional liberties. This, and not simply moral fervor or partisanship, shaped his historical writing. In combination, Beard's later writings and those of Barnes gave rise to the decidedly more intemperate Right revisionism of the post–World War II period. Yet, while the essays in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (1953) were dedicated to Beard, their intellectual debt was to the Beard of the 1940s. His earlier, more sophisticated emphases on intellectual attitudes and economic influence, through the writings of William Appleman Williams, during the 1960s gave rise to Left revisionism, which focused less on U.S. involvement in World War II than on the origins of the Cold War.

1930s Revisionism Articulating themes suggested or emphasized by Barnes and Beard, other independent scholars during the 1930s examined the process leading to U.S. involvement in World War I. In contrast to the revisionist accounts published during the 1920s, the revisionism of the 1930s focused on the question of how the United States abandoned a neutrality policy to become involved in war in 1917. Revisionist writers of the 1930s concurred that U.S. involvement was neither necessary nor realistic, and thus that war could have been avoided. They also believed that those who had made policy (except former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and, with certain qualifications, President Woodrow Wilson) were shortsighted. Most policymakers (U.S. ambassador to London Walter Hines Page; President Wilson's influential adviser Edward House; Bryan's successor as secretary of state, Robert Lansing), they concluded, were Anglophiles and acted in ways contrary to the national interest. A further theme, popularized in C. Hartley Grattan's study Why We Fought (1929), was the important influence of propaganda (a thesis that derived from the pioneering work of Harold Laswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War ).

The combination of traditional anti-German attitudes, pro-British sympathies, and the impact of the preparedness campaign of 1915–1916 had led to U.S. involvement in war. Yet, Grattan believed that the determining factor was domestic (and not Allied) propaganda, and principally President Wilson's unilateral and irresponsible conduct of foreign policy. By 1936, Grattan had considerably refined this emphasis on propaganda and presidential irresponsibility. In Preface to Chaos, he represented the system and needs of capitalism as creating the conditions leading to World War I.

These themes of propaganda and economic influences were either extended or refined by a larger group of revisionists. Thus, in Merchants of Death, H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen argue that arms merchants, in their efforts to sell military weapons, had contributed to international crises and influenced press reporting. Further archival research was needed to uncover the full story, they conceded, while stressing the influence of arms merchants on governmental policy and the close relationship between the military and the armaments industry. They further conclude that "American commitments with the Allies were so enormous that only our entry into the war saved the country from a major economic collapse."

This conviction that U.S. involvement in the war was not inevitable and that the public was influenced by the insidious machinations of special interests was further developed, although without Grattan's and Engelbrecht and Hanighen's narrow economic focus, in the propaganda studies of H. C. Peterson, Walter Millis, and Edwin Borchard and William Lage. In Propaganda for War, Peterson explores how American opinion was influenced by British propaganda during the period 1914–1917, concluding that many American politicians "were actively engaged in fighting Britain's battles on the American political front." The combination of British propaganda efforts, the sympathies of policymakers, and the degree to which important economic interests profited from trade with the Entente powers and undermined American neutrality—and not the national interest—had ensured U.S. involvement in war with the Central Powers.

An implicit theme in Peterson's analysis is that un-American sympathies determined official Washington's actions during the crucial period 1914–1917; the only exception was former Secretary of State Bryan, who "thought primarily of his own country." The policymakers' defective vision, their "utterly fallacious conclusion, as to what could be achieved" (there was no suggestion here of disloyalty but simply of misguided sympathies), and their failure to act in terms of the national interest had led the nation into an unnecessary and harmful war. Sharing Barnes's sense of the lessons of history, in an almost preacherlike tone Peterson concludes that American leaders had "failed to see that the war was merely one in a long series of wars which the European set-up makes inevitable—that it was the natural concomitant of the political transition caused by Germany's rise to power." U.S. involvement in the war was both tragic and contrary to the public will, for "To Americans a vote for Wilson [in 1916] had meant a vote for peace. Through the only medium available to them they had expressed their unmistakable desire to keep out of the European conflict."

Peterson's definition of realism was shared by Borchard and Lage in Neutrality for the United States. The national interest required not intervention in "the wars of other peoples" but respect for international law and constitutional government. This was "rational" and had traditionally provided "the path of progress." Emphasizing the limits to American power and influence, Borchard and Lage condemned the unneutrality of the Wilson administration's policies and denied that these policies advanced the interests of the United States so much as those of other states. The authors, however, do not represent this as sinister or mendacious: "The surrender was not made through malevolence but through short-sighted emotionalism, a confusion of ideas as to where America's interest lay."

Another underlying theme in their (and Peterson's) analysis was the undesirability of exclusive presidential conduct of foreign policy. Borchard and Lage stress how the Congress had attempted to remain neutral, an effort that was frustrated by the Wilson administration. Emphasizing President Wilson's role in undermining U.S. neutrality, they attribute this to a messianic conception of the nation's responsibilities, a conception they find unrealistic and counterproductive. In Road to War, Millis develops this theme: "It was only natural that the New Freedom which appealed to nationalism to enforce peace, justice and liberty in the domestic sphere, should have thought of the American nation as an active force for peace and justice in the international world as well."

In combination, these writers characterized U.S. policy during World War I as based on a defective vision of reality, and their writings reflect a strong suspicion of globalism and of the exercise of power by the executive branch. Not impressed by the wisdom of high-level governmental personnel, they also feared that centralizing decision making within the executive branch invited abuses of this power. In their use of the term "propaganda," they distinguished between how policy was publicly justified and how it actually was and should be made. Convinced of the limits to American power, they deplored the war's adverse consequences for the postwar world.

In America Goes to War, Charles Tansill expands upon these themes: a multiplicity of factors had resulted in U.S. involvement in World War I. The more important were pro-British sympathy, anti-German suspicions, and the interests of bankers and exporters. Tansill's thesis was multicausal and ambivalent. There was no conscious purpose behind a policy that sacrificed U.S. neutrality to aid the Entente powers, he argued:

The real reason why America went to war cannot be found in any single set of circumstances. There was no clear-cut road to war that the President followed with certain steps that knew no hesitation. There were many dim trails of doubtful promise, and one along which he traveled with early misgivings and reluctant tread was that which led to American economic solidarity with the Allies.

Tansill condemned the incompetence of House, Page, and Lansing and their failure to recognize and act upon American interests. Developing more sharply what had been only an implicit theme of other World War I revisionists, Tansill stressed how the ineptness and pro-Entente (hence un-American) loyalties of these policy-makers had led to the nation's unfortunate involvement in a European war. And, unlike other World War I revisionists, except Barnes, Tansill did not attribute this failure to the limits to American power and influence.




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