Revisionism




Athan G. Theoharis

The term "revise" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "to re-examine or reconsider and amend faults in." This definition describes the process by which historians have consistently reconsidered and improved upon what had once been standard, often unquestioned interpretations of past events, movements, and personalities. A number of factors ensure this process: new information acquired through research into recently accessioned documents; the posing of new questions; the utilization of new and at times more sophisticated methods derived from disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology; the exploitation of new research tools such as the computer; the relative detachment provided by chronological distance from the particular event under study; or new insights gained from the impact of seminal thinkers.

Interpretations of American foreign relations have not escaped this process of revision. Virtually every major American diplomatic problem—for example, Jay's Treaty, the War of 1812, the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, isolationism, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War—has been subject to such reconsideration and reexamination. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the study of American foreign relations underwent a far-reaching change in focus with the emergence of the "realist" school. Robert Osgood, in Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations, interprets Wilsonian diplomacy from a perspective based on considerations of national self-interest and international power relations; Paul Schroeder, in The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, applies "realist" principles to the study of the Roosevelt administration's diplomacy on the eve of World War II; and John Gaddis, in The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, similarly assesses the Roosevelt and Truman administrations' conduct of foreign relations during the 1940s. More recently, some historians of American foreign relations have applied the insights of multiculturalism and postmodernism to argue for a distinctly different approach to the study of war and diplomacy. The cumulative impact of these differing approaches has compelled students of American foreign relations to examine policy decisions from these perspectives. Since the 1950s, consequently, diplomatic historians have no longer been interested solely in questions involving state-to-state relations and international law, and have emphasized as well questions of power, rationalism, gender, race and ethnicity, bureaucracy, and the role of organized interest groups. The term "revise" clearly describes this historiography.

Yet, to adopt so literal a definition of revisionism does not clarify. As Warren Cohen points out in The American Revisionist, historians of American foreign relations have employed this term to describe "a number of men who, after one or both world wars, took upon themselves the task of persuading the American people to change their view of the origins of those wars and of the reasons for American intervention in them." Cohen's study, published in 1967, failed to account for three other groups of historians, the vast majority of whom began to publish after 1967 and who wrote instead about the origins of the Cold War, the reasons for the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, and the growth of the "national security state." Broadened to include these groups, Cohen's definition classifies a diverse group of writers, all of whom have discussed the processes leading to, and the consequences of, U.S. involvement in international conflict but who nonetheless differ in their emphases and conclusions.

Cohen's definition, however, while distinguishing these writers from others who have revised other historiographical issues (the coming of the Civil War, the Progressive Era), does not identify the particularity of "revisionist" historiography. Using Cohen's definition, historians like Osgood, Schroeder, and Gaddis could be classified as "revisionists." They challenged what were once standard interpretations of U.S. involvement in wars and were no less interested in "persuading the American people to change their views." Osgood, Schroeder, and Gaddis, however, have not been classified as "revisionists," not because their conclusions were widely accepted but because they share perspectives with the majority of those writing about the American diplomatic past.

Revisionist historiography can be distinguished from other works of revision because its practitioners go beyond a reexamination of specific events and decisions. Instead, the revisionists challenge the assumptions held by more conventional historians about how policy is formulated and justified, about whether the executive branch is responsive to public opinion, and about the ideas and sources of official foreign policy. The common themes of revisionist historiography are those of executive independence, the mendaciousness or secretiveness by which policymakers develop public support for particular decisions, the betrayal of the nation's democratic ideals, and an implicit (in certain cases, explicit) criticism of the principal ideas and priorities that determine official policy. The revisionists do not accept the rhetoric of policymakers at face value, and tend to perceive proclaimed idealism as masking less noble, if not sinister, purposes. More basically, the revisionists share a set of assumptions that the foreign policy decisions that led to both world wars and the Cold War or opposition to the Vietnam War were not the result of public demand, and were shaped by the priorities and (for some) the disloyalty of policymakers. To accept the assumptions of the revisionists is to locate American involvement in international conflict not in the narrowing of available options by international developments but in internal factors and in conscious (or, for some, unthinking) choice.

In portraying policymakers as manipulators of public opinion and U.S. involvement in international conflict as the consequence of presidential decisions or of the insidious influence of special interest groups, the revisionists have challenged the conclusions of traditional historians (for example, Gaddis and Schroeder) who view public opinion as unduly constraining the development of a realistic foreign policy. These conclusions, however, are assumptions more than descriptions of reality. We know little about how or whether public opinion has shaped foreign policy. When referring to public opinion, most historians have frequently focused on elite opinion. From his interviews with State Department personnel during the 1960s, the political scientist Bernard Cohen, for example, established that when it was formulating policy, the foreign policy bureaucracy was not motivated to ascertain public opinion and viewed the public as an object to be manipulated or cajoled. There remains a need to ascertain even what constitutes evidence of public opinion. Recent studies suggest the need for greater caution when commenting on the public's influence on foreign policy.

The revisionist focus on elites and questioning whether official policy responds to the public's interests does not mean that the revisionists constitute a monolithic school. A further qualification is required. The revisionists' basic critique of the nature and sources of U.S. diplomacy and the methods by which government officials have conducted policy constitutes their principal commonality. Revisionists otherwise differ in their emphases and conclusions.

The revisionists can be classified into five broad schools: World War I, Right revisionism, Left revisionism, Vietnam revisionism, and national security revisionism, divisions reflecting both philosophical differences and the events commanding their attention. The subject matter of the World War I revisionists is obvious; the Right revisionists focus on the origins and consequences of World War II; the Left, Vietnam, and national security revisionists focus on different aspects of the Cold War. In an important sense, however, World War I revisionism created the intellectual climate and perspectives from which Right revisionism emerged. Some of the themes of World War I revisionism also appear in Left and national security revisionism. Right revisionists, moreover, can be classified as World War II revisionists, and their main themes underlie Vietnam revisionism. In contrast, although Left and national security revisionists focus on the Cold War, they differ in emphases and focus—the former on the origins and the latter on the consequences of the Cold War. In addition, the Right revisionists' conclusions about U.S. involvement in World War II indirectly shaped their analyses of the Cold War, while Vietnam revisionists endorse orthodox interpretations of the Cold War and the Right revisionist conspiratorial perspective on the reasons for harmful foreign and military decisions.

Revisionist historiography has also been influenced by three seminal thinkers writing about U.S. foreign policy—Harry Elmer Barnes on World War I and Right revisionists, William Appleman Williams on Left revisionists, and Charles Austin Beard on both Left and Right revisionists. These writers have not influenced either Vietnam or national security revisionists. The time of their writing and the degree to which their work was shaped by contemporary politics or research into recently accessible primary sources are factors underpinning the differences among the revisionists. The Right revisionists' conclusions about the origins of World War II derived in part from archival research documenting U.S. involvement in World War I and in part from their reaction to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's conduct of domestic and foreign policy during the 1930s and 1940s. For the Left revisionists, U.S. policy during the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam War, combined with research into recently accessible primary sources, shaped their conclusions about the origins of the Cold War. In contrast, Vietnam revisionists responded to the anticommunist analyses underpinning the debate over the Vietnam War and to Left revisionist interpretations of the Cold War, while national security revisionist interpretations were shaped by the unprecedented release of formerly classified Soviet and U.S. records and new public concerns about the consequences of secrecy and centralization on privacy rights and constitutional safeguards.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnes, Harry Elmer. The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt. New York, 1926. The most influential revisionist book written during the 1920s; most of the themes of later revisionism are suggested here.

Barnes, Harry Elmer, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath. Caldwell, Idaho, 1953. A collection of essays reflecting the various themes of Right revisionists, this is based on minimal research into primary sources; most of the essays were written by nonhistorians.

Beard, Charles A. The Open Door at Home: A Trial Philosophy of National Interest. New York, 1934. An extremely heavy review of American diplomacy since the founding of the Republic and an important influence on Left revisionism, notably William A. Williams.

——. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. Hamden, Conn., 1948. Beard's controversial study of the background to Pearl Harbor, based principally on the hearings and reports of the congressional committee investigating Pearl Harbor in 1945.

Bernstein, Barton J. "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War." In Barton J. Bernstein, ed. Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration. Chicago, 1970. An important, subtle, and sophisticated radical Left revisionist analysis of the origins of the Cold War.

Borchard, Edwin, and William Potter Lage. Neutrality for the United States. New Haven, Conn., 1937. The most sophisticated and balanced of the revisionist studies published during the 1930s.

Brune, Lester, and Richard Dean Burns. America and the Indochina Wars, 1945–1990. Claremont, Calif., 1992.

Cohen, Warren I. The American Revisionist: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I. Chicago, 1967. A thoughtful, often insightful study of the more important revisionist writing about U.S. involvement in both world wars.

Doenecke, Justus D. The Literature of Isolationism: A Guide to Non-Interventionist Scholarship, 1930–1972. Colorado Springs, 1972. A useful annotated bibliography of the various articles, essays, books, and dissertations on the general theme of revisionism.

Engelbrecht, H. C., and F. C. Hanighen. Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry. New York, 1934. A popular book that provides impetus and a rationale for the so-called Nye Committee investigation of the munitions industry.

Fordham, Benjamin. Building the Cold War Consensus: The Political Economy of U.S. National Security Policy, 1949–1951. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1998.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 1941–1949. Chicago, 1970. A series of portraits of the important foreign policymakers of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, written from a radical Left revisionist perspective.

Herz, Martin. The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972. Washington, D.C., 1980.

Hogan, Michael. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge and New York, 1998.

Hogan, Michael, ed. America in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations Since 1941. Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Kirkendall, Richard S., ed. The Truman Period as a Research Field: A Reappraisal, 1972. Columbia, Mo., 1974. A balanced study of the literature on the Truman period that contains counterbalancing essays on domestic and foreign policy written by revisionists and nonrevisionists; an excellent source on the more important studies and on research collections.

Kolko, Gabriel. The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy. New York, 1968.

Kolko, Gabriel, and Joyce Kolko. The Limits of Power: The World and the United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1954. New York, 1972. An ambitious, heavily written and researched radical Left revisionist study of the diplomacy of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations that depicts American policy as counterrevolutionary and imperialistic.

Kubek, Anthony. How the Far East Was Lost. Chicago, 1963.

Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power. Stanford, Calif., 1992.

Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam. New York, 1978.

——. The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life. New York, 1990.

Lind, Michael. Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict. New York, 1999.

Millis, Walter. Road to War: America, 1914–1917. Boston, 1935.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Olson, James S., ed. The Vietnam War: Handbook of the Literature and Research. Westport, Conn., 1993.

Paterson, Thomas G. Soviet-American Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War. Baltimore, 1973. An important Left revisionist study of the Cold War that reflects the evolution of Cold War revisionism away from the earlier, more exclusively economic analyses of Kolko and Williams.

Paterson, Thomas G., and Robert J. McMahon, eds. The Origins of the Cold War. 4th ed. Boston, 1999. Reprints excerpts and offers insightful commentary on the historiographical debate over the origins of the Cold War and the changes in Left revisionism; there is, however, no critical assessment to date on national security revisionism.

Peterson, H. C. Propaganda for War. Norman, Okla., 1939.

Podhoretz, Norman. Why We Were in Vietnam. New York, 1978.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Imperial Presidency. Boston, 1973.

Siracusa, Joseph. The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York, 1999.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York, 1999.

Summers, Harry. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Novato, Calif., 1982.

Tansill, Charles Callan. America Goes to War. Boston, 1938.

——. Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933–1941. Chicago, 1952. Relatively distinctive studies of the origins of the world wars, valuable principally because they reflect the changed focus and themes of Right revisionism.

Theoharis, Athan. Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan. Philadelphia, 1978.

Theoharis, Athan, ed. A Culture of Secrecy. Lawrence, Kans., 1998.

Tucker, Robert W. The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy. Baltimore, 1971. A thoughtful critique of Left revisionist writings on the Cold War, principally focusing on the theories, not the research, of the revisionists.

Van Slyck, Philip. Strategies for the 1980s: Lessons of Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Westport, Conn., 1981.

Wang, Jessica. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999.

Williams, William Appleman. The Great Evasion. Chicago, 1964.

——. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. New York, 1972. One of the most important books written about American diplomacy, this covers the period since the founding of the Republic and has shaped the thinking and research of the Left revisionist historians.

See also Cold War Origins ; Elitism ; The National Interest ; Open Door Interpretation ; Presidential Power ; Public Opinion ; Realism and Idealism ; The Vietnam War .

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