Revisionism - Left revisionism

Convinced of the correctness of their interpretation of the two world wars and their lessons for current policy, the Right revisionists' analysis was based on a belief in American omnipotence. This led them to question why particular men pursued policies that undermined the national interest. Right revisionism, then, questioned why American power and interests did not dominate the postwar world. Left revisionists rejected this perspective. To them the central failings of U.S. diplomacy derived from the attempt to impose American interests and values on the world, and the inability to recognize that this quest was impossible and counterproductive. In striking contrast to the focus of Right revisionism on policymakers and criticism of their policies, eventually moving from emphasizing error to emphasizing treason, Left revisionists adopted a less personalist perspective.

William Appleman Williams Influenced by the pre-1940s writings of Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams concentrated on the domestic sources of U.S. foreign policy. For him an understanding of policymaking required research not solely into diplomatic correspondence and international crises but also into the perceptions and priorities of policymakers. Far more sophisticated than Beard, Williams located the answer to why policymakers led the nation to war not in a conflict between Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism, and surely not in the emotionalism and duplicity of policymakers or their divided loyalties. Rather, he explained U.S. foreign policy in terms of the worldview of policymakers. For Williams the central question was not why the United States became involved in foreign wars but why it pursued a policy of overseas expansionism.

There are two central themes to Williams's analysis. Assuming an elite model of American decision making, Williams stressed how elites (based on the structure of the economy and the political system) made policy independent of popular support or involvement. Thus, in Tragedy of American Diplomacy he writes:

One of the most unnerving features was the extensive elitism that had become ingrained in the policy-making process. The assault on Cuba was conceived, planned, and implemented by a small group of men in the executive department [who] opened no general dialogue with members of Congress (even in private conversation), and expended great effort and exerted great pressure to avoid any public disclosure or debate.

In describing the process of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Williams emphasizes "the elite's self-isolation … arrogance and self-righteousness, and … messianic distortion of a sincere humanitarian desire to help other peoples. Even the American public came more and more to be considered as simply another factor to be manipulated and controlled in the effort to establish and maintain the American Way as the global status quo."

More central to Williams's analysis than this description of elite manipulation and determination of policy are his conclusions about the ideological basis for U.S. policy. Williams depicted policymakers as at times naive and at times misguided, questioned whether the United States need have entered the two world wars and the Cold War, and stressed elite manipulation of public opinion. His basic premise, however, was not that different men or more open procedures could have averted war. The sources of policymaking instead were established values and priorities, and not, as Barnes and the Right revisionists argued, the insidious influence of propaganda and manipulative leaders. Williams did not portray Wilson, Page, House, Roosevelt, or Alger Hiss as evil and shortsighted, traitors to the public in whose interests they acted. Williams conceded that the decisions of policy elites commanded popular acceptance or acquiescence. While critical of the consequences of their decisions, he offered not moralistic condemnation but reasoned analysis in explaining the "tragedy of American diplomacy." The exploitative results of U.S. foreign policy were not, Williams argued, the "result of malice, indifference, or ruthless and predatory exploitation. American leaders were not evil men…. Nor were they treacherous hypocrites. They believed deeply in the ideals they proclaimed."

Williams also denied that abstract idealism determined specific policy responses so much as did the changing character of the American economy and the beliefs thus engendered. Since the 1820s, he wrote, "Americans steadily deepened their commitment to the idea that democracy was inextricably connected with individualism, private property, and a capitalist marketplace economy. Even the great majority of critics sought to reform existing society precisely in order to realize that conception of the good system." This particular view of the national interest, and the rejection of alternative models for organizing society, constituted the tragedy of American diplomacy. For Williams, there were no identifiable devils or correctable errors. History was too complex for such explanations. The dilemma was deeper, and stemmed partially from the American rejection of Marxism.

Commenting in The Great Evasion, Williams writes:

We have never confronted his [Marx's] central thesis about the assumptions, the costs, and the nature of capitalist society. We have never confronted his central insight that capitalism is predicated upon an over emphasis and exaltation of the individualistic, egoistic half of man functioning in a marketplace system that overrides and crushes the social, humanitarian half of man…. And we have never confronted his argument that capitalism cannot create a community in which how men produce and own is less important than their relationships as they produce and distribute those products, less important than what they are as men, and less important than how they treat each other.

American foreign policy was the product of the definition of the national interest and the unquestioned beliefs held by policymakers, and not the actions of particular men. The combination of economic interest and the conviction of American omnipotence and omniscience led inevitably, and tragically, to a policy of overseas expansionism. Williams defined this policy as the Open Door. By the twentieth century, Williams argues in Tragedy of American Diplomacy, American foreign policy had come to be based on the "firm conviction, even dogmatic belief, that America's domestic well-being depends upon such sustained, ever-increasing overseas economic expansion. Here is a convergence of economic practice with intellectual analysis and emotional involvement that creates a very powerful and dangerous propensity to define the essentials of American welfare in terms of activities outside the United States."

Williams's radical analyses profoundly influenced a number of young historians, some of whom studied under him at the University of Wisconsin and others who were stimulated by his books, articles, and essays—notably Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Great Evasion, and Contours of American History. Independent scholars, these Left revisionists have at times adopted part of Williams's complex analysis, at times have refined it, and at times have extended it to the point of fundamental departure from his conclusions. And, whereas Williams was synthetic, his scope broad, and the form of his writing essayist, these young scholars have written heavily documented monographs on narrowly defined subjects.

The principal focus of Left revisionism has been the Cold War, although Williams's influence is reflected in the studies of Walter LaFeber on U.S. expansionism during the 1890s, The New Empire ; of Thomas McCormick on U.S. China policy, China Market ; of David Green on U.S. policy toward Latin America, The Containment of Latin America ; and of N. Gordon Levin on Wilson's wartime diplomacy, Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. (Since the basic analysis of these volumes does not differ from that of Cold War revisionism, this essay will concentrate exclusively on these studies.)

Not all Cold War revisionists have written within Williams's framework or were influenced by him; those who did so differed widely in their emphases and conclusions. While all dissented from the orthodox interpretation of the origins of the Cold War, some Left revisionists emphasized only the elitist nature of U.S. policy formation; others, the ideology of policymakers; others, the economic basis of particular policy decisions; and still others combined these themes. These differences are fundamental and range from rather limited critiques of particular men to a more radical characterization of U.S. policy as imperialistic and counterrevolutionary.

The most important Left revisionist writings include Lloyd Gardner's Architects of Illusion, Barton Bernstein's "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War," Walter LaFeber's America, Russia, and the Cold War, Gabriel Kolko's Politics of War, Richard Barnet's Roots of War, Thomas Paterson's Soviet-American Confrontation, David Horowitz's Empire and Revolution, Bruce Kuklick's American Policy and the Division of Germany, Gar Alperovitz's Atomic Diplomacy, Harry Magdoff's Age of Imperialism, Ronald Steel's Pax Americana, Stephen Ambrose's Rise to Globalism, Richard Free-land's Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism, Athan Theoharis's Seeds of Repression, Diane Shaver Clemens's Yalta, Lawrence Wittner's Cold War America, and D. F. Fleming's The Cold War and Its Origins.

Left revisionists have extended this analysis beyond the issue of the origins of the U.S.–Soviet conflict in Europe and have begun to examine the international dimensions of the Cold War. These historians—most notably Thomas Paterson in On Every Front, Thomas McCormick in America's Half Century, and Robert McMahon in Colonialism and Cold War —have shifted from exploring the origins of the containment policy in Europe and have instead placed the U.S.–Soviet conflict in the context of the international economic system and the rise of anticolonial movements in the post–World War II era.

In their dissent from orthodox historiography, the Left revisionists deny that the Cold War resulted simply from Soviet territorial expansionism or the objectives of international communism to which the United States responded defensively in order to preserve freedom and democracy. Stressing the caution and conservatism of Soviet policy, the Left revisionists locate the origins of the Cold War in U.S. foreign policies. As Barton Bernstein writes in "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War," Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration :

American policy was neither so innocent nor so nonideological…. American leaders sought to promote their conceptions of national interest and their values even at the conscious risk of provoking Russia's fears about her security…. By overextending policy and power and refusing to accept Soviet interests, American policy-makers contributed to the Cold War…. There is evi dence that Russian policies were reasonably cautious and conservative, and that there was at least a basis for accommodation.

Left revisionist conceptions of the origins of the Cold War, however, mask important fundamental differences. The Left revisionists can be divided into two groups: radicals and Left liberals, the principal dividing line being that the radicals analyze American policy within a framework of imperialism and elite or class domination, while the Left liberals minimize power and ideology, and emphasize domestic politics, personality, and bureaucracy. According to this division, Fleming, Clemens, Steel, Theoharis, and Ambrose can be classified as Left liberals, and Kolko, Gardner, Bernstein, Paterson, Horowitz, LaFeber, Magdoff, Alperovitz, Freeland, Barnet, Wittner, and Kuklick as radicals. As with all definitions, this one sharpens differences, particularly in the distinction between elite domination and bureaucracy.

In addition to these broad divisions, the Left revisionists differ in their conclusions about two important questions. First, was the Cold War inevitable because the requirements of capitalism forced American leaders to pursue a consciously imperialistic foreign policy? This theme is developed by Gabriel Kolko in Roots of American Foreign Policy :

The dominant interest of the United States is in world economic stability, and anything that undermines that condition presents a danger to its present hegemony…. From a purely eco nomic viewpoint, the United States cannot maintain its existing vital dominating relationship to much of the Third World unless it can keep the poor nations from moving too far toward the Left…. A widespread leftward movement would critically affect its supply of raw materials and have profound long-term repercussions.

Only Kolko, Magdoff, and Horowitz among the radical revisionists hold to such a mechanistic view of U.S. foreign policy. In contrast, other radicals emphasize tactics and perception (the quote from Bernstein cited above portrays this view).

Left revisionists also differ over whether U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union shifted fundamentally with Harry S. Truman's accession to the presidency in April 1945, a thesis advanced by Alperovitz, Clemens, Fleming, Wittner, Theoharis, and Ambrose, and accepted with major qualifications by Bernstein, Paterson, Kuklick, and Gardner (the latter group stressing that the change was more one of tactics than of objectives or priorities).

In addition, radical and Left liberal revisionists (LaFeber, Gardner, Bernstein, Paterson, Wittner, Kuklick, Steel, Theoharis, and Ambrose) concur that American policymakers brought on the Cold War, not because they were innocent or seeking to reach accommodation with the Soviet Union but because they believed in American omnipotence and omniscience. In Soviet-American Confrontation, Paterson concludes: "Convinced that their interpretations of international agreements were alone the correct ones, … United States officials attempted to fulfill their goals through the unilateral application of the power they knew they possessed." Gardner and Bernstein slightly modify this thesis of omnipotence, averring that policymakers fell victim to mythical and illusory views of U.S. power and principle in the pursuit of what was a counterrevolutionary foreign policy. In Architects of Illusion, Gardner develops this theme: "Only the United States had the power [at the conclusion of World War II] to enforce its decisions world-wide, … American policy-makers [subsequently] developed a series of rationales, expedients, and explanations which grew into the myths and illusions of the Cold War. And men were later beguiled by their own creations."

Like Williams, the Left revisionists question whether public opinion constrained policymakers. To the contrary, they contend, officials of the Truman administration consciously sought to alter public opinion in order to ensure popular support for costly and controversial policy initiatives. Moving beyond Williams, they argue that this effort to alter public opinion created the climate that resulted in McCarthyism. This theme is developed by Theoharis and Freeland, though these historians' conclusions differ. Freeland contends that the Truman administration consciously pursued McCarthyite politics in an effort to develop support for a multilateral foreign policy, while Theoharis depicts the administration as reacting to partisan pressures and exigencies, as lacking a conscious and coherent strategy, and as sincerely if obsessively anticommunist.

Left revisionists have raised important questions about the nature of the decision-making process, the relationship between wealth and policy, the class and interest backgrounds of policy-makers, and the process by which values and official policy are formed. Unlike Right revisionists, who simply chronicled executive branch manipulation of the public and suggested that certain policy decisions were harmful in their consequences, Left revisionists have moved beyond mere description of error and propaganda. Left and Right revisionism are distinctive, then, not simply because of differences in political philosophy and conclusions. The basic difference stems from the character of Left revisionism as intellectual and radical history (in the literal sense of seeking root causes).

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