What Did Bush Mean by "Revisionist Historians"?





Mr. Rees is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern Colorado.

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About two weeks ago, President Bush invoked the term "revisionist historians" twice in two days to describe critics who have attacked his original justification for war with Iraq. This phrase has been kicked around ever since in pundit circles because, although it is not a new construction, the president offered little explanation of it in this context.

"The term can be a compliment (to describe new research that challenges conventional wisdom)," wrote the New York Times on the Sunday after Bush's speeches, "or an insult (to imply that the history is distorting the record). Bush administration officials chose the latter when they dismissed as 'revisionist history' charges that intelligence data was twisted to justify an Iraq attack."

On his MSNBC weblog, Eric Alterman wrote that Bush misused "both the term 'revisionist' and 'historian,' to say nothing of making no sense whatever in any case." After citing someone else's theory that the president might be trying to associate his critics with Holocaust revisionism, Alterman concluded "[W]ho the hell knows [what he meant]? You could go crazy trying to figure it out."

In fact, one need not go crazy trying to figure out the president's meaning here. All you need to do is look closely at statements about history and history teaching by Bush and members of his administration to understand the president's perspective.

Last month, the Department of Education reintroduced a new round of funding for a grant program to improve history teaching in public schools. The Bush administration renamed the Teaching American History grant program, which predates the president's tenure in office, the Teaching Traditional American History grant program (emphasis added). Since presumably "traditional" is the opposite of "revisionist," this is a good place to start if you are trying to understand how this administration approaches history.

According to the fine print on the grant application:

The Secretary [of Education] construes traditional American history to mean the following: Traditional American history teaches the significant issues, episodes, and turning points in the history of the United States, and how the words and deeds of individual Americans have determined the course of our Nation. This history teaches how the principles of freedom and democracy, articulated in our founding documents, have shaped-and continue to shape-America's struggles and achievements, as well as its social, political, and legal institutions and relations. Traditional history puts its highest priority on making sure students have an understanding of these principles and of the historical events and people that best illustrate them.

If you think this philosophy of history is restricted to this corner of the Department of Education, just take a look at Bush's speeches devoted specifically to history and history teaching. He has pulled no punches in explaining his reasoning for why this subject is important.

On September 17, 2002, introducing two initiatives to improve history and civics education, he declared, "Ignorance of American history and civics weakens our sense of citizenship. To be an American is not just a matter of blood or birth; we are bound by ideals, and our children must know those ideals." Just recently, Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, echoed Bush's reasoning, explaining, "[I]n order for a democracy to survive and to succeed, its values and principles must be passed on from one generation to the next."

So to the Bush administration, learning history is a way to learn American values. But what are these American values? Here the administration offers few details, probably so that its rhetoric can appeal to multiple constituencies. If they offer any explanation of these values, officials use terms like "freedom" and "democracy" because listeners can project upon them almost anything they want.
Certainly, Bush's politics and religious beliefs suggest a great deal about the American values he might deem to be most important. Yet one need not engage in idle speculation about one issue that Bush intends knowledge of American history to reinforce.

Bush believes that the values American history teaches support his war in Iraq. In a late-April declaration proclaiming last May 1st, Loyalty Day, he wrote:

Today, America's men and women in uniform are protecting our Nation, defending the peace of the world, and advancing the cause of liberty. . . . Their service and sacrifice are a testament to their love for America, and our soldiers' honor on and off the battlefield reaffirms our Nation's most deeply held beliefs: that every life counts, and that all humans have an unalienable right to live as free people.

These values must be imparted to each new generation. Our children need to know that our Nation is a force for good in the world, extending hope and freedom to others. By learning about America's history, achievements, ideas, and heroes, our young citizens will come to understand even more why freedom is worth protecting.

This takes us back to the term revisionist historians. If American history teaches us values that justify the war in Iraq, anyone who questions the reasons that the war occurred is not supporting American values and is, therefore, a revisionist historian.

In the lead-up to the recent war and in its aftermath, President Bush has politicized history and history education by tying both to support for a war that historians are just beginning to consider. Bush's use of the term revisionist historian was one of a long line of political maneuvers intended to make his opponents seem un-American.

If you think leading the country into war on a false pretext violated American values or that finding out the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq is a good idea, your values will not matter if teachers teach the next generation of students Bush's way. History education will just be another tool for getting the citizenry to unquestioningly support government policy.

If it's true that "Bush loves history," as the subject heading on a History News Network update e-mail put it last September, this explains why.


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More Comments:


Bill Heuisler - 7/5/2003

Michael Wade,
I. G. Greer Distinguished Professor of History. Really?
Distinguished? In History? Perhaps you once were, sir, but you've embarrassed yourself on HNN to vent petty spite.

Evidence you posted here shows North Carolina's not getting its money's worth. You should be ashamed after blurting out two egregious mistatements of easily checked, well known facts.
You wrote about President Bush:
1) "fled Washington on 9-11."
2) "clearly afraid to speak to the press or anyone else in an unmanaged, unscripted setting."

Talk about sophomoric.
1) Bush wasn't in Washington on 9/11.
2) Bush did quite well at the Twin Towers with the hardhats.

Distinguished? I'd say you're pompous, spiteful and careless.
Bill Heuisler


Derek Catsam - 7/4/2003

Not to beat it into the ground, but again -- "Revisionism" actually has a meaning. Bush's usage was, simply put, wrong. To talk about "Bush on revisionist history" is to have a discussion about a total misusage of the word and concept of revisionism. There has not yet been a history written on the war with Iraq. Therefore it is impossible to engage in revisionism of it.


YSN - 7/4/2003

Someone who anonymously describes themselves as Seutonius, whom we all know to be entirely dead, says this...

>Professor Wade should remember that Bush was not in
>Washington, D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001
>but was in fact at a school in Florida."

Yes, Emma T. Booker Elementary. Instead of perhaps securing the Nation, he was reading books to Elementary school kids. The Professor never said otherwise,

> Most of the rest of America is aware of this fact,
> since it was all happening live on television.

President Bush did not appear on live television on the morning of September 11th. "Seutonious" is a liar.

>President Bush then returned to Air Force One
>after receiving word of the second plane hitting
>the second tower.

President Bush didn't leave Emma T. Booker Elementary School until several minutes after the second plane hit, this is clear from the video, released by the School, showing Rove whispering in his ear about the second plane, and how Bush continued to read. Seutonious is, again, an out and out lying, anti-American revisionist traitor/"historian."


> AF1 then left Florida to return
> to Washington, D.C. as President Bush so ordered
> the captain of the aircraft. When reports surfaced
>that there were other aircraft , and that there was a
>credible report that Air Force One itself was a potential
> target, the Secret Service, Air Force and Vce President
> Cheney (who was in the bunker under the White House)
> informed the President that he could not return to
> Washington.

1. The threat to AF1 on 9/11 was never credible. Don't lie "Seutonius"
2. The President can order his plane anywhere, including to Washington D.C., unless you think the Secret Service, at that time a subdivision of Bush's own Department of the Treasury, are _really_ allowed to boss their boss around. Of course they are obligated to tell them what their analysis and recommendation are, but, Seutonius, you are just a gullible fish who believes anything.

It is just a terrible, terrible shame that Bush spent so few hours of the first 8 months of his Presidency worrying about American seccurity, not that I was, but that wasn't in my JOB DESCRIPTION, either.


YSN - 7/4/2003

Someone who anonymously describes themselves as Seutonius, whom we all know to be entirely dead, says this...

>Professor Wade should remember that Bush was not in
>Washington, D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001
>but was in fact at a school in Florida."

Yes, Emma T. Booker Elementary. Instead of perhaps securing the Nation, he was reading books to Elementary school kids. The Professor never said otherwise,

> Most of the rest of America is aware of this fact,
> since it was all happening live on television.

President Bush did not appear on live television on the morning of September 11th. "Seutonious" is a liar.

>President Bush then returned to Air Force One
>after receiving word of the second plane hitting
>the second tower.

President Bush didn't leave Emma T. Booker Elementary School until several minutes after the second plane hit, this is clear from the video, released by the School, showing Rove whispering in his ear about the second plane, and how Bush continued to read. Seutonious is, again, an out and out lying, anti-American revisionist traitor/"historian."


> AF1 then left Florida to return
> to Washington, D.C. as President Bush so ordered
> the captain of the aircraft. When reports surfaced
>that there were other aircraft , and that there was a
>credible report that Air Force One itself was a potential
> target, the Secret Service, Air Force and Vce President
> Cheney (who was in the bunker under the White House)
> informed the President that he could not return to
> Washington.

1. The threat to AF1 on 9/11 was never credible. Don't lie "Seutonius"
2. The President can order his plane anywhere, including to Washington D.C., unless you think the Secret Service, at that time a subdivision of Bush's own Department of the Treasury, are _really_ allowed to boss their boss around. Of course they are obligated to tell them what their analysis and recommendation are, but, Seutonius, you are just a gullible fish who believes anything.

It is just a terrible, terrible shame that Bush spent so few hours of the first 8 months of his Presidency worrying about American seccurity, not that I was, but that wasn't in my JOB DESCRIPTION, either.


YSN - 7/4/2003

Someone who anonymously describes themselves as Seutonius, whom we all know to be entirely dead, says this...

>Professor Wade should remember that Bush was not in
>Washington, D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001
>but was in fact at a school in Florida."

Yes, Emma T. Booker Elementary. Instead of perhaps securing the Nation, he was reading books to Elementary school kids. The Professor never said otherwise,

> Most of the rest of America is aware of this fact,
> since it was all happening live on television.

President Bush did not appear on live television on the morning of September 11th. "Seutonious" is a liar.

>President Bush then returned to Air Force One
>after receiving word of the second plane hitting
>the second tower.

President Bush didn't leave Emma T. Booker Elementary School until several minutes after the second plane hit, this is clear from the video, released by the School, showing Rove whispering in his ear about the second plane, and how Bush continued to read. Seutonious is, again, an out and out lying, anti-American revisionist traitor/"historian."


> AF1 then left Florida to return
> to Washington, D.C. as President Bush so ordered
> the captain of the aircraft. When reports surfaced
>that there were other aircraft , and that there was a
>credible report that Air Force One itself was a potential
> target, the Secret Service, Air Force and Vce President
> Cheney (who was in the bunker under the White House)
> informed the President that he could not return to
> Washington.

1. The threat to AF1 on 9/11 was never credible. Don't lie "Seutonius"
2. The President can order his plane anywhere, including to Washington D.C., unless you think the Secret Service, at that time a subdivision of Bush's own Department of the Treasury, are _really_ allowed to boss their boss around. Of course they are obligated to tell them what their analysis and recommendation are, but, Seutonius, you are just a gullible fish who believes anything.

It is just a terrible, terrible shame that Bush spent so few hours of the first 8 months of his Presidency worrying about American seccurity, not that I was, but that wasn't in my JOB DESCRIPTION, either.


Mike Riley - 7/3/2003

To Suetonius:

Bravo! In all sincerity I encourage you to post more often.


Suetonius - 7/3/2003

It is incumbent upon distinguished professors of history to retain a firm grasp of the core historical facts if they wish to comment meaningfully on things and to be taken seriously.

Professor Wade should remember that Bush was not in Washington, D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001, but was in fact at a school in Florida. Most of the rest of America is aware of this fact, since it was all happening live on television. President Bush then returned to Air Force One after receiving word of the second plane hitting the second tower. AF1 then left Florida to return to Washington, D.C. as President Bush so ordered the captain of the aircraft. When reports surfaced that there were other aircraft (such as the one that subsequently hit the Pentagon), and that there was a credible report that Air Force One itself was a potential target, the Secret Service, Air Force and Vce President Cheney (who was in the bunker under the White House) informed the President that he could not return to Washington. Instead AF1 headed to Omaha, to Offut Air Force Base and the secure (former) Strategic Air Command facility there. Bush himself and others have made it clear that Bush demanded that the aircraft land before Omaha so that he could address the nation on television if he was not to be flown to Washington, D.C. This was the reason for Bush's televised address at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. None of these facts are in dispute; a Google search will turn up sufficient confirmation of this.

It is one thing to stay in London when inaccurate bombs are dropped indiscriminately on the entire city. It is another to remain in a city when a manned, guided missile (in this case a hijacked civilian airliner) is being flown specifically at the building you are in. It is to be supposed that even the Queen Mother would understand the difference in these.

Mr. Wade is interested in giving us his thoughts; his consideration of the facts as well would be quite useful.


Dave Tabaska - 7/2/2003

"I think that the limitations of his supposed Ivy League education would become readily apparent."

So, I take it that you know that Dubya actually did not graduate from either Yale or Harvard Business School?


Michael Wade - 7/2/2003

Mr. Rees' letter is on the money. I don't think Bush has anything more than a sophomoric understanding of history, either in general or as a discipline. He is clearly afraid to speak to the press or anyone else in an unmanaged, unscripted setting, one where the questions, and answers, have been provided to him in advance. Reminds one of Pennsylvania political boss Boies Penrose's rejoinder to the Republican leadership in 1920 when he learned that Warren Harding was the party's presidential nominee:

"Keep Warren at home. Don't let him make any speeches. If he goes out on a tour somebody's sure to ask him questions, and Warren's just the sort of damned fool who will try to answer them."

Maybe Bush's unwillingness to stand on his own feet is a sign that he recognizes his inability to speak, or think, extemporaneously. Or it indicates that his handlers are in charge, which also may explain why he fled Washington on 9-11; one can only imagine the contempt that the late Queen Mother must have had for that shabby display. In any event, I think that Bush used the term "historical revisionists" because someone fed it to him, as they seem to do most everything else. If he were put into a situation where he had to discuss what he meant, I think that the limitations of his supposed Ivy League education would become readily apparent.


Michael Wade
I. G. Greer Distinguished Professor of History
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC




Derek Catsam - 7/1/2003

In all honesty, we dealing with another question. No matter what the postmodernists would have us believe, words have meaning. They might not have a perfectly fixed meaning, but the fact that we can successfully communicate with one another indicates that we all have accepted that words do mean something particular. One of these words, or rather phrases, is "revisionist history." Revisionist history is simply taking the current historiography and taking issue with it, revising interpretations, casting doubt on old ones.

Revisionism takes time -- it is absurd to claim that something that does not even have an historiography can be undergoing revisionism. It's a nice catchphrase that attempts to throw his detractors off course, but the president is simply misusing the language. Furthermore, revision is neither good not bad, but is what revisionists do with it. People have revised Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the early republic -- in fact late in his life Beard did so to some degree. Were it not for revisionism, we'd all still be in thrall with the morally vacuous, intellectually void and on the basis of facts and evidence simnply wrong Dunning school of Reconstruction historiography. Further, revisionism often eventually brings about neorevisionism along the lines of some of John Lewis Gaddis' recent writings about the Cold War.
My PhD advisor used to tell us in class, tongue only halfway in cheek, that history was about a process that he liked to refer to as "bunk, debunk, rebunk." there might be something to that idea. In any case, "revisionism" has a particular meaning and usage, and all of the misuse in the world does not change that.


Herodotus - 6/30/2003

To follow up:

Mr. Rees also suggests that the recent push for improvements to the study of history in this country is a Bush/Republican initiative (with implied dark overtones).

It would be useful for those reading this piece to examine the list of cosponsors for the bill [S. 504] in the Senate here:
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:SN00504:@@@P
wherein it will be seen that the likes of Senators Christopher Dodd, Robert Byrd, Dianne Feinstein and Edward Kennedy supported the bill as well.


Herodotus - 6/30/2003

Okay, interesting premise here. However, there's a glaring logical leap.

Mr. Rees suggests that President Bush believes that the "values American history teaches" support the war in Iraq. Yet to substantiate this claim, he quotes from a presidential declaration regarding "Loyalty Day" [historical significance of said event = zero], and the paragraphs quoted neither specify nor imply Iraq at all. Sure, you could read "our men and women in uniform" to be those in Iraq, or you could, as most of us might, read that they refer to the men and women in uniform serving in any of the 169 other countries with U.S. forces in them. With the word "battlefield" you could think that he meant only Iraq. Or you could understand that this also meant, oh, Afghanistan.

Since the quotation cannot be used to argue at all that Bush believes that American history supports the war in Iraq, the next paragaph ["This takes us back to the term..."] is meaningless.

To suggest that the countercriticism of those who opposed the war by those who are in power is equivalent to calling them unAmerican is a cheap, and wrong, shot.