President George W. Bush, Historian





Mr. Rauchway is associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.

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President George W. Bush put the federal government into the history-writing business when he tarred his critics in June as "revisionist historians" and derided them for trying to "rewrite history."

But if they were rewriting history, who wrote it in the first place? Why, George W. Bush, of course, and it falls to us private citizens in the historical profession, as his new colleagues, to evaluate his work-in-progress, "A History of the Iraq War, 2002-2003."

Vetting drafts of history -- like vetting intelligence -- is harder than it sounds. There are no known laws of history, and more art than science goes into a good narrative. Still, neither does history heel like an obedient hound at the whims of its authors. Historians need to handle evidence persuasively, to reason logically and to provide useful perspective to lend credibility to their stories.

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Bush's "History" tells an arresting tale: The United States, threatened by Saddam Hussein with imminent attacks using nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, launched a swift war -- with only one real ally -- on Iraq to prevent these strikes. It is assuredly a moment worth chronicling.

As to handling evidence, Bush hasn't any to handle -- yet. It is foolish to say he never will, and his research assistants are still in the field seeking data. But barring their discovery of a Dr. No-style secret hideout full of nukes, the threat cannot have been so pressing as presented. And it is unusual for a historian to demand acceptance of his work without offering at least some evidence, even if his research assistants are, like the president's, "darn good."

Bush did cite a fellow politician-historian, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- but it turned out Blair's people hadn't much evidence either: They plagiarized a paper they found on the Internet and "sexed up" the details of their story. Perhaps this is why Blair bowed out of the history business, telling Congress "history provides so little instruction for the present day."

As for reasoning logically, Bush fumbles by concluding, "One thing is for certain, Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat," and in another version of the same idea, "One thing is for certain: He's not trying to buy anything [e.g. uranium] now." Bright history majors will recognize this as petitio principii: assuming in the conclusion what you were supposed to prove in the first place -- i.e. that Hussein's threat merited pre-emptive war sooner rather than later. A historian might as well justify the U.S. Cavalry attack at Wounded Knee Creek, S.D., in 1890 by saying that afterward the Sioux no longer posed a terrorist threat to Washington. The premise remains unproven.

Then there is the question of putting the episode in perspective. Unlike scientists, historians can't do experiments -- so we look for comparable situations to tell us if we're on the right track. For example, British historian Niall Ferguson compares empires, arguing that the British were not so bad because, well, would you rather be colonized by the Germans? Bush's fellow faculty-member Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried in May to compare revolutions, arguing that in making the "transition from tyranny to a free society" in Iraq, guerrilla attacks are no big deal. After the Americans liberated themselves from George III, he noted, Daniel Shays led a rebellion in Massachusetts. But Shays fought American tax collectors, not foreign liberators. And George Washington did not say of Shays's men, "Bring 'em on." Rather, he took the rebels seriously, thinking it "not probable that the mischiefs will terminate" unless the country addressed their root causes.

Altogether, these problems suggest that Bush's "History" needs revision. Further, he also makes incorrect statements. It is erroneous to claim that "we've found the weapons of mass destruction" and that "we gave [Hussein] a chance to let the weapons inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Every historian makes mistakes. Even a short history contains thousands of facts, some of which will go wrong. But errors -- especially errors key to the argument -- need correction.

And in the end the need to correct errors provides the ultimate argument why governments must not write history. As the great historian Marc Bloch observed, "The moment an error becomes the cause of bloodshed it is firmly established as truth." If ordinary historians make mistakes, they are only mistakes, correctable by the next historian who comes along. But if governments make them in the name of war, then blood sanctifies them, and myth replaces history.


This article first appeared in Newsday and is reprinted with permission.


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Glenn Williams - 8/21/2003

Mr. Rauchway wrote in criticism of President Bush: "As to handling evidence, Bush hasn't any to handle..."

If we want to talk revisionist history, let's discuss how the left leaning side of this argument has distanced itself from, or ignored the following quotes from the historical record:

"If Saddam Hussein fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop his program of weapons of mass destruction ... He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction ... If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow ... They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of NUCLEAR, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is NO MORE CLEAR EXAMPLE OF THIS THREAT THAN SADDAM HUSSEIN (emphasis my own) ... Some day, I guarantee you, he'll use that arsenal."

Statements by George W. Bush justifying military action against Iraq? No, these statements were made by none other than Bill Clinton in 1998, based on the the same intelligence information provided to President Bush. The only difference was that Clinton chose to do nothing more than launch a few cruise missiles and air strikes after Saddam kicked out the UN inspectors. He then ignored the problem hoping it would go away, or stay on the "back-burner" until after his presidency. We should be worried about where the WMD went and who may have them now.

Since the main combat phase of the war ended, however, we have discovered over 30 MiG Foxbat high-performance fighter airctaft buried in the desert. If they can bury a Foxbat, they can surely hide some containers the size of 55-gallon drums, especially given all the extra time the delays by the UN, France, Russia, France, Germany, France, the "peace" movement, and France gave him to hide the stuff before we launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. How soon some seem to forget the 130 or so al Samud missiles with the, albeit empty, chemical warheads. But, what do you think the bad guys were going to fill them with, beer? Besides, we're talking about a regime that not only killed its own people with chemical weapons, but one that invaded three neighboring countries, and lest we forget, launched an unprovoked ballistic missile attack against a neutral fourth nation!

By the way, the Cavalry did not get involved at Wounded Knee untill a riot erupted following the death of Sitting Bull at the hands of other Indians.


Josh Greenland - 8/18/2003

"You're missing the point, quite deliberately I suspect. That's a very boring form of argumentation."

Oh, I understand your point. I just don't find it as convincing as you think it is.

"Historians are trained in multiple forms of event and evidence analysis, with an awareness of social process and the interactions of context. In other words, exactly the training most suited to understanding current events, evaluating policy proposals and projecting the future."

What you say has an intuitive appeal, and sounds good in theory, but are a significant number of historians professionally evaluating policy proposals and projecting the future?

I've been on HNN for a while, and in my humble opinion the historians here aren't any more brilliant about policy or the future than the non-historians.

The fact that historians aren't doing the policy work you think they're uniquely suited to doesn't mean that more of them shouldn't be doing it. Perhaps historians aren't getting the chances at policy work that they should. Given how ahistorical American thinking tends to be, there probably should be more policy input from historians. Certainly they have a specific role in policy work related to their field, but I'm not yet convinced that historians are as generally good at policy as you think they are.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/17/2003

Josh Greenland writes: "They may be more qualified to SPEAK, since they are trained and practiced writers and speakers, but they may not have anything more worthwhile to say than anyone else. When I was growing up, I constantly was told to beware of academics speaking outside their field."

You're missing the point, quite deliberately I suspect. That's a very boring form of argumentation.

Historians are trained in multiple forms of event and evidence analysis, with an awareness of social process and the interactions of context. In other words, exactly the training most suited to understanding current events, evaluating policy proposals and projecting the future.

I don't accept any categorical limits on "my field."

As to your second point, I haven't heard anybody state opposition to both the war and HAW. So, yes, there is probably a partisan element to these discussions. But the tool of attack is not partisan, but "objective", much like your statements: arguing that the present is outside of the purview of history (which is patently absurd as the present constantly becomes the past, as does the future eventually).

Rather than accuse my opponents of "sleaze" (and partisanship in iself is not problematic, though partisans sometimes use objectionable methods) I assume that they mean what they say and argue the points directly.


Josh Greenland - 8/17/2003

"Yes, I think properly trained historians are more qualified than average to speak on current affairs."

They may be more qualified to SPEAK, since they are trained and practiced writers and speakers, but they may not have anything more worthwhile to say than anyone else. When I was growing up, I constantly was told to beware of academics speaking outside their field. Having seen academics make fools of themselves like anyone else, I think it's excellent advice.

"I've made this argument plenty of times elsewhere on this website and I'm getting really tired of people coming to a historians' website and then being suprised to hear that historians have opinions."

But aren't these attacks on historian political organizations just sleazy partisanship? Has anyone who opposes the Iraq War and occupation ever criticized Historians Against the War?


Josh SN - 8/16/2003

OK, OK. But Clinton is at fault, too. He continued the US policy of regime change, and hassling Al-Iraq.

He had to know it was a difficult circumstance for the people on the ground in Al-Iraq, yet I guess no historical search will uncover some massive diplomacy effort to engage, and hence progress, Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to resolve.


Josh SN - 8/16/2003

Ach! This is what we must worry about!

Who were the Nazis? Who voted for them? Do you know?

It was the adult wandervogel! They had been the back-to-the-landers (sounds 60s hippie to me).

I think, if I can guess, it was their surety, their absolutism that they were right. Each of us does, of course. But there were so many of them, it became beneficial to play along.

I read a beautiful short monograph on the progression of 1920s german "hippie" kids turning into the 40-50 year old Nazi supporters. The author was female.

I was horrified by the implications, reading that, back in the mid 90s. But I kept saying to myself, thank you Sinclair, it can't happen here.


JSN - 8/16/2003

One reason why the excluded middle can be valid in this case is that there are only two serious "series of events" on the table, the adminsitration version, and the scott ritter version (claiming the last weapon and program was gone in 1995).

Since Donald Rumsfeld has admitted there has been no actual evidence of weapons or programs since 1995, the ritter version of events seems more and more likely, unless saddam was much craftier than ritter imagines, and did develop a secret lab and factory, a la S.P.E.C.T.R.E or Dr. No


James Jefferson - 8/16/2003


It might seem at first blush like Mr. Booker "demolishes" Rauchway's logic. But only if you take Booker's word for what Rauchway said. Rereading Rauchway, it is quite clear that he

1) does NOT claim that there has to either be "Dr. No style" evidence of hidden Iraqi weapons or none at all, only that, in the absence of the former, "the threat cannot be so pressing" as claimed by Bush prior to the invasion

2) does NOT claim that Iraq "posed no threat", only that Bush exaggerated it.

3) does NOT "assume the conclusion" in advance. He starts with Bush's statements about "rewriting history", asks whether the "history" being rewritten holds water, and shows that it doesn't.

Booker falls into a pattern of HNN propagandists almost as common as nitpicking, and one he apparently forgot about or never learned in his History or Logic courses at college: the argument that demolishes a made-up "straw man".





A. Craig Anthony - 8/16/2003

I did not even understand Bush's remark. You cannot write history in the present.


A. Craig Anthony - 8/16/2003

While Rauchway may not have addressed every point, or every point sufficiently enough to appease the ill-informed, he does present the obvious fact that this was a war without informed consent. The Bush administration engaged in a war of aggression, using false data throughout, for the sole purpose of occupation via right of conquest. History is riddled with similar episodes. Only the fool would consider this war just.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/16/2003

Whatever your name is:

If PAW were basing its opposition to the war on the damage that war would do to the sewage and water systems of Iraq, and the death, disease and discomfort it would engender among Iraqis and the high likelihood that would rebound against US interests.....

You just don't want anyone to oppose US action, no matter how poorly justified or harmful. At least be honest about it, instead of belittling citizens doing their best to participate in the public sphere.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/15/2003

No, I didn't miss your point. I believe it be groundless sniping.

Yes, I think properly trained historians are more qualified than average to speak on current affairs. I've made this argument plenty of times elsewhere on this website and I'm getting really tired of people coming to a historians' website and then being suprised to hear that historians have opinions.

I happen to agree that Rauchway's argument is strained: I would have made the case rather differently. The result would have been the same: The President, like anyone, may make an historical argument. But he has no right to assume that his story will be the final word unless he has very strong evidence, a broad perspective that takes complexity into account, and directly takes on and defeats alternative explanations. So far, the evidence is strained and incomplete, the arguments have been shallow and inflated, and the alternative arguments are still vital and widely accepted. So revision, in some form or another, is inevitable.


Michael McGehee - 8/15/2003

Then enlighten us with these "reasons." I watched the press briefings, which can still be read if anyone wants to research them, and they trumpeted Hussein as a threat because of his WMD and links to terror groups (primarily Al Qaida and even implied there was a 9/11 connection). Also, it is important to point out that it was already confirmed that the facilities necessary to create and store WMD along with the delivery systems weer destroyed. This was confirmed by a war and two UN inspections teams accompanied with the IAEA (my suggestion is to review UN Resolution 1441 and the March 7 2003 assesments by Blix and el Baradei to the UN Security Council, which I will get to in a moment).

You could say it was to uphold law, but look at those resolutions. They too were about disarmament, so were back to WMD. It could not be our fondness of international law. There are so many examples and recent vetoed resolutions that all I have to say is: South Africa, Israel and Nicaragua.

How about human rights abuses, which is also linked back to WMD. Well outside the fact that the mass graves are from periods of tacit and explicit US support they are also from a period nearly 20 years ago. Wheres the threat of crimes 20 years ago. Now I personally am for holding Iraq and those who aided in those crimes responsible. But the point is is the US is not and for obvious reasons.

So no water holds for links to 9/11 and terrorists like Al Qaida (maybe the MEK but we are supporting them now too!), WMD, respect of international law and human rights abuses. What about liberation? Well, the first thing to notice is there was no attempts at doing so. Outside of the fact that the US supported Hussein to power and kept him in there after the first war and then gave sanctions that firmly entrenched him as dictator of Iraq, there was not one international or diplomatic attempt to "liberate" Iraq. There was political lip service to garner support but that was not real or tangible or even followed through with.

No there are no reasons and especially no legal, moral or valid ones. Occupation to control the worlds 2nd largest oil reserves is not justifiable nor is it acceptable. I would really like to hear your reasons. Actually I prefer the administrations reasons since they are the real topic and the ones determining policy decisions. So please supply us with these reasons and back yourself up with proof, Lord knows GW cannot.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. I have done my research and I hope you have done yours. Otherwise you are digging yourself a dip hole to be embarassed with.

PS: 1441 said only the Security Council can authorize force and that only the inspectors can report violations. Well there was no authorization and on March 7 Blix and el Baradei reported no problems, only success (also no threat. They debunked each and every US claim. They used satelite imagery, ground penetrating radar, water/land/air/vegetation sampeling and found no evidence of illegal facilities, WMD and the only illegal delivery system was the Al Samoud which went 21 miles over its limit and still was not far enough to be able to reach Israel. They pointed out that there is not the industrial infrastructure or capacity to withstand such a weapons program and was only possible with US and UK support. Now how about that?). Success that was abruptly stopped by an illegal invasion 12 days later.


Herodotus - 8/15/2003

Sounds just as informed and of utility as the views of those Plumbers Against the War.


Jay Lesseig - 8/15/2003

In the article, Rauchway writes:

"Bush's "History" tells an arresting tale: The United States, threatened by Saddam Hussein with imminent attacks using nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, launched a swift war -- with only one real ally -- on Iraq to prevent these strikes."

I find this myopic. These are not the only reasons we returned to ground combat in Iraq. These are the only reasons a certain sector of our population want you to think we returned to ground combat in Iraq. This is the last straw the opposition to the President have to hold and here, even in a scholarly effort, the historian's bias remains. That is revisionism in its own right.

I would suggest outlining ALL of the reasons the President gave for returning to Iraq and then prefacing this aritcle with the statement, "But, I want to focus on just one issue as the reason we returned and why I disagree with the President and what he is doing." History by omission makes revision a poor scholarly method.


Jimmy S - 8/15/2003

What a clever reversal of what I said, which manages to miss the point of the posting. (Read the first part of what I said, which I didn't quote). There's still an important question here--if historians are making public pronouncements as experts, shouldn't they actually be experts on what they're talking about? In this case, does Rauchway has any knowledge of what he's talking about beyond what the rest of us can get in the paper? Do you have any particular expertise on the topic? Given the way Mr. Booker demolished his argument, it's not clear that he's really that well informed on these things, nor that his being a historian protects him from major errors in historical logic. The fact that you won't address these criticisms is telling, too.
My point--I will spell it out again if you missed it--is that we have a problem if historians (or any academics) are offering opinions supposedly based on their expertise when they're not experts, they're just giving their political opinion. That seems to me like a big issue; I'm sorry you're not willing to think about it and discuss it rationally. Isn't that part of what they teach you guys in school? If not, is the degree really worth anything? Trying to dismiss conservatives who are interested in debating these things by calling them hacks seems only to reveal your own hackery.


Wesley Smart - 8/14/2003

If Mr. Nederlof is an "old European" living in Europe, he may have missed the discussions on this side of the Atlantic in the past few weeks about the presentations by David Kay before the Senate regarding the weapons of mass destructions and the progress his team has made in assembling the documents left behind by the Ba'athist regime. There were several reports by columnists that Kay testified he would have a substantial revelation in September. This is likely the source of Mr. Miller's point.


Blake Pritchett - 8/14/2003

Right. Because Uzbekistan and Afghanistan contributed so much to the campaign.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/14/2003

Jimmy S. writes: "I get so tired of these liberal elitists trying to act like they know everything and like they're better than us when they don't know what they're talking about. This is just like the historians writing against impeachment where 99% of them didn't know more about the constitution than anyone else, they were just being pc."

I get so tired of these conservative dropouts trying to act like they know anything and like they're as good as us when they don't know what they're talking about. This is just like the prudes and pit bulls advocating impeachment where 99% of them didn't know more about the constitution than anyone else, they were just being hacks.


Jimmy S - 8/14/2003

There's something else here that Mr. Booker didn't mention that I find a bit troubling--namely that I thought that historians were supposed to weigh in on issues where they had some kind of knowledge, either from study or from doing research. I understand that Rauchway is trying to condemn Bush for sloppy research--but what does he know about this? Beyond the flaws Mr. Booker mentioned, is there any evidence Rauchway knows anything more about this subject that you or me? I get so tired of these liberal elitists trying to act like they know everything and like they're better than us when they don't know what they're talking about. This is just like the historians writing against impeachment where 99% of them didn't know more about the constitution than anyone else, they were just being pc.


Gus Moner - 8/13/2003

Well one may or may not agree, but as oposed to Mr Smart, at least Mr Booker tried to sort through the piece's potential flaws, I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks


Gus Moner - 8/13/2003

"Only one real ally"... I guess the other members of the coalition and supporters don't matter.

Well, Mr Miller, it’s a sad fact, I agree, but it is true, not biased. There really was only one ally.


Gus Moner - 8/13/2003

OK Mr Smart, give your reasons, point up the "badly written and argued" elements, contribute something.


Larry Nederlof - 8/13/2003

Poor Rory,
first of all he seems to be in the know of what is going to come out in september...
as an "old" European I am really getting worried about the maturing baby boomers, they look more like "boom..boom..boom" to me! Not to mention their trust in Washington politicians.....


Cary Fraser - 8/13/2003

I am fascinated by the assumption that George Bush would say anything of intellectual weight. For Bush, it appears that trite expressions such as: "Axis of evil"; "smoke 'em out"; "bring 'em on"; revisionist history"; etc., have the ease of verbal delivery that limits the need for thought. One would hope that the archival record left by this administration will help historians to understand the intellectual vacuum that would lead to the reliance upon fraudulent intelligence material in a State of the Union address.


Brendan Booker - 8/13/2003

As a former college history major, I found Eric Rauchway’s piece assessing President Bush’s “revisionist history” somewhat illogical itself, guilty of several of what David Hackett Fischer has identified as historians’ most common fallacies. Rauchway asserts that Bush has no evidence that Iraq posed a threat to the United States. He then suggests that the only two outcomes of the current search for evidence are the discovery of a “Dr. No-style” lair or nothing at all, committing the “fallacy of the excluded middle” by framing the question with a false dichotomy. Rauchway then implies that the failure to find WMD in postwar Iraq proves that prewar Iraq posed no threat to the United States, committing the “fallacy of negative proof” by assuming that the lack of evidence supporting a hypothesis proves the opposite true. He thus employs two logical fallacies to prove the implicit premises of the piece—that Bush is a poor historian. Arguing his case this way suggests that Rauchway may already have assumed the conclusion he set out to prove in the first place—the very fallacy of “petitio principii” he chides Bush for. Three fallacies of historical logic in two sentences! Dr. Rauchway is an efficient writer.
By the time Rauchway cites Donald Rumsfeld as evidence of Bush’s skills as a historian—a fallacy of false analogy—I was convinced that Rauchway should spend some time fixing the flaws in his own logic before subjecting any one else to this kind of flawed peer review. I certainly hope that the research and writing he publishes in his own books is more logical than this.


Rory Miller - 8/12/2003

I decided not to even finish this article after the blatent bias presented in the opening few paragraphs. "Only one real ally"... I guess the other members of the coalition and supporters don't matter. And yet the author claims Bush is trying to write history to his liking. Oh well, it doesn't matter anyway as the revelations that are coming in mid-September will lay all this to rest finally (although there will always be those who will try to reimagine history as they've convinced themselves it must be).


Jesse Lamovsky - 8/12/2003

In ten years, most Americans will think "Charles Taylor" is simply a type of basketball shoe.


John M. Greene - 8/12/2003


"Like Castro, after his failed attack on the dictatorship in 1953, Mr Blair gave as his ultimate defence "history will absolve me"."

Departing Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor said much the same thing today in his farewell remarks.


Gus Moner - 8/11/2003

Like Castro, after his failed attack on the dictatorship in 1953, Mr Blair gave as his ultimate defence "history will absolve me".


Wesley Smart - 8/11/2003

President Bush did not put the federal government into the business of writing history, even remotely with this quotation about revisionism. The U.S. government has had historians for years.

At any rate, this is a remarkably badly written and argued piece of contemporary history.


Albert Madison - 8/11/2003


Unfortunately for them, historians have the final word, and Rauchway's logic here is irrefutable except by those who specialize in illogic. Excuse me now while I leave this website for Newsday.

A. M.

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