David Kennedy: Sean Wilentz and others complain about his negative review of Paul Krugman's book





To the Editor:

Your reviewer, the historian David Kennedy, trashes my friend and colleague Paul Krugman’s new book, “The Conscience of a Liberal” (Oct. 21), as “factually shaky” on the basis of two alleged humiliating mistakes. According to Kennedy, Krugman says that the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1964 and claims, contrary to what is “customarily” thought, that Kansas was the birthplace of Prohibition. The book does slip at one point — possibly mixing up the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the voting rights legislation of a year later — but Krugman later repeatedly reports correctly that voting rights passed in 1965. And although many places vie for the honor or ignominy of hatching Prohibition, in 1880 Kansas did become the first state to include a prohibition provision in its Constitution — which is certainly enough to justify Krugman’s passing comment on the matter.

Kennedy criticizes Krugman’s reliability by picking at nits and slamming plausible assertions. A reviewer shortchanges his readers when he blows up an error but ignores when the author gets the matter right. A reasonable person might conclude that Kennedy had his hatchet out for Krugman. His attack did not do us historians and reviewers proud.

Sean Wilentz
Princeton, N.J.


David Kennedy replies:

Kansas, the first state to ban alcohol in its Constitution, in 1880, is sometimes referred to as the place where the Prohibition movement was revived after the Civil War, but cannot claim to be its birthplace. Stronger candidates for that dubious honor are Boston, where the American Temperance Society was founded in 1826, or Maine, which passed the first law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in 1851, 10 years before Kansas even became a state. Thirteen states had such laws on the books by 1855, 25 years before the Kansas clause. The Prohibition Party was formed in 1869 and held its first national convention in Ohio in 1872, with representatives from nine states attending. Two years later Ohio was also the birthplace of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.



To the Editor:

David Kennedy seems to be as simplistic and partisan as he accuses Paul Krugman of being. Looking askance at Krugman for allegedly holding the Democratic Party blameless, Kennedy reveals his conservative heart. He speaks of Democratic “condescension” toward those who consider spiritual and moral commitments as important as (or more important than) the minimum wage and the Endangered Species Act. I guess there is more morality in fighting gay marriage and abortion than in fighting poverty and environmental degradation. He speaks of Democratic post-Vietnam “vulnerability” on national security. I guess our “strong” militaristic stance of the past seven years has rendered us less vulnerable. He speaks of Democratic “divisive identity politics.” I guess Rovian divisive politics is better. Finally, he lampoons Krugman’s evocation of the Rambo films as a major factor in the turn to “strong” Republican governance. To look slightly beyond Rambo, we live in a culture that idealizes violent solutions to problems with objectified, dehumanized enemies — witness the vast popularity of combat computer games. Krugman may be simplistic and counterproductively partisan in his finger-pointing, but I don’t see Kennedy doing much better.

Norman Decker
Houston



To the Editor:

Reading David Kennedy’s review reminded me of an experience I had 25 years ago as an undergraduate at Stanford, where Kennedy teaches. I took a class in which Professor Gordon Craig suggested that the Communists were to blame for the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis, even though the Communists were the Nazis’ deadliest enemies, because the Communists didn’t support the Republic strongly enough. Similarly, Kennedy asserts that the takeover of the United States government by right-wing ideologues in the Republican Party was somehow the fault of the Democratic Party, which moved to the left in response to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. As Hitler’s rise was the fault of Rosa Luxembourg, so Reagan’s was the fault of George McGovern. In order to teach history at Stanford, one apparently has to see every travesty of the right as the responsibility of the left.

Matthew Weseley
Portland, Me.

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More Comments:


Alonzo Hamby - 11/7/2007

Whatever the mistakes re Gen. Groves, etc., in Kennedy's large synthesis on the age of FDR, and whatever the representation (or misrepresentation) of Gordon Craig, Kennedy is clearly a New Deal liberal less concerned with the direction of Krugman's politics than with Krugman's historical simple-mindedness. To put it another way, he (unlike the New York Times letter-writers) is a scholar with a critical perspective that one seldom sees in the Times Letters column.


Robert Standish Norris - 11/7/2007

One hates to nit pick but when people in glass houses throw stones a response is in order. In researching my biography of General Leslie R. Groves, (Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth, 2002) I came across much mistaken published information from seemingly authoritative sources. High on the list was David Kennedy’s volume in The Oxford History of the United States series, Freedom from Fear: The American People in the Depression and War, 1929-1945 (see pages 657-666), a book that won the Pulitzer Prize for the year 2000.
Kennedy has even the most basic facts about Groves’ life wrong. For example, he has Groves growing up, “as an itinerant service brat in Cuba, the Philippines, and the western United States. Following in his father's footsteps he had attended West Point . . . He took graduate degrees in engineering and joined the Army Corps of Engineers.” There are almost as many mistakes here as there are words in the sentence. But it gets worse when Kennedy attempts to assess the man. Whereas Oppenheimer is the “gaunt, soul-tortured scientist,” Groves is the “corpulent Rotarian Babbitt, West Point engineer, career soldier, gruff maker of buildings and bombs and a man without scruple, delicacy, or conscience.”
The entire section on the atomic bomb is filled with errors. For example, Edward Teller did not win a Nobel Prize, it is the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the National Defense Research Committee, there were two chemical separation plants at Hanford, not four, and it was xenon that contaminated the graphite, not boron. How many mistakes are in other sections of the book?

Robert S. Norris
Washington, DC


Robert Standish Norris - 11/7/2007

One hates to nit pick but when people in glass houses throw stones a response is in order. In researching my biography of General Leslie R. Groves, (Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth, 2002) I came across much mistaken published information from seemingly authoritative sources. High on the list was David Kennedy’s volume in The Oxford History of the United States series, Freedom from Fear: The American People in the Depression and War, 1929-1945 (see pages 657-666), a book that won the Pulitzer Prize for the year 2000.
Kennedy has even the most basic facts about Groves’ life wrong. For example, he has Groves growing up, “as an itinerant service brat in Cuba, the Philippines, and the western United States. Following in his father's footsteps he had attended West Point . . . He took graduate degrees in engineering and joined the Army Corps of Engineers.” There are almost as many mistakes here as there are words in the sentence. But it gets worse when Kennedy attempts to assess the man. Whereas Oppenheimer is the “gaunt, soul-tortured scientist,” Groves is the “corpulent Rotarian Babbitt, West Point engineer, career soldier, gruff maker of buildings and bombs and a man without scruple, delicacy, or conscience.”
The entire section on the atomic bomb is filled with errors. For example, Edward Teller did not win a Nobel Prize, it is the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the National Defense Research Committee, there were two chemical separation plants at Hanford, not four, and it was xenon that contaminated the graphite, not boron. How many mistakes are in other sections of the book?

Robert S. Norris
Washington, DC

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