Blogs > Cliopatria > Dilemmas, Revisionism, Re-Revisionism

Aug 5, 2004 9:19 am

Dilemmas, Revisionism, Re-Revisionism

This was a great week for HNN articles: There's two fantastic pieces of historical revisionism, in the finest sense of the word: arguments that force you to reconsider your master narrative, revise your lecture notes.

The first, and my Americanist colleagues can tell me if the argument is really as good as it seems, is Yanek Mieczkowski's reconsideration of Gerald Ford's presidency. He argues that Ford was well above average in terms of both policy and personality, and that his half-term interlude in the Oval Office should be considered a great success, not a caretaker era. I'm not convinced that all the policy was good policy, but it certainly was followed by his successors; I'm not convinced that he succeeded in 'healing the nation' after Nixon but he didn't make things worse, either, which wasn't all that easy. And there's no question the press was unfair to him, though you can't entirely blame them, either.

The second is Robert Newman's article on the Smithsonian/Enola Gay controversy, a brief of his brand-new book on the subject. I hate this time of year, because of this anniversary, but there's a 'related link' at the bottom that takes me back to the beginning of my involvement with HNN: the first time I heard of this project was when I read Rick Shenkman's H-Net call for historians to serve as jurors in a mock war crimes trial: the premise being to call Truman to account for the atomic bombings. He got some real rabble-rousers to serve as prosecution and defense -- Philip Nobile and Ron Radosh -- but the jurors were a mixed bag (also including fellow Cliopatriarch Oscar Chamberlain) politically and professionally, as I suppose real juries are, too. The final vote was seven (including Oscar) to two (including me) in favor of Truman, with one abstention. Unlike a traditional jury, we got to explain ourselves, which was interesting, too, though I've always suspected the Earl of Mansfield was right when he said"Give your decisions, never your reasons; your decisions may be right, your reasons are sure to be wrong."

Interestingly, Oscar Chamberlain's reasoning is remarkably similar to Newman's summary of current scholarship on the atomic bombing decision. In the context of the war (and that's a crucial caveat), particularly Japanese intransigience, the atomic bombs were an effective and efficient tool, the best of a variety of bad options. There's still an awful lot of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning in the arguments Newman cites as 'definitive' but that's matched by the counter-factual nature of a lot of the traditional arguments against the bombs. I don't think the questions of fact are as settled as Newman. Newman also sets himself up as an 'expert on experts' and declares that the Enola Gay curators failed to consult any of the best or most current scholars on Truman, WWII or the bombs, leaving himself open to all sorts of quibbling.

I love his conclusion, though: the greatest failure of the curators, who clearly wanted to problematize the bombings, was to rely on contentious declarations of fact, when the only truly effective and important argument against the bombs is one of morality. Newman cites the Enola Gay crew, who became anti-war and anti-nuclear activists, and his own conclusion Truman"was probably right to use it that once to end a terrible bloodletting" but that our subsequent refusal to recognize the horror of that act and abandon atomic and nuclear bombs as military options was our greatest moral failure.

Military historian and historical novelist Caleb Carr recently argued that we need to define and criminalize terrorism, even if that definition includes, as it most likely would, such acts as the atomic bombings. Otherwise we have no firm moral or legal foundation on which to undertake a 'war on terrorism'; and in spite of the fact that our primary enemy at the moment is Islamicist radicals, Carr believes that the tactic of terror also needs to be addressed to secure our future. It brought to mind, even before I read Newman's article, my Truman trial verdict:

But even the defense acknowledges that the atomic bomb was a blunt instrument used to force the Japanese to give up hope, to demonstrate and threaten more unpredictable destruction, death and terror, than the conventional weapons that had already devastated Japanese industry and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

What are the limits on warfare? A society that values efficiency over humanity is properly defined as inhumane; these are the values of corporations, not communities. I am not in favor of losing wars against unprincipled aggressive enemies. But I am also not in favor of becoming an unprincipled aggressor. That the atomic bombings were effective is unquestioned; the question is, are we prepared to sacrifice civilized legal behavior to accomplish our aims? I am not.
I still believe that. Though I am less certain that I would hold Truman personally accountable for the act, I agree very strongly with Newman that, having dropped the bombs, we missed our opportunity to repent of our actions and turn in a different direction, to become better people and a better society. Carr is right to say that we are at another juncture, when we can redefine what is morally justified at a higher or lower standard, and that the higher standard, though it pains us, also more effectively protects us.

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/7/2004

You might be surprised to discover, Mr. Shcherban, that I agree with you, in part. I do believe that the tendency to break up US history into presidential terms (and decades, for cultural history) is becoming more of a burden than a tool, much like the tendency in Asian history to use dynasties as absolute dividing lines (we're slowly getting over that).

However, I think that Mieczkowski's article does just that (Ford's policies extend over several administations, he argues), as well as pointing out the ways in which individual character does, in fact, matter. The balance between biographical and systemic analysis is never set in stone; I'm more of a systemic historian, myself.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/6/2004

Isn't it a high time to look at the so-called "scandals"
"mistakes", and "miscalculations" of American Presidents
and/or their administrations as the consistent PATTERNS
of the US foreign policy, especially over the last 50-60 years of its history, i.e. apply economic, social and historical view of politics, instead of one based primarily on the individual characteristics of the politicians involved?

Anne Zook - 8/4/2004

It's always been my position that Ford was a better president than publicity (at the time and since) gave him credit for. Given the chance to run for office in the normal way, he could have been excellent.

He may not have "healed" the country in the post-Nixon era, but there's no doubt that the highly controversial pardoning of the ex-president paved the way for later healing. And it was a courageous act, as well, since Ford had to know he was torpedoing any chance of being actually elected to the presidency by the move.

(The blame for the fact that said healing never quite took place can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Reagan Administration. At a time when the country badly needed its faith in its political leaders reaffirmed, he gave us Iran-Contra and an armload of other scandals.)

IMO, of course.

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