Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968): Progressive and Revisionist


It is best to clear up a few conceptual issues before looking at the thought of Walter Karp.   The first question is: What is republican theory?  We have to ask questions like that these days, in this country, because most people have lost the thread and have little idea what the American Revolution was all about or what ideas and interests motivated those who carried it out.


Harry Elmer Barnes was a reformer and a Progressive, and thus a modern "liberal." He had faith that progressive governments, guided by social science and the "new" history (first announced by James Harvey Robinson in 1912), could bring about a better world through social engineering. He saw Sweden’s Middle Way as a working model of the self-improving society. If that were all there was to him, there would be nothing to do – around here, anyway – except maybe put his picture up on the ideological dartboard alongside Max Lerner, Rexford G. Tugwell, and other worthy targets.

Barnes certainly did well in the intellectual climate of the early 20th century. He wrote textbooks on world civilization and sociology, histories of western thought, edited collections in sociology and related fields, and reviewed, reviewed, and reviewed. He engaged himself in all the fashionable progressive causes – peace, economic regulation, penal reform, eugenics, etc. – all resting on the idea of conscious social planning to better society. His fellow Progressive historian Carl Becker called him a "learned crusader." Certainly, Barnes was a deeply learned scholar and a very productive writer. Arthur Goddard writes: "There is Barnes the encyclopedist and Barnes the journalist. Barnes the scholar and Barnes the teacher, Barnes the historian and Barnes the atheist, Barnes the academician and Barnes the gadfly and crusader, Barnes the lecturer and Barnes the theorist, Barnes the reviewer and Barnes the debater, Barnes the revisionist and Barnes the criminologist and penologist."1


Barnes’ interest in peace and a skepticism about the Allies’ version of World War I set him on a path which, in time, undercut his brilliant early career. This was "revisionism," which – I should not have to explain – refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation. At home, for example, there has been revisionism about progressive reform, which sees such reform as consciously intended to cartelize markets (see Gabriel Kolko among others) – from the Interstate Commerce Commission to the New Deal and after. Here, I am mainly concerned with those historians who have raised questions regarding foreign policy and the origins of wars.

In The Genesis of the World War (1926), Barnes argued that, on the record, Serbia, Russia and France bore a greater responsibility for the disaster of 1914-1918 than did Austria and Germany. Indeed, in Barnes’ view, German "war guilt" in 1914 was about equal to that of Britain. Neither power had wanted a general war, but both were drawn into it, once others set it rolling. In the 1920s, Barnes was writing in a skeptical climate and could be considered "mainstream." Americans had been rather disappointed by Woodrow Wilson’s great crusade and were very interested in understanding its causes. Also addressing a possibly narrower audience, Barnes edited a series of books on US imperialism (mainly in Latin America) published by Vanguard.


Like John T. Flynn, H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Charles Beard, Barnes was regarded as a leading spokesman for good causes until he failed to sign up with the foreign policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For this sin, these "liberal" thinkers vanished into outer darkness, redefined as "right-wing" troglodytes. Some, by working within the anti-New Deal coalition here referred to as the Old Right, did indeed become more "right-wing" (understood as referring to classical liberalism and republicanism). Certainly, on domestic affairs, Barnes, who never gave up the progressivism of his youth, remained the least right-wing member of the coalition in which he now found himself. Once battle was joined between Roosevelt’s supporters and the opponents of intervention, Barnes, as a leading polemicist for the "wrong" side, found his usual publishing outlets closed to him. He was reduced to taking "visiting professorships in sociology."2

Once the United States was in World War II, Barnes dedicated himself to revising received opinion as to the war’s causes and meaning. He saw it as the direct outcome of the folly of World War I and the Versailles settlement. The task, therefore, was to apply the attitude and methods of World War I revisionism to the study of the second war. Pearl Harbor – an event still not explained to everyone’s satisfaction – became central for Barnes. He wrote a number of essays on the subject. More broadly constructive, perhaps, was the symposium, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1953), which he edited, and to which he contributed two essays.


In an essay on Barnes in the collection edited by Arthur Goddard, the late Murray N. Rothbard distinguished between "narrow" and "broad" revisionism in the study of wars and their causes. Narrow revisionists concentrated on injustices done to Germany in the Versailles Treaty and their bearing on the origins of World War II. Such revisionists were unable to resist the call to enlist in the Cold War, which appeared to be about entirely different issues. By contrast, broad revisionists were interested in the causes of wars in general, in the war system so to speak, and by applying broader lessons on war and peace, were able to resist successive new crusades promising perpetual peace but delivering perpetual war.

Rothbard classified Barnes as a broad revisionist. This seems true enough, despite Barnes’ tendency in his last thirty years to focus on World War II. Rejection of the Cold War as ideology and system is already explicit in his contributions to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.


Barnes leads off the collection with his "Revisionism and the Historical Blackout." He states that before the two world wars America "was a libertarian country in which there was little or no witch-hunting and few of the symptoms and operations of the police state which have been developing here so drastically during the past decade" (PWPP, p. 3). He recounts that a friend had told him that working men might be skeptical of his claim that Americans were, generally, better off in 1913 than later. Barnes noted that the low wages of 1913 went hand in hand with the low prices of 1913 – a relationship obscured by decades of war-related inflation and taxation. Moreover, a "father… had every assurance that he could raise his family with his sons free from the shadow of the draft and butchery in behalf of politicians. The threat of war did not hang over him. There are some forms of tyranny worse than that of an arbitrary boss in a nonunion shop" (pp. 5-6).

Discussing the operations of the "smearbund" of journalists and "Court historians" who ran the "historical blackout," Barnes complained that revisionist historians were denied access to sensitive documents available to Establishment scholars. Further, their books always drew the most hostile reviewers possible. Surely, there was a pattern here. Of course, the Barnesian terms quoted here suggest that Barnes could give back what he got. Like Dwight MacDonald, he referred constantly to "totalitarian liberals" – a term absolutely justified in the period under discussion. (And who can forget his pamphlet about "the chickens of the interventionist liberals" coming "home to roost"?)

For the period 1900-1953, Barnes wrote – citing columnist Jay Franklin – Republican presidents showed a yearly average of 0 wartime casualties; Democratic ones, 58,160 (p. 35). This used to be a staple of GOP rhetoric as recently as thirty years ago. Poor Bob Dole slipped his clutch a couple of candidacies ago and fell into that gear, and then had to grovel and apologize for mentioning it. On the facts, of course, Wilson, FDR, and Truman did lead us into major wars, while Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover did not. I suppose this is because Republicans had the dumb luck to be in office when the world was calm and peaceful. The Democrats, sadly, were in power when unavoidable wars became available, into which they herded us as quickly as possible, against our better judgment, but obviously for the long-run good – ours, the world’s, mankind’s, etc.

As far as annual casualties go, the averages would be different now, what with Nixonicus Rex’s "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam by keeping it going as long as possible, and George Herbert Walker Bush’s sudden discovery that Saddam Hussain was a bad actor. Even now, however, Democrats would likely remain well ahead, and who better than the party of the people to bestow foreign travel and adventure on the broad masses? (As the sixties antiwar poster said, "Travel to exotic lands. Meet new people. Kill them.")


Barnes’ analysis of the Cold War owed much to George Orwell’s 1984. In 1965, he wrote that, according to Stephen Spender, Orwell had intended to call the book 1948 – because the world order it described had already taken shape!3 After all, perpetual war – fought between three power blocs which shift their alliances periodically, accompanied by a rewriting of history to gloss over such changes – was a 20th-century reality.

Thus, wrote Barnes, "we are now passing into a period in which wars – hot, cold, or phony, but mainly cold and phony – are being used to an increasing extent as the basic instrument of domestic political strategy in order to consolidate the power of the class or party in office, to extend and retain tenure of office, to maintain prosperity and full employment and to avert depressions. The real enemy is not nations or forces outside the borders, but parties and classes within the country that are antagonistic to the party and class which hold power."4

As whole industries became tied to "defense" spending, one can hardly blame Barnes for accepting at face value the ultimately faulty underconsumptionist economic analysis which the Establishment itself believed or pretended to believe. Understood as a system of state-corporate partnership and centralized control – grounded in political decisions, however, and not inherent in the market economy – the emerging order certainly earned the name Barnes gave it: "military state capitalism."5 The point that permanent "cold war" mobilization froze existing domestic political relations in place, enhanced state power against society, and was the perfect weapon against one’s own public is so important that the political scientists can only have worked overtime for several decades to be able deliberately to miss it.6

In 1965, the future looked grim to Harry Elmer Barnes. Government secrecy was on the rise. Military state capitalism characterized all the western economies. The sheer gullibility of the American people regarding official foreign enemies had freed those in power from having to institute a full-scale police state like those in the eastern bloc. Our free press could be counted on to bamboozle the people without such negative incentives. Wars had become increasingly barbaric, as shown by terror bombing in World War II and Korea.


The only light breaking through the gloom of Barnes’ later work is his conviction that sound revisionist scholarship could begin, someday, to break the spell of official rationalization and mendacity, to overcome the "cultural lag" between growing means of destruction and limited popular grasp of the issues of war and peace. Some would say that in striving for that goal, Barnes spent too much time on World War II. Some have said that in his zeal to discredit that war as the ideological justification for all subsequent deeds of the American empire, Barnes fell into bad company in his later years.(7) Perhaps so. But for most of Barnes’ critics he was never in good company at any time, anyway.


Robert Penn Warren wrote that the North and South both got something from the war of 1861-1865. The South got a "great alibi" such that anything wrong with the South in 1930 or 1940 was said to be due, however remotely, to "the war.” The North got a "treasury of virtue" based on the happy conceit that Lincoln had made war solely, primarily, and with conscious forethought to free the slaves. Given the way the American empire goes on deploying World War II as its second – and much greater – treasury of virtue, perhaps Barnes was not so wrong, after all.

Ambassador Joseph Grew, our man in Japan, warned the Roosevelt administration in January 1941 – that is, eleven months before Pearl Harbor – that in the event of diplomatic impasse, the Japanese military intended attacking – yes! – Pearl Harbor. All Purple codes, magic messages, missing documents, etc. aside, one wonders how and why such a simple concept could have failed to percolate through the bureaucracy during those eleven months, perhaps even arriving on the desks of commanders Kimmel and Short in Hawaii in timely fashion, that is, by the morning of December 7, at the latest?

That is not as important as asking whether fighting for the Open Door in China was such a great idea, or whether pushing Japan to the brink in order to ease the administration’s entry into the European war amounted to high statesmanship. On the present official account, our soon-to-be enemies were so completely evil – and directly threatening – that all of FDR’s lying is nothing to the favor he did us by lying us into a war against them. If Roosevelt’s defenders were 17th-century Puritans, their sermon would be entitled, "Lying No Prevarication." Lying doesn’t even come up to falsehood, if done by FDR to save civilization, destroy fascism (and quite a few of those "fascist" civilians), fight "racism," and so forth. Uncle Joe from Georgia (the other Georgia) certainly thought so. To worry about constitutional procedures and public honesty – at a time like that! – is the pettiest 19th-century quibbling.

But that was half a century ago. Few now quibble about constitutional forms and even fewer expect to be told the truth. I’m not sure they even care. After all, the liars are much better these days, having had fifty more years of practice. "Humanitarian intervention" – their newest lie – is the best one yet. It’s worth several hundred of the other jokes in circulation about this administration. And Senator McCain – he’s a real comedian.


  1. Arthur Goddard, quoted in Justus D. Doenecke, "Harry Elmer Barnes," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 1973), p. 311.
  2. Ibid., p. 312.
  3. Harry Elmer Barnes, An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World, vol. 3, (New York: Dover, 1965), ch. 28, "A Glimpse at the Future," p. 1326. See also Murray N. Rothbard, "Harry Elmer Barnes as Revisionist of the Cold War" in Arthur Goddard, ed., Harry Elmer Barnes: Learned Crusader (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1968), pp. 314-342.
  4. Barnes, "Glimpse of the Future," p. 1325.
  5. On military state capitalism, see Seymour Melman, Pentagon Capitalism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970) and The Permanent War Economy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), and more recently, Robert Higgs, "The Cold War Economy: Opportunity Costs, Ideology, and the Politics of Crisis," Explorations in Economic History, 31 (1994), pp. 283-312.
  6. For a political scientist who does a good job of noticing, see Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State (New York: The Free Press, 1994).
  7. Doenecke, "Harry Elmer Barnes," pp. 315-319.