American Wars – Both Hot and Cold – Through Revisionist Eyes

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from chapter four of Jeff Riggenbach’s new book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009).

Until very recently, it was generally agreed that the story of the United States was the triumphant tale of a people fervently devoted to peace, prosperity, and individual liberty; a people left utterly untempted by opportunities of the kind that had led so many other nations down the ignoble road of empire; a people who went to war only as a last resort and only when both individual liberty and Western Civilization itself were imperiled and at stake.

Then, a little over a quarter-century ago, the terms of the public discussion of such issues changed – radically.  One might say the opening salvo in the new American history wars was fired by Howard Zinn, in the form of a textbook titled  A People’s History of the United States.  First published in 1980, this volume is still in print, was reissued in a revised, updated, "20th Anniversary Edition" in the year 2000, and has become one of the most widely influential college-level textbooks on American history currently in use in this country.  Today, Zinn faces intensified competition, however, not only from peddlers of the traditional, America-as-pure-and-virtuous-beacon-of-liberty-prosperity-and-peace version of our past, but also from a number of other writers who have, in varying degree, adopted the rather different view of American history that Zinn himself promotes.

This alternative vision sees America’s past as a series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores.  In effect, say Howard Zinn and a growing chorus of others, we have become the people our founding fathers warned us (and tried to protect us) against.  And what may be the most significant fact about this alternative or "revisionist" view of American history is the remarkably hospitable reception it has enjoyed both from the general public and from the selfsame educational establishment that only a few short years ago was assiduously teaching students something else entirely.

How can we account for this?  Why, suddenly, is there a substantial market for a version of American history quite unlike anything most Americans have ever encountered?  It seems to me that one of the forces at work here is simple generational change.  It was in the 1980s that college and university history departments came to be dominated by a new generation of historians – historians who had earned their Ph.D.s in the 1960s and ’70s and who had been strongly influenced in their thinking about American history by a group of "revisionist" historians, the so-called "New Left Historians," whose books were widely popular and widely controversial at that time.  These "New Left Historians" – William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, a number of others – had in turn been strongly influenced by an earlier group of "revisionists" – the so-called "New Historians" or "Progressive Historians" – whose most prominent figures included Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, and whose heyday extended from the early years of the last century through the 1940s.  (These revisionists were joined, by the end of the 1980s, by a group of libertarian revisionist historians influenced by both of the earlier revisionist movements.)  

Another of the forces involved in making revisionism respectable once again was the brilliant critical and popular success, during the 1970s and early 1980s, of the first three books in Gore Vidal’s six-volume "American Chronicle" series of historical novels about the United States.  Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Lincoln (1984) were enormous successes.  They proved beyond any doubt that the public would not rise up in indignation and smite any author who dared to question the motives and the wisdom of even the most venerated American presidents.  They proved that there was, in fact, a substantial market for just such skepticism about the glorious American past. 

Vidal himself was strongly influenced by certain of the revisionists mentioned above, particularly Beard, Williams, and Alperovitz. And his presentation of American history in his novels is fully consistent with the version of that history one encounters in their works (and in the works of their libertarian successors).  This is perhaps nowhere so evident as in Vidal’s and the revisionist historians’ treatment of America’s major wars.

I: The U.S. Civil War – The Revisionist View

As Gore Vidal presents it in Lincoln, the U.S. Civil War was caused not by slavery, but by the intransigence of President Lincoln, who insisted adamantly that no state could legitimately secede from the Union and that the Union could never be broken up.  In Vidal’s account, Lincoln cared nothing for the plight of the slaves.  Nor did he care about the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of individual liberty: he shut down newspapers that opposed the war, imprisoning their editors; he held prisoners indefinitely, flouting habeas corpus; he imposed the first military draft in the nation’s history, then used troops to crush the riots that resulted; he financed his war by imposing and collecting the nation’s first tax on incomes, despite the lack of any constitutional basis for such a levy.

Vidal might well have found inspiration for such a view of the war in the writings of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams.  For, as Beard wrote in 1927 in Volume II of The Rise of American Civilization,

"Since […] the abolition of slavery never appeared in the platform of any great political party, since the only appeal ever made to the electorate on that issue was scornfully repulsed, since the spokesman of the Republicans emphatically declared that his party never intended to interfere with slavery in the states in any shape or form, it seems reasonable to assume that the institution of slavery was not the fundamental issue during the epoch preceding the bombardment of Fort Sumter."[1]

Williams agreed.  In his Contours of American History (1961), he wrote that "neither Lincoln nor the majority of northerners entered the war in an abolitionist frame of mind or entertaining abolitionist objectives."[2]  Williams is even more explicit in his 1976 book America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976.  "Put simply," he writes, "the cause of the Civil War was the refusal of Lincoln and other northerners to honor the revolutionary right of self-determination – the touchstone of the American Revolution."  And this was rank hypocrisy on Lincoln’s part, according to Williams, for on January 12, 1848, the Great Emancipator had intoned:

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.  […]  Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it.  Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit."[3]

Joseph R. Stromberg, the historian who touched off the current wave of serious revisionist investigation of the U.S. Civil War among libertarian scholars, had read both Beard and Williams.  And in his influential essay, "The War for Southern Independence: A Radical Libertarian Perspective," published in 1979, while he was still a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, he staked out a position even more radical than anything either Beard or Williams had ever proposed – something very like the vision of the war laid out in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  Stromberg didn’t go into a lot of detail in presenting his take on the war, but two other libertarian historians have done so.  These are Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (1996), and Thomas J. DiLorenzo, in The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2002). 

Hummel’s view of the Civil War is remarkably like Vidal’s.  "Historians and buffs debate the fundamental causes of the American Civil War almost as hotly today as the combatants did then," he writes. "We can simplify our understanding of the Civil War’s causes, however, if we follow the advice of one eminent historian, Eric Foner, and ask two separate questions. Why did the southern states want to leave the Union? And why did the northern states refuse to let them go?"  These are two separate questions, Hummel insists, because "[e]ven if slavery explains why the southern states left the Union, it does not necessarily either explain or justify the national government’s refusal to recognize their independence." In fact, he maintains, "[n]ot only does slavery fail to explain why the northern states resorted to coercion, but letting the lower South go in peace was a viable, untried antislavery option. As the most militant abolitionists themselves demonstrated, there was no contradiction between condemning slavery and advocating secession."[4]

In fact, as Hummel points out, one of the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the weekly abolitionist paper The Liberator and one of the organizers of the leading abolitionist organization, the American Anti-Slavery Society, was an enthusiastic proponent of secession – for the North. Garrison and his followers "felt that this best hastened the destruction of slavery by allowing the free states to get out from under the Constitution’s fugitive slave provision."  The seceded North, in Garrison’s vision, would have "become a haven for runaway slaves."[5]

Why did President Lincoln choose another path – the use of military force against the seceded Southern states?  In August of 1862, according to Hummel, Lincoln answered this question.  "My paramount object in this struggle," the president said,

"is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union."[6]

In effect, Lincoln refused to allow, first the lower South, then the entire Confederacy, to go in peace because he was committed to a conception of the United States as a perpetual nation, with whose central government the component states had no right to end their association – he was committed, not to a voluntary Union, but to a compulsory one.

In defense of this compulsory Union, according to DiLorenzo,

"Lincoln implemented a series of unconstitutional acts, including launching an invasion of the South without consulting Congress, as required by the Constitution; declaring martial law; blockading the Southern ports; suspending the right of habeas corpus for the duration of his administration; imprisoning without trial thousands of Northern citizens; arresting and imprisoning newspaper publishers who were critical of him; censoring all telegraph communication; nationalizing the railroads; creating several new states without the consent of the citizens of those states; ordering Federal troops to interfere with elections in the North by intimidating Democratic voters; deporting a member of Congress, Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, for criticizing the administration’s income tax proposal at a Democratic Party rally; confiscating private property; confiscating firearms in violation of the Second Amendment; and effectively gutting the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution, among other things."[7]

"One victim of Lincoln’s suppression of Northern newspapers," DiLorenzo writes, "was Francis Key Howard of Baltimore, the grandson of Francis Scott Key."  Howard spent "nearly two years in a military prison without being charged and without a trial of any kind."  "Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor," he notes, "came to be known as the ‘American Bastille’ because it housed so many political prisoners during the Lincoln administration."  At one point, "Fort Lafayette was filled with newspaper editors from all over the country who had questioned the wisdom of Lincoln’s military invasion and his war of conquest."[8] 

DiLorenzo quotes Clinton Rossiter in support of his contention that Lincoln’s war policies were widely regarded as unconstitutional even at the time of their original enactment: "This amazing disregard for the … Constitution was considered by nobody as legal."  That being the case, however, one must wonder how Lincoln explained his policies to the people around him at the time.  According to DiLorenzo, the president

"’justified’ his unconstitutional power grab by ‘discovering’ presidential powers in the Constitution that no previous president, or, indeed, anyone at all, had ever noticed.  Specifically, he claimed that the commander-in-chief clause of the Constitution, when combined with the duty of the president to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ gave him carte blanche in ignoring any and all laws, and the Constitution itself, in the name of presidential ‘war powers.’"[9]

It will be noted that DiLorenzo indulges a marked taste for the polemical and tends toward more than a bit of hyperbole in his writing.  Lincoln does not seem really to have believed that he had "carte blanche in ignoring any and all laws," for example; he does seem, however, to have believed that he had carte blanche to ignore those laws he felt were in conflict with what he saw as his duty – to save the Union, price no object.  DiLorenzo has also been accused, by more than one reviewer, of "careless errors of fact, misuse of sources, and faulty documentation."  Richard M. Gamble details these technical criticisms of DiLorenzo’s book at some length in the Spring 2003 issue of The Independent Review, and regards them as evidence of a serious problem with DiLorenzo’s scholarship.  But even he concedes that "individually these flaws may seem trivial and inconsequential."[10]  And so they do: a quotation cited as being on page 60 is in fact on page 61; information attributed to page 316 of a work by a noted Lincoln scholar is instead to be found on the same page of another work by the same scholar; an article cited as having been published in 1988 was in fact published in 1998.  Not only are errors of this type (unfortunate though they are) both trivial and inconsequential, but also not a few of them would appear to have resulted from proofreading errors, which can hardly be blamed on the author.  In any case, as Peter Novick notes, "when citations […] are illustrative of a synthetic interpretation arrived at through ‘deep immersion,’ even the demonstration that several citations are faulty is far from constituting a refutation of the thesis they underpin."[11]  And as Gamble himself acknowledges, DiLorenzo’s book "is essentially correct in every charge it makes against Lincoln," and is, apart from its too numerous technical errors, "a sobering study in power and corruption."[12]

II: America in the World Wars – A Revisionist Perspective

As Gore Vidal presents it in Hollywood, American intervention in World War I was engineered by the United States’ Anglophile president, Woodrow Wilson, who was always eager to help the British out of any pickle they might have got themselves into.  Even after creating a special office of wartime propaganda to "sell" the war to the American public, however – and after following the lead of Lincoln and forcibly silencing those publishers who dared disagree with his policies – Wilson still found it necessary to force young American men into the U.S. Army through a revival of the military draft; too few of them were volunteering to come to England’s aid.

When Vidal researched the war, he could well have found all the intellectual ammunition he needed to defend such a view in the works of the Progressive historians, especially Harry Elmer Barnes.  Barnes has been discussed as a "second-generation" practitioner of the "New History" pioneered by James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard.  But, as Novick points out,

"’New Historians’ is a designation generally given to the Columbia group around Robinson and Beard, and one which emphasizes methodology; ‘Progressive Historians’ describes a descent from [Frederick Jackson] Turner and Beard, and emphasizes substantive interpretations of American history.  The usage employed in the historiographical literature generally depends on the subject under discussion.  Because Turner prefigured many New Historical themes, and Robinson, though a Europeanist, was the ultimate Progressive, all three of these men – plus [Carl] Becker, the student of both Turner and Robinson, and an ‘associate member’ of both groups – are here treated as both New and Progressive historians."[13]

I follow Novick’s lead in this matter, reasoning that, since both Beard and his protégé Barnes were consistent advocates of Progressive reform, as well as advocates of the use of the social sciences to inform historical scholarship, they may be treated as both New and Progressive Historians.

Beard, writing in 1930 in The Rise of American Civilization, characterized the "official thesis" as to the origins of World War I in the following way:

"Germany and Austria, under autocratic war lords, had long been plotting and preparing for the day when they could overwhelm their neighbors and make themselves masters of the world.  England, France, and Russia, on the other hand, all unsuspecting, had pursued ways of innocence, had sincerely desired peace, and made no adequate preparations for a great cataclysm.  When England and France were trying to preserve equal rights for all in Morocco, Germany had rattled the sword and now, taking advantage of the controversy over the assassination of the Austrian archduke, the Central Powers had leaped like tigers upon their guileless victims."[14] 

Earlier, in a 1926 article for Current History, Beard had been even more sardonic: the conventional view of the war’s origins, he wrote, amounted to the claim that "three pure and innocent boys – Russia, France, and England – without military guile in their hearts, were suddenly assailed while on the way to Sunday school by two deep-dyed villains – Germany and Austria – who had long been plotting cruel deeds in the dark."[15]  By 1926, Barnes had long since recognized this story as so much twaddle, and by 1930 his old mentor had come entirely over to his side of the question.

And Barnes’s side of the question was rather different.  He wrote in 1926 in The Genesis of the World War, that

"the only direct and immediate responsibility for the World War falls upon France and Russia, with the guilt about equally distributed.  Next in order – far below France and Russia – would come Austria, though she never desired a general European war.  Finally, we should place Germany and England as tied for last place, both being opposed to war in the 1914 crisis.  Probably the German public was somewhat more favorable to military activities than the English people, but […] the Kaiser made much more strenuous efforts to preserve the peace of Europe in 1914 than did Sir Edward Grey."[16]

As for U.S. intervention in the war, the reasons for it, Barnes wrote in 1928 in In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War-Guilt Myth, were "many and complex." One factor was "the pro-British sources of most of our news concerning Germany in the decade prior to 1914."  Another was the "enormous sums" lent to Allied governments by American bankers.  Another was the simple fact that President "Wilson was […] very pro-British in his cultural sympathies.  […]  He did not desire to have the United States enter the war if England seemed likely to win without our aid, but as soon as this appeared doubtful he was convinced that we should enter as early as he could persuade Congress and the country to follow him."  "Later," Barnes added, "Mr. Wilson added to his pro-British reasons for desiring to enter the War the conception that unless he was at the Peace Conference he could not act decisively in bringing about a peace of justice and permanence."  Unfortunately, "[t]here can be little doubt that the entry of the United States into the World War was an unmitigated disaster for all concerned.  It made it possible for one set of combatants to win a crushing victory, whereas, as Mr. Wilson once wisely said, the only enduring peace would have to be a peace without victory."[17]

Earlier, in The Genesis of the World War, Barnes had seen another motive, something different from the desire to build a "peace of justice and permanence," behind Wilson’s change of heart on U.S. participation in the war.  He saw lust for power.  He suggested that "Wilson’s decision was affected by the conviction that he could assume world leadership only if he led the United States into the war."[18]  In 1948, looking back, Charles Beard saw a closely related sort of megalomania lurking behind Wilson’s benign, professorial visage – the delusion "that the President of the United States has the constitutional and moral right to proclaim noble sentiments of politics, economics, and peace for the whole world and commit the United States to these sentiments by making speeches and signing pieces of paper on his own motion."[19]  In 1939, Beard recalled the violence Wilson had done to the Constitution in the service of his megalomaniacal vision: "I saw the freedom of the press trampled by gangs of spies, public and private."[20]  Thirteen years earlier, in 1926, in History and Social Intelligence, Barnes, too, had noted the domestic consequences of Wilson’s commitment of U.S. troops to the European war – the fact that, in prosecuting his war, the president had "sanctioned […] the most serious inroads upon democratic practice and human liberty in the history of our country, wiping out in three years most of the solid gains of a century and a half of struggle against arbitrary power."[21] 

In Barnes’s view, the Versailles Treaty that ended the war, based as it was on the very "charge of German war guilt" that had since been exposed as arrant nonsense, was so grossly unfair to Germany as almost to guarantee a resumption of hostilities within a few years at best.[22]  And, of course, hostilities did resume in the 1930s.  When they did, both Beard and Barnes were wary of any analysis of current events that appeared to see merit in another U.S. intervention.  Had nothing been learned from the experience of World War I, they wondered.

Gore Vidal must have wondered much the same thing.  As he depicts it in The Golden Age, American intervention in the new European War began as a move to protect and advance the interests of England, this time with a fully conscious and deliberate eye on the main chance of replacing England as the leading world power.  Specifically, Vidal depicts U.S. intervention in the new war as the result of a plot by President Roosevelt to provoke the Japanese into attacking U.S. territory, thereby justifying the president’s preexisting intention to break his campaign promise not to send American boys to die in any foreign war.  Again, Vidal would have needed to look no farther than the works of Beard and Barnes to draw such conclusions.  In 1939, in an article in Harper‘s magazine, Beard argued that

"[t]he era of universal American jitters over foreign affairs of no vital interest to the United States was opened in full blast about 1890 by four of the most powerful agitators that ever afflicted any nation: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Albert J. Beveridge.  These were the chief manufacturers of the new doctrine correctly characterized as ‘imperialism for America’ […] the policy of running out and telling the whole world just the right thing to do."[23]

President Franklin Roosevelt now appeared to be falling for the lure of this policy, Beard reported in February 1941, when he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations against the Lend-Lease Bill, calling it

"an Act to place all the wealth and all the men and women of the United States at the free disposal of the President, to permit him to transfer or carry goods to any foreign government he may be pleased to designate, anywhere in the world, to authorize him to wage undeclared wars for anybody, anywhere in the world, until the affairs of the world are ordered to suit his policies, and for any other purpose he may have in mind now or at any time in the future, which may be remotely related to the contingencies contemplated in the title of this Act."

Beard proposed "that Congress reject this bill with such force that no President of the United States will ever dare again, in all our history, to ask it to suspend the Constitution and the laws of this land and to confer upon him limitless dictatorial powers over life and death."[24] 

It was in the service of this imperialistic conception of the U.S. role in world affairs, Beard thundered in that 1939 Harper‘s article, that "President Roosevelt […] was maneuvering his country into the war."  Convinced that FDR had set up the defenders of Pearl Harbor for a Japanese attack he had deliberately provoked, while making sure that no one in Hawaii knew of it in advance as he himself did, Beard "followed the course of the congressional investigation of Pearl Harbor with an almost microscopic scrutiny. To what the investigation brought forth he added more that he gathered himself," publishing his final statement on the matter in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948), only a few months before his death.  This book, according to George R. Leighton, Beard’s editor at Harper‘s, "was a ponderous volume in which, with detail and fact piled upon detail and fact until the weight is almost crushing, Beard sought to nail down the proof of Roosevelt’s deception so firmly that it could not be got loose."[25]

Five years later, in 1953, Beard’s longtime protégé Harry Elmer Barnes published Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, dedicated "to the memory of Charles Austin Beard."  In this volume, Barnes wrote that "American policy toward Japan in the decade preceding Pearl Harbor […] was the same hostile policy developed by Stimson during the latter part of the Hoover Administration.  It was rejected by President Hoover but was adopted and continued by Roosevelt."  According to Barnes, FDR "discussed war with Japan in his earliest cabinet meetings," immediately commenced "an unprecedented peacetime expansion of our naval forces," "laid plans for a naval blockade of Japan in 1937," and relentlessly pursued a "program for the economic strangulation of Japan" that "was generally recognized by Washington authorities" at the time as likely to lead to war.  "Roosevelt was personally responsible," Barnes wrote, "for the location of our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, in which move he disregarded the advice of Admirals Richardson and Stark.  The State Department backed Roosevelt and Richardson was relieved of his command."[26]

"Japan veritably crawled on its diplomatic belly," Barnes wrote, "from the end of August 1941, until after the middle of November of that year in an attempt to reach some workable understanding with the United States.  The effort met with cold and hostile rebuffs."  Finally,

"Secretary Hull dispatched an ultimatum to Japan on November 26 which, he fully recognized, decisively closed the door to peace.  He himself said that it took the Japanese situation out of diplomacy and handed it over to the Army and Navy.  From this time onward it was only a question of when and where the Japanese would attack."

"The decoded Japanese messages between November 26 and December 7 indicated, with relative certainty, when the attack would be made, and they also revealed the strong probability that it would be aimed at Pearl Harbor."  Yet "nothing was done to warn General Short or Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor."[27]

The president, Barnes wrote,

"expressed himself as greatly ‘surprised’ at both the time and place of the attack, and his apologists have accepted these words at their face value.  Neither the President nor his apologists have ever given any satisfactory explanation of why he could have been surprised.  […]  If they had any reason at all to be surprised, it was only over the extent of the damage inflicted by the Japanese.  But there was little reason even for this, in the light of Roosevelt’s personal order to keep the fleet bottled up like a flock of wooden ducks, of the order that no decoding machine should be sent to Pearl Harbor, and of the fact that Washington had deliberately failed to pass on to Short and Kimmel any of the alarming information intercepted during the three days before the attack.  December 7 may have been a ‘day of infamy,’ but the infamy was not all that of Japan."[28]

III: A Revisionist Look at America in the Cold War

As Gore Vidal depicts it in The Golden Age, the Cold War was started by the United States, by a Truman administration determined to show Joe Stalin who was boss of the postwar world.  When Vidal researched the Cold War, he could, once again, have found much intellectual ammunition in the work of Harry Elmer Barnes.  The conventional historical account of the origins of the Cold War places much emphasis on the warlike and imperialistic intentions of the Soviet Union, to which the United States was forced, reluctantly, to respond.  Barnes would have none of this.  In 1953, in his essay "How Nineteen Eighty-Four Trends Threaten American Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity," he wrote that

"the Russia which is now portrayed as about to spring at the world and devour it is the same Russia that Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and other administration leaders presented to the American public as our most potent and suitable ally in the global struggle to suppress totalitarianism, assure democracy, promote liberty, and make peace secure throughout the world.  There is very little today in Russian policy, domestic or foreign, which any informed person did not know about back in 1941.  In fact, nothing which Russia has done since 1945 has been as aggressive and brutal as the invasion of Poland in the autumn of 1939, the later mass murders of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940, or the mass murders and deportations of Baltic peoples during the war."

Barnes considered the likelihood of the Soviet Union making war against the United States to be extremely remote.  "Even leading Russophobes like Eugene Lyons," he wrote, "frankly admit that there is every reason to expect that Russia will not start a war."  Moreover, he pointed out, when General Alfred M. Gruenther, General Eisenhower’s chief of staff, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 25, 1952, he too "conceded that he did not believe the Russians will start a war, now or at any time."[29] 

But if it was not Soviet aggression that launched the Cold War, what did launch it?  "Barnes concluded that it was initiated by Truman and Churchill, largely for domestic political reasons, and since then has been used by each of the various governments to cement its rule over its subjects."[30]  What Barnes seems to have regarded as the first official act of the Cold War, Truman’s decision to drop the newly developed atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is depicted in conventional accounts of American history as primarily a military decision – an attempt to force Japanese surrender without the necessity of an invasion of the islands and a prolonged land war on Japanese soil, with its attendant American casualties, possibly numbering in the millions.  Again, Barnes would have none of this.  In May 1958, he published an article in National Review called "Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe," in which he pointed to

"the highly significant MacArthur memorandum to F.D.R. of January 20, 1945.  This forty-page memorandum explicitly set forth the terms of an authentic Japanese peace offer which were virtually identical with the final surrender terms that we accepted from the Japanese seven months later – at the cost of countless needlessly expended lives, Japanese and American alike."

In the same article, "Barnes also disclosed, for the first time, the personal testimony of Herbert Hoover that President Truman, by early May 1945, informed him that he knew of the extensive Japanese peace offers and admitted then that further fighting with the Japanese was really unnecessary."  Barnes concluded "that the major reason for dropping the bomb […] was a saber-rattling gesture to the Russians against whom we were already preparing the Cold War."[31]

A very similar view of the Cold War had already been articulated by this time by  William Appleman Williams.  In 1952, in his first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947,

"[c]ontradicting the prevailing notion that the Cold War had come about through the actions of an aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union, Williams argued that the United States itself bore the primary responsibility.  Even before Pearl Harbor, he wrote, American policymakers had committed themselves to achieving a postwar world dominated by an alliance between Great Britain and the United States.  By attempting to force upon Russia this Anglo-American world order without regard to her minimum security needs, American leaders forced an essentially conservative Soviet Union into acting unilaterally in her own defense."

Among the methods Williams claimed American leaders had used in pressuring the Soviets was "brandishing atomic weapons."[32] 

Williams’s student, Gar Alperovitz, who earned his B.S. in history at the University of Wisconsin in 1959, took his old teacher’s argument and ran with it, devoting two entire books to presenting the relevant details and working out their implications.  The first of these books, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, the Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation With Soviet Power, was published in 1965; the second, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, appeared 30 years later, in 1995.  According to Robert James Maddox, Atomic Diplomacy

"is devoted to showing that from the time Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency he undertook to reverse Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union, thereby precipitating the Cold War.  In direct violation of wartime agreements, some explicit and some understood, Truman sought to construct an American-dominated world order (particularly in Eastern Europe and the Far East) at the end of World War II.  When economic coercion failed to achieve this goal, Alperovitz claimed, Truman bided his time until the United States acquired the atomic bomb, with which he meant to cow the Russians into submission.  The use of nuclear weapons against an already defeated Japan, according to this view, amounted to a diplomatic rather than a military act.  The evidence ‘strongly suggests,’ he wrote, that the bombs were used primarily to demonstrate to the Russians the enormous power America would have in its possession during subsequent negotiations.  As a lesser factor, he cited the wish to end the war quickly before they [the Soviets] could establish a strong position in the Far East."[33]

To quote Alperovitz himself, from one of his Cold War Essays (1970), "the overriding reason for the use of the bomb was that (implicitly or explicitly) it was judged necessary to strengthen the United States’s hand against Russia."  Commenting in the same essay on Herbert Feis’s then newly published book, The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II (1966), Alperovitz stresses the author’s establishment credentials – "special consultant to three Secretaries of War," "comes close to being our official diplomatic historian" – and judges the volume under consideration, predictably, as the work of a man perhaps overly interested in "avoiding serious criticism of the eminent officials he has known."  He comments further:

"One […] would also like to believe that the sole motive of the eminent men he knew was to save lives.  It is not pleasant to think that they were so fascinated by their new ‘master card’ of diplomacy that they scarcely considered the moral implications of their act when they used it.  That, however, is precisely what the evidence available strongly suggests."[34]


[1]  Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1930), Vol. II, pp. 39-40.

[2]  William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (Cleveland, OH: World, 1961), p. 299.

[3]  William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976 (New York: William Morrow, 1976), pp. 113, 111.

[4]  Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago, Open Court, 1996), pp. 3, 8.

[5]  Ibid., pp. 351, 21.

[6]  Ibid., p. 208.

[7]  Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Prima, 2002), pp. 131-132.

[8]  Ibid., pp. 133-134, 140, 147.

[9]  Ibid., pp. 132, 134.

[10]  Richard M. Gamble, Review of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War by Thomas J. DiLorenzo. The Independent Review Vol. 7, No. 4: Spring 2003, p. 613.

[11]  Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 220. 

[12]  Gamble, op.cit., pp. 614, 612.

[13]  Novick, op.cit., p. 92. 

[14]  Beard and Beard, The Rise of American Civilization, op.cit., Vol. II, p. 617.

[15]  Novick, op.cit., p. 207.

[16]  Harry Elmer Barnes, The Genesis of the World War (New York: Knopf, 1926), pp. 658-659.

[17]  Harry Elmer Barnes, In Quest of Truth and Justice: De-Bunking the War-Guilt Myth (Colorado Springs, CO: Ralph Myles, 1972 [1928]), pp. 98, 101, 102, 105.

[18]  Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 77.

[19]  Charles A. Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 593.

[20]  George R. Leighton, "Beard and Foreign Policy" in Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal, ed. Howard K. Beale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976 [1954]), p. 168.

[21]  Harry Elmer Barnes, History and Social Intelligence (New York: Revisionist Press, 1972 [1926]), p. 514.

[22]  Novick, op.cit., p. 215.  See also Harry Elmer Barnes, "Revisionism and the Historical Blackout" in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, ed. Harry Elmer Barnes (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1953), p. 10. 

[23]  Leighton, op.cit., pp. 166-167.

[24]  Ibid., p. 182.

[25]  Ibid., pp. 180, 183.

[26]  Harry Elmer Barnes, "Summary and Conclusions" in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, op.cit., pp. 636, 637.

[27]  Ibid., pp. 642, 643, 645.

[28]  Ibid., pp. 645-646.

[29]  Harry Elmer Barnes, "How Nineteen Eighty-Four Trends Threaten American Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity" in Revisionism: A Key to Peace and Other Essays, ed. James J. Martin (San Francisco: Cato Institute, 1980), pp. 148-149, 154. 

[30]  Murray N. Rothbard, "Revisionist of the Cold War" in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader: The New History in Action, ed. Arthur Goddard (Colorado Springs, CO: Ralph Myles, 1968), p. 324.

[31]  Ibid., pp. 327, 328.

[32]  Robert James Maddox, The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 14.

[33]  Ibid., pp. 64-65.

[34]  Gar Alperovitz, Cold War Essays (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1970), pp. 72, 51, 73.

Copyright 2009 © by Jeff Riggenbach

Author: Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach, the author of In Praise of Decadence, is a member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow of the Randolph Bourne Institute. His articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Times, Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty, among other publications.