views updated Jun 11 2018


Athan G. Theoharis

The term "revise" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "to re-examine or reconsider and amend faults in." This definition describes the process by which historians have consistently reconsidered and improved upon what had once been standard, often unquestioned interpretations of past events, movements, and personalities. A number of factors ensure this process: new information acquired through research into recently accessioned documents; the posing of new questions; the utilization of new and at times more sophisticated methods derived from disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, or sociology; the exploitation of new research tools such as the computer; the relative detachment provided by chronological distance from the particular event under study; or new insights gained from the impact of seminal thinkers.

Interpretations of American foreign relations have not escaped this process of revision. Virtually every major American diplomatic problemfor example, Jay's Treaty, the War of 1812, the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, isolationism, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam Warhas been subject to such reconsideration and reexamination. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the study of American foreign relations underwent a far-reaching change in focus with the emergence of the "realist" school. Robert Osgood, in Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations, interprets Wilsonian diplomacy from a perspective based on considerations of national self-interest and international power relations; Paul Schroeder, in The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, applies "realist" principles to the study of the Roosevelt administration's diplomacy on the eve of World War II; and John Gaddis, in The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, similarly assesses the Roosevelt and Truman administrations' conduct of foreign relations during the 1940s. More recently, some historians of American foreign relations have applied the insights of multiculturalism and postmodernism to argue for a distinctly different approach to the study of war and diplomacy. The cumulative impact of these differing approaches has compelled students of American foreign relations to examine policy decisions from these perspectives. Since the 1950s, consequently, diplomatic historians have no longer been interested solely in questions involving state-to-state relations and international law, and have emphasized as well questions of power, rationalism, gender, race and ethnicity, bureaucracy, and the role of organized interest groups. The term "revise" clearly describes this historiography.

Yet, to adopt so literal a definition of revisionism does not clarify. As Warren Cohen points out in The American Revisionist, historians of American foreign relations have employed this term to describe "a number of men who, after one or both world wars, took upon themselves the task of persuading the American people to change their view of the origins of those wars and of the reasons for American intervention in them." Cohen's study, published in 1967, failed to account for three other groups of historians, the vast majority of whom began to publish after 1967 and who wrote instead about the origins of the Cold War, the reasons for the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, and the growth of the "national security state." Broadened to include these groups, Cohen's definition classifies a diverse group of writers, all of whom have discussed the processes leading to, and the consequences of, U.S. involvement in international conflict but who nonetheless differ in their emphases and conclusions.

Cohen's definition, however, while distinguishing these writers from others who have revised other historiographical issues (the coming of the Civil War, the Progressive Era), does not identify the particularity of "revisionist" historiography. Using Cohen's definition, historians like Osgood, Schroeder, and Gaddis could be classified as "revisionists." They challenged what were once standard interpretations of U.S. involvement in wars and were no less interested in "persuading the American people to change their views." Osgood, Schroeder, and Gaddis, however, have not been classified as "revisionists," not because their conclusions were widely accepted but because they share perspectives with the majority of those writing about the American diplomatic past.

Revisionist historiography can be distinguished from other works of revision because its practitioners go beyond a reexamination of specific events and decisions. Instead, the revisionists challenge the assumptions held by more conventional historians about how policy is formulated and justified, about whether the executive branch is responsive to public opinion, and about the ideas and sources of official foreign policy. The common themes of revisionist historiography are those of executive independence, the mendaciousness or secretiveness by which policymakers develop public support for particular decisions, the betrayal of the nation's democratic ideals, and an implicit (in certain cases, explicit) criticism of the principal ideas and priorities that determine official policy. The revisionists do not accept the rhetoric of policymakers at face value, and tend to perceive proclaimed idealism as masking less noble, if not sinister, purposes. More basically, the revisionists share a set of assumptions that the foreign policy decisions that led to both world wars and the Cold War or opposition to the Vietnam War were not the result of public demand, and were shaped by the priorities and (for some) the disloyalty of policymakers. To accept the assumptions of the revisionists is to locate American involvement in international conflict not in the narrowing of available options by international developments but in internal factors and in conscious (or, for some, unthinking) choice.

In portraying policymakers as manipulators of public opinion and U.S. involvement in international conflict as the consequence of presidential decisions or of the insidious influence of special interest groups, the revisionists have challenged the conclusions of traditional historians (for example, Gaddis and Schroeder) who view public opinion as unduly constraining the development of a realistic foreign policy. These conclusions, however, are assumptions more than descriptions of reality. We know little about how or whether public opinion has shaped foreign policy. When referring to public opinion, most historians have frequently focused on elite opinion. From his interviews with State Department personnel during the 1960s, the political scientist Bernard Cohen, for example, established that when it was formulating policy, the foreign policy bureaucracy was not motivated to ascertain public opinion and viewed the public as an object to be manipulated or cajoled. There remains a need to ascertain even what constitutes evidence of public opinion. Recent studies suggest the need for greater caution when commenting on the public's influence on foreign policy.

The revisionist focus on elites and questioning whether official policy responds to the public's interests does not mean that the revisionists constitute a monolithic school. A further qualification is required. The revisionists' basic critique of the nature and sources of U.S. diplomacy and the methods by which government officials have conducted policy constitutes their principal commonality. Revisionists otherwise differ in their emphases and conclusions.

The revisionists can be classified into five broad schools: World War I, Right revisionism, Left revisionism, Vietnam revisionism, and national security revisionism, divisions reflecting both philosophical differences and the events commanding their attention. The subject matter of the World War I revisionists is obvious; the Right revisionists focus on the origins and consequences of World War II; the Left, Vietnam, and national security revisionists focus on different aspects of the Cold War. In an important sense, however, World War I revisionism created the intellectual climate and perspectives from which Right revisionism emerged. Some of the themes of World War I revisionism also appear in Left and national security revisionism. Right revisionists, moreover, can be classified as World War II revisionists, and their main themes underlie Vietnam revisionism. In contrast, although Left and national security revisionists focus on the Cold War, they differ in emphases and focusthe former on the origins and the latter on the consequences of the Cold War. In addition, the Right revisionists' conclusions about U.S. involvement in World War II indirectly shaped their analyses of the Cold War, while Vietnam revisionists endorse orthodox interpretations of the Cold War and the Right revisionist conspiratorial perspective on the reasons for harmful foreign and military decisions.

Revisionist historiography has also been influenced by three seminal thinkers writing about U.S. foreign policyHarry Elmer Barnes on World War I and Right revisionists, William Appleman Williams on Left revisionists, and Charles Austin Beard on both Left and Right revisionists. These writers have not influenced either Vietnam or national security revisionists. The time of their writing and the degree to which their work was shaped by contemporary politics or research into recently accessible primary sources are factors underpinning the differences among the revisionists. The Right revisionists' conclusions about the origins of World War II derived in part from archival research documenting U.S. involvement in World War I and in part from their reaction to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's conduct of domestic and foreign policy during the 1930s and 1940s. For the Left revisionists, U.S. policy during the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam War, combined with research into recently accessible primary sources, shaped their conclusions about the origins of the Cold War. In contrast, Vietnam revisionists responded to the anticommunist analyses underpinning the debate over the Vietnam War and to Left revisionist interpretations of the Cold War, while national security revisionist interpretations were shaped by the unprecedented release of formerly classified Soviet and U.S. records and new public concerns about the consequences of secrecy and centralization on privacy rights and constitutional safeguards.


Harry Elmer Barnes To a generation accustomed to a globalist foreign policy, large defense budgets, and foreign military-assistance pacts and involvement, the postwar reaction to World War I might seem perplexing. Almost immediately after the end of that conflict, after having accepted this as a "war to end all wars" and "to make the world safe for democracy," and the portrayal of the Germans as "barbarous Huns," many Americans became disillusioned with the war's consequences and began to reappraise what had been unquestioned beliefs about the nation's proper international role. Harry Elmer Barnes was one such American. He had written propaganda tracts for the American Defense Society and the National Security League during the war that extolled the morality and necessity of U.S. participation to defeat Germany.

Influenced by Sidney Fay's article "New Light on the Origins of the World War, I. Berlin and Vienna, to July 29," published in the American Historical Review (1920), which demonstrated the inequity of the Versailles Treaty's war guilt clause, Barnes reassessed those judgments he had helped to popularize during the war years. In a series of book reviews and articles published during the 1920s, he questioned whether Germany was solely responsible for the war and called for a multicausal conception of responsibility. These themes were summarized in his important study Genesis of the World War (1926), a book that the publisher Alfred Knopf solicited on the basis of a series of articles Barnes had published in Christian Century.

In Genesis of the World War, Barnes argues that the revisionist interpretation was the "correct one" and that his book demonstrates the "dishonesty and unreliability of diplomats and statesmen." Conceding Germany's partial responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, Barnes also chronicles French, Russian, and Serbian culpability. The errors of men, the irrational consequences of nationalism, the influence of propaganda, and the economic interests of munitions makers combined to provide the catalyst for war. Barnes reiterated these themes in the foreword he wrote for H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen's influential Merchants of Death (1934), contending that the authors had not singled out the armaments industry but the "broader forces, such as patriotism, imperialism, nationalistic education, and capitalist competition, [which] play a larger part than the armament industry in keeping alive the war system."

Focusing on the outbreak of the war in Europe, Barnes discusses only peripherally the factors leading to U.S. involvement in 1917. Just as he challenged the conventional view of German war guilt, representing the German invasion of Belgium as the precipitating event, but not the real cause, of a general European war, so Barnes debunks the then conventional wisdom that German submarine warfare was the basis for U.S. involvement. He argues instead that "unneutrality, lack of courage, or maladroitness of the Washington authorities in regard to English violations of international law produced German submarine warfare that actually led us into war."

Mistakes in judgment, emotionalism, and unthinking patriotism, and not any threat to the national interest (whether defined in economic or strategic terms), were the bases for war. Believing that war was the consequence of myopia, and thus was avoidable, Barnes particularly emphasizes World War I's harmful legacy. It had not extended democracy or ensured against future wars, but had undermined world order and stability. Detailing but one of these revolutionary consequences, Barnes describes the war's "most unfortunate reaction upon the British Empire by stimulating nationalistic and independence movements everywhere."

Barnes's writings impelled other historians to consider these conclusions. His polemical tone, based on a conviction that this was no mere academic exercise, but involved the vital issue of war and peace, shaped his general approach to the study of war and his optimism that this research and writing could prevent the recurrence of war.

By the end of the 1930s, the dominant interpretation of World War I was that of the revisionists. In part, their writings provided a rationale for congressional enactment of the Neutrality Acts of 19351937. Yet despite this success, the United States would once again become involved in a major world war. This factor, as much as his conclusions about the causes and consequences of World War I, shaped Barnes's response to the debate precipitated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's successful efforts of 19371941 to alter the nation's foreign policy course, first from one of neutrality to one of aid to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and then to involvement as a cobelligerent.

World War II had a searing effect on Barnes. He was far less confident that he was speaking from a majority position, and the tone of his works after 1944 was more defensive and alienated. During the postWorld War II period, Barnes also abandoned the multicausal approach characteristic of his writings on World War I. Instead, he attributed U.S. involvement in that later conflict to President Roosevelt's duplicitous conduct of the nation's foreign relations.

Central to Barnes's analysis was the conviction that the national interest did not require that the United States go to war. Quite the opposite; involvement in war would undermine national security and create continuous tensions that would inevitably ensure a militarized society. Minimizing German responsibility for World War II, as he had for World War I, in the introduction he wrote for Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Barnes bluntly claimed: "Sane internationalism is one thing; it is something quite different to support our entry into a war likely to ruin civilization merely to promote the prospects of a domestic leader, however colorful or popular, to satisfy the neurotic compulsions of special interests and pressure groups, and to pull the chestnuts of foreign nations out of the fire." Presidential duplicity had been only one of the themes (and not a central one) in his earlier writingwitness his critical comment on the dishonesty and unreliability of statesmen and diplomats. Minimized in, if not totally absent from, Barnes's postWorld War II writing, were his earlier emphases on competitive nationalism, emotionalism, and economic interest.

Resurrecting the correctness of the revisionist interpretation of World War I, Barnes attributed U.S. involvement in World War II partly to the decisions leading to that earlier conflict. World War I and U.S. involvement in that conflict, he argued, constituted "an ominous turning point" in American and world history. Barnes then returned to the principal theme of his writings about World War I: the war's disastrous consequences. He emphasized that both wars had inevitably resulted in "the rise and influence of Communism, military state capitalism, the police state, and the impending doom of civilization."

Barnes continued these themes in a later, more detailed study of how the nation became involved in World War II: "Pearl Harbor After a Quarter of a Century," published in 1968 in the right-wing libertarian journal Left and Right. He then emphasized still another theme: the truth about U.S. involvement in World War II was not more widely known owing to the "blackout" and "blurring" resorted to by "court historians," publishers, and book reviewers.

By the 1950s, Barnes had abandoned the qualifications underpinning his dogmatic analyses of the 1920s for the posture of an aggrieved proponent and seeker of the truth. In his earlier writing, he was convinced that research, thoughtful analysis by experts, and publication could avert war's recurrence. This confidence and these themes were virtually absent from Barnes's more conspiratorial and defensive analysis of World War II. There was a simpler explanation: the power and principles of President Roosevelt. This shift in tone coincided with and contributed to the emergence of a more restrictive revisionism that could properly be labeled Right revisionism.

Charles Austin Beard Unlike Barnes, Charles Beard had not been greatly concerned during the 1920s about German war guilt or the process by which the United States became involved in World War I. He first focused on foreign policy matters during the 1930s and 1940s and concentrated thereafter on U.S. involvement in World War II. Beard's published works on American foreign policy of the 1930s, however, differed markedly in tone and emphasis from his writings of the 1940s.

Although sharing Barnes's critical views on the uses of propaganda and the role of special interest groups in shaping U.S. foreign policy, Beard's analyses of the 1930s were broader and less conspiratorial. What particularly distinguished Beard from Barnes were his interests in the evolution of a more interventionist foreign policy and in the conceptions of national interest held by important political leaders. Unlike Barnes's more narrowly political and personalist approach, Beard's was more broadly cultural and economic. In this sense, Beard did not view certain men as culprits, war as irrational, and education as sufficient to avert undesirable developments. The principal themes of his writing on American internationalism were that an interventionist foreign policy was an outgrowth of domestic affairs more than of foreign developments, and that foreign policy decisions were the product of particular values that reflected the interests of powerful special economic interest groups. This was not, however, simply an economic interpretation of foreign policy decisions. Beard was interested in understanding the relationship between social and economic change and politics, and he denied that particular responses were foreordained. There were alternative policy options, but the specific direction that a nation pursued was based on its established national priorities.

In addition, Beard emphasized that "official foreign policy is always conducted by a few persons. In this respect, democracies may differ little from dictatorships." Not representing policymakers as manipulators or as acting contrary to the national interest in his writings of the 1930s, Beard explored how the national interest (and hence foreign policy) was conceived and formulated. Foreign policy, moreover, could not be understood as a separate process; international involvement had far-reaching consequences both for republican principles and for reform. In Open Door at Home, Beard stressed the "control" that governments could exercise over domestic policies and national priorities. From these findings he offered a specific recommendation: "The argument thus far advanced is directed to the proposition that an efficiently operated commonwealth offers the best escape from the crisis in economy and thought in which the American nation now flounders."

In a different sense than Barnes, Beard advocated a restrictionist foreign policy. His recommendations, like those of Barnes, were rejected. Between 1937 and 1941, the Roosevelt administration successfully altered the noninterventionist stance of the American public and Congress. Beard became an active participant in the resultant debate over the wisdom of a course that risked involvement in an ongoing foreign war. After 1939 his writings became increasingly polemical. No longer directly assessing the intellectual framework within which the national interest came to be formulated, whether in Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels or President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, Beard moved closer to Barnes's focus on the actions of particular individuals and to the duplicity of policymakers. His discussion increasingly centered on the rhetoric and policy decisions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Beard's postWorld War II books contrasted the disparity between President Roosevelt's rhetoric and reality. In a highly moralistic tone, Beard argues in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: "President Roosevelt entered the year 1941 carrying moral responsibility for his covenants with the American people to keep this nation out of warso to conduct foreign affairs as to avoid war." Roosevelt had not followed that course while, at the same time, publicly minimizing the risks of his policies. In conclusion, Beard pointedly questions the consequences of this abuse of power: "Was it within the legal and moral competence of President Roosevelt in 1941 so to conduct foreign affairs as to maneuver a foreign country into firing a shot that brought on warindeed to make war on his own authority?"

In his later years Beard no longer emphasized the domestic sources of foreign policy decisions, whether economic interest or value choices. By then he had become concerned principally with process issues: how the conduct of foreign policy affected a system of checks and balances and constitutional liberties. This, and not simply moral fervor or partisanship, shaped his historical writing. In combination, Beard's later writings and those of Barnes gave rise to the decidedly more intemperate Right revisionism of the postWorld War II period. Yet, while the essays in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (1953) were dedicated to Beard, their intellectual debt was to the Beard of the 1940s. His earlier, more sophisticated emphases on intellectual attitudes and economic influence, through the writings of William Appleman Williams, during the 1960s gave rise to Left revisionism, which focused less on U.S. involvement in World War II than on the origins of the Cold War.

1930s Revisionism Articulating themes suggested or emphasized by Barnes and Beard, other independent scholars during the 1930s examined the process leading to U.S. involvement in World War I. In contrast to the revisionist accounts published during the 1920s, the revisionism of the 1930s focused on the question of how the United States abandoned a neutrality policy to become involved in war in 1917. Revisionist writers of the 1930s concurred that U.S. involvement was neither necessary nor realistic, and thus that war could have been avoided. They also believed that those who had made policy (except former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and, with certain qualifications, President Woodrow Wilson) were shortsighted. Most policymakers (U.S. ambassador to London Walter Hines Page; President Wilson's influential adviser Edward House; Bryan's successor as secretary of state, Robert Lansing), they concluded, were Anglophiles and acted in ways contrary to the national interest. A further theme, popularized in C. Hartley Grattan's study Why We Fought (1929), was the important influence of propaganda (a thesis that derived from the pioneering work of Harold Laswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War ).

The combination of traditional anti-German attitudes, pro-British sympathies, and the impact of the preparedness campaign of 19151916 had led to U.S. involvement in war. Yet, Grattan believed that the determining factor was domestic (and not Allied) propaganda, and principally President Wilson's unilateral and irresponsible conduct of foreign policy. By 1936, Grattan had considerably refined this emphasis on propaganda and presidential irresponsibility. In Preface to Chaos, he represented the system and needs of capitalism as creating the conditions leading to World War I.

These themes of propaganda and economic influences were either extended or refined by a larger group of revisionists. Thus, in Merchants of Death, H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen argue that arms merchants, in their efforts to sell military weapons, had contributed to international crises and influenced press reporting. Further archival research was needed to uncover the full story, they conceded, while stressing the influence of arms merchants on governmental policy and the close relationship between the military and the armaments industry. They further conclude that "American commitments with the Allies were so enormous that only our entry into the war saved the country from a major economic collapse."

This conviction that U.S. involvement in the war was not inevitable and that the public was influenced by the insidious machinations of special interests was further developed, although without Grattan's and Engelbrecht and Hanighen's narrow economic focus, in the propaganda studies of H. C. Peterson, Walter Millis, and Edwin Borchard and William Lage. In Propaganda for War, Peterson explores how American opinion was influenced by British propaganda during the period 19141917, concluding that many American politicians "were actively engaged in fighting Britain's battles on the American political front." The combination of British propaganda efforts, the sympathies of policymakers, and the degree to which important economic interests profited from trade with the Entente powers and undermined American neutralityand not the national interesthad ensured U.S. involvement in war with the Central Powers.

An implicit theme in Peterson's analysis is that un-American sympathies determined official Washington's actions during the crucial period 19141917; the only exception was former Secretary of State Bryan, who "thought primarily of his own country." The policymakers' defective vision, their "utterly fallacious conclusion, as to what could be achieved" (there was no suggestion here of disloyalty but simply of misguided sympathies), and their failure to act in terms of the national interest had led the nation into an unnecessary and harmful war. Sharing Barnes's sense of the lessons of history, in an almost preacherlike tone Peterson concludes that American leaders had "failed to see that the war was merely one in a long series of wars which the European set-up makes inevitablethat it was the natural concomitant of the political transition caused by Germany's rise to power." U.S. involvement in the war was both tragic and contrary to the public will, for "To Americans a vote for Wilson [in 1916] had meant a vote for peace. Through the only medium available to them they had expressed their unmistakable desire to keep out of the European conflict."

Peterson's definition of realism was shared by Borchard and Lage in Neutrality for the United States. The national interest required not intervention in "the wars of other peoples" but respect for international law and constitutional government. This was "rational" and had traditionally provided "the path of progress." Emphasizing the limits to American power and influence, Borchard and Lage condemned the unneutrality of the Wilson administration's policies and denied that these policies advanced the interests of the United States so much as those of other states. The authors, however, do not represent this as sinister or mendacious: "The surrender was not made through malevolence but through short-sighted emotionalism, a confusion of ideas as to where America's interest lay."

Another underlying theme in their (and Peterson's) analysis was the undesirability of exclusive presidential conduct of foreign policy. Borchard and Lage stress how the Congress had attempted to remain neutral, an effort that was frustrated by the Wilson administration. Emphasizing President Wilson's role in undermining U.S. neutrality, they attribute this to a messianic conception of the nation's responsibilities, a conception they find unrealistic and counterproductive. In Road to War, Millis develops this theme: "It was only natural that the New Freedom which appealed to nationalism to enforce peace, justice and liberty in the domestic sphere, should have thought of the American nation as an active force for peace and justice in the international world as well."

In combination, these writers characterized U.S. policy during World War I as based on a defective vision of reality, and their writings reflect a strong suspicion of globalism and of the exercise of power by the executive branch. Not impressed by the wisdom of high-level governmental personnel, they also feared that centralizing decision making within the executive branch invited abuses of this power. In their use of the term "propaganda," they distinguished between how policy was publicly justified and how it actually was and should be made. Convinced of the limits to American power, they deplored the war's adverse consequences for the postwar world.

In America Goes to War, Charles Tansill expands upon these themes: a multiplicity of factors had resulted in U.S. involvement in World War I. The more important were pro-British sympathy, anti-German suspicions, and the interests of bankers and exporters. Tansill's thesis was multicausal and ambivalent. There was no conscious purpose behind a policy that sacrificed U.S. neutrality to aid the Entente powers, he argued:

The real reason why America went to war cannot be found in any single set of circumstances. There was no clear-cut road to war that the President followed with certain steps that knew no hesitation. There were many dim trails of doubtful promise, and one along which he traveled with early misgivings and reluctant tread was that which led to American economic solidarity with the Allies.

Tansill condemned the incompetence of House, Page, and Lansing and their failure to recognize and act upon American interests. Developing more sharply what had been only an implicit theme of other World War I revisionists, Tansill stressed how the ineptness and pro-Entente (hence un-American) loyalties of these policy-makers had led to the nation's unfortunate involvement in a European war. And, unlike other World War I revisionists, except Barnes, Tansill did not attribute this failure to the limits to American power and influence.


Having contended that U.S. involvement in World War I had been the consequence of a series of blundering decisions, Tansill concluded that war could have been avoided if statesmen had been more realistic and nationalistic. This emphasis on error and this multicausal analysis did not, however, constitute Tansill's interpretation of U.S. involvement in World War II. A far more doctrinaire, self-righteous, and conspiratorial tone pervaded his analysis of that subject and that of other Right revisionists.

Right revisionism emerged only in the 1940s. This assessment did not repudiate the themes of World War I revisionism so much as it put forth a sharpened, narrower focus on the role and power of the executive branch. Right revisionism sharply questioned the wisdom of the policies of the Roosevelt administration during 19371941 and when seeking accommodation with the Soviet Union during the war. The Soviet Union, the Right revisionists affirmed, was the main beneficiary of World War II. This was not happenstance, but the result of a policy that, by seeking the total defeat of Germany and Japan, had removed these powerful counterweights to the spread of communism. The Right revisionists also adapted an implicit theme of World War I revisionism: the un-Americanism of policymakers. Making this theme more explicit, they added the charge of subversive influence. Right revisionists might have had little impact on the scholarly community: their writings reflected the conclusions advanced by many conservatives about the Truman administration's policy during the early Cold War years, and provided legitimacy and justification for what became known as McCarthyism.

Whether Tansill's Back Door to War, the various contributors to the collection of essays that Barnes edited, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (with the exception of William Neumann), Frederick Sanborn's Design for War, George Crocker's Roosevelt's Road to Russia, George Morgenstern's Pearl Harbor, John Flynn's While You Slept, James Martin's Revisionist Viewpoints, Freda Utley's The China Story, or Anthony Kubek's How the Far East Was Lost, the Right revisionists denied that war with Germany or Japan had been necessary. Emphasizing the flexibility and restraint of Japanese and German diplomats, these authors questioned whether U.S. interests had been compromised by German or Japanese expansion in Europe or the Far East. The Right revisionists further emphasized, and drew sinister conclusions about, how President Roosevelt brought the nation into war. Kubek and Utley extended this indictment to the Truman administration, stressing the McCarthyite themes of "communist influence" and "softness toward communism."

Unlike World War I revisionism, however, Right revisionism reflected no sense of ambiguity or multiple causality. There was one major culprit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (for some, Harry Truman as well). And when not accusing Roosevelt of opportunism or affinity for leftist views, most Right revisionists emphasized the excessive influence of communist supporters within the Roosevelt administration in formulating policies that led tragically to war and then inevitably to Soviet expansion.

This sharpened criticism runs throughout Right revisionism. The contrast with World War I revisionism is pointedly demonstrated in Tansill's writings. In his description of romantic pro-British sympathies, in Back Door to War, Tansill affirms that "The main objective of American foreign policy since 1900 has been the preservation of the British Empire." This theme, however, was dropped from Tansill's later analysis. Condemning U.S. involvement in war with the Axis powers, Tansill extolled the correctness of Japanese and German fears of communism. This realism, Tansill lamented, was not shared by President Roosevelt and his advisers: "It was apparent to Japan that Russia had long-range plans to communize China and thus eventually to control a large portion of eastern Asia. The very nature of international communism made it impossible to have stable relations with Russia, so Japan again turned to the United States in May 1934 in the hope of erecting a common front against the foes of capitalism." Opposed to the concentration of power in the executive branch and to the social reform policies of the Roosevelt New Deal, Tansill saw in the foreign policy of that administration the logical extension of its domestic principles to the international arena.

Tansill's analysis centered on two themes. First, he emphasized the sinister character of the president's deceitful conduct of diplomacy, whether during the prewar period of 19391941 or during the war years. No longer content to characterize presidential diplomacy as duplicitous, the Right revisionists denied that policies were based on popular support and emphasized the intentionally secret and unilateral process by which decisions were made.

The second theme of Right revisionism was that U.S. involvement in World War II and the secretive, unilateral conduct of foreign policy were so inimical to the national interest (having made possible Soviet expansion and the Cold War) that this could not have been the result either of mistaken judgment or of emotionalism. Rather, the Right revisionists maintained, this policy could best be understood as the result of subversion and treason. Anthony Kubek extended this theme to an extreme form: "The utter consistency of our policy in serving Soviet ends leaves no conclusion other than that pro-Communist elements in our government and press 'planned it that way.' But top American officials who sought to buy Soviet cooperation at any price must bear the final responsibility." Condemning the continued respectability of this "internationalist" and "accommodationist" thinking, Kubek concludes in How the Far East Was Lost : "We face a criminal conspiracy and it must be dealt with as such. The Communist conspiracy has been succeeding largely on the basis of our mistakes and of the ability of their agents to procure such mistakes on our part. It should be clearly evident that the Communists cannot gain the world unless our government helps them to do it."


Convinced of the correctness of their interpretation of the two world wars and their lessons for current policy, the Right revisionists' analysis was based on a belief in American omnipotence. This led them to question why particular men pursued policies that undermined the national interest. Right revisionism, then, questioned why American power and interests did not dominate the postwar world. Left revisionists rejected this perspective. To them the central failings of U.S. diplomacy derived from the attempt to impose American interests and values on the world, and the inability to recognize that this quest was impossible and counterproductive. In striking contrast to the focus of Right revisionism on policymakers and criticism of their policies, eventually moving from emphasizing error to emphasizing treason, Left revisionists adopted a less personalist perspective.

William Appleman Williams Influenced by the pre-1940s writings of Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams concentrated on the domestic sources of U.S. foreign policy. For him an understanding of policymaking required research not solely into diplomatic correspondence and international crises but also into the perceptions and priorities of policymakers. Far more sophisticated than Beard, Williams located the answer to why policymakers led the nation to war not in a conflict between Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism, and surely not in the emotionalism and duplicity of policymakers or their divided loyalties. Rather, he explained U.S. foreign policy in terms of the worldview of policymakers. For Williams the central question was not why the United States became involved in foreign wars but why it pursued a policy of overseas expansionism.

There are two central themes to Williams's analysis. Assuming an elite model of American decision making, Williams stressed how elites (based on the structure of the economy and the political system) made policy independent of popular support or involvement. Thus, in Tragedy of American Diplomacy he writes:

One of the most unnerving features was the extensive elitism that had become ingrained in the policy-making process. The assault on Cuba was conceived, planned, and implemented by a small group of men in the executive department [who] opened no general dialogue with members of Congress (even in private conversation), and expended great effort and exerted great pressure to avoid any public disclosure or debate.

In describing the process of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Williams emphasizes "the elite's self-isolation arrogance and self-righteousness, and messianic distortion of a sincere humanitarian desire to help other peoples. Even the American public came more and more to be considered as simply another factor to be manipulated and controlled in the effort to establish and maintain the American Way as the global status quo."

More central to Williams's analysis than this description of elite manipulation and determination of policy are his conclusions about the ideological basis for U.S. policy. Williams depicted policymakers as at times naive and at times misguided, questioned whether the United States need have entered the two world wars and the Cold War, and stressed elite manipulation of public opinion. His basic premise, however, was not that different men or more open procedures could have averted war. The sources of policymaking instead were established values and priorities, and not, as Barnes and the Right revisionists argued, the insidious influence of propaganda and manipulative leaders. Williams did not portray Wilson, Page, House, Roosevelt, or Alger Hiss as evil and shortsighted, traitors to the public in whose interests they acted. Williams conceded that the decisions of policy elites commanded popular acceptance or acquiescence. While critical of the consequences of their decisions, he offered not moralistic condemnation but reasoned analysis in explaining the "tragedy of American diplomacy." The exploitative results of U.S. foreign policy were not, Williams argued, the "result of malice, indifference, or ruthless and predatory exploitation. American leaders were not evil men. Nor were they treacherous hypocrites. They believed deeply in the ideals they proclaimed."

Williams also denied that abstract idealism determined specific policy responses so much as did the changing character of the American economy and the beliefs thus engendered. Since the 1820s, he wrote, "Americans steadily deepened their commitment to the idea that democracy was inextricably connected with individualism, private property, and a capitalist marketplace economy. Even the great majority of critics sought to reform existing society precisely in order to realize that conception of the good system." This particular view of the national interest, and the rejection of alternative models for organizing society, constituted the tragedy of American diplomacy. For Williams, there were no identifiable devils or correctable errors. History was too complex for such explanations. The dilemma was deeper, and stemmed partially from the American rejection of Marxism.

Commenting in The Great Evasion, Williams writes:

We have never confronted his [Marx's] central thesis about the assumptions, the costs, and the nature of capitalist society. We have never confronted his central insight that capitalism is predicated upon an over emphasis and exaltation of the individualistic, egoistic half of man functioning in a marketplace system that overrides and crushes the social, humanitarian half of man. And we have never confronted his argument that capitalism cannot create a community in which how men produce and own is less important than their relationships as they produce and distribute those products, less important than what they are as men, and less important than how they treat each other.

American foreign policy was the product of the definition of the national interest and the unquestioned beliefs held by policymakers, and not the actions of particular men. The combination of economic interest and the conviction of American omnipotence and omniscience led inevitably, and tragically, to a policy of overseas expansionism. Williams defined this policy as the Open Door. By the twentieth century, Williams argues in Tragedy of American Diplomacy, American foreign policy had come to be based on the "firm conviction, even dogmatic belief, that America's domestic well-being depends upon such sustained, ever-increasing overseas economic expansion. Here is a convergence of economic practice with intellectual analysis and emotional involvement that creates a very powerful and dangerous propensity to define the essentials of American welfare in terms of activities outside the United States."

Williams's radical analyses profoundly influenced a number of young historians, some of whom studied under him at the University of Wisconsin and others who were stimulated by his books, articles, and essaysnotably Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Great Evasion, and Contours of American History. Independent scholars, these Left revisionists have at times adopted part of Williams's complex analysis, at times have refined it, and at times have extended it to the point of fundamental departure from his conclusions. And, whereas Williams was synthetic, his scope broad, and the form of his writing essayist, these young scholars have written heavily documented monographs on narrowly defined subjects.

The principal focus of Left revisionism has been the Cold War, although Williams's influence is reflected in the studies of Walter LaFeber on U.S. expansionism during the 1890s, The New Empire ; of Thomas McCormick on U.S. China policy, China Market ; of David Green on U.S. policy toward Latin America, The Containment of Latin America ; and of N. Gordon Levin on Wilson's wartime diplomacy, Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. (Since the basic analysis of these volumes does not differ from that of Cold War revisionism, this essay will concentrate exclusively on these studies.)

Not all Cold War revisionists have written within Williams's framework or were influenced by him; those who did so differed widely in their emphases and conclusions. While all dissented from the orthodox interpretation of the origins of the Cold War, some Left revisionists emphasized only the elitist nature of U.S. policy formation; others, the ideology of policymakers; others, the economic basis of particular policy decisions; and still others combined these themes. These differences are fundamental and range from rather limited critiques of particular men to a more radical characterization of U.S. policy as imperialistic and counterrevolutionary.

The most important Left revisionist writings include Lloyd Gardner's Architects of Illusion, Barton Bernstein's "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War," Walter LaFeber's America, Russia, and the Cold War, Gabriel Kolko's Politics of War, Richard Barnet's Roots of War, Thomas Paterson's Soviet-American Confrontation, David Horowitz's Empire and Revolution, Bruce Kuklick's American Policy and the Division of Germany, Gar Alperovitz's Atomic Diplomacy, Harry Magdoff's Age of Imperialism, Ronald Steel's Pax Americana, Stephen Ambrose's Rise to Globalism, Richard Free-land's Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism, Athan Theoharis's Seeds of Repression, Diane Shaver Clemens's Yalta, Lawrence Wittner's Cold War America, and D. F. Fleming's The Cold War and Its Origins.

Left revisionists have extended this analysis beyond the issue of the origins of the U.S.Soviet conflict in Europe and have begun to examine the international dimensions of the Cold War. These historiansmost notably Thomas Paterson in On Every Front, Thomas McCormick in America's Half Century, and Robert McMahon in Colonialism and Cold War have shifted from exploring the origins of the containment policy in Europe and have instead placed the U.S.Soviet conflict in the context of the international economic system and the rise of anticolonial movements in the postWorld War II era.

In their dissent from orthodox historiography, the Left revisionists deny that the Cold War resulted simply from Soviet territorial expansionism or the objectives of international communism to which the United States responded defensively in order to preserve freedom and democracy. Stressing the caution and conservatism of Soviet policy, the Left revisionists locate the origins of the Cold War in U.S. foreign policies. As Barton Bernstein writes in "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War," Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration :

American policy was neither so innocent nor so nonideological. American leaders sought to promote their conceptions of national interest and their values even at the conscious risk of provoking Russia's fears about her security. By overextending policy and power and refusing to accept Soviet interests, American policy-makers contributed to the Cold War. There is evi dence that Russian policies were reasonably cautious and conservative, and that there was at least a basis for accommodation.

Left revisionist conceptions of the origins of the Cold War, however, mask important fundamental differences. The Left revisionists can be divided into two groups: radicals and Left liberals, the principal dividing line being that the radicals analyze American policy within a framework of imperialism and elite or class domination, while the Left liberals minimize power and ideology, and emphasize domestic politics, personality, and bureaucracy. According to this division, Fleming, Clemens, Steel, Theoharis, and Ambrose can be classified as Left liberals, and Kolko, Gardner, Bernstein, Paterson, Horowitz, LaFeber, Magdoff, Alperovitz, Freeland, Barnet, Wittner, and Kuklick as radicals. As with all definitions, this one sharpens differences, particularly in the distinction between elite domination and bureaucracy.

In addition to these broad divisions, the Left revisionists differ in their conclusions about two important questions. First, was the Cold War inevitable because the requirements of capitalism forced American leaders to pursue a consciously imperialistic foreign policy? This theme is developed by Gabriel Kolko in Roots of American Foreign Policy :

The dominant interest of the United States is in world economic stability, and anything that undermines that condition presents a danger to its present hegemony. From a purely eco nomic viewpoint, the United States cannot maintain its existing vital dominating relationship to much of the Third World unless it can keep the poor nations from moving too far toward the Left. A widespread leftward movement would critically affect its supply of raw materials and have profound long-term repercussions.

Only Kolko, Magdoff, and Horowitz among the radical revisionists hold to such a mechanistic view of U.S. foreign policy. In contrast, other radicals emphasize tactics and perception (the quote from Bernstein cited above portrays this view).

Left revisionists also differ over whether U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union shifted fundamentally with Harry S. Truman's accession to the presidency in April 1945, a thesis advanced by Alperovitz, Clemens, Fleming, Wittner, Theoharis, and Ambrose, and accepted with major qualifications by Bernstein, Paterson, Kuklick, and Gardner (the latter group stressing that the change was more one of tactics than of objectives or priorities).

In addition, radical and Left liberal revisionists (LaFeber, Gardner, Bernstein, Paterson, Wittner, Kuklick, Steel, Theoharis, and Ambrose) concur that American policymakers brought on the Cold War, not because they were innocent or seeking to reach accommodation with the Soviet Union but because they believed in American omnipotence and omniscience. In Soviet-American Confrontation, Paterson concludes: "Convinced that their interpretations of international agreements were alone the correct ones, United States officials attempted to fulfill their goals through the unilateral application of the power they knew they possessed." Gardner and Bernstein slightly modify this thesis of omnipotence, averring that policymakers fell victim to mythical and illusory views of U.S. power and principle in the pursuit of what was a counterrevolutionary foreign policy. In Architects of Illusion, Gardner develops this theme: "Only the United States had the power [at the conclusion of World War II] to enforce its decisions world-wide, American policy-makers [subsequently] developed a series of rationales, expedients, and explanations which grew into the myths and illusions of the Cold War. And men were later beguiled by their own creations."

Like Williams, the Left revisionists question whether public opinion constrained policymakers. To the contrary, they contend, officials of the Truman administration consciously sought to alter public opinion in order to ensure popular support for costly and controversial policy initiatives. Moving beyond Williams, they argue that this effort to alter public opinion created the climate that resulted in McCarthyism. This theme is developed by Theoharis and Freeland, though these historians' conclusions differ. Freeland contends that the Truman administration consciously pursued McCarthyite politics in an effort to develop support for a multilateral foreign policy, while Theoharis depicts the administration as reacting to partisan pressures and exigencies, as lacking a conscious and coherent strategy, and as sincerely if obsessively anticommunist.

Left revisionists have raised important questions about the nature of the decision-making process, the relationship between wealth and policy, the class and interest backgrounds of policy-makers, and the process by which values and official policy are formed. Unlike Right revisionists, who simply chronicled executive branch manipulation of the public and suggested that certain policy decisions were harmful in their consequences, Left revisionists have moved beyond mere description of error and propaganda. Left and Right revisionism are distinctive, then, not simply because of differences in political philosophy and conclusions. The basic difference stems from the character of Left revisionism as intellectual and radical history (in the literal sense of seeking root causes).


The emergence of Left revisionism during the 1960s coincided with a contentious public debate over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The Left revisionist challenge to the core assumptions of the containment policy raised the question of whether the United States should continue a policy of supporting any and all anticommunist governments. As dissent over the Johnson and Nixon administrations' policies expanded beyond radical activists to the mainstream media and the halls of Congress, both administrations found it difficult to sustain support for the war. A further byproduct of the resultant unraveling of the Cold War consensus was a heightened skepticism about the role of the presidency and the secretive conduct of national security policy. Tapping into this skepticism, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department and National Security Council aide, in 1971 leaked the classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the socalled Pentagon Papers. Then, in 19731975, congressional investigations first of the Watergate scandal and then of the covert practices of federal intelligence agencies breached the wall of secrecy that had previously shrouded how national security policy was conducted, with the attendant result of the release of highly classified records of the White House and the intelligence agencies. One legacy of these companion developments was Vietnam and national security revisionism.

Vietnam Revisionism Historians would have researched the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnamthe nation's longest war and only military defeatif the earlier availability of relevant primary sources had expedited such research. A consensus quickly emerged, captured first in Stephen Ambroses's synthetic history of the Cold War era, Rise to Globalism, and later in the more thorough syntheses of George Herring, America's Longest War, James Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell, and George Moss, Vietnam: An American Ordeal.

The Herring, Olson and Roberts, and Moss surveys convey the consensus interpretations of the Vietnam War, placing that conflict in a broader context of anticolonial guerrilla movements and emphasizing the limits to American power and the containment policy. This critical assessment of the U.S. military role precipitated a Vietnam revisionism that reaffirmed the major tenets of Cold War orthodoxy while incorporating some of the core assumptions of Right revisionism (of mendacity, irresolution, erroneous judgment, and conspiratorial influence).

Two such revisionists, Harry Summers and Philip van Slyck, dissent from the consensus on the Vietnam War. Both deny that U.S. involvement was unwise and unnecessary, or the misapplication of military power to a guerrilla war. The U.S. defeat, they argue, was the product of a failure of will by the nation's presidents and the general public. Eschewing a conspiratorial analysis, they attribute this failure to achieve an attainable victory to skewed national priorities (a focus on domestic issues to the neglect of national security interests), to a failure to respond rationally to an underlying Soviet threat, and to profound changes in the popular culture (the so-called counterculture) and the rise in influence of narrow special interest groups. Summers wrote in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, the Vietnam defeat was the by-product of President Lyndon Johnson's "conscious decisions" not "to mobilize the American peopleto invoke the National will"and to the "social upheaval in America where the old rules and regulations were dismissed as irrelevant and history no longer had anything to offer the 'Age of Aquarius.'"

Van Slyck echoes this analysis, condemning the "errors of judgment" of five presidents (from Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter) to lobby for needed increases in military spending and the commitments essential to checking the Soviet threat and averting the "ill-starred, mismanaged, and ultimately humiliating national ordeal in Vietnam." Lamenting the rise of "single-issue political causes" (the civil rights and youth movements of the 1960s), which he claims "displayed uncertainties of purpose and conflicting social and economic priorities," he concludes that "in this increasingly antiwar climate, the preoccupation with domestic affairs insured that expenditures for national security would be assigned a declining priority through the decade of the 1970s" (Strategies for the 1980s: Lessons of Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan ). Michael Lind extends this analysis of the wisdom of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in Vietnam, the Necessary War (1999). In contrast, Martin Herz in The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972 criticizes the reporting and commentary of the "prestige press" (mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post ) as contributing to the "weakening and demoralization of the United States and South Vietnam" that led ultimately to the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Norman Podhoretz and Guenter Lewy expand upon this indictment, in language more vituperative and condescending. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Podhoretz defends the purpose and morality of U.S. efforts to ensure a noncommunist government in South Vietnam. Like Summers, Lind, and Van Slyck, he attributes the ultimate military defeat to a failure of will, to the limited uses of U.S. military power by presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and to misguided military tactics and strategies. Adopting the conspiratorial framework of Right revisionism, Podhoretz condemns the insidious role of antiwar activists within the academic, journalist, and liberal communities whom he derides as "apologists for the Communist side in the Vietnam War." Because Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Frances Fitzgerald were "very good writers," Podhoretz laments, "they were able to state the Communist case in a style acceptable to an audience that would normally be put off by the crude propagandistic rhetoric of the hard-core inveterate pro-Communist elements." In his concluding assessment of the consequences of the North Vietnamese victory of 1975, Podhoretz argues:

The truth is that the antiwar movement bears a certain measure of responsibility for the horrors that have overtaken the people of Vietnam; and so long as those who participated in that movement are unwilling to acknowledge this, they will go on trying to discredit the idea that there is not distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For to recognize the distinction is to recognize that in making a contribution to the conquest of South Vietnam by the Communists of the North they were siding with an evil system against something better from every political and moral point of view.

Guenter Lewy echoes Podhoretz. Writing with Harry Barnes's dogmatism, in the preface to his America in Vietnam (1978), Lewy describes his purpose as to "clear away the cobwebs of mythology that inhibit the correct understanding of what went onand what went wrong in Vietnam" and to critique the "ideological fervor which has characterized much writing on the Vietnam War." Like Podhoretz, Lewy defends the purpose and morality of U.S. involvement, emphasizes the wisdom and necessity of a policy to contain the spread of communism, and condemns the bias of the media and the "growing permissiveness in American society and widespread attitudes of disrespect toward authority and law enforcement." Lewy extends this indictment in The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life, impugning the loyalty of antiVietnam War critics in the peace movement, the civil liberties community, and in the universities, and the "Leftward drift of the American political spectrum." He charges that

Today a host of organizations, not formally linked to the Communist Party and in many cases defying the categories of Old and New Left, carry on an energetic agitation for a radical transformation of American society, push for drastic cuts in the American defense budget, if not for unilateral disarmament, and lobby for Communist guerrillas and regimes. The political outlook of these groups provides Communists with a perfect cover and allows them to ply their trade with little need to seize actual control. Such alliances provide the Communist Party with valuable political legitimacy and respectability.

National Security Revisionism The public debate over the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair (and the resultant opening of formerly classified records of the federal intelligence agencies) also spawned a more critical assessment of the role of the presidency and federal intelligence agencies, and how bureaucracy and secrecy adversely influenced national security policy. This new historiography was previewed in Arthur Schlesinger's quasi-critical history of the U.S. presidency, The Imperial Presidency. Reassessing his own earlier endorsement of the "presidential mystique," Schlesinger chronicled how "Especially in the twentieth century, the circumstances of an increasingly perilous world as well as of an increasingly dependent economy and society served to compel a larger concentration of authority in the Presidency." Surveying how presidential power expanded (including by relying on secrecy and bypassing the Congress), Schlesinger nonetheless concludes that the abuses of power of the "imperial presidency" were peculiar to the Nixon presidency.

Published in 1973, at the time of the special Senate investigation of the Watergate scandal, Schlesinger's history of the Nixon administration's uses of the federal intelligence agencies (Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation) for political purposes was soon challenged as the result of subsequent revelations that presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had similarly exploited these agenciespublicized in the hearings and reports of the Church and Pike Committees of 19751976 and in federal intelligence agency records released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. These revelations confirmed how "national security" priorities and secrecy claims had altered executive-legislative relations, and how presidents and intelligence agency officials had exploited secrecy to violate the law, privacy rights, and First Amendment rights. These themes were developed in a number of studies, notably Frank Donner, The Age of Surveillance; Morton Halperin et al., The Lawless State; Edward Pessen, Losing Our Souls; Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety; John Prados, Presidents' Secret Wars; and Athan Theoharis, Spying on Americans.

Although differing in their interpretations, these authors share a common frameworkemphasizing that the more centralized and secretive decision-making process by which national security policy was conducted, undermined civil liberties and democratic principles. In Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan, Theoharis summarizes these themes in his conclusion:

[The] Cold War encouraged a strong elite-dominated government with authority to make decisions and the gradual acceptance of the need for secrecy and uncritical deference to so-called national security claims. The steady rise in influence of the FBI, NSC, the CIA and the White House staff to dominant policy-making roles and the displacement of the State and Justice departments and the Cabinetserved to reduce the congressional oversight role. By the 1970s, therefore, the intelligence bureaucrats had become independent powers, effectively establishing national policy, even at times independent of the occupant of the Oval Office.

These themes of the undermining of congressional oversight and of privacy and First Amendment rights were central to the new historiography that focused on the impact of the Cold War on American institutions and decision making. Reflecting the differing assessments of presidential power that distinguished Schlesinger from these other historians, in Secrecy: The American Experience, Daniel Patrick Moynihan surveys the history of the "institutions of the administrative state that developed during the great conflicts of the twentieth century." Moynihan criticizes over-classification as undermining democracy and immunizing decisions from needed scrutiny, and calls for the replacement of this new "culture of secrecy" by a "culture of openness," but at the same time recognizes that secrecy "is at times legitimate and necessary." In contrast, the various contributors to Athan Theoharis's A Culture of Secrecy deny that the legacy of international conflict was simply unnecessary overclassification and emphasize the purposefulness of secrecy in ensuring controversial, at times illegal, programs and procedures.

These differences over the purpose and consequences of secrecy are replicated in the writings of other historians on the evolution of the "national security state." In a study that transcends the debate among revisionist and orthodox historians on the origins of the Cold War, Melvyn Leffler in A Preponderance of Power emphasizes how the "Cold War shaped our political culture, our institutions, and our national priorities; and how American officials, commanding a "preponderance of power," were emboldened to "refashion the world in America's image and create the American century." Leffler nonetheless concludes that the resultant exclusively executive decisions were neither aggressive nor mistaken, but "quite prescient," were reflective of a "sophisticated strategy," and "manifested sagacity, security, and wisdom" of "prudent officials" willing to take "calculated risks." Leffler had, however, introduced a distinctive themethat executive decisions reflected the increased influence of bureaucrats whose expertise in formulating policy in secret ushered in the "national security state."

Michael Hogan in A Cross of Iron and Benjamin Fordham in Building the Cold War Consensus explicitly develop this theme of the "national security state." Surveying the congressional debate over Cold War policies, Hogan focuses on how during this era a "new class of national security managers" eventually triumphed over progressives and conservatives who feared that "bad policies could put the United States on the slippery slope to a garrison state dominated by military leaders and devoted to military purposes"a debate between those who cast Cold War containment policies "in a new ideology of national security and those who adhered to values rooted in an older political culture." The national security ideology, Hogan argues, was shaped by the experiences of national security managers during World War II and the Cold War who came to see "the world and America's place within it. It laid the groundwork for a more international foreign policy and for a supportive program of state making, both of which challenged such traditions as isolationism and antistatism." Hogan concludes by emphasizing the "role of war and Cold War as agents of state formation" that in the process enabled bureaucrats "toward independent action and autonomy."

In contrast, Benjamin Fordham in Building the Cold War Consensus focuses on the intersection of domestic policy (and politics) and national security policy. Exploring the debate between "internationalists" and "nationalists" over the nature and costs of the nation's foreign policy role, Fordham locates national security decisions not as based on abstract conceptions of the national interest nor as responses to international crises, but as shaped by the "structure of the domestic political economy" and the ability of bureaucrats to "influence policy to the extent they can draw political support from interested groups in society."


The revisionists have had varying impacts on how historians understand the conduct of American foreign relations in the twentieth century and on the contemporary debate over the nation's role in the world. The World War I revisionists, for example, helped create a climate that moved many in Congress and the public to support the Neutrality Acts of 19351937 and that impelled President Roosevelt to move cautiously during the period 19391941 when seeking to reorient U.S. foreign policy. The Right revisionists provided the intellectual foundation for the McCarthyite charges of the early 1950s: the need to purge subversives from the federal bureaucracy, to repudiate the Yalta Conference agreements, and to restrict presidential foreign policy authority. Sharing this framework, Vietnam revisionists provided the intellectual rationale for the Committee on the Present Danger and the Reagan administration's military and foreign policy decisions of the 1980swhether missile defense or aid to the contras in Nicaragua. In contrast, Left revisionists influenced the debate over the Vietnam War and the containment policy during the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, the national security revisionists have both tapped into and influenced the post-1975 debate over presidential power, the role of the intelligence agencies, and secrecy policy.

The long-term impact of revisionism on the public's understanding of American foreign relations, nonetheless, has been transitory, determined by the public's changing mood and priorities. The impact of revisionists on the scholarly community has been equally transitory, depending more on the quality of their scholarship than on the questions they have posed and the insights they have offered. Their most significant contribution has been to introduce new research issues and to lend support for the release of classified reports.


Barnes, Harry Elmer. The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt. New York, 1926. The most influential revisionist book written during the 1920s; most of the themes of later revisionism are suggested here.

Barnes, Harry Elmer, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath. Caldwell, Idaho, 1953. A collection of essays reflecting the various themes of Right revisionists, this is based on minimal research into primary sources; most of the essays were written by nonhistorians.

Beard, Charles A. The Open Door at Home: A Trial Philosophy of National Interest. New York, 1934. An extremely heavy review of American diplomacy since the founding of the Republic and an important influence on Left revisionism, notably William A. Williams.

. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. Hamden, Conn., 1948. Beard's controversial study of the background to Pearl Harbor, based principally on the hearings and reports of the congressional committee investigating Pearl Harbor in 1945.

Bernstein, Barton J. "American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War." In Barton J. Bernstein, ed. Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration. Chicago, 1970. An important, subtle, and sophisticated radical Left revisionist analysis of the origins of the Cold War.

Borchard, Edwin, and William Potter Lage. Neutrality for the United States. New Haven, Conn., 1937. The most sophisticated and balanced of the revisionist studies published during the 1930s.

Brune, Lester, and Richard Dean Burns. America and the Indochina Wars, 19451990. Claremont, Calif., 1992.

Cohen, Warren I. The American Revisionist: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I. Chicago, 1967. A thoughtful, often insightful study of the more important revisionist writing about U.S. involvement in both world wars.

Doenecke, Justus D. The Literature of Isolationism: A Guide to Non-Interventionist Scholarship, 19301972. Colorado Springs, 1972. A useful annotated bibliography of the various articles, essays, books, and dissertations on the general theme of revisionism.

Engelbrecht, H. C., and F. C. Hanighen. Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry. New York, 1934. A popular book that provides impetus and a rationale for the so-called Nye Committee investigation of the munitions industry.

Fordham, Benjamin. Building the Cold War Consensus: The Political Economy of U.S. National Security Policy, 19491951. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1998.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 19411949. Chicago, 1970. A series of portraits of the important foreign policymakers of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, written from a radical Left revisionist perspective.

Herz, Martin. The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972. Washington, D.C., 1980.

Hogan, Michael. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 19451954. Cambridge and New York, 1998.

Hogan, Michael, ed. America in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations Since 1941. Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Kirkendall, Richard S., ed. The Truman Period as a Research Field: A Reappraisal, 1972. Columbia, Mo., 1974. A balanced study of the literature on the Truman period that contains counterbalancing essays on domestic and foreign policy written by revisionists and nonrevisionists; an excellent source on the more important studies and on research collections.

Kolko, Gabriel. The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy. New York, 1968.

Kolko, Gabriel, and Joyce Kolko. The Limits of Power: The World and the United States Foreign Policy, 19451954. New York, 1972. An ambitious, heavily written and researched radical Left revisionist study of the diplomacy of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations that depicts American policy as counterrevolutionary and imperialistic.

Kubek, Anthony. How the Far East Was Lost. Chicago, 1963.

Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power. Stanford, Calif., 1992.

Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam. New York, 1978.

. The Cause That Failed: Communism in American Political Life. New York, 1990.

Lind, Michael. Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict. New York, 1999.

Millis, Walter. Road to War: America, 19141917. Boston, 1935.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Olson, James S., ed. The Vietnam War: Handbook of the Literature and Research. Westport, Conn., 1993.

Paterson, Thomas G. Soviet-American Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War. Baltimore, 1973. An important Left revisionist study of the Cold War that reflects the evolution of Cold War revisionism away from the earlier, more exclusively economic analyses of Kolko and Williams.

Paterson, Thomas G., and Robert J. McMahon, eds. The Origins of the Cold War. 4th ed. Boston, 1999. Reprints excerpts and offers insightful commentary on the historiographical debate over the origins of the Cold War and the changes in Left revisionism; there is, however, no critical assessment to date on national security revisionism.

Peterson, H. C. Propaganda for War. Norman, Okla., 1939.

Podhoretz, Norman. Why We Were in Vietnam. New York, 1978.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Imperial Presidency. Boston, 1973.

Siracusa, Joseph. The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York, 1999.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York, 1999.

Summers, Harry. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Novato, Calif., 1982.

Tansill, Charles Callan. America Goes to War. Boston, 1938.

. Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 19331941. Chicago, 1952. Relatively distinctive studies of the origins of the world wars, valuable principally because they reflect the changed focus and themes of Right revisionism.

Theoharis, Athan. Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan. Philadelphia, 1978.

Theoharis, Athan, ed. A Culture of Secrecy. Lawrence, Kans., 1998.

Tucker, Robert W. The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy. Baltimore, 1971. A thoughtful critique of Left revisionist writings on the Cold War, principally focusing on the theories, not the research, of the revisionists.

Van Slyck, Philip. Strategies for the 1980s: Lessons of Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Westport, Conn., 1981.

Wang, Jessica. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999.

Williams, William Appleman. The Great Evasion. Chicago, 1964.

. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. New York, 1972. One of the most important books written about American diplomacy, this covers the period since the founding of the Republic and has shaped the thinking and research of the Left revisionist historians.

See also Cold War Origins; Elitism; The National Interest; Open Door Interpretation; Presidential Power; Public Opinion; Realism and Idealism; The Vietnam War.


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re·vi·sion·ism / riˈvizhəˌnizəm/ • n. often derog. a policy of revision or modification, esp. of Marxism on evolutionary socialist (rather than revolutionary) or pluralist principles. ∎  the theory or practice of revising one's attitude to a previously accepted situation or point of view.DERIVATIVES: re·vi·sion·ist n. & adj.


views updated May 21 2018

revisionism Political theory derived from Marxism. Eduard Bernstein, the first Marxist revisionist, asserted (1890) that capitalism was not in crisis, and that the transition to socialism would be a matter of peaceful evolution. This conflicted directly with orthodox Marxist belief in the inevitable collapse of capitalism. After 1945, the term was used by communist regimes to condemn political movements that threatened official party policy.

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