From the President

Revisionist Historians

James McPherson, September 2003

This summer the Bush administration thought it had discovered a surefire tactic to discredit critics of its Iraq adventure. President Bush followed the lead of his national security adviser Condoleeza Rice to accuse such critics of practicing "revisionist history." Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand "revisionist history" to be a consciously falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present. Or did George Bush and Condoleeza Rice mean to suggest only that those who now criticize the administration's Iraq policy have revised their earlier opinions? But few if any have done so. Almost all the historians I know of who maintain that the evidence for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or support for Al Qaeda is ambiguous or false were saying the same things six months or a year ago. All who then insisted that Iraq posed little threat to the United States or its allies and that a war with Iraq would endanger American lives, security, and national interest far more than a continuation of the policy of containment and UN inspections, have not changed their position.

Whatever Bush and Rice meant by "revisionist historians," it is safe to say that they did not mean it favorably. The 14,000 members of this Association, however, know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable "truth" about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, "revisionism"—is what makes history vital and meaningful. Without revisionism, we might be stuck with the images of Reconstruction after the American Civil War that were conveyed by D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era. Were the Gilded Age entrepreneurs "Captains of Industry" or "Robber Barons"? Without revisionist historians who have done research in new sources and asked new and nuanced questions, we would remain mired in one or another of these stereotypes. Supreme Court decisions often reflect a "revisionist" interpretation of history as well as of the Constitution. Would President Bush and Condoleeza Rice wish to associate themselves with Southern political leaders of the 1950s who condemned Chief Justice Earl Warren and his colleagues as revisionist historians because their decision (which, incidentally, was based in part on the research of historian John Hope Franklin and others) in Brown v. Board of Education struck down the accepted version of history and law laid down by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson?

The administration's pejorative usage of "revisionist history" to denigrate critics by imputing to them a falsification of history is scarcely surprising. But it is especially ironic, considering that the president and his principal advisers have themselves been practitioners par excellence of this kind of revisionism. Iraq offers many examples. To justify an unprovoked invasion of that country, the president repeatedly exaggerated or distorted ambiguous intelligence reports to portray Iraqi possession of or programs to develop biological, chemical, and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" that posed an imminent threat to the United States. In his State of the Union message on January 28, President Bush made clear his acceptance of a British intelligence report that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" to develop nuclear weapons. This assertion was "revisionist history" with a vengeance; the U. S. government knew at the time it was received that the intelligence was unreliable and learned soon afterwards that it was based on forged documents. Yet not until July did the administration concede its gaffe—and then tried to blame the CIA. That agency took the fall, but with respect to another administration justification for the war—Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Al Qaeda—the CIA refused to provide any aid and comfort. An official in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research offered (in the New York Times of July 12, 2003) a pointed description of the kind of revisionist history practiced by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al: "This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude: 'We know the answers, give us the intelligence to support those answers.'"

In its foreign policy, too, the Bush administration has a strong commitment to this kind of revisionism. During his campaign for the presidency, Bush dismissed the previous administration's efforts at "nation building" with contempt. The government is now engaged in the most expensive experiment in nation-building in more than a half century—and so far the least successful. The Pentagon has constantly revised upward the cost of rebuilding Iraq—which at this writing stands at $180 billion and counting. Coming into office with a surplus in the federal budget and a commitment to a balanced budget, the administration is running the largest deficits in history, which will probably continue into the indefinite and seemingly infinite future. In his campaign for the presidency, Bush also insisted that as a superpower, the United States had an obligation to be "humble" in its dealings with other nations. Vive la revision!

For many of us, the term "revisionist historians" recalls distasteful memories from the 1970s of Holocaust deniers who called themselves "revisionists." One hopes that in resorting to this phrase now, the president's associates are not seeking to falsely and maliciously link present-day critics of the administration to those who misrepresented the past for nefarious ends. But even if they are not guilty of such an insinuation, by misusing the term "revisionist historians" to derisively deflect criticism, Condoleeza Rice and her cohorts are denigrating a legitimate and essential activity of historians.

The judgmental tone of Rice's derogatory reference to "revisionist historians" brings to mind a review of her book The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948–1983, in the December 1985 issue of the American Historical Review (p. 1236) when she was an assistant professor at Stanford. The reviewer claimed that Rice "frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation." In addition, according to the reviewer, she "passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts" and her "writing abounds with meaningless phrases." I cannot testify for or against the accuracy and fairness of this review. But I am tempted to wonder, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, whether we are experiencing deja vu all over again.

—James M. McPherson (Princeton Univ.) is president of the American Historical Association. He can be reached by e-mail addressed to jmcphers@princeton.edu.