Revisionist historians

Posted: Feb 18, 2003 12:00 AM
As with everyone, my view of a potential war with Iraq is shaped by my experience. For those in my generation, Vietnam was the defining experience. I started as a supporter of the war, but gradually turned against it. We never even tried to win, I thought, and it was the wrong place and the wrong time to confront the communist menace. Nevertheless, I felt it was my duty to offer my services to my country at that time. I joined ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force upon graduation from college. For various reasons, I ended up not serving a full tour of duty, but I would have gone to Vietnam if I had to. In graduate school, I studied the history of American foreign policy. I was especially interested in the World War II era. The origins, conduct and aftermath of that great war still seem to me to be essential for understanding where we are today. I focused mainly on the origins. At the time, I was convinced that America had been tricked into World War II by Franklin Roosevelt and into Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson. The David Halberstam book "The Best and the Brightest" seemed to me to prove the conspiratorial theory of Vietnam. But I needed to know more about World War II, and this occupied several years of my time at the National Archives and elsewhere. I fell in with a group of revisionist historians, among whom Percy Greaves was principal. He had been minority counsel to the congressional committee that investigated Pearl Harbor. It happened that he lived only a few miles from my parents' home in New Jersey. I made contact with him and visited when I could. Percy introduced me to a wide range of people who were absolutely convinced that FDR had not only known about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance but had done everything in his power to instigate it. This argument was highly persuasive to me at the time, and I eventually wrote a Master's Thesis on the topic at Georgetown University. My principal professor at Georgetown was Jules Davids, a very good teacher who is said to have ghosted John F. Kennedy's book, "Profiles in Courage." What attracted me to him was that he was a student of Charles Tansill, one of the most important of the World War II revisionists. Tansill was important because he was a highly respected diplomatic historian at a major university, whereas most revisionists barely had jobs at all. By the time I finished graduate school, I had come to believe that American entry into World War II was completely wrong. At a minimum, we should have concentrated on war in the Pacific and left the Europeans to deal with Germany themselves. I figured that communism was as bad as Nazism and that we had nothing to lose. Eventually, I came to realize that I was wrong. We now know that German research into what we today call Weapons of Mass Destruction was very far along. They had jet fighters and rockets and were very, very close to atomic weapons. Had the United States failed to intervene -- however it came about -- the outcome of the war might have been disastrous for us. Today, many of the revisionists I used to associate with see Iraq as a continuation of American warmongering that began with the Spanish-American War (or perhaps the Mexican-American War). They see American foreign policy as one continuous quest for empire. At one time, I agreed -- but not today. Maybe it is because I am older, if not necessarily wiser. Maybe it is because I live near Washington, D.C., where the threat of terrorist attack is a necessary fact of life. Anyway, I am not so sure that we can protect ourselves by being neutral, as I once thought. Our enemies don't just hate our government or our foreign policy; they hate our culture and everything that defines us as Americans--democracy, capitalism, freedom and all the rest. I am not altogether convinced that conquering Iraq will stop Islamic terrorism against the United States, but I think it will help. Serious terrorism -- the kind with access to Weapons of Mass Destruction -- cannot exist without state sponsorship. And Iraq is clearly the most terrorist-friendly nation on Earth. The fact that Iraq's people deserve liberation is also important -- even if it makes me sound like a Wilsonian liberal, something I have always hated. Still, that is where I stand.