Monday, July 31, 2006

Revisionism: It's "good" if I Agree with it or "I'll Have my Historical Cake and eat it too!"

William Nolte (via Arts and Letters Daily) begins his review of Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era with:
[Alger] Hiss and [Whittaker] Chambers worked together as Soviet source and courier from late 1934 until the latter’s defection from the underground in 1938.

Two generations of controversy can be compressed into that spare, declarative statement from The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein and former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev. Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Not “according to Whittaker Chambers.” Not “an alleged Soviet agent.” After more than five decades, Hiss's treason can now be stated simply as fact.

But truth is rarely so simple, especially in a case that has stirred so many emotions and is so intertwined with issues larger than the veracity of the two men, Hiss and Chambers, who stood at its center. In December 1998, National Public Radio reported that “recent revelations have convinced some scholars that Hiss was guilty.” [Italics added.] For 30 years, defenders of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg protested their innocence; now they protest their sentencing, with bare mention, in many instances, of the ground that has shifted under the issue.
Thus--despite the stereotype that all academic historians are (boo, hiss) revisionists--do we have an example of the resistance of some academic historians to revision. (Warning: generalizations imminent).

So often we hear (mostly from the political right) about the revisionism done by historians that has served to undermine the "true" history of our country. This, in turn, has led to a widespread assumption that all revisionism is bad. But then we have this. I would bet that this example of revisionism would be considered "good" by most on the right.

Meanwhile many of the historians on the left--who have been at the forefront of revisionism--have been reluctant to accept this particular instance. And here we have the commonality between the two: revisionism is good or bad depending on one's ideological predisposition. Of course, the necessary precursor to that is that the history that should (or shouldn't) be revised is good or bad depending on one's ideological predisposition.


historyjen said...

Vietnam War revisionists were of course those historians who were less critical of US policies and actions than the first historians to tackle the subject had been. They started writing mainly in the 1980s, and came from the triumphalist right.

Revisionism is historians' stock and trade. Otherwise, we'd just be antiquarian chroniclers who never attempted to interpret anything. And that isn't history.

Eddie said...

For a little more revisionist history, check out W. E. Woodward's 1926 George Washington: the image and the man. Woodward is an elegant and humorous writer, but if Washington was even half as stupid as portrayed here, we'd still be British subjects!

Woodward was tangentially aligned with what I've heard described as the "moonlight and magnolias" school of Southern history, which could perhaps be described as revisionist.