Roy A. Childs, Jr. on Revisionist History

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Revisionist History: An Introductory Study Guide

By Roy A. Childs, Jr.

It is revisionism which has single-handedly broken historians out of the mold of being ex post facto apologists for government actions and policies. Revisionism is a school of historiography which has arisen to challenge conventional interpretations of historical events. Revisionism is critically important to libertarians for two reasons. Firstly, before one can challenge or evaluate a policy, one must grasp its nature, and revisionism helps to provide the facts necessary for understanding this. Secondly, revisionism helps us to get at how policy-makers themselves see certain policies, what their motives are in advocating a set of policies—a question which is different from that of the objective validity of such policies. This is important simply because it helps us to predict how decision makers will react to certain events and crises, and thus to grasp more clearly what is going on in the world. The purpose of this brief study guide is to indicate some of the best sources for understanding the growth of American statism—foreign and domestic—since the Civil War.

Without a doubt the best book with which to begin any study of American history is Arthur Ekirch’s The Decline of American Liberalism, which is a survey focusing on one crucial, essential aspect of American history: on the decline of liberty as an ideal and political reality, and on the concomitant growth of American statism.

By common consensus, the rapid growth of American statism which the 20th century has seen was begun in the post-Civil War era. A key to understanding this era lies in the fact that throughout this period there were a series of recessions and depressions which resulted from government interference with credit and the money supply during and after the Civil War.

Businessmen and intellectuals alike sought a solution to the economic problems causes by these crises. At the same time, some of the businesses which had grown to a very large size as a result of government involvement in the economy during the Civil War began to face growing economic threats from smaller competitors. How were they to respond?

In The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads and Regulation, historian Gabriel Kolko documents the answer beyond question: they responded by choosing to advocate government intervention into the economy. Specifically, they advocated regulation through the antitrust laws, the Federal Reserve System and other similar regulatory policies and agencies. This regulation was, Kolko states, designed to curb the grown in decentralization and competition, to stabilize the economic system, and to cripple smaller competitors for their own security and benefit.

In The New Empire, historian Walter LeFeber documents a corollary response. Both businessmen and intellectuals began to believe that continued American prosperity required expanded markets for American goods in foreign countries, and began to advocate an expansionistic foreign policy to secure such markets by force, leading to massive interventions in Latin America and, eventually, to American generation of the Spanish-American War.

The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, by James Weinstein, covers another aspect of this same process: how businessmen and intellectuals worked together to define and implement a Statist system. It concentrates especially on certain business-dominated organizations which promoted Statist legislation.

Two books which cover the period from the Progressive Era to our own time are Towards a New Past, edited by Barton Bernstein, and A New History of Leviathan, edited by Ronald Radosh and Murray N. Rothbard. Both are collections of essays containing some truly brilliant analyses. The Bernstein book contains excellent essays on foreign policy leading up to the Spanish-American War, through the Wilson regime, through the period between World Wars I & II, and since. Also contained is an excellent essay exposing the frauds of the New Deal. The Rothbard/Radosh book is even more valuable. There is an essay on the political economy of Wilson’s foreign policy, Rothbard’s dissection of socialized planning of the economy during World War I, his exposure of Herbert Hoover as a Statist, Radosh’s essay “The Myth of the New Deal,” and Leonard Liggio’s essay on modern foreign policy makers—among other good essays.

Wilson’s critically important foreign policy, which set the base of later interventionism, is examined in depth in N. Gordon Levin’s Woodrow Wilson and World Politics, an excellent supplement to the more philosophical approach of Ekirch in the above-mentioned book. Levin concentrates on the roots of liberal internationalism and America’s response to revolution in the post-war era.

The role of American labor unions in promoting an interventionistic foreign policy from World War I to the Cold War is examined in depth in Ronald Radosh’s book American Labor and U. S. Foreign Policy.

The domestic situation prior to the depression of 199 is examined in Murray N. Rothbard’s important America’s Great Depression, which shows how the government caused the depression, the interventions in the economy under the Republicans of the 1920’s, Hoover’s statist anticipation of New Deal programs, and the growth of collectivist thinking among the businessmen, who advocated more and more interventionism.

Just as in the Progressive Era an expansionistic foreign policy took root in order to provide for allegedly “necessary” markets, among other things, so too was this a primary focus of the New Deal during the 1930’s since the New Deal’s domestic program proved woefully inadequate for solving the depression’s ills. This is covered in depth in a work by Lloyd C. Gardner, Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy, a brilliant dissection of Roosevelt’s foreign policy which led to participation in World War II.

Since World War II, America has had a growing role to play in world affairs, and it has become increasingly complex. Before World War II, America had troops in virtually no foreign countries. Today it has military bases alone in 46, and troops in another 50 countries. What happened? What was responsible for the growing intervention in foreign affairs?

This question is examined in a wide variety of works. The best work with which to begin is David Horowitz’s The Free World Colossus, which is a history and critique of American foreign policy in the Cold War—since World War II.

But the two major works which provide an integrated overview of the critically important post-World War II era are by Gabriel Kolko: The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 and its 800-page sequel, The Limits of Power, which covers the years from 1945 through 1954. Here are the best revisionist accounts of American diplomacy during World War II, events in Poland, Greece, China, Germany and Korea; here too are the best revisionist accounts of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. These two books are the most important yet written on the Cold War, although Kolko tends to draw illicit and wrongheaded conclusions from his own facts—conclusions about the American economic system which have nothing to do with his facts. Specifically, because American policy-makers believe expansion and control of other nations to be crucial to American security and prosperity, Kolko concludes that therefore it is necessary, clearly a non sequitur. But the Kolko books and all the others should be read very critically.

The facts can speak for themselves, as can the themes running through the growth of American statism. Statism constantly generates problems, and Statism is turned to as a solution for these very problems, which just makes matters worse. These works hardly exhaust the field of revisionism, but together they form an impressive and well-documented picture of the growth of Statism since the Civil War, and are important reading for any in-depth study of American politics. They are the most scholarly and complete analyses available of the course of modern American history.

[This essay was first published in Books for Libertarians, December 1972 and was posted to Objectivist Living with permission on Saturday, October 14, 2006. Questions and comments are welcome. More extended reviews of some of the individual books mentioned in this essay will also be posted to Objectivist Living at a future date.]

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