A Strange Defense of History
George E. Haverkamp, November 2003
To the Editor:
The commentary entitled "Revisionist Historians" by AHA President James McPherson (Perspectives, September 2003) is confused and confusing. He claims that ongoing research and interpretation in history leads to revising history so all history is basically "revisionist history." A strange declaration, since he acknowledges that "revisionist history" usually refers to the practice of ignoring, distorting, denying, or falsifying evidence and giving slanted interpretations for ideological or propaganda purposes. Then he goes on to discuss the use of that kind of "revisionist history" by the Bush administration while noting that some of its members claim that critics are practicing it. Other examples of such "revisionist history" are given from American history. Where does that leave us? First, I doubt that many will agree that we're all "revisionist historians" simply because history is continually being revised with new research and interpretation. That's absurd. Second, all the polemics surrounding "revisionist history" in McPherson's commentary clearly point to the need for well-researched, well-reasoned, balanced, and insightful historical debate particularly with regard to contemporary history and public policy. Historians should be able to present a penetrating analysis and a cogent argument based on their studies of how things work in this world. All of the sniping at various things in McPherson's commentary certainly doesn't add up to this. Nevertheless, he inadvertently builds an interesting case for the idea that much historical discussion is really a debate between ideological "revisionists" of one kind or another. That's something to think about.
—George E. Haverkamp, Montgomery, TX