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From the Letters to the Editor column of the October 2003 Perspectives

Erroneous Assumptions

James M. McPherson, November 2003

To the Editor:

The letters from Messrs. Krein, McArthur, and Wiener in the October issue of Perspectives and from Mr. Haverkamp in this issue concerning my "Revisionist Historians" essay are premised on two erroneous assumptions. First is the assumption that the views expressed in the "From the President" column speak for the AHA or "for the profession." They do not; they represent the president's views alone.

Having said this, however, I will note that my essay elicited scores of personal communications from AHA members, 95 percent of whom expressed agreement with my view. Second is the implied assumption that historians should stick to history and avoid political commentary. I believe that an analysis of the government's foreign and military policies during the past two years is most certainly a legitimate subject for historians. If my commentary struck some readers as "smugly supercilious" and "unremittingly sarcastic and dismissive," I apologize. But anyone who watched Ms. Rice's and Mr. Bush's televised references to "revisionist historians" in July must concede that they far outdid me in sarcasm and dismissiveness.

Messrs. Wiener and Haverkamp should have read my remarks more carefully. I did not "admit" that I had not read Condoleezza Rice's book—I have read it. I stated that (as a nonspecialist in a specialized subject), I could not judge the review's accuracy and fairness. And I did not define historical revisionism as "ignoring, distorting, denying, or falsifying evidence and giving slanted interpretations," but rather suggested that Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush may have meant to define revisionism in this way.

Finally, I am willing to leave it up to readers to decide whether my "conclusions and arguments" are more or less likely "to flow automatically from ideology rather than from evidence" than those of the Bush administration.

—James M. McPherson, Princeton University