Letters to the Editor: On Rhetoric vs. Rationality

Don McArthur, October 2003

This letter is in response to AHA President James M. McPherson's article, Revisionist Historians, published in the September 2003 issue of Perspectives. 

To the Editor:

In his September 2003 column, James McPherson professes not to know what President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had in mind when they made their comments about "revisionist historians." I cannot claim to specifically know either, but, for my part, I suspect that they meant the trend in the history profession over the last several decades to recast the typical narrative of Western civilization and American history in an increasingly critical, even cynical and hostile, light. Prof. McPherson is right to come to the defense of the profession in general, insofar as he correctly reminds readers that the process of history is one of ongoing "revision." He helps make the President's larger case, however, in his unremittingly sarcastic and dismissive tone, and the blatantly hostile cast of his piece. Rather than confine himself to a discussion of the theory and practice of the craft of history and a defense of the integrity of the concept of "revision," he goes on rudely and unprofessionally mock the president and Rice.

The comments made by President Bush and others, as I took them, were a reaction to a historical profession that seems to be losing its moorings in cautious scholarship and reasoned judgment, too often allowing conclusions and argument to flow automatically from ideology rather than from evidence. McPherson's piece, particularly in tandem with his essay on "Preventive War" from last spring, appears to validate the latter perception. In the September "Revisionist" column, for example, McPherson finds "ironic" revisionism on the part of the administration itself in the president having shifted his views on unilateral action and nation-building since the 2000 campaign; the professor appears not to consider that the events of September 2001 might have significantly and genuinely shifted the president's views about foreign policy and relative isolationism. Moreover, his concluding assault on Rice refers to a nearly two-decade-old book review, the negative conclusions of which McPherson admits, in one breath, that he cannot personally validate, while in the next claiming plainly that the same conclusion is generally indicative of Rice's reasoning and analysis in her current position.

I certainly respect McPherson and his contributions to historical scholarship, and I welcomed his clear and succinct reminder about the nature of historical investigation. I wish, however, that when speaking for the profession, as he does when he writes a presidential column in an AHA publication, he would moderate his obviously intense political aversion to the administration. By failing to do so, and by letting his personal political passions draw him toward rhetoric rather than rationality, he is only proving what I take to have been their essential point, and furthering a general public mistrust of academic historians.

—Don McArthur
Maine South High School
Park Ridge, Ill.