Ethics & Public Policy Center

Vulgarizing Bad History


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


The ripple effects of the “Enola Gay” controversy continued to work their way through American culture this past summer. In the week before the Hiroshima anniversary, Peter Jennings of ABC-TV broadcast a ninety-minute program that Washington Post reviewer Ken Ringle acidly described as “an ingénue’s stroll down the narrow tunnels of academic revisionism with only occasional intimations that larger truths may lie outside.” On Jennings’s telling of the tale as summarized by Ringle, Harry Truman was “not the ‘buck stops here’ Missourian who . . . never looked back but… an intellectual and moral dwarf, propelled by ambitious militarists and politicians to a nuclear slaughter of the innocents.” Given the ubiquity of the revisionists in the academy, this was not, shall we say, an original argument. But it was the first time, Ringle noted, that a major network had “so emphatically divorced itself from the perceptions of historians and journalists who experienced the war years firsthand.” Thus Jennings, who walked through this difficult and complex terrain “with the telegenic innocence of a golden retriever in his first wading pool,” gave “short shrift … to the fighting in the Pacific and to the bitter intransigence of the Japanese in the face of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender” (which Jennings mistakenly described as an American, rather than Allied, initiative). Little wonder, then, that Jennings concluded his program with a complaint about the “bullying” of the Smithsonian by veterans’ organizations.

The Sunday after Jennings’s broadcast, the New York Times Book Review showcased an essay by the man ubiquitously referred to as “leading presidential historian” Michael R. Beschloss. Mr. Beschloss, it seems, is wholly innocent of the ideological proclivities and scholarly track record of Gar Alperovitz, whose new book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Beschloss was to read, mark, and digest. Suffice it to say that Mr. Alperovitz might well be seconded from his Center for Economic Alternatives to the national Office of Weights and Measures, to serve as the official standard for revisionist orthodoxy.

Alperovitz has long been on Harry Truman’s case, so to speak, and has now gone beyond his charge that Truman used the atomic weapon on Japan to strengthen America’s hand against the Soviet Union in Europe. What Truman should have done, according to Alperovitz as summarized by an admiring Beschloss, was to show himself “a lot more eager to welcome the Soviets into the Asian conflict.” That this strategy, minus the quick conclusion of the war in August 1945, would almost certainly have led to a wholly communist Korea, a communist Taiwan, and a post-war division of Japan into Russian and American occupation zones (with post-occupation results similar to those in Germany) goes unremarked by “leading presidential historian” Beschloss.

The revisionist attack on Truman and his advisors in the course of the “Enola Gay” controversy was less a serious effort to understand and assess the decision-making at the end of the Pacific War than a last-ditch attempt to salvage the claim that the Cold War was primarily the result of American anti-communism. The revisionists’ passions, first ignited in the sixties, were inflamed not so much by Hiroshima as by Vietnam. That this seemingly endless argument erupted again during the summer in which the United States established full diplomatic relations with its erstwhile enemy in Hanoi only adds a touch of irony to the situation.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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