ELMER BARNES, PROGRESSIVE
Elmer Barnes was a reformer and a Progressive, and thus
a modern "liberal." He had faith that progressive
governments, guided by social science and the "new"
history (first announced by James Harvey Robinson in
1912), could bring about a better world through social
engineering. He saw Sweden’s Middle Way as a working
model of the self-improving society. If that were all
there was to him, there would be nothing to do – around
here, anyway – except maybe put his picture up on the
ideological dartboard alongside Max Lerner, Rexford
G. Tugwell, and other worthy targets.
certainly did well in the intellectual climate of the
early 20th century. He wrote textbooks on
world civilization and sociology, histories of western
thought, edited collections in sociology and related
fields, and reviewed, reviewed, and reviewed. He engaged
himself in all the fashionable progressive causes –
peace, economic regulation, penal reform, eugenics,
etc. – all resting on the idea of conscious social planning
to better society. His fellow Progressive historian
Carl Becker called him a "learned crusader."
Certainly, Barnes was a deeply learned scholar and a
very productive writer. Arthur Goddard writes: "There
is Barnes the encyclopedist and Barnes the journalist.
Barnes the scholar and Barnes the teacher, Barnes the
historian and Barnes the atheist, Barnes the academician
and Barnes the gadfly and crusader, Barnes the lecturer
and Barnes the theorist, Barnes the reviewer and Barnes
the debater, Barnes the revisionist and Barnes the criminologist
interest in peace and a skepticism about the Allies’
version of World War I set him on a path which, in time,
undercut his brilliant early career. This was "revisionism,"
which I should not have to explain refers
to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical
record or interpretation. At home, for example, there
has been revisionism about progressive reform, which
sees such reform as consciously intended to cartelize
markets (see Gabriel Kolko among others) – from the
Interstate Commerce Commission to the New Deal and after.
Here, I am mainly concerned with those historians who
have raised questions regarding foreign policy and the
origins of wars.
Genesis of the World War (1926), Barnes argued
that, on the record, Serbia, Russia and France bore
a greater responsibility for the disaster of 1914-1918
than did Austria and Germany. Indeed, in Barnes’ view,
German "war guilt" in 1914 was about equal
to that of Britain. Neither power had wanted a general
war, but both were drawn into it, once others set it
rolling. In the 1920s, Barnes was writing in a skeptical
climate and could be considered "mainstream."
Americans had been rather disappointed by Woodrow Wilson’s
great crusade and were very interested in understanding
its causes. Also addressing a possibly narrower audience,
Barnes edited a series of books on US imperialism (mainly
in Latin America) published by Vanguard.
THE ‘ONE GOOD WAR’
John T. Flynn, H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Charles
Beard, Barnes was regarded as a leading spokesman for
good causes until he failed to sign up with the foreign
policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For this sin, these
"liberal" thinkers vanished into outer darkness,
redefined as "right-wing" troglodytes. Some,
by working within the anti-New Deal coalition here referred
to as the Old Right, did indeed become more "right-wing"
(understood as referring to classical liberalism and
republicanism). Certainly, on domestic affairs, Barnes,
who never gave up the progressivism of his youth, remained
the least right-wing member of the coalition in which
he now found himself. Once battle was joined between
Roosevelt’s supporters and the opponents of intervention,
Barnes, as a leading polemicist for the "wrong"
side, found his usual publishing outlets closed to him.
He was reduced to taking "visiting professorships
the United States was in World War II, Barnes dedicated
himself to revising received opinion as to the war’s
causes and meaning. He saw it as the direct outcome
of the folly of World War I and the Versailles settlement.
The task, therefore, was to apply the attitude and methods
of World War I revisionism to the study of the second
war. Pearl Harbor – an event still not explained to
everyone’s satisfaction – became central for Barnes.
He wrote a number of essays on the subject. More broadly
constructive, perhaps, was the symposium, Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton
Printers, 1953), which he edited, and to which he contributed
an essay on Barnes in the collection edited by Arthur
Goddard, the late Murray
N. Rothbard distinguished between "narrow"
and "broad" revisionism in the study of wars
and their causes. Narrow revisionists concentrated on
injustices done to Germany in the Versailles Treaty
and their bearing on the origins of World War II. Such
revisionists were unable to resist the call to enlist
in the Cold War, which appeared to be about entirely
different issues. By contrast, broad revisionists were
interested in the causes of wars in general, in the
war system so to speak, and by applying broader
lessons on war and peace, were able to resist successive
new crusades promising perpetual peace but delivering
classified Barnes as a broad revisionist. This seems
true enough, despite Barnes’ tendency in his last thirty
years to focus on World War II. Rejection of the Cold
War as ideology and system is already explicit in his
contributions to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.
COSTS OF WAR
leads off the collection with his "Revisionism
and the Historical Blackout." He states that before
the two world wars America "was a libertarian country
in which there was little or no witch-hunting and few
of the symptoms and operations of the police state which
have been developing here so drastically during the
past decade" (PWPP, p. 3). He recounts that a friend
had told him that working men might be skeptical of
his claim that Americans were, generally, better off
in 1913 than later. Barnes noted that the low wages
of 1913 went hand in hand with the low prices
of 1913 – a relationship obscured by decades of war-related
inflation and taxation. Moreover, a "father… had
every assurance that he could raise his family with
his sons free from the shadow of the draft and butchery
in behalf of politicians. The threat of war did not
hang over him. There are some forms of tyranny worse
than that of an arbitrary boss in a nonunion shop"
the operations of the "smearbund" of journalists
and "Court historians" who ran the "historical
blackout," Barnes complained that revisionist historians
were denied access to sensitive documents available
to Establishment scholars. Further, their books always
drew the most hostile reviewers possible. Surely, there
was a pattern here. Of course, the Barnesian terms quoted
here suggest that Barnes could give back what he got.
Like Dwight MacDonald, he referred constantly to "totalitarian
liberals" – a term absolutely justified in the
period under discussion. (And who can forget his pamphlet
about "the chickens of the interventionist liberals"
coming "home to roost"?)
the period 1900-1953, Barnes wrote – citing columnist
Jay Franklin – Republican presidents showed a yearly
average of 0 wartime casualties; Democratic ones, 58,160
(p. 35). This used to be a staple of GOP rhetoric as
recently as thirty years ago. Poor Bob Dole slipped
his clutch a couple of candidacies ago and fell into
that gear, and then had to grovel and apologize for
mentioning it. On the facts, of course, Wilson, FDR,
and Truman did lead us into major wars, while Harding,
Coolidge, and Hoover did not. I suppose this is because
Republicans had the dumb luck to be in office when the
world was calm and peaceful. The Democrats, sadly, were
in power when unavoidable wars became available, into
which they herded us as quickly as possible, against
our better judgment, but obviously for the long-run
good – ours, the world’s, mankind’s, etc.
far as annual casualties go, the averages would be different
now, what with Nixonicus Rex’s "secret plan"
to end the war in Vietnam by keeping it going as long
as possible, and George Herbert Walker Bush’s sudden
discovery that Saddam Hussain was a bad actor. Even
now, however, Democrats would likely remain well ahead,
and who better than the party of the people to bestow
foreign travel and adventure on the broad masses? (As
the sixties antiwar poster said, "Travel to exotic
lands. Meet new people. Kill them.")
ORWELLIAN SYSTEM OF PERMANENT MOBILIZATION
analysis of the Cold War owed much to George Orwell’s
In 1965, he wrote that, according to Stephen Spender,
Orwell had intended to call the book 1948
because the world order it described had already taken
shape!3 After all, perpetual war
fought between three power blocs which shift
their alliances periodically, accompanied by a rewriting
of history to gloss over such changes – was a 20th-century
wrote Barnes, "we are now passing into a period
in which wars – hot, cold, or phony, but mainly cold
and phony – are being used to an increasing extent as
the basic instrument of domestic political strategy
in order to consolidate the power of the class or party
in office, to extend and retain tenure of office, to
maintain prosperity and full employment and to avert
depressions. The real enemy is not nations or forces
outside the borders, but parties and classes within
the country that are antagonistic to the party and class
which hold power."4
whole industries became tied to "defense"
spending, one can hardly blame Barnes for accepting
at face value the ultimately faulty underconsumptionist
economic analysis which the Establishment itself believed
or pretended to believe. Understood as a system of state-corporate
partnership and centralized control – grounded in political
decisions, however, and not inherent in the market economy
– the emerging order certainly earned the name Barnes
gave it: "military state capitalism."5
The point that permanent "cold war" mobilization
froze existing domestic political relations in place,
enhanced state power against society, and was the perfect
weapon against one’s own public is so important that
the political scientists can only have worked overtime
for several decades to be able deliberately to miss
1965, the future looked grim to Harry Elmer Barnes.
Government secrecy was on the rise. Military state capitalism
characterized all the western economies. The sheer gullibility
of the American people regarding official foreign enemies
had freed those in power from having to institute a
full-scale police state like those in the eastern bloc.
Our free press could be counted on to bamboozle the
people without such negative incentives. Wars had become
increasingly barbaric, as shown by terror bombing in
World War II and Korea.
ROLE OF HISTORICAL REVISIONISM
only light breaking through the gloom of Barnes’ later
work is his conviction that sound revisionist scholarship
could begin, someday, to break the spell of official
rationalization and mendacity, to overcome the "cultural
lag" between growing means of destruction and limited
popular grasp of the issues of war and peace. Some would
say that in striving for that goal, Barnes spent too
much time on World War II. Some have said that in his
zeal to discredit that war as the ideological justification
for all subsequent deeds of the American empire, Barnes
fell into bad company in his later years.(7) Perhaps
so. But for most of Barnes’ critics he was never in
good company at any time, anyway.
YANKEES’ SECOND ‘TREASURY OF VIRTUE’
Penn Warren wrote that the North and South both got
something from the war of 1861-1865. The South got a
"great alibi" such that anything wrong with
the South in 1930 or 1940 was said to be due, however
remotely, to "the war." The North got a "treasury
of virtue" based on the happy conceit that Lincoln
had made war solely, primarily, and with conscious forethought
to free the slaves. Given the way the American empire
goes on deploying World War II as its second – and much
greater – treasury of virtue, perhaps Barnes was not
so wrong, after all.
Joseph Grew, our man in Japan, warned the Roosevelt
administration in January 1941 – that is, eleven months
before Pearl Harbor – that in the event of diplomatic
impasse, the Japanese military intended attacking –
yes! – Pearl Harbor. All Purple codes, magic messages,
missing documents, etc. aside, one wonders how and why
such a simple concept could have failed to percolate
through the bureaucracy during those eleven months,
perhaps even arriving on the desks of commanders Kimmel
and Short in Hawaii in timely fashion, that is, by the
morning of December 7, at the latest?
is not as important as asking whether fighting for the
Open Door in China was such a great idea, or whether
pushing Japan to the brink in order to ease the administration’s
entry into the European war amounted to high statesmanship.
On the present official account, our soon-to-be enemies
were so completely evil – and directly threatening –
that all of FDR’s lying is nothing to the favor he did
us by lying us into a war against them. If Roosevelt’s
defenders were 17th-century Puritans, their
sermon would be entitled, "Lying No Prevarication."
Lying doesn’t even come up to falsehood, if done by
FDR to save civilization, destroy fascism (and quite
a few of those "fascist" civilians), fight
"racism," and so forth. Uncle Joe from Georgia
(the other Georgia) certainly thought so. To worry about
constitutional procedures and public honesty – at a
time like that! – is the pettiest 19th-century
that was half a century ago. Few now quibble about constitutional
forms and even fewer expect to be told the truth. I’m
not sure they even care. After all, the liars are much
better these days, having had fifty more years of practice.
"Humanitarian intervention" – their newest
lie – is the best one yet. It’s worth several hundred
of the other jokes in circulation about this administration.
And Senator McCain he’s a real comedian.
Arthur Goddard, quoted in Justus D. Doenecke, "Harry
Elmer Barnes," Wisconsin
Magazine of History (Summer 1973), p. 311.
Ibid., p. 312.
Harry Elmer Barnes, An
Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World,
vol. 3, (New York: Dover, 1965), ch. 28, "A Glimpse
at the Future," p. 1326. See also Murray N. Rothbard,
"Harry Elmer Barnes as Revisionist of the Cold
War" in Arthur Goddard, ed., Harry
Elmer Barnes: Learned Crusader (Colorado Springs:
Ralph Myles, 1968), pp. 314-342.
Barnes, "Glimpse of the Future," p. 1325.
On military state capitalism, see Seymour Melman,
Capitalism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970) and
Permanent War Economy (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1974), and more recently, Robert Higgs,
"The Cold War Economy: Opportunity Costs, Ideology,
and the Politics of Crisis," Explorations
in Economic History, 31 (1994), pp. 283-312.
For a political scientist who does a good job of noticing,
see Bruce D. Porter, War
and the Rise of the State (New York: The Free
Doenecke, "Harry Elmer Barnes," pp. 315-319.
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