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Historian Examines Why Americans Get Upset Over “Historical Revisionism”

* By Sherwood Ross *

Americans run into trouble evaluating their past “when cherished stories that are part of our identity are investigated and made more complex,” distinguished historian Edward Linenthal says.

This explains the controversies swirling around the battlefield at the Little Big Horn River in Montana where General Custer was defeated in 1876 and the National Air and Space Museum’s(NASM) exhibit on the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan that abruptly ended World War II.

Linenthal, a professor at Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History, says when histories accepted as reflecting accurately on events are revised, “The urge is to lash out at those doing it (the revision) as somehow being subversive.”

When historians ask new questions about evidence or come across new evidence, or look at evidence in a different way, they are looked upon as “revisionists,” he writes, adding: “To my mind, any historian who is not intellectually senile is a revisionist.” Linenthal goes on to say:

“Flashpoint words like ‘political correctness’ and ‘revisionism’ sound like accusations when in fact we are constantly revising who we think we are, not only in history but in medicine and in art and in architecture, and in technology.”

In an article he wrote for The Long Term View, a publication of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Linenthal noted that for a century the dominant interpretation of the Little Big Horn battle was the General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry troops “were Christ-like sacrificial heroes who died so the West could be opened for civilization.” Until the mid-1970s, Native Americans played the role of “barbarians,” he noted.

About that time, battlefield manager U.S. Park Service “began to understand that this was a public history site that had to accommodate the stories of different groups of Americans.” Linenthal said the Park Service has been “very successful” in converting a shrine to Custer into a memorial that also tells the story of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow warriors who fought there.

Linenthal says when he was asked to be on the advisory committee for NASM’s exhibit on Hiroshima he did not see the storm clouds coming that challenged “how deeply invested so many people were in the heroic story of the dropping of the bomb” by raising the anti-nuclear issue.

The exhibit script’s commemorative message was “Never Again”, he noted, so when critics charged it was anti-nuclear “they were exactly right” when, in fact, “many veterans wanted instead a story line that focused on the Pacific War” with the bomb as “only the last and dramatic moment” of that struggle.

The historian criticized the media for its “irresponsible” role in fanning the controversy. “The Wall Street Journal,” he said, took words out of the exhibit and put them in the mouths of the curators to make them appear pro-Japanese, and the Washington Post repeated it.” Instead of talking about significant issues “journalists focused attention on the integrity of the curators,” Linenthal said.

He noted, too, that it was easier to argue about the bomb in the late 1940s and 1950s than it was in the 1990s, “and that says something very dangerous about our cultural politics. Somehow, raising questions about our ‘sacred stories’ is wrong.” Linenthal points out, “The purpose of heritage, unlike history, is to make people feel good and give them a sense of identity.”

By contrast, “History is not meant to make people either feel bad or feel good. If we try to understand the complexity of our past, like any other past, we will be comfortable and have a sense of deep pride at times, and at other times we will feel a sense of shame and regret and reflect upon human nature. History is not supposed to be therapy, nor is it supposed to be simply an indictment of the past.”

The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, publishers of The Long Term View article in which Linenthal’s article appeared, this August will open The American College of History and Legal Studies at nearby Salem, N.H., the first college ever in the U.S. devoted primarily to the study of history.

(Sherwood Ross is a media consultant to Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Email: sherwoodross10@gmail.com)

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18 Comments for “Historian Examines Why Americans Get Upset Over “Historical Revisionism””

  1. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  2. The ability to sort through hundreds of 1st hand accounts of the same battle for military historians is almost like SABR statisticians researching OBP and RISP BA.
    A rookie private in his very first day of combat is going to give a different account than a hardened, battle experienced NCO who actually had a map to work from.
    The phrase ” I would rather be historically accurate than politically correct.”
    guides me through the process of writing my memoirs on Vietnam and Desert Storm.
    Generals who won battles in the US Civil War will take a different approach than those that lost on the opposing side. US Grant’s approach is perhaps one of the best from the era. He simply stated the five w’s: who/what/when/where and why and refused to spin his exploits into gilding his own reputation.
    Modesty in history is a rare and beautiful thing.

  3. I think the influence of film and television has been overwhelming in shaping our perceptions. I probably have read countless accounts of the Little Big Horn. I grew up in libraries, courtesy of my late father. But, the account I remember is that in “They Died With Their Boots On”. Many years ago, I read that immense amounts of public money had been invested secretly in developing the technology for television. It was realized before the first broadcast that this would be far superior to radio for shaping opinion, and thereby controlling the populace. This is quite believable, given the effect of Orson Wells’ radio “War OF The Worlds” broadcast. I remember my father refused to accept that his hero FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl. Yet, (like most Marines) he derided Mac Arthur for leaving his airfields undefended. We had many a heated argument when I pointed out that the B-17′s lined up to be bombed might have been there for the same reason that the old battlewagons (but no carriers) were lined up at Pearl. As for the Bomb, pops showed me photographs of the naval guns in caves, looking down on the Kyushu beaches he was supposed to land on. He held the view that the Bomb had probably saved his life to the grave.

    By the way, badcompany, I watched the same History Channel episode. At the very beginning, the narrator says something to the effect of “for thousands of years, the Indians rode their ponies across the plains”. Guess he never heard that horses were extinct, until reintroduced by the Spanish! Other than that faux pas, it was a great episode.

    • >>>…I read that immense amounts of public money had been invested secretly in developing the technology for television. It was realized before the first broadcast that this would be far superior to radio for shaping opinion, and thereby controlling the populace.

      Andre, I recall the early days of television while we lived in Caracas, Venezuela. It was the early ’50s and programming consisted of on-air times at 1700 with Felix the Cat cartoons. Then there were public service flicks re drinking water, mosquitos, public hygene, etc.. Then the rest of the evening was made up of programs such as “the Cisco Kid” and light entertainment.
      I remember well how people would gather in homes that owned early TV sets and watch programs. It also served as a gathering place for discussions. The Government learned this and started holding political discussions and the game was on. We arrived in the U.S. in ’55. I later heard about Nixon’s reception in Caracas when his limo was nailed with rocks and people told him to get out.
      That’s when Nixon realized the power of the media, especially TV.
      Yes, as we see today, the paid loudmouths just stir and keep stirring the pot of hate and Party of the Stupids doesn’t question. They simply follow. Sad times!
      If your Father is still living, tell him a ’60s Vietnam Marine gives him a “Semper Fi” to a warrior of the Old Breed.

  4. I agree with this guy, in combat, 10 people will be in the same action and you will get 10 different accounts of the after action reports. The news media writes history to a certain extent and when closely examined, wholesale changes have to be made.

  5. Watch this interview, it proves beyond a doubt that American history has been changed and is very misleading. if you want to worship cultural Marxism, then don’t watch it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUYCBfmIcHM

    • Cultural Marxism. hhhmmmm Interesting thought. What is cultural Marxism? Is that where you lose your soul to a central government entity?

      Sounds a lot to me as similar to where one loses his or her soul to a global corporate entity?

  6. OK, I will be the wrench-in-the-monkey-works here and add some recently discovered material re Custer’s “heroic” last stand. Some years ago, after a prairie fire again burned the battle site, a group of individuals saw an opportunity to study the battle site using law enforcement evidence gathering techniques and forensics. The site was swept with metal detectors to discover bullets and shell casings in order to establish individual combatants’ positions and all was mapped.
    Long story short, after all the filed work was finished, and the material studied, it was discovered that Custer’s last stand was no such thing. It was a total rout and undisciplined scatter of individuals fighting for their lives.
    It was confirmed that Custer’s troops were armed with single shot breech loading rifles while the Native American fighters were armed with lever action repeaters. Evidence on the battle site indicates that the Native Americans used fire-and-maneuver and laid down a heavy volume of fire which isolated groups and routed the troops.
    The end finding is that far from being a glorious, heroic last stand the fight was small groups of isolated men simply trying to run for the river and survive.
    This very interesting program was shown on the “History Channel” I believe about three or four years back.
    Reality is a bitch!

    • What are you trying to say Badcompany? The US Army was arrogant and incompetent? There is nothing new to this. The US military history is full of screw ups! For one in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge a whole unprepared Texas NG or Reserve division was captured along with it’s female US Army nurses just a few hours into the battle. In my opinion the Germans could have taken Spa and it’s fuel, if it had not been for a US Army nurse having sex with the in charge German general. She never did get a medal I am sure. Not joking.

      The commander of the 101′s was not even there with the 101′st when it took back Bastogne. He was politicking with Eisenhower. Actually later he was also a major planer of the Vietnam war in the 60’s. Another screw-up.

      The taking of the Pacific Island of Tinian by Marines was a bloody mistake according to General David M Shoup Medal of Honor winner, who later called Johnson a blood thirsty son of a Bi$%. Shoup never wanted Americans to fight in Vietnam. Another embarrassing screw-up.

      Another myth is Custer was a bad guy, worst of the worst. Custer was a military animal, and leader. Hev was arrogant yes and stupid yes for putting himself in that position.

      Who was bad was white people who moved into the Black Hills after gold. In fact Custer I am told did not even want to do this operation. Sheridan talked him into it.

      American history is full of arrogant mistakes.

      • >>>…What are you trying to say Badcompany? The US Army was arrogant and incompetent?

        Negatory, Bill. My point was with regards to what actually happened at the battle site compared to the fairy tales we are spoon fed as kids.
        There’s a two volume set entitled “Myth America” which I stumbled on years after I returned from Vietnam. I’m a Marine and was a German National when I volunteered for Vietnam(6/’65 to 9/’67). Naive as all hells I grew up on John Wayne heroics. The reality smacked me in the face after I joined.
        Yes, I’m familiar with General Shoup. My Commander in Vietnam, General Lewis Walt also hated our involvement, but as many others remained silent. When he was being considered for Commandant lower grade officers where scared for their careers.
        I believe the majority of the Marine Corps higher ranks actually read Joseph Stillwell’s experience in China and Burma and were very aware of the French experience in S.E. Asia.
        Anyway, if an individual actually takes time to dig into many of the cherrished stories handed down for generations about heroism and “glory”, he/she will find it’s all gloryfied fairy tales to make a people feel good.
        I learned my lesson after Vietnam and learned to question.

        • Thanks Badcompany. Not meaning any attacks just to stir dialogue. I am a 0311 from Vietnam, if you feel a little anger in my voice that is where it comes from..

          • >>>…Not meaning any attacks just to stir dialogue. I am a 0311 from Vietnam, if you feel a little anger in my voice that is where it comes from..

            Not a problem, Bil. At 63 years of age I’m still dealing with my demons, but I try not to let my anger show. With a little help from Mother Earth’s best and a tankard of rum… As I said, I’ve learned to question after a hard-learned lesson.
            After returning stateside in September ’67(out in 3/’68) I got involved in “politics” in 1970. That was a mistake I never repeated!!! The corruption and dirty tricks made me vomit! These assholes have only their self-interests at heart. I just sit back and watch all the ass-biting going on and snicker. I only wish the sheeple would wake the hells up and get organized as they were during the ’60s!

  7. We subconsciously deny our own American history, and for a long time revised our bloody killing of innocent Native Americans. Americans are in denial about our own ethnic cleansing. In the early 80′s a fire at Montana’s Custer Battlefield exposed more of Custer’s soldiers who died in the infamous battle. The park service was going to box up the bones and put them in a box and bury them at the battlefield cemetery. With no or very little ceremony.

    I intervened with the help of Larry DeMeo VA Central Office DC, and at the time undersecretary of the Army for reserve Affairs now a US Senator from Virginia Jim Webb. After many verbal phone battles with the Interior Department, including the US Army at Fort Hood Texas elements came to Custer Battlefield buried with military honors of what I thought would have been forgotten warriors, just like us combat veterans of Vietnam.

    The US Army and Interior Department thought the Indians would get angry. But they did not America, they were out there in full Indian dress blessing the bones to the earth forever. It was very moving; God Bless those Indians.

    In a mature way American natives, have thought about American history a lot. White people in English speaking North America still have a long way to go.

  8. Thank you for publishing this article. I grew up in the Deep South in the 1950′s and 1960′s. My high school history books portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as good, honest, hard-working, law-abiding people who were forced to “take the law into their own hands” after the Civil War because the damyankees/carpetbaggers were letting the n——s get away with murder and anything else they wanted to get away with. This is just one example of how history needs to be re-examined and refined, and yes, sometimes revised. Thank God for “revisionists!”

    • I grew up in the deep south in the 50′s and 60′s and the history books were right about the KKK following the Civil war. It was formed to keep the yankee carpetbaggers and thir toads out of their lives. What the KKK became later on is not a good reflection on the south or anywhere else that the KKK was.

  9. THIS MAN IS OF THE FEW WHO WILL COME FORWARD WITH A MORE REALISTIC VEIWPOINT … HOWEVER I BELIEVE THE PROBLEM IS THAT SOME PEOPLE HAVE FIGURED OUT HOW CERTAIN ACTION WILL PRODUCE CERTAIN REACTION … AND HAVE CHOOSEN TO BE UNSCRUPULOUS WITH THIS KNOWLEGE … THE VETERANS ARE CORRECT….. “THEY WHERE THERE” THE OTHERS ARE JUST MEAR HUMANS… FOR THEY KNOW NOT OF WHAT THEY ILL…….

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