The Soviet Union treated history as a tool to be used to gather support for whatever the Communist party line happened to be at the moment. As a recent New York Times editorial correctly pointed out, “authoritarian regimes are firm believers in the George Orwell dictum ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ The Soviet Union was forever rewriting or blotting out its history, and China has similarly sought to manipulate national narratives and memories, whether through censorship or by force.”
Hence many Chinese young people know nothing about the Tiananmen Square massacre of college students and others demonstrating for democracy that took place 30 years ago. The Communist leadership calculated that it would be safer if they didn’t know.
Is our country slowly moving towards a similar approach to the past?
Possibly. Yet if it is, this movement isn’t the result of state control so much as our cultural resistance to facts which challenge our narratives of past events and heroes. Often, what we see is that when confronted with new historical evidence, the culture’s auto-immune response is to attack the messenger and reject the new facts as unreliable and illegitimate.
In some circumstances this response is actually helpful, because the truth is that much historical revisionism is driven by ideology and tendentious readings of hazy or incomplete evidence. So an impulse to conserve cultural memories is not, necessarily, unhealthy.
But striking a balance between reasonable skepticism and blind rejection is difficult.
And the difficulty is compounded by our current political atmosphere where the truth is often denigrated and false narratives are often substituted in the name of protecting cherished stories that we enjoy telling ourselves. As historian Kevin Kennedy has pointed out “national pride must never be allowed to distort historical reality.”
Two recent challenges to our accepted truth are D-Day and the character of Martin Luther King Jr.
The accepted narratives on these two subjects are so ingrained that it’s difficult to believe that they might not be true. And yet they may be.
The sacrifice made at D-Day by the brave men who stormed Omaha Beach is indeed worthy of remembrance, especially in this year of the 75th anniversary, when the aging survivors of the assault will soon all be gone.
The successful Allied landings in Normandy accelerated Germany’s defeat, but historian Kevin Kenndy argues “they didn’t bring it about.” Yes, the men who fought and died played a major role in Nazi Germany’s eventual defeat, but the events of that day were not among the most important battles of the war, much as it has often been portrayed. What it did accomplish, however, was to stop Stalin’s goal of having the Red Army take control of Italy and France as well as Eastern Europe. Had Stalin succeeded, this would have led to the imposition of totalitarian governments in those two countries—and the attendant crimes against humanity seen throughout the Soviet Union.
This does not diminish the importance of D-Day, but changes our understanding of it in important ways.
A startling article recently appeared in the Washington Post which reassesses the battle of Pointe du Hoc, which has become the most famous event of the D-Day invasion. The point was the 100-foot promontory that overlooks Omaha Beach. American GI’s secured it, leading to the dismantling of the battery of long-range German guns that had moved inland.
In a speech at a previous anniversary, Ronald Reagan saluted the soldiers, of whom the surviving members of that force seated in front of him. The Allies, he said, “had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.” In words that will inspire for decades to come, he said “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
But this may not be quite right.
A man named Gary Sterne, an artifact collector and historian, has since discovered a complex called the Maisy Battery, that covered 144 acres a mile inland between Omaha and Utah beaches. The complex he unearthed had a bombproof German ammunition bunker, a field hospital, and a command and control center—all which had been buried underground and lost to history. Sterne concludes that the assault at Omaha Beach was unnecessary and that “U.S. military leaders should have targeted Maisy and its battery of heavy artillery guns instead of Pointe du Hoc, which the Germans had largely abandoned by the time of the Normandy invasion.”
Military historians can dispute Sterne’s conclusions and assess the evidence he found. They may agree or disagree with his reading.
But rather than do that, Sterne has received nothing but opprobrium. As journalist Scott Higham puts it, “Those who challenge the story do so at their own peril.”
It’s easy to understand why. If the new evidence were to prove Sterne correct, it would mean that scaling the point was unnecessary and many men died unnecessarily.
And as a follow-on problem, taking Sterne seriously means that a celebrated would-be war hero who is central to the Pointe du Hoc narrative is also misunderstood. For years George G. Klein has lectured about the battle; he was feted at the 73rd anniversary event as “one of the great celebrities of the battle.”
But Sterne and others proved that Klein was in Ireland on D-Day. Confronted with a mountain of evidence which cast doubt on his decades worth of story-telling, Klein finally admitted that he had made it all up. Sterne was right. Klein was wrong. And a cherished piece of our history suddenly took on a new light.
But the road to this shifting understanding is always the same: Historians who discover new evidence and argue for different conclusions are condemned for the very fact of presenting them.
Which brings us to the controversy over David Garrow’s article on Martin Luther King that appeared in Standpoint. Garrow’s revelation that King forced himself on scores of women and witnessed and egged on a rape were shocking. But those who disagreed did so not only by challenging Garrow’s research, but with personal and vitriolic attacks on Garrow.
The first charge made against Garrow was that he should not have given credibility to what is in FBI files. Historian Jeanne Theoharis told the New York Times that “It is deeply irresponsible for a historian to cast such F.B.I. sources, which can be deeply unreliable, as fact. Most scholars I know would penalize their graduate students for doing this.”
In an op-ed appearing in the same paper, black feminist historian Barbara Ransby made it personal. Garrow, she says, wrote an “irresponsible account, drawn from questionable documents, has serious shortcomings and risks turning readers into historical peeping Toms by trafficking in what amounts to little more than rumor and innuendo from F. B.I. files.” She went on to call his words “reminiscent of the racist manner in which black sexuality has been described historically: insatiable and as the F.B.I. wrote three times, ‘unnatural.’” Ransby concludes that Garrow is trying to “complete the job J. Edgar Hoover failed to do two generations ago.”
Calling the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian—and the man who literally wrote the book The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.—a tool of the Hoover-era FBI is both inaccurate and unfair. Garrow is the man who brought to light the Bureau’s sordid attempts to destroy King. To portray him as now trying to do Hoover’s hatchet work is either dishonest or a grave mistake.
Garrow ably defended himself in the op-ed page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Rather than get down in the gutter with his critics, he tried to remind everyone that the job of a historian is to enhance the historical record by telling us how newly found documents forces one to reevaluate old views and analyses, regardless of the consequences. Sometimes that means a hero is knocked a bit off the pedestal.
He also explained that he believes the FBI files are valuable to scholars. “When information came from telephone wiretaps and hotel room microphones,” he writes, “where agents with tape recorders captured King’s every utterance, the FBI’s accuracy was extremely high.”
It has always been thus. Defenders of Alger Hiss attacked the late historian Allen Weinstein, when he wrote his best-selling book on the Hiss case in 1978. I saw this sort of treatment up close when I was attacked for the research I did on the Rosenberg case. My critics insisted that the FBI files I relied on were inaccurate and possibly even had been forged—even though the material in the files was verified by other sources. It took many years, but most people now acknowledge that Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were all Soviet agents.
Garrow’s answer is short and direct: “No matter how unpalatable some of their content, for any serious scholar professionalism must trump politics. . . . Enriching and enlarging the historical record is a scholar’s uppermost responsibility, irrespective of whoever finds such new information unwelcome.”
Seeing historians and political commentators continue to put ideology above the search for truth isn’t new. But it’s a sadness nonetheless. And while some of these people might mean well, they are doing society a grave disservice. In the end, the truth is always best.