Thursday, February 19, 2015

Revisionist History: How the Past Can Be Altered

If a US high school student opened a textbook and read:
87 years ago our ancestors arrived here to make a new country
as the beginning of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, instead of the actual words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation
and was told that these were the words Abraham Lincoln spoke, what student would question this?

But of course this would never happen -- right? Well, wrong.

When I was in high school I was given the standard poetry textbook, an anthology entitled MODERN AMERICAN & MODERN BRITISH Poetry. The book opened with this verse by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

It turns out, this is not what she wrote. Instead here is her wording:

I never saw a
Moor —
I never saw
the Sea —
Yet know I
how the
Heather looks
And what a
Billow be.

Emily Dickinson's editor Higginson "had attempted wherever possible to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete localisms, and substitute sensible metaphors. It was carefully designed to spare the reader's sensibilities by producing a maximum of decorum."

Editing and publishing most of her poems after her death, Higginson rewrote poem after poem -- turning Dickinson's entire body of work, her wonderful original verses, into sing-song rhythms and rhymes. And still today these edited poems are what you will find on the Internet if you Google her writing -- as these rewritten poems have become the accepted versions of her poetry.

More than 70 years after Emily's death in 1886, my authoritative poetry high school textbook presented students with altered versions of her work. (  "A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson."
Today Emily Dickinson is considered one of the greatest poets of all time and one of the first modern poets in the English language, but the full power of her work has been kept from us.


History is often rewritten by those in power. As modern historians have pointed out, we now realize it was/is written by the victors, the wealthy, the authorities and the educated. Very little is known about the lives of the working classes in the past, for example, because they were not considered important and they often did not have the means to record their own history.

History can be distorted in a number of way: by omission -- i.e., simply ignoring an important event, by downplaying the importance of an event, by interpreting the past to fit with a particular nation's or culture's assumptions, or by simply not telling the truth.

Yet the two examples I have cited might seem fairly harmless. But these are just the tip of the iceberg.


Soviet Russia was well known for rewriting history when it suited the purposes of the regime. Stalin, for example, often erased the records of people who were executed. These two photographs below show how good the Soviet retouchers were at removing someone once they had fallen out of favor.

 "Kliment VoroshilovVyacheslav MolotovStalin and Nikolai Yezhov at the shore of the Moscow-Volga canal." (text and image from  Yezhov, standing to the right of Stalin, was executed in 1940.  ( "By the beginning of World War II, his status within the Soviet Union became that of a political unperson. Among art historians, he has the nickname 'The Vanishing Commissar' because after his execution, his likeness was retouched out of an official press photo; he is among the best known examples of the Soviet press making someone who had fallen out of favor 'disappear'."

It is enough that the people know there was an election.
The people who cast the votes decide nothing.
The people who count the votes decide everything.
Joseph Stalin

But even these examples of the Stalin era do not go far enough. Until 1989 the Soviets did not acknowledge a secret protocol that was part of the non-aggression pact they had made with Nazi Germany in 1939. Eight days after it was signed, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Two weeks after that the Soviets began the takeover of parts of Poland, Finland, Romania and all of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- as agreed in the secret agreement.
Certain regions and periods of history [ED: for Soviet historians] were made unreliable for political reasons. Entire historical events could be erased, if they did not fit the party line. For example, until 1989 the Soviet leadership and historians, unlike their Western colleagues, had denied the existence of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and as a result the Soviet approach to the study of the Soviet-German relations before 1941 and the origins of World War II were remarkably flawed.


Yet many countries in the West rewrote history as well.

When I was growing up in the 1950s in the United States, we were told the Soviets and communists were so inept at inventing and manufacturing, they needed to conquer and keep conquering adjacent countries to provide for their economies. This led to the idea that later became known as the domino theory -- meaning that communist countries must enslave other countries since they had no principles and were incapable of managing a practical economic system.

But while the 'Iron Curtain' countries in Europe were cruelly conquered and dominated after WW II by the Soviet Union, there was much more to this story. In 1945 after being attacked three times in less than 30 years (five times in 150 years), the Soviets wanted a buffer zone to protect themselves. The Eastern Bloc satellite countries became that buffer zone from the Soviet point of view -- rightly or wrongly -- but they were not part of a wide-ranging domino master plan.

Moreover, although not widely reported in Western history books, "The United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 1918–1920 Russian Civil War, and the fact hadn't been forgotten by the Soviets." These mostly western countries sent tens of thousands of troops to land on Russian soil and to fight the Russian government. These military forces stayed there seven years from 1918 until 1925.

Today this Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War is barely mentioned, if at all, in western college history courses. For example, in my Modern Civilization course at a major university, it was only refered to in a minor footnote. However, for those in Russia this intervention was quite important and some say still is important. 
"It was this victory [ED: over Allied forces in Russia] that helped forge post-tsarist Russia's self-image as a strong country that had stood up to the bullying of the west, and that lay at the root of the Cold War."

 US so called 'Wolfhounds' in Siberia, Russia 1918 ( 

As for the ineptness of the Soviets when it came to design and manufacturing -- this was simply a lie. The Soviets designed, built large numbers, and constantly improved the best tank of World War II, the legendary T34. This tank was a key factor in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Nazi Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, called it 
"The finest tank in the world"



From conception, to design, to manufacture, to use on the battle field, to constant improvements, the T34 tank was a remarkable Soviet success. This fact was well known to the US military but never shared with 'us boys' who were only told about the ineptness of the Soviet system. ( 

These rockets were devastatingly effective militarily and psychologically -- striking terror in Nazi solders when they heard it's telltale sound known as Stalin's organ. The inexpensive, flexible and mobile Soviet multiple launchers could fire dozens of rockets within seconds which demoralized the Nazi troops. 
( These Soviet rockets turned the tables psychologically on the Nazis whose Stuka dive bomber had been designed to produce a terrifying whine known as the "Jericho-Trompete ("Jericho Trumpet") wailing sirens"  and which had become "the propaganda symbol of German air power."

Their numerous aircraft  designs were also remarkable.

The Tupolev Tu-104 (NATO reporting name: Camel) was a twin-engined medium-range narrow-body turbojet-powered Soviet airliner and the world's first successful jet airliner.

Soviet aircraft designer, Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, "designed and oversaw the design of more than 100 types of aircraft, some of which set 78 world records."

Also as young American boys we were told that the Soviets were not capable of original thought and could only copy our designs. It was a fact that they were very good at copying but again there is much more to this story.
Tupolev headed the major project of reverse engineering the American Boeing B-29 strategic bomber, which was the world's first nuclear delivery platform. The USSR had repeatedly asked unsuccessfully for lend-lease B-29s. Using three machines which landed in Siberia after bombing Japan in 1945, Tupolev succeeded in replicating them down to trivial detail. Moreover, he got it into volume production, with crews fully trained in time for the 1947 May Day parade. The copy was designated Tu-4, with many subsequent Tu aircraft having the number 4 in their designations.

Even the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviets was downplayed in the US. We were told that the Soviets won because of the severe Russian winter and not their military expertise. While the winter was a major factor in the Nazi defeat, it was because the Soviets knew how to use their winter to their best advantage. In fact it was called "General Winter" by the Soviet military as though the winter itself were a member of the armed forces. In the pivotal battle of Stalingrad, which many consider the turning point of the war, the Soviet's waited until winter to launch a counter attack which encircled the Nazi army and led to their surrender.

And there were many more examples. But, of course, as young boys we were only told the western view of history. And for good reason. With the peace time draft in place, there was a possibility we might be called to fight -- and we had been conditioned to protect our country against the communist menace and to fight an enemy that we had been taught not to respect.

NOTE: I am not defending the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe after World War II or Soviet expansionist policies. I am saying that the West's point of view was based on assumptions and not on facts. American relations with the Soviets might have been quite different if the American view of history had been more realistic.


Yet time and history have an odd way of taking people and countries in directions they never expected. After China became communist, authorities in the west assumed that adjacent countries would fall under China's influence -- as countries had in Europe under the Soviets. So the domino theory and disrespect for the communist system clouded military thinking in the US and led to an unnecessary war in Vietnam. 

John Wayne signing a soldier's helmet during the Vietnam War. ( Like many Americans, John Wayne accepted the US assumptions and made the film, The Green Berets (1968), in support of the Vietnam war -- yet he did not serve in the military as many high profile actors did. He co-directed this film, "requested and obtained full military co-operation and materiel from President Johnson," ( critic Roger Ebert gave it [ED: The Green Berets] zero stars and cited extensive use of cliches, depicting the war in terms of "cowboys and indians."
Wayne's failure to serve in the military was the most painful experience of his life. His widow later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt, writing: "He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home."

2 years before the major commitment of US troops to the conflict in Vietnam, I was a student in college and could see the writing on the wall.   

When I researched the history of Vietnam, a number of facts stood out: Although the reasoning for the war was an Asian domino theory, it did not apply because the Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, so the Vietnamese brand of communism was not a spreading of Chinese influence.
"The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years...But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go." — Ho Chi Minh, 1946
In addition Vietnam was not an independent country that was being invaded, it was instead a French colony that had been badly treated by the French who at one point had exported rice from Vietnam while Vietnamese were starving.  

Because the Vietnamese were trying to overthrow a colonial power, early on Ho Chi Minh sent a clear signal that he wanted to work with the United States. Around 1915 he had memorized much of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In a speech in North Vietnam in 1945, he quoted it at length -- hoping that the USA would realize he was fighting for Vietnamese independence and freedom from a colonial power just as the Americans had done in the Revolutionary War. (I did not this know at the time but found out later. However, the people in Washington should have known this.)
Was it a civil war or an invasion by a foreign power? After the division of Vietnam into a North and South Vietnam in 1954, the United States supported a referendum about possible unification and said "that peoples are entitled to determine their own future and that it [ED: the USA] will not join in any arrangement which would hinder this." However, this vote was never held in part because it became clear that the people of Vietnam would have voted to unify with the North under Ho Chi Minh. President Eisenhower wrote in 1954 that "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held...possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader..."  
Dwight D. EisenhowerMandate for Change. Garden City, New Jersey. Doubleday & Company, 1963, p. 372 
Lastly there was a model the USA could have followed, that of making an alliance with a communist country that was independent -- as we had done in Europe with communist Yugoslavia that had declared its independence from the Soviet Bloc. 

In short the domino theory did not apply to the conflict in Vietnam; instead it was a civil war in which we could have had considerable influence if we had chosen to work with the North.

Now, if a 19 year old college sophomore in North Carolina could figure this out, someone in the halls of power in Washington DC should have figured this out too. But instead they believed their own revised history about the weakness and flaws of a communist system and the domino theory. So the US went to war. As a result tens of thousands of my generation were killed or wounded or permanently scarred by PTSD, many more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded and the US lost.

Demonstration at Raleigh-Durham Airport, 2 years before the massive deployment of US troops in the the Vietnam War
From the NC State University Student Newspaper The Technician, October 21, 1963

 2 years before the start of the war I was one of many students who picketed Madame Nhu, considered the First Lady of South Vietnam, in the Raleigh-Durham airport October 21, 1963 -- as I did not want the United States to get involved and could see no reason why we should.

After the war was over, the principle architect of the war, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, said that the war had been a mistake and that it was a civil war and that we should not have gotten involved. In a documentary film he expressed the following opinion:
The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war in the eyes of the people [ED: of Vietnam], not a Cold War battle that the U.S. thought it was.
 In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was 'wrong, terribly wrong.'
Quote from New York Times obituary

Today most historians have come to agree with my view of the conflict in 1963 -- when I and many others picketed Madame Nhu.

The "dominant interpretation of the Vietnam War" today is that the
"Vietnam conflict was a tragic misadventure that could have been avoided had American leaders only been wiser, more prudent, and less wedded to the assumptions of the past."
The Oxford Companion to American Military History


As I write this, the current Oscar nominated movie, The Imitation Game, has included a major factual error. In the movie Turing does not reveal the identity of a Soviet spy because the spy threatens to reveal Turing's homosexuality. This was simply not true. However, this fictional episode plays to people's prejudices about gay people in security positions -- and is likely to be believed.

We might hope that the days of rewriting history are behind us. With the wealth of information on the Internet and also the speed of communication, fact checking can now be done in ways only imagined just a few years ago. It is up to each of us to keep historians honest and to not let preconceived ideas, assumptions and prejudices determine our view of the past which, in turn, will determine our actions in the future.

NOTE ABOUT THE KOREAN WAR: I am sure someone is going to rightfully say -- what about the Korean War -- wasn't that the 2nd domino to fall in Asia after China? And this is a legitimate question. But here are the facts: the Soviets were in Korea at the end of WWII because they were fighting the Japanese there, so that explains how the USSR ended up on Korean soil. Most importantly the soldiers defending South Korea in the war were fighting under the flag of the United Nations -- as this was not an American war, although this fact has been largely forgotten. And lastly, Korea is in a very different part of Asia than Vietnam -- so the falling domino metaphor, of countries next to each other falling into communist hands, is quite a stretch.

1 comment:

  1. You can see this same "process" in American Sniper, and the remarkable emotion behind the right wing's outrage at the movie not sweeping the Oscars. Yet as many have pointed out, the "left-wing Hollywood" produced American Sniper as well as most of the other movies nominated. As for the "real" Chris Kyle, read the New Yorker's excellent piece on him which was published last year.