How to read and enjoy bogus history

I thought it would be fun to take a semi-break this week and, instead of pontificating in the usual manner, throw in a little more historical reading.

Today we will focus on bogus history. As we have realized here at UR, there is no shortage of Lysenkoist pseudohistorical nonsense at large in the world today. I use the L-word because this history is not just accidentally bad—it exists because it serves a political function.

A great way to sharpen your ability to detect and neutralize present bad history is to read past bad history. And period sources are a perfect epistemological sparring partner, because they don’t really hit back.

Hopefully UR readers have become comfortable in their new life on the off-world colonies, and adapted to the realization that the gentle democratic seas of objective information which rocked them so cozily in the sweet palmy days of youth are in fact a black, whirling, bottomless storm of lies. And who wants to live in a bottomless storm of lies? So there is a strong temptation to just not look at the news.

But if we have learned anything, we have learned that we have no reliable source of news. So the art of reading nonsense matters, and it never gets easy. Once your brain detects that an entire school of thought is in fact best classified as canting, manipulative tripe, a sort of allergic reaction sets in that makes the stuff physically painful to read. Perhaps worst is the realization that the material is created for an audience and the audience is, more or less, buying it. The sense of being outnumbered by one’s enemies produces a deep reflex terror in the hominid brain. And there is the endless nagging temptation to give in, to go with the flow, to believe.

None of these responses are triggered by period cant. Old cant does not exist to manipulate you. It existed to manipulate people who are now dead. We can ooh and aah and maybe even shed a little tear over whatever damage it did, but the virus is inactive.

Of course, old writing that is not cant, but the unmistakable product of a perceptive and independent mind, is much more fun to read. I do hope everyone read the Charles Francis Adams, Jr. essay, An Undeveloped Function, that I linked to the other day. I know it is long, but I’m afraid it is pretty much required.

I would not say An Undeveloped Function is entirely free from cant. Quite the contrary. It is instantly identifiable as a product of its era. It illustrates the tremendous difficulty of stepping outside history to look back at it. Nor are Adams’ conclusions in any way infallible—in fact, I don’t think it’s at all unfair to describe the remedy he proposes as disastrous. But as a portrait of the American political system after the Civil War I have not seen its like, its attitude toward history is absolutely timeless, and its author is clearly in possession of many real facts about heaven and earth that are far, far outside the philosophy of his present-day heirs at the AHA.

Who was Adams, anyway? La Wik is regrettably terse, but it includes this fine photograph of the man in his element (third from left). Suffice it to say that Charles Francis Adams, Jr. was:

  • the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents (John Quincy Adams and John Adams).
  • the son and aide to a politician and diplomat who was almost President himself (Charles Francis Adams, Sr.)
  • a brigadier general in the Union Army.
  • a prominent and successful railroad lawyer and regulator.
  • a prominent and successful railroad executive.
  • a prominent and successful historian and biographer.

In other words, his dick is basically a yard long as far as I’m concerned. I am particularly fond of the fact that—unlike his more famous brother Henry—CFA did not spend his entire working life as an intellectual. Perhaps I’m being fanciful, but I suspect that his stint in the productive sector gave him an unusual perspective on politics and political history. I don’t always agree with him, but when he errs I always find it worth wondering why.

If you enjoyed An Undeveloped Function, congratulations. You are probably a weirdo, like me. Some other CFA essays you might enjoy are a couple of retrospectives on the Civil War, Shall Cromwell Have a Statue? (1902) and ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1913). The young CFA is on display in a lovely collection which I have only read a small part of, A Cycle of Adams Letters.

But these are extras. If you have an hour or two to spare, click away. This week, though, we are going to look at some genuine, undiluted period cant, as produced by two authors whom literary history has quite justifiably forgotten: Chauncey Depew and Quentin Reynolds.

Basically, Depew was a very ordinary orator and politician of the Unionist period, and Reynolds was a very ordinary journalist and broadcaster of the New Deal period. It is only the unusual writers whose work survives. But it is only from their hack competitors that we can get a sense of what the average citizen of the time actually thought.

Take a look at Depew’s oration on the hundredth anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. (In case the page link gets screwed up, this is the first piece in his Orations and After-Dinner Speeches (1896).) Like Adams, Depew is delivering a summary of American history. There the resemblance ends. The piece is long, but quite skimmable, I think you’ll find.

Have you ever been to a park in an old American city and looked at some of the monuments from the 1860s through 1890s? Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn is a good example. The style can only be described as high-Unionist, and this is precisely the term I would use for Depew.

His history of America is simply garbage. I can find no other word to describe it. Almost every sentence incorporates some horrendous lie, preposterous misrepresentation, or bombastic boast. The teleology by which the great Union was formed, the flame shooting through the Cimmerian darkness, is so ahistorical that it actually exerts a strong comic effect, at least for me. But perhaps I have been spending too much time with this stuff.

(If Depew’s first oration leaves you craving more, by all means continue to the second, The Political Mission of the United States. In case you don’t get it and wonder what all Depew is lying about, I have found no better starting point then Lecky’s American Revolution.)

In any case, I feel that the depew is a good candidate for a new SI unit of Lysenkoist history. The depew will be a little like the farad—one depew being a heroic level, seldom equaled. I’m not saying that it is impossible to produce a confection of nationalist cant that surpasses Chauncey himself. Certainly if you look at the Soviet bloc, the Nazis or the Third World, giants abound. But I see few American writers who routinely exceed the millidepews.

The interesting question to ask while reading Depew is: where did this stuff come from? How could people possibly have not only swallowed this brand of guff, but actually fought a war for it? And what exactly is the relationship between Depewian high Unionism and the various flavors of nation-worshipping tripe to which our countrymen subscribe today?

Now let me type in some Quentin Reynolds. Here is the start of chapter 6 from his 1944 collection of wartime columns, The Curtain Rises. A lot of this product moved—you can still get it for less than $1, plus wine, tax and tip. Very typical WWII wartime journalism. Note especially the demotic tinge of the writing, so opposite Depew—Reynolds is clearly “writing down” to a mass-market audience. My copy is marked “Property of US Navy,” and I imagine it did its time on some bulkhead or other.

Our chapter is entitled “Poland Believed Goebbels.” Readers unfamiliar with the modern interpretation of the events described herein may consult La Wik. By “we,” Reynolds means himself and his fellow international correspondents in Moscow. The piece is dated June 1943.

Late last April Dr. Goebbels announced on his radio that the bodies of 10,000 Poles had been found buried near Smolensk. He charged that these bodies had been identified as Polish officers listed as missing since the Russian occupation of Eastern Poland in 1939. Dr. Goebbels charged that these Poles had been executed by the Red Army and tossed into the graves which the German Army had now discovered. When we first heard this (we listened constantly to the German radio because it came to us so clearly) we yawned and switched over to the Rome station. It was, we thought, just another one of the good doctor’s bedtime stories. But he hammered away at it again and again. He suggested that the International Red Cross be sent to Smolensk to see for itself. We laughed at that too. To begin with Russia was not a member of the International Red Cross. Then, too, we knew that any Red Cross commission sent to the occupied territory around Smolensk would see exactly what Goebbels wanted it to see—and nothing else. It was an absurd suggestion in line with the Goebbels tactics of the past four years.

Then we were shocked to see that the Polish government in London was actually taking the story seriously. We heard on the BBC that Vladimir Kot, former professor of law at the University of Cracow, later Polish Ambassador to Russia, and now Minister of Information in London, had published a statement by the Polish Minister of War, denouncing the atrocity. This was followed by an official request by the Polish government that the Red Cross be allowed to investigate.

There is an old Russian saying: “What’s the use of being a Pole if you can’t be stupid.” The alacrity with which the Polish government in London so stupidly walked into the Goebbels trap made us wonder if perhaps the proverb didn’t have some meaning. Whether the atrocity story were true (and Goebbels never produced proof that it was true), the Poles certainly did everything they could to handle it in the most undiplomatic way possible. The diplomacy of the Poles is as subtle as the path of a Mark VI tank through a flower garden.

For years the Russian-Polish pot has been simmering dangerously and this incident caused the lid to pop right off. On May 8th we were all called to the Foreign Office and handed a copy of a letter sent to Polish Ambassador Romer by Molotov that afternoon. This marked the end of Russian-Polish diplomatic relations, though there was some doubt at first whether this was a mere suspension of relations or a definite break.

The letter was given to us in Russian, and the confusion arose in regard to the wording used. All of the correspondents, translating freely, wrote that diplomatic relations had been broken off by the Soviets. The censors refused to allow this to go through. They insisted that the boys use the word “suspended.” They pointed to the word in Molotov’s letter. The word was “prerivat” which, by dictionary definition means, “to suspend.” The word “porviat” (to break) was not used, the censors insisted. However, it all came to the same thing.

Alexander Werth, Marjorie Shaw, Ralph Parker and two or three others who knew the Polish Ambassador well hurried to his embassy. Ambassador Romer has been a charming, well-liked member of the diplomatic corps. Romer is the ideal diplomat—a great rarity in a Pole. He is smooth, tactful and he has the knack of seeing the other man’s viewpoint. Even that night he never lost his temper. He was sad at having to leave. He regretted the whole incident exceedingly, but he emphasized the courteous treatment he had always received from the Soviet officials. He would leave in the morning, he said. He would not comment on the attitude the government in London had taken, but he told Alexander Werth that he did not for a moment believe the Dr. Goebbels story of the 10,000 dead Polish officers.

Werth and the others hurried to send the story, but the censors refused to allow them to quote Romer.

“We do not have diplomatic relations between Russia and Poland at the moment,” Palgunov explained, “therefore Romer is not an ambassador. He is merely a private citizen and you cannot quote him.”

That was, I regret to say, typical of the petty bureaucracy we were exposed to from Palgunov and his censors. The quote from Romer would have helped Russia enormously. But unfortunately, and despite what so many Americans think, the Russians are the worst propagandists in the world. They sometimes seem to go out of their way to show themselves in an unfavorable light.

Anyhow, Romer left the country. Clarke-Kerr and Standley went to the railroad station to see him off. Standley gave Romer a carton of American cigarettes as a going-away party, while Clarke-Kerr gave him a bottle of Scotch.

The open rupture between the two countries is only the culmination of an underground diplomatic war that has been waging since the end of the first war. It is pretty difficult to bring their fundamental differences into the open because they have been so befogged by petty quarrels.

If you look at their struggle objectively and realistically the whole conflict boils down to power politics. It is a conflict between a first-rate power determined and able to wield overwhelming force, and a second-rate state trying to perform a first-rate role with the aid of coalitions.

Poland was afraid of Germany because the leaders of Germany were, for the most part, Prussians, and the Prussians have traditionally hated Poland. When Hitler came into power, Poland felt new hopes that she might get along with Germany. Hitler was an Austrian by origin; Goering a Bavarian; Goebbels a Rhinelander and Hess came from a German family which had settled in Egypt. Poland was sure that these men would not be imbued with the anti-Polish feeling of the Prussians who had hitherto ruled Germany. Josef Lipski was the Polish Ambassador to Germany then (1934), and the Germans wooed him with soft words. In the Polish White Book, a collection of all official documents and agreements concerning Polish-German and Polish-Russian relations, Ambassador Lipski writes to his boss, Foreign Minister Beck: “Hitler said to me… ‘The theory of hereditary German-Polish enmity is very unsound. In the history of our two countries there have been periods of co-operation against the mutual danger threatening from the East… (Russia had recently made great progress with her military preparations.) … The moment may come when both our countries might be compelled to defend ourselves against aggression from the East.’” Hitler told Lipski that in his opinion the policy of former German governments (especially the Reichswehr) which had wished to unite with Russia against Poland was unsound. He knew Bolshevism well, the Chancellor added, he had fought it from the very beginning, and he recalled his struggle against communism in Bavaria. Lipski apparently fell hard for Hitler. Josef Beck, always a hater of communism, too, listened to Hitler and fell into a poppylike dream induced by the opium of his words.

Then came the Polish-German declaration of January 29, 1934. It was a beautiful document of less than 300 words—but what pretty words of neighborly love they were! Such phrases as, “The maintenance of a lasting peace between the two nations is an essential prerequisite for the general peace of Europe,” abound in their declaration. It added: “Both governments announce their intention to settle directly all questions of whatever nature which concern their mutual relations.” Four days later Hitler spoke in the Reichstag. He paid a glowing tribute to Marshal Pilsudski and he wound up his sweet speech by saying that the whole thing “fills us with especial joy.”

And of course Poland had a pact with Russia too—a non-aggression pact signed in 1932 and ratified in 1934 with the added provision that it would remain in force until 1945. She was officially, at least, on very good terms with her two big neighbors, and she could hardly be blamed if she had some wistful secret thoughts to the effect that she held the balance of power.

Poland felt pretty comfortable now. Yeah man, she had a partner, big Germany. Hitler was her pal and that nasty Stalin man had better not start anything. Pal Adolf would slap him down if he did. Meanwhile Pal Adolf was bringing in German-born residents of Poland and showing them how to shoot little guns; how to undermine Polish authority; how to sabotage; how to organize a strong minority so that when the time came it could handle a large unorganized majority. Poland, thinking its nice declaration all sealed and tied with red ribbons, continued its complacent way. Complacency was the style in the 1930’s anyhow.

Then at 4:45 A.M., the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, the complacency of Poland was disturbed by the roar of bombs dropped on the city of Westerplatte. Germany was waging its undeclared war on Poland, and the lovely 1934 declaration lay in the Foreign Office gathering dust on its pretty red ribbons.

In ten days Poland had folded up. Her resistance was heroic if futile. But Warsaw no longer existed as the capital of Poland. Her industrial areas melted before the mechanized strength of the man who had murmured such sweet nothings to Ambassador Lipski. For all practical purposes the Polish government had ceased to exist.

Poland melted before the Germans and then on September 17, 1939, Russia moved her troops across the border into Poland. Poland was between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was a pitiable position and the world sympathized. Russia undoubtedly moved only in self-defense. She needed the security which possession of those 76,500 miles would give her, should Germany ever attempt to invade her. Of course Stalin used the sweet talk of diplomacy when he sent his troops into Poland. He said, “The Soviet Government further cannot view with indifference the fact that the kindred Ukrainian and White Russian people who live on Polish territory and who are at the mercy of fate, are left defenseless.”

On October 29, 1939, a plebiscite was held in the Russian occupied territory, and the citizens voted a 90 percent majority to the Soviets. How accurate the count was no one knows. Elections held under the shadows of guns are hardly ever strictly the will of the people, and there were Russian guns about. The Russians say that the population of this territory was 12,800,000 of which 7,000,000 were Ukrainians, 3,000,000 White Russians, 1,000,000 Poles and 1,000,000 Jews. Correspondents in Moscow think those figures are reasonably accurate. I have heard the same figures given in London. Assuming them to be reasonably accurate, perhaps the overwhelming vote was not out of line. In any case, the incorporation took place and my bet will be that it is there to stay.

Ethnographically, the Russians have an excellent case for keeping this territory. But we might as well be realistic about it: Russia wants that belt of land to act as a margin of safety against future aggression.

Now, what can we say about this remarkable confection of mendacity? How many millidepews does it chalk up?

Reynolds’ pseudohistory has nowhere near the grand sweep of Depew’s. Depew tackles an entire century and fits it into a single triumphant cascade of victory, with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Reynolds is chatty, like one of your pals in the chow line at the mess, except armed with more statistics. He loves those numbers and dates and facts.

If we are to rate these passages for sheer evil, however, I think Reynolds comes out ahead. After all, he is quite wholeheartedly engaged in the task of convincing Americans to overlook a mass murder ordered in cold blood by a ruthless dictator during the aggressive conquest of a friendly nation. (Poland being, of course, the country that World War II was at least nominally “about.”) I’m afraid the ol’ “Bush lied, people died” line falls a little flat around this one.

And yet you can tell that Reynolds has these little pangs of doubt. Unfortunately, he reveals just enough qualms to establish his mens rea, without actually transmitting any actual skepticism to his actual audience.

The clue is that for everything, he has a backup story. And sometimes a backup for the backup. The Katyń massacre is German propaganda. But even if it isn’t German propaganda, the Poles are being awfully rude about the whole thing. The Soviets invaded Poland in self-defense. Quite understandable. Especially since the liberated peoples endorsed the intervention in a smashing landslide. Of course one can never tell with these wartime plebiscites. But they are mostly Ukrainians and Byelorussians anyway, so why shouldn’t they be part of the Soviet Union? And in any case, Russia needs to think of her safety.

Note also how quickly Reynolds resorts to ridicule. There is a kind of pseudosatirical humor, or what would be humor if it was in any way funny, that is an unmistakable product of his time in Moscow. I call the trope “crocodile humor” after the Soviet humor magazine, Krokodil. So Poland’s diplomatic efforts in the ’30s are supposed to be just riotously funny, with all those sweet promises and fancy red ribbons on documents in drawers. Yet as we see, Reynolds is just as capable of evoking the solemn brotherhood between nations, and so on.

Reynolds’ pseudohistory may or may not be more evil than Depew’s. It is hard to judge these things, and I’m not sure it’s worth trying. But it is certainly more modern and more effective. The international press corps of 2008 is more or less a direct descendant of Reynolds’ “we,” and to the extent that there have been generational shifts they have generally been leftward—e.g., from the Higgins generation to the Halberstam generation in Vietnam. And I don’t think there is a journalistic trope in Reynolds that you don’t see constantly in the papers today, though certainly many new tricks have been added to the book.

Speaking of ’Nam, here is a fun exercise for the reader: a neoconservative history of the Vietnam War in a single op-ed, courtesy of notorious neocon historian Arthur Herman.

Is Herman trying to inform you, or trying to mislead you? We can assume that, like Reynolds, Herman at least has his numbers straight. But what facts has he left out? If Herman’s little essay was the only thing you knew about the American war in Vietnam, and you trusted it completely, what else do you think you ought to know that you don’t? I’ve said very little about Vietnam on this blog. I’m curious as to what people think.