Barry Gewen

Forget the Founding Fathers …

VTR Date: June 23, 2005

Barry Gewen presents a history of writing about history.


GUEST: Barry Gewen
VTR: 06/23/05

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and my guest today, Barry Gewen, an editor for many years now at the New York Times Sunday Book Review, has just presented there an absolutely stunning piece of history writing – or, rather, writing ABOUT history writing.

Mostly, my guest’s June 5th, 2005 Sunday Book Review essay titled “Forget the Founding Fathers” reminds readers of what so many of us once knew and too many of us seem to have forgotten … what the late, great American historian Charles A. Beard noted as the FACT that all written history is, after all, only an act of faith, not itself a literal reproduction of the past as it actually occurred … though what, to be
sure, his fellow historian, Harvard’s Samuel Eliot Morrison, dismissed as “seeing history through a beard”.

At any rate, I don’t imagine that Barry Gewen’s “Forget the Founding Fathers” was intended in these anxious times – or at any time – to give Americans a comforting sense of having a good, firm grasp on the past, and, therefore, on the present.

So, let me ask my guest just what his purpose was … is.

GEWEN: My working title for the piece, when I was writing it was “How to Write American History After 9/11” …


GEWEN: … and my thought was, no great surprise, that things have changed completely since 9/11 including the way we think about our past. And the reason things have changed, the reason we have to re-think our past is because our place in the world has changed. And necessarily, as we look out at the world, we have to have a firm sense of where we’re coming from and that changed as a result of the 9/11 attack.

HEFFNER: Yet, Barry … if I may … I feel that the way you begin … whatever you want to call your piece, and I like “Forget the Founding Fathers” … you seem to feel also that 9/11 aside, we always should have … would have been better off had we … read our past in terms, also of the way other people saw us.

GEWEN: I think that’s true, but I must say if I were an American living in the early 19th century I’d probably have a very different notion of how America should be viewed, both by us and by others.

But certainly at this point in our history, it’s more crucial than ever … certainly more crucial than in the 19th century … that we understand ourselves in relationship to others and allow others to understand us in terms that, that we appreciate and that they can make sense of.

HEFFNER: What seems so interesting to me is that whatever your concern that now we have really no option other than to see ourselves … not only as we see ourselves, but as others see ourselves … see us. That you make much of the fact that we have, after all, gone through a variety of periods, of types, of styles of looking at the American past. And that I know at least in the case of one important person in my life, came somewhat as a shock. I think most of us think … well there’s American history writing …

GEWEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and that’s it. But you make the point that it has changed; there have been a variety of schools.

GEWEN: I think necessarily American historians and readers of American history are going to respond to books and to viewpoints that have some resonance and some meaning for their current situation.

So as I say in the piece, “If you look at American history since World War II, there have been three major moments when the situation of America has, to some degree dictated how American historians are going to write history and how readers are going to read history.

There was the Consensus School which arose at the moment when totalitarianism seemed a threat and when it was important for America to understand itself in terms of its own values.

And, of course, in the sixties as disruptions of the Vietnam War and the civil right movement and the whole cultural revolution that took place, there was a change again in how American history was viewed. And at that point it tended to be viewed as, as .. well, it tended to be viewed by the student rebels and the people who emerged from that era as something to be corrected, something to be criticized.

And that view predominated down, I would say until the nineties. And it’s still very prominent as you know on campuses and elsewhere. But in the nineties a new school emerged to reassert American values. And that I call the Founding Fathers School, and many of your listeners will know it because the books have been so very popular … Joe Ellis and David McCullough and Ron Chernow writing about the key founding fathers.

And that became a new moment of American history. It emerged at the time when America was dominant in the world as we still are. But 9/11 changed all of that.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying that it’s not that history is, after all, only what the historians say it is … or was … but rather what contemporary circumstances lead contemporary historians.

GEWEN: There is a phrase that has been very common … the search for a useable past. And I believe in that, but I don’t think the useable past is static. I do think facts are static. It’s never going to be the case that Columbus did not discover American in 1492.

But, I think interpretations are not static and the way we arrange the facts are not static. And that arrangement, that interpretation depends on the circumstances of the moment. Or not of the moment so much but of the era in which we live. And I think a new era emerged with 9/11.

HEFFNER: Now is that manifest in the history that you’re reading today?

GEWEN: I think it’s becoming manifest. One of the points I was making in the piece is that we’re just, I think, at the cusp of this. I said that I think the Founding Fathers School is about to go into decline. And one of my colleagues twitted me because David McCullough’s book rose immediately to number one … the new book “1776”.

I knew that would happen. McCullough has the kind of name now that Stephen King has, or John Grisham has. And so his books will sell. And I’m not basing this strictly on a matter of popularity, but the sense that there are certain moments when certain kinds of interpretations become important.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve also written here that after all we’ve gone through the Founders …


HEFFNER: Not once or twice, but several times.


HEFFNER: And were do you go from here?

GEWEN: And I think that’s right. I do think if 9/11 hadn’t occurred there might have been some way of continuing to elaborate on American values as they are presented by the Founding Fathers School.

But what the Founding Fathers School has is an America-centric view; it looks out at the world from the perspective of an American … and what I try to say in the piece is while we remain Americans with our view of America, it’s very important that we broaden that view, or indeed, in some cases, change that view.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting, you say it’s very important that we broaden, perhaps change that view. But that means, it seems to me, that you’re not talking about what present circumstances dictate, but rather what future circumstances require of us.

You seem to have a moral imperative there … we damn well better get to seeing our selves as others see us.

GEWEN: I, I think that’s crucial. Throughout American history there’s been a notion of “the city on the hill” … America was the city on the hill … we were the shining light to present to others.

There’s still some validity to that. But I think what 9/11 showed us, as I say toward the end of the piece … is that whereas in the past the two great oceans protected us from foreign wars and, of course, after World War II our nuclear stockpile protected us from various kinds of, of foreign threats. What we’ve learned now is that the nuclear stockpile, the oceans do not protect us. We are much more vulnerable than we’ve ever been.

Not vulnerable in the way we were during the Cold War when the two super-powers could have blown up the earth. That’s, that’s not a prospect now. But more vulnerable in the sense that there are fanatics who are not prone to reason or the necessities of, of state. Who are willing, by whatever means they have, to do damage to America. And … at any moment … while we speak a city could be blowing up somewhere. And that’s a new event.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you then … you’re a historian … your doctorate is in this field …


HEFFNER: … from Harvard.

GEWEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What changes do you think will therefore take place in interpretations of our past?

GEWEN: I see it in terms of, of several possibilities. And I mentioned three books at the end that show … at least three of the possibilities.

One is that there will be a reassertion of a kind of American nationalism; it will be a kind of American nationalism that says, “America is the best hope … an American hegemony is the best hope for preserving peace, preserving the welfare and the lives of American citizens, but also the welfare and the lives of citizens around the world. People around the world.”

HEFFNER: The last, best hope …

GEWEN: The last, best hope … the only hope given that America is the only super-power now. And that’s represented in one of the books I cite. There, there are other books that I think make a similar point.

Max Boot wrote a book not too long ago about American imperialism, not as a bad thing, but as a good thing, as a way of preserving peace around the world.

Niall Ferguson historian at Harvard makes the same point, though he worries that America doesn’t have the will to assert its hegemony.

So that’s one point of view and it’s a point of view that I think some historians will be convinced by and will write history in terms of.

A second point of view is one that I use … Samantha Powers’ book to exemplify. And that point of view is that “No, American cannot be the world’s hegemon. It can’t be the, the sole superpower that determines what’s right for everyone around the world.”

There are larger, more abstract moral concerns, and the one that she describes is genocide and she is very convincing in showing that if you look at America’s history in the 20th century, it’s not very attractive in how it handled genocide. There, there was a withdrawal from the issue.

Or in some cases, in fact, we supported some of, some of the murderers because of, of reasons of State. And she feels that this is outrageous. And that what’s necessary is an America that takes a moral stance in the world as one of many countries in terms of these larger moral imperatives.

And I think there are many historians who are going to write history in those terms because there are many issues that can be looked at that way. Not only genocide, world poverty is one. Disease is one. Global warming is one. How does America stack up against other nations in dealing with these global problems? And history will be written by some in terms of these larger moral issues and with America simply as one actor among many, rather than the hegemon.

Finally, there are the skeptics. They’re often called The Realists in foreign policy discussions. And they are the ones who say, “America cannot go out in the world as a moral force. Nations don’t operate that way. That what America has to do is preserve it’s own national interest; look out for itself.”

And that produces a different kind of history and the book I use to exemplify that … not so much in the position she takes, as in the characters she describes … is Margaret McMillan’s “Paris 1919”, because what she shows is that Woodrow Wilson, who in many ways shared the values that George W. Bush does … I say in the piece, that you can take Wilson’s words, give them to President Bush and no one would realize that almost a century had passed, that it’s the support of human rights and of self-determination around the world.

Well what Margaret McMillan shows is this produced a disaster in various parts of the world. A disaster that we’re still living with.

And so another way of writing history is to look at America as a player in the world that must do what nations have traditionally done, which is to look out for its own interests.

HEFFNER: Is it unfair of me to ask where you, as a historian, fall?

GEWEN: I’ve struggled with this and I think … I, I demonstrate some of that struggle in the final parts of the piece. I’ve traditionally been a Realist. I’m of the generation that protested the war in Vietnam. And the people that I look to for guidance then, and that to some degree I still do, are George Kennon, Hans Morgenthau, John Gavin; the Realists who argued that it was the wrong war in the wrong place for America to fight. That America’s national interests were not at stake in Vietnam. And, and that’s what I grew up with and for, for a long time I adhered to that. And I still think it’s a valuable mindset to have, as one looks out in the world. But again 9/11 has changed everything and the way it’s changed my thinking on, on this matter is that we can’t retreat and we can’t define national interests strictly in terms of what happening to us. Because if there is a terrorist plot brewing in the boondocks of Pakistan or in the Suni Triangle in Baghdad, that is of national concern to us because at any moment, as I say, terrorists could do severe damage to us.

HEFFNER: Well, that, that makes you, of course, very much a present-minded historian.


HEFFNER: Can we do better than that?

GEWEN: How do you mean?

HEFFNER: I mean can we disassociate ourselves to any extent? Reading you I see that your emphasis is on the present-mindedness …

GEWEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of it all. Is there no better way of writing … reading history perhaps not … perhaps we need to be present minded in reading it. But what about writing it?

GEWEN: I, I think there is a large community of scholars who wouldn’t necessarily share this present-minded view that I have. And I think they do honorable work. And valuable work. And it’s work that one can read with great benefit. And I wouldn’t want to belittle what the, the professional historians are doing. But I do think that there’s a gap between what a great number of them are doing and what I’m calling for in this piece.

Because I think for … and I don’t mean to belittle academic history as such, but I think for a number of them, the work “academic” does apply. They are writing very narrow monographs that add to the accumulation of information … a mountain of information that, that we have about the American past. But doesn’t necessarily have any meaning for readers beyond the academic community.

Whereas I think for lay readers, for you, for me, for your listeners … there is a concern that history speak to our current lived condition. And I think some academic historians do that. Other do not.

HEFFNER: Do you … well, I, I think of the way you ended the piece, which is so interesting. As you say at the end, you, you write, “But the disaster of 9/11 proved that the oceans do not protect us,” as you’ve just said, “and that our nuclear arsenal, no matter how imposing, will not save our cities from terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. Today there is no retreating into the provincialism and innocence of the past.”

But what about the controls over … not the writing … but the reading of history, or perhaps I should say, the teaching of history; what we teach our children. Are you satisfied that if we just look at McCullough and Ellis and others we have a picture of what we are learning about our past.

GEWEN: Oh, I’m not even sure that I’m qualified to answer that. I am not really sure how American history at this point is taught in the public schools or in the colleges and universities. I suspect it varies tremendously … let’s speak about the colleges. It probably depends on the particular professor you get. Some of them are going to subscribe to a McCullough/Ellis type of history that reasserts American values as we see them embodied in the Founding Fathers.

Others are still going to be influenced by the kind of multi-cultural history that was written from the late sixties down to the present. And are going to be much more critical of the American past. I will say that I think that some of that criticism while I can share in it, especially as a former protester myself, I can share in some of the criticism. But I think at this point it is perhaps outdated … to return to my phrase in terms of our current needs and in terms of our “lived” condition.

Henry Kissinger wrote a book … terribly timed book, it came out in mid-2001 just before the attacks. And the title of the book was something like “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?”. The point being, of course, that no one was thinking of foreign policy.

Well, that’s an impossible book to write now … or at least the title is an impossible title to give to a book now. Because obviously America needs a foreign policy.

HEFFNER: Do you interpret in any way … do you think we can interpret in any way the shift … not in the way he wrote history, because he didn’t, but in the way George W. Bush responded to historical needs; to the nation’s need. I’m thinking of the candidate in 2000 and I’m thinking of the man who you make some comparison to Wilson …


HEFFNER: … about today. What happened? 9/11.

GEWEN: 9/11 happened. If you remember in 2000, candidate Bush talked about the need for a humble foreign policy. I must say this fit into a traditional, or into a Republican tradition of foreign policy restraint; foreign policy realism … pursue national ends and not go off on great moral crusades. The idea of a moral crusade traditionally was, was more the province of Democratic candidates and Democratic Presidents.

But of course 9/11 changed that. And in changing that … I don’t, I don’t want to get into a question of, of whether Bush’s policies are correct or not correct. But if you look at the rhetoric of … by which he justifies the policies, the rhetoric now is that traditional Democratic rhetoric of moral crusade … going out into the world, making the world safe for democracy. Where have we heard that before? Woodrow Wilson.

HEFFNER: Wilson’s failure to make the world safe for democracy. Is that, for you, an important item?

GEWEN: It is. I think it’s very easy … at the same time that I say there’s no retreating from the world, that we have to face up … not only to our responsibilities, but to the dangers that we face in the world … and in facing up to those dangers we must act in the world. How we act is, is a matter of political debate. But isolationism of either the Right or the Left clearly is of no use to us now. I think it’s necessary to act in the world, but there is, of course, always the danger of overreaching, of overstretch.

Paul Kennedy writes about this when he writes about the American Empire. A great danger as, as empires are wont to do of, of overstretching their abilities.

HEFFNER: Do you think … we have 2 and a half minutes left … do you think that in any way your piece could discourage your readers from even paying attention to new schools, old schools of historians because basically you can be interpreted as saying “There is no history.”

GEWEN: Oh, I, I don’t believe that I’m saying there is no history. Will my piece discourage readers? I’m happy if my piece has readers, so .. the next step is up to them. But I, I don’t say that there is no history.

What I do say is that … what we need from history changes as conditions change. And history must provide us with the information that we need to face the world that we life in.

HEFFNER: That’s difficult to … for many people to accept. Don’t you think?

GEWEN: Ah … you mean that there is simply a given history and that that’s what we should learn and we learn it by rote?

HEFFNER: Oh, no, no … not by rote.

GEWEN: But just that there is …

HEFFNER: But there is a given history.

GEWEN: I think that … I think whether they articulate it or not, implicitly they know that that’s the case. Implicitly … look, look at the debates that took place over multiculturalism and political correctness. There have been huge fights about the meaning of America and the meaning of American history. People care passionately about American history and understand that there are conflicting interpretations and deep conflicts.

HEFFNER: So you feel that your fellow Harvard …

GEWEN: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … person … Samuel Elliot Morrison was wrong in saying about Beard’s history … written history … reported history as an act of faith, was just “history through a beard”.

GEWEN: I love the line. I wish I had said the line, but I can’t agree with the sentiment.

HEFFNER: Do you think, really, that Beard has, over the years, that at least his approach to the past has provided us more substance?

GEWEN: No, not necessarily Beard … the people that I begin speaking about in my piece are Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz and they very specifically were opposed to Charles Beard’s view of history as divisions mainly over economic matters that, that penetrated American history from the very beginning. That was not Hofstadter’s view.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I’m giving the signal that we have no more time … but that’s where we ought to pick up at another time because Dick Hofstadter was my teacher and, and I think there was more respect for an economic interpretation in what Hofstadter wrote. But that’s for the next time …

GEWEN: Another time.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me.

GEWEN: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.