Eric Alterman: Blogger accuses him of bias

Historians in the News

When taking his leave of The Nation in 2002, its longstanding columnist Christopher Hitchens remarked that the magazine was"becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden". This was altogether too kind, I feel: the magazine has nothing like so reasoned a message.

Take The Nation's"Liberal Media" columnist, Eric Alterman, a professor of English and of Journalism. Readers of The Guardian's"Comment is Free" site can sometimes find Alterman commenting on American politics, as in his judgement a few months ago that:

Well, I think you have be some combination of crazy, ignorant, dishonest or ideologically obsessed to believe that Islamic fundamentalists want to kill us because of"who we are" rather than"what we do", but on their lists of grievances, the never-ending presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, coupled with US support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank would rank one and two.

The never-ending presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia ended (barring a few training personnel) in 2003. The US continues to press for the creation of a sovereign Palestine. Osama bin Laden has hardly kept secret his assurance that"every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hate toward Americans, Jew, and Christians: this is part of our ideology" ('Interview with Usama bin Laden’, December 1998, included in Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East: A Documentary Reader, eds. Barry Rubin & Judith Colp Rubin, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 156). And, by the way,"fundamentalism" is a term used properly only when discussing movements within Protestantism.

But Alterman outdoes himself when writing for a domestic audience. In his current Nation column he adduces, as an instance of media bias, a subject I fear I need to return to:

When Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets died November 1, the New York Times repeated Tibbets's contention that"It would have been morally wrong if we'd have had [the atomic bomb] and not used it and let a million more people die." That virtually no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a US invasion of Japan anywhere near that high (leaving aside the question of whether an invasion would have been necessary) was not mentioned in the story.

What can you say? The most charitable explanation I can give is that Alterman is (unlike the late General Tibbets) sufficiently ethnocentric not to take into account the deaths of Japanese civilians that would have resulted from a conventional invasion and blockade of the home islands, sufficiently casual not to distinguish between deaths and casualties, and entirely unaware of research by American and Japanese historians published in the last 20 years concerning the conclusion of the Pacific War. I can name off the top of my head at least a dozen leading historians in this field who would concur with Tibbets's judgement, owing to their knowledge of Japanese military preparations on Kyushu, the Americans' experience of battle at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the casualty estimates used by the Truman administration, the number of American medals struck in anticipation of the appalling costs of a conventional invasion, and other factors.

One of my regular correspondents, the military historian D.M. Giangreco, wrote a definitive paper on the administration's casualty estimates, published as"'A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan", in Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, and reprinted in Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, ed. Robert J. Maddox, 2007, pp. 76-115. From his scrutiny of primary sources, he observed:"Truman's much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service and War Department documents produced before the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration."

In his paper, Dennis quotes from a letter to him by George F. Kennan, the most significant figure in US diplomacy in the past century and chief of policy planning to General George Marshall immediately after the War. Writing in 1997, Kennan concurred:"I have no doubt that our leaders, General Marshall among them, had good reason to anticipate a casualty rate of dreadful and sickening proportions in any invasion of Japan." After the publication of his paper, Dennis also received the views of Arthur Schlesinger Jnr (quoted in a letter by Dennis published in The Journal of Military History, January 2004):"The Pacific Historical Review paper is a masterful job of historical research and argument.... You have demolished the claim that President Truman's high casualty estimates were a postwar invention."

Previously I've offered to debate publicly with anyone who dissents from the heroism of General Tibbets in the European and Pacific theatres of WWII, but Alterman makes it much easier for me. I challenge him to debate publicly the proposition, which I infer from his article he must be advancing, that Arthur Schlesinger Jnr and George F. Kennan were not"reputable historians". (How fortunate, from Alterman's point of view, that he introduced the weasel word"virtually" to cover himself. It certainly has a huge amount of work to do.)

That, I fear, is not all. Alterman goes on to remark (emphasis added):

Similarly, the obituary [of Paul Tibbets in the NYT] recounted the furor over the 1995 Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian--in which veterans' groups pressured the museum into censoring the exhibition's relatively fair-minded historical presentation of Harry Truman's decision to drop the bomb on two civilian cities--but failed even to refer to the fact that the veracity of the Smithsonian's original presentation was never seriously questioned by historians.

I invite Alterman to read, as he plainly hasn't, the study of this dispiriting affair by another of my correspondents, Robert P. Newman, Enola Gay and the Court of History, 2004. Professor Newman took the trouble to examine the entire museum archive about the controversy. He concluded that (p. 133), in the dispute between the museum and protesting veterans' groups, the museum had"offered not facts, but a fraudulent account of Japan's willingness to surrender. In any unbiased historiographic evaluation, the veterans win hands down."

The mother of ironies is that Alterman's article purports to dissect media bias. I've often argued with reference to the BBC that the greatest source of media"bias" is not design but ignorance. I couldn't wish for a more convincing demonstration of the point than Alterman. There is collateral evidence that nothing in the way of questions, let alone independent thought, will deflect him from the answer he first thought of. He begins his piece by quoting a character in Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll:

"The propaganda paper and the capitalist press arrive at the same relation to the truth.... Because 'all systems are blood brothers'.... Giving new meanings to words is how systems lie to themselves, beginning with the word for themselves--socialism, democracy.... An invasion becomes fraternal assistance."

Alterman comments:"Whether Stoppard had the US media and the invasion of Iraq in mind I cannot say, as he did not grant my interview request."

The notion that the Czech-born Stoppard might possibly have been writing about the Soviet invasion of Czecholslovakia in 1968 is clearly impossibly reductionist for a certain type of media commentator, for whom Iraq is the prism through which all art and politics are to be interpreted. No wonder Stoppard declined the interview request.

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