Americans run into trouble evaluating their past "when cherished stories that are part of our identity are investigated and made more complex," distinguished historian Edward Linenthal says.
This explains the controversies swirling around the battlefield at the Little Big Horn River in Montana where General Custer was defeated in 1876 and the National Air and Space Museum's(NASM) exhibit on the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan that abruptly ended World War II.
Linenthal, a professor at Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History, says when histories accepted as reflecting accurately on events are revised, "The urge is to lash out at those doing it (the revision) as somehow being subversive."
When historians ask new questions about evidence or come across new evidence, or look at evidence in a different way, they are looked upon as "revisionists," he writes, adding: "To my mind, any historian who is not intellectually senile is a revisionist." Linenthal goes on to say:
"Flashpoint words like "political correctness' and "revisionism' sound like accusations when in fact we are constantly revising who we think we are, not only in history but in medicine and in art and in architecture, and in technology."
In an article he wrote for The Long Term View, a publication of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Linenthal noted that for a century the dominant interpretation of the Little Big Horn battle was the General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry troops "were Christ-like sacrificial heroes who died so the West could be opened for civilization." Until the mid-1970s, Native Americans played the role of "barbarians," he noted.
About that time, battlefield manager U.S. Park Service "began to understand that this was a public history site that had to accommodate the stories of different groups of Americans." Linenthal said the Park Service has been "very successful" in converting a shrine to Custer into a memorial that also tells the story of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow warriors who fought there.
Linenthal says when he was asked to be on the advisory committee for NASM's exhibit on Hiroshima he did not see the storm clouds coming that challenged "how deeply invested so many people were in the heroic story of the dropping of the bomb" by raising the anti-nuclear issue.
The exhibit script's commemorative message was "Never Again", he noted, so when critics charged it was anti-nuclear "they were exactly right" when, in fact, "many veterans wanted instead a story line that focused on the Pacific War" with the bomb as "only the last and dramatic moment" of that struggle.
The historian criticized the media for its "irresponsible" role in fanning the controversy. "The Wall Street Journal," he said, took words out of the exhibit and put them in the mouths of the curators to make them appear pro-Japanese, and the Washington Post repeated it." Instead of talking about significant issues "journalists focused attention on the integrity of the curators," Linenthal said.
He noted, too, that it was easier to argue about the bomb in the late 1940s and 1950s than it was in the 1990s, "and that says something very dangerous about our cultural politics. Somehow, raising questions about our "sacred stories' is wrong." Linenthal points out, "The purpose of heritage, unlike history, is to make people feel good and give them a sense of identity."
By contrast, "History is not meant to make people either feel bad or feel good. If we try to understand the complexity of our past, like any other past, we will be comfortable and have a sense of deep pride at times, and at other times we will feel a sense of shame and regret and reflect upon human nature. History is not supposed to be therapy, nor is it supposed to be simply an indictment of the past."
The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, publishers of The Long Term View article in which Linenthal's article appeared, this August will open The American College of History and Legal Studies at nearby Salem, N.H., the first college ever in the U.S. devoted primarily to the study of history.