"The US and the Holocaust" Documentary by Ken Burns is "Revisionist History" Designed to Foment Support for Nuclear War
A new documentary came out last month that I’ve been beseeched to watch, in light of recent discussions. It’s called The US and the Holocaust, by the famed Ken Burns — widely considered one of the foremost High School History Class filmmakers in all the land. The documentary is very long, something like seven hours in total, but I did my duty and watched. And I’m glad I did. Because it turns out the documentary is a perfect example of “revisionist history” — a term that gets angrily shouted whenever anyone seeks to critically examine some historical record. Typically the term “revisionist” carries the connotation of “bad” — as in, it’s bad and suspicious and dangerous that you’re engaging in “revisionist history,” especially as related to such-and-such sacrosanct historical topic. Please stop doing that. Well, I can confidently report that the new documentary falls squarely into the “revisionist history” category, although I wouldn’t tell Burns to stop working his craft, because his productions are always a useful window into generic conventional wisdom.
According to a review in the Guardian, the documentary was originally slated for release in 2023, “but Burns accelerated production by several months.” As Burns himself explained, this decision to accelerate was on account of him (Burns) feeling “the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation.” Burns therefore specifically intended the documentary to be viewed in light of ongoing present-day events, and for parallels or lessons to be drawn accordingly. So, per Burns, it’s imperative that all responsible citizens consult the template of World War II for moral instruction on how we are to understand what’s happening right now.
A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Lloyd, certainly got the message when he wrote that Burns’ documentary “seems very much a response to current events, made not just as a commemoration but as a warning.” As reviewer Lloyd explained, the United States in the current year may not quite be “Nazi Germany” — at least not yet — but “to judge by the news, there are some who wish it were.” According to Lloyd, examples of this allegedly widespread wish for Nazi transformation include “recent attacks on libraries” and “the failed putsch of Jan. 6, 2021.” Lloyd also warns: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s Hitleresque imperial fantasies give the series a separate, incidental resonance.”
The purported “resonance” of World War II in relation to Ukraine has also been embraced within the highest ranks of the US government. On September 29, 2022, the US Embassy in Berlin, Germany hosted the “European premiere” of the Burns documentary. The sitting US Ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann, marked the occasion by declaring:
“Never again” is the world’s pledge—and the overriding message of this great film. We must never forget, especially when we face domestic hate crimes and what is currently happening in Ukraine. When our children and grandchildren look back at this moment in history, will they say that we did all we can to fight Anti-semitism, to combat all forms of extremist violence in our countries, and to support Ukraine?
A plain reading of Gutmann’s statement seems to indicate her belief that anyone who properly absorbs the moral lessons of World War II should have no trouble understanding that “we” — which presumably means regular people, not just State Department staff — must “support Ukraine.” And since the “support Ukraine” policy being implemented by the Biden Administration, in which Gutmann serves, currently consists of things like subsidizing and operationally coordinating a massive war against the foreign power with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — apparently that’s the thing we’re all obliged to “support,” lest we not appreciate the true lessons of World War II.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the international folk hero and president of Ukraine, has variously made versions of this same argument himself. In what was called a “scathing speech” this past March to the parliament of Israel, Zelensky accused the assembled lawmakers of enabling a second Holocaust. “The Russians use the terminology of the Nazi party, they want to destroy everything. The Nazis called this ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish question,’” Zelensky said. “In Moscow, they’re using those words, ‘the Final Solution.’ But now it’s directed against us and the Ukrainian question.”
The basis for this scathing rebuke was Zelensky’s belief that Israel had failed to adequately support the Ukraine war effort. There was a brief period when then-Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett, was attempting to mediate negotiations between Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Zelensky evidently did not consider this approach properly concordant with the lessons of the Holocaust. Whether the searing emotional excoriation he delivered to Israeli Knesset members ever paid off is still not quite clear; Israel has yet to impose war-related economic sanctions on Russia, despite both US and Ukrainian commands.
Zelensky’s thematic angle has persisted, however, and recently as September 25, 2022 he told American viewers of CBS television that Putin is perpetrating a “genocide of the Ukrainian population.” In view of this, Zelensky called for the US to stop merely facilitating the transfer of tanks to Ukraine from third-party countries, and instead start sending US tanks to Ukraine directly. His latest idea, as of October 6, is for NATO to launch “preemptive strikes” against Russia. Who could ever question such a proposal, even in the face of what analyst after analyst has announced is the greatest nuclear destruction risk to confront humanity since the Cuban Missile Crisis? What ignoble freaks could possibly favor taking actions to reduce the severity of this nuclear threat, rather than taking actions to increase it? Well, the Ken Burns documentary has an answer.
Anyone favoring a risk-mitigation approach would have to be the latest incarnation of those reviled World War II-era “isolationists” — a term Burns uses throughout his production. This term was of course originally popularized by critics of the supposed “isolationist” position, to suggest anyone who adopts the position has by extension adopted a discredited, head-in-the-sand attitude toward pressing world problems. For instance, only a morally defective “isolationist” could be wary that Joe Biden has issued a “presidential covert action finding” to secretly authorize US military operations inside Ukraine.
Among the vaunted experts featured by Burns throughout the documentary is Deborah Lipstadt, currently an official in the Biden Administration. Lipstadt in her telling made sure to matter-of-factly denigrate “the isolationists” of the World War II era by lumping them seamlessly together with “the anti-semites” — both intrinsically members of the same disreputable political category. To be an isolationist is to necessarily be an anti-semite, per this formulation. Thus opponents of US entry into World War II are characterized by Burns as nothing more than a grotesque assemblage of vulgar know-nothings, crazed racial bigots, and outright supporters of Hitler.
If you’ve noticed, anyone who raises a skeptical word about current US policy in Ukraine is similarly beseiged with accusations of being a vulgar know-nothing, a crazed racial bigot, an outright supporter of Putin, or other kind words in that vein. They are taken to be sordid descendants of the “isolationists” circa World War II, whom Burns — like countless others today — endeavors to discredit.
This is a historically revisionist tactic, utilized for contemporary propaganda purposes. “Isolationist” would certainly be an odd term to describe, for instance, Norman Thomas: the six-time Socialist Party presidential nominee and one of the country’s staunchest advocates against US entry to World War II. Given his conception of socialist ideology, it would be vastly more accurate to describe Thomas as an “internationalist” rather than an “isolationist” — even as he wanted to “isolate” the US from total catastrophic war on multiple continents. No surprise of course that Thomas goes unmentioned in the Ken Burns documentary.
Only one opponent of US entry into World War II is mentioned. If you have any familiarity at all with the pop-history of this period, you can probably guess who it is. Because in the Ken Burns rendering and the wider pop-historical rendering of 1939-1941, every American whose preference was to avoid entering another World War could be summed up exclusively in the personage of Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was of course a prominent figure of the time, and did oppose US entry to the war, up until Pearl Harbor — after which he volunteered for service and was rejected by Franklin Roosevelt before arranging to fly aviation missions himself as a civilian in the Pacific. But Lindbergh was also nowhere close to being the only prominent figure who espoused a non-interventionist (or “isolationist”) view during this period. In fact, the view was incredibly popular — espoused by an enormous variety of high-profile individuals from across the ideological spectrum. So why is it that Ken Burns in his documentary chose to fixate solely on Charles Lindbergh as the paramount exemplar of anti-war sentiment? Well, that’s easy to answer.
“This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion,” Burns quotes Lindbergh intoning in a September 15, 1939 radio address. The documentary narrator informs us that Lindbergh was a big fan of Nazi Germany because he “admired the regime’s virility and emphasis on order… his wife Ann thought Hitler a very great man, maligned by what she called Jewish propaganda.” The couple had even contemplated moving to Nazi Germany at one point, the documentary reports. Let’s stipulate all this about Lindbergh is true. I’m not contesting any of it. But if you’re only going to mention Lindbergh as an example of someone who opposed entering the war during this period — to the exclusion of literally anyone else — the explanation for such a strange editorial choice is likely to be as follows: it presents the false impression that the non-interventionist view was wholly and without exception dominated by figures such as Lindbergh. The editorial choice conveys that it was Lindbergh and Lindbergh alone who typified the abominable non-interventionist cause. And of course, Lindbergh is understood to have been a lunatic who was blatantly pro-Hitler. So the “isolationists” personified by Lindbergh were not merely wrongheaded in their policy prescriptions, they were fundamentally depraved — even downright evil. And this is exactly the same way we’re instructed to view those who espouse the comparable “isolationist” position today with respect to Ukraine.
Maybe the most important point to raise about Burns’ revisionist history is what his depiction would apparently imply for the broad swath of the American public. Because as I’ve previously shown, overwhelming supermajorities of Americans consistently opposed US entry to the war, all the way up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Were these untold millions of Americans all fundamentally motivated by sick racial animus or traitorous paranoia, akin to how Lindbergh is portrayed? Because for all that advocates of US military intervention love to posture as the real American Patriots, this false caricature from Burns puts forth an exceptionally craven depiction of Americans. Never is it entertained that maybe 88% of the public simply did not care to be forcibly conscripted into fighting and dying in another World War on dubious pretenses. And not because they must’ve had some fanatical hatred for Jews, either:
You would have no idea watching Ken Burns’ documentary that this near-ubiquitous anti-war, anti-Nazi sentiment even existed during the years in question. All you’d know is that Charles Lindbergh existed, and he was bad, and therefore everyone who opposed entering the war was bad. The polling data which demonstrates the near-ubiquity of anti-war sentiment tends to be conspicuously buried in ancient academic texts, however: an unreasonable amount of effort was required for me to even locate it. So maybe Burns simply faltered in his research.
But the innocence of Burns’ error becomes less plausible when one considers that there are countless anti-war figures other than Lindbergh whom Burns could’ve highlighted, and chose not to. I’ve mentioned Norman Thomas quite a bit, but he only scratches the surface. C. Wright Mills, the sociologist widely credited as a founder of the “New Left” ideological tradition, urged his parents to vote Norman Thomas instead of Roosevelt for president in 1940, on anti-war grounds, and as late as 1945 wrote to them: “Like I told you 3 years ago, I’ll sit this one out. It’s a goddamn bloodbath to no end save misery and death to all civilized values.” Of course, mentioning Thomas and Mills might complicate the political objective of Burns to cast war-opposition as some sort of innately fascistic enterprise.
The total omission of any liberal or left-wing anti-war advocates from the popular consciousness around World War II is really staggering. It wasn’t just a handful of fringe whackos who opposed US entry. Without exaggeration, it was a cross-section of the most prominent left-wing figures in the entire country. Another one of them was Dwight Macdonald, editor of the influential magazine Partisan Review, who rejected demands by other left-wing factions to pledge unconditional loyalty to the Soviet Union — even personally debating Leon Trotsky on the matter. Macdonald denounced Roosevelt’s military alliance with Joseph Stalin, and in the July 1941 edition of Partisan Review declared a wholeheartedly “isolationist” stance toward the war — on the ground that both the warring Allied and Axis powers were merely different species of reactionaries. Macdonald was convinced that the very nature of war itself would impede the emergence of true socialism.
Or take Oswald Garrison Villard, who was sole editor of The Nation from 1918 to 1933. In the June 29, 1940 issue, Oswald resigned from the magazine — after 46 years of continuous affiliation — on the basis of what he said were “the differences of opinion which have arisen between myself and the present editorial board as to the relation of the United States to the catastrophe in Europe.” Villard was adamantly against policies that would prepare the US for entry to the war, while his colleagues supported these policies. He viewed their support as a grievous abandonment of the magazine’s founding principle, as he put it: “Steadfast opposition to all preparations for war, to universal military service, to a great navy, and to all war.” Villard said in their embrace of pro-war policy measures, his colleagues were “embracing for the purpose of saving our democracy the very evils certain to destroy it.”
Or how about John L. Lewis, arguably the most powerful organized labor leader in the country as head of the left-wing United Mine Workers union. Lewis went so far as actively campaigning against Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, warning audiences that he would “make cannon fodder of your sons.”
Or how about, I don’t know, future president John F. Kennedy? As Kennedy’s friend Torbert Macdonald revealed decades after Kennedy’s death: “I can recall distinctly at one stage that Jack thought the people whose motto then was ‘America First’ were correct, and that we were just going to get, needlessly, entangled in what was basically a European war, or seemed to be at the time. He held these views for a while.” And indeed, Kennedy sent the now-reviled “America First Committee” — the largest anti-war organization going — a check for $100, with a note enclosed that read: “What you are doing is vital.”
How about Pete Seeger? Today heralded as something close to a beatific figure by crunchy left-wing activists, in May 1941 Seeger released a folk music album alongside another musical figure soon to be inducted into the annals of mainstream pop culture fame: Woody Guthrie. Their album, called Songs for John Doe, was about as overtly anti-war as it gets. On one track, called “Washington Breakdown,” Seeger crooned:
Franklin D., listen to me
You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea
‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea, You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea
You may say it’s for defense
But that kinda talk that I’m against
I’m against, I’m against
That kinda talk ain’t got no sense
Upon Seeger’s death in 2014, he was swiftly canonized as an icon of the Great American Songbook, complete with a eulogy from Barack Obama. Curiously there was no mention in the Obama eulogy of how Seeger at one stage stridently opposed US entry into World War II, which is now understood to have been the ultimate moral crime. Maybe all was forgiven because Seeger pulled a sudden flip-flop and eventually did support US entry — at the drop of a hat — in June 1941. He recounted the flip-flop many years later:
Woody walks in the door, actually as I remember it, about one or two days after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and one of the first words out of his mouth with a wry grin was, “Well, I guess we’re not going to be singing any more of them peace songs.”
Seeger’s conversion to the pro-war cause wasn’t the product of any apparent intellectual revelation, but literally because he was following the edict of the Communist Party USA, as pronounced in the Daily Worker newspaper. Today this pro-war conversion, on behalf of supporting Stalin, is considered to have been the obviously correct decision. Even though Seeger was evidently not motivated to defeat Nazism for its own sake, seeing as he opposed going to war against Nazi Germany until they were fighting the Soviets.
Mixing things up ideologically a bit, how about future president Gerald Ford, a founding member of the “America First Committee” when he was a student at Yale Law School? Although it’s true that “Ford quit when he feared his involvement might jeopardize his position as assistant football coach,” according to journalist and historian Bill Kauffman.
The “America First Committee” was established on September 4, 1940. This date makes sense when viewed in context, as the Senate had just passed legislation instituting the first-ever peacetime “draft” in US history on August 28, by a vote of 58-31. Roosevelt signed the final version of the bill into law on September 16. By October, all American men between the ages of 21 and 36 were legally required to register. The Progressive magazine later described the “America First Committee” as being up till that point “the only important US political movement ever sparked and kindled by youngsters.” Seeing as “youngsters” would be the people actually conscripted to fight and die in the war, it’s not particularly surprising that “America First” — still the largest ever US anti-war organization, to this day — should have been founded by the draft-age demographic. Was every “youngster” who didn’t want to be shipped off to the killing fields of Europe really just a mini Charles Lindbergh, brimming with demented Hitler worship? Again, you’d have to assume so, if all you go by is the revisionist Ken Burns caricature of World War II history.
There really are so many other examples of incredibly high-profile American figures who opposed entering the war, but get conveniently excised from this history. Here is a October 13, 1941 column written by Kurt Vonnegut when he was a student at Cornell University, in response to attacks on Lindbergh:
The mud-slingers are good. They’d have to be good to get people hating a loyal and sincere patriot. On second thought, Lindbergh is no patriot — to hell with the word, it lost its meaning after the Revolutionary War.
What a guy! Look at the beating he takes. Why on God’s green earth (we think He’s sub-let it) would anyone lay himself open for such defamation if he wasn’t entirely convinced that he must give the message to his country at any cost? To offer an obstacle to the premeditated Roosevelt foreign policy is certainly to ask for a kick in the face…
Crusades, not that they’re not worth twice the cost, cost about five million men these days. It’s America’s purpose to defend its way of life, to bankrupt itself rather than let Hitler take our South American trade — a farce which ends up in red ink every time — and to send the best crop of young technicians the country has known, who could make this fabulously wealthy nation self-sufficient within itself, into battle.
Charles A. Lindbergh has had the courage at least to present the conservative side of a titanic problem, grant him that. The United States is a democracy, that’s what they say we’ll be fighting for. What a prize monument to that ideal is a cry to smother Lindy. Weighing such inconsequential items as economic failure and simultaneous collapse of the flaunted American Standard of Living (looks good capitalized — it’ll be fine for chuckles in a decade), and outrageous bloodshed of his countrymen, the young ones, is virtual treason to the Stars and Stripes — long may it wave.
Like many others who scorned the prospect of US entry, Vonnegut eventually ended up serving himself, which he’d searingly recount in writings like Slaughterhouse-Five. Gore Vidal also served in the war, but came to deplore the villainization of “isolationists,” writing in defense of such people that “they wanted no part of the foreign wars that the moneyed conservative Eastern class so much enjoyed and benefited from. The people knew that they were the ones who would do the dying while the friends of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the last half dozen Oval Ones (oddities to a man) made the money.”
How about Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the left-wing Catholic Worker newspaper? Day went so far as opposing US entry to World War II even after Pearl Harbor, which was a relative rarity among non-interventionists. In the January 1942 edition of the newspaper, Day wrote:
We are at war, a declared war, with Japan, Germany and Italy. But still we can repeat Christ’s words, each day, holding them close in our hearts, each month printing them in the paper. In times past, Europe has been a battlefield. But let us remember St. Francis, who spoke of peace and we will remind our readers of him, too, so they will not forget.
In The Catholic Worker we will quote our Pope, our saints, our priests. We will go on printing the articles which remind us today that we are all “called to be saints,” that we are other Christs, reminding us of the priesthood of the laity.
We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.
But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brother, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.
How come Ken Burns didn’t mention Kurt Vonnegut or Dorothy Day, and only mentioned Charles Lindbergh? Well, do you really have to ask?
The list of war-opponents who are studiously ignored in Burns-style storytelling goes on and on. Sinclair Lewis and Frank Lloyd Wright were both at times members of “America First,” as were the publishers of both the “liberal” New York Daily News and the “conservative” Chicago Tribune. And yet, the only member you ever hear about is coincidentally the one who’s considered the most morally egregious: Lindbergh. Which has to be a conscious choice on the part of Burns and like-minded revisionists. Because if it’s not a conscious choice, their understanding of the period is so radically stunted that anything else they say on the subject should just be discounted outright.
It would almost be like if 80 years from now, opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq were cast as the sole province of David Duke, because Duke opposed the war in 2003 on the ground that it was “beneficial only to Israel.” And therefore, everybody else who opposed the war must’ve opposed it on similarly suspicious grounds, indicating their probable Neo-Nazi sympathies. Likewise, the endless “Lindbergh” fixation is straightforwardly willful “revisionism” — and this revisionist history is being marshaled for a very clear purpose at the moment: to stigmatize those who take the modern iteration of the “isolationist” view as nothing but a pack of sinister villains who secretly love Putin, Nazis, yadda yadda yadda.
There’s even a little montage at the very end of the Ken Burns documentary where suddenly the viewer is teleported into Donald Trump’s America (not Joe Biden’s, for some reason) and shown harrowing footage of the 2017 Charlottesville tiki-torch marauders, as well as the riotous goofballs of January 6, 2021 — in case you need any clarification of who the modern-day “isolationists” are considered to be represented by. So that’s the malignant association you’ll have to brace for if you question whether the current US policy consensus should perhaps be revisited in light of an ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis-level nuclear threat. For the extremely pervasive stigma associated with critical thinking on these issues, you can thank the “historical revisionism” championed by the likes of Ken Burns.