Andrew J. Bacevich’s review of Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism


The following review Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism by Andrew J. Bacevich first appeared March 21, 2019 on the website of The American Conservative. It is republished here by permision.

Charles Beard: Punished for Seeking Peace

by Andrew J. Bacevich

Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism is a new book by Richard Drake, himself an accomplished historian who teaches at the University of Montana. Although an estimable study, I can predict with certainty that it won’t be making The New York Times’s bestseller list.

The problem is not with the book, but with its protagonist. Even though today Charles Beard is all but forgotten, he remains a reviled and discredited figure—a supposed emblem of irresponsible scholarship. Yet the story of his rise and fall remains instructive.

For several decades prior to World War II, Beard stood alone at the pinnacle of his profession. As a historian and public intellectual, he was prolific, influential, fiercely independent, and equally adept at writing for scholarly audiences or for the general public. Then in the 1940s, during the last decade of his life, his reputation cratered suddenly, savagely, and irrevocably. Like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein in our own day, almost overnight Beard became a pariah.

Rather than anything as heinous as serial sexual abuse, however, Beard’s offense was to have committed heresy, not once but twice over. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he opposed U.S. intervention in the European war that had begun in September 1939. And when that conflict ended in 1945 he had the temerity to question the heroic “Good War” narrative that was even then already forming.

Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true. From the very moment of its inception, however, Beard believed otherwise and said so in the bluntest terms possible.

For Beard, that narrative echoed a similar line that President Woodrow Wilson had promulgated while justifying U.S. intervention in the prior European war of 1914 to 1918. Back then, the issue at hand, according to Wilson, had been really quite simple: good pitted against evil with freedom, democracy, and prospects of world peace at stake.

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