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Paul Buhle’s Review of Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism in the Progressive

Paul Buhle wrote an excellent review article which appeared on the Progressive Magazine’s website on February 20, 2019. The piece titled “Charles Beard: Bob La Follette’s Friend” is republished here with permission.

Charles Beard: Bob La Follette’s Friend

A new book corrects the record on the anti-imperialist historian—a close ally of “The Progressive’s” founder—whose work was much maligned by pro-empire liberals.
by Paul Buhle
February 20, 2019

Charles Beard, an anti-imperialist, stood in stark comparison with his hawkish liberal contemporaries.

The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard—a major scholar in her own right—was a popular history of the United States like none other before or since. It sold millions of copies, in edition after edition from the 1920s through the 1930s. No U.S. history since has had this much popular appeal, not even Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. And yet, by the 1960s, the Beards’ signature work was widely regarded, by leading U.S. history professors, as not only badly out of date but also badly mistaken.

In his new book, Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism (Cornell University Press, 336 pages, $42.95), Richard Drake explains why this happened and what it means for the progressive tradition at large. Drake, who teaches politics and history at the University of Montana, is also author of The Education of an Anti-ImperialistRobert La Follette and U.S. Expansionism. He gives us an incisive view of the power of Beard, and a sense of his intellectual origins.

Beard’s stinging criticisms of empire, including those of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quiet preparations for United States involvement in the approaching World War II, provoked sharp criticisms that turned into an all-out attack on Beard’s reputation as a scholar and a public intellectual. Drake describes the rising tide of hawkish liberal scholars that seized the high ground at The New York Times and other prestigious outlets.

Operating at the highest levels of the rapidly expanding university systems of the 1950s, the post-New Deal liberals also took charge of official versions of U.S. history taught to students at virtually all levels of American education. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a major attacker of the left and later an aide to the Kennedy White House, was a particular enemy of Beard’s work. (By no accident, Schlesinger was also destined to be the foremost critic of famed University of Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams, another foremost critic of empire.)

Charles Austin Beard, as a leading public intellectual, and Robert M. La Follette, the great defender of democracy, exchanged hundreds of letters, and Beard contributed essays and reviews to the Progressive in the 1940s. Beard’s biography brings the two giants back together, in a new light.

The son of a businessman, raised a Republican, Charles Beard received crucial lessons as a student and professor in the United Kingdom during the Victorian age. The effort to remake social relations through example led Beard to become one of the founders of Ruskin Hall as a “college for the people,” emphatically including working people.

By contrast to the young La Follette, who dedicated himself to politics, Beard chose to go the academic route, relocating to New York City, teaching at Columbia University, and writing in the most prominent newspapers and magazines of the day. Drake attributes Beard’s interest in empire to a reading of John Hobson, who also deeply influenced Lenin. The Spanish American War prompted Beard to see U.S. leaders as determined to create an overseas empire rivaling the Europeans’ far-flung holdings. His Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) was considered shocking for suggesting that the Founding Fathers were less idealists than property holders defending their interests.

Duly impressed, La Follette published no less than three reviews of this book in his own publication, La Follette’s Weekly (which later became The Progressive). It helped him understand how elites worked in politics. La Follette badly wanted Beard to review his own autobiography, published in 1913. While he admired the book, Beard disagreed with La Follette’s hope to restore American democracy to an earlier, better version from a time before the Civil War. While La Follette believed that the financial elites could be restrained, Beard did not believe that a return to the past was possible or desirable in a world economy.

The two men also disagreed about the entry of the United States into World War I. Beard at first supported the war, but when Columbia announced the firing of professors who opposed the war, he courageously stood up for the dissenters and resigned his faculty position. At the time when the United States was becoming the leading power in the world, Beard became an eloquent enemy of empire.

Thus, La Follette and Beard emerged in the 1920s sharing, and vastly popularizing, the rising disillusionment with the war and with Woodrow Wilson’s ambitions. Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization, published in two volumes in 1927, poured praise upon the memory of La Follette, who had died only two years earlier. La Follette had shown Beard the way forward to “historical revisionism,” a rejection of the narrative or belief that the United States had the duty to lead the world and intervene whenever and wherever its leaders chose to do so.

In the 1930s, Beard’s warnings about the coming of World War II and its roots in commercial rivalries—the competition of leading nations against each other for control of markets—were dramatized by Congressional investigations into the role of big business in 1916 and 1917. The Depression, Beard warned, would likely impel the United States into alliances that would lead to entry into another war. Beard supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal but feared that all the advances they brought would soon be smothered in the militarization of society and the repression of dissent. It was a view widely shared in Wisconsin at the time, most especially by Bob La Follette’s political heirs.

From the 1950s until 1970, the University of Wisconsin’s history department was widely viewed as the center of Beardian-style revisionism. Elsewhere, the critique of official support for the Vietnam War offered by conservative, and most liberal, historians until the very end of the 1960s divided the historical profession nationally and, one might say, made La Follette a twentieth-century hero for many of the young.

Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Charles and Mary Beard continued to write widely praised historical volumes, warning that even a “good” war could lead to bad ends. Beard had a near soulmate in Fighting Bob’s son, Robert M. La Follette Jr., from the Depression onward, who published and spoke fervently in favor of pacifism. Charles declared in a letter to a colleague in 1943 that there was only one magazine still worth reading: The Progressive.

By that time, Wisconsin’s Progressive Party was no more, and the heirship to historic liberal progressivism fell to Harry Truman and the “permanent war,” with the permanent military-industrial economy.

A final chapter of Drake’s worthy volume seeks to take full measure of Charles Beard’s contribution to the scholarship of American history. It was the conceptualization of American leaders’ plans for military bases around the world that exploded the empty claims of the United States as the champion of global democracy. It is clear to say, of this grandest of American historians, that he drank deeply at the well of knowledge in the pages of La Follette’s Magazine and The Progressive.

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