Carl Becker's histories and the American present
"Is the climate of Ithaca regarded as normally healthful, particularly for people of nervous temperaments? I have heard that on account of dampness it is very cold in winter and very hot in summer." So Carl Becker wrote a future colleague in early 1917 as he prepared to move from Minnesota to Cornell to continue one of the most distinguished and widely noted 20th-century academic careers. His "nervous temperaments" were indeed quickly tested. The results transformed Becker's views and, through his writings, the thinking of many leading Americans – but not because of Ithaca's weather.
As Americans prepared in 1917 to fight in World War I, Becker had been part of the influential Progressive movement which aimed at nothing less than reforming an America ruled by monopolistic robber barons and corrupt city machines. On foreign policy issues, however, Progressives were more divided and less informed. Becker's quick acceptance of President Woodrow Wilson's 1917 views of the necessary U.S. role in the European conflagration led the new Cornell professor to take leave to work in Washington for the Committee on Public Information, the propaganda wing of Wilson's commitment to total war.
The results, a deeply disillusioned Becker told a friend in 1920, were catastrophic. The war that Wilson claimed was to make "the world safe for democracy" instead produced an expanding communist Russia, a broken Western Europe, the massive "Red Scare" search for American communists and socialists, bloody racial riots in several U.S. cities, and deeply frustrated Americans who simply wanted to enjoy the dawning Jazz Age. Wilson, Becker told his friend, "has no humor, no objectivity, no abiding sense of or contact with reality." But the historian had little interest in escaping to the Jazz Age. As noted by Cornell's Michael Kammen, the distinguished editor of Becker's letters, the professor's vices were limited to "billiard playing, fast driving, and excessive smoking of Camel cigarettes." Becker set out to discover why he and many others had been so easily duped by Wilson's policies.
He discovered an answer in a form of historical relativism brilliantly captured in the title of his 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association: "Everyman His Own Historian." There was not one history, as the so-called "scientific" historians believed, but two: "The actual series of events that once occurred and the ideal series that we affirm and hold in memory. The first is absolute and unchanged ... the second is relative, always changing in response to the increase or refinement of knowledge." Historical judgments were thus "relative," Becker explained, because "the historian … like the bards and story-tellers of an earlier time, will be conditioned by the specious present in which alone he can be aware of his world." "The form and significance of remembered events," he added, "like the extension and velocity of physical objects, will vary with the time and place of the observer."
Becker's address took not only historians but American intellectual and political elites by storm. Historical relativism was the new way of understanding the past – and thus necessarily the present since, as William Faulkner later noted, the past is never really past.
Within 14 months of Becker's presidential address, however, an absolute appeared: Adolf Hitler, absolute in his evil. Hemmed in by his relativism, alienated by his bitter experience with Wilson, Becker could not come to terms with the significance of either Hitler or the isolationist U.S. foreign policies of the 1930s. By late 1935, Japanese militarists consolidated their invasion of North China, Mussolini seized Ethiopia, while Hitler stripped Jews of their protection of German citizenship and announced massive German rearmament. Amidst these catastrophes, Becker wrote the Washington Herald a public letter in which he stated that a "resort to force in place of persuasion is so far a confession of failure. I have no faith in the possibility of abolishing oppression by suppressing oppressors." Becker's past of 1917-1919 and 1931 had shaped his worldview of the mid-1930s as the world approached the abyss.
At a turning point in history, Becker did not turn. Believing that two ways existed to understand (and teach) history, the "scientific" and relativistic, Becker advocated the relativism spelled out in his 1931 address. There was, however, a third alternative which others, such as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, seized. It assumed that absolute evil could exist and could only be destroyed by counterforce. This assumption required a knowledge of foreign policy and other nations' politics. But not all supposed aggressors were the equivalent of Hitler, particularly given their inability or unwillingness to attack the United States and its allies. Becker and, especially since 2001, American intellectuals, media and government officials could at crucial moments never move beyond their own worldviews to make that distinction. They were, as Becker himself explained, prisoners of their own limited experiences and historical knowledge.
Walter LaFeber is the Tisch Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of history and a renowned foreign policy historian. Carl Becker, a prominent cultural and intellectual historian, taught in Cornell's Department of History from 1917 through 1941 and served as the university historian from 1941 until his death in 1945.