Let’s test your ability to count. Take a look at this:
This video may, or may not, have a lot do to with a historian named Charles Callan Tansill (1890–1964).
Charles Tansill was an American diplomatic historian. Author of fourteen books, he was a prolific scholar who had countless (at least I have never counted them) articles. He was also a racist, segregationist and, if not a genuine Nazi, at least a Nazi sympathizer. What appeal could such a person have for libertarians, Defenders of Freedom? The best-case scenario was, they were so busy concentrating on how many Freedom Basketballs were passed that they missed that their ally was a Dancing Gorilla With a Swastika Armband.* The worst-case scenario is that they DID know of his deeply-held racism and just didn’t care.
This is important because it relates to Holocaust denial. If you missed this little gem: Andrew Anglin, America’s leading neo-Nazi propaganda artist is trying to avoid a lawsuit by denying the Holocaust. Follow closely: Anglin sent his thuggish hoods after a Jewish woman in Whitefish, Montanta. They harassed and threatened her with, among other things, Holocaust imagery. Part of Anglin’s defense is that he can’t be guilty of threatening her life because he doesn’t believe the Holocaust occurred. Thus, he should escape culpability for these actions.
As bass-ackwards as Anglin’s thinking is here, it does make Holocaust denial a relevant subject again. Some of the roots of Holocaust denial goes back to immediatly after World War II, when a few writers tried to shift the blame for World War II from Hitler and the Japanese to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Tansill was the most notable historian who tried to argue that Hitler was not responsible for World War II. If you can believe in a Machiavellian FDR who was such an evil genius that he tricked Hitler into invading Poland, you can probably believe that the Nazis didn’t systematically murder six million Jews.
Let’s begin when it all began to go wrong for Tansill; his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936, where he was ferried around the “New Germany” and he gave a speech transmitted to American audiences (a full transcript of the speech is available in Tansill’s papers and the Hoover Presidential Library). One thing he wanted Americans to know was that:
Germany has no imperialistic ambitions… The one sentiment which seems universal throughout Germany is a desire to wage no war of aggression. Germany wishes above all things to be “let alone,” and to be given an opportunity to work out unhampered a far-reaching domestic program.
Hitler had been in power for three years at this time. And that “far-reaching domestic program” included Nazi antisemitic laws and propaganda. Concentration camps were opening. Political enemies, Jehovah Witnesses, gay men, and, of course, Jews were being rounded up. Tansill mentioned none of this but assured his American audience that everything was wonderful about Hitler’s Germany:
There is no place in German National Socialism for the “rugged individualism” so dear to many American hearts. German National Socialism emphasizes the needs of the community rather than the needs of the individual, and these needs can only be satisfied through careful control of industrial enterprise. This community or national viewpoint with reference to future economic development has been made possible only through the unifying influence of German National Socialism.
Rampant collectivism! Tansill’s view of the wonderful German economy should have been anathema to libertarians. Libertarian godfather, Ludwig von Mises, who himself had fled from Hitler to the United States, would write a scathing indictment of Nazi Germany in 1944. In Omnipotent Government, Mises would argue that, not only was German racial doctrine incoherent, but their collectivist social planning was essentially the same as the communist Soviet Union. You’d think Tansill’s judgment about Germany would be suspect from a libertarian perspective. But, you’d be wrong.
Back home, Tansill continued praising Hitler and the Nazis, giving versions of his speech: “”Germany Now Strongest Bulwark in Europe Against Communism and War, Tansill Says” read one headline in the Washington Post (17 November 1936). Tansill’s loudly announced pro-Nazi position eventually led to his dismissal from his post at American University where he had been since 1918. The Washington Post noted that Tansill was an “outspoken defender of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Regime” (9 March 1937). Tansill’s firing was undoubtedly a hideous violation of his academic freedom but he didn’t make much of stir about it for reasons that are not clear. Not to spoil anything, but Tansill turned out to be wrong, wrong, wrong about Germany and warm since Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland in 1939.
Tansill was great friends with George Sylvester Vierick a friendship that did not flag after Viereck spent five years in prison for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1941 for spreading Nazi propaganda and not registering as an agent of the Nazi Government. In 1952, Viereck wrote to his friend, Charles:
You have the most stimulating mind of any man I know. Your conversation, your wit, is tart, but sparkling. My young friend Harald Keith Thompson, was fascinated by you. I certainly look forward with ever increasing interest to your magnum opus. (1 April 1952, Tansill papers)
The young friend, H. Keith Thompson, was a registered agent of the “Socialist Reich Party” at this time and a self-proclaimed American Fascist. and a man who described Tansill as “my close friend.” By this time Tansill had landed at Georgetown University, which obviously had some Nazi-blindness itself. The magnum opus Vierick referred to was Tansill’s 700-page monster book: Back Door to War which attempted to prove that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were peace-loving countries that were forced/tricked into war by Britain and Roosevelt.
World War II revisionism fit snugly with the anti-New Deal, anti-regimentation attitudes that defined the old right and shaded over into postwar libertarianism. Roosevelt sneaking us into war was all of piece with his creation of unconstitutional agencies to institute his plan for overall regimentation of the U.S. economy and his court-packing scheme to make sure no other branch of government would stop it. (pp. 64-65)
Doherty notes that “libertarians cheered and embraced war revisionism, even if the war revisionists were not libertarians. (In many cases they were disillusioned left progressives, such as Charles Beard.)” And, in other cases, they were unrepentant admirers of Hitler like Charles Tansill. According to 1952 Tansill, 1938-Tansill was right after all: Hitler was a peace loving-gent who had been fooled into invading Poland by the demoniacally clever FDR. Reviewers were….not impressed. I’m very tempted to fill the rest of this post with excerpts but I’ll content myself with a few highlights:
Mississippi Valley Historical Review:
It is remarkable…that in all the expanse of coverage throughout some 650 pages, he does not feel a necessity of discover an opportunity to present even one piece of exact evidence to warrant the assertion or justify the inquiry….The book is unredeemed by humor, art or insight. To read it and to write about are unrewarding tasks.
Political Science Quarterly:
There is no documentation for the first statement in the book (“The main objective in American foreign policy since 1900 has been the preservation of the British Empire”); nor do the 2,000 citations scattered through the rest of the book support that interesting statement. It is much the same at other points. Professor Tansill has provided much significant material, but has not proved his main arguments.
Journal of Politics:
Tansill adopts a remarkably benevolent attitude toward many groups customarily regarded rather critically. Thus, the war criminals hanged at Nurnberg were merely men who had attempted to “break these vessels [the post-World War I peace treaties] filled with national hatreds.”
In the description of the prolonged negotiations with Japan in 1940 and 1941, Roosevelt is portrayed as a modern Machiavelli (“a master of mendacity”) and the Japanese as long-suffering, reasonable, patient men who abandoned their earnest search for peace only after exhausting every possibility of compromise with their implacable adversary.
Pacific Historical Review:
In structure the book is topical and episodic and is wholly lacking in synthesis. Whether intentional or not, the historical distortions are numerous. Back Door to war is, in its own peculiar way, a striking monument to pedantic scholarship, but it is build on a very tiny mound of historical understanding.
I could go on (and on and on) about the terrible reviews the book got. Libertarians, however, loved it. Libertarian stalwart, Edmund Opitz, writing in Faith and Freedom concluded:
That books like Back Door to War are being published demonstrates that there is still saving health in this nation. The facts it reveals are shocking beyond belief, but unless we know them we are condemned to further repetition of similar evils. Tansill has done a magnificent job, and if his book becomes a force in shaping public opinion we need not yet despair of the Republic.
The only words in that paragraph that agreed with historians’ reviews was that what Tansill wrote was “beyond belief.” Young libertarian, Gary North, wrote to Tansill of his college class on the history of World War II, “As it has turned out, the course has become, for me at least, a matter of “what does Tansill say?” Budding libertarian historian, Leonard Liggio was so impressed that he chose Georgetown for
his Ph.D. undergraduate work expressly so he could work with Tansill [thank you to Phil Magness for pointing out my error in the comments. Liggio’s graduate work was done at Fordham. I apologize for my error]. In 1953, the year after Back Door was published, Tansill had a long essay in a volume edited by Harry Elmer Barnes, considered one of the “fathers of Holocaust denial,” that was published by Caxton Printers, the house publisher for many libertarians.
Throughout the nineteen-fifties, Tansill argued that the Fourteenth Amendment was illegally adopted, hence southern states had no obligation to provide the equal protection of the laws for its African-American citizens and that Lincoln at tricked the South into firing on Fort Sumpter and hence the North, not the South was responsible for the Civil War. To give some idea of how this prose was, in a 1947 speech at the Daughters of the Confederacy, Tansill was so raving that he actually embarrassed the most racist government official around, Mississippi Representative John Rankin. Time magazine reported that Tansill was “snapping like a terrapin” and
When Dr. Tansill had run down, Representative Rankin, who had a prominent place up front, attempted a discreet getaway, ran into a nosey hanger-on, declared testily that the speakeer had gone “too far,” and that “the time has come to draw the mantle of charity over all that.”
By 1958, Tansill was a well-known crackpot who had produced controversial, but serious work before the war but since was best known for his outspoken racism and his crazy theories that the Roosevelt started World War II and Lincoln, not the traitorous South was responsible for the first shots fired in the American Civil War. Who would fund this guy to write a book of serious history?
The answer is, of course, the libertarians. In 1958, the Volker fund, which Doherty describes as “the major funder of libertarian causes during the 1950s” (p. 62) gave Tansill a grant of $15,000 (around $128,000 in today’s money) to produce a diplomatic history of the United States from 1789-1958. Austin J. App, another father of Holocaust denial congratulated Tansill, recognizing that the money made his own antisemitic work look all that more legitimate:
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to read…that you won the William Volker $15,000 award for a series of volumes on American foreign policy. My heartfeld congratulations. It is a wonderful thing for all right-thinking Americans when a revisionist scholar gets any honor–it strengthens all our positions.
Tansill never produced the promised book on American diplomatic history for Volker. By now he was an elderly man and not in the best of health. If the Volker fund wanted to see the results of their money they would have to be content with short pieces Tansill published in the John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion, American Mercury (a magazine so antisemitic that William F. Buckley forbade his authors to write for it), or Willis Carto’s even more antisemitic journal, Western Destiny.
In his sympathetic history of the American libertarian movement, Brian Doherty notes that the Volker Fund was a bastion of libertarian purity:
Volker Fund people were trying to craft a libertarian identity distinct from the larger right-wing conservative movement… For one thing, the libertarians really meant it about free markets, completely and totally with no exceptions, but that wasn’t enough somehow. [Volker’s leaders] thought Volker had to boldly stake out ground distinct from that of a standard postwar big business apologist. (p. 186)
Doherty notes, that Volker refused to fund Barnes’s work for these reasons. And yet, libertarians praised Tansill, worked with him, looked to him for intellectual mentorship, and funded him. They overlooked that his work was designed to be an apologia for Hitler and the slaveholding confederacy. He hated the New Deal and Roosevelt and that was worth spending their money on. For the rest of us, it means we must question very seriously the libertarians’ self-professed commitment to freedom.
*Strained metaphor? No, I don’t think so. It isn’t my fault that you’ve never heard of Freedom Basketballs. Am I the only person who remembers the red-white-and-blue basketballs of the American Basketball Association?
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