Speaking to small business owners in New Jersey June 16, President Bush said there was no doubt that Saddam had posed “a threat to the United States” since 1991. “This nation acted to a threat from the dictator of Iraq. Now there are some who would like to rewrite history—revisionist historians is what I like to call them. Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in ’91, in ’98, in 2003.”
As a revisionist historian, I believe the president misunderstands what the term “revisionist history” really means. He has spoken out about Holocaust revisionism in the past, a very evil form of revisionist history that denies there ever was a Holocaust, and perhaps that is his sole contact with the phrase. He seems to think revisionist history is generically bad. But there are good forms as well. All revisionist history entails is a new interpretation of some period or topic in the past based on a changed environment and maybe the collection of new information. For example, certain French revisionist historians in the 1980s began challenging the traditional view of the French Revolution as a heroic struggle for liberty, fraternity, equality, and instead interpreted it as the harbinger of modern totalitarianisms.
I myself specialize in Japanese history, and study the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Western scholars of Japan writing in the 1930s and 40s interpreted this period as one of brutal oppression and economic stagnation. Since the 1960s, western scholars (including revisionist myself) have depicted it as one of social progress, cultural vibrancy, and incipient capitalism. The earlier scholars were influenced by the fascist character of the Japanese government in their own time; the later, by Japan as a rapidly-growing economy wedded to the U.S. Contemporary political conditions inevitably affect how we look at the past. My point, again, is just to defend revisionist history in itself as neither good nor bad but part of the intellectual process.
But back to Bush’s remark. He implies that everybody used to realize that Iraq posed a threat to the United States, but that now the revisionists are saying that it never did. We know, Bush tells us, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (which of course no one anywhere denies, since they were discovered and destroyed by UN inspectors from 1991-98). That’s not the issue. Those Bush targets as historical revisionists are just people who believed that by 1998 Iraq wasn’t, in fact, a threat.
The lack of any WMD discoveries to date would indicate that those maintaining that view were right on target. These include a host of former top government officials, former arms inspectors, even the heads of state of all the nations around Iraq. Bush is deriding those who contend that the war was based on disinformation. On the defensive, he is posturing as someone taking the high road, as he has done in condemning Holocaust revisionism (which maybe, in his own head, he conflates with critical discussion of his actions).
But when Bush announced in Poland that the US had found WMDs (in the form of mobile labs for germ warfare) he was engaging in what I like to call historical revisionism. Up until then, the British suppliers and Iraqi military had viewed them as facilities for the production of hydrogen to fill weather balloons. Rather like the people denying the Holocaust, seems he was just making the germ lab story up. I also see revisionism in Bush’s repeated denunciations of Saddam for “attacking his neighbors,” implying he thinks this was a terrible thing. Yes, Saddam attacked two of his six neighbors (Iran and Kuwait), and the Reagan administration, with George Bush I as vice-president, supported the first of these. The Reagan administration sent Donald Rumsfeld in 1983 to cozy up with Saddam and restore full diplomatic and trade ties, arms sales, and sharing of military intelligence. Twenty-four U.S. firms exported arms and materials to Baghdad. The US only provided about one percent of the total military assistance, but it provided some particularly nasty commodities.
Richard L. Armitage, a senior defense official in 1988 (and now a deputy secretary of state), argued that the U.S. should not let Iraq lose the war, and told Congress there was no international law preventing a leader from using WMDs on his own people. The senior intelligence officer at the time, Col. Walter P. Lang, has said both D.I.A. and C.I.A. officials “were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose” to Iran, and “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.”
In September 1988, a Maryland company sent 11 strains of germs—four types of anthrax—developed at Fort Detrick for germ warfare, to Iraq. The Commerce Department approved the sale of WMDs. This was six months after the infamous massacre at Halabja —the gassing of the Kurds. Perhaps the president would like someone to revise that history.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org