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On The Rewriting of History

Encyclopedia Brittanica Print Gallery

Bruce Franklin’s November 1982 article in Monthly Review “On the Rewriting of History” is one of the classic works in the exposure of the workings of imperial ideology. It examined the changes made in 1979 to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s twenty-six-page article “Colonialism (c. 1450–c. 1970)” as compared to the 1974 edition. The first and shorter part of the original 1974 article, ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and was written by Charles E. Nowell, emeritus professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The second part, covering more than two hundred years up to 1970, including the Vietnam War, had been written by Harry Magdoff, coeditor of Monthly Review and author of The Age of Imperialism (1969). Franklin discovered that in the 1979 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Magdoff portion of the article had been lopped off beginning in 1919, and the later parts of his historical analysis were replaced by a piece by University of California Berkeley professor Richard Webster. Seeking to dispel any sense of U.S. imperialism, Webster, in what Encyclopedia Britannica said was meant to update Magdoff’s contribution, excluded the U.S. War in Vietnam altogether, ending the entry with the French Defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954! Franklin’s devastating analysis of these and other changes in the key article on colonialism/imperialism in what was then the premier English-language encyclopedia is reproduced in its entirety here. It is worth careful study for those concerned with similar manipulations occurring today.

—The Editors

Bruce Franklin teaches English literature at Rutgers University.

The current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (the fifteenth) appeared in 1974. Its form has been mildly controversial, being divided into a ten-volume “Micropedia” of short reference articles and a nineteen-volume “Macropedia” of in-depth discussions of important topics. Its content of course is not so obvious. However, the intellectual renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had challenged the crippling anti­Communist dogmatism of the late 1940s and 1950s, did exert some influence on major articles in many fields of the 1974 edition.

One interesting example is the 26-page article in the Macropedia: “Colonialism (c. 1450–c. 1970).” The first section, written by Charles E. Nowell, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana, author of The Great Discoveries and the First Colonial Empires, leads up to the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ratified the global pre-eminence of the British Empire. The second and much longer section, chronicling and analyzing the subsequent rise and fall of colonialism through 1973, was authored by Harry Magdoff and is reproduced as the lead essay in his book Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (Monthly Review Press). The entire article achieves an admirable fusion of fact and analysis, providing an exceptionally useful tool for many purposes of reference and education.

In preparing my course “Literature of the Third World,” I found myself often consulting Magdoff’s section, which concisely and lucidly synthesizes the modern history of colonialism. One day about a year ago I was in a local library, doing some research for an article. To check my chronology I casually turned to the “Colonialism” article. Something seemed wrong. Was my memory playing tricks? Where was the discussion of neocolonialism? Of United States imperialism after the Second World War? Of the Vietnam war? And I hadn’t recalled Harry Magdoff writing an anti-Soviet diatribe in which the main effect of the Russian Revolution was portrayed as reestablishing the colonial empire of the tsars.

Looking more closely solved part of the mystery. The Encyclopedia Britannica in the library had been printed in 1979, and Magdoff’s section had been lopped off at 1914, with the period from the First World War to the present now being covered by Richard Webster, a Berkeley professor specializing in modern Italian history. This raised some new questions: What had led to the decision to scrap Magdoff’s discussion of events after 1914? When did this happen? What were the differences in content between Magdoff’s original piece and Webster’s substitute?

I raised the first two questions in a letter to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Here is their response, printed in full:

Dear Professor Franklin:

This is in reply to your letter of October 19. By the mid-1970s the article in question was somewhat out-of-date; the title itself, “Colonialism” (c. 1450-c. 1970), dated it. In late 1976, Professor Webster was asked to rewrite the final section of the article for publication in the 1978 printing of Britannica.

It is true, of course, that more was involved than simply datedness. The article had been criticized in the press for bias. One point raised was the total omission of information on Soviet colonialism.

The article was subsequently reviewed by our own advisers and judged to be not up to the standard of Britannica objectivity; it was thus recommissioned.

This letter speaks volumes.

I thought that a detailed comparison of the two articles should provide a laboratory test of this “standard of Britannica objectivity,” useful in comprehending the ideological content of this most respected Anglo-American reference work. What I discovered was a stunning display of the crucial differences between the two main competing methods of historical analysis in today’s world.

Magdoff’s article allows us to grasp the overall history of modern colonialism. We see the conflicts of the colonial powers over the division of the world leading to the First World War, which in turn helps to precipitate the Russian Revolution and to stimulate national independence movements. The complex interplay between socialist revolution and anti-colonialist struggle is then traced through the Second World War to the main battlegrounds of the early 1970s. In the postwar period of decolonization, we see why outright colonialism is replaced by neocolonialism, with the role of the old European empires being assumed by the United States, whose economic hegemony is enforced by a worldwide network of military bases and whose struggle against national liberation movements merges with its anti-Communist crusade. This process is brought into especially sharp focus by such events as the U.S. overthrow of the governments of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), the landing of U.S. marines in Lebanon (1958) and the Dominican Republic (1965), and most dramatically by the U.S. war in Indochina.

Webster’s analysis is ostensibly liberal “objectivity.” In other words, it pretends to be empirical, with an eclectic organization which on the surface indicates no fundamental organizing theory. The causes of events are typically lists, with no apparent connection among the three or four items listed. (When Magdoff uses lists, it is to display the interrelations among the listed events or forces.) Slightly below the surface, however, one can easily detect an undercurrent of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist messages that join to define the main purposes of Webster’s article. The United States now appears not as a neocolonialist power, but primarily as a fighter against colonialism, whether European or Soviet. In fact, the main form of “colonialism”—from 1917 right on to the present—now seems to be that of the Soviet Union. Close inspection reveals that Webster has actually rewritten Magdoff s article, leaving in many of the main facts, while liquidating the analysis, expunging almost every reference to U.S. colonialism and neocolonialism, and cleverly inserting his own partially concealed anti-Communist thesis.

Crucial to this methodology and typical of liberal “objectivity” is the pretense of no methodology at all, as though facts were merely being recorded and ordered in an ideological vacuum. For example, Magdoff readily acknowledges that the term and concept of neocolonialism are both “highly controversial,” conventionally rejected in the United States and Western Europe, readily assumed and discussed in the former colonized world. Webster disposes of this critical term and concept by omitting them entirely from his discussion.

There are very few examples of updating in Webster’s piece, although this was ostensibly the main reason the article was rewritten. Even here, differences between the two versions of history are quite striking. For instance, Magdoff had discussed “the nationalist guerrilla forces” that “have long been actively fighting for liberation” in the Portuguese colonies in Africa, and noted that “to counter these revolutionary activities, Portugal, the military resources of which are bolstered by its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], has sent large armies to its colonies.” Writing after these African forces had won their independence, Webster mentions their struggle only in these terms: “Portugal found itself mired in a series of colonial wars.” Then he attributes the independence of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola not to anything done by the peoples of these nations but entirely to events in Portugal: “In 1974, the armed forces overthrew the successors to Salazar, and in the unstable political situation it became clear that Portugal would cut its ties to Africa.”

To focus most sharply on the ideological and methodological differences, let us look at two key events, one at the beginning of the period, the other at the end: the Russian Revolution and the Vietnam war.

Magdoff assesses the Russian Revolution in the context of the rise of independence movements stemming from the First World War:

Another major war-related stimulus to the new surge of nationalism was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which fired the imagination of the colonial masses, especially in Asia, for it showed the common people that they could rebel and manage their own affairs despite the opposition of the imperialist powers. Also of major significance was the fact that the Soviet Union declared itself to be anti-imperialist, renounced imperialist privileges, and opened up the tsarist archives to reveal the secret processes of imperialist negotiations. In the 1919 Karakhan Manifesto to the Chinese People the Bolsheviks offered to return territory taken from China by the tsarist regime, to renounce outstanding claims to the indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and to give up extraterritorial rights.

If anything, Magdoff seems to be understating the case or, more probably, alluding to events he cannot discuss more fully for lack of space. The well-informed reader, or the reader investigating more deeply, would comprehend his references to the invasion of the Soviet Union by the imperialist powers (including Japan and the United States, as well as Western Europe and England), the May 4th Movement in China, and the successful Communist revolution in Mongolia, not to mention the unleashing of the national liberation movements in Indochina, led by Ho Chi Minh.

Webster ignores all of this, treating the Russian Revolution in a section entitled “The United States and the Soviet Union.” In a phony pretense to balance, he begins this section by pointing out that the United States “acquired no new colonies” after its purchase of the Virgin Islands in 1917. He continues by explaining that the older policy of establishing U.S. “protectorates” in Latin America was “reversed under Hoover and Roosevelt, particularly under the latter’s Good Neighbor Policy.” Then immediately comes his assessment of the Russian Revolution:

The new Soviet Russian regime succeeded, after years of civil and foreign war, in regaining the Asian possessions of its tsarist predecessor. The Caucasus was repossessed step by step between 1919 and 1921; after the mountain areas and Azerbaijan were brought back under Soviet control, Armenia was partitioned between Russia and Turkey. Then Georgia, an independent parliamentary republic, was overrun by the Red Army. Russian Turkistan was subdued by 1922, and the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara were suppressed. By 1922, Outer Mongolia was also solidly linked to the Soviet state. Nevertheless, the Russian revolutionary government was ideologically opposed to colonialism, especially where it had no colonial interests that it cared to defend.

Thus the magic wand of liberal “objectivity” transmutes the invasion of the Soviet Union by the colonial powers into a colonial invasion by Russia of the rest of the Soviet Union, not to mention its ally Mongolia.

Webster’s distortions of the history of the Vietnamese struggle are just as radical and just as misleading. Here we may draw some valuable lessons about the hidden content of form: how apparently neutral principles of organization may shape meaning. Magdoff approaches the Vietnamese struggle for socialism and national independence within the context of the revolutionary movements in Asia, thus allowing us to comprehend the dialectical interrelations among forces and events. Webster breaks the Asian revolution into little pieces, distributed (almost like colonies) among sections organized from the point of view of the colonial powers: “British decolonization, 1945-56”; “Wars in Overseas France, 1945-56”; “British decolonization after 1956”; “Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese decolonization”; etc. Thus, the Vietnamese struggle is reduced to an incident within the history of French decolonization. The Chinese revolution is thereby further reduced to an incident significant only in relation to the Vietnamese defeat of France. And the role of the United States in Vietnam can thus be omitted entirely, without even a single mention throughout the article!

Before I comment further, I should like to present for the reader’s own analysis the complete treatment of the Vietnamese struggle by the two authors (whose respective identities I shall also leave to the reader):

Revolution and warfare dominated the nationalist developments in the rest of Asia. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, after many years of civil war and war against the Japanese invasion, all vestiges of imperialism were eliminated from that country except for the British colony of Hong Kong, the Portuguese colony of Macao, and the United States sphere of influence in Taiwan. The Netherlands, with the aid of British troops, tried to reoccupy Indonesia when the Japanese left but was unable to do so in four years of war against the Republic of Indonesia, which finally became fully independent in 1949. The French were also unsuccessful in trying to reconquer Indochina. The war against the Japanese had produced a strong national army and liberation movement in Indochina, which, in addition to independence, aimed for basic social and economic changes. After nine years of intense, large-scale war, the French Army, massively aided economically and morally by the United States, suffered major defeat, notably at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. At a 1954 international peace conference in Geneva, an agreement was reached to recognize the independence of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As for Vietnam, a military demarcation line was drawn at approximately the 17th parallel to facilitate the truce and pave the way for elections under the supervision of an international commission to unite the Northern and Southern zones. South Vietnam, where U.S. influence became paramount, decided not to go along with the unification elections scheduled for July 1956 by the Geneva Agreement. This was followed by rebellion in South Vietnam, U.S. military support of the South Vietnamese government, and massive air attacks on North Vietnam, until a cease-fire was reached in 1973.

Wars in overseas France, 1945-56. The constitution of the French Fourth Republic provided for token decentralization of colonial rule, and cycles of revolt and repression marked French history for 15 years after the end of the Second World War. The first focus of colonial war was Indochina, where a power vacuum, caused by Japan’s removal after wartime occupation, gave a unique opportunity to the Communist Viet Minh. When in 1946 the French Army tried to regain the colony, the Communists, proclaiming a republic, resorted to the political and military strategies of Mao Tse-tung to wear down and eventually defeat France. All chances for maintaining a semi-colonial administration in Indochina ended when the Communists won the civil war in China (1949). Eventually, in 1954, when the French engaged the Communist armies in a pitched battle at Dien Bien Phu, the Communists won with the help of new heavy guns supplied by the Chinese. The Fourth Republic left Indochina under the terms of the Geneva Accords (1954), which set up two independent regimes.*

We might think that Webster’s grotesque misrepresentations of history came from mere ignorance, if it were not for the fact that he is obviously rewriting Magdoff. It is also worth noting that Magdoff’s account continues into 1973, whereas Webster’s “update” breaks off with its false characterization of the events of 1954.

The full implications of this kind of blatant rewriting of history in the late 1970s are ominous indeed. Tens of millions of people in the United States were awakened into consciousness by the events of the 1960s and early 1970s. A massive assault on this consciousness has been underway for several years now, marked by quite successful attempts to gain total control of the media, book publishing, and education. Integral to this offensive is the rewriting of history to conform to the interests of neo-colonialism, which is constantly assuming new shapes and disguises. One of these disguises in fact is the cloak of phony “objectivity,” which is used to cover up the vital knowledge we won and need to reclaim.


* For the record it seems worthwhile to record that Article 6 of the Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference, July 21, 1954, states: “The Conference recognizes that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military declaration is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” —The Editors

1982, Volume 34, Number 06 (November 1982)
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