Twenty-odd years ago, I went to the office of the immensely distinguished Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn to ask about objectivity in historical writing. Tolerating my sophomoric questions (in my defense, I was in fact a sophomore), the great man explained that historiography had three phases: heroic history, in which individuals are put at the center and imbued with moral qualities; whig history, in which the personalities recede and the flow of events is presented through a chain of inevitable causation; and a final, neutral type—he called it tragic history—in which the historian has no stake in the outcome. Neutral history, Bailyn explained, was the kind he wrote. “Critics said my book on Thomas Hutchinson was about 1968,” I remember him remarking. “But that’s ridiculous. I wasn’t even at Harvard the year the students took over University Hall. I was on sabbatical in Britain!”
I was pretty sure I was being kidded. But then, in the preface to The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Bailyn’s powerful account of the last civilian British colonial governor of Massachusetts, I found essentially the same typology in almost identical words.1 In the text, there was an acknowledgment that the events of the late Sixties and the Seventies had “sharpened” the author’s thinking about Hutchinson’s use of troops against public disorder and his limited ability to understand passionate political beliefs. Yet there was also a clear defense of neutral, tragic history. “I do not mean the sadness of it,” Bailyn wrote,
and I certainly do not mean the error or wrongness of it. I mean simply that we have knowledge enough of all the circumstances—material, cultural, political, even psychological—to enable us to catch glimpses of the whole of that distant globe and to know the limits within which men struggled.
Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, historians at American University and authors of FDR and the Jews,2 aspire to the same sort of tragic history. In their telling, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been by turns condemned for failing to save European Jewry and defended as having done all he reasonably could. The debate, they say, has been “unforgiving, passionate, and politically charged,” and they suggest that it has pitted “conservative backers of modern-day Israel” against “liberals” seeking to “defend their iconic president from what they see as unfounded smears.” The self-described goal of their book, by contrast, is “to capture the contemporary reality of FDR and other leaders, whose decisions were constrained by the past and projected into what the poet Longfellow called ‘the shadowy future.’”
Antiheroic interpretations of Roosevelt’s relation to the events of the European Holocaust have certainly predominated. Most influential has been David…
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