RIP Alan Brinkley, a frustrating history professor

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Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley has died.

I took Brinkley’s lecture course on US history from WWI to WW2, as part of my history major. I found his lectures very informative and clear, but I also got the sense that he dismissed historical interpretations to the left of the centrist historical consensus without really considering them.

When Seymour Hersh published a big takedown of JFK in 1997, Brinkley wrote a review for I think Newsweek or Time — I can’t find it online. Reading it, I was a bit shocked that he dismissed most of Hersh’s accusations — the assassination attempts JFK and RFK orchestrated, the mob connections, the womanizing — as old news, as if the public already knew as much of it as historians did, or as if it didn’t matter.

In lectures, he also dismissed, out of hand, the conspiracy theory that the US military knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack. I think he’s probably correct about that, but as I recall, he expressed not even a sliver of doubt that we know everything everyone involved knew half a century ago; and he didn’t even acknowledge that the attack solved a huge political problem for the military which could have provided an incentive to look the other way — even unintentionally.

The distinction I’m making is subtle. I’ve never seen convincing evidence that the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory is correct, and I think people convinced of it are not thinking rigorously. But that doesn’t mean that there is no convincing evidence of the theory, in archives or in journals, or in synthesizing and interpreting evidence.

In particular, I think institutions have a powerful way of creating convenient blind spots that let them collectively act out intentions that no individual participant may be conscious of. There is evidence that the military at the time not only wanted to enter the war, but desperately wanted a decisive causus belli to sway a reluctant public into full-throated support for the war. And there has been lots of criticism by military tacticians in the decades since, which points out how unusual it was for the military to assemble so many targets in a single location without more preparations for defense.

Does that mean the military specifically knew of that specific attack? No, of course not. But it may mean that there was a practice either not to apply the normal amount of precaution, or to tempt the Japanese military into a political and military tactical error.

In short, in both of these areas, I think there is much that a curious historian could and should engage. But Brinkley seemed to find these areas of inquiry unworthy of consideration, of focus or of respect. I think that’s a mark of poor history scholarship.

But I was also looking for excuses to criticize my professors in those days… and probably still am!

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