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Eric Alterman’s Alternate History

One of the first things you learn as a journalist is that the biographies of writers which appear on the backs of their books, at the end of their articles, or on websites are not written by editors or interns at publications, but the journalists themselves. Most journalists provide their place of employment and list any books they have authored. Some go further, listing awards or scholarships they have won (and even, should they have won too many, declined). Others feel the need to share their incomparable brilliance with the world. Reading the biography of Nation columnist and CUNY professor Eric Alterman, “a frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe,” you get a sense of the man’s mammoth importance (in his own mind) to the world of American arts and letters.
Alterman is usually better left unread. (This parody, presented as a greeting card Alterman wrote to his grandmother explaining why he did not “forget” her birthday, hilariously captures his pretentious, ad hominem attack style.) But the indefatigable Times of London columnist Oliver Kamm could not allow the ubiquitous pundit’s column last week to stand uncorrected.

Alterman claims, in this column, that “no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a U.S. invasion of Japan anywhere near” one million, as Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets suggested it would be. Alterman makes this claim in the course of articulating a familiar argument: that the U.S. media, as a whole, serves a right-wing agenda. Kamm begs to disagree, painstakingly showing why Alterman’s off-the-cuff assertion is baseless:

One of my regular correspondents, the military historian D.M. Giangreco, wrote a definitive paper on the administration’s casualty estimates, published as “‘A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan”, in Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, and reprinted in Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, ed. Robert J. Maddox, 2007, pp. 76-115. From his scrutiny of primary sources, he observed: “Truman’s much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service and War Department documents produced before the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration.”

In his paper, Dennis quotes from a letter to him by George F. Kennan, the most significant figure in US diplomacy in the past century and chief of policy planning to General George Marshall immediately after the War. Writing in 1997, Kennan concurred: “I have no doubt that our leaders, General Marshall among them, had good reason to anticipate a casualty rate of dreadful and sickening proportions in any invasion of Japan.” After the publication of his paper, Dennis also received the views of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (quoted in a letter by Dennis published in The Journal of Military History, January 2004): “The Pacific Historical Review paper is a masterful job of historical research and argument . . . . You have demolished the claim that President Truman’s high casualty estimates were a postwar invention.”

Kamm also knocks down, in the course of his piece, Alterman’s May 2007 assertion that “you have be some combination of crazy, ignorant, dishonest, or ideologically obsessed to believe that Islamic fundamentalists want to kill us because of ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do.'” Alterman’s journalism is sadly replete with such blithe assertions and accusations. The work of Kamm, and of other serious political journalists, is an unfortunately necessary corrective.



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