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Finding Perret’s Fictions

By Daniel J. Hemel, Crimson Staff Writer

Princeton professor James McPherson boasted three years ago in The Nation magazine that he had counted “at least 120” errors, “large and small,” in Geoffrey Perret’s last book, “Lincoln’s War.” Perret should have been proud that McPherson—arguably the world’s leading living Civil War historian—took the time to tally all the mistakes in the volume. It places Perret a cut above the many writers who toil away in both inaccuracy and obscurity.

Instead of viewing McPherson’s faultfinding as a badge of honor, though, Perret responded to reviews of “Lincoln’s War” by leaving the reality-based community altogether.

The consequence is “Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future,” an imaginative piece of historical fiction that was somehow misplaced on the nonfiction shelves.

This time, it’s doubtful that another eminence will deign to dissect Perret’s potboiler. And thus it falls to the student newspaper at Perret’s alma mater  to shed light on the author’s errata.

FAST AND LOOSE WITH FACTS

Perret argues that America has been in decline since April 12, 1945, the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, died. Until then, the power to make war lay in Congressional hands, and “except for the Spanish-American War, Americans had never launched a major war without first being attacked.” After FDR’s death, a succession of small-minded men in the Oval Office made presidential power virtually limitless, he argues. Truman, LBJ, and Bush the Younger are particularly at fault for leading the nation into unnecessary and unwinnable wars.

It’s a problematic argument: post-World War II chiefs were part of a pattern of presidential self-assertion that dates at least as far back as James K. Polk, who lied to Congress in order to garner support for the Mexican-American War. But Perret downplays the significance of that event “because it was Mexico that declared war on the United States, not the other way around.”

Perret’s statement simply is not true. Mexico never formally declared war against the U.S., according to Jesús Velasco-Márquez, a specialist on the war. And it did not proclaim its intention to “repel” American aggression until July 1846, nearly two months after Polk signed the U.S. declaration of war.

Of course, acknowledging that fact would weaken Perret’s argument that Truman is the man to blame for the creeping expansion of Oval Office authority and the ruthless exertion of American force abroad.

A ‘SNAKE OIL’ SALESMAN

Why does Perret pick the haberdasher from Independence, Mo., as his bête noire? Perret claims that Truman was addicted to a mysterious mind-altering substance that made him feel “in control” and invincible. The effects of the drug drove Truman to trample over legislative checks and balances. “When Truman went to war, some of it was Harry,” Perret writes. “The rest was chemistry.”

The book backs up this assertion with a single footnote citing an oral history that presidential physician Wallace Graham gave to the Truman Library in 1989. “Dr. Graham...relied on a medication that his father concocted,” Perret writes. “Just what was in it remains a mystery.”

The oral history is online at the library’s Web site. In it, Graham acknowledges that he used a “snake oil” developed by his father to treat Truman’s ear infections and sore throats. Graham says that the concoction “had a small amount of ephedrine”—a substance that was widely used as an asthma remedy until the 1980s.

The “snake oil” might have opened Truman’s airways, but there’s no reason to think it closed his mind. Nonetheless, in Perret’s world, where fact is no object, counterargument is altogether banished.

KOSHER STYLE

In his extensive section on Truman, Perret puts forward an account of Israeli independence so anti-Zionist that it makes Jimmy Carter look like a Likudnik.

The author argues that Truman supported the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states so that he could secure Jewish backing for his 1948 reelection bid. According to Perret, Truman’s decision to recognize Israeli independence was a unilateral move made despite “strong opposition to partition within the [U.N.] Security Council.” Perret charges that Jews favored partition because they knew it would lead to a war that they would win.

What Perret somehow neglects to mention is that the U.N.’s legislative body, the General Assembly, overwhelmingly approved the partition plan by a 33-13 margin in November 1947. That resolution delineated clear boundaries for “Independent Arab and Jewish States,” with Jerusalem as an international city. Jewish leaders accepted the plan. Arab leaders did not. In recognizing Israeli independence on May 14, 1948, Truman tipped his hat to a state that was created with the U.N.’s blessing and that had acceded to a U.N.-approved peace proposal. The U.S.S.R. followed suit three days later. Unilateralism this was not.

In the process of misrepresenting the creation of Israel, Perret manages to malign Truman’s top Jewish aides, as well. For example, he writes that “there is no evidence of [adviser David] Niles ever doing much for blacks, but as an observant Jew, he devoted much of his energies to the creation of Israel.” This flies in the face of a 1987 Political Science Quarterly study concluding that Niles “developed the rationale” for the Truman-appointed Civil Rights Committee, whose work led to the desegregation of the federal workforce and the armed services. Niles is just one more victim of Perret’s scattershot storytelling.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment in the book is Perret’s passage later on describing a debate between McGeorge Bundy—an aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson—and political scientist Hans Morgenthau—a Jew who fled Germany after Hitler came to power.

“Bundy butchered him kosher-style—cut his throat, then watched him bleed to death,” Perret writes. It is an entirely inaccurate portrayal of Jewish dietary law and an entirely inappropriate description of a Holocaust refugee.

Bundy, who served as dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1953 until 1961, once described himself as an “ex-historian.” One wonders whether it’s time for Perret to adopt the “ex” prefix as well. He has substituted ideology for methodology and invective for insight. He habitually uses phrases like “shit in a silk stocking” to describe Cabinet members and high-level aides. Would a count of Perret’s errors this time top McPherson’s mark of 120? Maybe, but more to the point, why would anyone waste the time tabulating?

—Reviewer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

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