MacMillan (History/Oxford Univ.; Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, 2007, etc.) explores the nuances, manipulations and extortions of history.
For centuries, the recording of past events has been distorted for a wide variety of reasons—to induce nationalism, lay claim to land, protect reputations or strengthen a political argument. In this lucid text, MacMillan deftly maneuvers through time, citing conflicts of identity and belonging in the Middle East—where “ideologies call on history…but in their hands the past becomes a prophecy”—alongside analysis of China’s Mao and his attempts to rewrite his country’s past, destroying “all memories and all artifacts that, by reminding the Chinese people of the past, might prevent him from remodeling them” into his Communist regime. The author also disputes memory of or participation in an event as “proof” of a historical account, writing that many major events—the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, the fall of Napoleon, the Cuban Missile Crisis—contain narratives colored by unreliable spectators. Psychologists point out that memory—even of something recent—is hardly concrete. This fallibility, combined with the opportunity for control, has resulted in myriad written texts that are of questionable accuracy. “The past,” writes the author, “can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present.” Political and religious leaders are also loathe to record their histories as marred by “evil,” and instead highlight often selective, exaggerated positive perspectives of violent historic events—such as Bastille Day or Columbus Day—to draw tourists and increase national pride. MacMillan is careful to defend history and its objective chroniclers as a necessary, and often precise, science. However, when power and control are introduced, the truth is often left wanting and “bad histories” emerge, which “belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity.” Examining history honestly is also crucial to the pursuit of peace and, the author sagely notes, the only way to teach “humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves.”
A wide-ranging and provocative testament to transparency as the best historical education.