Radical History Review 84 (2002) 211-214
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The Abusable Past
R. J. Lambrose
So many historians have been outed for plagiarism recently that it is only a matter of time before the American Historical Association declares a general amnesty for those willing to come forward and purge themselves. Moreover, it's a good bet that any undergrad collared for downloading papers will be bringing press clippings on Stephen E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin into their disciplinary hearings. And why shouldn't they? Though Goodwin has apologized repeatedly and withdrawn from various posts, including the Lehrer Report and the Pulitzer Prize committee, and though she has even had some of her books pulped, Ambrose and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, have brazened it out. "Forget you," he appears to be saying. "Check my Amazon rankings."
Meanwhile, reports multiply of plagiarism by classics professors, mathematics writers, and even ministers. (Downloading the word of God? Isn't that what Moses did?) Of course, the excuses are almost always the same—the scholarly equivalent of "aggressive accounting practices," which is to say: bad notes, computer ignorance, and forgetful assistants. Why, it's enough to make you believe in the death of the author. After all, one can scarcely imagine a more delicious irony for poststructuralist critics than to see their critiques of authorial originality confirmed by the very historians whose traditional narrative style had been held up as the reliable and accessible alternative. Now, it turns out, these historians have been sampling their colleagues' work with all the insouciance of a hip-hop artist. Perhaps Ambrose will now change his name to S. Diddy? [End Page 211]
Massacres and Memories
So much scholarly and journalistic attention has been paid to Japanese violence against civilians in China and Okinawa during World War II that little or no notice has been taken of the massacres that the Syngman Rhee regime in South Korea perpetrated against its own citizens on the southern island of Jeju in the war's aftermath. Only recently, in fact, has it been revealed that the estimated 30,000 people killed there in late 1948 and early 1949 died at the hands of their own ostensible protectors. Until now, official textbooks had made only passing mention of the atrocities, blaming them instead on Communist infiltrators from the North.
The massacres occurred largely as a result of the Jeju islanders boycott of U.S.- and U.N.-sponsored elections in the South, where the American military presence was still strong. Beginning in October 1948 and continuing through February of the following year, the South Korean military determined—in the New York Times's words—to "cleanse the island of supposed Communist agitators." Today, survivors of the massacres are beginning to come forward to testify to the atrocities committed on the island's Mount Halla in what historian Bruce Cumings refers to as "the first round of Korean containment, Truman Doctrine style." No documents have thus far been found to point to U.S. awareness of this phase of South Korean "counterinsurgency," but Yang Jo Hoon, a prime ministerial appointee to the committee created to collect testimony on the massacres, has expressed skepticism toward the claim that American military and CIA personnel were unaware of the killings. As Cumings concludes, the Rhee regime "was more an American creation than any in postwar Asia." So much for nationbuilding.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Speaking of massacres, we should not forget ex-Senator Bob Kerrey's admission last April that a 1969 combat mission he led in Vietnam caused the deaths of thirteen to twenty unarmed civilians, most of them women and children. CBS reporter Mike Wallace grilled an evasive Kerrey on his memories of events, but there the investigation ended and, with it, media interest. No effort was made to run the inquiry up the chain of command or to raise the issue of the moral or legal status of "free-fire zones" and of those who declared them. Instead, we had the usual "modified, limited hang-out"—the umpteenth chapter of containment strategy, Kerrey style.