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  • The Pre-History of American Holocaust Denial
  • John P. Jackson Jr. (bio)

Most histories of American Holocaust denial begin with the founding of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) and its journal, Journal of Historical Review (JHR) in 1980. According to its first director, David McCalden, the IHR would be an "anti-Holocaust organization" designed "to combat Holocaust propaganda by means of publishing books, a regular magazine and pamphlets, and by means of academic conferences." Instead, I take the IHR's founding as the endpoint of my history of American Holocaust denial and sketch the network of early Holocaust deniers that led to the formation of the Institute. Both the Institute and the Journal owed their existence to the most important organizer of the antisemitic right, Willis Carto (1926-2014). By examining Carto and his collaborative circle, Holocaust denial, far from being the sole province of the extreme antisemitic right was often embraced by the mainstream right wing of American politics, for its own purposes, especially those who identified themselves as libertarians. Carto was tangential to the origins of American Holocaust denial, but he appears as sort of a bellwether: always at the margins of the story, approving of the work done by much more respectable figures in the American right in putting forward the Holocaust-denial narrative.1


Recent historiography on the American right calls into question the accuracy and usefulness of distinctions between the "fringe" and "mainstream" during the decades between the end of World War II and the founding of the IHR in 1980. In these years, the American right wing was inchoate, characterized by many interlocking networks of activists, writers, politicians, and broadcasters; my focus is on those networks rather than any specific taxonomy of conservative thought. The figures [End Page 25] central to my study formed a collaborative circle. Lacking formal institutional support, they were bound together by ties of friendship or at least professional respect. They believed their work rebelled against the "court historians" who kept tight controls on the official narrative of World War II. Harry Elmer Barnes (1889–1968) served as the more-or-less official gatekeeper for the group: a generation older and far more established and connected than the younger men, he tried to keep a close watch on what they had and had not published. Members of this informal group—though they might be seen as "fringe"—all had ties of one sort or another to "respectable" conservative writers, organizations, publications, and funding agencies.2

The concept of a collaborative circle clarifies how someone who viewed the world in exclusively racial terms could collaborate with a libertarian committed to ideological individualism which, on the surface, would reject racism and state-centered authoritarianism. A major figure within this circle, libertarian ideologue Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), always bristled at the notion that libertarian World War II revisionism revealed authoritarian sympathies: "Libertarian Revisionists, have been continually accused of being tools or sympathizers of the Kaiser, of the Nazis, or of the Communists," he wrote, a ridiculous charge, he claimed, given the "imbecility of thinking for one moment that a libertarian can really be a Nazi or a Communist." Yet, the history of Holocaust denial in the United States shows that self-proclaimed libertarians like Rothbard worked closely with antisemitic writers in developing an isolationist account of World War II. For example, Rothbard was on a first-name basis with Willis Carto as early as 1956, telling Carto that his antisemitic newsletter, Right was "doing a fine job!" and how impressed Rothbard was that Carto was publishing the work of Charles Smith, editor of Truth Seeker: A Journal for Reasoners and Racists.3 [End Page 26]

American Holocaust denial grew from political circumstances unique to the United States, specifically the American right's rejection of both Roosevelt's New Deal and America's entry into World War II. In the postwar United States, advocates of this view called themselves "World War II revisionists." The leading revisionist of this school, Harry Elmer Barnes argued that the rejection of the New Deal is "the very cornerstone of Revisionism in its American aspects. It is the basis...