Column: Is William Barr right that history is written by winners? Not anymore

U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press )

Atty. Gen. William Barr ignited yet another firestorm last week by dismissing all charges against former national security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn. Then Barr threw more gas on the fire when CBS’ Catherine Herridge asked him, “When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?”

“Well,” he replied, “history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”

It turned out that the full quote was less cynical than the ubiquitous soundbite. Barr added, “I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It … upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.”

My own view of the Flynn episode is that the former decorated general behaved poorly — by his own admission lying to the FBI — but the FBI behaved terribly, too. Flynn was caught up in a counterintelligence investigation that became a politicized criminal investigation without sufficient evidence of a crime.

I believe it’s possible that Barr is doing what he thinks is best for the Justice Department and the country. Whether he’s made the right decisions, however, is something historians will debate for years.


Which brings us back to that hoary cliché about the winners — or the “victors” — writing the history. “I hear that phrase all the time and it drives me crazy,” University of Massachusetts historian Vincent Cannato tells me. Sure, there’s some truth to it, he concedes. If the Romans conquered some Celtic backwater, the Romans wrote their history. The hitch, Cannato notes, is that nowadays, “plenty of history gets written by the ‘losers.’ Much of the historical profession today is dedicated to recovering the voices of [formerly] marginalized groups.”

The victors in the settling of North America were clearly the European intruders, and for a while, the story of noble white men battling savages dominated. That’s gone, now. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Howard Zinn to believe some correction was long overdue. The 1619 Project — which just won a Pulitzer Prize — was not exactly a story told by the winners.

What’s vexing about Barr’s use of the aphorism is that he’s applying a claim that works somewhat for ancient military history, to democratic politics and the rule of law. The suggestion, even with his caveats, that his decisions will only be vindicated by history if his side wins is disturbing.

That’s not how it works. For instance, the Hollywood writers who lost their jobs during the McCarthy era were obviously not the victors. But they ultimately got to write the history of their defeat. Standard textbooks today teach, and Hollywood constantly insists, that they were heroic martyrs of a fascistic moral panic over communism (let me avoid a whole brouhaha by simply saying the actual story is somewhat more complicated).

Then there’s the specific question of how historians will treat the Trump presidency. If you talk to some in the administration, you’ll occasionally hear that history will vindicate them. Most days, I find it difficult to contain my skepticism about that.

Indeed, even those who say it tend to avoid claiming that history will be kind to Trump himself. Rather, they say that certain policies will be recognized as justified, or that individuals who sacrificed much to keep the White House on the rails will get some sympathy. This may well be true. Still, if I had to bet, once Trump is out of power, the vast majority of administration memoirs will be self-serving and thus quite damning of Trump himself.

On the other hand, something Cannato told me makes me think I could be wrong. In the modern era, the victors didn’t write the history for the losers. The losers wrote separate histories of their own. After World War I, he notes, the Germans wrote their own version of events — about how they were stabbed in the back by traitors and Jews — which is one reason we got World War II. Similarly, Japan lost the second World War, but they wrote their own history and have thus failed to address the legacy of imperial Japan.

The culture war is not a civil war, but it shares a similar dynamic. Each side subscribes to wildly different narratives about the country and the times. If today you actually believe Trump is a truly great president, you probably won’t stop thinking it tomorrow, particularly when so many people believe that being hated by people you hate is proof of greatness. History may just end up being more “fake news.”

If there’s one thing the Trump era has demonstrated, it’s that if there’s a market for something, there will be politicians eager to provide it. I still think history will be very unkind to our current president, but it may take a very long time for that to be an uncontroversial opinion.