Who Writes American History? And How?

Revolutionary History

To the Editor:

The opening paragraph of Joseph J. Ellis’s review of Rick Atkinson’s “The British Are Coming” (May 26) is more than a wee bit patronizing: “My old mentor, Edmund Morgan, used to say that everything after 1800 is current events. According to Morgan’s Law, Rick Atkinson has been doing first-rate journalism, enjoying critical and commercial success for three masterly books on World War II.”

I’ll break the news to him: Millions of Americans consider Atkinson, David McCullough and Barbara Tuchman, to name just a few, as scholarly historians and a delight to read, even if failing an artificial litmus test by someone ensconced in the ivory tower of academia.


To the Editor:

During the Revolution, American prisoners did die at a higher rate than American prisoners of the Japanese in World War II, but Joseph Ellis makes a giant leap when he says that “the British were more barbaric in their treatment of prisoners than the Japanese in World War II.”

For one thing, the mortality rate in colonial New York, where the British kept most of their prisoners, was high even in peacetime. For another, a comparison of mere death rates does not take into account the barbarism of gratuitous violence committed against prisoners.

Most important, Americans were not the only prisoners treated barbarically by the Japanese military. As Antony Beevor recounts in “The Second World War,” a not insignificant number of Asian prisoners and civilians were killed by the Japanese for the purpose of eating them.


Pacific Discoveries

To the Editor:

In his review of Christina Thompson’s “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia” and Peter Moore’s “Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World” (May 19), Simon Winchester writes about “an ocean then quite uncharted by European cartographers.” By 1769, when James Cook arrived in the Pacific Ocean, it had been a Spanish lake for more than two centuries.

The first circumnavigation of the earth, a Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan and, after his death, by Juan Sebastián Elcano, reached the Philippines, the Marianas and other Pacific islands in 1521. Many other expeditions followed: to, among others, Papua New Guinea in 1527, the Galápagos in 1535 and Tahiti in the early 17th century.

By 1769, Spanish ships had been routinely navigating throughout the Pacific.


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