After describing the account of Reconstruction offered in an episode of PBS’s The American Experience (Breaking Glass, July), Philip Jenkins concludes that, “Were we to sit down amicably with the producers of American Experience, or the academic experts they consulted, I am confident we would not encounter a gaggle of hard-faced Stalinists.”  His confidence is touching but, to some degree, misplaced.

The leading text on Reconstruction these days is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.  In that 20-year-old tome, Foner laid out the reigning view of Reconstruction—that its chief shortcomings were that too little land was redistributed, too few white Southerners were disenfranchised for too short a time, too many of the historic rights of Englishmen were restored in the South at its conclusion, and the U.S. Army was removed from the South too soon—at excruciating length.

I well recall my first encounter with Foner’s text.  I was a first-semester graduate student at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1992, and the book was required reading for one of my classes and one of two texts between which students might choose in another.  (The alternative to Foner was James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which is in every way compatible with Foner’s account.)  I read Foner’s book, increasingly displeased as I made my way through it.  I showed up for Michael Holt’s colloquium on 19th-century politics doing a slow burn.

Asked by Holt what I thought of the text, I said that it was horribly one-sided and lamented the author’s lack of perspective.  The student who followed me gave the book a glowing evaluation and then said, “I guess my politics must differ from yours.”  She is now a professor at an East Coast school, and one of our colleagues who joined her in endorsing Foner’s views is on the faculty of one of America’s most venerable universities.

Flash forward to 1994: Glancing at the magazine stand in a bookstore on The Corner in Charlottesville, I saw an issue of Dissent.  The cover trumpeted eminent Marxist historian Eugene Genovese’s mea culpa for supporting Soviet crimes.  Among the historians who had been asked to respond was Foner, who chided Genovese for his call for other abettors of Soviet genocide around the world to join him in expressing contrition.

To Foner’s complaint that he was tired of hearing that he had not been anticommunist enough, Genovese responded that he knew perfectly well that Foner had never been anticommunist at all.  Suddenly, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution made sense to me.  Reconstruction, it seems, was just another manifestation of the same reform program of which Soviet dekulakization was representative—and the revolution will be unfinished until we have a forthrightly socialist regime in the United States.  I have since learned that it is no secret that Foner was a red-diaper baby and remains unrepentant.

What does the historical profession think of this?  Foner’s book won the Pulitzer Prize, and its author has presided over the major historical association.  If Dr. Jenkins is loath to believe such things of people who work on PBS projects, one can admire him for his Christian charity while gently helping him to apprehend reality.

        —Kevin R.C. Gutzman
Bethel, CT

Dr. Jenkins Replies:

I do take Mr. Gutzman’s point.  The newsletters of the various professional societies regularly offer obituaries of aged historians who were, in their prime, “progressives,” “radicals,” or “dissenters.”  What this actually means is that Professor Smith was a slavishly loyal communist, resistant to any external evidence of Soviet crimes.  I have no objection to such laments, provided that the authors would be equally forgiving of ex-Nazis or ex-Klansmen.  Trust me, they aren’t.