Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Modern Times?

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In my youth, I was a huge fan of Paul Johnson's Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties.  His revised edition pleased me less, but I still loved the book.  But whenever I mentioned Modern Times to professional historians, they scoffed at its inaccuracies - without actually specifying any. 

Now I'm rereading the book, and it still seems excellent.  I did spot one mistake in the first three chapters - contrary to Johnson, the Democrats had not been "out of office for fifty-three years" when Wilson was elected.  But this seems like a reasonable error rate for a genuine world history - and makes me wonder whether the professional historians' real complaint is that ambitious, Actonian history shouldn't be written.

Question: Does anyone know of any other glaring factual errors in Johnson?  Please show your work. :-)

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
razib writes:

"But whenever I mentioned Modern Times to professional historians, they scoffed at its inaccuracies - without actually specifying any. "

sounds like the standard response when someone is right on the facts, but doesn't weight/shade the facts into the dominant received interpretation of the era.

ed writes:

This Amazon review has a list of claimed inaccuracies in the chapter about Japan:

rapscallion writes:

I liked his History of Christianity. You wouldn't guess from it that he's Catholic; he hits the Church pretty hard. This speaks to his objectivity.

Steve Sailer writes:

Paul Johnson's "History of the American People" from 1998 had a lot of typos and minor factual inaccuracies. His books before and since have been better in this regard.

In many ways, he's a better historian than journalist, so the mediocrity of his dashed-off punditry tends to detract from his reputation in Britain, where he's best known as a journalist. In contrast, Americans know him best as the author of a long series of formidable books.

On a more macro scale, Johnson is an argumentative historian, one who tends to get bored when he's not advancing a fairly novel theory. So, you shouldn't read Johnson for a dispassionate, unbiased final word on anything, but for his remarkable fertility of insight and his tremendous ability to marshall a vast array of seemingly unrelated facts into a coherent argument.

John Thacker writes:

Grover Cleveland is, I think, one of those "exceptions that proves the rule." He was certainly a Republican kind of Democrat.

razib writes:

"He was certainly a Republican kind of Democrat."


Steve Sailer writes:

"Modern Times" convinced me of the importance of exact dates in writing history. Johnson always gives the exact date in European style (e.g., 23-8-39), which helps him weave a more understandable chain of cause and effect because there was, in 20th Century history, so often a lag time of merely one to three days before responses.

I can remember quite precisely when and where I first browsed through "Modern Times" -- Stuart Brent's Bookstore on Michigan Avenue in mid-May 1983 during my lunch hour. It was that electrifyingly novel of a way to write history.

At this point, I would tend to argue that his previous book, The Offshore Islanders, a history of the English written when he still identified as a leftist, was his masterpiece. It reads like the history of England Orwell would have written if he had lived.

Paul Sand writes:

On page 651 of my edition, Johnson discusses the Pentagon Papers:

In Britain and most other Western democracies, those concerned would have been gaoled under government secrecy laws. This was not possible in the USA, where the ess enjoys constitutional privileges under the Fourth Amendment.

He shoulda left off those last four words, I think.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Paul Sand,
Good point. Also Johnson seriously misstated the case. People forget that Daniel Ellsberg seriously thought he could go to prison for life when he turned himself in. The reason his case was kicked was that Nixon had his thugs invade Ellsberg's psychiatrists's office. The Supreme Court's 6-3 decision was in favor of the NY Times, not Ellsberg. And notice that it was 6-3, not 9-0. Had Nixon not had his people illegally seek evidence on Ellsberg, he could have gone to prison.

David Boaz writes:

This article by the distinguished historian Gordon Wood is quite critical of both the details and the understanding in Paul Johnson's biography of George Washington. Which does not of course directly address whether he made mistakes in Modern Times.

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