With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The David McCullough Nobody Knows

David McCullough has not yet claimed landing at Omaha Beach or hitting a game-winning grand slam for his high school baseball team. But based on mistakes in his two latest biographies--the current best-selling John Adams and the 1992 blockbuster Truman--McCullough may be on a slippery slope to the minors. Whether the errors were calculated or merely the result of reckless research is explored below.

The false step in John Adams is a virtual copycat of the foul-up in Truman. In both books, McCullough, a non-academic popularizer, purportedly discovered gold that had eluded generations of dogged history professors. In John Adams, it was a quote from Thomas Jefferson calling Adams “a colossus of independence.” In Truman, it was a “TOP SECRET” 1945 War Department document backing up HST’s previously unconfirmed and suspiciously sky-high casualty estimates for the planned invasion of Japan.

Significantly, McCullough built both biographies around his “just-so” findings. His Rushmore portrait of Harry Truman depended on smoothing over the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the War Department memo very neatly did. His canonization of Adams rested on pumping him up at the expense of his revolutionary rival and presidential successor, Jefferson. The latter’s homage did the job perfectly.

Consequently, Simon & Schuster plopped the lucky quote into the first sentence of the book’s flap copy. McCullough used it as the heading for the third chapter and in promotional interviews. “Those of his compatriots who wrote about Adams universally praised him for what he did,” said McCullough in a Q&A on S&S’s website. “It is no surprise that Jefferson described him as “the colossus of independence.”

Richard Rosenfeld, a revisionist of the colonial period, caught McCullough's error when he ran the unfootnoted phrasing by Jefferson experts and through a Jefferson database at Princeton. Apparently, no record of Jefferson's utterance exists. It turns out, according to McCullough, that Jefferson called Adams"a colossus on the floor of Congress" during the Continental Congress. McCullough's source was a book on Daniel Webster, which was apparently quoting Jefferson. Rosenfeld, author of The American Aurora, recounts his sleuthing in the September Harper's. News of the controversy came to light last week in a dispatch by the Associated Press, where I learned everything reported here regarding the John Adams case.

The New York Times advanced the story on Monday (July 23) by contrasting McCullough's insouciant attitude toward the misquotation and Rosenfeld's ire. It"doesn't really change anything," said McCullough. In contrast, Rosenfeld argues that the misquote is part of a whitewash."You don't want to make this man a hero," said Rosenfeld of Adams, whom he considers a foe of democracy for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts that suppressed dissent."There is no way to learn the history of civil liberties in this country without identifying who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the very beginning."

Eight years ago, I was Truman's Rosenfeld, the skeptic who exposed McCullough's unfootnoted War Department memo as historical counterfeit. While my experience with the poly-prized PBS icon and ex-president of the Society of American Historians had eerie similarities to Rosenfeld's, there appears to be one big difference: McCullough threatened to sue me. Following a public confrontation at Sarah Lawrence in 1993, during which McCullough's bad faith shone through, I formed the opinion that America's most admired and celebrated historian was a cheat--with thin skin and an oversized ego.

The two of us got off to a rotten start a year earlier when I interviewed him on his original book tour for Truman. I was then writing for the Village Voice and looking into the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unimpressed with McCullough's soft and apologetic treatment of the A-bomb, I politely suggested that he had"whitewashed Truman's decision."

"I resent the fact that you feel I've whitewashed this," he replied."I feel that I've been as honest as possible and to put myself in [Truman's] place, knowing not just what he knew, but also understanding what he did not know. And I feel that many people have written about his decision with the advantage of hindsight."

I did not write about McCullough in the Voice, but I continued to dig into Truman for Lingua Franca. I spoke to several historians critical of the book’s bomb work--e.g., Barton Bernstein, Alan Brinkley, C. Vann Woodward, and Catherine Clinton, the chair of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize biography jury that selected Truman over Walter Isaacson’s Kissingerr and James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Clinton had subversive second thoughts about her vote."In all frankness, it didn't occur to me that McCullough was being dishonest," she told me."As writers and biographers, we all come across material that doesn't fit. But I am willing to say that I may have been mistaken. Truman was a great book, but if McCullough ignored information, consciously and deliberately, simply because it worked against his thesis, I would call that fabricating history."

I also probed the smoking gun memo announced on page 400:

But a memorandum of June 4, 1945, written by General Thomas Handy of Marshall's staff, in listing the advantages of making peace with Japan, said America would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion altogether--which shows that figures of such magnitude were then in use at the higher levels.

Although there was no assertion of originality in the text, McCullough had boasted of his scoop during our initial exchange in 1992. He was proud to have uncovered a document shooting down the revisionists for arguing that Truman had fluffed up the invasion casualty estimates ex post facto to justify the horrendous human damage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But a funny thing happened when I searched for the Handy citation. It was missing from a list of 992 endnotes. McCullough provided citations for two quotes and one fact on page 400, but nothing on the Handy memo.

Sensing a flimflam, I consulted Stanford's Bart Bernstein, the dean of revisionists. Bernstein informed me that McCullough had the Handy matter all mixed up. He said that Herbert Hoover wrote the unsigned million-man memo and that Handy had repudiated Hoover's numbers in an accompanying reply-memo. Not only had McCullough bungled the data, he was blissfully unaware that Bernstein and Michael Sherry had previously reported on the Hoover-Handy nexus in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1986) and The Rise of American Air Power (1987) respectively.

Next, I obtained copies of the Handy documents from the National Archives. I noted immediately that Bernstein was right and McCullough amateurishly wrong. The archival package consisted of two unsigned memos totaling seven pages and five additional pages of routing sheets and cover notes. The first memo, three pages long, concerned the political-economic map of a postwar world dominated by the U.S.S.R. The anonymous writer (Hoover) recommended that the future of U.S.-Japanese relations would be better served by peace without a messy invasion, claiming that “America will save 500,000 to 1,000,000 lives.” Obviously Handy was not the author, nor was the memo dated June 4, 1945, as McCullough claimed.

Moreover, Handy’s cover note, dated June 1, indicated a separate author for the undated memo: “The attached paper was handed to me by the Secretary of War with a request for the reaction of the staff to it. I do not know the author but I understand that he is an economist.” (Apparently Hoover’s name was left off the document to assure an unbiased evaluation.)

Handy was responsible for a second memo, written by his staff and dated June 4, that contradicted Hoover’s invasion count. Commented Handy’s staff memo (with ink corrections by the general himself): “… the estimated loss of 500,000 lives due to carrying the war to conclusion under our present plan of campaign, is considered to be entirely too high.” General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, passed Handy’s memo up to Stimson on June 7, expressing his “general agreement” in a cover note.

McCullough’s handling of the War Department’s papers was greatly embarrassing. First, his grasp of the bomb literature was so weak that he treated the Hoover-Handy memos as fresh goods. Second, he misconstrued the authors, dates and contents of two clearly identified, though unsigned, memos. Third, and foremost, he neglected to quote the second memo’s contradiction of the exaggerated numbers in the first, pretending that the ghost of a million American dead was real in the minds of Truman’s war cabinet.

Loaded with this fresh radioactive material, I tracked McCullough down at his home on Martha’s Vineyard in August of 1994. Recalling our prior interview, he told me that he was taping our call and gave me permission to record at my end, too. I anticipated a bumpy ride, but not the super snootiness and flashes of temper.

“You are putting me in an extremely difficult position in this conversation, and it is not only uncomfortable, it is infuriating,” he said, affirming his aversion to the heat of the kitchen. At the peak of his discontent, he threatened me with a libel suit. Nevertheless, he stayed on the telephone long enough, despite mood swings and stonewalling, for me to trace his mistakes.

After a warm-up about an aborted Picasso bio, I asked what he thought about the virtually unanimous opinion among reviewers that he had sacrificed scholarship to storytelling. I read him a quote from The American Historical Review: “this biography smacks of being an ode to Truman.”

“My work stands on its own and if they choose to not admire it or like it, that’s their prerogative,” he said, refusing to defend himself against this charge of unprofessionalism. “If they cite inaccuracies or something of that kind, I would take it very seriously.”

I moved on to the alleged Handy memo. Fortunately, he had a copy at the ready, along with the related documents. As for the missing footnote, he pleaded “an oversight” but that he stood by his finding. Skipping the issue of authorship momentarily, I asked why he had not mentioned in Truman that the alleged Handy memo was refuted by an accompanying War Department paper.

“The point is that these figures were in print and in circulation at the highest levels at that time,” McCullough attested, blurring the distinction between reliable and unreliable information. “The sentence [in Truman] says no more than that. All of these estimates, predictions and attempts to determine the cost were debatable, and may have been inaccurate, but the point is that they were discussing these figures …. All I was attempting to establish here, which the memo clearly does, is that these figures, as high as this, were being discussed. At the highest level and that these weren’t figures that were invented after the fact.”

But McCullough was dodging the authenticity of the million dead, which was the point of my question. At the risk of a hang-up, I repeated myself.

“Look, I’m not going to defend my book in front of you this way. My book stands for itself. If you’re suggesting that I’m misquoting this memorandum, I contend you’re exactly wrong.”

At this juncture I filled McCullough in on the Hoover-Handy business, demonstrating that the general was not the author of the June 4 memo touted in Truman and that Bernstein had already revealed the name of the true author. Shot by his own smoking gun, McCullough became perturbed, accusing me of interrogating him and behaving like a prosecutor. “I’m willing to talk to you if it can be a reasonable conversation, but the idea that you have decided to write a long essay about failures in my book doesn’t exactly please me.”

Gradually, McCullough cooled off. After listening to my interpretation of the Archives material that we both had on our desks, he admitted that he had misread the documents and was wrong about Handy’s authorship. “That was what I was told by the people at the Archives, and that may be a mistake,” he said, shoveling a bigger hole for himself. “If it is a mistake, then I regret it, but nevertheless, even if it is not the work of Handy, the fact that these figures are in print and in discussion at the highest level is still true. That’s the purpose of that sentence.”

“You see, I would be perfectly willing to take the view of Marshall, Truman, Churchill and others, like Stimson, who later used these figures or higher figures, but those were all after the fact, and here is an example of the figure in print in a memo that is being circulated at top level.”

I was tempted to say, ‘Surely, you are joking, Mr. McCullough. Hoover’s numbers were mocked by the War Department and cannot possibly support Truman’s lie about saving “a half-million boys.” If you were honest about the price of invasion, you would have cited both Handy’s dismissal of Hoover and the lower figures that Bernstein published in the Los Angeles Times showing that military planners expected no more than 46,000 dead from the invasion and maybe as few as 20,000. But you purposely excluded these less impressive statistics from the text because you wanted to provide Truman and his men with a million motives for dropping the bomb. Isn’t that right, Mr. McCullough? You covered up for Truman, didn’t you?’

Naturally, I refrained from such boldness, but there was still the matter of his failure to notice Hoover’s previous outing in the literature.

“I made a mistake, sir,” he replied icily. “Did you ever make one? And it is an immaterial mistake because the point is that I only included the sentence [about the million dead] to make it certain that these figures were being discussed at the highest levels.”

“You know, if you’re impugning my integrity in this article, I advise you to go very cautiously. I really mean that. You’re free to dislike my work, you’re free to attack my work, but if you attack my integrity, if there’s libel involved, you may be sure I’ll pursue it.”

I explained that I was searching for information that would decide whether his integrity deserved impugning. Once again, he mellowed, but persisted in discrediting himself with the lame claim that, no matter who said it or how it was received, the million-man figure existed on paper at the War Department in 1945.

“I think Truman, Marshall and Churchill felt that they had made the best possible decision given the information they had at the time…,” he insisted. “All I was attempting to do in this statement at the bottom of page 400 … is to establish that these figures were in fact in print in memos at the time, and the copy that I have from the National Archives says Handy right on it and I was told that this was from Handy. If that’s mistaken and I’m mistaken, then obviously it should be corrected.”

“I’m as much after the truth about all of this as you or anyone else. I have no intention and had none of ever protecting or glorifying anyone involved with the decision. That’s not my responsibility, that’s not my business.”

Prickly once more, McCullough warned me that I was running out of time. Quickly, I mentioned Nagasaki, an indefensible crime that aroused no pity in Truman. But he would not touch the city. “I’ll tell you something, I don’t want to debate or discuss this beyond what is in my book. If my book doesn’t stand up in your eyes or in the eyes of others that you’ve talked to on these issues, that’s for you and them to determine. But I’m not going to stand here and defend my book as though I’m under attack. I’ve never met you. I don’t know you. I don’t know very much about you, and you seem to have only the worst intentions …. Who the hell are you to take such an attitude? What kind of man are you?”

With further questions about the bomb forbidden, the dialogue came to an ungracious close."I wish you would proceed with your life and you work and leave me alone," said McCullough, bidding me goodbye.

But this was only the end of the beginning. I was not satisfied with McCullough’s non-explanation explanation of the Hoover-Handy fiasco."McCullough is being very slippery," said Bernstein."He sounds like the boy who is caught with his hands in the cookie jar and says he was just putting the cap back on." Seeking further clarification, I wrote McCullough a follow-up letter on August 23, 1993:

Dear Mr. McCullough:

Since you mentioned libel during our conversation about the so-called General Handy memo cited on p. 400 of Truman, we should pursue the matter. Actually, I am not concerned with your threat--my work is hardly reckless--but I do want to be absolutely fair.

So here are some further questions regarding your misattribution of the"Handy memo":

1. You claimed that somebody at the National Archives told you that Handy was the author of the memo (the one suggesting that"America would save no less than 500,00 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion altogether"). But when I telephoned Edward Reese, the military historian credited in your acknowledgements with helping you document"the casualty estimates anticipated in an invasion of Japan in 1945," he told me that he did not do so and would never do so because the Archives has a policy against interpreting documents.

Given Reese's denial, can you recall exactly who at the Archives gave you the idea that Handy wrote the memo? Or, on second thought, did you misspeak?

2. I am still trying to understand how an historian of your background and expertise could have mistaken Handy as the author of the million lives memo when the adjoining documents so clearly pointed to someone else.

For example:

Page 1: The three-sentence covering memo to General Hull (1 June 1945) signed by Handy himself (T.T.H.) refers to the real (though pseudonymous) author of the casualty memo. Plain as day, Handy remarks:"I do not know the author but I understand he is an economist." …

Page 8: Marshall's memo to Stimson likewise distinguishes between the (economist's) memo given to Handy and the staff study [repudiating the memo].

Page 9: The staff study begins:"The Secretary of War has given to General Handy for 'reaction of the staff' a memorandum furnished to him concerning the war with Japan." Yet another indication that Handy wrote nothing about the casualty estimates, but instead acted as a middleman between Stimson and Marshall.

With all these clues pointing away from Handy, how did you conclude that he was the author of the economist's memo?

Under these circumstances, it is tempting to speculate that maybe the misattribution was not an error. Consider the reasoning: despite the importance of the “Handy memo” to your argument that Truman had legitimate cause to fear a half million American deaths, thus providing him with a rational excuse for the Hiroshima/Nagasaki massacres, and despite the dent that the Handy memo allegedly puts in the revisionist claim that all such estimates were ex post facto justifications for the Bombs of August, you forgot the footnote.

Furthermore, working with the same material, Barton Bernstein cited a different author of the casualty estimate and shot down the notion of a half-million lives saved in an article cited in your bibliography on p. 1075. If you read Bernstein's piece, as I assume you did, you knew that Handy was not the author of the memo cited in Truman and that his 500,000 lives figure was bogus.

Finally, your failure to report the refutation of the 500,000 figure in Truman, especially General Marshall's disdain for the number in his memo to Stimson on 7 June 1945 (p. 8 of the Archives material), shows sufficient bad faith as to raise doubts about your intellectual honesty.

Yours etc.,

Philip Nobile

McCullough did not answer the letter and so my doubts about his bona fides persisted. Three months after our telephone tempest, I had another chance to pursue the issue. In early November, McCullough lectured on Truman at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. I was in the audience and got to ask one of two post-lecture questions. Naturally, it involved the Handy snafu and it was sharpened for maximum impact. Despite the ambush, which was bound to embarrass McCullough in front of the worshipful crowd, I expected him to fess up and maybe even apologize for his error. Instead he came out swinging and denying:

Q The first responsibility of an historian is to tell the truth, and I don't think you quite rose to the occasion vis-à-vis the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman said in his memoirs that he dropped the bomb to save a half-million lives, American boys, in the planned invasion. But Truman was lying. You had a War Department memo, approved by Army chief of staff General Marshall, that said this half-million figure was"entirely too high." Given the hideous nature of this war crime [i.e., the bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki] and Truman's lie, why didn't you cite this memo in your book?

A Is your name Mr. Nobile?

Q Yes it is, and your name is Mr. McCullough.

A Mr. Nobile is very angry at me because I don't agree with his position on the decision to use the atomic bomb, and he has taken it upon himself to go after my work in a very vigorous and I must say strange fashion. His complaint concerns one sentence in a book of nearly a thousand pages, and he objects to the fact that I have mislabeled--he says--the author of a memo which said there would be 500,000 casualties if we proceeded with the invasion of Japan. There is, in fact, no way to tell who wrote that memo, and it may have been General Handy as I said in my book. I followed the …

Q You admitted the mistake in our interview…

A Please let me, why don't you sit down and take a rest [applause].

Q And may I have a follow-up?

A No. [Heckling from the audience.]

Q I thought we were in a university.

A We are and I'm trying to answer your question. The problem with making so much of that one sentence is that the point I make in the book--were you to read the book--is that it didn't matter what they were predicting. It didn't matter whether we were going to lose 5000 or 50,000 or 500,000--we were not going to make that sacrifice….

I could hardly believe my ears--"no way to tell who wrote that memo, and it may have been General Handy as I said in my book"? Why would McCullough tell such a blatant, easily disproved lie? He knew the truth, that Hoover was the real author. With his own eyes, and with me as a witness, he read the War Department papers and saw that Handy (via his staff) zapped the very memo that McCullough claimed Handy had written. There was no wiggle room. If McCullough needed more assurance, all he had to do was check out Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman: A Documentary History. This book contained a copy of a 1945 Hoover memo to Truman that repeated the identical million-man claim in the same language that Hoover later used in his memo to Stimson.

I did not publish my exposé in Lingua Franca owing to a disagreement over length, so McCullough was temporarily in the clear. But his Handy chickens would soon come home to roost and his Sarah Lawrence defiance dissolve. In 1994, during the controversy over the Smithsonian Institution's 50th Anniversary exhibition script on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McCullough was cited as an authority on the invasion casualties and the “Handy memo” was put under national scrutiny. Defense Week, a Washington D.C.-based newsletter, broke the story on October 11, 1994 under the headline" 'TRUMAN' AUTHOR ERRS ON JAPAN INVASION CASUALTY MEMO."

Suddenly, McCullough was contrite, but still not altogether candid."I made a mistake and I regret it, though I take some solace in knowing my own interpretation of events leading to the decision to use the atomic bomb in no way depends on that one sentence," he wrote to the newsletter."It was no part of any kind of 'case' being made. It is, in effect, an aside and could have as well been left out of the book."

"My mistake was that in finding the 500,000 to one million casualty estimate in the material at the National Archives, I failed to read carefully on to the place where General Handy calls the figures 'entirely too high.'"

Well, not exactly. McCullough did not have to"read carefully on" to Handy's reply memo to understand who wrote (or did not write) what. The cover sheets were quite clear that the memo in question was penned"by an economist." And McCullough did make a" case" that the million-man casualty numbers helped to justify the A-bomb.

McCullough's lethargy regarding the fake numbers on page 400 contrasts with the instant reaction to the libel concerning Abraham Feinberg, a New York business man and philanthropist, on page 598:

According to Jim Rowe, Truman was outraged by a particularly brazen offer of money from a New York clothing manufacturer, Abraham Feinberg.

[Assistant Secretary of the Interior] Oscar Chapman told me this … and he was a good politician. They [a Zionist group from New York] came down there to the Naval Room [in the old State, War, and Navy Building]. Oscar went over to see, I think, a fellow named Abe Feinberg--he was always into money--and he walked in and there was Feinberg standing with an umbrella up and all these bankrolls fell on the floor. Huge! And Feinberg in effect said,"Look, if the President will do something about Israel, we can do business." And Oscar said,"I'll find out," and went over [to the White House] to speak to him and told him the story. And Truman said,"Tell the bastard to go to hell. I'm not taking money like that." Oscar went back and reported this. They turned up with the money three weeks later. Truman stood there and told them to go to hell.

The tale attributed to Rowe via Chapman was implausible, wobbly with hearsay, dipped in anti-Semitism and repeated by McCullough without so much as a phone call to the reputed bribe-maker or to any other source. Even a casual search would have revealed that the alleged umbrella man was not only alive and listed in the Manhattan phone directory, where I located him, but a towering figure in Washington and Jerusalem.

Feinberg's lawyer David Ginsburg of the Washington D.C. firm of Ginsburg, Feldman and Bress put McCullough and his publisher Simon & Schuster on notice in a strongly-worded letter (August 14, 1992) in defense of his client:"… You have blackened his name and darkened theirs [his family's] by reason of gross, inexplicable negligence--or worse; you could have checked the facts but instead carelessly chose to give world-wide circulation to a hateful lie with racial and religious overtones based solely on hearsay."

McCullough retracted by return mail:"I was distressed to learn that you were unhappy with the reference to you in Truman. I have therefore instructed my publisher, Simon & Schuster, to delete those passages from the book as soon as can be done, for the next edition and for all subsequent editions."

But notice the lack of explanation or expression of sorrow. Feinberg held out for a sit-down. McCullough told him that he thought Rowe was a credible source and that he (Feinberg) was dead. The lawsuit threat was withdrawn after McCullough wrote an abject letter of apology and sent $20,000 to one of Feinberg's charities.

Summing up, McCullough has repeated history. You don't have to be a forensic critic to pick up a pattern in the Adams and Truman cases. The congruence occurs not only in the method of the blunders, but also in post-exposure attitude:

In Truman, there was no citation for the"Handy memo."

In Adams, there was no citation for the" colossal" quote.

In Truman, the author misread the Handy memo.

In Adams the author misread the" colossal" quote.

After I outed the"Handy memo," McCullough downplayed his mistake, telling me,"Even if it is not the work of Handy, the fact that these figures are in print and in discussion at the highest levels is still true."

After Rosenfeld outed the" colossal" quote, McCullough downplayed his mistake, telling the AP,"It does not change my thesis at all. I'm perfectly within my rights to say he was the colossus of independence, as others have said. It does not change Adams' role in the Declaration of Independence."

Apparently, McCullough would have us think that his mistakes--except the libelous kind--do not count because they are always in the right direction. But this is not the standard that the prize-winning historian set for himself in U.S. News & World Report almost ten years ago (June 22, 1992)."I don't make anything up, and I don't quote anybody because I think they might have said it," he proclaimed."If I find something that is controversial or shocking in the way of new information it must be substantiated by at least three sources."

It is hard to imagine that a giant like McCullough would stoop to fabricate data. But has he earned the benefit of our doubt? Apart from the fibbing at Sarah Lawrence, consider the misbegotten quote in John Adams. If Jefferson's alleged homage was so apt, why did McCullough allow it to float on the air of a chapter heading without any anecdotal backup in the text? The quote cries out for context--when, where and why Jefferson said the words. McCullough meticulously cited other less important remarks in the book, but the defining description of John Adams was orphaned--no background, no footnote. There is no good explanation for this lapse, particularly from an historian who prides himself on the accuracy of his quotations.

McCullough has agreed to appropriate fixes in future editions of John Adams, but do not expect him to demand that Simon & Schuster issue errata slips for copies already in print. I would have more confidence in McCullough's integrity if he had followed through with his promise to fix Truman. After eight years and twenty-two paperback editions, he has yet to correct the Handy error, which can still be found on page 400.

©Philip Nobile