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WORLD FOCUS: Historical accuracy on Martha’s Vineyard

July 20, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

While having coffee at the William & Mary Bookstore on Merchants Square with Sharon Ochsenhirt of Williamsburg, she told me about her recent visit to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

"I am a retired university archivist and lover of history," she said. "Thus, on my first visit to Martha's Vineyard, I opted for a history tour of the island. A van of about eight passengers was driven all over the island by a longtime resident. He was obviously a local scholar and told us about the histories and personalities of the six towns on the island."

She continued: "When we reached West Tisbury, he stopped along a road named Music Street. He pointed with pride to the West Tisbury Public Library, which is famous for its fine collection and superb programming, thanks in good part to the support of its beloved neighbor, the historian David McCullough."

Ochsenhirt recalled that McCullough, who considers Martha's Vineyard as his true home, was described by local residents as a very friendly person, approachable, grandfatherly and modest. He wrote many of his bestselling biographies of American presidents in a small office building next to his family home, on a manual Royal typewriter.

"I pursue readable books that make characters come alive," Ochsenhirt said. "I think McCullough is very good at that. The historical people and places of his books are real, and there are many parts of their stories that are untold and memorable. He does seek out primary sources, and his source notes are thorough and orderly."

My own assessment of McCullough as a historian and as a person dovetailed all of Ochsenhirt's observations. Thus, when several years ago, during a McCullough visit at William & Mary, I was provided an opportunity to interview him, and I seized the opportunity.

I was honored to be able to interview him, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S.

He was most cordial toward me, and the interview went very well. Then, I asked him why there is no mention in his 1992 biography of the 33rd U.S. President Harry S. Truman about a pivotal episode relating to the relieving of Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his post as supreme commander in Korea.

I told him, in the 1970s I made an oral history tape with Roger Tubby, who used to be Truman's press secretary. On the tape, Tubby said:

"One day I took a ticker tape coming off the Associated Press wire to President Truman, who was in the Oval Office. The article quoted Gen. MacArthur's message to Joe Martin, the speaker of the House, urging once again that Chiang Kai-shek's troops be released and the U.S. go north beyond the Yalu River. I showed the press release to the President, who took only a glance at it. Then I said, 'Mr. President, this man is not only insubordinate, but he is insolent, and I think he ought to be fired.'"

Tubby explained that MacArthur acted in direct defiance to previous order by the president to stay out of politics.

Tubby continued on the tape: "President Truman then picked up the press release again, read it carefully and said, 'By God, Roger, you are right. Get me Gen. Marshall.' Two days later, Gen. MacArthur lost his job as supreme commander in Korea."

On the tape, Tubby explains, "What made President Truman act so decisively in the MacArthur episode was most of all his clear vision of American national interest. He refused to let the U.S. be dragged into an unending land war in Asia with communist China."

McCullough never answered my question. He got frosty and cut the interview short.

Sharon Ochsenhirt noted, "McCullough has been quoted saying, history should not be written by people who know everything about a topic, but by writers who are fascinated by a person or topic and see the subject with fresh eyes."

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.

 
 

 

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