David McNeill’s “Counterspinning Revisionist History” – Daniel Crosson

Members of Japan’s Unit 731, which conducted biological and chemical warfare experiments and committed various atrocities during WWII. McNeill cites that many of his Japanese students were unaware of the unit’s existence as it is generally erased from the nation’s historical narrative.


For our discussion on revisionist history, I came across an interesting article by Dr. David McNeill titled “Counterspinning Revisionist History”, recalling experiences he has had teaching courses at universities in Japan and China. Dr. McNeill discusses how he experienced and attempted to counter revisionist historical views among his students that had begun to cross into the realms of negationism and even denialism.

In the article, McNeill explains how both Japan and China have widely adopted revisionist narratives regarding their own history. In Japan, McNeill claims that many young Japanese still struggle to make an understanding of the devastation their country experienced during World War II. A recent rise in neoconservative thinking has led to many Japanese being quite unaware of the true nature of conflict, especially the role Japan took in certain atrocities. In China, the state closely controls all historical content provided to students, focusing on the pitfalls of its old enemies while ignoring its own.

McNeill’s writing places the idea of historical revisionism in a negative light, at least on the surface. As we have discussed in class, there is a difference between challenging the accepted narrative through the use of new evidence, and simply rewriting or ignoring history for other purposes such as political aims. The former can be considered responsible revisionist research in search of historical accuracy, with the latter being historical negationism and denialism.

While he does not specifically mention these differences, McNeill seems to still understand the importance of what true revisionist history can offer. He warns of the dangers presented by viewing history through the prism of nationalism and bypassing darker aspects of the past. While he painted the idea of revisionism too broadly and in a negative connotation, he actually encouraged his students to challenge the accepted state narrative with the very methods true revisionist historians use. He told his students to ask questions, presented them with new (even banned) sources of information, and stressed the importance of formulating their own thoughts instead of simply accepting whatever they were told.

McNeill’s views on revisionist history may have been flawed from a standpoint of definition, but I believe this article sheds light on some very important issues, especially the confusion that seems to surround the idea of revisionism itself. Our interpretation of history is something that must evolve as new sources are found, and past ideas should certainly be revisited to gain deeper understanding or even a new understanding altogether.



McNeill, David. “Counterspinning Revisionist History.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 56, no. 23 (2010). http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=viva_vpi&id=GALE|A220078196&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1

Unit 731 Image. https://dirkdeklein.net/category/japanese-war-crimes/page/2/


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