History Lies
A start at debunking.


Larry Schweikart, previously co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States, is author of the new (released today) 49 Liberal Lies About American History (That You Probably Learned in School). A professor of history at the University of Dayton, he takes some opening-day questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez, in the hopes of undoing some of the lies early in the school year.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: So only 49?

Larry Schweikart: You know, publishers do have cost restraints. The original version was the size of The Historical Statistics of the United States. So we allowed for volume 2, 3, 4, . . . .


I never learned that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance. Am I weird?

Schweikart: This one is quirky, and I admit that textbooks stay away from it — but it’s certainly out there. It began with a liberal, Charles Beard, a Marxist historian. For Marxist historians, every war is the fault of the capitalist class in either England or the United States. You know that. Anyway, over the past 20 years, it has morphed into a conspiracy thesis held by radicals of all political stripes, including a lot of Libertarians. Most recently, it was the subject of a couple of books that spend hundreds of pages asserting that Roosevelt “knew” in advance about the attack without producing one single shred of proof. Ultimately, at the critical point when actual evidence is required, they leap to a line such as, “Roosevelt almost certainly would have received this radio transmission,” or something to that effect. Bottom line: The Japanese maintained strict radio silence, the code breakers didn’t break the pre-December 1941 codes until 1944, and Pearl Harbor, like 9/11, was a failure of intelligence, not a conspiracy by patriotic Americans to drag us into a war.

Why are you defending the Prohibition?

Schweikart: I don’t think “defending” is an accurate description of the entry. It is, pure and simple, revealing that a) Prohibition was not unpopular when passed — it was a Constitutional amendment, after all, and that entails phenomenal agreement among the electorate; b) it was not the work of “fundamentalist, back-woods hicks” who wanted to “impose their morality” on the rest of us — but rather was most heavily supported by the kinds of “Progressive” urban reformers that your colleague Jonah Goldberg called “liberal fascists”; and c) it did have some positive health effects, which I think are undeniable. Certainly a ban on all cigarette smoking also would have such effects, and we shouldn’t deny the benefits in defense of the more important liberties that were at risk.

Lopez: Is everything this generation of teachers knows about JFK coming from Oliver stone?

Schweikart: It certainly appears that way. More than half of the textbooks — textbooks — I examined identified Lee Harvey Oswald as a “Marine,” a “deranged Marine,” a “former Marine,” or some such reference to his military service. But that was entirely irrelevant to his motivation for killing JFK, which was his Communism. Yet fewer than half even identified him as a “communist” or “Marxist.” I think it’s clear that they view the assassination as the result of an American “militaristic” character. While few of them take the next step and directly say JFK was assassinated at the orders of Lyndon Johnson, most leave the issue open with phrases such as “no one knows” what really happened.

Lopez: The Mexican and Spanish-American wars weren’t imperialist efforts drummed up by “corporate interests”? Next you are going say that the Iraq war is about more than oil! Where do you get this stuff?

Schweikart: We tend to forget that real issues existed at different times in history. “54, 40, or Fight!” or “Free Silver at 16:1” sound silly now, but entire political movements were affected by these ideas. So, too, with both the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. In each case, there were real issues at stake (genuine bloodshed in the former, and what was thought to be a Spanish bombing of a U.S. ship in the latter). Neither was a “spur of the moment” war, but rather war had been building, over numerous issues, over many years in each case. It’s true some “business interests” wanted war with Spain — but many others did not, fearing the competition. Nine times out of ten, narrow economic interests are not the cause of a war.

Lopez: Will conservatives be defending Joe McCarthy forever?

Schweikart: I hope so. Joe’s timing was a little off — the Communists who were definitely in the administration had mostly been purged (but not entirely) — and his methods were heavy handed. But then, like now, the press was substantially against him, and the Democrats (all except Jack Kennedy and his family!) were opposed to him, because he made them look bad. The undeniable point, though, is that almost all those he tabbed as “Communists” or “Communist sympathizers” were at least that, and often outright agents of the U.S.S.R.

Lopez: Will American students ever learn anything good about Christopher Columbus?