Politics & Policy

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, . . . .

Lopez: 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.

Lopez: 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?

Schweikart: Maybe that Columbus, Ohio, was named for him? Poor old Chris has been the subject of entire multidisciplinary symposia. Slowly, but surely, the word is getting out that Native Americans were nowhere near as numerous as historians and anthropologists once thought; that they suffered from most of the diseases once thought to be “introduced” by the Europeans long before Chris ever dipped his toe in the Caribbean, and that they killed each other off far faster than the Spaniards ever could.

Lopez: What’s one lie about women in American history that maybe Sarah Palin can take on?

Schweikart: Women not only had numerous legal rights in early American society (and throughout history) but the U.S. has been light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in elevating the position of women. American women, for example, had the right to vote almost 100 years ago that is still denied females in many parts of the earth today, and which the French didn’t enjoy until after World War II.

Lopez: Do lies about guns in American history hurt the Second Amendment?

Schweikart: Yes. They make it seem like a “gun culture” ginned up a fairy tale. The argument, provided in a book called Arming America, claimed that few early Americans had guns, and that the idea that they did was entirely a concoction of a post-Civil War “gun culture.” This is beyond silly. Other than a Bible, virtually every American home that wasn’t in a “big city” had at least one musket or rifle, and they valued them so much that one reason militias were equipped with state weapons was because individuals didn’t want to bring “Old Betsy” to the war and risk damaging their own weapon!

Lopez: What’s a contemporary liberal lie that you can easily see becoming a new myth of history?

Schweikart: Unfortunately — and the reason I included it — the notion that there were no terrorists or WMDs in Iraq prior to 2003 will likely become a staple of U.S. college textbooks. The good news is that sales of these textbooks is following the same trendline as subscriptions of the New York Times, so perhaps fewer students will read them.

Lopez: What’s the worst lie in your estimation?

Schweikart: Certainly the lie that terrorists were not behind the 9/11 attacks is not only incomprehensible, but at its root, it is evil. I don’t see this one taking root in too many of the textbooks . . . but all it takes is a couple.

Lopez: Why are you defending Richard Nixon?

Schweikart: I don’t “defend” Richard Nixon — I say quite clearly that he engaged in obstruction of justice for ordering the CIA to interfere with the FBI investigation. What I do defend him of is the charge that he originally planned and authorized the DNC Watergate break-in. I side with G. Gordon Liddy in arguing that this came from elsewhere in the White House, and the evidence seems to point to John Dean’s office. We can’t be sure, but Dean has been unable to prove in court that Liddy is lying about this.

Lopez: Who is defending the welfare state of LBJ still?

Schweikart: You’d be surprised. I quote several textbooks gushing about the tremendous strides against poverty made by the Great Society. When these books mention Charles Murray’s Losing Ground or bother to suggest that people actually criticized the Great Society, they follow up with an extensive apology for its failure to eradicate poverty. It seems, according to them, the motivations were good, the programs were sound, but somehow along the way racist Republicans must have done something to undercut it. The sections in lie #28 dealing with the Contract With America reveal the extent to which the authors almost unanimously seek to discredit the substance of welfare reform — while at the same time praising Bill Clinton for signing it!

Lopez: Do you actually think you’ll get anyone to believe George Bush didn’t steal the 2000 election?

Schweikart: No. But as a historian, I have to speak truth to power.

Lopez: What is being taught about 9/11 in history classes this week?

Schweikart: Right now, it’s so recent of an event that textbooks usually show a photo and admit that Muslim terrorists flew the planes into the buildings. But they quickly follow up by noting that the “cause” of their “rage” was likely poverty or oppression by the U.S., and that only “understanding” or “communication” can stop future “misunderstandings.” One of my entries shows unequivocally that terrorists are uniformly well-to-do, educated, and completely clear about their goals, which do not involve “understanding” or “communication,” but murder and death in the name of Allah. To my knowledge, I’m one of the few professors who routinely recognizes 9/11 by showing the excellent HBO special, 9/11: In Memoriam, to my classes. Most students tell me they have not seen these images in their entirety, and almost all say they had never seen the people leaping out of the buildings.

Lopez: Is it all the fault of liberals? Could your title be unfair?

Schweikart: Okay, I’ll give you that while “FDR Knew About Pearl Harbor” started with a liberal, it includes wackos of all stripes now, and that there are a few radical libertarians who still think Thomas Jefferson was a “small-government guy” (who proposed the largest “infrastructure” expenditure in American history, and who engaged in the first foreign war, without a declaration of war). But every one of these at times has been a mainstay of liberal groups. The challenge was to find quotations in textbooks (as opposed to slant, or a broad inference) that stated as much. And I guess that’s what surprised me, was that in so many cases, it wasn’t hard to find liberals flat-out stating their views. We read from one, for example, that the Rosenbergs were “convicted in a controversial trial . . . [and that] the controversy over their guilt has continued to the present day.” We see in another that “McCarthy never uncovered a single Communist agent in government,” and in another that “the state doctored evidence and witnesses changed testimony” in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Still another popular text says “the changes [whites produced on the frontier] were nearly as cataclysmic as those that occurred during the Ice Age” [!], or that “transcontinental railroad building was so costly and risky as to require government subsidies.” (So . . . how did James J. Hill do it without government subsidies?) We see of the Reagan tax cuts that they resulted in “slashing rates for the rich . . . [meaning] less money for federal programs,” when revenues for federal programs rose by more than 40 percent. They propagate utter nonsense such as the claim that Ronald Reagan’s election was due to massive “nonvoting,” or that Reagan’s supporters (none of them named Marc Rich) ushered in a “decade of greed.” They continue to perpetuate utter absurdity by claiming that Richard Nixon “escalated” the Vietnam War when he reduced troop levels there by 90 percent before he resigned. In short, I was a little depressed that it was so easy to pin the liberals down.

Lopez: What can be done about bad American history?

Schweikart: I’m doing my part. Many other excellent historians — Burton Folsom at Hillsdale, Bill Forstchen at Montreat, for example — are fighting these battles in the trenches every day. People who aren’t historians by training — Victor Davis Hanson and Paul Johnson — have provided more, and better, American history than 90 percent of the textbooks out there. So-called “popular” history — written by guys such as the late Stephen Ambrose — is steadily eroding the “scholarly” ediface. And one of the most reassuring developments is that on the micro level, there are dozens of good studies coming out every year that, taken together, undermine the traditional liberal scaffolding. But it’s a fight, and, like the Spartans, those who enter the Gates of Hell from our side better be prepared!

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