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Navigators will tell you that a slight error in dead reckoning over a long journey will put you in Alaska when you wanted to go to Arizona. NASA knows that an error of a fraction of a percent will cause the latest Mars probe to go to the Dog Star. So it has been with American history texts.
For a half a century, the interpretation of America's story has drifted steadily leftward. Some of this was due to slight shifts in emphasis over time---resulting in massively unbalanced works ultimately. Some was the result of deliberate distortions of the New Left, seeking to "redress" the crimes in the American past by excessive criticism and clever slant. Still more came from the leftist influences that shape many academics who write American history and its building blocks of scholarly articles, with their obsession with race, class, "gender," and other "oppressed/oppressor" constructs. And, unfortunately, some of the shift came from apparently deliberate factual errors based on political partisanship. The time has come to right these wrongs.
In A Patriot's History of the United States (Penguin/Sentinel), Michael Allen and I take on more than 50 years of, well, bad scholarship. In the first comprehensive "conservative" history survey written by Americans, Patriot's History portrays the European founding of the New World as beneficial; the Founders as sagacious and virtuous; the Jacksonians as more concerned with "big government" than Arthur Schlesinger and others have claimed; Abraham Lincoln as heroic; the notion of the "robber barons" as a myth; the New Deal as a disaster, both short-term and long; American foreign policy in the 20th Century as essentially altruistic; and Ronald Reagan as a titan. Are there warts in the story of the United States? Without a doubt, and we cover them. Three times, American leaders "punted" on the issue of slavery until it could be ignored no longer. There were excesses during the "Gilded Age," but those were mostly due to the government intervention in the economy, and the excesses only reflected a deeper unprecedented rise in wealth and prosperity that swept over a majority of Americans.
"Do-gooders" did try, unsuccessfully, to dictate social mores such as alcohol consumption, and, unfortunately, some of our greatest presidents (like Theodore Roosevelt) supported many "big-government" power grabs. Yes, white hunters nearly exterminated the bison---only because they had more effective weapons than Indians, who had already placed the buffalo on the road to extinction. But it was entrepreneurs who saved the bison herds, and even sold the start-up herds to Yellowstone Park. Joe McCarthy was an alcoholic and his methods were extreme, but his message that communists had infiltrated the innermost parts of the U.S. government was on target. Watergate was a paranoid power-grab, but it was made worse by the reaction to abandon South Vietnam, abandon American responsibilities in the world, and drift into "malaise."
Where Patriot's History differs from almost all other so-called "texts" out there, however, is that American mistakes are presented as exceptions, almost always corrected . . . and quickly . . . not as the essential fabric of a corrupt, oppressive system. Individuals looking for stark contrasts between our books and virtually all of the other 20 or so "texts" that we analyzed during the writing of Patriot's History can almost literally go to any page. However, some of the "hot button" topics we deal with include:
*The "Columbian Exchange." In a long sidebar ("Did Columbus Kill Most of the Indians?"), we review extensive recent scholarship that shows that a) no good guesses even exist as to how many "Native Americans" were here when Columbus and other Europeans arrived; b) some diseases thought to be "transmitted" from Europe likely were here when the Europeans arrived; and c) some Indian tribes fought each other to extinction---they didn't need Europeans' help.
*The "Age of Jackson." It has become chic for Libertarians, as well as old-school leftists, to portray Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren as friends of the "common man" and "small- government" advocates. Clay, according David Kennedy's The American Pageant, was a "big- money Kentuckian," while Jackson was the "idol of the masses." (Davy Crockett, who hated Jackson, and Abe Lincoln, who supported Clay, must not have qualified for membership in the "masses.") John Murrin claims Jackson represented "a society of virtuous, industrious producers," as opposed to "parasites who grew rich by manipulating credit, prices, paper money and government-bestowed privileges." That must have been before Jackson stashed all the money from the Bank of the United States in the "pet" banks of his friends. In fact, government grew steadily during the Age of Jackson---even under Van Buren---and Jackson proportionately expanded the power of the presidency far more than Abraham Lincoln ever did.
*The "Robber Barons." Most "texts" obsess with trusts, the wealth of John D. Rockefeller, the semi-peon status of the industrial worker, and the plight of the farmers, seemingly without noticing that the captains of industry gave away unprecedented amounts of money; created jobs at astounding rates; raised wages and lowered prices on almost all consumer goods. Travel became affordable because of Cornelius Vanderbilt; kerosene became cheap---and literally saved the whales---providing low-cost indoor illumination, thanks to Rockefeller; and Andrew Carnegie made possible not only all other industries that depended on high-quality, inexpensive steel, but laid the groundwork for multi-story skyscrapers.
*The "Roaring Twenties." Perhaps no decade is more (often deliberately) misunderstood by writers than the Roaring Twenties, which was a perfect confluence of dozens of new technologies coming on-line at the same time that Andrew Mellon's tax cuts encouraged consumption. The Great Crash had little to do with "speculation" (as several new economic studies reveal, though none ever cited by recent texts) and probably a lot to do with the Smoot- Hawley Tariff (again, as several other recent, largely un-cited, studies show). FDR's "New Deal" was a disaster of the highest order, although we do not doubt his good intentions. The New Deal not only ensured that recovery from the economic collapse would be almost impossible---due to the restrictions on industry, the minimum wage law, government's cozy relationship with labor through the Wagner Act, and the heavy tax burden, to mention but a few---but that in the longer run, most of these programs (such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Social Scurity) would wreak havoc with the economy and America's social fabric.
*World War II. One is struck by not only the phenomenal output of American capitalism during the war, literally burying the Axis powers in a wave of war materiel, but by the commitment of heroic soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Patriot's History contains a section on Hollywood and the war, which is an astounding indictment of our modern "stars" during a time of testing. In 1941-42, virtually every leading man and many leading women went to war, most of them as volunteers. Many not only saw combat, but were genuine heroes: Lee Marvin assaulted beaches in the Pacific and in one engagement was one of only five men out of more than 200 to survive; Walter Matthau won an impressive six silver stars; Telly Savalas was critically wounded and told he would never walk again; and even civilians like Carole Lombard died while on a tour selling war bonds. The contrast between the "stars" of yesteryear and the "celebrities" of today is striking.
*"Happy Days." Ridiculed by texts as a decade of cookie-cutter, robotic sameness, we find the 1950s to in fact have been a decade of tremendous upheaval---in many ways far more than the 1960s. Racial issues started to unravel American society, while the threat of atomic annihilation deeply affected the public. The ease of transportation meant that people traveled and moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, and for that reason they craved moorings they could latch onto---pillars of stability and reliability. They found those comfortable reassurances in fast food chains (McDonalds), motels (Holiday Inns), and even in the explosion of AM radio, where the famous "play lists" ensured that a person in Colorado listened pretty much to the same songs as someone in New Jersey. The decade, and others, was captured by America's premier artist (whom texts constantly ignore), Norman Rockwell, the essential illustrator of American values.
*The "Gipper." Nowhere is textbook bias more apparent than in their treatment of Reagan. It seems that authors cast their veil of "objectivity" to the wind when they reach the 1980s. Reagan "was no intellectual," intones American Pageant, while Daniel Goldfield's American Journey dutifully notes that "critics questioned [Reagan's] grasp of complex issues." Reagan's decisive victories are explained away by citing low voter turnout (which, conveniently was not mentioned in the passages on the 1996 election, where the percentage was similar). The distortions involve snide captions to photos and a fundamental misunderstanding of Supply Side economics. Indeed, American Pageant goes out of its way to present what can only be seen as a deliberate distortion of federal debt and deficits in the 1980s. (The charts, which were still in use in the last edition we consulted, fail to adjust dollar amounts in "real" terms---an error a graduate student would not make---and the authors do so, not once, but twice, both, apparently, with the intent of showing that Reagan's tax cuts "caused" horrible debt and deficits. This of course, is not true when the dollar values are adjusted in real terms as a % of GNP). The texts' criticisms of "Star Wars" were so egregious that we outlined them in a note (p. 891). Nowhere in any major text was Reagan given credit for defeating communism---that was usually reserved for the "great" Russian "leader," Michael Gorbachev.
These are but a handful of the interpretations and areas of emphasis that distinguish Patriot's History from its left-leaning competitors. Overall, we stuck to politics, economics, and religion, and where social history seemed important, it got "ink" as well. We did not, however, include minorities out of PC tokenism, nor did we assume that every social critic "had a point."
As we note in the introduction, we utterly reject "My country right or wrong," but we likewise reject the destructive approach that has characterized virtually all the U.S. history texts for the last 30 years, "My country, always wrong." The truth, we think, paints a wonderful portrait of the United States as she is.