America's Textbooks and America's Wars

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victors write the textbooks.” In the field of historiography, there
is no more universally acknowledged rule.

When children are required by law to attend tax-funded schools and
read state-approved textbooks, these textbooks establish the terms
of discussion. History textbooks have long served as the State’s
primary means of establishing public opinion. This was true in Prussia
before it was true in the United States. The Prussian educational
model, for kindergarten through graduate school, became the model
for the American public schools, beginning as early as the 1840s.
(The best study of the history of America’s public school philosophy
is R. J. Rushdoony’s 1963 book, The
Messianic Character of American Education

The classroom study of American history was used by the founders
of American public education as a substitute for instruction in
Christianity, meaning Protestantism. From the experiment’s beginning
in New England in the late 1830s, this substitution was deceptive.
It was the substitution of a different religion: the religion of

The battle for the hearts and minds of the voters begins in the
history textbooks. Yet there are few studies of the history of American
high school history textbooks. Textbooks are thrown out of most
high school libraries when new editions appear. University libraries
do not put college-level textbooks on the shelves because of space
considerations. High school textbooks are also ignored. Thus, it
is extremely difficult to write a history of American public school
textbooks, either at the high school or college level. Francis Fitzgerald’s
relatively short book, America
(1980), is one of the few studies on this subject.
She is a liberal revisionist of the multicultural persuasion, who
does not break with the philosophy of compulsory, tax-funded education.
Her complaint is that her crowd has not written the textbooks. Her
bibliography could serve as the starting point for a detailed history,
but there is no market for such a history.

As Thomas Kuhn wrote a generation ago in The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, science textbooks deliberately
create an illusion, namely, that the history of science has been
progressive, definitive, and smooth. The roads not travelled were
supposedly all dead ends. They were not potential pathways to better
solutions. So, there is little awareness among science students
of the continuing warfare within the scientific community. Old textbooks
are abandoned. New ones continue the story of the victors.

The same is true of American history textbooks. If history majors
were made aware in college of the shifting narratives in high school
history textbooks, generation by generation and war by war, they
might become more aware of the political and ideological wars that
have produced these varying accounts of what America was, is, and

The victors write the textbooks. Historical truth is presented as
a series of victorious wars that inevitably produced the march of
democracy. The fact that a different outcome for several of these
wars would have produced a very different world and a very different
kind of democracy is not considered.


The textbook story of America’s expansion has been the story of
a series of wars, beginning with the Pequot War (1637—38) in
New England. King Philip’s War, an Indian uprising in 1676 in western
Massachusetts, was paralleled by a minor Indian rebellion in Virginia
in the same year. In both wars, the biggest losers were peaceful
Indians who had settled in their own towns and had been trading
with the colonists.

The French and Indian War of 1756—63, sometimes called the
Seven Years War, had begun in North America in 1754, and had produced
Braddock’s famous defeat by the French and their Indian allies in
1755. A young Virginia militia officer, George Washington, had been
part of Braddock’s ill-fated troops. The British Navy won the Seven
Years War, which led to the transfer of French territory east of
the Mississippi to Great Britain. It also led to Parliament’s post-war
attempt tax the colonies to help pay for the war’s debts and also
expenses connected with British troops stationed in North America.
The Stamp Act of 1765 led to a tax revolt and political resistance
by colonists that was to evolve into a war of independence a decade

It is revealing that in case after case, until after 1815, every
time America got into a war, there was an invasion of Canada. This
is rarely mentioned in the textbooks, mainly because we lost every
war with Canada, and also because these invasions look too much
like land grabs.

America as a nation has been involved in a series of full-scale
wars ever since 1775: the American Revolution, the War of 1812,
the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and its
immediate aftermath, the Philippine War, World War I, World War
II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War.

The Philippine War (1899—1902) was not put into high school
American history textbooks because it was a war against Filipinos
who wanted independence. The United States had officially entered
the war against Spain in 1898 on behalf of the Cubans, who also
wanted independence. Spain had ceded the Philippines to the United
States in 1899. Our brutal suppression of Filipinos, who suffered
an insurgent
military death toll of 20,000 and a civilian death toll of possibly
, was never considered consistent with the American democratic
tradition, so it was not discussed in the pre-Vietnam War history
textbooks. There is no better example in American history textbooks
of the memory hole process in action.

Until Korea, the United States won all of its wars. Korea was technically
a victory because the United States rolled back North Korea’s invasion
of South Korea, but the war was perceived by the voters as a stalemate.
Eisenhower’s famous campaign promise, “I shall go to Korea” to get
the hated stalemate settled, assured him of victory in 1952. Legally,
the Korean War was never settled. A signed truce exists; no peace
treaty was ever signed.

Vietnam was a defeat. That defeat began to re-shape some American
voters’ attitudes toward the wisdom of foreign wars. Duplicity by
Johnson and Nixon led, briefly, to a consideration of Roosevelt’s
duplicity in 1941 in trying to get the United States into the European
war. Such an accusation had been dismissed as nonsense by most historians
prior to the early 1970s. This brief reconsideration did not find
its way into the textbooks.

A victory against tiny Panama in 1989, followed by Gulf I in 1991,
restored Americans’ confidence in the use of military action to
solve problems — problems that had not been taken seriously by
politicians or the public prior to both wars.

This brings us to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our seeming victory in Afghanistan,
which has cost American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, and
which has led to the full recovery of the poppy-heroin trade, which
the Taliban had suppressed, receives little attention. “Out of sight,
out of mind” is the rule. Iraq is front-page news and will continue
to be until President Bush announces a victory and withdraws our

The American public was strongly in favor of the war in Iraq in
April, 2003. “Mission Accomplished” had validated it. Opinion has
changed as the cost in American blood has increased, day by day.
American voters care nothing about the 100,000 civilian deaths that the war has inflicted,
any more than they cared about the deaths of at least 225,000
Iraqi children
that the embargo inflicted under Clinton. The
U.S. Government does not report such figures, any more than it reported
the figures during the Philippine War.

American voters do care about deaths of American troops. They seem
not to care about the extra billion dollars or so that the war is
costing them each week. Because the federal government spends $2.4
trillion a year, the costs of the Iraq War are perceived by voters
as marginal, which in fact is the case. The immensity of the peacetime
welfare-warfare State is so enormous today that the Iraq War is
regarded as a mere fiscal annoyance.


The textbook account of the history of the United States is the
history of successful territorial expansion, which has often involved
wars. An exception was the Louisiana Purchase, assuming that the
ratifying wars against the Indians were not really wars, which of
course they were.

This expansion of territory is presented as the story of the spread
of democracy. The unique combination of cheap land, mobile families,
the ballot box, and tax-funded education was the theme of American
history textbooks until the multiculturalists took over in the 1970s.
What was never a theme was the combination of private ownership,
property rights, low taxation, and voluntary contract as the basis
of America’s wealth. The bureaucrats who were legally in charge
of training America’s youth, with salaries, buildings, and textbooks
funded by taxpayers, never showed a great deal of enthusiasm for
the story of America as the story of the spread of the free market.

The story that comes through is this one: Americans marched across
the continent, defeating by war any group that resisted this expansion.
Then, when they reached the Pacific, they sailed across the Pacific
to liberate the Filipinos from Spanish-speaking tyrants. Then, when
Europe got itself into a quagmire, Americans marched over there
to straighten out that continent.

Basically, the textbook story of America for over a century was
a George M. Cohan musical without the music. Yankee Doodle Dandy,
born on the fourth of July, marched over there, waving the grand
old flag. The history of America boils down to this: “Johnny get
your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run, on the
run, on the run.”

What has bothered political liberals about this textbook account
is that Johnny has always owned his gun. They have spent half a
century trying to reinterpret the second amendment to mean that
the gun belongs to the State, as does Johnny.

Johnny always had a gun. Historian Carroll Quigley was correct when
he argued that eighteenth-century democracy was established because
the common man owned a weapon equal in firepower to what the typical
soldier carried.

It was taking this gun on the run, at the beck and call of the State,
that has long constituted Johnny’s problem. It got Johnny into bad
habits early.


The division between conservatives and libertarians over the issue
of war did not begin with Vietnam. It began in 1796. The Jeffersonians
had tried to avoid getting into the war between France and England.
The Federalists, good conservatives all, wanted the country to oppose
France whenever possible. New England traders wanted close economic
ties with Great Britain. Their political goal was a veiled neutrality,
but with profits from trade with England.

The Jeffersonians were compromised from the beginning. They had
supported armed revolution against Great Britain in 1775. The original
conservatives had not. They lost that argument. They either left
the country or moved into new regions where their loyalty to Great
Britain would not be known. Post-war libertarians and conservatives
were united in their commitment to war as a means of national self-determination
and annexation.

In the Constitutional debate of 1787, the libertarians were on the
side of the Articles of Confederation: a weak central government,
no strong executive, no national tariffs, and no standing Army.
As President, George Washington opposed all four views. By the time
the nation divided politically under John Adams, the original libertarians
were out of the picture. Their fallen flag was being carried by
the Jeffersonians.

In 1803, Jefferson bought Louisiana, despite the fact that the Constitution
did not authorize this. In 1812, his colleague and successor James
Madison took the nation into war with Great Britain. Immediately,
he ordered General Hull to invade Canada. Hull surrendered Detroit
in August without firing a shot. Two other invasion attempts failed
that summer when New York militiamen refused to cross the border:
Lake Champlain and the Niagara Frontier.

The wars of expansion continued. Americans got used to the idea
that free land was available for the taking. Wars, treaties with
the Indians — invariably broken by Washington — and more wars

The Southern states seceded in 1861, but within the South, there
had long been politicians who publicly spoke of conquering Mexico,
Cuba, and Central America as slave territories. These were the “filibusters.”
The lust for land prevailed, and the means of expansion, when push
came to shove, was force of arms.

This is the story of America in the textbooks. This is the lesson
that Americans have taught their children for two centuries: “Land
stolen by force of military arms is not stolen property. It is the
lawful fruit of the march of democracy.”

The story of the triumph of a well-armed State has not been confined
to international relations. It has spread to domestic relations.
This tradition was the heart of the Whig Party and was extended
by its successor, the Republican Party. William Jennings Bryan appropriated
it for the Democrats in his 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech. Franklin
Roosevelt is still said to have saved capitalism from the capitalists.
This is a domestic version of the presumption, although never explicitly
stated in the textbooks, that McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt saved
the Filipinos from the Filipinos.


Anti-war libertarians face an uphill battle. The libertarian political
tradition has always been compromised by a willingness to call Johnny
to get his gun and take it on the run. The anti-imperial position
never got much of a hearing after 1901. Non-intervention in Europe
failed politically when Wilson and Roosevelt showed how easy it
was to win the Presidency with a campaign promise of not going to
war and then taking the country into war within a year of their
inauguration — Wilson, within a month. The cheering was deafening
when Johnny got his gun.

The Cold War was a series of miniwars, hot and cold, to secure American
military supremacy in the name of resisting Communism. Pre-emptive
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reveal the continuing popularity of
head-banging among the electorate, at least until the victims bang
back. Kerry campaigned on a platform of banging heads even harder
with help from Europe.

Fox News openly articulates a position that the other networks and
big city newspapers assented to and profited from in March of 2003.
The popularity of the idea of securing American national objectives
through force of arms did not start with Fox News. It started when
Congress in 1775 ordered Benedict Arnold to invade Canada. If he
had won, he probably would have been named Governor-general of Canada
and would not have switched sides. We would speak glowingly of General
Arnold and General Washington, the two great heroes of the American

Johnny is ready and able to get his gun in defense of his own property,
liberty expands. When he is handed a gun by the United States government
and is told to take it on the run, liberty shrinks, beginning with
Johnny and Johnny’s neighbors, who must finance Johnny’s adventure.
In the name of extending liberty abroad, beginning with Benedict
Arnold, Johnny has marched over there. When he returns — if he
returns — he finds less liberty over here.

18, 2004

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
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