It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that the typical American history textbook possesses an ideological agenda. American students, as a result, all too often hold a positively cartoonish view of their country’s history. That’s part of the reason that I was asked last year to write a book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which is now available from Amazon.
From the colonial period through the year 2000, the book aims to overturn the conventional wisdom on practically everything. Its treatment of the early republic recalls parts of American history that have vanished into the memory hole, including the crucially important Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and Thomas Jefferson’s belief that only state nullification of unconstitutional federal legislation, rather than "checks and balances" among the branches of the federal government itself, had a chance of keeping the federal government in check.
The book’s discussion of antebellum politics looks closely at such important factors as the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and tries to answer the vexed question of the role of slavery in the struggles that eventually led to Southern secession. It argues, in the tradition of the University of Virginia’s Michael Holt, that debates ostensibly over slavery expansion often concealed other issues: economic rivalry, Southern perceptions of honor and equality in the Union, and the like. Otherwise, it’s hard to account for why the two sides would have had such ferocious disagreements over slavery in the western territories when by 1860 a grand total of zero slaves could be found in New Mexico and a whopping 29 in Utah. Might there have been more to these debates than just slavery? That’s what the book tries to answer.
One of the issues that no mainstream textbook bothers to discuss is whether an American state possessed the legal right to secede from the Union. That subject is taken up in my chapter on the War Between the States. The book’s treatment of Reconstruction constitutes one of the few non-leftist treatments of the subject in recent memory, defending Johnson’s defiance of the Radical Republicans and exploring the real history of the illegally ratified Fourteenth Amendment.
I remember being in junior high school and, after learning about the behavior of "big business," wondered how anyone could favor the free economy. I also believed that were it not for labor unions, Americans would still be working 80-hour weeks and their children laboring in mines. These matters are also addressed (now if only I could track down my sixth-grade teacher).
The chapter on World War I is the longest and to me the most satisfying. Here’s the story of a president whose rhetoric and view of the world was so often at odds with reality that it seemed he was on another planet. Self-righteously confident in his divine mission, he could brook no criticism and (particularly after the departure of William Jennings Bryan) surrounded himself with yes-men. (Good thing none of this ever happened again.)
The book also recalls episodes that the Left would rather forget about: chapter 12 is called "Yes, Communist Sympathizers Really Existed." It tells the story of the countless American intellectuals who held up the Soviet Union as a "progressive" example to America and who continued to weave apologias in defense of Soviet communism long after the true nature of the regime was known to any non-comatose person.
The policies of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, naturally, come under severe scrutiny and take the blame for prolonging the Great Depression. Following in the footsteps of economic historian Robert Higgs, the book also explains why your teacher was wrong to adopt the Keynesian line that World War II got the U.S. out of the Depression.
The Marshall Plan, which continues to be defended even by some conservatives, is revealed as the failed giveaway program it was. Worse, the perceived success of the Marshall Plan influenced the ideology surrounding development aid to the Third World. U.S. foreign aid, beginning with Truman’s "Point Four" program, has been based on the idea that the Marshall Plan, which consisted of infusions of money into poor economies, had been a success, and that the appropriate response to Third World poverty was therefore some kind of similar program. In fact, as economist Peter Bauer pointed out over the course of a distinguished career spanning several decades, Western aid programs proved disastrous for the Third World. Among other things, since they took the form of government-to-government grants they entrenched in power some of the most brutal and economically repressive regimes in the world. Thanks to infusions of U.S. and other Western aid, these regimes could prosper without having to institute market reforms.
The book also tells the little-known story of Operation Keelhaul, in which the West sent at least a million Russian POWs back to Stalin and certain death or enslavement. At Fort Dix, New Jersey, hundreds of Soviet POWs, who fought with all their strength when they learned that the American government was reneging on its promise not to send them back to the USSR, were drugged in order to calm them down enough for them to be shipped back.
The civil rights chapter discusses the key cases that transformed American society with regard to race, including Brown, Green, Swann, Griggs, Bakke, and Weber, and the fundamental lawlessness that characterized the process. It doesn’t take the line that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a wonderful, visionary piece of legislation that was mysteriously replaced by affirmative action quotas years later. It shows, first, that the act had far less impact on black employment than people typically suppose, and second, that the logic of the act (in spite of all its disclaimers) in fact led directly to affirmative action.
The JFK/LBJ chapter is a story of corruption, stolen elections, and failed programs. We’ve all heard that Johnson’s War on Poverty made poverty worse; I’ve tried to assemble the facts and figures in one place. I include in that chapter a statistic compiled by researchers Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven according to which the average 65-year-old man stands to receive $71,000 more in benefits from federal transfer programs (primarily Social Security and Medicare, the latter of which was established under Johnson) than he paid in, while the average 25-year-old man, however, stands to pay in $322,000 more than he will ever get back. I thought it was important for my students — who, after all, will be reading this book next semester (what’s tenure for?) — to come face to face with the reality of the welfare state.
The Reagan chapter shows that liberals and conservatives alike have distorted the Reagan record. It responds to the claims that the 1980s were the "decade of greed" by pointing to the record-setting amounts of charitable giving that occurred during those years; it also defends Michael Milken, the man whom liberals and Rudy Giuliani (or do I repeat myself?) loved to hate. The Clinton chapter, with which the book concludes, focuses on Bill Clinton’s disastrous and immoral foreign policy, the one area in which (surprise) his self-described critics typically gave him a pass.
Many more topics than these are covered, of course. And throughout the text the reader finds boxes containing "The Book You’re Not Supposed to Read" on a given subject. In fact, an extensive bibliography was included for the express purpose of referring students and other interested readers to reliable sources on the full scope of American history.
Under the constraints of a strict word limit I’ve tried to overturn as much of the standard narrative of American history as I could. I’ll be using it next semester as a supplement to the standard textbook so my students can, finally, get both sides of the story.
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia) and the forthcoming The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (Lexington). The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is his most recent book.