Now that just about four months have passed since the release of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and much of the frenzy surrounding it has begun to die down, I’ve had a few moments of leisure to consider the response to it, and what it all means.
The favorable responses have been gratifying, and come from such sources as Congressman Ron Paul, Liberty magazine, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Gary Bauer (who called it one of the top five books of 2004), Pat Buchanan, Ralph Raico, Paul Gottfried, The American Conservative, Human Events, the Mises Review, the California Literary Review, and the Weekly Standard (no, that’s not a misprint — their print edition published a favorable review). The Times of London ran a favorable piece about me, and Brazil’s Folha de S. Paolo kindly published a verbatim interview. The Washington Times and the Pittsburgh Tribune also ran sympathetic interviews.
The New York Times editorial page, on the other hand, solemnly warned Americans about my dangerous views, as did Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young in the Boston Globe. (Two weeks later, though, the New York Times proved that miracles are possible by publishing a very favorable profile of me: "Revisionist History? A Professor Hopes So.") The Claremont Institute didn’t care for it (surprise). Neither did the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot or, more recently, Communist-turned-neoconservative Ronald Radosh.
A brief word, though, about Ms. Young, whom I’d never heard of before. About ten days before her article appeared she wrote to ask a few questions about my "background." I gave lengthy and detailed answers to all of them. They created a problem for Ms. Young, though, since they made me sound intelligent and reasonable. In addition, I deliberately constructed the sentences so that she would not be able to take a few words out of context; the entire sentence would have to be quoted in order for my remarks to make sense. That wouldn’t do at all for Ms. Young, who solved that little problem by not quoting a single word that I wrote to her. No point in letting either the facts or a sense of fair play interfere in a perfectly good hatchet job.
In correspondence with an inquirer who had read Ms. Young’s piece, Jeff Tucker wrote: "Tom Woods is a typical geeky academic historian from Harvard and Columbia and for [Ms. Young] to paint him as some frothing racist is immoral and evil…. I really feel awful for Tom. These haters are everywhere and he is just left gasping in shock. He is a young person who still believes that basic standards of fairness are alive. He has had a rude awakening."
I was also taken to task by an inexplicably popular "libertarian" blogger who has endorsed — I am not making this up — Condoleezza Rice for president in 2008. (Can you believe someone like that didn’t like my book?) Another libertarian website, aping the tactics of the left, actually tried to portray me as a Klansman. (Yes, you know the tender solicitude and sympathy that the Klan shows for Latin Mass Catholics.)
One thing Beltway libertarians share in common with neoconservatives is that both go berserk whenever the South is treated with anything other than contempt. Even though a genuine libertarian would be hard pressed to find anything else in the book with which he might disagree, major Beltway libertarians have condemned me because my Civil War chapter was not sufficiently anti-Southern, and because I committed the unpardonable offense of suggesting that there might be something of value in the Southern tradition.
What is so funny about this is that Lord Acton, one of the greatest classical liberals of the nineteenth century, was openly sympathetic toward the Southern cause. Read his correspondence with Robert E. Lee, where he makes essentially the points I make here. A few libertarians cite my anti-Establishment view of the "Civil War" as reason enough to dismiss anything I have to say on any other subject, but they never explain why they do not apply this weird fanaticism to Lord Acton. Acton understood that the long-term significance of the Northern victory and the South’s defeat went well beyond the issue of slavery. "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo," he said. How can left-libertarians consistently smear me and yet give Acton a pass? (The Lloyd Bentsen reply that I’m no Lord Acton does not qualify as an answer.)
In the old days, conservatives and libertarians freely debated the Lincoln legacy and similarly controversial questions in the pages of National Review. Today, positions that were defended with skill and precision by distinguished scholars of the past are enough to get you smeared in the pages of the very magazines for which those scholars used to write. Correctly assuming that most of their readers will know next to nothing about the history of conservatism, they get away with posing as the guardians and expositors of wise moderation against the cranks and kooks who dare to open what our betters have told us are closed questions.
The condemnations of my book by neoconservatives Max Boot and Ronald Radosh are the most revealing of all, since they demonstrate that an interpretation of American history that was taken for granted by conservatives a generation or two ago is now enough to send the neoconservative smear patrol into overdrive. A famous conservative commentator wrote to me to point out that Boot "takes the establishment line on American history — one the old National Review rejected — and swallows it in one gulp." Boot’s and Radosh’s criticisms were scarcely distinguishable from those of the Times — a fact that says rather a lot about neoconservatism, wouldn’t you say?
Max Boot thinks it’s "Bizarro" and "absurd" to speak of a state’s right to nullify unconstitutional federal legislation. As a historian I couldn’t care less what Max Boot thinks; the point that interests a historian is that Thomas Jefferson believed this, and did not think the states could preserve their rights of self-government without some mechanism of corporate resistance to the federal government. (In retrospect, what serious person could doubt he was right?) These ideas were seriously advanced, and constituted a significant portion of the American political consciousness, throughout much of the nineteenth century. Nationalists of left and right can hate and smear the Jeffersonian tradition all they like, but it did and does exist. (They can’t bring themselves to admit that a man as illustrious as Jefferson favored such ideas, so they usually leave out Jefferson’s name when they condemn his principles. I don’t blame them — better to make it sound as if some kid from Long Island has simply read too much Calhoun.)
Radosh’s specific arguments against me revolve primarily around the three pages that the book spends discussing Joe McCarthy; Radosh is appalled that I cite his own work in my "pathetic defense" of the Wisconsin senator. Actually, as any reader can see, I do not cite Radosh in order to make a value judgment on McCarthy himself, but simply to establish some of the facts of the Amerasia case. The figure on whom I rely most heavily in my discussion of McCarthy is M. Stanton Evans, an old-line conservative and McCarthy expert whom Radosh doubtless hates as well.
The left’s response to the book was predictable enough: smears, incredulity that I dared to criticize their favorite presidents, and outright lies about the book’s contents (it was obvious that most of them hadn’t read it, since much of the time they attributed positions to me that were exactly the opposite of those in the book). I’d like to believe that there are principled people on the left with whom antiwar decentralists on the right might be able to collaborate. I really would. (One such person, I am happy to report, is Murray Polner, whose work I deeply admire and who in spite of his resolute leftism recently wrote to express his regrets at the way I’d been treated.)
But the fact that some leftist bloggers actually linked to Max Boot’s critique of my book speaks volumes. Boot famously observed in late 2001 that the United States had not suffered enough casualties in its War on Terror, and recently called for a "Freedom Legion" of foreign soldiers who could serve in the War on Terror. With the U.S. military increasingly strapped, Boot explained, we need to realize that there is "a pretty big pool of manpower that’s not being tapped: everyone on the planet who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident." This is a good idea, according to Boot, because (among other things) congressmen would have fewer scruples about sending non-Americans into battle than they would about sending their own constituents. Well, Boot can rest easy about one thing: no one will ever be able to parody him.
Juan Cole’s assessment of Boot is right on the money:
Boot never saw a war he didn’t love, never saw a conquest he didn’t find exhilarating, never saw an occupied land he didn’t think could be handled. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he monstrously expressed approval of the way the US killed 200,000 Filipinos to make the occupation of the Philippines stick. July 6, 2003 NYT: "The United States eventually won, but it was a long, hard, bloody slog that cost the lives of more than 4,200 American soldiers, 16,000 rebels and some 200,000 civilians. Even after the formal end of hostilities on July 4, 1902, sporadic resistance dragged on for years. There is no reason to think that the current struggle in Iraq will be remotely as difficult. But the Philippine war is a useful reminder that Americans have a long history of fighting guerrillas — and usually prevailing, though seldom quickly or easily."
I, on the other hand, have never excused the Japanese internment, weaved apologias for mass murder, or casually called for nuclear attacks on civilian targets — all of which the mainstream of what laughingly passes for conservatism today does almost as a matter of routine. To the contrary, I join real conservatives and libertarians like Richard Weaver, Felix Morley (one of the founders of Human Events), Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and Pope Pius XII in condemning the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet my left-wing critics seem quite happy to get in bed with defenders of all these things in order to join in their condemnations of my book. Taking a casual view of mass murder is thus morally preferable to having a sympathy for the old republic. What more do I need to know about these people?
Finally, though, I’m immensely grateful for all the defenses composed on my behalf, both by friends and by so many other folks I’ve never met. In spite of the smears, the book, now in its eighth printing, spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. Murray Rothbard was right: it sure is fun driving the bad guys crazy.
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. His books include the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, and the just-released book The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy.