Understanding US History and Mythology
by Anthony Gregory
by Anthony Gregory
I received numerous e-mails about my last LRC article, in which I gave a satire history of the United States. I assumed my sarcasm was obvious, just as I assumed it when I pretended that I had a transcript of a conversation between Saddam and Osama, or when my friend Mike Denny and I claimed we became warmongers, or when I lauded George W. Bush for protecting us from Big Government.
I was wrong to assume my sarcasm was obvious. Some readers thought I actually believed it when I said such ridiculous things as:
"Out of absolute necessity, the Framers got together and made the Constitution, which granted certain rights to the people, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the rights of the properly regulated National Guard to have registered muskets."
"When Abraham Lincoln became president, the slave states seceded, violating their social contract and rebelling against the U.S. Constitution. In South Carolina, slave owners fired on Fort Sumter, without warning."
" The Federal Reserve and other government regulations continued to annoy Big Business. J.P. Morgan, for example, opposed such regulations, because they disrupted the laissez faire economy on which his monopoly thrived."
"[FDR, Stalin and Churchill] met at Yalta to work out plans on how to bring peace and freedom to the world. Roosevelt found himself pressured into sending some Japanese Americans to special camps, a decision questioned by some of his critics."
"Reagan believed in slashing the federal government to a small fraction of its size."
Rest assured, I don't believe any of these absurdities.
Some readers also assumed that I was joking, but then figured that meant I believed the exact opposite of everything I wrote. So I just want to clear some things up.
Yes, the persecution of American Indians was one of the most miserable extended episodes of oppression in American History. My joke was that the textbooks these days selectively describe crimes against the Indians, blaming it all on the inadequately governed pioneers in the Antebellum Era. While Andrew Jackson is justifiably criticized for the nightmarish Trail of Tears, many historians ignore the post-Civil War ethnic cleansing of Plains Indians, as well as some of the worst Indian genocide in US history that occurred in the late 19th century in California. Historians also tend not to emphasize that it was the government that carried out these atrocities, most often with federal government involvement.
Yes, it was a demonic evil to enslave blacks, and Thomas Jefferson and others were indeed wrong to do so. Laws at the time made it difficult to free slaves, and I don't know if Jefferson's slaves would have been better off in the hands of other masters. On balance, Jefferson was good for freedom, with his Declaration of Independence and his Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the Northwest Territory.
But the sins of Jefferson and the atrocities of Jackson that historians focus on are often used to distract us from the evils since the War Between the States, and laissez faire capitalism and even freedom itself are relentlessly and falsely associated with oppression and poverty. Jackson was mean to the Indians and he believed in laissez faire economics — see how they go hand and hand?
It is not enough to say Jackson was all good or all bad. I think even some libertarians deify Jefferson and Jackson a bit much. Jefferson accomplished many very great things, but he also supported a constitutional amendment to nationalize public education. Jackson did courageously veto the National Bank charter, but he also was a Unionist who opposed secession, on top of his crimes against the American Indians.
My whole article was meant to show how modern statists — be they authoritarian leftists or crazed neoconservatives — like to oversimplify history, as well as how the schools so conveniently teach it. In the Official History, American society has become freer and more equal because of the growth of government. This is why historians focus on slavery and the Antebellum mistreatment of American Indians, and pretend that everything got better for minorities, the poor, the environment, and oppressed foreigners as the United States "progressed" through the Civil War, The Progressive Era, The New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War.
Textbook historians credit Lincoln for ending slavery and insist that his war was the necessary way to do it. They defend Wilson, revere the Roosevelts, make excuses for Truman and rationalize the brutal behavior of Johnson and Nixon. These were among the worst presidents in history! My satiric "study questions" in my article were designed to glorify the worst presidents the way textbooks do.
Some have asked me to do a more accurate history of the United States. I imagine an accurate revisionist survey of US history would require at least 500 pages. The only "libertarian" surveys of US history I know of are actually conservative and nationalistic, either in regard to Lincoln, Wilson or at least the Cold War. The best way to study history is to read lots and lots of writings by libertarian historians as well as by anti-imperialist leftists who document US crimes during the Progressive Era and Cold War, and paleo-conservative historians who put Lincoln and FDR in their place. It's also good to read politically correct history to keep track of what's taught in schools.
I've written elsewhere about how all American wars since the War Between the States have been unjust, and no one who reads a few of my articles on LRC should assume I buy into all the PC garbage taught in high school. If I were going to puncture a few myths from US History, these would be some of the main ones:
Myth: The Constitution was established due to societal problems under the Articles of Confederation.
Reality: The "problems under the Articles of Confederation" were minor compared to the problems under the Constitution. The Constitutional convention was a reactionary coup led by elite interests.
Myth: The Civil War was about slavery.
Reality: The War Between the States was mostly about economics and politics, was unnecessary to free the slaves, and undid the secessionist principle of the American Revolution. Thomas DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln, Jeff Hummel's Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, and Charles Adams's When in the Course of Human Events are good starting points to learn about the truth.
Myth: The Progressive Era instituted reforms to curb Big Business and monopoly.
Reality: The most powerful Big Business interests helped push through the socialist reforms of the Progressive Era. I suggest Gabriel Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism. He's a leftist historian, but many of his observations about the emergence of state corporatism, under a façade of helping the common people, are very useful to libertarians. Some libertarians spend too much time defending Big Business — as if Big Business is always acting in accordance with, and in support of, the free market.
Myth: The laissez faire 1920s caused the Stock Market Crash.
Reality: The Federal Reserve is much more to blame, and Herbert Hoover was a big government Republican who made things worse. Check out Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression. For more eye-opening history and understanding of the crooked Federal Reserve, which has benefited big bankers and looted the American taxpayers, see Murray Rothbard's The Case Against The Fed, and G. Edward Griffin's breathtaking The Creature from Jekyll Island.
Myth: The New Deal helped America recover during the Great Depression.
Reality: The New Deal prolonged the Depression. It was a period of loony collectivist policies, such as destroying food while families went hungry, and state-business collusion that closely resembled Mussolinian fascism. See John Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth.
Myth: The United States entered World War II when it was attacked at Pearl Harbor, without warning, and the Allies saved the world from fascism.
Reality: FDR almost certainly knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened, and did everything he could to lure Japan into attacking the United States. See Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit and Alexander Cockburn's historiographical essay on Pearl Harbor.
Without US involvement in the war, Russia and Britain would have most likely defeated Hitler, who after losing the Battle of Britain mistakenly invaded Russia and became doomed by the winter of 1941.
The war was not a simple matter of Good vs. Evil: the Axis Powers had Hitler and Imperial Japan; the Allies had Joseph Stalin, perhaps the worst mass-murdering tyrant in history. The United Stated helped Stalin take over much of Eastern Europe and emerge as the true victor of World War II. One of the ugliest events in all this was Operation Keelhaul, in which the United States helped round up two million refugees who had escaped the Soviet Union, and loaded them onto boxcars to send them back to Stalin who shot and worked the coercively repatriated victims to death. The targeting of civilians in Germany and Japan in Allied bombing campaigns was no more necessary or moral than the terrorist attacks we see today. Some good, accessible books include Richard Maybury's World War II: The Rest of the Story and The Failure of America's Foreign Wars, edited by Richard Ebeling and Jacob Hornberger and published by the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Myth: In the Cold War, the United States contained Communism and saved the world from oppression.
Reality: Although Truman, Johnson and Nixon killed millions of people in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, the expansion of US empire and the consolidation of federal power in the hands of the presidency did much more to make the US government a threat to the world than it did to stop the Soviets from being a threat. See Rothbard's historiographical essay on Cold War revisionism. It was during the Cold War that the US allied with all those crazy terrorists and tyrants in the Middle East with whom we're now involved in an unwinnable War Between Civilizations.
Myth: Republicans have always tried to cut social spending and Democrats have always been more peace-loving.
Reality: Republicans Teddy Roosevelt, Hoover, Nixon, Reagan and the two Bushes have pushed through some of the worst socialism in US history — and Democrats Wilson, FDR, Johnson, and Clinton (to a lesser extent) have been horrible warmongers.
Myth: Reagan believed in small government and beat the Soviet Union by outspending the Russians in an arms race.
Reality: Reagan believed in small government the way Clinton believed in honesty about his sex life. The USSR defeated itself. Come on everyone, don't you realize that Communism doesn't friggin' work?
Myth: The United States is not an empire.
Reality: By most reasonable definitions, the United States became an empire long ago. See Ivan Eland's forthcoming book, The Empire Has No Clothes.
Myth: George W. Bush has done some good things for America.
Reality: Bush has been a disaster and a half for individual liberty. Read James Bovard's two masterpieces, Terrorism and Tyranny, and his forthcoming The Bush Betrayal, and see if you still have nice things to say about Bush.
I also strongly recommend Robert Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan for an overview of how much government ballooned in the 20th century because of crises and wars.
My favorite web resources for American history are lewrockwell.com, especially its bibliography page; the Mises Institute website, which has a wealth of essays and audio recordings of brilliant lectures; OnPower.org, which has a lot of great bibliographies and links to articles; and the Future of Freedom Foundation, which has insightful historical essays, including on World War II.
American history is a complex, rich topic to study. I am only 23 years old and do not pretend to be an expert. There are other writers on LRC who have read tens or hundreds of thousands of pages more than I have, and could run circles around me on any of this stuff.
But I have the background knowledge from majoring in American history at UC Berkeley, and reading tons of good books in my free time, to know how difficult it is to make the case for liberty without a good sense of true American history. For the vocal libertarian, understanding American history is at least as important as understanding economics or philosophy.
Sorry if I confused some people with my last article, or if some readers thought I was wasting my time by writing a vile history of America. I think it's very important to know what historical myths the schools have shoved down the throats of the American people, and I'm glad that at least some readers appreciated my humble attempts to lay it all out.
From now on, if I say something in support of a government or a war, you can probably assume I'm kidding, since I think all governments are criminal organizations and Big Government and its wars constitute the greatest threat to humanity in the history of the world.
After reading some of the literature I've mentioned above, I think Big Government and war might even be worse than second-hand smoke, SUVs, or gay marriage.
July 26, 2004
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor's degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com