America's Textbooks and America's Wars

“The 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 nationalism.

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 Revised (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 why.

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 later.

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 200,000, 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 troops.

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 followed.

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 Revolution.

When 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.

November 18, 2004

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

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