Historians

TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

Posted on August 27, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Historians | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

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Henry VIII v. Wikipedia

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic,  the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant. It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established… but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”  Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history. That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass. Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.

It’s hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable book by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

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Why the American Revolution is not a model for gun ownership today

Posted on May 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Historians, Politics, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.

—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.

This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.

It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.

—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.

They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.

—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.

Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.

So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.

But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.

it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.

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Paul Ryan, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Stone

Posted on April 29, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We just finished our long series on the flaws in Oliver Stone’s new TV series “The Untold History of the United States”, and now we found an article on a speech by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan that calls for the same analysis. We are grateful to Politifact Wisconsin for the article and for providing the analysis, which we need only sum up here.

Here is Politifact’s report of what Ryan said the following in an April 11 speech to a group that works to elect anti-abortion women to political office:

“Our forebears knew to strive for perfection, not to expect it—because mankind is flawed. Progress takes time. It takes work. And it takes common sense… Take Lincoln. He hated slavery as much as anyone. But he defended a law that preserved it. He supported the Compromise of 1850, which prohibited slavery in California but allowed it in New Mexico. He even backed a law to return runaway slaves to their owners.” Lincoln agreed to compromises, Ryan asserted, “if they brought him closer to his goal–even in just a small way. We all know what happened. After years of turmoil, he helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery for good.”

Politifact Wisconsin actually asked eight experts on Lincoln to evaluate Ryan’s statement. What they found was that, like Stone’s series, Ryan’s statements are partially true, but twist facts just past the breaking point of accuracy. We’ll let Politifact do the talking here:

“While Ryan said Lincoln ‘supported’ the Compromise in 1850, Lincoln was actually semi-retired from politics at the time, having left Congress a year earlier (he wasn’t elected president until 1860). At the time of the compromise Lincoln did not express support for it, according to several experts, including Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr., Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and Columbia University historian Eric Foner. As president, Lincoln did agree to a proposal that would have admitted New Mexico as a state, said Lincoln biographer James McPherson. So in that sense, he could be said to have supported the Compromise of 1850, in that New Mexico had opted to approve a slave code. On the other hand, McPherson said, no slaves were counted in New Mexico in the 1860 census, which indicates slavery had not taken hold there.

“Similarly, Lincoln as president held that the federal government needed to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating for the return of runaway slaves, given that it was the law of the land. But, McPherson noted, Lincoln wanted legislation to give alleged fugitive slaves a trial before they could be returned. ‘He did feel there was no choice but to defend the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act once it became law, and even said so in his first inaugural address—but here some context is needed, too,; said Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. ‘He refused to oppose so-called ‘personal liberty laws’ that were passed by northern states to justify disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act. So, in sum, Lincoln always opposed slavery,’ said James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. ‘But he also held, privately and out loud, that federal law must be obeyed.’”

Politifact sums up by saying “Ryan’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. That fits our definition for Half True.”

 Unfortunately, this is too often the case when public figures and average people decide to use history to support their positions: they pick up a few facts and string them together in the way that best suits their purposes, either deliberately or accidentally. In the case of the former, they know what they are leaving out or distorting. In the case of the latter, they do not. But either way the result is negative.

In this case, the idea that Representative Ryan would seek to inspire anti-abortion partisans to work with pro-life activists if necessary to achieve their goal of banning abortion  by claiming that Lincoln worked with pro-slaveryites to achieve an ultimate goal of abolition is beyond odd. It equates pro-life supporters with people who supported slavery. It makes the case that no group is too repugnant to secretly use to achieve your goals. It condones hypocrisy. It recommends lying to achieve your goals by pretending to work with people you plan to destroy. It drags Lincoln’s name through the mud by claiming he operated in these ways. And it implies that Ryan himself operates in these ways.

One has become very wary of anyone quoting a historical figure or event lately; it almost always ends badly once it’s under the microscope of factual analysis.
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Oliver Stone’s untold history of the United States (and the Soviet Union)

Posted on April 10, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 3 of our series on Stone’s “Untold History of the United States”, currently running in 10 one-hour episodes on Showtime. So far in our review of Episode 1—World War II, we have not encountered a lot of U.S. history; it has mostly been a retelling of world events with a loving focus on Stalin and the Soviet Union as lone crusaders against Hitler. More, unfortunately, on that below.

But at about 19.00 Stone introduces Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, as our first unsung hero of U.S. history. Wallace directed the soil conservation program that helped reverse the Dust Bowl, and was an outspoken opponent of racism against black Americans and Jewish people worldwide. When FDR chose Wallace as his running mate in 1940, the Democratic party protested, leading the president to write a letter to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention saying he would not accept their nomination if they did not accept Wallace’s. Stone edits the letter, of course, to make a sound bite; there’s nothing wrong with that. But oddly, he changes the end of the letter fairly substantially. The actual text is:

“The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time. By declining the honor of the nomination for the presidency, I can restore that opportunity to the convention. I so do.”

Stone gives it as:

“The party cannot face in both directions at the same time. Therefore I decline the honor of the nomination for the presidency.”

The meaning is not changed, but this level of editing makes one wonder about the accuracy of all the other quotes given in the episode, and whether the goal of making a more dramatic soundbite led Stone and the editors to substantially change the content of other quotes.

Another basic law of documentary film-making is broken here, as Stone uses footage of Roosevelt delivering a radio address as a voiceover artist reads the letter text, seemingly saying to viewers that this is footage of Roosevelt actually reading from the letter. The lips don’t match the words well until the very end, where whatever Roosevelt was actually saying matches “the presidency” very closely. You don’t pretend to have footage of something you don’t have footage of.

FDR’s tough stance paid off, and Wallace was accepted as the vice-presidential nominee. So far in the episode, FDR is coming off pretty well, as someone who would have liked to aid the Spanish Republic, and forced his party into braving conservative pressure. The only real negative so far is the U.S.’s perversely small quota allowed for Jewish immigration from 1933-1945, for which FDR must take some blame.

At 27.40, Stone at last acknowledges Stalin’s paranoia by saying it would not allow him to believe that Germany would attack its new Soviet ally in 1941. But we veer back into Stalin-boosting at 29.28, when Stone says that after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was launched, “Stalin begged Britain for military material and to land immediately in Europe and engage Hitler on a second front. And for the west, it was now crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war to absorb the main thrust of the Nazi war machine.” To say that the Allies wanted the Soviet Union in the war simply to let someone else be destroyed in their place is inaccurate, to put it mildly, and Stone himself contradicts this cynical view immediately before this clip, at 29.15, when he says the west feared that the Soviets would fall to the Nazis, and conclude a separate peace.  The prospect of the Nazis controlling the Soviet Union and its massive resources of farmland and oil was so dire that Churchill, an entrenched anti-communist, “pledged support for the Soviet Union.” So the real reason it was crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war was not so it could be destroyed by the Nazis while the west looked on laughing, but to keep it in the war so that its crucial resources would not be used to fuel the Nazi war effort. If the Soviet Union fell, the odds of defeating the Nazis shrank considerably.

But Stone continues to present the west as anxious to support a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union, explaining the reluctance of U.S. military leaders to send war materiel to the USSR, and the reluctance of the British to divert that war materiel from their own war effort to the eastern front, this way: “There were still many in the west who frankly were glad to see the Soviet Union finally on her knees.” It’s true that many American leaders would have been glad to see the Soviet Union fall. It’s not true to say that that is the reason why they did not want to provide war supplies to Stalin. American leaders hesitated to get involved in a war the U.S. was not part of—in the summer of 1941 the U.S. was officially neutral, and getting involved in the war might invite an attack on the U.S. British leaders hesitated to redirect war supplies from Britain to the Soviet Union because Britain was still fighting for its life at that point. They did not know, as we do now, that Germany would not attempt another invasion of Great Britain. Britain was the only western European nations still fighting the Nazis, and it’s reasonable that its leaders would not want their only outside supply line from the U.S. sent to the eastern front. Stone has just said Churchill pledged to support the Soviet Union because he needed them in the war. So how can he then say Britain was “frankly” glad to see the Soviet Union fall?

The real issue in 1941 was one that would persist for three more years: the Allies wanted to open up a western front but were unable to get the foothold in Europe to do so, and needed considerable firepower in the west to create that opportunity. There was no conspiracy to let the Nazis destroy the Soviet Union. If the USSR fell, then the Nazis could return their full focus to the west, and then the odds of carrying out the D-Day invasion would have shrunk dramatically.

Stone then moves on to FDR’s secret meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland in August 1941, and notes that FDR was reluctant to help Churchill protect and extend its empire; the Atlantic Charter that came out of the meeting that set the Allied goals for a post-war world specifically ruled out  “territorial aggrandizement”  as a goal. Stone then has audio of FDR explaining the “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear), and ends it by saying “These were big words, but the Atlantic Charter was a truly visionary document.” (34.03) The Four Freedoms, however, were not in the Atlantic Charter; they were introduced in a speech by FDR 7 months earlier, in January 1941. Yes, the principles of the Freedoms are upheld by the Atlantic Charter, but the articulation of the Freedoms is not in the Charter, and it’s sloppy history to say they were. And just another red flag about the accuracy of the series as a whole…

…as we see when we move on to the origins of the  Manhattan Project. Stone describes how it was turned over to the U.S. military and the oversight of Major General Leslie Groves. He says that Vice President Wallace “had a low opinion of Groves, believing him ‘a slightly pathological, anti-semitic Roosevelt-hater, and outright fascist.’” (42.54) Then Stone moves on to the team Groves created. Wallace may well have believed Groves was all those things, but the responsible historian cannot simply present Wallace’s opinion as the objective truth about Groves, as Stone does here. What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduces President Obama by quoting a neo-conservative politician claiming that Obama was a Kenyan citizen posing illegally as a U.S. citizen, and then just moved on, letting that stand as the only description of the president, tacitly saying it is true? What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduced President George W. Bush by quoting an activist claiming that Bush was in on the September 11th attacks and then moved on, letting it stand as true? If you present incendiary charges in what is supposed to be a documentary, you have to prove them. Stone does not.

On to another go-around at 44.22 about Stalin “pleading” for a second front, and here at least gives a few accurate reasons why this didn’t happen, from Eisenhower’s estimation that it would take much longer than the U.S. had thought to create the opportunity for a landing in western Europe to Churchill’s concerns about holding North Africa, in part hoping that the second front could be opened up in southern Europe from British North Africa.

We are almost done; next time will be the last time, but it will be an enormous dose of truth v. myth, so be ready.

Next time: “historians agree”

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—Episode 1

Posted on April 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go in part 2 of our review of director Oliver Stone’s TV series “Untold History of the United States”, now airing on Showtime. We’re analyzing it for its historical accuracy and reliability. Why do this? Because Stone asks us to, in the intro to episode 1, “World War II”, in which he says rather than make another narrative movie, he thought the important topic of “real” U.S. history deserved something more—a documentary series informed by real historians. So we are taking him at his word and watching the show as historians, and as we made clear in our first post, finding it lacking. No one is more dedicated to Truth v. Myth  than the HP, so it’s not that we don’t like myth-busting, one of the promised activities of Stone’s series. It’s just that myth must be busted by truth, and not the other way around, and in Episode 1, at least, there’s a lot of myth posing as truth.

So we left off last time about 12 minutes into “World War II” and now we pick up at 12.35, where Stone, narrating, says that western non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War convinced Stalin by 1939 that “the western powers had no real interest in a collective action to slow the Nazi advance. For years, the Soviet dictator had implored the west to unite against Hitler and Mussolini, even joining the League of Nations in 1934. But Soviet pleas were repeatedly ignored. And then in 1937, full-scale war erupted in China as the powerful Japanese army captured city after city.”

Like a good dissertation advisor, let’s mark this up: First we are in 1939, with Stalin trying in vain to get the west to fight the Nazis. Coming where this claim does, after a wrap-up of the U.S.’s refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and FDR’s statement that the refusal would come back to haunt the nation, one has to assume that Stone means Stalin was the only major leader who fought the Nazis in Spain and the only leader who was willing to keep fighting them afterward. Stone gets this, apparently, from the fact that the Soviet Union provided war materiel to the Republicans in Spain. But cursory study of the Soviet role in the SCW shows that Stalin intervened only in an attempt to convert the civil war into a communist revolution that would create a Soviet satellite nation in Spain. Stalin’s man in Spain, Alexander Orlov, had the socialist prime minister deposed and installed a communist who could be a puppet leader, and carried out arrests and execution of Republican leaders who did not sympathize with communism. In exchange for military support, Stalin demanded that the Republic pay in gold; about $500 million in gold left Spain for the Soviet Union during the war.

To say that Stalin was “fighting the Nazis” in Spain is disingenuous: he was in a fight to control Spain and had no interest in the stated goals of the Spanish Republicans. He supplied arms to the communist revolutionaries in Spain and directed most of his efforts to using those weapons to rid the revolution of its non-communist participants. Stemming the Nazi menace was fairly far from his mind. Stalin did hate European fascism, because it was not Communist, but his heart did not bleed for Hitler’s victims in Europe. Stalin was only ever concerned with his own security. Spain served his purposes only for as long as he thought he might control it, and begin to build his own empire in Europe.

Next, we have the statement that Stalin had been “imploring” the west “for years” to fight Hitler, and even had the USSR join the League of Nations to get his urgent message heard. First, Stalin never implored the west to fight Hitler, as we have seen. Second, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations after Germany and Japan withdrew their memberships; Stalin hoped to develop some tactical alliances with western nations alarmed by Hitler’s actions so that if Hitler supported a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in the east, or Germany attacked in the west, the Soviet Union would be able to call on its new allies to come to its aid. Stalin also wanted to give temporary support to anti-fascist movements in Europe, again to protect his own territory from invasion. No one can argue with the necessity of protecting one’s country from invasion. But to say that the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations primarily as a gesture of goodwill to try to get fighting the Nazis on the agenda is plainly wrong.

Finally, we jump backward in time from 1939 to 1937 to the Japanese invasion of China, which, presented in this way, is seen as an inevitable consequence of the west’s refusal to help Stalin fight Hitler. In reality, Hitler was not interested in really allying with Japan, a racially inferior nation in his view, and there was no cooperation between Germany and Japan before the invasion. So these are unrelated.

We recall at this point that the website for the series claims that we will discover unsung heroes of U.S. history and “explore the demonization of the Soviets”. This agenda is never actually stated in the episode. That is a red flag for the historian, who knows that you must always make your biases and agenda clear in anything you write or produce. When we practice Truth v. Myth here at the HP, it is clearly tagged as such and identified as such within the post. The second problem is that, while revisionist history is valuable, you have to do good history. You can’t take facts (the Soviet Union sending aid to the Republicans, the Soviet Union joining the League of Nations) and simply make up fictional narratives about why they happened. You have to stick to the real facts throughout, and suffer the times when they don’t support your thesis just as you celebrate the times that they do.

That’s a lot of ink to spill on 10 seconds of video. But those 10 seconds are so misleading, they have to be fully unpacked.

We move on, but only to another Stalin example: at 14.45, Stone says that after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia “Stalin recognized the truth: his country was facing its most deadly enemy alone. He needed to buy time, and fearing a German-Polish alliance to attack the USSR, he shocked the west when he signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.”

The Soviet Union had made an alliance with Czechoslovakia in 1935 as a by-product of its new alliance with France (which was a Czech ally itself). These alliances were the fruits of and the reason for the Soviets’ joining the League of Nations. When Hitler took the Sudetenland nothing happened. When he took the rest of Czechoslovakia, France signed the Munich Agreement, accepting the new status quo and abandoning the Czechs. Churchill looked to Stalin to stand by his alliance; Churchill saw early on both the threat Hitler posed and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in a war against Hitler. Churchill pushed incessantly for a British alliance with the Soviet Union, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not interested in an alliance that he believed Hitler would find aggressive. When Stalin terminated its alliance with Czechoslovakia, Churchill was shaken, but continued to believe that the virulently anti-fascist Stalin would come around. When Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, just five months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Churchill was stunned.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the USSR immediately dropped its alliance with that nation and then did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler. And when Stalin was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop for an alliance with Germany, he accepted with alacrity, not because he feared a Polish-German alliance but for two reasons: first, he saw the Munich Agreement as evidence that France and Britain would not stop a German invasion of the Soviet Union, and second because Ribbentrop agreed to Stalin’s demand for half of Poland in return for an alliance. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was perfect for Stalin because it protected him, he thought, from a western invasion. Germany would not invade, and occupying eastern Poland and part of the Balkans would give the Soviets a buffer zone against any British-French invasion. The Soviet Union also agreed not to get involved in any European war—that is, when Germany launched World War II, the Soviets would not interfere or intervene to protect France, Britain, or any other nation from German invasion.

The idea that Stalin feared a German-Polish alliance strains credulity to the breaking point. Poland had its own non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, but these seemed so flimsy to the Poles that they gratefully accepted British and French guarantees of military protection at the end of March 1939 in case of an attack by Hitler or Stalin. Only the paranoid mind of Stalin could have conjured up the threat of a joint German-Polish invasion of the Soviet Union; for Stone to accept it is baffling.

Stone says that Stalin had proposed to join the Franco-British alliance to protect Poland, but “neither [France nor Britain] would accept Soviet troops on Polish soil as a way of blocking the Germans.” This is astounding. France and Britain knew, as most European nations knew, that Stalin had been angling for years to find a way to annex Poland. That’s why they did not accept Stalin’s offer to occupy Poland “to block the Germans”—they knew it had nothing to do with Germany and everything to do with annexing Poland. Once Soviet troops entered that nation, they would never leave.

We have only covered about 5 minutes of film here. That’s the danger of it. A full hour episode presents stretches of conventional history that lull you into confidence and then slips in 5 minutes here and there of complete malarkey that you might be fooled into accepting.

We hope to make better time in part 3, where we move on to the actual war and more Stalin-burnishing.

Next time: finally a bit of the U.S. in this secret U.S. history 

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A review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Posted on April 4, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Director Oliver Stone claims that “there is a classified America we were never meant to see”, comprised of “events that at the time went under reported but crucially shaped America’s unique and complex history.” Rather than write off this effort as part of Stone’s work in conspiracy-theory proliferation without investigating, we took a look at episode 1, “World War II”, watching it on the series’ website. The copy on the episode home page says, in part, “Through examination of key decisions during World War II, discover unsung heroes such as American Henry Wallace and explore the demonization of the Soviets.”

The odd thing about this premiere episode of a series on secret U.S. history is that about 70% of it was not about the U.S., but a pretty standard overview of the run-up to the war and how it was fought. With some odd exceptions.

The lead-in shows Stone telling us that as a boy he thought he knew America—he learned in his “extensive” studies of history at school that “we were the good guys.” But as he traveled the world and served in Vietnam and made movies, “some of them about history,” he has learned otherwise. Seeing his children learn the same dishonest history provoked him to create something that “looks beyond what I call the tyranny of now” to the “really important subconscious stuff” that is going on under the surface. He wanted “to tell the American story in a way that it has never been told before”, mostly by debunking accepted heroes and presenting those who were unsung heroes. We will learn about “the meaning of this country, and what so radically changed after World War II.”

Somehow it’s not surprising that he starts mid-20th century; so few people are interested in our earlier history, with the exception of the Civil War.

The episode then begins with footage from a government documentary (after the fact) about the Manhattan Project, and uses celebratory classical music over scenes of an atomic explosion—a bit of sarcasm that is not only cruelly overused but immediately makes one wonder if the episode as a whole will take the easy way out of showing something negative in cartoon form rather than forcing the viewer to take in its full context. As the film rolls, Stone, who narrates throughout, says that the bomb “turned the refuge of the Founding Fathers into a militarized state.”

Stone makes the first of his debunking claims [at 6.22]: “Generations of Americans have been taught that the United States reluctantly dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men poised to die in an invasion of Japan. But the story is really more complicated, more interesting, and much more disturbing.”

The problem with both the claim about a militarized state and the “real” story of the bomb here is that neither is addressed in this episode. Granted this is the first in a long series, but if you raise dramatically striking issues at the beginning of an episode, you have to at least touch on them at some point in that episode. But it seems one will have to watch episode 2 (at least) to get any more data on these claims. For now, we are dealing strictly with the rollout of WWII.

Americans remember WWII as a good war but, Stone says, the rest of the world, “not so blessed,” remembers it as the bloodiest war in human history. This is specious in a few ways. First, Americans remember it as a “good war”, in quotes, because it was fought for a good cause (stopping fascism), not because it was a good time. Second, Americans certainly honor the bloodshed of the war. Third, Stone never describes what makes the U.S. “so blessed”; one has to assume it’s the fact that no battles were fought on U.S. soil (aside from the Pearl Harbor attack) and that war production built our economy. But to imply that because we fought the war in other lands, Americans love WWII and tacitly wish it would happen again while all other nations somberly recognize it for what it was is beyond ridiculous.

In his chronology of what is usually seen as the run-up to the war (Stone says the war began in 1931; that unlike other wars, it began  “slowly and incrementally” with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria), Stone devotes time to the Spanish Civil War. He claims that the Second Spanish Republic had made enemies of big business in the U.S. because of its “progressive policies and tight regulation of business.” This led Firestone, Ford, GM, and “others” to provide Franco’s fascists with “trucks, tires, and machine tools”, and Texaco, headed by pro-fascist Torkild Rieber, promised Franco unlimited oil on credit.

There are two problems here: first, it’s true that Rieber was pro-fascist. But you can’t fall back on the catch-all “others” in this way.If you name four companies, you have to name them all—why should the four be called out publicly while the “others” get to remain anonymous? If it’s important to name some, why isn’t it important to name all? One gets the feeling that Stone wants to call out the biggest companies because they are the ones we know, and will be shocked at, while the others are less well-known and won’t be as effective. That is something historians do not do because it’s misleading and unprofessional; the other names would at least appear in a footnote.

Second, Stone clearly means to shame the U.S. government and people with this information, although FDR (as Stone mentions) was furious and the American people likely knew little about it.

It’s true that the Republican government of Spain was not popular with U.S. big business, in large part because it promoted socialism and nationalized the railways and banking, anathema to American free enterprise. But to equate nationalization with regulation is inaccurate, since they are two very different things; so is describing socialism as “progressive policies,” especially in the context of U.S. history in the early 20th century, when the Progressive movement was still an active if waning force in our country and was decidedly not socialist. This insidious favoring of the Spanish Republican government, presenting it as all good when the reality was complex, is disingenuous at best. This kind of twisting of the facts will recur in descriptions of Stalin and the Soviet Union later in the episode.

At this point, one has to start wondering which historians advised the series. Only one is named: Peter Kuznick, who specializes in atomic- and nuclear-era U.S. history. Clearly Dr. Kuznick’s expertise will be critical in later episodes that focus on the Cold War, but in this WWII overview episode, it can have been put to minimal use at best. Who else informed this episode? The closing credits list three “researchers” without Ph.D.s (at least they are not credited as such) or affiliation. When you are hired by a company called “Secret History LLC”, how much autonomy can you expect to have as you research? The sinking feeling that we will not quite be getting fully accurate history in this series setsin at this point and does not go away. As you’ll see in our own multi-episode “series” on this single episode and the ax it grinds, this episode likes to use real history to tell lies, mostly by taking quotes out of context, using leading language to color events, and drawing conclusions unsupported by facts.

To return to the Spanish Civil war segment, documentary footage is suddenly dropped, at 11.20, to use footage from a Hollywood movie to describe the heroic actions of Americans fighting in Spain against Franco. The movie—”For Whom the Bell Tolls”—was made in 1943, during WWII, and puts a strong spin on the motives of Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War to make them jibe with the motives of Americans fighting in World War II. Gary Cooper plays the American hero who says he must fight in Spain to keep the war from coming to his own country: “It’s not only Spain fighting here, is it? …The Nazis are using your country as a proving ground for their new war machine, their tanks and dive bombers, and stuff like that, so they can get the jump on the democracies and knock off England and France and my country before we get armed and ready to fight.” These are clearly the sentiments of an American in 1943, not 1936; precious few Americans went to Spain in the 30s to fight the Nazis, with a prescient eye to what Germany was planning in the future—maybe none did. The episode, to its credit, uses a large lower-third to identify the switch to a Hollywood movie; it doesn’t try to pass Cooper off as a real volunteer. But to its discredit, the episode does present the 1943 spin as representative of 1936, a violation of basic history-writing. If Stone wants to be taken seriously by historians and the public, he can’t blur that line.

We’ll continue on in our own episode two where we get our first oddly revisionist presentation of Stalin.

Next time—Stalin stands alone against Hitler? 

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The Three-Fifths Compromise—a shining example?

Posted on February 26, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians | Tags: , , |

James Wagner, President of Emory University, made a startling claim in his President’s Letter in this month’s edition of Emory Magazine: that the Three-Fifths Compromise is a model of putting aside petty differences to work for the common good.

As you recall, the 3/5 compromise made at the 1787 Constitutional Convention counted an enslaved person in the southern states as 60% of a person. The compromise came about when southern delegates to the convention wanted their enslaved population counted in the general population so that their states could have more representatives in the House. Northern delegates said this was ridiculous: enslaved black people could not vote, so how could they be counted amongst the population sending representatives to the House? Enslaved people had no rights, so how could someone serve in the House claiming to represent their wishes and rights as citizens? The debate was one during which southern delegates threatened to pull out of the convention and the Union if they were thwarted, and the result was a compromise: each enslaved person would be counted as 3/5 of a person, allowing the south to benefit from a large portion of its enslaved population but not the entire population.

President Wagner described the 3/5 this way in his letter: “”Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator — for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared — the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.”

Wagner was using the compromise as part of his discussion about the tension between those at the university who want to push ever higher in their service to students and the ideal of the liberal arts university and those who point out the dwindling funds available to do so, and want to reign in or cut some programs. If only these two sides could put the common good of Emory ahead of their own desires and work for the common good, said Wagner, like the delegates who came up with the 3/5 by putting aside “ideology”—ideology being, in this case, having an opinion about enslaving people.

After the uproar over his letter, Wagner issued an “apology” in which he said slavery was repugnant and that the ends don’t justify the means, but, as observers have pointed out, his original letter did very much suggest that the ends do justify the means, and that he never expressed any horror or regret over the 3/5 compromise and what it meant for enslaved people in the United States in his original letter.

It’s embarrassing for the president of a university to be so historically uninformed; it’s particularly surprising at Emory, which has been very upfront about admitting its ties to slavery in the antebellum period, has faced up to its involvement in and benefit from slavery, and even hosted a conference in 2011 on “Slavery and the University”. Seeing the 3/5 only in terms of an example of willingness to compromise and reach across the aisle in Washington is symptomatic of what happens when people know a little history—just enough to draw exactly the wrong conclusions from our past.

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Election 2012 and the white minority (and Bill O’Reilly)

Posted on November 14, 2012. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

In many ways, elections are in the same vein as census results for the historian: they are snapshots of the U.S. population taken at regular intervals whose results lend themselves to nearly infinite analysis and extrapolation. The 2012 election is particularly rich, as it seems to show—

—women voting for Democrats and men voting for Republicans

—such sex-based voting trumping other demographic factors (race, income, immigration status, rural/urban, religion, education level, etc.)

—the older vote (45 and over) going Republican (as it has trended for about three decades) and,

—white votes becoming a smaller bloc

That is the way it’s being presented, at least: whites are becoming the minority population, and so the “white vote” is no longer critical to those running for office. But it’s more complicated than that; race is actually not the primary characteristic to count votes by. The best case to be made from the 2012 results, it seems, is that your sex matters most, as the majority of women of all races, incomes, etc., voted Democratic and the majority of men voted Republican. Age might come second, as people 18-45 vote Democratic and those 45-over vote Republican. Your job is up there, too, as union members voted pretty solidly Democratic.

It is true that White Americans will be in the Minority by 2019, and that our youngest populations in the U.S. are already minority white. But more important is that as our national population becomes more racially mixed, race is less of a card to play either way for a candidate—appealing to a certain race does not yield big rewards. Those who felt sure whites would vote for Romney were wrong when it came to women and the young, and right when it came to men and the elderly. Those who felt sure that blacks would vote for Obama were more right, but he is our first black president, and that’s a factor (he won 70% of the Latino vote as well). In 50 years, after (one hopes) a few more black and a couple of female presidents, a non-white presidential candidate will not be so new, and will have to fight for non-white votes.

The interesting point here is that race is just one factor, and “the white vote” does not mean “white people” but “white, older men”, the small group for whom race may be the primary factor in an election. But race is just one in a string of adjectives candidates need to pay attention to now, along with age, income, education, location, religion, sexuality, and others.

And so Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News analyst, is wrong when he pins the election on race. In his instantly infamous stream of consciousness monologue on election night, he stated:

“It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more. And there are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And, whereby twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

In our next post we’ll do a close reading of this text, as historians do, to get at the heart of its inaccuracies. For now, we leave feeling some relief, perhaps, that race is no longer the be-all and end-all of election politics, and our diverse society is reflected more completely in its diversity of makeup than in previous elections.

Next time:  here’s your stuff

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Debating the causes of the Civil War

Posted on November 7, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , |

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.

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