What History is For
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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.
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”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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 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, Stalin immediately dropped its alliance with that nation and then did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler. And when he 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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Yesterday on the radio show Talk of the Nation (click that to see the transcript we’re working from) Republican Representative Ron Paul was a guest, along with independent Senator Joe Lieberman, talking about what lies ahead after their respective retirements from Congress next year. The host of the show brought up comments Paul made about secession after President Obama’s re-election in November. Some Texans have been talking about their state seceding from the union as a result of this election, and Paul joined in to confirm the right of any state to secede, comparing it, as people defending secession so often have, to the Revolutionary War. Paul made the comments the show was referring to on Fox News’ Cavuto program on December 1 (the lead-in for which was a host saying “Well, President Obama’s in, now more states want out”—surely an exaggeration, given that the number of people signing secession petitions in all of the states involved but Texas range in the low ten-thousands out of populations of millions). Paul began by saying he did not support secession, but averred that secession is allowed in the U.S. He couldn’t say it’s constitutional, of course, because secession is not provided for there, but called upon those ever-flexible Founders to say that secession is a non-extreme idea that they would have supported.
The states which have residents signing petitions are strangely familiar as a group: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South and North Carolina (and Arizona, the odd man out here).
On Talk of the Nation, Paul offered this bizarre scenario when asked about his statements: “What if today, Greece, seceded from the European Union? The European Union got together, invaded Greece and killed about 50,000 people? We would frown on that.” One can only extrapolate that Paul is comparing the U.S. Civil War to this EU scenario, and criticizing the U.S. decision to fight the Civil War against the Confederacy (though one can’t figure out where the 50,000 number comes from).
Paul went on to say: “I think the freedom to leave is the description of whether or not you’re free. The Soviet system was so bad you could not leave. If you left, you got shot. So you have to have the right to leave. In secession, leaving—coming together is voluntary, so once you can’t leave, you lose your right of independence and self-determination becomes a very bad situation.”
This is a constant argument that Americans touting the right of secession use and, except for the Soviet reference, of course, the argument proslavery southerners made before the Civil War. The idea is that the United States are united by choice, not force, and therefore are free to leave the union whenever they want. This is simply untrue. Joining was voluntary; continued participation in the union is not. There is no protocol in the Constitution for states to leave the union, because if any state could leave at any time, it would be impossible to maintain a functioning nation. The only attempt by states to leave the union was answered by war. Being required to continue within the union is not equivalent to being imprisoned in a police state. The difference between the Soviet Union and the United States is that citizens of the states are able to participate in politics and create the change they desire.
Referring to the Revolution is also invalid, because the situation of colonies within an empire is not the same as states within the U.S. Colonies are goverened as satellites, without full rights as citizens. Colonies that break away from an empire know they must fight a war to do so, because they have no representation within the government of the empire, and are controlled for profit alone, a profit the empire will not want to lose. The states of the U.S. are not in that situation, as the American colonies once were, and so secession since the War is not the same as fighting for independence from an imperial government.
So far in the radio interview, Paul had only toed the usual misinformed line on secession that aligns it with the Founders and 1776, just as proslavery secessionists did in the late antebellum period. But then he veered into even more myth, claiming that during the War of 1812, New England tried to secede: “If you study history carefully, I think you’ll recognize that it was well accepted and recognized north – the New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was, you know, early on in the 19th century.”
Unfortunately, host Neal Conant affirmed this myth. The facts, however, are that during the War of 1812, which, like the Revolution, hit New England harder than other regions of the country, some New England Federalists threatened to call a convention to discuss secession. Like all Americans who call for secession, they claimed that they were “defending the true principles of the Constitution and of the nation itself” (Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, by Elizabeth Varon, 37). This Federalist fringe was immediately attacked by Democratic Republicans north and south, and by the time of the Hartford Convention in December 1814, any support New England secessionists had had withered away to almost nothing, and attendees of the Convention did not even discuss secession. Southerners, however, would hold the Convention over New England’s head for decades, at first chastising the region for its treason, and, in the 1850s, using the incident as proof that secession was legal (Ibid., 38-9 – for more on the changing nature of secession talk between 1787 and 1861, see Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War).
So secession was never “well accepted and recognized” in the north, nor is it true that “New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was”. New England was shamed and humiliated for decades afterward by its brief and very partial interest in threatening to secede, and most of that shame and humiliation was heaped on by the south—until the south wanted to defend secession as patriotic, at which point it praised New England for its early bandwagoning.
Paul went on to add to his misinterpretation of history by saying, “they recognized that it wasn’t like – it wasn’t evil, that they weren’t evil people because they wanted to separate themselves”. But of course New Englanders were made to feel evil because of the actions of a small fringe group, and New England in general did not want to separate itself.
Paul then wrapped up by dragging out the tired horse of states’ rights, saying “just having the right to secede or nullify would restrain, you know, the advancement of the central state. Now, if you lean towards saying, well, no, we need a stronger, more centralized control, then, of course, you don’t want that. But those of us who are strict constitutionalists and libertarians and all, we want government, local and at home, and not at the central level because we don’t believe in the central economic planning, whether it’s social planning or economic planning.”
The idea here is that if all the states were individual, not bound in a federal union, each would just have its state government, and we would not be subject to the horrors of big federal government. How “strict constitutionalists” could hold this position,which is clearly not part of the U.S. constitution, is unclear. But the idea that state governments are all good and pure, and would never trample the rights of state citizens like the federal government, and that the states are locked in an eternal battle with the evil empire in Washington, is not only an old one but one that is patently false. If the complaint against the federal government is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so states must strip the federal government of its power, what happens when states have all the power? Then each absolute state government will become absolutely as corrupted as the federal government is believed to be, because each will be the only government for its citizens. If the idea is that a state government is more responsive to its constituents because it is closer to them, and answers only to the people of its own state, that would surely be undone if the state government became the only government, with absolute power, and no outside, federal power to monitor its fairness.
The moral of the interview is: follow whatever political course you like—that’s the premise of the United States. But get the details right, and don’t ignore, or remain ignorant of, historical facts that interfere with your preferred world view. …and if you’re going to advocate “studying history carefully”, make sure you lead by example.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Part 2 of our short posts on the 2012 election and the changing demographics and mixing and merging voter identifications coming into play sees us taking a quick and close look at Bill O’Reilly’s election night complaint about how “traditional America” is changing, not just to talk about 2012, but to put “tradition” in perspective.
What O’Reilly said on air was:
“It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more.”
—It’s hard to think of a time in American/U.S. history when you could not say this. This is the story of America from 1607 on. “Traditional” America is always the America of about 50 years previous to whatever year it currently is—just long enough ago that people who were young then are still around to miss and mourn it, but people in their prime were small children who can’t really remember it or who missed it completely, being born a decade later. This magical formula allows older people to claim that the time they grew up in was normative and permanent and how things were 100 years before them, but is now being destroyed. Americans made this claim in 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000… and will continue to do so for as long as we live in this country, it seems.
“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.”
—Doesn’t every presidential candidate run on giving the people what they want? Whether it’s lower taxes, social programs, avoiding war, or raising incomes, people running for president generally tell Americans they are going to give them what they want. By using the word “things”, O’Reilly is deprecating Americans for wanting material goods—one assumes he means cars and iPads and other consumer items, and is therefore shaming us for no longer wanting ideals, like people did 50 years ago, like freedom and power and equality.
“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.”
—There’s the key: 20 years ago, whites wouldn’t have voted for a man who was offering “things.” They would have voted lofty ideals. But now, whites are in the minority, and the non-white vote is dominant, and that’s why the vote has turned crass and materialistic. “Establishment” here means white, “traditional”, moral, and, of course, imaginary. 100 years ago the votes being disparaged were those that today are considered white: Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Russians, Hungarians, Catholics (from anywhere), Greeks. 100 years ago the Establishment did not consider these people to be white, and warned the nation continually that they were sullying the vote and democracy and the nation itself. So again, this is not a new tactic in 2012, to blame immigrants who are considered non-white for ruining the nation by voting.
“And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff.”
—This seems to make sense. But the implication here is that the economic system is not really stacked against these voters, and they are whining, lazy, “47-percenters” (even though they are now the majority) who want more than they deserve. Note that when white people want something it is valid to give it to them, but when non-white voters want something it is not valid to give it to them.
“You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama.”
—Natch. A black man could only ever want to help non-white people. The implication is that he is a sham president, someone who broke the windows of the Establishment store and is now handing out its contents to fellow looters.
“And women will probably break President Obama’s way.”
—Here the race line is crossed to damn women of all colors. This too is fairly standard, as the only prejudice stronger than racism is sexism. Women will “break” for the president; this language subtly damns women as unintelligent beings who will follow the stampede of other sub-par voters to the non-Establishment president.
“People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”
—Of course it is the black president. The white candidate for president would never give non-Establishment people things because… well, it’s hard to say. Because they don’t deserve them, they shouldn’t want them, Establishment candidates focus on ideals not things, the list goes on, and is manipulated according to audience.
So we see that O’Reilly’s rant is not really about 2012, but the constant complaint of those who see the time they grew up in receding fast, and don’t like what they see replacing it. This has gone on for as long as non-native people have lived in this country, and likely went on long before that time as well. Our job as Americans is to accept change, resist racism and sexism, and most importantly to refuse to draw a line between “things” and ”ideals” when it comes to politics, since the Establishment ideal is often to give things only to certain people and not to others.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
With all the hype about the movie, we thought we’d add this (forgive the ad that comes first): LincolnRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
« Previous Entries