Book review: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”
Reviewed by Henrik Ræder Clausen
Disclaimer: I’m not American. I just happen to love history. Bear with me as I have the audacity to write about American history.
One may wonder, perhaps having suffered boring high school history lessons: What could make history fun? The answer is simple:
Thomas E. Woods, in this delightful and easy-to-read book, sticks to this simple concept. And it works. Building on the best possible foundation — the American Constitution — he reassesses key events in American history and digs out all kinds of quotes, facts and details that are routinely skipped in today’s history lessons.
Simplicity, cherry-picking and iconoclasm
Why would one skip important parts of American history, one may wonder? The simplest explanation might be the most likely — that digging into the details reveals such complexity that most teachers of history would balk at the challenge. Painting in more colours than black and white takes much more work — and, well, skill. A harder problem would be that many of the details here disturb the official line of thought in academia, and taking up these issues might lead to academic isolation, which is not so nice. Worse still is that digging into some of the central myths of American history might disturb the identity of the nation and cause distrust in the federal government. Those reasons should be enough for any careful historian to back off and dig into the decay of the Mayan empire instead.
Woods, not bothering much about academic exclusion, forges ahead. Taking the noble foundation of the US Constitution as his springboard, takes a delightfully refreshing look at American history. He does what every respectable historian should do: He uses the sources. Digs into quotes by Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And yes, he gets some myth-busting and surprising iconoclasm done.
Woods has a straightforward view of the Constitution. He reads the text, and he applies it, moving to challenge several of the ‘great’ presidents of the United States on the best and finest of foundations, leading to some awfully incriminating conclusions:
- The American civil war was not about slavery. It was about forcing a unified state.
- Woodrow Wilson possibly was the most dangerous person ever to become president.
- Fascination with federal intervention created the Great Depression.
- American involvement in wars is not always a Good Thing. ‘Democracy-building’ usually fails.
- We lost a lot of good things during the 60’s. Looks like common sense was first to go.
- Clinton’s US Balkan policy was a failure. And, since Bush changed nothing, it still is.
One will wonder, of course, if Woods is biased? Of course he is! But that doesn’t mean he’s dishonest, and that’s what matters. He deliberately delves into the parts of American history he finds relevant, skipping entire large passages that he has no interest in working with. This book isn’t — and he states that clearly — a comprehensive guide to American history. It is cherry-picking. And — while he uses original sources extensively — it comes across as a very personal book, in a positive sense. He shines in his enthusiasm for history, and in exposing the faulty perceptions of history many suffer from today.
Constitution: Just use it
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The stringent approach Woods takes to the US Constitution deserves special mention. For the Constitution is a promise by the founding fathers of how the United States were intended to be run, with due respect for and protection of, the citizens. Circumventing the Constitution is a grave matter indeed, and Woods documents many such cases. Politicians of today use this tradition of circumvention to further their own agendas and obtain disproportionate amounts of political power, and this is a problem.
Political power, in any democratic system, should be exercised close to the people giving that power. Yet political tradition in the US, in the European Union and elsewhere are, to a large degree, in the hands of a self-elected elite who seem to consider the electorate a ‘problem’ rather than their natural power base. The recent European struggle over the EU “Constitution Treaty” (now renamed “Lisbon Treaty”) is a related example of this elitism.
Woods digs into an interesting proposal for the relationship between the Union and the constituent states, namely the “Principles of ‘98” (1798, that is). The concept is simple: If only the Union is permitted to interpret the Constitution, power will, bit by bit, be transferred from state level to Union level. The Principles of ‘98 proposes that both parties would have the right to interpret constitutional law, and thus the states would have a solid constitutional foundation for limiting federal power. The principles were not adopted, but the thought is intriguing: Had these principles been in place, the American Civil War, for one, would have been obviously unconstitutional.
Prose and facts
Woods writes in a lovely, straight prose and elucidates constitutional principles in a way that one needs no prior understanding of law to follow. Unfettered by murky traditions, he brings in a truckload of challenging information that any high school student would find a godsend for challenging inept teachers of history. Challenging incompetence, with a solid basis in facts, is a great training, and this book gives a solid array of useful facts for the purpose.
And he uses these facts. combined with relentless logic, to demonstrate the repeated ineptitude of governmental programs and well-meaning (on the surface) legislation. Take the Great Society programs created by Lyndon B. Johnson to battle poverty. From 1950 through 1968, poverty in the US had shown a regular decline of about 1 percentage point a year. Enter the Great Society program to accelerate that trend. Did it work? Well, no. For the first time in two decades, poverty stagnated. Crime and drug use, on the other hand, accelerated. But at least he managed to spend seven trillion dollars on the effort.
Woods loves honesty, clarity and transparency. He mercilessly exposes clandestine government policies and manipulations in several of the major wars entered by the US, including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. They can’t be covered in detail, of course, but key events leading up to the wars are examined, with very interesting results.
The fact is that the United States after WWII has a very significant standing army, which is not in line with the wishes of the framers of the Constitution. Fortunately, only the US Congress can declare war, which is a measure designed to keep the executive branch of government (the president) from plunging the nation into unneeded wars.
Unfortunately, this is being circumvented. Consider the number of wars that the US has been involved in since WWII — no small number. Yet, in none of these did a formal declaration of war open it. Congress, the legislative branch of government should be declaring wars, but has in practice relinquished this power to the executive branch, who enter into military engagements on other legal foundations, such as ‘policing agreements’ or ‘enforcing UN resolutions’.
Franklin D. Roosevelt gets a particular vicious beating in the book. Apart from the details on the role he played in sustaining the Great Depression, his giveaway to Stalin will probably upset many. Take this quote, with Roosevelt addressing the William Bullitt (US ambassador to the Soviet Union) who had just warned the president against the intentions of Stalin:
Bill, I do not dispute your facts. They are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins] says he’s not, and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country. And I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.
If this was some second-rate civil servant speaking, it would not be cause for significant worry. Unfortunately, it was the US president at one of the major WWII conferences (Teheran), showing that his concessions to the Soviet Union were deliberate — and hopelessly naïve.
An interesting detail he digs out is that the Vietnam war, as a main component, included democracy-building in South Vietnam. Sounds familiar..?
The alternative reading of history makes for some interesting hypothetical historical scenarios. What if, for instance, the West had decided that Germany, Russia and Japan made excellent mutual foes, and that it would be a great advantage to the democratic world to stay on the sidelines while the great dictatorships hammered each other into ruin, exposing themselves the inherent fallacies of militaristic dictatorships?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to remove preference based on skin colour, ancestry and the like, to end racism once and for all. Good intentions, and it is obvious to anyone that admitting or denying people education or employment based on skin colour instead of qualifications is stupid. Except, perhaps, when the government does so? Affirmative action, quotas and the like are, if anyone applies simple logic, new programs discriminating against people based on skin colour. It’s so glaringly obvious that one can only shake the head in disbelief that programs like these were accepted and implemented. Even now, four decades later, the American obsession with racism has not abated.
Take ‘Busing’, the practice of driving school children to remote schools instead of their local ones, in order to minimize ‘segregation’. Now, who said that racially diverse schools are in itself evil, or cause minorities to feel discriminated against? The performance of several non-white minorities show this not to be the case — they regularly outperformed their white counterparts. But the stupidity, and the wasted time and money spent on driving kids two hours every day might be the lesser disaster compared to the loss of the community feeling behind the schools in the local community. Fortunately, this hopeless practice is now abandoned.
The problem of ‘Big Government’
Throughout the book is an undercurrent of discrediting Big Government. This is controversial, of course, and can be perceived as being rather cynical, as if one does not care for the weak in society. The agenda here, however, is a different one. Big Government — and the US federal government ranks as the largest on Earth — tends to make Big Mistakes, just because it can. FDR’s handling of the 1929 Wall Street crash is an exposé of incompetence and rather obvious mistakes — faults so aggravating that it takes severe dishonesty to explain them away. It is, in a way, little wonder that FDR is one of the most praised presidents in US history. If it wasn’t for the praise, his real legacy would be exposed.
While not addressed directly, the notion of the “Sorelian myth” deserves mention. It is the notion that a nation needs a mythical foundation — and that the truthfulness of this myth is irrelevant. This idea was significant in the fascist states of the 1920’s, and lives on to a lesser extent in mainstream US history. Identifying and abandoning these myths (such as the American Civil War being about slavery) takes skill and courage, and the end effect on national identity is uncertain. Hopefully abandoning the hazy mythmaking will increase the appreciation of sincere human dignity instead.
This book makes the case for transparency in government. During the Cold War, we became accustomed to the necessity of clandestine operations. The ending of the Cold War, along with the media revolution and Internet, changes this dramatically. Just about everything will be exposed eventually, and the tradition of hiding political agendas increasingly looks like deceit, not like a sensible and justified style of negotiation. The repeated exposure of misgovernment causes our confidence in government to erode. Woods doesn’t quote this, but it is remarkable in line with his book that US confidence in the federal government is plummeting, down from 60 % to 30 % over a decade. Something’s gotta give, and since the US federal government is basing its activities on massive deficit spending, what Woods calls the ‘Leviathan’ just might be in for some remarkable trouble.
Common sense of common people
One may wonder what Woods imagines instead of the federal government. An answer would be ‘nothing’, but that associates in an improper direction. Woods has a solid confidence in the common sense of common people. Normal people who make a living, send their kids to school and generally cause little trouble for society. The principle of private property, as a cornerstone of a healthy society. And in Christian ethics too, which of course is a tad more controversial, when standing up for your own culture and asserting that it’s better tends to be frowned upon. He implicitly makes the case for state governments as more appropriate than the federal in many runs of life.
Last, but not least: Although this is a book of history, relevance for today pervades it, subliminally. Woods loves the US Constitution, and the notion of free people running their affairs with dignity and inherent human goodness. While the book certainly has an attitude, this should not keep anyone from reading it. Then read something of a different opinion and see how they compare.
- Delightfully readable language
- Uses original sources extensively
- Stringent understanding of the Constitution
- Merciless exposure of stupid political actions
- Whets the appetite for more history
- Not by any means a complete account of US history
A most entertaining book with a solid foundation. The cherry-picking and obvious bias are exactly that: Obvious. And then they serve not as manipulation, but as inspiration to go further and read more. Highly recommended.