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Facts and History: Woods Hits Home
, March 21, 2005
This review is from: The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Paperback)
As an attorney (now retired), a former law professor, and occasional writer on jurisprudential history, I have had many opportunities to study key events and personalities in American history. I have often remarked on how much of what appears, or is emphasized, in history texts and in high school and college classrooms differs from what actually happened. Thomas Woods' Politically Incorrect Guide to American History does a masterful and entertaining job of correcting common misconceptions and filling in some gaps. (It is not a complete American history, nor does Woods claim it is.) It's common pattern, on subject after subject, is: Here are some historical facts that contradict or provide a fuller understanding of what you were probably taught. And that, properly, gives rise to the question: what else in the standard American History mythology might be incorrect or at least a bit shaky?
One technique Woods uses to make his points is to quote the people who were involved in significant historical events. Abraham Lincoln, elected President in 1860, asserted that no state of the United States had the right to secede and in 1861 sent the Union Army into the South to enforce that position. But, speaking in 1848, Lincoln had said: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right--a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government, may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit." (p. 63) Lincoln really said that. The reader is compelled to inquire further into the issue of the individual state's right to secede, given Constitutional history, and into the real causes of the Civil War. Woods helps us understand those issues.
Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln's top general in the Civil War, and later President, was himself a slaveholder until passage of the 13th Amendment after the war ended. During the war he said: "If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side." (p. 67) My, my. Does Grant's statement make you wonder whether the standard story (that the Civil War was fought by the "good" North against the "evil" South to end slavery) has some serious deficiencies? It should.
During the Civil War, the Northern forces, rejecting centuries long standards of civilized warfare that protected non-combatants, engaged in total war, stealing food and other supplies and destroying homes and farms, all in order to completely subjugate, starve and destroy the will of every southerner. The extent to which they were willing to go is reflected in an Order issued from Northern General Benjamin Butler regarding treatment of the women of New Orleans: "[I]t is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." (p. 72) Officially sanctioned rape as a tool of warfare. Nice.
Another standard myth of American history is that President Franklin Roosevelt rescued us from the depression of the 1930s that had been allowed to worsen by his do-nothing predecessor, Herbert Hoover. The facts are that FDR's incessant meddling in the economy, meddling that took the form of Benito Mussolini's Italian fascism, was largely a continuation of Hoover's meddling. And it was unavailing. The depression lasted until the United States entered World War II. But, wartime did not result in any real improvement in the economy. The government merely conscripted the unemployed into the military and many others into production of war material; all in all about 40% of the population. The consumer economy was largely shut down for the duration. People could not buy cars, or just about anything else made of steel, gasoline, many foods, etc. All such things were needed for the war effort. To the extent that any civilian economy remained, it was tightly regulated with wage and price controls and rationing. The real recovery did not begin until after the war and after FDR's death. (Chapter 11)
Speaking of World War II, did you know that FDR was promising to keep America out of it while he was working behind the scenes to do the opposite? Or, that a majority of Americans, including many prominent ones such as Charles Lindbergh, H.L. Mencken, John F. Kennedy (yes, JFK himself), Frank Lloyd Wright, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford, opposed America getting involved in the war right up until the Pearl Harbor bombing? Here's another question: Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? Could it possibly have anything to do with FDR's freezing Japanese assets in the U.S. and organizing a boycott of essential goods, particularly oil, that Japan needed to import. Japan made a terrible blunder in attacking the U.S., but absent FDR's efforts, it probably would not have happened. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, wrote in his diary on November 25, 1941, that the question was how "to maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot." Former President Hoover said in 1941 that the administration was "doing everything they can to get us into war through the Japanese back door." (p. 181)
Enough from me. Read the book. As you do, come up with the tough follow-up questions. Professor Woods answers many of them. For those he does not, he suggests additional readings that will benefit you. In the end, there is no way you can come away from the experience without realizing that the standard American History mythology is seriously lacking. Woods has done a terrific job of curing some of that lack. Another reason to read and enjoy the book is that Woods has been attacked from both the "left" and the "right" for daring to put into print these many factual challenges to the standard mythology. It is notable that those doing the attacking don't seem to challenge the facts, but target Woods himself for illuminating them. I hope he does more of it. For what he has done, I thank him.
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