Rewriting History: with a Twist
By Ronald Radosh
Writing in The New York Times on January 26, editorial board member Adam Cohen launched a major attack on Thomas Woods Jr.’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Rather than Woods’ book being an effort to “set the record straight,” Cohen charges, it is something else: “an attempt to push the record far to the right.” Cohen finds that among other claims made by Wood, the most egregious is the author’s attempt to resurrect “the long-discredited theory of ‘nullification.’”
Cohen’s worry is that the Woods volume, which already had reached the best seller lists, was being grabbed up on the campuses and was a strong part of what he calls “a boomlet in far-right attacks on mainstream history.” Cohen does give lip service to the argument that is good that many “liberal pieties are being challenged,” but he leaves this to a brief comment. His real concern is that Woods’ book is “full of dubious assertions, small and large,” and that the author makes “ideologically loaded” and “perverse” arguments. It amounts, he writes, to “rewriting reality to suit an ideological agenda.”
Reviewing the same book in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, columnist and author Max Boot joins the assault on the Woods volume. (see the Boot review, printed herein.) It is clear, particularly from the tough-minded and accurate blast by Boot, that Adam Cohen is indeed correct: Thomas E. Woods Jr. has written a propagandistic, cartoon like portrait of the United States, which as Boot asserts, treats history as a “Bizarro world.” His book is, as Max Boot asserts, a truly “absurd manifesto.”
Printed in a tabloid sized flashy mass market paperback format by Regnery, the book appears as a conservative antidote to the satire of Jon Stewart’s America:The Book, a volume that truly has taken over the undergraduate market by storm. Woods’ book is indeed filled with “substantive distortions of history,” a point elucidated well by Max Boot. Indeed, Woods has used a book I co-authored with Harvey Klehr, The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism, as the main evidence for his pathetic attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the late Senator Joe McCarthy. Any careful reader of our book- a group that clearly does not include Mr. Woods- will learn that what Klehr and I do write is that Joe McCarthy “cynically used the Amerasia affair” and was actually “indifferent to the facts of the case.” What Mr. Woods does with his excerpts from and citation of our book is to misuse our research and work for a politically contentious argument that is far from the truth.
In so doing, as with his entire book, Mr. Woods has fallen into the very trap set for him by Adam Cohen of the Times. His specious far-right assault on the truth has allowed others to use Woods’ book to blast any serious attempt to reinterpret our past from anything but a left/liberal perspective, and to undermine those who are attempting to do so in a serious fashion. Thus Mr. Cohen is strangely silent about the influence on the campus and the media of a far more influential and also deeply flawed history, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn’s ideological use of history from the perspective of the far-Left, has had more of an impact than Woods’ volume will ever have. Writing candidly to serve what Zinn calls a “social aim,” and to use history as part of the “social struggle,” Zinn’s narrative of America is, as the distinguished left-wing historian Michael Kazin has argued in Dissent, about Americans who constantly strive to achieve equality and democracy but who are always defeated by a small group of rulers whose only concern is greed.
Zinn’s book, unlike Mr. Wood’s new right-wing vision of our past, has sold over one million copies, has been adopted in scores of high schools and universities, and has attained cult status with references to it in major motion pictures and television shows. It is typical of the New York Times to use a necessary attack on ideological history to make it appear- through such an omission- that the only sinners are on the far Right. Tellingly, Cohen does not alert Times readers to the quite different serious reinterpretation recently published, Larry Schweikart and Michael Patrick Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. Any reader of Schweikart and Allen’s book will see immediately that it is a serious and substantive volume, based on a full recognition of the important secondary sources written by our major historians. While one may differ with some of their judgments and conclusions, no one would accuse them of conscious ideological distortions of the facts. Rather than let its readers know that conservatives are equipped to write honest historical interpretations, the Times omits any reference to this new book and lets Woods’ nuttiness stand as the representative book of conservative thought.
I would suggest that it is the success and influence of such skewered left-wing versions of the American story as that by Howard Zinn that has opened the door for a similar crude response from the quarters of the paleoconservative Old Right.