American History 101
Without the anti-Americanism this time around.
Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Don’t know much about history? Do your kids only know America as an imperialist, warmongering nation? A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror might be the book for you.
A Patriot’s History is just short of 1,000 pages written by two conservative history professors, Larry Schweikart (University of Dayton) and Michael Allen (University of Washington, Tacoma). It’s not only a primer on American history, but a friendly primer — sometimes a rarity among such books.
Professor Schweikart spoke to NRO’s Kathryn Lopez this week about the book, and since it’s Presidents’ Day time, he hails a few chiefs.
National Review Online: So how different is your history of the United States from, say, Howard Zinn’s?
Larry Schweikart: They are as different as night and day. We assume that people usually mean what they say; that they don’t always have hidden motivations; and that ideas are more important than “class” or “race” or “gender.” Under more normal times, our book would simply be entitled, A History of the United States, because it is accurate.
NRO: So a “Patriot’s Guide” isn’t all good?
Schweikart: Absolutely not. As we say in the intro/jacket flap, we reject “My Country, Right or Wrong,” but we equally reject “My Country, Always Wrong.” I think you’ll find us quite critical of such aspects of our past-such as the Founders’ unwillingness to actually act on slavery on at least three separate occasions; or about Teddy Roosevelt’s paternalistic regulations and his anti-business policies. On the other hand, as conservatives, we nevertheless destroy the myth that FDR “knew” about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. Instead, we try to always put the past in the context of the time — why did people act then as they did, and was that typical?
NRO: What was “indispensable” about George Washington?
Schweikart: First, as a military leader, there was simply no other general in the Revolution who could have kept the northern colonial armies together under those conditions and simultaneously maintained the support of the Continental Congress. People forget that he not only had to inspire soldiers, conduct a war, acquire rations, but on a daily basis deal with the political demands of the Congress. That’s no small feat.
Second, he was indispensable as the first president: It’s hard to imagine, say, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson setting the same kinds of incredible precedents that Washington set, both for decorum and for efficiency. Adams would have (as he later did) alienated half the country, and Jefferson would have lacked the diplomacy to pull the Federalists along.
NRO: What’s the most interesting fact/story in American history no on knows?
Schweikart: Of course, everyone “knows” any story or we wouldn’t know it, but I’d say one of the most impressive untold stories in the American past is that of the buffalo. Everyone “knows” that whites nearly exterminated the herds. That’s true. What few people know — although these views are starting to gain a wider circulation — is that the Indians were on a trajectory to wipe out the bison herds had whites never been interfered. Shepard Kretch and Andrew Isenberg, in separate studies, have shown that the Indians were already killing buffalo slightly faster than herds could repopulate. But what is most fascinating is that it was white ranchers and businessmen who recognized that the herds were shrinking, and who acted to save them by breeding them on private ranches. Eventually it was these private herds that made up the stock of the famous Yellowstone herd.
NRO: What are some of the biggest lies in American history textbooks, in your estimation?
Schweikart: The two that stand out are that the New Deal “got us out of the Depression,” which few texts say explicitly but which almost all strongly imply; and that it was reforms under Michael Gorbachev, not the efforts of Ronald Reagan, that ended the Cold War. We provide a chart that I have not seen anywhere else, which is a 50-year look at the New Deal: What did these programs look like 50 years down the road? Of course, they were all disasters. Social Security is in crisis; the farm subsidies had to be repealed; the FSLIC probably contributed to the S&L crash of the late 1970s and early 1980s; and so on.
NRO: Walter Matthau won six [battle] stars in World War II? Was he Walter Matthau then? Was this typical of Hollywood?
Schweikart: You got me as to how much of a leading man he was. He, like many, was early in his career — -their ages alone dictated that. But many already were established stars, and, yes, it was typical of Hollywood. Virtually all of the males in the movie industry went to war (many volunteered), and many saw
severe combat. We recount how Lee Marvin’s unit lost all but five of almost 250 men (and, of course, Marvin survived). Telly Savalas was badly wounded. And on and on. John Wayne got an exemption for his large family, but he still made war propaganda movies. John Ford shot documentaries; Disney made propaganda cartoons. In short, all of Hollywood contributed to beat the Nazis. Look, today, at how far away from that model they’ve drifted, except for some welcome lights like Ron Silver and James Woods.
NRO: Who’s the most rewritten/misunderstood/misremembered figure in our history?
Schweikart: This would have to be Silent Cal Coolidge. He was a president who had unparalleled prosperity and five years of peace and who had an unemployment rate of 1.4 percent, yet the history of his administration was largely written by liberals and New Dealers who hated him. As we see today with President Bush, they especially didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t a “party animal,” and that he went to bed at a normal hour. Worse, he didn’t talk to the press much — they really hate you for that!
NRO: How do you hope the history books tell the Ronald Reagan story? Let’s say you have a paragraph to relay his place in American history.
Schweikart: Ronald Reagan was a brilliant communicator who taught himself politics. During his years at GE, then later on the “rubber chicken” circuit, Reagan learned how to condense sophisticated political issues into language that average Americans could understand. This constantly left his political enemies baffled, convinced he was a simpleton. He perceptively cut through the two most pressing problems of the day — a bloated federal government with high taxation levels and the threat of the Soviet Union. In eight years, he had drastically reduced taxes (though failed to do much about the size of government) and he defeated the “Evil Empire” without firing a shot.
NRO: On lists of stand-out presidents — “the best” — is there anyone typically missing?
Schweikart: Besides Coolidge, historians almost always leave Grover Cleveland off these lists, and he was a great president. He was the last true “small government” Democrat…ever. He fought the Army’s pension funding (which had gotten completely out of control) and clung to the gold standard, to the chagrin of his leftward-moving party. Mike and I put Cleveland in the top six or seven presidents.
NRO: If you had one day to spend in a high-school history class, with probably at shot at making only one point stick, what would it be?
Schweikart: That regardless of America’s faults, it has always aspired to be a “city on a hill” and, more often than not, has attained that goal. It remains a beacon of liberty throughout the world, so much so that people still risk their lives just to come here and, despite threats to do so by the Hollywood elites after every election, they do not leave. I only need ask these students, “Can you think of any other country, really, where you’d rather live today?”