[This book review was published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 2005, pp. 241-248.] 

 

Book Review 

 

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004 

 

            It’s a strange thing about myths.  They define a society’s heroes, villains and idealized memories.  Scholars love to pierce them, since they are not exactly what one would call “truth.”  And yet it hardly seems a society can get by without them.  They provide the consensus that cements the society into a common polity, affirming the shared premises of a people.  Without shared premises, all discussion flounders, dissolving into chaos.  Moreover, it is likely that myths are an inescapable part of how people face the world.  Symbols that embody simplifications are, for the most part, how we deal with what would otherwise be the overwhelming complexities of social reality.  Not only are myths indispensable aids to comprehension; they are also the vessels into which is poured much of the meaning that people assign to their lives.  Without unifying conceptions, there would be nothing larger or more meaningful than discrete facts.

            Myths are much of what the contending ideologies, social philosophies and religions struggle to create and demolish.  The insistence upon “political correctness” in the United States and Europe in recent years can be understood as an attempt by the elite that prevails at virtually all the commanding heights of the society to fashion new myths and destroy old ones.  The emphasis on “multiculturalism,” with its elevation of Third World immigrants to honorific status and its condemnation of much that governed Euro-American sensibilities before the mid-twentieth century, requires the knocking down of old heroes, ideals and archetypes and the substitution of  new ones.  The process is intolerant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that myth-making is not, by its very nature, something that invites debate.  The impulse is to impose a viewpoint by overwhelming consensus, so that it requires a heretic to question it.

            During American history the governing myths have varied greatly over time.  There were decades during which “Americanism” was the reigning concept, extolling the Constitution as a document that limited government and protected states’ rights, revering the Founding Fathers and the intrepid heroes of the frontier, perceiving Americans as fundamentally a “good” people, exalting Lincoln as a sainted figure, and swelling with pride over the American victories in the Spanish-American War, in France during World War I, and (near the end of the period) in World War II.  It may now be obvious that this Americanism was something of an incongruous mixture, since idealizing the post-1861 United States (with its deflation of state sovereignty) and especially the post-1898 United States (with its off-and-on, but mostly on, vision of America’s role as the world’s policeman and social worker) is not exactly the same thing as idealizing the early Republic.  

            Comes now historian Thomas E. Woods, Jr., with a Politically Incorrect Guide to American History that applies a libertarian perspective to deconstruct several of the myths both of today and yesterday.  The early Republic and Founding Fathers weren’t all of one piece, of course, with sharp differences, say, between Hamilton and Jefferson over the role of the national government, and later between Webster and Hayne over whether the states had a right to secede.  Woods sides with those who wanted a strictly limited federal government and a prominent role for the states as sovereign entities.  This puts him in a position to advance several ideas about the first century of American history that are provocatively at odds with impressions Americans have long assumed to be true:

·        That actually the “American Revolution” wasn’t a “revolution” at all, certainly not in the sense that a total transformation of society was sought.  Rather, the conflict, as those who fought on the American side saw it, was to preserve long-established rights that they believed had been trampled upon.

·        That the First Amendment prohibition against Congress’ enacting any law “respecting an establishment of religion” wasn’t intended to bar established religions at a state level.  Rather, it was to prevent federal interference with state religious establishments.  Nor was the “freedom of speech” provision, which also applied by its terms specifically to Congress, intended to interfere with the power of states to regulate speech.  Instead, the First Amendment was, as it explicitly states, a restriction upon the federal government, not upon the states.  These are points that might be considered moot in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings, much later, that the First Amendment prohibitions were “incorporated” into the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment, and hence came to be applied to the states themselves.  But Woods makes a telling point against the “incorporation doctrine” when he reports that in the 1870s (after the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted) Congress several times turned down a proposed Constitutional amendment that had the express purpose of applying the First Amendment provisions to the states.

·        That states did have a right to secede, and to nullify within their own respective borders federal laws they considered unconstitutional.  Woods tells how the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, written by Jefferson, asserted the right of nullification; how three states explicitly reserved the right of secession in their ratification of the Constitution; and how the Virginia delegates who ratified the Constitution believed they were making Virginia a part of a voluntary compact of states that did not involve a loss of state sovereignty.

·        That the Civil War was far more a conflict over the place of the states in the Union than it was over slavery.  There was, Woods says, growing anti-slavery sentiment in the South until that viewpoint was discredited by Abolitionist extremism; and Southerners were realistic enough to know that slavery would have no place in the arid conditions of the west.    

·        That Northerners themselves, including Lincoln, were overwhelmingly not racial egalitarians.  Woods takes pleasure in pointing out their commitment to white supremacy.  Woods’ glee probably stems from a combination of motives: to deflate the mythological Lincoln, whom Woods would like to see brought down a peg or two because Lincoln was the Great Centralizer; simultaneously to deflate the pretentiousness of the North’s holy cause (expressed so fervently in the Battle Hymn of the Republic); and to pull away one of the putative roots of today’s racial egalitarianism.

·        That the term “Civil War” (which we’ve used so far in this review) is really a misnomer, since “a civil war is a conflict in which two or more factions fight for control of a nation’s government.”  Woods prefers “The War Between the States.”  This is more than just a quibble over definition.  It signals, as so much else does, Woods’ identification with the Southern cause.

·        That the North conducted a brutal “total war” against the South, including its civilian population, that laid to waste the “laws of warfare” that European nations had long established among themselves, and that therefore provided precedent for unrestrained warfare against civilians in the twentieth century.    

            We see in all of this a multi-pronged attack upon the long-held truism that “the North was virtuous, the South racist and evil.”  By itself, that has Woods introducing a seismic change from the conventional wisdom, which within recent years has given rebirth to an anti-Southern animus.  He continues doing much the same through his review of the rest of American history.   

            The post-Civil War Reconstruction does not occupy an elevated place in Americans’ memory, so a criticism of it is not exactly in the same iconoclastic mode.  Nevertheless, Woods lets the reader know of his distaste for the Radical Republicans’ preference for a military occupation of the South in which the natural leadership of the South was disenfranchised.   He returns to his myth-busting with his praise for the late-nineteenth century “era of Big Business.”  Contrary to what generations of Americans have been told was an “age of the Robber Barons,” Woods argues that the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie was immensely constructive and not exploitive.   His points are very much in line with the Chicago School (of economics) and the Ludwig von Mises “Austrian School” laissez-faire philosophy when he argues that “predatory pricing” (the main charge against the “robber barons”) is a “myth,” since prices actually fell precipitously as a result of the energetic entrepreneurship of the day,  and that anti-trust laws are “idiocy.”  Consistently with those schools of thought, he posits that business monopoly cannot be a problem in the absence of government’s playing favorites, such as by having a high protective tariff.

            This reviewer’s parents and grandparents would have thought it scandalous for anyone to question the United States’ involvement in World War I.  They are gone now, so Woods escapes their wrath.  His attention isn’t so much on who was right or at fault in the war itself, as on the double standards and hypocrisy Woodrow Wilson applied in taking the United States into the war.  This is, of course, a subject of vast significance, since the American intervention prevented a stalemate and negotiated settlement and because World War I, horrific in itself, set the stage for World War II, which was in effect a resumption of the first war. 

            Woods continues the history by recasting the image of the nineteen-twenties -- the “misunderstood decade.”  It was, Woods says, a period of high prosperity.  Contrary to popular belief, taxes were lowered not just for the rich but even more for those in the lower income brackets.  Government intervention into the economy was brought down – but Woods says the impression is wrong that it was a time when the United States turned to laissez-faire; instead, the government never returned to its pre-World War I size.

            The chapter on the “Great Depression and the New Deal” is too short to be a full explication of the Austrian School’s analysis of the causes of the Depression and of the governmental response to it, but Woods’ treatment of these subjects is based on that analysis.  The problem, he says, lay in the deviation from free-market principles: the Federal Reserve System is a “non-market institution”; Herbert Hoover’s interventions turned a recession into a full-blown depression; the “notorious Smoot-Hawley tariff” deepened the quagmire; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “anti-business zealotry” delayed recovery; and the enhanced role given to labor unions allowed them to do what they are wont to do – benefit their members at the cost of impoverishing society.  Woods tells of the Supreme Court’s change of direction that led the Court to give its imprimatur to the vast expansion of federal power.

            Woods is, as he was with the U.S. entry into World War I, critical of FDR’s having taken the United States into World War II.  FDR, while promising to stay out, pursued a fake neutrality in the European theater.  The United States, he says, could have remained out of the war with Japan, but the administration chose instead (as Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary) to “maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot.”  In a chapter on the “Consequences and Aftermath” of the war, Woods gets into some subjects that have largely fallen into the memory hole so far as Americans today are concerned.  He tells how FDR was in effect a fool toward Stalin, one manifestation of which was Operation Keelhaul that forcibly repatriated a million Russians into Stalin’s hands.  Woods says that European recovery was well underway before the Marshall Plan was instituted by Truman, and that the Plan started the disastrous tradition of government-to-government grants that made up “foreign aid” for the rest of the century.

            There isn’t much discussion by Woods of the long Cold War struggle to contain Communism.  From the little he does say about it, we might gather that Woods, remaining consistent with the pacifism of a straight-line libertarian ideology, considers “containment” to have involved illegitimate government intervention overseas akin to American intervention in the two world wars.  The hint to this effect comes when Woods quotes Senator Robert Taft’s criticism of President Truman’s military aid to Greece and Turkey to prevent a Communist takeover in those countries as founded “more in hysteria and paranoia than in a rational and sober appraisal of Soviet capabilities.”

            While this assessment of the threat of worldwide Communist expansion will, even though quoted from “Mr. Republican,” please the anti-anti-Communists on the Left, Woods’ perception of a truly significant threat of Communist penetration internally will have the opposite effect: it will infuriate the Left and delight the Right.  He starts by describing the vast extent of the American intelligentsia’s long infatuation with the Soviet Union.  As a part of this, he recounts the cover-up that hid from the world Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions during the winter of 1932-3; and he tells of Stalin’s show trials.  It’s likely that Woods’ greatest “indiscretion,” from the point of view of the “politically correct,” is his defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  In light of the Venona transcripts – “thousands of Soviet intelligence messages that the U.S. government intercepted in the 1940s” – that have been made public in the recent past, Woods agrees with the liberal author Nicholas von Hoffman in saying that McCarthy was “closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.”      

            Woods almost equals this scandalous effrontery when he critiques the Civil Rights movement and its quota-creating aftermath from the point of view of those who argue that there was much movement away from racial segregation before the Brown v. Board of Education decisions, and that President Eisenhower was right when he argued “that people couldn’t be forced to like each other, and that increased social interaction between the races involved the passage of time more than it did the passage of legislation.”  Indeed, the long history of agitation, governmental solicitude and forced behavior did much, Woods says, to block improvement, causing the condition of blacks to stagnate.  His view about this is consistent with those who observe that child labor wasn’t prohibited by law until economic conditions had improved to a point at which families no longer needed their children to work; that laws against lynching weren’t enacted until the number of lynchings had dwindling to virtually none; and that the Occupational Safety and Health Act, mandating safe conditions in the workplace, wasn’t passed until after several years of improvement in industrial safety.  From this view, it is a fallacy to credit the legislation with the improvements, since in each case the legislation tagged along afterwards.  Interestingly, this fallacy is fundamental to the mythology of social movements.

            So much has been written in recent years debunking the “Camelot” image of John F. Kennedy that Woods’ brief discussion of the frauds that lay behind the mystique does little more than drive in another coffin nail.  Remarkably, the mystique continues unruffled in the popular perception of JFK.  That may change, however, as more and more people become aware of the pretense through books such as this.  Woods goes on to describe Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” as “a staggering and enormously expensive failure,” with poverty programs that again obstructed an upward trend and led to stagnation in the condition of the very people it putatively sought to help.  His perception of Bill Clinton is hardly more favorable: Clinton, he says, was not a “centrist” as claimed, but pursued policies that lead domestically to an explosion of governmental power and abuse, and internationally to foreign interventions and efforts at nation-building in places where the United States had no strategic interest.

            Woods defends the Reagan presidency from the charge that it created “a decade of greed.”  He cites the rise in charitable giving, and points out that, if anything, “Reagan didn’t do enough,” since the budget really wasn’t slashed and tax increases grew to exceed the tax cuts of 1981.  Woods credits Reagan with having “defeated Communism, while hardly firing a shot.”  The causes of Soviet demise are almost certainly complex and deserve more than a single sentence’s discussion, but (as with everything else Woods explores) the claim may provoke the reader to further thought.

            “Provocative of thought” encapsulates this book’s contribution.  The discussion of each of its many topics is necessarily too short to be definitive.  There is much more to say about each. In fact, there are many more issues that deserve to be raised.  Thus, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History must be understood as only scratching the surface.   Readers will be sent scurrying to the books listed in Woods’ ten-page bibliography, and those who are genuinely reflective will consult the best possible sources for opposing points of view.  Unless his book is ignored, it should cause the exponents of the conventional wisdom to reexamine the “truths” they have thus far embraced so comfortably.

            We started this review by observing that myths provide the consensus that cements the society into a common polity, affirming the shared premises of a people.  It is symptomatic of the growing shattering of consensus in the United States that virtually all idealized over-simplifications are, and have for several decades been, under attack.  Here again we see the paradox that a society needs myths at the same time that it needs only those conducive to its well-being and needs, too, if it is to be an intellectually open society, an on-going process of critical self-examination.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Dwight D. Murphey