The right’s big history lie: Reagan, Disney, Vietnam and the war to redefine America


Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School.

History was all the rage for late-twentieth-century Americans. Genealogical research became increasingly common, museum and monument construction boomed, and Civil War reenactment mushroomed into a veritable national pastime. In 1995 the A&E Television Networks launched the History Channel, which immediately drew high ratings for a programming schedule that included a hefty dose of shows about World War II, particularly about Hitler.

The Walt Disney Company sought to cash in on this obsession in the early 1990s with a theme park dedicated to American history. Disney’s America was to have been part heritage, part amusement, a mix of “serious” and “fun.” Similar to other living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg, Disney’s America was to simulate momentous events in American history. But in contrast, Disney’s America patrons would get a taste of authentic history from the vantage point of amusement park rides. Disney CEO Michael Eisner highlighted the serious side of the park by proclaiming that it would reject a “Pollyanna view” of American history. He promised to “show the Civil War with all its racial conflict” and even discussed tackling the Vietnam War. Such an approach attracted criticism from all over the political map. Liberal political cartoonist Tom Toles ridiculed the idea by superimposing Goofy on a mock-up of the iconic image of a naked girl, badly burned by napalm, fleeing US-sponsored South Vietnamese soldiers. Conservative William Kristol argued that if Disney was “going to have a schlocky version of American history, it should at least be a schlocky, patriotic, and heroic version.” Alas, Disney scrapped its plans for a history theme park due in part to such widespread skepticism.

The Disney history flap demonstrated that although Americans were taking an extraordinary interest in the nation’s past, they disagreed fervently about how it should be represented. History wars gripped the nation. Growing numbers of Americans took to heart George Orwell’s truism that “who controls the past controls the future.” For conservatives, history would redeem the nation from all that had gone wrong since the sixties. History would especially help Americans overcome the trauma of the Vietnam War. Norman Podhoretz argued that the history of America’s role in that war, which had been relegated to “the forensic equivalent of an unmarked grave,” needed to be revised and that the health of the nation depended on it. This became evident to Podhoretz when, during the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a “noble cause.” Although pundits characterized Reagan’s historical revision as a blunder, Podhoretz wrote that “Reagan’s gaffe was closer to the truth” than most assumed. He contended that the United States had failed to win the war in part because too many Americans denied that it was morally just. This “stab in the back” elocution served as the crux of how conservatives thought history might redeem the nation. If the United States of America was to return to being the world’s indispensable nation—a city upon a hill—conservatives had to win the struggle over its historical meaning.

For those on the Left, history was no less important. The left-wing interpretation of American history, like the right-wing version, often acted as a form of redemption. The greater attention paid to the history of blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, immigrants, women, and workers was in part a means of redeeming the humanity of people previously swept away by traditional historical narratives that focused on the role of powerful white men. But left-leaning Americans also understood the purpose of history as a tool for social transformation. Howard Zinn, who did more than any single individual to popularize a leftist version of American history, advised that historians could encourage radical change by giving voice to history’s voiceless. This was Zinn’s overriding purpose for writing A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1980. Zinn’s magnum opus was an alternative to those traditional textbooks that told stories of unbending, elite-driven progress. A People’s History was explicitly framed from the perspective of the downtrodden. Zinn’s haunting descriptions of suffering—by the dispossessed, slaves, factory workers, and victims of war—were meant to evoke empathy for the subjugated. But perhaps more important than highlighting those who suffered at the hands of a pitiless elite, A People’s History emphasized those Americans who resisted injustice. Zinn sought to connect the past to the present in a fashion that he believed would prove useful in the promotion of “justice and brotherhood.” Writing an alternative American history was, for Zinn, planting the seeds out of which an alternative American future might flower.

Most Americans who read A People’s History of the United States undoubtedly considered it a major revision. But in fact Zinn’s book was a work of synthesis made possible by a growing body of scholarship, known as social history, which had already unearthed the histories of peoples long neglected by a discipline overattuned to political and economic elites. Social historians sought to prove that even oppressed peoples helped determine the warp and woof of history—that even the wretched had “agency.” Gary Nash’s groundbreaking 1974 book Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America argued that the history of American Indians and black slaves was more than merely a by-product of forces set into motion by European settlers. Rather, the inarticulate hordes actively participated in the forging of a new world. “Africans were not merely enslaved. Indians were not merely driven from the land,” Nash explained. “To include them in our history in this way, simply as victims of the more powerful Europeans, is no better than to exclude them altogether. It is to render voiceless, nameless, and faceless people who powerfully affected the course of our historical development as a nation.”

Social historians maintained that their nontraditional subject matter allowed for a more accurate reading of the past. American Indians, after all, made up a majority of the population of North America during the colonial era. Not accounting for their influence was simply bad history. Of course the historians who resisted their claims on the discipline—those who saw social historians as barbarians at the gates— often invoked the specter of objectivity. In the pages of the American Historical Review, Irwin Unger charged that social historians were motivated by an “exaggerated present-mindedness,” “not by the natural dialogue of the discipline but by the concerns of the outside cultural and political world.” Social historians responded by claiming the very mantle of professional standards that their critics accused them of subverting. Jesse Lemisch, who helped usher in “history from the bottom up” with his groundbreaking work on merchant seamen during the Revolutionary War, scolded the traditionalists: “We will simply not allow you the luxury of continuing to call yourselves politically neutral. We are in the libraries, writing history, trying to cure it of your partisan and self-congratulatory fictions, trying to come a little closer to finding out how things actually were.” In other words, even though social historians were revising the American narrative in radical ways, they shared the methodological and epistemological assumptions of the traditionalist historians with whom they did battle. Whether studies of the founding fathers got us closer to the historical truth than investigations of Revolutionary-era proto-lumpenproletariat was up for debate, not whether or not it was possible to decode objective historical truth in the first place. ...

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