When I was growing up (and I doubt much has changed) elementary school US history consisted largely of mythologizing the beginnings of the country and its Founding Fathers. (Besty Ross designed the US flag? Dead wrong. The citizens of the colonies were unified in their fight against the British? Not even close.) Middle school taught us that America had saved civilization in two world wars. High school history continued that theme in more detail, and was dull, dull, dull. History shouldn’t be conflated with mythology, and it should never be dull. The study of history is messy, complex, and frequently skewed by national interests and priorities. It’s complicated, and oftentimes the most interesting subtleties and subtexts are ignored for the sake of streamlining, simplifying, and even indoctrinating.
If we are entitled to feel pride in the accomplishments of whatever country we come from (and certainly the US has a great many admirable accomplishments to its credit), then we must also be obliged to feel shame at its failings, shortcomings, and crimes. That seems entirely logical to me. It is a truth I hold to be self-evident. The following list does not represent a “liberal” or “conservative” viewpoint – these are simply well-documented facts that should be included in the teaching of American history, a list of things I wish I had been taught in school – some large and some small. They would have made Mr. McCormick’s US History lessons more bearable, and undoubtedly stirred debate and discussion – something woefully lacking in my childhood classrooms.
Christopher Columbus was something of a bumbling idiot and a lot more than something of a murderous sadist. Let’s dismiss the popular myths. First, as we all know, Columbus didn’t ‘discover’ the New World; it was pretty thickly populated when he arrived, and he wasn’t even the first European to reach its shores – North America had been explored and briefly settled by the Norse explorer Lief Ericson 500 years earlier. Secondly, by the time Columbus set sail to find a new route to East Asia and the valuable Spice Islands, most people already believed that the world was round – as had in fact been demonstrated by Aristotle over 1,800 years earlier. Thirdly, Columbus bounced around the Caribbean for eight years but never set foot on, or even guessed the existence of, the landmass that became known as the United States.
Upon arriving in the Bahamas in 1492, (which he thought was India, thus the term “Indians” for Native Americans) Columbus discovered that the native Lucayan, Taíno and Arawak peoples were, in his own words, handsome, smart, kind and hospitable people. To repay their kindness and hospitality, Columbus seized their land and enslaved them to work in horrific gold mines, allowing his subordinates to cut off the hands of miners who didn’t meet quotas and tie them around the men’s necks, and sell girls as young as nine into sexual slavery. The atrocities were so numerous, so brutal (Bartolome De Las Casas described how the Spaniards under Columbus’ command cut off the legs of children to test the sharpness of their blades, and that in a single day he witnessed Spanish soldiers dismembering, beheading, or raping over 3000 native people) and so well known that he was actually arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. But Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, gorging on the gold of the New World, pardoned him.
Today, Ratko Mladić stands trial in The Hague for the slaughter of an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebenica, Bosnia. Columbus makes him look like a rank amateur in the areas of gratuitous violence and ethnic cleansing. Columbus’ expeditions certainly brought about monumental changes in Europe and the Americas. The nature of those changes needs to be examined in the curricula of American schools, and the truth told.
Benjamin Franklin was an exuberant bon vivant and a bit of a pervert. Benjamin Franklin, a true Renaissance man, America’s Da Vinci without all the art, creator of the lightning rod, signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution, author, publisher, inventor, diplomat, political theorist, musician, politician and postmaster, was also a school dropout (his formal education didn’t extend past the second grade), adulterer, begetter of a bastard son, and regular attendee of ‘meetings’ of the notorious Hellfire Club. What? Why didn’t they tell us this stuff in school? Although rumors abound regarding the legions of illegitimate children old Ben left behind, only one, William, was officially recognized by Franklin. (During the Revolution, William sided with the British, and left with them at the war’s conclusion, settling in England for the remainder of his days.)
The so-called Hellfire Club, which Franklin attended with his good friend and club leader Sir Francis Dashwood, was a secret society that engaged primarily in mocking traditional religion and having sexual orgies. If he was there as a spy, as some historians have claimed, he appears to have been an enthusiastic one, penetrating deep undercover indeed.
Not only did Ben Franklin tell us that “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” he also advised us to marry an older woman, because people deteriorate from the head down – “the lower parts” remain “plump as ever” – so below the waist and in the dark it is impossible to tell “an old one from a young one;” moreover, sex with an older woman “is at least equal and frequently superior; every Knack being by Practice capable of improvement.” Now that’s a MILFy tidbit of information that would have livened up history lessons.
The French won the American Revolution. Without the assistance of the French (and you can thank the brilliant Ben Franklin for some of that) the colonists would have lost their war of independence. From formally recognizing the United States in February of 1778 to providing massive naval, infantry, and other assistance that helped stymie the British, the French saved the rebellion from being a localized event floundering in a fog of conflicting interests and loyalties and launched it onto the international stage.
The battle of Yorktown, the event that effectively won the war, can, according to historian Robert Harvey, “be seen as overwhelmingly a land and sea battle between the French and the British, with the Americans playing a supporting role.” In fact, when Britain’s Brigadier Charles O’Hara met with the French and American victors to surrender, he pointedly presented his sword to General Rochambeau rather than George Washington, signifying that the British had been defeated by the French, not the Americans. US history books, of course, either downplay or ignore completely the role of the French in the Revolution.
Thanksgiving Day is also a National Day of Mourning. Every year on Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans gather in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to remember the invasion of their lands and the subsequent continent-wide genocide that followed. Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of such a thing.
In 1921, to celebrate the tricentennial of the first Thanksgiving, Massachusetts began staging an annual reenactment, in which folks in 17th century costume attended a sermon, offered up prayers, and marched to Plymouth Rock. In 1970, the state invited local Wampanoag leader Frank James, aka Wamsutta, to speak at the celebration, but when they reviewed his speech they decided that it was inappropriate (it was based on a Pilgrim’s firsthand contemporary account and mentioned the settlers’ appropriation of Indian bean and corn supplies and the selling of Wampanoag as slaves) and gave him an alternative one written by a PR person. Wamsutta declined the honor of reading the document, and instead he and a group of supporters went to Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the replica of the Mayflower, and gave his original speech, inaugurating the National Day of Mourning.
Obviously young children are not to be given the details of the widespread and systematic atrocities perpetrated against the indigenous populations of America, for example the so-called Chivington Massacre, in which, according to testimony given to a US Congressional committee at the time, a peaceful encampment of Cheyennes and Arapahos “were scalped; their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children…beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” But certainly they could be given a more balanced account of the founding of the United States?
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely unnecessary. The war with Japan was effectively over. By June 0f 1945, Japan could no longer sustain war on any front, and American General Curtis LeMay, in charge of air attacks, was complaining that after months of firebombing there was nothing of value left to destroy. Japan could no longer defend itself, and US planes could fly over Japan without resistance.
In fact, in April and May of 1945, Japan made three attempts through neutral Sweden and Portugal to surrender, and on July 25, during the Potsdam Conference, Japan contacted Russian Foreign Minister Molotov to try to get the message through that Japan was desperate for peace. These overtures were ignored by the Truman administration, even though Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” He goes on to say that “our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives….Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender.”
So why did the Truman administration drop the bombs? Well, they had already spent $2 billion developing the atomic weapons, and that investment had to be justified. More importantly, they wanted to strike fear into the hearts of the Russians. General Leslie Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project, testified in 1954: “There was never…any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and that the Project was conducted on that basis.” Historian Charles L. Mee writes that “the psychological effect on Stalin was twofold. The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians.”
I learned, and I imagine that American schoolchildren still learn, that the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to bring the war to a swift close and save further bloodshed. That is not true. And things that are willfully expressed in full knowledge of their untruth are generally called ‘lies.’ I’d rather that my children weren’t lied to about basic historical facts.
Now all of this sounds like I have a bone to pick, that I bear some sort of anti-American grudge. I do not. I feel privileged to be an American, and happy that I hail from a place where academic study allows for this kind of information to be available to all. I feel that the highest form of patriotism is found not in putting on blinders and waving the flag, but in peering behind the smoke and mirrors and admiring your country for all its faults and foibles as well as its fine points. It is these unsavory truths that are missing in the white-washed, watered-down version of history that is ladled out to our kids. They deserve full disclosure. They deserve the truth.