A review: The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
380 pages, Regnery Publishing, Inc. (December, 2004)
“Political correctness,” or PC, is an unfortunate term that’s been kicking around for at least 20 years. Essentially, it’s shorthand for “progressive,” or modern liberalism. Few progressives still use the term “PC,” yet those on the Right still like to remind the public of the arrogant tendencies of progressives that the term PC reflects.
Of late, progressives that adopt a holier-than-thou pose like to describe America as a great red/blue state divide. Red states are populated by Neanderthals, people who vote Republican, are uneducated and “stupid,” watch NASCAR, overeat, and tote guns. Progressives live in blue states, vote Democrat, are educated and “smart,” are (or aspire to be) vegan, and have children who play soccer.
Of course, these stereotypes are just that, broad generalities and tendencies, put pejoratively. However, attitudes are forged in part by our reading of history, as well as the values we adopt as our own. Enter Professor Thomas Woods, a Harvard undergrad and Columbia Ph.D., who teaches history at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, NY.
The premise of his Politically Incorrect Guide appears to be that “history is written by the victors,” and is often mistaken, or at least highly biased. Like journalism, history involves not only selecting relevant facts, but also interpreting those facts for today’s readers. We rely on the historical scholarship of writers to pick and choose from a broad array of facts and weave them together into a coherent story. Invariably, the historian’s biases are reflected in what he or she writes.
In this breezy, easy-to-read offering, Woods shines a light on what he considers some of the more distorted aspects of the “conventional wisdom” of American history. He has his own take on these events, and assertively offers a different interpretation of the conventional wisdom, filtered as it is through the PC lens.
The book appears to have set out to be provocative, beginning with the title. It is not especially scholarly, unlike, say, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, which was a dense re-telling of 20th century history. Woods seems to target the layperson with short nuggets of facts, sidebars, and the occasional re-interpretation. Some, like the reviewer at Publishers Weekly, will be off put by this Guide and “Woods’s cherry-picking approach and supercilious tone.”
“Cherry-picking” seems inherent in this project. As to supercilious, Woods certainly does not hold back on his interpretation of the relevant facts of history. To call this book “the guide” versus “a guide” does, however, open Woods up to the charge of arrogance. He, for instance, clearly comes down on the side of the “anti-Federalists” in the early years of the republic. Woods reads the US Constitution with a very narrow, confederation-of-nation-states, perspective.
He, and/or the publishers, found the graphic of a Confederate soldier to be an appropriate image for the book’s cover. To some, the Confederacy still represents the view that states had the procedural right to secede and maintain its “peculiar institution”— i.e. slavery. Of course, one can object to much of “PC” history and also object to the methods used by the Confederate states to secede and thereby attempt to maintain their “rights.”
Surely there was a case to be made at one point that the “nation” was actually a “confederation,” in which any region/state could secede at any time, for any reason. The Constitution— a largely procedural document— is indisputably silent on the matter. The case was murky then, and it’s even murkier now. One need only read the Paris Treaty of Peace of 1783 to see that. At times it reads as if Great Britain was acknowledging, in a most condescending manner, the existence of 13 separate nation-states. At others, it reads as if the US was one nation.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic Civil Disobedience: “The lawyer’s truth is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.” Woods makes a pretty good lawyer’s truth for the right of secession. But some would argue that the Truth was that the seceding states took their precipitous act in an unjustified manner. A profound error was made in forging this nation— slaves remained chattel, despite the best efforts of some of the Founding Fathers. The Truth is, though, that slaves were not asked whether they wished to secede from the Union. The people of the seceding states did not vote to secede; only some did. Woods glosses over this fact.
Similarly, another profound error in the nation’s creation involved Native Americans. (Woods refers to them as “American Indians,” which in some quarters is not PC. In this case, PCers have a point, since confused European explorers— thinking they were in India— branded them with the term “Indian.”) While the pre-Revolutionary treatment of Native Americans may not have been as gruesome as some history texts would have us believe, Woods does not address the many injustices meted out against these indigenous peoples in the 19th century by the US government, at least, according to conventional wisdom, PC or not.
Woods does a great service in his retelling the story of 20th century America, however. The reader of this Guide cannot help but conclude that Wilson’s sanity was in question. Woods chronicles his erratic and often mendacious pronouncements, all in the name of promoting his doomed-to-fail League of Nations concept.
His praise for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, while short, is refreshing. The Harding and Coolidge administrations were marked by profound peace and prosperity, when the unemployment rates fell to as low as 1 percent, with the nation recovering from Wilson’s gallivanting adventures in World War I. This is even more impressive when we consider that the US was absorbing millions of immigrants during this period. He quotes Coolidge as saying: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”
Unlike the conventional history of the Great Depression, Woods retells the Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt years. Hoover, although a Republican, effectively started the New Deal. The FDR administration’s own Rexford Tugwell later acknowledged this, saying: “We didn’t admit it at the time, but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” Hoover attacked the free market through a series of interventions, such as creating the Federal Farm Bureau and Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and passing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
FDR extended the Hoover policies to points of absurdity. FDR’s National Industry Recovery Act, among other things, created government-sanctioned cartels that set minimum prices, clearly not a pro-consumer policy. And, while many Americans were having a hard time putting food on the table and clothes on their backs, the FDR administration was ordering six million pigs to be slaughtered and 10 million acres of cotton to be destroyed.
Conventional PC history books tell us that the nation was in economic crisis, and that “something had to be done” to avert the nation from plunging into economic chaos. That may be, but destroying food when there were people starving in the streets seems to have been contra-indicated, according to common sense. Woods correctly challenges the lore that FDR “ended” the Great Depression, noting that “under FDR, unemployment averaged a whopping 18 percent from 1933 to 1940.”
Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt” for Communists in the government was singled out for re-examination by Woods. He concludes that McCarthy was directionally correct— there were Communists in government. He doesn’t, however, note that McCarthy’s tactics— advised by the young Robert Kennedy and Roy Cohn— were accusatory, slipshod and rough, as well as being, in many ways, counterproductive. Woods concludes that perhaps McCarthy was “reckless,” but that his deeds were “minor” compared with the other cover-ups of Soviet-backed espionage in the US government.
The Kennedy-Johnson years are retold, too. Woods points out that both men had checkered political careers, and both were given to electoral manipulation that makes the more recent “hanging chad” episode seem tame, indeed.
The Politically Incorrect Guide has been a commercial success, so congratulations are in order. This book helps us begin to understand how we got here. Woods’s take is but one interpretation and clearly not the final word in our unending search for the Truth.