For thousands of years political thinkers have recognized that myths are essential instruments of political power. Plato’s vision of a well-ordered republic famously employed a Myth of Metals to justify inequality. Similarly, Nietzsche argued that myths were necessary in the creation of national identity and, indeed, for human life to propel itself forward.
Two recent books, Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons and Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths make great strides toward challenging conventional myths and broadening our understanding of American history. Raphael works within the interstices of American mythology to reveal the genealogy of fictional stories central to the American “founding.” Lindaman and Ward demythologize U.S. history by compiling textbooks from nations with whom the U.S. has engaged to examine events such as the Monroe Doctrine from a Caribbean perspective or the way the Vietnam War is taught in Vietnam. From their respective vantage points, both reveal the highly myopic and provincial perspective that often shapes the American understanding of American history.
Two central questions underscore both projects: Why is it important to challenge the myths that constitute American folklore and what have been and are likely to be the consequences of these myths? If they are simply benign stories of heroism that make Americans feel proud and forge a national identity, shouldn’t we let them persist?
One of the brightest and most illustrative moments of Raphael’s book is his short chapter on the famed order given by American generals at the Battle of Bunker Hill to “wait until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has taught generations of Americans that the Revolutionary War was an intimate and personal war of brave individuals confronting their British oppressors. As Raphael explains, “In Revolutionary times, we prefer to believe, the glory of war was not diminished by impersonal slaughter.” Thus, the war of independence would be seen quite differently if the bloodshed was the result of out and out massacre, as war often is. More importantly, this myth propagates a dangerous view of war, one that World War I diaries have refuted and the poems of Siegfried Sassoon have given voice to as people can often motivate themselves to kill other humans only so long as they can’t see the “whites of their eyes.” It is for this reason that generations of war psychologists have had to desensitize soldiers in order to kill – victory often depends upon the namelessness and facelessness of one’s enemy.
The glorification of war, as Raphael illustrates with his demystification of Paul Revere’s ride, the fictitious Molly Pitcher, and Sam Adams as a revolutionary patriot, requires that heroes and their stories be continuously created and fed in order for a nation to build upon the past that it takes for granted. Raphael sees a paradox, arguing that “The image of a perfect American in a mythic past hides our Revolutionary roots, and this we do not need.” In reconsidering American history, Raphael contends that Americans will be able to discover the stories of real people who can be the source of a true patriotism. Raphael’s goal is to peal away the layers of fiction that serve only to obscure our own past, and that prevent the actions and sacrifices of real Americans from defining American history.
While Raphael seeks to expose and interrogate assumptions of the past that constitute American identity, Lindaman and Ward prove themselves to be true revisionist historians, in the most literal sense. Revisionist history is inevitably a controversial practice as many Americans—as is true of any people—are uncomfortable questioning the veracity of the stories they were told as children, and no doubt passed along to their children as well. But Lindaman and Ward return “revisionism” to its perspectivist roots to re-vision, or look at a historical moment from a different vantage point.
This is precisely what one truly concerned with understanding history must do. As we have seen from the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides to contemporary historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, all historians take perspectives. Sometimes they even lie for tragic effect or narrative flow. Recognizing this, Lindaman and Ward help us to look at our own history and consider different perspectives that official American doctrine does not often allow. As one might expect, these perspectives are not attempts at rewriting “Truth,” but rather making it clear that we Americans are as biased in the writing of our history as are other nations. Just as Raphael shows us how perspective and the national imperatives that shape it affect how we see ourselves, Lindaman and Ward demonstrate how other nations view the history of their involvement with the United States.
One of the most exciting chapters in Lindaman and Ward’s book is about what the Cubans simply call “The Missile Crisis.” Unlike most American textbooks, which point to an unprovoked act of aggression by Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, Cuban textbooks describe the “crisis” as a reaction to continual threats from American “imperialist forces” such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, as well as a logical response to assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. An excerpt from a Canadian text reveals yet another perspective, focusing on the Kennedy’s unilateralism in dealing with the situation: “Neither [Canadian PM] Diefenbaker nor his ministers were consulted—much less informed—about the decision [to ready American military forces and nuclear capabilities for war]. The prime minister was furious that a megalomaniac American president could, in effect, push the button that would destroy Canada.”
Several of Lindaman and Ward’s entries serve to broaden the usual treatment of events offered by American textbooks. A chapter from Nigeria on the Atlantic slave trade, for example, frankly acknowledges the financial benefits Nigeria received from selling off many of its people, while an excerpt from Zimbabwe blasts its colonial master, Great Britain, for forcing it into slavery. The British entry, in turn, praises itself for being among the first nations to ban slavery.
Lindaman and Ward’s book is timely and important. At a moment when the credibility and standing of the United States in the world has been called into question, and where political candidates increasingly need to prove their willingness to act unilaterally to be considered “strong” by the American electorate, understanding how the world is taught to see America is in the best interest of the nation, if not to attain respect and trust, then as a matter of long term national security. Whether or not he is right, George W. Bush’s claim that the United States has always been a force for good is not a view shared around the world, and many important clues to the “global test” that John Kerry rightly suggested the United States should be considering can be found in History Lessons.
Perhaps more importantly, these books call into question whether a nation so deeply invested in a set of national myths that obscure the diversity of perspectives in our pluralistic society, and increasingly unwilling to put itself in the shoes of others looking at American global behavior, can make decisions that will make it stronger or pursue the equality or justice to which American founding documents lay claim. For example, the contemporary myth of a delimited and productive heterosexual nuclear family, which has never in fact existed, is being used to deny rights to gay and lesbian citizens and roll back a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Similarly, a decade ago, the legend of the “welfare queen” conditioned a large number of Americans to believe that efforts to combat poverty are nothing more than a waste of their tax dollars. National mythologies that conveniently serve the interests of economic or religious factions, or that can create an historical foundation that urges mobilization for war, can have real and serious consequences.
These revisionist historians do not advocate denying America the right to a past. But the spirit that unites both books is the conviction that a nation’s guiding assumptions must be continually re-examined before they can serve as a sound basis for future action. History Lessons and Founding Myths show that looking back and reconsidering history is a prerequisite of the very possibility of moving forward.