Max Boot: Thomas Wood's Factually Wrong History

Roundup: Talking About History

Max Boot, in the Weekly Standard (2-15-05):

[Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, and a foreign-affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times.]

I FIRST BECAME AWARE of Thomas E. Woods Jr.'s Politically Incorrect Guide to American History when the New York Times Book Review took note of its rise on the paperback bestseller list and described it as a "neocon retelling of this nation's back story." A neocon retelling? What would that be, exactly? Curious to find out, I cracked open The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

It gets off to a slow start with a recitation of civics-text nuggets. Bet you didn't know that the Constitution "established three distinct branches of government--executive, legislative, and judicial--and provided 'checks and balances' by which each branch could resist the encroachments of another"!

Soon enough, however, the guide starts to slip from conventional history into a Bizarro world where every state has the right to disregard any piece of federal legislation it doesn't like or even to secede. "There is, obviously, no provision in the Constitution that explicitly authorizes nullification," the author concedes, but Woods nevertheless is convinced that this right exists. His source? Mainly the writings of the Southern pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun.

Woods is only getting warmed up. Next he comes to the origins of the "Civil War" which, it seems, was pretty much the fault of Northern abolitionists whose writings "seethed with loathing for the entire South" and "only served to discredit anti-slavery activity in the South." You might be wondering about those quotation marks around Civil War. Woods doesn't think that's a proper description of the conflict. He likes "War Between the States," the preferred term of Southern sympathizers. "Other, more ideologically charged (but nevertheless much more accurate) names for the conflict," he adds, helpfully, "include the War for Southern Independence and even the War of Northern Aggression." According to Woods, the war wasn't really about slavery (no mention of the Emancipation Proclamation). It was really about the desire of Northern plutocrats to protect themselves from the threat of commerce being diverted to "the South's low-tariff or free trade regime." He approvingly quotes H.L. Mencken's comment that Union soldiers "actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves." Well, not quite all their people. But the plight of African-Americans does not concern Woods any more than it did Mencken. Later on, he expresses disgust with federal desegregation policy in the 1950s and 1960s.

But first Woods gives a Gone With the Wind version of Reconstruction, with evil Republican carpetbaggers trying to rape the virtuous South. He is particularly upset about the 14th Amendment (he claims it was never lawfully ratified) because it barred former Confederates from holding political office. "Thus," Woods laments, "the natural leadership class of the South would be disqualified from office and disgraced forever by having been dishonored in a constitutional amendment." It never occurs to Woods that "the natural leadership class" may have disgraced itself already by holding fellow human beings in bondage.

Woods's sympathy extends not only to slave-owning rebels but also to German militarists. The Kaiser wasn't really such a bad guy for invading neutral Belgium in 1914. After all, the Germans had "agreed to compensate Belgians for any damage or for any victuals consumed along the way." Tales of German atrocities he writes off as British propaganda (as some were--but not all). The real atrocity, he thinks, was Britain's naval blockade of Germany. In any case, whatever the merits of the European conflict, "No American interest was at stake, and American security was not threatened in the slightest." He seems to think that it was Woodrow Wilson's fault that Germany began sinking American ships without warning, which led the United States into the war. No mention is made of the famous Zimmerman Telegram, another casus belli. This was the document in which Germany's foreign minister offered Mexico the return of the American Southwest if it would declare war on the United States.

Woods apparently thinks that American entry into World War II was as unjustified as its entry into World War I. One section is titled, "How FDR got Americans into war." (Silly me, thinking it was Hitler and Tojo who were to blame.) Another section is devoted to defending the isolationist America First Committee, which he claims was the victim of "FDR's witch hunt." He actually shows great restraint by not repeating the old canard that Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor raid and let it happen anyway. But he does pretty much accept the argument of Japanese militarists that they had no choice but to attack the United States because Roosevelt had imposed an economic embargo.

WHILE SYMPATHETIC TO FASCISTS, Woods has no love lost for communists. He is a big fan of Joe McCarthy; he never acknowledges any of the harm the bombastic senator did to the anti-communist movement. But not even his loathing of communism can make Woods overcome his opposition to any U.S. interventions abroad. He agrees with isolationist critics that the Truman Doctrine to assist nations battling communism was "utopian, unrealistic, partial toward big government, and thoughtless of cost." He also accuses Truman of violating the Constitution by resisting the communist invasion of South Korea without getting a declaration of war from Congress. He does not seem to realize that previous presidents had sent U.S. troops into battle hundreds of times without any declaration of war. But then his book doesn't mention the Barbary Wars or the Indian Wars.

By the time you get to the final chapter, it is no surprise to find the author's venom toward Bill Clinton. He's not upset about Clinton's moral peccadilloes but about his forays abroad. "Commander-in-chief Clinton dispatched the military overseas an amazing forty-four times during his eight years," Woods writes indignantly. "The American military had been deployed outside of our borders only eight times in the previous forty-five years." Really? The U.S. military was only deployed abroad eight times between 1948 and 1993? Woods offers no source for this claim. According to the Congressional Research Service, the actual figure is 57 times--and two of those instances were the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Woods is particularly indignant about the dispatch of U.S. troops to the Balkans, "an area of no strategic interest to the United States." "What did Clinton's intervention achieve?" he demands. Uhhh, it stopped genocide and ethnic cleansing? Not according to Woods, who writes that the "Balkans remain seething with violence and hatred." (So do some major American cities.)

HAVING FINISHED this absurd manifesto, I was curious to learn more about its author. All the book tells you is that he has a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Columbia. A quick Internet search reveals that he is an assistant professor of history at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, and a founding member of the League of the South. According to its website, the League "advocates the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic." As an interim step before this glorious goal is achieved, the League urges its members to "fly Confederate flags at your residence or business every day" and to "become as self-sufficient as possible"--"if possible, raise chickens and keep a cow to provide eggs and dairy products for your family and friends." The League also counsels "white Southerners" that they should not "give control over their civilization and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants."

It tells you something about how debased political terminology has become when a leading light of the nutty League of the South is identified in the Paper of Record as a "neocon." The original neocons, like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, were former Democrats who accepted the welfare state, racial equality, and other liberal accomplishments while insisting on a more assertive foreign policy than the McGovernites wanted. In other words, pretty much the opposite of what Woods believes. Woods is a paleocon, not a neocon. His online writings (helpfully collected by the blog isthatlegal.org) seethe with hatred for everything that neoconservatism (and modern America) stands for. Just after September 11, he wrote that the "barbarism of recent American foreign policy was bound to lead to a terrorist catastrophe on American soil." Just before the Iraq War, he wrote that the Bush administration had undertaken an "open-ended commitment" to wage "war after war against the enemies of Israel, at America's expense." He blames this "imperial bluster" on "the neoconservative stable of armchair generals."

There are a number of respectable books by real scholars that tell U.S. history from a conservative (if not a "neoconservative") perspective, such as Paul Johnson's A History of the American People or Walter McDougall's A New American History (only the first volume has been published so far). Conservatives looking to inoculate themselves or their children from liberal indoctrination would be well advised to steer clear of Woods's corrosive cornucopia of canards. Shame on Regnery, a once-respectable publishing house, for lending its imprimatur to such tripe. Woods' book is politically incorrect, all right. It's also morally incorrect. And factually incorrect.

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Vince Treacy - 4/17/2005

The author, Zack Moore, Feb. 26, 2005, likes the sound of "War Between the States," but repeats many cherished neo-Confederate myths that are demonstrably false.

He argues that the term Civil War “denotes two factions fighting to take control of the same government.” That is precisely what happened. The southern states never legally left the Union. They remained apart of United States, and stars stayed on the Stars and Strips, throughout the war. The war was truly a “civil war” by the United States to suppress a rebellion in its own land.

There was no right of succession spelled out anywhere in the Constitution, and the notion that there was some implied right to withdraw was, and is, patently false. The only legal means for a state to leave was provided in Article V, the amending process. Any state that wanted to withdraw could simply have a constitutional amendment passed by two-thirds of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the States, and then would be free to go. In 1861, Congress actually passed a proposed amendment to preserve slavery in the south permanently, without any possibility of future amendments. The pro-southern President Buchanan actually signed it and sent it to the states.

But was this lawful, peaceful process good enough for the Confederates? No! They had to try to destroy our nation, to seek alliances with our enemies, and to kill hundreds of thousands of people, all in the cause of preserving their right to enslave peopel in their own states and to expand slavery into new lands.

He says the Emancipation Proclamation “didn't free any slaves.” Again, this is a false statement. The Proclamation freed nearly a million slaves, in law, on the day it was signed. Any slave who walked across Union lines on that day became free, while earlier he might have been returned to his owner. A million slaves became free, in fact, as the United States Army advanced against the Confederates. Between 100, 000 and 200,000 free black men fought bravely to end slavery and to preserved the Union, and every American owes them an undying debt of gratitude for their undaunted courage in fighting to save the unity of our nation in the face of a traitorous rebellion founded on unrelenting racism.

The author writes that “Lincoln didn't free one single slave in the states in which he had the right to free them.” This is another false historical statement. Lincoln had no power under the Constitution to free slaves in the United States, since that required a Constitutional Amendment. When Congress did pass the Thirteenth Amendment, he signed it and sent it to the States for ratification.

The Proclamation was limited to areas in rebellion because it was based on Lincoln’s emergency powers in time of war. The Confederates, like the Nazi’s in World War II and the Soviets in the Cold War, used slave labor as an integral part of their military operations, for everything from construction labor to personal servants. The Proclamation denied this military asset to an enemy, and enhanced the Union military by allowing free blacks to join the Army.

He says “that the Stars and Stripes flew atop most slave ships,” but the slave trade had been abolished 50 years earlier.

He asks “how many times did the Confederates attempt to force a Northern state into the Confederacy.” They didn’t, but only because they lost the war. Their own actions tell us that the victorious Confederates would have done anything to expand their slave empire. The basic cause of the war was the southern drive to expand slavery to the territories and to bring free federal lands into the U.S. as slave states. The war was triggered only because Lincoln had been elected, lawfully, on a free-soil platform. The Confederates wanted to expand slavery. When Lee’s troops invaded Pennsylvania, for example, they tried to round up free black citizens and sent them south to be sold into slavery.

He asks if some states in America didn’t “secede from a country that did something like this, England?” So what? The colonists sent no representatives to Parliament and had no voice in selecting the King or his ministers and judges. To the contrary, the southern states helped elect many pro-southern Presidents, sent Senators to a body with equal representation for the south, and helped confirm pro-southern Justices on the Supreme Court. They were full participants in their government.

Most importantly, the unwritten British constitution had no provision for colonial participation in its amendment. The Confederates, by contrast, could have peacefully proposed a constitutional amendment under Article V of the United States Constitution allowing the southern states to go in peace. Who knows? It might have passed. At any rate, they should have exhausted their legal options before rebelling.

Everyone interested in dispelling these Civil War myths should read Alfred Guelzo’s magnificent book, Emancipation Proclamation.

Zack Moore - 2/26/2005

Congress likes that name as well since they officially named it The War Between the States in the 1950's. You also need to research the term Civil War. That denotes two factions fighting to take control of the same government. The Confederate States had a capital in Richmond and the United States had a capital in Washington. I believe they both had constitutions and how many times did the Confederates attempt to force a Northern state into the Confederacy. Also, you may be unaware that not only did many Northeners own slaves at some time in America but that the Stars and Stripes flew atop most slave ships that arrived in America. Ironically, these ships often came to port in Northern states. Lastly, many of your Southern "natural leadership class" looked very similar to their Northern counterparts. Names such as Mary Lincoln and U.S. Grant. Were these folks involved with slavery? Surely not? As for the Emacipation Proclamation, it didn't free any slaves, for Lincoln didn't free one single slave in the states in which he had the right to free them. Could that be because it was issued as a war measure, in hopes of creating a rebellion to send some of the Confederate troops back home to defend the farm. Also, didn't some states in America secede from a country that did something like this, England? A proponent of slavery, not me, but don't blame one region of America for the wrongs of every pre 1860 state. If you want Abe Lincoln's take on slavery and the war, take a look at his 1st Inaugural Address. His words, not mine. Learn some facts before you attack an author's work.

Michael Green - 2/25/2005

I hope that conservatives and liberals alike take heart from Max Boot's comments. I rarely agree with Mr. Boot, which hardly means that his views are wrong and mine are right, but I say that to underscore that what Thomas Woods has done is to take a proper term like politically incorrect and make it a synonym for inaccuracy. But I don't think that I would go so far as Mr. Boot and call Regnery "once-reputable." Once?