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Political Correctness in The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

Ignoring the advice of his academic friends for a second time (he’d already responded to a review by Max Boot), Thomas Woods complained recently on this site that reviewers of his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History have dismissed it without bothering to refute its evidence or arguments. He has a point. Critical reviews have been long on indignation and short on substance. Most reviewers have been content to cite his claims as if they were self-evidently wrong.

Focusing in particular on his latest critic, David Greenberg, Woods accuses him of objecting to his politics and to the topics covered in PIGAH, but not to"the facts." These, Woods is confident, pass muster. He ran them by David Gordon of the Mises Institute, whose encyclopedic knowledge encompasses the contents of the Library of Congress, and then some.

Unfortunately, Woods’s confidence was misplaced. He especially gets things badly wrong when he crosses the Atlantic. But it’s worth making a couple of observations first about what he covers and what he ignores.

The first thing likely to strike any historian is the paucity of information on the American Revolution. In a book purporting to expose politically correct myths, one might have assumed he would take a moment to defend the Founders from the jejune charges of racism and sexism. But textbook writers also tend to ignore the extent to which the revolutionaries were inspired by fears of British liberality toward Catholics, Indians, and slaves, an unwillingness to pay for the costs of defending the colonies, and some other compelling economic motives. Instead of wading in like a genuine iconoclast, Woods recycles Revolutionary propaganda that the colonists were merely defending their"ancient chartered rights" against the usurpations of Parliament–a view no historian has taken seriously for generations. (Not coincidentally, the Declaration of Independence is never even mentioned.) Politically-correct history is apparently fine if it’s of old enough vintage.

Some of Woods’s criticisms of textbook versions of the Civil War and Reconstruction reek of the current brand of PC as well. Apparently, Northerners were"insensitive" to Southern honor both before and after"the War of Northern Aggression" and Lincoln, it turns out, did not have early 21st century views on race.

It is disingenuous for Woods to claim that he simply chose not to cover slavery in the detail his critics would have liked. His version of the origins of the Civil War is really Hamlet without the Prince. The debate over slavery is represented as merely a surrogate for a more profound and meaningful struggle over tariffs and political power between the North and South. At the same time, constitutional arguments for secession are accepted at face value, as if they didn’t conceal another agenda. It’s not the case, then, that Woods’s gaze is merely directed elsewhere; rather, he simply misrepresents the centrality of the slavery issue in American politics in the four decades before the Civil War.

In my view, however, there’s a lot that Woods gets right in PIGAH. I confess to finding myself wincing as much at the one-star reviews the book has garnered on Amazon.com as at the five-star reviews. The ways in which judges and politicians have subverted the intentions of the men who ratified the Bill of Rights (and Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution and its"general welfare" clause) are ably summarized, and some of the more dramatic contortions that the 14th Amendment has been subjected to are discussed in Chapter 7. Commendable chapters on economic history follow. Given the format and space limitations, Woods does a good job of documenting the destructive tramp of government’s"invisible foot." Anti-trust laws and the New Deal receive their due. Affirmative Action is also deftly skewered, though Woods practices his own version: he devotes a page and a half to JFK’s plagiarisms but ignores MLK’s.

When Woods ventures abroad, however, the book becomes a disaster. On the critical question as to who started World War I, he is clueless. Revisionists, he claims, notably Harry Elmer Barnes, who blamed Britain and France, held sway until the early 1960s, then"the pendulum began to swing back toward German guilt with the work of historian Fritz Fischer. Not all scholars were persuaded by Fischer," however, and the pendulum swung back toward British guilt with Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.

Lots of problems here. No reputable historian took Barnes seriously. He was an embarrassment to the profession and especially to the leading revisionist, Sidney Fay, who made no attempt to exculpate Germany. But Fay’s quasi-relativist case was soon superceded by the work of other historians, especially Luigi Albertini’s three 700-page volumes, required reading for any historian who wishes to write intelligently on the war’s outbreak. The evidence for German guilt in starting the war is overwhelming. Fischer’s great merit was to make the case in Germany itself; he didn’t add much new information. Woods misrepresents Ferguson. Of the ten questions his book attempts to answer, only three concern the war’s outbreak, and Ferguson has no doubt about how the thing started. Question two:"Why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war in 1914?"

Worse follows. In a section devoted entirely to the invasion of Belgium, Woods tells readers that the country was not truly neutral:"it had agreements with France and Britain, and forts dotted its border with Germany (unlike its border with France, which had none)." The first statement is wholly inaccurate: Belgium had no military agreements with either country. Until the very last minute, the anxious French Minister in Brussels was convinced Germany would be given a free passage through Belgium. In 1914 the country had three rings of fortresses, one around Antwerp, one around Liege, and a third around Namur. Woods perhaps had trouble locating Namur on the map. (Hint: check the French border). Belgium scrupulously distributed its six army divisions around the country. Even after the German ultimatum, it sent no reinforcements to the Meuse.

The section on Belgium is devoted mostly to debunking stories about German war crimes, and concludes that"After the war it was well established that the Belgian atrocities were largely fabricated, but the lies did their damage." No footnotes, of course, but Woods’s ultimate source, whether he knows it or not, is most likely an influential book by socialist lightweight Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in Wartime. You don’t have to read the persuasive testimony in five hefty volumes published by Belgian investigators (There was no international investigation), nor the shelves of books by survivors, especially of the destruction of Louvain, the Oxford of Belgium, to see the sheer silliness and implausibility of most of Ponsonby’s charges. No, German soldiers did not cut off babies’ hands. (In fact, there are almost no contemporary newspaper references in Britain and the U.S. to this red herring.) However, the German Army did massacre 5,500 civilians, mostly during a seven-day period in late August. The evidence is irrefutable and appalling, as informed historians have acknowledged for half a dozen years, after decades during which Americans were held in thrall by Leftists citing Ponsonby. (See, for example, J. Horne and A. Kramer, German Atrocities 1914 (New Haven, 2001).) Once again The Politically Incorrect Guide is recycling discredited politically-correct myths, this time from the1920s and 30s.

The real atrocity of the war, for Woods, is the British blockade of Germany. He imagines the tactic is an innovation, apparently unaware that Prussia had blockaded Paris in the most recent of its previous wars, starving thousands. All Germany had to do to end the British blockade was to withdraw from territory it had conquered in Belgium and France, a demand that one might expect a champion of the Confederacy to sympathize with. What was an innovation in the Great War was the German submarine campaign, which Woods hotly defends. Blockaders had never hitherto attacked by stealth, sinking ships without warning, killing passengers and crews. The Germans also pioneered poison gas, flamethrowers, and the ariel bombardment of cities.

But German weaponry wasn’t the issue. The invasion of Belgium was the fourth time in fifty years that Prussian or German troops had poured over their borders to conquer and subjugate their neighbors. They had launched three similar blitzkriegs in the 18th century. Four more would follow World War I, not including the peaceful occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia. There was a pattern here, and it obviously had nothing to do with the Versailles Treaty.

Historians are once again acknowledging what was self-evident to contemporaries: things were different in Germany. (See, for example, I. Hull, Absolute Destruction [Ithaca, 2005].) A military ethos held sway, fortified by Volkish nationalism, Social Darwinism, and fin de siecle recklessness. War and violence were not merely options, but honorable, necessary, and inevitable. There were no checks and balances. The German Chancellor was a courtier, answerable only to the Kaiser. The Reichstag had no real power.

Why does this matter? German culpability has to be suppressed if Woods’s main argument is going to wash, that American presidents sneakily ensnared an unwary nation in European wars the outcome of which was of no interest to the U.S.

The agenda is even more transparent in Woods’s discussion of the origins of World War II. Here is all he has to say about the rise of Hitler: the Nazi leader"appealed to the patriotism and honor of the German people, who detested the Versailles Treaty." Unfortunately, after the Munich agreement, Hitler"alienated Western opinion by going on to occupy nearly all of Czechoslovakia." In a book seething with outrage at Abolitionists and various U.S. presidents, the strongest condemnation Woods can muster is that Hitler was insensitive to public opinion in London and Paris. It is Roosevelt, of course, who is the villain."Even after Hitler abandoned his plans to invade Britain, FDR continued to lend support to the British." The nerve! A typically inaccurate section on German sub attacks on the Greer and Kearney is even entitled"How FDR got Americans into War," though Woods does eventually inform his readers that it was Hitler who declared war on the U.S., and more than three months after the Greer incident. As for Japan, FDR simply gave the country no choice.

Paleo-conservatives repeatedly accuse Neo-conservatives of being Leftist wolves in sheep’s clothing, secret fans of big government. But there are some uncanny resemblances between Paleos and Leftists. The latter reviled the opponents of Communism. If the Soviet Union was the workers’ paradise and Uncle Joe a progressive populist, then Cold Warriors were paranoid zealots. Similarly, if Germany and Japan were merely pursuing their national self-interest, rationally, if a tad aggressively, then Wilson and Roosevelt were unscrupulous demagogues and provocateurs. If you turn mass-murderers into benign statesmen, those who are alarmed by them appear delusional.

Woods condemns Roosevelt, with much justice, for his concessions to Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences. He seems to be aware that not only did Soviet domination of Eastern Europe create unspeakable misery for its inhabitants, but that it was not in American interests. But a Europe run by Prussian militarists or the SS? That’s something we could have happily coexisted with, apparently.

Conversely, he praises Reagan for having" challenged the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall and defeated Communism, while hardly firing a shot." Reagan didn’t have to fire a shot because he had challenged the USSR by more meaningful measures than his plea to Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. Among other things, in a provocative, interventionist act roundly condemned by Paleos and Liberals alike, he placed intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Politically-correct history is offensive not because it seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of privileged groups, but because, in ignoring or denigrating the accomplishments of others and exaggerating or inventing their crimes, it does violence to the historical record. Particularly in his discussion of events in Europe in the 20th century, Woods’s contempt for the evidence is as thoroughgoing as that of any p.c.-textbook-writing hack. It does students no service to expose one set of myths if you’re going to substitute another.