Reading Thomas Woods's "Politically Incorrect Guide to American History."
11:00 PM, Feb 14, 2005 • By MAX BOOT
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.
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.