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Some right-wingers ignore facts as they intone U.S. history | Seattle Times Newspaper

Some right-wingers ignore facts as they intone U.S. history

The recent rejiggering of Texas textbooks put a focus to many recent conservative claims that Jamestown was a socialist flop and that Joe McCarthy was a hero.

By Steven Thomma

McClatchy Newspapers

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam in 1934. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has blamed FDR for causing the Depression, when in fact thousands of banks had failed and the jobless rate was nearly 25 percent before he took office.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of Grand Coulee Dam in 1934. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has blamed FDR for causing the Depression, when in fact thousands of banks had failed and the jobless rate was nearly 25 percent before he took office.

WASHINGTON — The right is rewriting history.

The most ballyhooed effort is under way in Texas, where conservatives have pushed the state school board to rewrite guidelines, downplaying Thomas Jefferson in one high-school course, playing up such conservatives as Phyllis Schlafly and challenging the idea the Founding Fathers wanted to separate church and state.

The effort reaches far beyond one state, however.

In articles and speeches, on radio and TV, some conservatives are working to redefine major turning points and influential figures in American history, often to slam liberals, promote Republicans and reinforce their positions in today’s politics.

The Jamestown settlers? Socialists. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton? Ill-informed professors made up all that bunk about him advocating a strong central government.

Theodore Roosevelt? Another socialist. Franklin Roosevelt? Not only did he not end the Great Depression, he also created it.

Joe McCarthy? Liberals lied; he was a hero.

Some conservatives say it’s a long-overdue swing of the pendulum after years of liberal efforts to define history on their terms in classrooms and in popular culture.

“We are adding balance,” Texas school-board member Don McLeroy said. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

The effort in Texas and nationwide is controversial, however, even among many conservatives. McLeroy was defeated in a recent primary after he led the campaign for a more conservative version of history, a defeat the National Review, a leading conservative magazine and Web site, called “sensible.”

While some conservative intellectuals say some of the revisionist history is simply wrong, the effort reflects the ever-changing view of history, which is always subject to revision, thanks to new information or new ways of looking at things.

“History in the popular world is always a political football,” said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University. “The right is unusually mobilized at the moment.”


Fritz Fischer, a historian at the University of Northern Colorado and chairman of the National Council for History Education, said, “Part of the tide of history is that it’s contested terrain. We should always be arguing and questioning what happened in the past.”

It’s not just historians who contest history, however. It’s also politicians and pundits.

The left has done it.

Fischer cited the case of former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, whose essay claiming the Sept. 11 attacks were the fruit of illegal U.S. policies became a cause célèbre. Fischer said Churchill “ignored a lot of evidence and made some up to promulgate a particular political belief.”

Now, it’s the right.

“There’s clearly a political impetus behind this that connects to the issues of today,” Fischer said, such as labeling President Obama a socialist. “But when history is ignored to do it, that can be dangerous.”

Here are five recent examples of new conservative versions of history:


Reaching for an example of how bad socialism can be, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said recently that the people who settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607 were socialists and that their ideology doomed them.

“Jamestown colony, when it was first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and dying in the snow,” he said in a speech March 15 at the National Press Club.

It was a good, strong story, helping Armey, a former economics professor, illustrate the dangers of socialism, the ideology he and other conservatives say is at the core of Obama’s agenda.

It was not, however, true.

The Jamestown settlement was a capitalist venture financed by the Virginia Company of London — a joint stock corporation — to make a profit. The colony nearly foundered owing to a harsh winter, brackish water and lack of food, but reinforcements enabled it to survive. It was never socialistic. In fact, in 1619, Jamestown planters imported the first African slaves to the 13 colonies that later formed the United States.


At the same event, Armey urged people to read the Federalist Papers as a guide to the sentiments of the tea-party movement.

“The small-government conservative movement, which includes people who call themselves the tea-party patriots and so forth, is about the principles of liberty as embodied in the Constitution, the understanding of which is fleshed out if you read things like the Federalist Papers,” Armey said.

Others such as Democrats and the news media, “People here who do not cherish America the way we do” don’t understand because, “They did not read the Federalist Papers,” he said.

A member of the audience asked Armey how the Federalist Papers could be such a tea-party manifesto when they were written largely by Alexander Hamilton, who the questioner said “was widely regarded then and now as an advocate of a strong central government.”

Armey ridiculed the very suggestion.

“Widely regarded by whom?” he asked. “Today’s modern, ill-informed political-science professors?”

Hamilton, however, was an unapologetic advocate of a strong central government, one that plays an active role in the economy and is led by a president named for life and thus beyond the emotions of the people. Hamilton also pushed for excise taxes and customs duties to pay down federal debt.

Ian Finseth said in a history written for the University of Virginia, others at the constitutional convention “thought his proposals went too far in strengthening the central government.”


Theodore Roosevelt was long an icon of the Republican Party, a dynamic leader who ushered in the Progressive era, busting trusts, regulating robber barons, building the Panama Canal and sending the U.S. fleet around the world announcing ascendant American power.

Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck, however, says he was a socialist whose legacy is destroying America. It started, Beck said, with Roosevelt’s admonition to the wealthy of his day to spend their riches for the good of society.

“Is this what the Republican Party stands for? Well, you should ask members of the Republican Party, because this is not our founders’ idea of America. And this is the cancer that’s eating at America. It is big government; it’s a socialist utopia,” Beck said.

There’s no doubt that Roosevelt was a domestic-policy liberal by today’s standards. In a 1910 speech in Kansas, he acknowledged that his “New Nationalism” meant “far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.”

The 26th president insisted, however, that he wanted the government to guarantee opportunity, not a handout.

“The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare,” he said.

“Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. … Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him.”

In his autobiography three years later, Roosevelt went on to dismiss the tenets of socialism as taught by Karl Marx as “an exploded theory.”

In addition, Roosevelt didn’t advocate government ownership of the means of production, the definition of socialism.


It’s long been debated how well Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal government programs countered the Great Depression, but a prominent conservative has introduced the idea that Roosevelt caused the Depression.

“FDR took office in the midst of a recession,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “He decided to choose massive government spending and the creation of monstrous bureaucracies. Do we detect a Democrat pattern here in all of this? He took what was a manageable recession and turned it into a 10-year depression.”

A year before, Bachmann went on the House floor to blame FDR and what she called the “Hoot-Smalley” tariffs for creating the Depression.

“The recession that FDR had to deal with wasn’t as bad as the recession (President) Coolidge had to deal with in the early ’20s,” she said.

Coolidge cut taxes and created the Roaring ’20s, Bachmann said.

“FDR applied just the opposite formula: the Hoot-Smalley Act, which was a tremendous burden on tariff restrictions. And of course trade barriers and the regulatory burden and of course tax barriers.

“That’s what we saw happen under FDR. That took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression. The American people suffered for almost 10 years under that kind of thinking.”

The truth? Historians agree tariffs hurt trade and worsened the depression.

However, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act — not Hoot-Smalley — was proposed by two Republicans, Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon. A Republican House and a Republican Senate approved it. President Hoover, a Republican, signed it into law.

The facts also show that the country was in something far worse than a “manageable recession” in March 1933, when Roosevelt took office.

Stocks had lost 90 percent of their value since the crash of 1929. Thousands of banks had failed. Unemployment reached an all-time high of 24.9 percent just before Roosevelt was inaugurated.


Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., burst onto the national stage in the early 1950s with accusations that he had a list of names of known Communists in the federal government. He didn’t name them, was censured by the Senate eventually and his name became synonymous with witch hunts: McCarthyism.

The end of the Cold War has opened up spy files and identified many Communist spies who operated inside the government during the era. Some conservatives argue that this proves that McCarthy was right, that he was a hero and that he was smeared by liberals, the news media and historians.

“Almost everything about McCarthy in current history books is a lie and will have to be revised,” conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said.

Yet even some prominent conservatives say that McCarthy’s defenders go too far, and that even from a conservative perspective, McCarthy was no hero and damaged the country.

“A dangerous movement has been growing among conservative writers to vindicate the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his campaign to expose Soviet spies in the U.S. government,” Ronald Kessler wrote for the conservative Web site Newsmax.com.

“The FBI agents who were actually chasing those spies have told me that McCarthy hurt their efforts because he trumped up charges, unfairly besmirched honorable Americans and gave hunting spies a bad name.”

He added, “The problem was that the people McCarthy tarnished as Communists or Communist sympathizers were not the real spies.”

Comments (54)
Bachmann is genuinely stupid. “Hoot-Smalley”? Historical illiterates, revising to suit their ideology. Truly frightening she is taken…  Posted on April 3, 2010 at 8:15 PM by amesburyroad. Jump to comment
Unfortunately, there seems to be a movement that everything is just a matter of opinion, that there are no indisputable facts. And it has become…  Posted on April 3, 2010 at 9:10 PM by Marlen. Jump to comment
What bothers me the most about this is the attempted vindication of McCarthyism. So many innocent people whose careers and lives were destroyed in…  Posted on April 4, 2010 at 10:51 AM by Marlen. Jump to comment

This article is fair and based on fact, refreshing.

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