As a general rule, history textbooks devote little space to the most recent decades of American history, no matter how eventful they were. In the 1980s, for example, the average textbook devoted only 30 pages out of 1000 to the 1960s, easily one of the most consequential decades in American history. One reason why textbooks omit most of recent history is that publishers don’t want to offend students’ parents, and offering strong opinions about recent history is a surefire way to do so.
History textbooks are biased against recent history—partly because it’s more difficult to find a compelling narrative about recent events, but partly because our understanding of recent history is more overtly biased by the existing power elite. And, as Loewen says here, textbooks want to avoid offending lots of people.
One lesson that history textbooks utterly fail to teach is that historical interpretations change over time, according to people’s ideological needs. For example, Woodrow Wilson’s reputation grew enormously during the Cold War because of his stated commitment to “make the world safe for democracy,” a position that jived with the Cold War presidents’ interventionist foreign policy. To quote the writer Anaïs Nin, “we see things as we are.”
Throughout his book, Loewen tries to teach the lesson that people’s religion, culture, gender, ethnicity, and class color the way they view the past, meaning that the collective view of history changes over time. There is, in short, no unbiased, “correct” way to view history—the best we can do is attempt to approximate the truth and minimize bias by examining and interpreting the evidence.
To understand how history is formed, Loewen will examine how textbooks analyze some of the major recent events of American history. For instance, it’s remarkable how little time textbooks devote to why, exactly, terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001. Only one textbook offers a clear explanation, claiming that Osama Bin Laden, motivated by his “murderous resentment” of America’s foreign policy and its support for the Israeli state, engineered the attacks. Such an explanation is both “accurate and useful.” However, most history textbooks offer a very different interpretation of the terrorist attacks, claiming that Bin Laden hated “American freedoms,” such as democracy and freedom of speech, and resented the fact that America had, throughout the nineties, tried to “increase the peace and prosperity of the world.” There is absolutely no evidence that Bin Laden or Al Qaeda acted out of resentment for democracy; they responded to specific American foreign policy decisions. And it’s false that America’s goal at the end of the 20th century was to foster world peace. By presenting the U.S. as a faultless nation, textbooks perpetuate blind nationalism and ethnocentrism.
Much as textbooks largely ignore the causes of the Vietnam War, 21st century textbooks largely ignore the causes of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. This omission is particularly striking because the causes of 9/11 aren’t really disputed by either side: Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda explicitly stated that they attacked the World Trade Center in retaliation for America’s aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to Israel. It is characteristic of textbooks’ naïve view of American foreign policy that they would censor any mention of American aggression in a foreign country (even coming from the mouth of a terrorist like Osama Bin Laden). While many critics have attacked Loewen for implying that America “deserved” 9/11 as punishment for its foreign policy, Loewen in fact says nothing of the kind—but he does argue that Americans need to be realistic about the flaws in their government’s foreign policy.
To understand the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we need to be realistic about American foreign policy in the Middle East. The U.S. military provided money and weapons to help Saddam Hussein seize power in Iraq, in return for which Hussein initially welcomed Western oil companies—a fact that no history textbooks acknowledge. Furthermore, the U.S. government had supported Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, despite criticizing Iran’s attempts to gain the same weaponry.
Continuing his discussion in earlier chapters, Loewen argues that in the 21st century the U.S. has remained an aggressive imperialist power in much of the world. Even after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the federal government has practiced an often immoral foreign policy that involves collaborating with dictators like Saddam Hussein—the very opposite of its supposed commitment to peace and democracy.
Another question about 9/11 that textbooks refuse to ask, is “how did we allow it to happen?” Loewen argues that, throughout the nineties and early 2000s, the federal government did very little to improve America’s security against terrorist attacks. In the months leading up to 9/11, German agents warned the CIA that Middle Eastern terrorists were planning to hijack airplanes and use them to “attack important symbols of American culture”—a warning that the CIA didn’t even forward to airline companies.
It’s indicative of a pro-government bias that most high school history textbooks don’t mention that the federal government had been made aware of an impending terrorist attack in the months leading up to 9/11, and did little about it, due largely to poor organization and bureaucracy.
In response to 9/11, the U.S. government deployed troops to Afghanistan and later Iraq. Like Saddam Hussein, the Taliban had once been armed and funded by the CIA—a fact that most textbooks ignore. The Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had supported Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks—a claim that made very little sense, given that Bin Laden had nothing but contempt for Hussein’s secular regime. The Bush administration also claimed that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction—a claim that turned out to be false. It later surfaced that Bush had ordered UN officials investigating Hussein’s regime for weapons of massive to leave Iraq in the middle of their investigation. Bush had labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the “axis of evil”—the three countries most likely to have nuclear weapons and use them against the U.S. However, it quickly became clear that the U.S. had invaded Iraq, rather than North Korea or Iran, because it was the easiest target, and also the country least likely to have nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the U.S.’s invasion may have incentivized the other two “axis of evil” nations to expand their nuclear arsenal in order to fight American troops.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to have an honest conversation about America’s foreign policy without accepting the fact that the American government has collaborated with dangerous groups and dictators around the world. Indeed, in the 21st century, America spent billions of dollars fighting two opponents with whom it had collaborated in previous decades—the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The interpretation of the Bush administration’s military interventions in the Middle East that Loewen offers in this section is relatively uncontroversial—few historians or military strategists would dispute the fact that Bush antagonized North Korea and Iran by labeling them “evil” (although many historians continue to debate whether or not the Bush administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). But instead of offering a fairly mainstream critique of Bush’s mistakes, textbooks omit almost all the information about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Why did the Bush administration order the invasion of Iraq? Loewen argues that the Bush administration believed that America could benefit economically from a victory in Iraq by gaining access to Iraqi oil. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, personally benefitted from the invasion of Iraq: indeed, Cheney’s former firm Halliburton was provided with enormous government contracts to rebuild Iraq, even after evidence of corruption and fraud surfaced. In return, Halliburton donated more than 500,000 dollars to the Republican Party. No textbooks even discuss the possibility that the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq for any of the reasons discussed above.
Loewen makes no secret of the fact that he thinks that the U.S. invaded Iraq to gain access to the country’s oil reserves (a possibility that seems plausible, considering that the U.S. had previously collaborated with Hussein to gain access to oil). However, his point is that, at the very least, history textbooks should offer such an interpretation of the War in Iraq as a possibility. Instead, textbooks regurgitate the same explanations that the Bush administration offered at the time.
The invasion of Iraq showed “incompetence of a high order.” Instead of deposing high-ranking officials and using the local leadership to install order (as militaries have done in almost every successful invasion for the last 500 years), the Bush administration sent minimal numbers of troops to Iraq and declared the Iraqi army illegal. Unsurprisingly, many Iraqi soldiers joined Al Qaeda. Although these criticisms are easier to make in retrospect than they were in 2004, Loewen notes that no history textbooks bring them up, even as hypotheticals. Instead of offering any kind of point of view on the invasion of Iraq, contemporary textbooks characterize recent American history as “one damn thing after another,” with little to no commentary. By effectively omitting recent history, textbooks “ensure that students will take away little from their history courses that they can apply to” their world.
The final chapters in high school history textbooks tend to be full full of scattered, unrelated facts and observations—usually there seems to be no broader narrative about recent history. Loewen argues that history textbooks end on a note of confusion, not because it’s difficult to interpret recent history, but because textbooks are too sycophantic and loyal to the government to tell the truth. Loewen ends with the same point he’s made throughout Lies My Teacher Told Me: students’ boredom with American history isn’t a sign of their dullness—it’s a sign of the dullness of American history textbooks.