Recent textbooks emphasize the role of gender, race, and culture on history to a far greater degree than textbooks written fifty years ago. Yet recent textbooks have continued to offer the same “central narrative” about America’s past: the growth of the federal government. One of the major ways that textbooks emphasize the importance of the federal government is by discussing presidential administrations at great length. Presidents are, of course, very important to American history, but it seems wrong that textbooks devote many pages to relatively unimportant presidents while largely ignoring America’s greatest writers, painters, humanitarians, and scientists. Textbooks also tend to imply that the “state we live in today is the state created in 1789.” The truth is that the state, as the Founding Fathers conceived of it, is radically different, both functionally and philosophically, from the state as it exists today.
Here Loewen examines one of the most important forms of bias in American history textbooks: the bias toward the federal government of the United States. Textbooks inflate the importance of relatively inconsequential American presidents, implying that a minor government figure is more worthy of discussion than a major writer, inventor, or union organizer. Furthermore, as we’ll see, textbooks don’t talk much about the changes in the organization of the federal government, suggesting that the federal government emerged in 1789,“fully formed.” Loewen will expose and correct these forms of bias throughout the chapter.
One reason why textbooks treat the state as an unchanging, all-important entity is that they’re inherently meant to flatter the state. To understand how, we can look to the history of U.S. foreign policy. Most prominent historians believe that America has always practiced a foreign policy designed to preserve its own interests, even when doing so necessitates violence or corruption. But high school textbooks argue nothing of the kind: they present the U.S. as a moral agent that has always prioritized peace and democracy around the world. Almost every textbook mentions the Peace Corps—an admirable, but relatively insignificant government program designed to promote peace abroad—as an example of American generosity. Textbooks rarely mention America’s large corporations, which have sometimes influenced the federal government to destabilize other countries and install brutal pro-American dictators. Indeed, textbooks rarely mention the post-World War II rise of multinational corporations at all, even though such corporations have exerted a profound influence on the modern world, often promoting war and violence abroad in order to further their interests.
Among professional historians, it’s not even remotely controversial to say that the United States has engaged in some morally objectionable foreign policy decisions, which interfered with democracy and human rights in other countries. However, high school history textbooks persist in offering a view of American foreign policy that is unrealistically cheerful, optimistic, and flattering to the federal government. As we’ve seen previously, one of textbooks’ favorite strategies for “heroifying” figures or institutions is to focus on their small, relatively unimportant virtues and ignore their significant vices. Thus, textbooks spend a lot of time on the Peace Corps while neglecting some of the major damaging foreign policy decisions that Loewen will describe later on in the chapter.
Loewen considers six of America’s most controversial foreign policy decisions: 1) installing a shah in Iran in 1953; 2) bringing down the Guatemalan government in 1954; 3) rigging the 1957 elections in Lebanon; 4) assassinating Patrice Lumumba in Zaire in 1961; 5) repeatedly attempting to murder Fidel Castro in Cuba; 6) bringing down the government of Chile in 1973. In all six cases, the U.S. government engaged in behavior that it would classify as “state-sponsored terrorism” when practiced by another country. So how do textbooks address these foreign policy decisions?
Loewen himself does not offer a thorough account of the six foreign policy decisions he mentions here. If Lies My Teacher Told Me were a longer book, he might have time to do so; however, his main point is that information about the six decisions (all of which is easily accessible from other reputable sources) should appear in history textbooks, but does not.
To begin with, the majority of U.S. history textbooks leave out all six of the foreign policy decisions listed above. When the textbooks do mention the decisions, they give nearly the same justification for America’s actions: the U.S. government was afraid that the existing leadership abroad was Communist, and installed an anticommunist leader to prevent “all hell from breaking loose.” While anticommunism has certainly been an important motive in American foreign policy, it’s not the only motive. And in the case of American intervention in Lebanon, it’s untrue that the U.S. intervened to fight Communism; indeed, the Eisenhower administration determined that there was no immediate Communist threat in the country. Not one high school textbook mentions America’s dozens of attempts to murder Fidel Castro; Castro is always portrayed as a dangerous aggressor. In the case of intervention in Chile, it’s an accepted fact that the CIA spent millions of dollars to destabilize the Chilean government led by the socialist Salvador Allende—a process that ended in Allende’s murder.
Again and again, politicians and historians have claimed that the U.S. intervened in other countries (such as Lebanon and Guatemala) in order to prevent a democratically elected Communist from rising to power (as part of their rivalry with the Soviet Union). However, Loewen shows that such explanations fall short in many cases, such as the Lebanese elections of 1957. Furthermore, the fact that no history textbooks discuss all six of the foreign policy decisions Loewen lists might suggest a “guilty conscience”—textbooks are deliberately omitting information about U.S. interference in foreign countries because the information contradicts America’s reputation as a supporter of democracy.
Loewen is not arguing that history textbooks need to record all instances of the U.S. meddling in other countries. However, textbooks need to stress the fact that the U.S. government has frequently intervened in other countries to destabilize democratically elected regimes and install dictatorships. The reason why textbooks omit a discussion of American foreign policy is clear enough: such a discussion would conflict with America’s reputation as a democratic nation. This discussion would also show that the government has lied about its covert actions—for example, Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State in the early 1970s, testified that the CIA had nothing to do with destabilizing Chile—a statement that was quickly proven to be false.
Loewen’s point is not that every single American history textbook should talk about the six foreign policy decision he’s mentioned. However, military intervention in foreign countries has been one of the dominant themes of modern American history, and therefore, textbooks have an obligation to give some sense of America’s military intervention. Perhaps textbooks fail to do so because they’re frightened of portraying the U.S. government in a bad light—and thus risking a loss of funding or support from parents.
The sole government crime that all history textbooks address is the Watergate Scandal. In the early 1970s, Congress and the American public learned that President Richard Nixon had helped cover up a series of crimes that included the burglary of the Democratic National Committee. All textbooks blame Nixon for supporting the Watergate break-in, but none go into detail about why Nixon did so. They treat Richard Nixon as a uniquely corrupt and irresponsible politician, instead of telling the truth—which is that almost all modern presidents have supported illegal covert actions.
Ultimately, textbooks treat Nixon as a scapegoat in order to cover up the broader, more systemic corruption of the federal government. Indeed, many historians have argued that Nixon—in spite of making some hugely immoral decisions, such as bombing Cambodia, prolonging the War in Vietnam, and breaking into Watergate—wasn’t particularly bad compared with other recent presidents.
Because textbooks idealize the government, they also do a poor job of conveying the history of the civil rights movement. For more than a decade, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, conducted illegal surveillance on important civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover, an avowed white supremacist, waged a secret campaign to destroy King and his followers: members of his staff sent King threatening messages telling him to kill himself, and, when they obtained recordings of King cheating on his wife, they sent the recordings to other white supremacists. On multiple occasions, when the FBI learned of a plot to assassinate King, they declined to alert him.
Few high school students are aware that the FBI was trying to end Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life—blackmailing him, urging him to commit suicide, and ignoring their moral obligation to keep him safe from assassins. Indeed, most students would probably assume that the FBI supported King, and that it would be unthinkable for a government organization to wage such a lengthy, personal war on a prominent civil rights leader.
The federal government’s attempts to sabotage the civil rights movements extended far beyond tapping Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phones. In Chicago, the FBI spread false information about the behavior of the Black Panther Party, and encouraged the Chicago Police to raid the apartment of the Black Panther leader Freddy Hampton, a decision that resulted in Hampton being shot in his bed. It’s even possible that the FBI or CIA was involved in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., given that the convicted killer, James Earl Ray, a penniless “country boy,” had flown to Montreal, London, and Lisbon in the weeks leading up to the crime, and seems to have had aid from wealthy, powerful people. Hoover also supported a plan to investigate “all black college student organizations organized to project the demands of black students.”
This is another passage that angered many conservative and mainstream critics when Lies My Teacher Told Me was published in 1995: many said that Loewen was irresponsible to suggest that the FBI murdered King, or had anything to do with his death. However, as usual, Loewen deals in facts: as he says here, there is some evidence to suggest that the FBI was involved in killing civil rights leaders, including Hampton and King, and there is very strong evidence that the FBI at least wanted King dead. Readers are then free to make up their own minds.
By and large, American history textbooks ignore the FBI’s record on civil rights. In fact, they tend to credit the federal government with advancing the cause of civil rights almost single-handedly. In general, textbooks create the impression that the federal government imposed desegregation and other civil rights milestones upon the United States, when, in reality, the black community imposed these measures on the federal government.
By ignoring the truth about the FBI, history textbooks paint an unrealistically benign picture of the federal government, the result being that high school students get the idea that the government is a benign institution whose priority is keeping its citizens safe and protecting their rights—when in fact, the opposite is often true.
As a general rule, textbooks downplay progressive populism of all kinds and credit the federal government with most progressive achievements. As with so many of the implicit narratives that textbooks offer, the idea that the federal government always behaves virtuously is boring. Worse, it creates the impression that good citizens should trust their government to look out for their own interests—when, in fact, history clearly shows that citizens must lobby their government for change.
A further implication of this passage is that history textbooks present historical change as being out of the hands of ordinary people. Textbooks either give the credit for major historical changes to heroic, one-dimensional figures like Washington and Wilson, or to the benevolent federal government. The truth about history, however, is that ordinary, everyday people can and do change the world.