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U.S. History

The View From Out There

Reviewed by Frances FitzGerald
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page T01


How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History

By Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward

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New Press. 404 pp. $26.95

Here are a few things students in this country will not find in their history books but that students from certain other countries may know for a fact:

a) Our revolution was inspired by the work of the French Enlightenment philosophers (not the essays of John Locke).

b) We won that war largely because the British commanders were slow and blundering (not because of the wisdom and determination of George Washington).

c) What we thought of as a revolution was for many inhabitants of British North America an extended civil war, in which many were forced into exile.

d) After Gen. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, the Spanish and French fleets opened full-scale war with the British in the Caribbean.

As might perhaps be imagined, the facts betray points of view: a) comes from a French history text; b) from a British one; c) from a Canadian school history; and d) from a text published for the English-speaking West Indies.

Dana Lindaman, a graduate student at Harvard, and Kyle Ward, an assistant professor at Vincennes University in Indiana, have compiled this collection of excerpts from other national history textbooks out of concern for the insularity -- or what they call the "isolationist tendency" -- of the American educational system. In fact, U.S. history texts are not as insular as they once were; nor are they any more insular than most national histories of other countries. Still, much in this collection would startle not only American high school students but many of their teachers as well. In addition, while this is not its purpose, the book, taken as a whole, explains rather better than the punditry mills why many countries, particularly those once known as "the Allies," take such a dim view of the United States.

Reading a book composed entirely of excerpts from textbooks may seem an unpromising activity, but history texts reveal much about national perspectives and prejudices: They are more expressive than government pronouncements; they get into matters diplomats avoid; and yet, as the authors note, they are in varying degrees state-sanctioned and thus official, or semi-official, stories about the national past. Most reflect public attitudes; all help to create those attitudes because they are the most widely read histories in each country, and because kids read them during the formative adolescent years. What students remember from their reading is not, of course, so clear. (It's certainly not clear in the United States, where history texts run to 1,200 pages and weigh about four pounds.) Still the texts have an authority that books by individual historians lack, for, even in the best school systems, teachers, in their desperate attempt to drum in a few names and dates, rarely question their points of view, and students hazily come to regard what they read as the truth.

History Lessons includes excerpts from a wide range of countries: Russia, Japan, Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea -- but not, for some reason, China. Best represented, however, are the schoolbooks of our continental neighbors and of those European countries long involved with North America. Some of the commentary on U.S. policy is unsurprising. An attentive American high school student could probably guess what a British text would say about D-Day, or what a Mexican text would say about the annexation of Texas, or how a Filipino text would describe the Spanish-American war and its aftermath. But how many Americans know -- as Filipino students do -- that in 1937 the Philippines sought to join the British Commonwealth out of a well-placed fear that the United States would not protect it from an invasion by Japan? And how many Americans could characterize the Canadian schoolbook view of U.S. history?

According to Canadian texts (six are cited), the United States planned to conquer and annex Canada during the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and at various points in between. During the Cold War, the United States repeatedly bullied Canada into supporting its aggressive military policies. Canadian officials hoped that NATO would evolve into a North Atlantic community that would act as a counterweight to U.S. influence in Canada, but in vain: Canadian governments had to toe the U.S. line or suffer humiliation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, concerned that Kennedy's belligerence might lead to a nuclear war, waited three days before announcing that Canadian forces had gone on the alert. In the next election, the Americans used their influence to topple the truculent prime minister. Diefenbaker's successor, Lester Pearson, aligned Canada more closely with the United States, but in 1965 he annoyed Lyndon Johnson by calling for a bombing pause and a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War. In a meeting after the speech, Johnson grabbed Pearson by the lapels and shouted, "You pissed on my rug."

Thus have Canadian texts immortalized the Johnson vernacular.

In few countries are the texts so consistently critical of the United States as they are in Canada, but in a couple of cases the rhetoric is alarming. For national security purposes, we should have read Saudi textbooks years ago, for even while Saudi diplomats were cooing to American officials, Saudi students were reading rants about "Crusader" and "Neo-imperialist" attacks on Islam.

Most national school histories take a fairly parochial view of world events: That is their nature. Some, like the French text that gives the French resistance the entire credit for the liberation of Paris in 1945, reveal more about their own countries than about the United States. Others serve to reveal our degree of insularity and self-preoccupation. For example, U.S. texts describe the French and Indian War as a purely American conflict, but British and French texts show the war to be a mere incident in the ongoing struggle between the two European empires. Too, the thoughtful and nationally self-critical Nigerian account of the Atlantic slave trade paints American slavery against a much larger canvas.

On a few issues, the texts of our neighbors and of European countries (at least those that are cited by Lindaman and Ward) directly contradict the received wisdom in U.S. schoolbooks. The purpose of the Monroe Doctrine, they agree, was to assert U.S. economic hegemony in the Americas; Truman's purpose in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to frighten the Soviets and prevent them from entering the war against Japan; later the United States overplayed fears of Soviet expansionism. In contrast to American schoolbooks, these texts stress the U.S. pursuit of its economic interests during the Cold War, but then they are in general far franker about economic interests and political power than American texts. Notably, too, European schoolbooks give extensive coverage to 20th-century Middle Eastern conflicts, while American histories hardly mention them.

History Lessons is sloppily edited. (There were 2.5 million, not 25 million settlers in the American colonies in 1776.) And it could have been better introduced and annotated. For example, the authors suggest that the Cuban account of the Spanish-American war reflects a 20th-century perspective. But all textbooks reflect contemporary perspectives; and, if publishers in other countries re-edit and republish their texts every few years, as they do in the United States, then the texts may represent far less stable national attitudes than they appear to. The authors also tell us that most modern French texts are not narratives but collections of primary source materials with short historical summaries. But what are the formats of the other texts they cite? What grades are they designed for? (And, by the bye, how much do they weigh?) Still, the authors deserve a Stakhanovite Hero of Labor award just for reading all of these texts. And they have put together a provocative, timely and surprisingly readable book.

Frances FitzGerald is the author of "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam," which won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1973; "America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century"; and, most recently, "Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War."

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