The Problem With America's History Books

It is time for a national conversation about what this country's history has really been -- good and bad, warts and all.
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Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick are co-authors of The Untold History of the United States (Gallery Books, $30)

It has become commonplace to deplore U.S. students' dismal performance in math and science when their test results are compared to those of students in other advanced and not-so-advanced industrial countries.

But, it turns out, according to the Nation's Report Card, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally administered test results released in June 2011, the area in which U.S. students perform most poorly is actually U.S. history. According to the results, only 12 percent of high school students were proficient in U.S. history. And only a scant 2 percent could identify the social problem addressed in Brown v. Board of Education, even though the answer should have been obvious from the wording of the question itself.

Historically-challenged students turn into historically-challenged adults who make for unqualified citizens. Our republican system requires a literate, educated, and knowledgeable public. No wonder Santayana's famous comment that "he who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it" has been borne out repeatedly over the past century and a quarter of U.S. history.

In terms of history education, we face two basic problems. First, as the Nation's Report Card indicates, students know very little history. Second, much of what they do learn is extremely partial or flat out wrong. Take, for example, the discussion of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in one popular high school text--The American Past by Joseph Conlin--which happens to be used in Oliver's daughter's highly rated Los Angeles private high school.

In the few brief paragraphs devoted to the atomic bombings, which the Newseum's 1999 panel of experts declared the most important news event of the 20th century, Conlin manages to twice repeat the falsehood that the bombs were used to avoid one million U.S. casualties in an invasion, that Japanese fanaticism was "impossible to overstate," and that the bombs ended the war.

Such complete ignorance or willful dismissal of contemporary scholarship on the topic is unconscionable. Not only does Conlin fail to mention the ongoing debate over the projected casualty estimates, he ignores State and War Department studies contending that the Japanese were not fanatics but would indeed fight fiercely to protect the emperor, that Japanese leaders recognized that victory was impossible and were trying to secure terms that would allow them to avoid surrendering unconditionally, that the United States had broken the Japanese codes and American leaders were fully aware of Japan's desperate plight -- Truman referred to the July 18 telegram as "the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace", that the U.S. knew that the imminent Soviet invasion would finish the Japanese off once and for all -- "fini Japs" when Stalin comes in Truman wrote, that the impact of the atomic bombs was less than decisive because the U.S. had been wiping out entire cities for months with its firebomb raids, and that it was the dreaded Soviet invasion, which proved the bankruptcy of both Japan's diplomatic and military strategy, rather than the atomic bombs, that forced Japan's surrender.

Conlin neglects to mention that six of the seven five star U.S. officers who earned their fifth star during the war are on record as saying the atomic bombings were either morally reprehensible -- as did Truman's Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy -- or militarily unnecessary. General Douglas MacArthur told former president Herbert Hoover that the Japanese would have happily surrendered in May, almost three months earlier, if the U.S. had told them they could keep the emperor. While that might be an overstatement, wouldn't it be something of interest to high school students?

People ignorant of the real facts of history fill the vacuum with either a fancifully corrupt view or a mythic one. In the United States that usually takes the form of a comforting fairy tale of American exceptionalism -- the notion that unique among nations, the U.S. is motivated by altruistic benevolence, generosity, and the desire to spread freedom and democracy. Woodrow Wilson, a true believer in America's mission, declared after Versailles, "At last the world knows America as the savior of the world!"

Neither World War I, which Wilson lied the country into, or the Treaty of Versailles is looked back upon very favorably today. Other presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have voiced similar sentiments, which they no doubt also sincerely believed. We're still paying the price for the debacles they lied us into.

As the great independent journalist I. F. Stone wisely pointed out: "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." And it becomes even more dangerous if an ignorant public, indoctrinated with the same cockamamie ideas as the nation's leaders, doesn't have the good sense to question what they are spewing.

As we show in our recent book and forthcoming documentary film series called The Untold History of The United States, what students learn about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is only one small part of a systematic effort to whitewash and sanitize U.S. history.

This is of great significance because people's view of the past not only informs their actions in the present, it limits their sense of what is possible in the future. It is time for a national conversation about what this country's history has really been -- good and bad, warts and all.

We are entering a period of history in which the American people will either carve out a very different role for their nation in a rapidly changing world -- a role that eschews the militarism and imperialism that has marked the past century -- or it will continue blindly down the present path of warmongering and decline with consequences only faintly augured by those cataclysmic events in August 1945 when the U.S., once and for all, finally achieved the "might" behind the "right," changing the course of history for the foreseeable future.

Note: The author Daniel Conlin was originally referred to as Joseph Conlin in an earlier version of this article.

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