The right's big history lie: Reagan, Disney, Vietnam and the war to redefine America

The battle over history is the battle to define America's story. This Memorial Day, it is more important than ever

Published May 25, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

Mickey Mouse, Noam Chomsky    (AP/Dan Steinberg/Nader Daoud)
Mickey Mouse, Noam Chomsky (AP/Dan Steinberg/Nader Daoud)

History was all the rage for late-twentieth-century Americans. Genealogical research became increasingly common, museum and monument construction boomed, and Civil War reenactment mushroomed into a veritable national pastime. In 1995 the A&E Television Networks launched the History Channel, which immediately drew high ratings for a programming schedule that included a hefty dose of shows about World War II, particularly about Hitler.

The Walt Disney Company sought to cash in on this obsession in the early 1990s with a theme park dedicated to American history. Disney’s America was to have been part heritage, part amusement, a mix of “serious” and “fun.” Similar to other living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg, Disney’s America was to simulate momentous events in American history. But in contrast, Disney’s America patrons would get a taste of authentic history from the vantage point of amusement park rides. Disney CEO Michael Eisner highlighted the serious side of the park by proclaiming that it would reject a “Pollyanna view” of American history. He promised to “show the Civil War with all its racial conflict” and even discussed tackling the Vietnam War. Such an approach attracted criticism from all over the political map. Liberal political cartoonist Tom Toles ridiculed the idea by superimposing Goofy on a mock-up of the iconic image of a naked girl, badly burned by napalm, fleeing US-sponsored South Vietnamese soldiers. Conservative William Kristol argued that if Disney was “going to have a schlocky version of American history, it should at least be a schlocky, patriotic, and heroic version.” Alas, Disney scrapped its plans for a history theme park due in part to such widespread skepticism.

The Disney history flap demonstrated that although Americans were taking an extraordinary interest in the nation’s past, they disagreed fervently about how it should be represented. History wars gripped the nation. Growing numbers of Americans took to heart George Orwell’s truism that “who controls the past controls the future.” For conservatives, history would redeem the nation from all that had gone wrong since the sixties. History would especially help Americans overcome the trauma of the Vietnam War. Norman Podhoretz argued that the history of America’s role in that war, which had been relegated to “the forensic equivalent of an unmarked grave,” needed to be revised and that the health of the nation depended on it. This became evident to Podhoretz when, during the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a “noble cause.” Although pundits characterized Reagan’s historical revision as a blunder, Podhoretz wrote that “Reagan’s gaffe was closer to the truth” than most assumed. He contended that the United States had failed to win the war in part because too many Americans denied that it was morally just. This “stab in the back” elocution served as the crux of how conservatives thought history might redeem the nation. If the United States of America was to return to being the world’s indispensable nation—a city upon a hill—conservatives had to win the struggle over its historical meaning.

For those on the Left, history was no less important. The left-wing interpretation of American history, like the right-wing version, often acted as a form of redemption. The greater attention paid to the history of blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, immigrants, women, and workers was in part a means of redeeming the humanity of people previously swept away by traditional historical narratives that focused on the role of powerful white men. But left-leaning Americans also understood the purpose of history as a tool for social transformation. Howard Zinn, who did more than any single individual to popularize a leftist version of American history, advised that historians could encourage radical change by giving voice to history’s voiceless. This was Zinn’s overriding purpose for writing A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1980. Zinn’s magnum opus was an alternative to those traditional textbooks that told stories of unbending, elite-driven progress. A People’s History was explicitly framed from the perspective of the downtrodden. Zinn’s haunting descriptions of suffering—by the dispossessed, slaves, factory workers, and victims of war—were meant to evoke empathy for the subjugated. But perhaps more important than highlighting those who suffered at the hands of a pitiless elite, A People’s History emphasized those Americans who resisted injustice. Zinn sought to connect the past to the present in a fashion that he believed would prove useful in the promotion of “justice and brotherhood.” Writing an alternative American history was, for Zinn, planting the seeds out of which an alternative American future might flower.

Most Americans who read A People’s History of the United States undoubtedly considered it a major revision. But in fact Zinn’s book was a work of synthesis made possible by a growing body of scholarship, known as social history, which had already unearthed the histories of peoples long neglected by a discipline overattuned to political and economic elites. Social historians sought to prove that even oppressed peoples helped determine the warp and woof of history—that even the wretched had “agency.” Gary Nash’s groundbreaking 1974 book Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America argued that the history of American Indians and black slaves was more than merely a by-product of forces set into motion by European settlers. Rather, the inarticulate hordes actively participated in the forging of a new world. “Africans were not merely enslaved. Indians were not merely driven from the land,” Nash explained. “To include them in our history in this way, simply as victims of the more powerful Europeans, is no better than to exclude them altogether. It is to render voiceless, nameless, and faceless people who powerfully affected the course of our historical development as a nation.”

Social historians maintained that their nontraditional subject matter allowed for a more accurate reading of the past. American Indians, after all, made up a majority of the population of North America during the colonial era. Not accounting for their influence was simply bad history. Of course the historians who resisted their claims on the discipline—those who saw social historians as barbarians at the gates— often invoked the specter of objectivity. In the pages of the American Historical Review, Irwin Unger charged that social historians were motivated by an “exaggerated present-mindedness,” “not by the natural dialogue of the discipline but by the concerns of the outside cultural and political world.” Social historians responded by claiming the very mantle of professional standards that their critics accused them of subverting. Jesse Lemisch, who helped usher in “history from the bottom up” with his groundbreaking work on merchant seamen during the Revolutionary War, scolded the traditionalists: “We will simply not allow you the luxury of continuing to call yourselves politically neutral. We are in the libraries, writing history, trying to cure it of your partisan and self-congratulatory fictions, trying to come a little closer to finding out how things actually were.” In other words, even though social historians were revising the American narrative in radical ways, they shared the methodological and epistemological assumptions of the traditionalist historians with whom they did battle. Whether studies of the founding fathers got us closer to the historical truth than investigations of Revolutionary-era proto-lumpenproletariat was up for debate, not whether or not it was possible to decode objective historical truth in the first place.

Even though social historians believed themselves purveyors of truth, they also tended to be explicit about their political positioning. This was because they were hyperattentive to how their scholarship was a radical departure in the discipline. As Nash argued, historians could no longer deny the simple fact that “we read, think, and write selectively and in ways that reflect our cultural biases.” The key to this recognition was that social historians were not the only biased scholars. Their traditionalist adversaries were equally compromised, if not more so for their refusal to recognize their own prejudices. Following in the footsteps of those who pioneered black, ethnic, and women’s studies, social historians helped normalize the idea that historical writing, like all forms of knowledge, was value laden. The title of Zinn’s autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was the perfect metaphor for such conscious subjectivity. With a growing number of people entering the historical discipline admitting that their work was given direction by ideological considerations, historical knowledge fragmented. For leftist historians, this was an unavoidable consequence of their challenge to traditional historians, those who judged solely the deeds of rich white men to be the stuff of history. In this way social historians, perhaps unintentionally, undermined the premise of objectivity by revealing that historical narratives are always partial—historical interpretations are always political. As historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob put it: “It is as if the social historians with their passion for breaking apart the historical record had dug a potentially fatal hole into which history as a discipline might disappear altogether.”

Given that junior scholars were being conditioned into a disciplin with competing schools of thought about what, if anything, counted as historical truth—and given that a growing number of them, like their counterparts in English departments, were reading antifoundationalists such as Foucault—it is easy to see, in retrospect, how historical interpretation increasingly became a consciously relativistic enterprise. It is also easy to see how the social turn was quickly followed by a cultural turn. Instead of excavating marginalized human experiences in order to revise an empirical historical narrative about America, cultural historians decoded the contextually specific meaning of cultural practices in order to understand how human beings adjusted to their unique situations. In addition to exhuming the social archive, such as legal records, to explain how marginalized people helped shape history, cultural historians sought out ephemera, such as images, to theorize about desire and other such intangible phenomena. In short, conceptualizations of power, always crucial to historical interpretation, had changed. Whereas social historians, like traditional political historians, understood power as palpable, as something people took and had taken from them, cultural historians understood power as protean, as something embedded in routines such as language and habits of consumption. Thus cultural historians investigated the ways in which cultural practices regulated hierarchical categories such as race and gender. In fact, demonstrating how supposedly neutral classifications like race and gender masked power became the project of cultural history. The rise of cultural history did not relegate politics to the margins of the discipline. Rather, everything historical was fair game for political analysis. Cultural history, in this way, should be thought of as a scholarly application of the sixties feminist slogan “The personal is political”—it should be considered part and parcel of the Left’s cultural turn.

The politicization of historical subjects beyond the purview of traditional political history infuriated traditionalist scholars like Gertrude Himmelfarb. In the 1980s, as she was gearing up for retirement from her position at the City University of New York, where she had taught history since 1965, Himmelfarb turned her considerable literary talents to fighting the history wars. Broadly speaking, she rejected the application of theoretical frameworks informed by Foucault and other Continental thinkers that relativized morality as an expression of power. More specifically, Himmelfarb objected to the politicization of history that she believed went hand in glove with the discipline’s anachronistic hyperattentiveness to the “race/gender/class” holy trinity. “Any part of that trinity,” she wrote, “involves a considerable revision of the past, but the whole requires nothing less than its deconstruction.” Himmelfarb criticized the scholarship of feminist historian Joan Scott as representative of tendencies to politicization. Scott sought to “decode” the past for its implicit sexism, even or especially in situations where contemporaries failed to see sexism. Himmelfarb insisted that privileging gender was an ahistorical imposition of present concerns. “Contemporaries may have thought that their history was shaped by kings and statesmen, politics and diplomacy, constitutions and laws. New historians know better,” Himmelfarb wrote. “They know that ‘high politics’ are ephemeral and epiphenomenal, to say nothing of being elitist and sexist.” Unlike cultural historians, who viewed their historical subjects through the eyes of cultural historians, Himmelfarb allowed her historical subjects to speak for themselves, and she often liked what she heard, especially when writing about Victorian England, her primary area of expertise. Himmelfarb contrasted the moral certainty of Victorian English culture with the moral relativism of postmodern American culture. The latter was neatly represented by what she called “New History.”

In a 1989 American Historical Review roundtable that featured Himmelfarb’s critique of disciplinary trends, Joan Scott countered Himmelfarb by quoting the American Historical Association (AHA)’s founding motto—“history is past politics and politics present history”—as a defense of New History. She believed the AHA maxim nicely described how cultural historians conceptualized politics beyond “formal operations of government” to include “contests that involve power in Michel Foucault’s sense—power not only as a relationship of repression or domination but also as a set of relationships or processes that produce positive effects.” Such a notion of power, in which people were understood to have acted on desire as much as on fear, implied that even the repressed were invested in “meanings of truth” that kept them in their allegorical shackles. Traditionalist historians like Himmelfarb objected to such a theory as an imposition of the historian’s biases and thus as a relativistic distortion of the truth. Such complaints demonstrated to Scott that traditionalist historians, like the elite they venerated, mistakenly believed their particular views of the world were universal. She thought that traditionalist anxieties about relativism served as a cover for reactionary responses to the democratization of the historical enterprise. Attacks on new forms of historical interpretation were often motivated, consciously or not, by objections to the fact that New Historians focused on women and minorities. New History threatened, Scott wrote, “the uniformity, continuity, and homogeneity that orthodox historians have traditionally sought to impose.” Historian Lawrence Levine put it in similar terms: “[T]he primary criticism of contemporary historiography has little to do with what kind of history we practice and almost everything to do with the subjects of that history.”

Even if traditionalists often conflated relativism with multiculturalism, plenty of historians, including those with leftist political commitments, fretted about a lack of concern for “telling the truth about history,” as Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob titled their 1994 book. These three historians, although somewhat sympathetic to New Historians, nevertheless charged them with neglecting the long-standing purpose of historical craft: shedding light on truth. Indeed, Hayden White, one of the most prominent American theorists of new historical techniques, provocatively claimed that the work of the historian was no more than “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse.” In other words, for a cultural historian like White, historical truth was unknowable and, frankly, irrelevant. Historians, as such, were not that different from novelists. Both constructed narratives. Eschewing such an antinomian position, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob argued in favor of “a democratic practice of history [that] encourages skepticism about dominant views, but at the same time trusts in the reality of the past and its knowability.” Significant political stakes were involved in such a fight against epistemological anarchists like White. “It is as if higher education was opened to us—women, minorities, working people,” worried Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, “at the same time that we lost the philosophical foundation that had underpinned the confidence of educated people.” The struggle for representation was in part a struggle for intellectual authority, the very premise of which had been undermined by relativistic theories of history and power. With this in mind, the authors of Telling the Truth about History believed a calculated if limited defense of traditional historical practice necessary. “Rather than underlining the impossibility of total objectivity or completely satisfying causal explanation, we are highlighting the need for the most objective possible explanations as the only way to move forward, perhaps not in a straight line of progress into the future, but forward toward a more intellectually alive, democratic community, toward the kind of society in which we would like to live.” Of course conservatives, especially those outside the academy, considered any left-wing variant of American history heretical, even those offering “the most objective possible explanations.”

To outsiders, disputes within the historical discipline often seemed prosaic. But the history debates of the late twentieth century reverberated beyond the ivory tower. This was the result of contradictory factors. Because Americans were arguably more invested in the past than ever before, professional historians were granted large platforms from which to disseminate their expertise. Nevertheless, the gulf between how professional historians explained the nation’s history and how most Americans understood it grew to immense proportions. Sheltered by academic freedom, historians were relatively unconstrained in investigating the past in ways that complicated the traditional narrative of American exceptionalism. But most Americans continued to learn about the nation’s past, in schools, museums, national parks, and movies, as they always had, as a tale of national greatness and unbroken progress. Most Americans did not follow the historical discipline’s social and cultural turns. When professional historians sought to interject these new forms of historical knowledge into the public world beyond the ivory tower—when they sought to extend their scholarship into museums and into the school curriculum—a clash of cultures ensued, a clash that meshed with the wider culture wars. The history wars did not alter intellectual life within the historical discipline in any significant fashion other than giving historians added fodder for their teaching and scholarship. Historiographic debate, after all, had long been the lifeblood of professional history. But beyond the academy, the history wars mattered. Powerful conservative interests with little respect for academic norms vigorously contested academic knowledge that challenged normative America.

Some of the most intense history skirmishes grew out of contentious exhibits on display at the Smithsonian Institution. For most of its history, the purpose of the Smithsonian—the “nation’s attic”—had been to enshrine objects of the heroic American past. But by the 1980s curators increasingly used Smithsonian artifacts as vehicles for historical interpretations about social relations. Such a shift in priorities was in part a result of the economic recession of the 1970s, which had hit higher education particularly hard. An increasing number of academically trained historians, unable to obtain positions as professors in an impossibly tight job market, instead got hired on by museums. Consequently, trends in public history began to follow trends in academic history. More and more public historians who worked as museum curators, including those at the Smithsonian, evinced the same cultural Left sensibilities that had become so prominent on college campuses. They sought to disturb the triumphalist American story that museums had long been accustomed to telling. This could be seen in such exhibits as Field to Factory, a social history of the Great Migration of millions of blacks out of the South, and A More Perfect Union, which focused on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although neither of these exhibits, displayed at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum beginning in 1987, generated much controversy, they signaled the changes in public historical practice that inevitably brought the culture wars into the “nation’s attic.”

The first major Smithsonian controversy erupted in 1991 over an exhibit at the National Museum of American Art titled The West as America. The exhibit’s curators used wall texts to narrate the paintings of illustrious nineteenth-century American artists—Thomas Cole, George Catlin, Frederic Remington, and Thomas Moran, among others— such that viewers might think critically about the art’s subtexts. Specifically, the curators wanted visitors to reflect on how the art represented the romanticization of manifest destiny. Elizabeth Broun, who directed the National Museum of American Art, held that the purpose of The West as America was to subvert conventional understandings of westward expansion. “That American society still struggles to adjust to limitations on natural resources, to grant overdue justice to native populations, to locate the contributions of ethnic minorities within a mainstream tradition, and to resolve conflicts between unbridled personal freedom and the larger social good,” Broun wrote, “tells us that we have ignored our history far too long, accepting the images of the last century as reality.” William Truettner, the lead curator of The West as America collection, contended that this particular “corps of talented artists” aided the federal government’s efforts to subdue the land and peoples of the West. For example, Albert Bierstadt’s 1868 Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, an enormous painting of a picturesque mountain landscape, cast the American West “as a new Eden, announcing its scenic wonders and publicizing its staggering resources.” Bierstadt and the other painters displayed in The West as America, according to Truettner, helped sell the West as “an aggressively fabricated national anthem.”

Not surprisingly, The West as America had plenty of detractors. The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called the exhibit “art-historical revisionism.” Although not unsympathetic to the notion that the paintings of Bierstadt and others helped sell manifest destiny, Kimmelman argued that the exhibit was too didactic, too unambiguous, too laden with “forced analyses and inflammatory observations.” Historian Daniel Boorstin, who had been librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987 and whose scholarship doubled as a celebration of the American pioneer spirit, charged that The West as America was “perverse, historically inaccurate, and destructive.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized that the exhibit was “an entirely hostile ideological assault on the nation’s founding and history.” Charles Krauthammer called it “the most politically correct museum exhibit in American history.” Predictably, bad press helped sell tickets—60 percent more than the museum had sold to the previous year’s special exhibit. Controversy also created an unusual level of participation on the part of museum patrons, who waited in long lines to sign the comment books. Some of the comments, later published in the New York Times, were supportive. “Don’t let the politicians deter you,” wrote one visitor. “They don’t cope too well with reality, anyway.” Other guests panned the exhibit. “Never have I seen such simpleminded, ignorant, and mean-spirited interpretations of brilliant art that stands on its own,” one offended patron wrote. “Jesse Helms has surely been right all along about our tax money supporting vile, anti-American propaganda.” One thing was certain: by questioning the premises of westward expansion, so central to American mythology, The West as America exposed the raw nerves of a nation’s fragmented understanding of its past.

Excerpted from "A War For The Soul of America: A History of The Culture Wars" by Andrew Hartman. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2015 by the University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Andrew Hartman

Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School.

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