Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
(…) What we did not learn about Woodrow Wilson is even more remarkable. When I ask my college students to tell me what they recall about President Wilson, they respond with enthusiasm. They say that Wilson led our country reluctantly into World War I and after the war led the struggle nationally and internationally to establish the League of Nations. They associate Wilson with progressive causes like women’s suffrage. A handful of students recall the Wilson administration’s Palmer raids against left-wing unions. But my students seldom know or speak about two antidemocratic policies that Wilson carried out: his racial segregation of the federal government and his military interventions in foreign countries.
Among the progressive-era reforms with which students often credit Woodrow Wilson is women’s suffrage. Although women did receive the right to vote during Wilson’s administration, the president was at first unsympathetic. He had suffragists arrested; his wife detested them. Public pressure, aroused by hunger strikes and other actions of the movement, convinced Wilson that to oppose women’s suffrage was politically unwise. Textbooks typically fail to show the interrelationship between the hero and the people. By giving the credit to the hero, authors tell less than half of the story.
Under Wilson, the United States intervened in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history. We landed troops in Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before the end of Wilson’s presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918. Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in Nicaragua, using them to determine Nicaragua’s president and to force passage of a treaty preferential to the United States.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson took on a major power when he started sending secret monetary aid to the “White” side of the Russian civil war. In the summer of 1918 he authorized a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent expeditionary forces to Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the Russian Revolution. With the blessing of Britain and France, and in a joint command with Japanese soldiers, American forces penetrated westward from Vladivostok to Lake Baikal, supporting Czech and White Russian forces that had declared an anticommunist government headquartered at Omsk. After briefly maintaining front lines as far west as the Volga, the White Russian forces disintegrated by the end of 1919, and our troops finally left Vladivostok on April 1, 1920.
Few Americans who were not alive at the time know anything about our “unknown war with Russia,” to quote the title of Robert Maddox’s book on this fiasco. Not one of the twelve American history textbooks in my original sample even mentioned it. Two of the six new books do; Boorstin and Kelley, for example, write: “The United States, hoping to keep stores of munitions from falling into German hands when Bolshevik Russia quit fighting, contributed some 5,000 troops to an Allied invasion of northern Russia at Archangel. Wilson likewise sent nearly 10,000 troops to Siberia as part of an Allied expedition.” It is possible, although surely difficult, for an American student to infer from that passage that Wilson was intervening in Russia’s civil war.
Russian textbooks, on the other hand, give the episode considerable coverage. According to Maddox: “The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society. And there were longer-range implications. Bolshevik leaders had clear proof . . . that the Western powers meant to destroy the Soviet government if given the chance.”
This aggression fueled the suspicions that motivated the Soviets during the Cold War, and until its breakup the Soviet Union continued to claim damages for the invasion.
Wilson’s invasions of Latin America are better known than his Russian adventure. Textbooks do cover some of them, and it is fascinating to watch textbook authors attempt to justify these episodes. Any accurate portrayal of the invasions could not possibly show Wilson or the United States in a favorable light. With hindsight we know that Wilson’s interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua set the stage for the dictators Batista, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, and the Somozas, whose legacies still reverberate. Even in the 1910s, most of the invasions were unpopular in this country and provoked a torrent of criticism abroad. By the mid-1920s, Wilson’s successors reversed his policies in Latin America. The authors of history textbooks know this, for a chapter or two after Wilson they laud our “Good Neighbor Policy,” the renunciation of force in Latin America by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, which was extended by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Textbooks might (but don’t) call Wilson’s Latin American actions a “Bad Neighbor Policy” by comparison. Instead, faced with unpleasantries, textbooks—old and new—wriggle to get the hero off the hook, as in this example from the old Challenge of Freedom: “President Wilson wanted the United States to build friendships with the countries of Latin America. However, he found this difficult. . . .” Several textbooks blame the invasions on the countries invaded: “Wilson recoiled from an aggressive foreign policy,” states the new American Pageant. “Political turmoil in Haiti soon forced Wilson to eat some of his anti-imperialist words. . . . Wilson reluctantly dispatched marines to protect American lives and property.” This passage is sheer invention. Unlike his secretary of the navy, who later complained that what Wilson “forced [me] to do in Haiti was a bitter pill for me,” no documentary evidence suggests that Wilson suffered any such qualms about dispatching troops to the Caribbean.
Every textbook I surveyed mentions Wilson’s 1914 invasion of Mexico, but they posit that the interventions were not Wilson’s fault. “Cries for intervention burst from the lips of American jingoes,” according to Pageant in 2006. “Yet President Wilson stood firm against demands to step in.” Soon Wilson did order troops to Mexico, of course, even before Congress gave him authority to do so. Walter Karp has shown that this view of a reluctant Wilson again contradicts the facts—the invasion was Wilson’s idea from the start, and it upset Congress as well as the American people. Wilson’s intervention was so outrageous that leaders of both sides of Mexico’s ongoing civil war demanded that the U.S. forces leave; the pressure of public opinion in the United States and around the world finally influenced Wilson to recall the troops.
Textbook authors commonly use another device when describing our Mexican adventures: they identify Wilson as ordering our forces to withdraw, but nobody is specified as having ordered them in! Imparting information in a passive voice helps to insulate historical figures from their own unheroic or unethical deeds.
Some books go beyond omitting the actor and leave out the act itself. Half of the textbooks do not even mention Wilson’s takeover of Haiti. After U.S. marines invaded the country in 1915, they forced the Haitian legislature to select our preferred candidate as president. When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United States did, we dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the United States supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced; the referendum passed by a hilarious 98,225 to 768. As Piero Gleijesus has noted, “It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried. He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy.” The United States also attacked Haiti’s proud tradition of individual ownership of small tracts of land, which dated back to the Haitian Revolution, in favor of the establishment of large plantations. American troops forced peasants in shackles to work on road construction crews. In 1919 Haitian citizens rose up and resisted U.S. occupation troops in a guerrilla war that cost more than three thousand lives, most of them Haitian. Students who read Pathways to the Present learn this about Wilson’s intervention in Haiti: “In Haiti, the United States stepped in to restore stability after a series of revolutions left the country weak and unstable. Wilson . . . sent in American troops in 1915. United States marines occupied Haiti until 1934.” These bland sentences veil what we did, about which George Barnett, a U.S. marine general, complained to his commander in Haiti: “Practically indiscriminate killing of natives has gone on for some time.” Barnett termed this violent episode “the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps.”
During the first two decades of this century, the United States effectively made colonies of Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and several other countries. Nor, as we have seen, did Wilson limit his interventions to our hemisphere. His reaction to the Russian Revolution solidified the alignment of the United States with Europe’s colonial powers. His was the first administration to be obsessed with the specter of communism, abroad and at home. Wilson was blunt about it. In Billings, Montana, stumping the West to seek support for the League of Nations, he warned, “There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder.” Even after the White Russian alternative collapsed, Wilson refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He participated in barring Russia from the peace negotiations after World War I and helped oust Béla Kun, the communist leader who had risen to power in Hungary. Wilson’s sentiment for self-determination and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock “ism”s: colonialism, racism, and anticommunism. A young Ho Chi Minh appealed to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles for self-determination for Vietnam, but Ho had all three strikes against him. Wilson refused to listen, and France retained control of Indochina.19 It seems that Wilson regarded self-determination as all right for, say, Belgium, but not for the likes of Latin America or Southeast Asia.
At home, Wilson’s racial policies disgraced the office he held. His Republican predecessors had routinely appointed blacks to important offices, including those of port collector for New Orleans and the District of Columbia and register of the treasury. Presidents sometimes appointed African Americans as postmasters, particularly in southern towns with large black populations. African Americans took part in the Republican Party’s national conventions and enjoyed some access to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, for whom many African Americans voted in 1912, changed all that. A Southerner, Wilson had been president of Princeton, the only major northern university that flatly refused to admit blacks. He was an outspoken white supremacist—his wife was even worse—and told “darky” stories in cabinet meetings. His administration submitted an extensive legislative program intended to curtail the civil rights of African Americans, but Congress would not pass it. Unfazed, Wilson used his power as chief executive to segregate the federal government. He appointed Southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. His administration used the excuse of anticommunism to surveil and undermine black newspapers, organizations, and union leaders. He segregated the navy, which had not previously been segregated, relegating African Americans to kitchen and boiler work. Wilson personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson’s legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government remained segregated into the
1950s and beyond. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee issued a statement on Wilson that, though partisan, was accurate: “No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the Federal Government.”
Of all the history textbooks I reviewed, eight never even mention this “black mark” on Wilson’s presidency. Only four accurately describe Wilson’s racial policies. Land of Promise, back in 1983, did the best job:
Woodrow Wilson’s administration was openly hostile to black people. Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist who believed that black people were inferior. During his campaign for the presidency, Wilson promised to press for civil rights. But once in office he forgot his promises. Instead, Wilson ordered that white and black workers in federal government jobs be segregated from one another. This was the first time such segregation had existed since Reconstruction! When black federal employees in Southern cities protested the order, Wilson had the protesters fired. In November, 1914, a black delegation asked the President to reverse his policies. Wilson was rude and hostile and refused their demands.
Most of the textbooks that do treat Wilson’s racism give it only a sentence or two. Some take pains to separate Wilson from the practice: “Wilson allowed his Cabinet officers to extend the Jim Crow practice of separating the races in federal offices” is the entire treatment in Pathways to the Present. Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency. The tone set by the administration was one cause. Another was the release of America’s first epic motion picture.
The filmmaker D. W. Griffith quoted Wilson’s two-volume history of the United States, now notorious for its racist view of Reconstruction, in his infamous masterpiece The Clansman, a paean to the Ku Klux Klan for its role in putting down “black-dominated” Republican state governments during Reconstruction. Griffith based the movie on a book by Wilson’s former classmate, Thomas Dixon, whose obsession with race was “unrivaled until Mein Kampf,” according to historian Wyn Wade. At a private White House showing, Wilson saw the movie, now retitled Birth of a Nation, and returned Griffith’s compliment: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Griffith would go on to use this quotation in successfully defending his film against NAACP charges that it was racially inflammatory.23
This landmark of American cinema was not only the best technical production of its time but also probably the most racist major movie of all time. Dixon intended “to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . And make no mistake about it—we are doing just that.”24 Dixon did not overstate by much. Spurred by Birth of a Nation, William Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan. The racism seeping down from the White House encouraged this Klan, distinguishing it from its Reconstruction predecessor, which President Grant had succeeded in virtually eliminating in one state (South Carolina) and discouraging nationally for a time. The new KKK quickly became a national phenomenon. It grew to dominate the Democratic Party in many Southern states, as well as in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Klan spectacles in the 1920s in towns from Montpelier, Vermont, to West Frankfort, Illinois, to Medford, Oregon, were the largest public gatherings in their history, before or since. During Wilson’s second term, a wave of antiblack race riots swept the country. Whites lynched blacks as far north as Duluth.
Americans need to learn from the Wilson era, that there is a connection between racist presidential leadership and like-minded public response. To accomplish such education, however, textbooks would have to make plain the relationship between cause and effect, between hero and followers. Instead, they reflexively ascribe noble intentions to the hero and invoke “the people” to excuse questionable actions and policies. According to Triumph of the American Nation: “As President, Wilson seemed to agree with most white Americans that segregation was in the best interests of black as well as white Americans.”
Wilson was not only antiblack; he was also far and away our most nativist president, repeatedly questioning the loyalty of those he called “hyphenated Americans.” “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” said Wilson, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” The American people responded to Wilson’s lead with a wave of repression of white ethnic groups; again, most textbooks blame the people, not Wilson. The American Tradition admits that “President Wilson set up” the Creel Committee on Public Information, which saturated the United States with propaganda linking Germans to barbarism. But Tradition hastens to shield Wilson from the ensuing domestic fallout: “Although President Wilson had been careful in his war message to state that most Americans of German descent were ‘true and loyal citizens,’ the anti-German propaganda often caused them suffering.”
Wilson displayed little regard for the rights of anyone whose opinions differed from his own. But textbooks take pains to insulate him from wrongdoing. “Congress,” not Wilson, is credited with having passed the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of the following year, probably the most serious attacks on the civil liberties of Americans since the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In fact, Wilson tried to strengthen the Espionage Act with a provision giving broad censorship powers directly to the president. Moreover, with Wilson’s approval, his postmaster general used his new censorship powers to suppress all mail that was socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, or that in any other way might, in his view, have threatened the war effort. Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for producing The Spirit of ’76, a film about the Revolutionary War that depicted the British, who were now our allies, unfavorably. Textbook authors suggest that wartime pressures excuse Wilson’s suppression of civil liberties, but in 1920, when World War I was long over, Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and Sedition acts. Textbook authors blame the anticommunist and anti-labor union witch hunts of Wilson’s second term on his illness and on an attorney general run amok. No evidence supports this view. Indeed, Attorney General Palmer asked Wilson in his last days as president to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who was serving time for a speech attributing World War I to economic interests and denouncing the Espionage Act as undemocratic. The president replied, “Never!” and Debs languished in prison until Warren Harding pardoned him. The American Way adopts perhaps the most innovative approach to absolving Wilson of wrongdoing: Way simply moves the “red scare” to the 1920s, after Wilson had left office!
To oppose America’s participation in World War I, or even to be pessimistic about it, was dangerous. The Creel Committee asked all Americans to “report the man who . . . cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.” Send their names to the Justice Department in Washington, it exhorted. After World War I, the Wilson administration’s attacks on civil liberties increased, now with anticommunism as the excuse. Neither before nor since these campaigns has the United States come closer to being a police state.
Because heroification prevents textbooks from showing Wilson’s shortcomings, textbooks are hard-pressed to explain the results of the 1920 election. James Cox, the Democratic candidate who was Wilson’s would-be successor, was crushed by the nonentity Warren G. Harding, who never even campaigned. In the biggest landslide in the history of American presidential politics, Harding got almost 64 percent of the major-party votes. The people were “tired,” textbooks suggest, and just wanted a “return to normalcy.” The possibility that the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She called Wilson “the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!”
It isn’t only high school history courses that heroify Wilson. Those few textbooks that do discuss Wilson’s racism and other shortcomings, such as Land of Promise, have to battle uphill, for they struggle against the archetypal Woodrow Wilson commemorated in so many history museums, public television documentaries, and historical novels. (…)