I learned on a trip to France that countries distort their history.
The French had an official exhibit on World War II in the Arc of Triumph
in Paris that did not mention other countries involved in the liberation
of France after D-Day. The display had only a big arrow ending at the
beaches of Normandy and much information about the French resistance.
An uninformed visitor might have mistakenly concluded that the French
had liberated their own country from the Nazis. I was shocked at the
French misrepresentation of their history.
A few years later, I learned on a trip to Canada that the United
States is no exception to the distortion of history. I visited a fort in
Toronto, Canada, and learned from the guide that the fort had been used
in one of the several U.S. invasions of Canada.
U.S. tourists visiting the fort gave the guide quizzical looks
because U.S. history textbooks don’t dwell on the repeatedly
unsuccessful U.S. attempts to grab Canada. In fact, U.S. history books
focus on British impressments of U.S. sailors as the cause of the
unnecessary War of 1812, but leave out that the U.S. hawks’ desire to
snatch Canada was also a major cause.
Our history of that war also focuses on the burning of Washington by
the British, but neglects to mention that the British torching of
official buildings in Washington was in retaliation for a similar U.S.
burning of Toronto.
Even Americans are a little nervous about the history of their
Mexican, Indian, and Spanish-American Wars—and they should be. In the
Mexican War, it is generally recognized that President James Polk
ordered the U.S. Army into a disputed area on the Texas-Mexican border,
which provoked a Mexican attack.
What is not acknowledged is that even before the Mexican attack, the
U.S. Army initially blocked the Rio Grande River. Blockades are
considered an international act of war.
In the Indian Wars, brutal ethnic cleansing was conducted to grab
land. The villages of the weak were burned and the tribes slaughtered.
The Spanish-American War was ostensibly fought to liberate Cubans
from Spanish rule, but instead resulted in the first U.S. colonial
possessions and 200,000 Philippine deaths, some by very brutal U.S.
The U.S. Civil War and World War II, however, have Holy Grail status
in the American history books. Every school child learns that the Civil
War was fought to liberate the slaves, even though President Abraham
Lincoln cared more about quashing the Southern rebellion than freeing
In fact, the war, still the most bloody in U.S. history, caused
nearly a million casualties (three percent of the U.S. population), but
only nominally freed the slaves, leaving most of them working under the
same squalid conditions for the same masters.
Instead of re-supplying Fort Sumter, which his military advisors had
advised him to abandon and which he was fairly certain would ignite a
war, Lincoln could have negotiated a settlement or simply divided the
country himself and refused to return escaped slaves, thus severely
undermining slavery in the South.
Even in the wake of this cataclysmic war, blacks did not escape Jim
Crow laws, an extension of slavery, until the 1960s. Yet such a bloody
war for so little gain goes unquestioned.
Although more justified, even some aspects of World War II are
questionable. Americans revel in the defeat of the diabolical Hitler,
but don’t realize that the U.S. helped contribute both to Hitler’s rise
(and World War II) and the Bolshevik revolution (and thus the later Cold
War) by providing the military forces to tip World War I to the allies.
After the allies won World War I, President Woodrow Wilson went along
with harsh British- and French-imposed reparations against Germany in
order to get his naďve and failed League of Nations scheme. He also
demanded the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, paving the way for Hitler’s
Wilson also provided aid to the Russian government as long as they
fought in World War I against the Kaiser’s Germany. If the Russian
government had pulled out of the war earlier, Vladimir Lenin wouldn’t
have been able to ride the unpopular war to power.
Even before World War II officially started, the U.S. cut off
Japanese oil and critical metal supplies, which precipitated their
desperate attack on Pearl Harbor. In the Atlantic in 1941, even before
Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt did his best to secretly
provoke an all-out war with Hitler by helping the British attack German
In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, tens of thousands of Americans were
needlessly killed to prevent Communist control of strategically
unimportant backwater nations. The economically decrepit Soviet Empire
would have collapsed even faster if forced to pour resources into
keeping Communist governments afloat in those far-flung areas.
Saddam Hussein probably had a better rationale for invading Kuwait in
1990 than the United States had for invading Iraq in 2003. Although
certainly not a justification for such brutality, the Kuwaitis were
drilling under Iraqi territory and extracting oil.
When compared to the imaginary threats from Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction and Iraqi connections to the 9/11 attacks, Saddam’s pique
with Kuwait was at least real. Because much money can be made selling
oil, Saddam would have sold Kuwaiti oil into the market--with only
modest increases in the world price--even without the U.S. taking back
Kuwait during Desert Storm. The second Iraq War has made a mess of the
country and created a haven for terrorists.
America is a great nation, but most Americans don’t realize that the
country has maintained a free political system and has grown into an
economic powerhouse principally because the country was far away from
most of the world’s conflicts.
Unfortunately, after World War II, the United States regularly began
to look for monsters to destroy overseas. The dangerous expansion of
executive authority under the present Bush administration and prior
recent presidents is a direct consequence of this near perpetual state
On Memorial Day, Americans should revere the war dead but also ask
hard questions of an assertive U.S. government that keeps running
ill-advised wars, only creating more casualties to honor.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.