Americans and Historical Amnesia
What Americans just don’t get is that most people see history differently than they do. In order to break this down, every semester I show Robert Wuhl’s HBO special “Assume the Position 101.” Wuhl proposes that U.S. history is Pop Culture and he discusses different events in American history and its American take.
The first myth that Wuhl explores is that of the Founding Fathers. If they were as smart as American exceptionalists say why, Wuhl asks, does the first sentence of the U.S. Constitution read?
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Wuhl roars, “more perfect!?” How can something be more perfect? It is or it isn’t. According to Wuhl, it is a “grammatical fuck-up.”
He goes on to show how American history is constructed from myths. Wuhl says that when the truth contradicts the legend, the truth has to go. Wuhl gives the example of the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” When the Jimmy Stewart character tries to explain to the local newspaper editor that he did not shoot Liberty Valance, the editor won’t hear it, packs up to leave and says “…when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This is true about most aspects of American history: Columbus discovered America. Thanksgiving Day showed the friendship between the colonists and the Indians. The colonists fought against the tyranny of the British, and even as a child I learned the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree that was treated as the truth.
How many people still believe the myth that the United States won World War II by itself? Americans forget that Russian suffered around 26 million casualties versus just over 400,000 for the United States.
Americans consider themselves a generous people and look at the criticism of rest of the world as ungrateful. They cite the Marshall Plan as an example of this generosity. According Americans, it saved post war Europe from economic disaster, forgetting the financial benefits reaped by American capital.
Many Africans and Latin Americans take issue with the myth of American generosity.
From 1890 to the present there have been at least sixty U.S. military interventions into Latin America and this does not include the Indian Wars, the annexation of Florida in 1819, the Texas War 1836 and the Mexican American War of 1845-48.
Americans are surprised to learn that these narratives are part of Latin America’s popular culture. Even the great Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, who was hardly a revolutionary bitterly complained about the actions of Theodore Roosevelt:
“You are the United States,
future invader of our naive America
with its Indian blood, an America
that still prays to Christ and still speaks Spanish.
You think that life is a fire,
that progress is an eruption,
that the future is wherever
your bullet strikes.
The United States is grand and powerful.
Whenever it trembles, a profound shudder
runs down the enormous backbone of the Andes.
If it shouts, the sound is like the roar of a lion.
But our own America, which has had poets
since the ancient times of Nezahualcóyolt;
which preserved the footprint of great Bacchus,
and learned the Panic alphabet once,
and consulted the stars; which also knew Atlantic
(whose name comes ringing down to us in Plato)
and has lived, since the earliest moments of its life,
in light, in fire, in fragrance, and in love–…
God! O men with Saxon eyes and barbarous souls,
our America lives. And dreams. And loves.
And it is the daughter of the Sun. Be careful.
Long live Spanish America!
A thousand cubs of the Spanish lion are roaming free.
Roosevelt, you must become, by God’s own will,
the deadly Rifleman and the dreadful Hunter
before you can clutch us in your iron claws.
And though you have everything, you are lacking one thing:
So you see, Fidel Castro did not invent anti-Americanism which is a product of history rather than jealousy or communist propaganda. Anti-Americanism was forged by history and if we went back in time and eliminated Castro, these feelings would not be erased. Only in knowing the causes can we corrected them.
It is like when my wife gets angry with me and I ask why and she answers, “Whatever.”
Latin Americans have always been enamored with history. Castro should be studied if for no other reason than to learn the answer for “whatever.” During his failed coup in 1953, Castro based his defense on Cuban history, summing up by saying: “I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and hideous cruelty. But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Upon achieving victory in 1959, Castro again turned to history:
“PEOPLE OF SANTIAGO, COMPATRIOTS OF ALL CUBA…
Our Revolution … will not be like 1895 when the Americans came and took over, intervening at the last moment, and afterwards did not even allow Calixto Garcia to assume leadership, although he had fought at Santiago de Cuba for 30 years.
Nor will it be like 1933, when the people began to believe that the revolution was going to triumph, and Mr. Batista came in to betray the revolution, take over power, and establish an 11-year-long dictatorship.
Nor will it be like 1944, when the people took courage, believing that they had finally reached a position where they could take over the power, while those who did assume power proved to be thieves. We will have no thievery, no treason, no intervention. This time it is truly the revolution, even though some might not desire it.…
The Republic was not freed in 1895, and the dream was frustrated at the last minute. The Revolution did not take place in 1933 and was frustrated by its enemies. …in the four centuries since our country was founded, this will be the first time that we are entirely free …”
Can we say that because we do not agree with Castro that the events did not happen? I don’t think so.
Truth be told, Mexican Americans are the only ethnic/racial group in the United States who are at this moment being ordered to forget their history. No one has passed a law ordering the English, the Irish, or the Jews to forget their history and culture; it was only demanded of the Germans during the American cultural and political panic after World War I.
I went to Catholic Schools that for all intents and purposes nurtured Irish nationalism. St. Patrick’s was a holiday and we learned the latest score of and prayed for the Fighting Irish football team.
American historical ignorance is a disgrace. Students have a D.W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation” vision of slavery and even at the university level most students do not know that the Southwest once belonged to Mexico.
In 1968 I was denied employment in the History Department at San Fernando Valley State because, according to the chair, I could not be objective in teaching Latin American history because my parents were Mexican. He forgot that every U.S. History class was taught by a white American.
“Occupied America” was attacked by academic reviewers at the University of California Santa Barbara because, according to them, I lied when I wrote that the United States invaded Mexico.
The study of history is the search for the truth and you cannot learn the truth unless history is vetted and discussed.
Moreover, if we live in a democratic society we better ask simple questions like why Italian-Americans and Jews can have Columbus Day Parades and carry the flags of their countries of origin. Their patriotism is not questioned. However, the patriotism of Mexican Americans is questioned for marching with and waving the Mexican flag.
Historically and as human beings we lost a great deal when the Spaniards destroyed the indigenous codices. Whether we want to admit it or not these works held a key to the past. Of all the great religions of time, Native Americans religions of the Americas are the only great religions almost totally erased; others are studied at august institutions.
This ignorance is one reason why learning the past is so vital. We cannot afford to have our children grow up to be like today’s Arizona xenophobes.
Most educated people in other countries know history while we are forced to live in ignorance. The U.S. could probably get away with imposing its narrative if it were at the height of its power. However, fewer nations now go along with the U.S. and it needs friends both internally and externally.
Its moral authority has been badly damaged by lies. It is to its best its interest to find friends which it won’t get trying to impose its narrative of history.
We have to ask, what happens to a narrative when the most fundamental assumptions turn out to be lies?
Did the lie that our reason for invading Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction hurt our moral authority?
What happens to the narrative that we are in the land of the free and education is a leveling force when we realize that one group has been singled out to censor and deny what every other American has?
RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.