What Our Schools Actually Distort

While the current debate in education surrounds Critical Race Theory and how we teach about race, the biggest distortion in our history textbooks is not even being mentioned, much less debated: the way textbooks mischaracterize and mislead concerning America’s wars and its international role.

The textbook we’re given for US History classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, is a good example. It distorts history to fit the narrative that the US acts only in response to foreign “aggression”, and US actions may be mistakes but are not brutal.

Distortion #1: When America acts, it’s only in response to the “aggression” of other nations.

The textbook largely whitewashes the Mexican-American War. America’s attack on Mexico is portrayed as more of misunderstanding and a way to resolve a border dispute than a cynical, deceitful, and bloody landgrab.

We’re not told that the war was the product of the Southern slaveholders’ drive to expand slavery westward. We’re not told of the widespread opposition to the war from abolitionists and Northerners, including then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln, whose “Spot Resolutions” demanded to know where, as President Polk claimed, “American blood” was “shed on American soil.” President Ulysses S. Grant, a veteran of this war, later called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

The textbook gives surprisingly fair treatment of US aggression and misdeeds in the Spanish-American War, perhaps because of the widespread awareness of and cynicism about the “yellow journalism” that helped lead to that war. The textbook also gives fair coverage of the ensuing Philippine War–a definite improvement, since in older textbooks, the Philippine War was often not even included.

The textbook’s treatment of how America entered its next war–World War I–is deeply flawed. The US entered largely on the pretext of “freedom of the seas” and the fact that Germany had been sinking American ships. Yet the only ships Germany was sinking were ships in the war zone bringing weapons, ammunition, and supplies to Germany’s enemy, Britain.

At the same time, Britain had a naval blockade on Germany that violated international law and led to the death by starvation of an estimated 750,000 Germans. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty of Britain in 1914, said the blockade’s goal was to “starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.”

The textbook’s treatment does mention the British blockade, and that Germany’s submarine warfare was done in response. However, it repeatedly states the US was “provoked” into joining the war, adding that Germany’s submarine warfare policies “meant that the United States would have to go to war.”

We’re told of Americans’ “outrage” over the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania. However, the book does not tell us that, despite decades of British denials, German claims that the Lusitania was carrying munitions were later revealed to be correct.

The textbook accurately describes the basics of the “Zimmerman Telegram”, wherein German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann suggested to the Mexican government that if the US joined the war against Germany, Germany would arm Mexico so it could retake the territories it lost in the Mexican-American War.

Mexico—which was just emerging from seven years of revolution and civil war and had a mere fraction of America’s military and industrial power—was hardly in a position to attack the US and regain the 525,000 square miles it had lost seven decades earlier. But the textbook takes the idea seriously, even asking students, “Why did the Zimmermann note alarm the U.S. government?”

There was no genuine government “alarm.” The Telegram was part of the British campaign to goad the US into joining its war, and many critical thinking Americans recognized it as such.

The textbook gives great import to President Wilson’s words when requesting a Congressional resolution declaring war, in which Wilson states, “the present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind” and that this “right is more precious than peace.”

We’re not told that if the US weren’t selling armaments and supplies to England–a very lucrative business–there would not have been conflict between the US and Germany. Wilson could have ended Germany’s “warfare against mankind” simply by barring American ships from bringing aid to Germany’s enemy.

The textbook does acknowledge the existence of anti-German propaganda. However, as a whole it supports the key elements of the fraud that deceived tens of thousands of Americans, including my grandfather, into volunteering for this war.

The textbook portrays the start of the Cold War as being caused by “Soviet aggression” even though conflict was the last thing the USSR, which had lost 27 million people in WWII, wanted at that time. The textbook does acknowledge that the war-weary Soviets wanted Eastern Europe as a buffer against future attacks, but doesn’t hint at several other salient facts:

+ The Communists in Eastern Europe had substantial popular support at that time. They were the ones who had fought the Nazis, as opposed to many of the moderate and conservative political parties and leaders who had collaborated with them. Moreover, most Eastern Europeans, like most of the world at that time, wanted socialism. These regimes became Stalinized, and over time very much frittered away the popular support they once enjoyed, but the textbook’s depiction of communism as being imposed on an unwilling populace is not accurate.

+ Stalin made a deal with the West at Yalta and, as Churchill later acknowledged, abided by it. In France and Italy, the anti-fascist partisans/resistance were the only forces in those countries that had any support or credibility with the populations. Both were dominated by Communists. Under Stalin’s prodding they both disarmed and collaborated with the pro-American post-war regimes, both giving up a tangible chance of seizing power.

+ In Greece, the communist anti-Nazi partisans were popular and well-organized, and could’ve taken power against pro-British/pro-American forces. However, Stalin gave them no assistance as the British and Americans poured in aid and eventually subdued them. Yet the textbook treats this as just another example of the US helping repel communist “aggression.”

In the textbook’s section on the Korean War, under the heading “North Korea Attacks South Korea”, we’re told:

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces swept across the 38th parallel in a surprise attack on South Korea. The conflict that followed became known as the Korean War.

This is distortion by omission.

After the defeat of Japan, the US and the Soviets divided Korea. The US installed Korean exile Syngman Rhee, who had lived in the US from 1912 to 1945, as the leader of South Korea. Rhee’s government and police force were largely Koreans who had been collaborators with the colonial Japanese regime.

In the North, the Soviets installed the Korean communists into power, led by former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung. Though a dictatorship, the communists had credibility and support because of their long struggle to win Korea’s independence from Japan.

The textbook tells us that when Korea was divided between the US and the Soviets in the wake of WWII, two Koreas developed—“one communist and one democratic.” Actually, the “democratic” Rhee regime was authoritarian, corrupt, unpopular, and widely seen as an artificial creation of the US.

The North stood by as Rhee perpetrated horrific massacres of pro-independence, pro-Communist South Koreans, such as the Jeju Massacre (1948-1949), in which up to 30,000 Koreans were killed.

The US-backed regime also detained, tortured, and murdered 100,000 to 200,000 suspected Korean communists in what came to be known as the Bodo League massacre. For years, South Korea falsely claimed this crime was committed by North Korea.

Ignoring American warnings, the megalomaniacal Rhee foolishly launched military raids against the North. Amid border skirmishes and both sides threatening to unify the country by force, the North invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950.

Even though the US-Soviet division of Korea gave the South twice the population of the North, North Korea quickly overran the South. As historian James Stokesbury explains, the masses of conscript South Korean soldiers had little loyalty to the Rhee regime, and soon retreated or defected en masse to the North.

While the North was not unreasonable to move against the puppet regime and attempt to reunify the peninsula and rid it of foreign rule, our textbook portrays the modern history of Korea as largely beginning with this invasion. Since no historical context is given, the textbook leads students to see South Korea as the victim of unprovoked aggression.

The textbook portrays the Cuban Missile Crisis as President Kennedy heroically defending the US against Soviet aggression after the USSR placed missiles in Cuba. The textbook doesn’t tell students that the Soviets were simply responding to American deployment of Jupiter missiles on the Soviet border in Turkey–a response many in the US defense establishment had expected.

Churchill biographer Benjamin Schwarz explains:

Because [Jupiter missiles] sat aboveground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were…of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike…The Jupiters’ destabilizing effect was widely recognized among defense experts within and outside the U.S. government and even by congressional leaders.

For instance, Senator Albert Gore Sr., an ally of the administration, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that they were a ‘provocation’ in a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1961 (more than a year and a half before the missile crisis), adding, “I wonder what our attitude would be” if the Soviets deployed nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba.

Distortion #2: Yes, America has made its share of mistakes, but brutality is something committed by others, not us.

The textbook sanitizes American actions. Its biggest distortions concern the Korean War.

For example, it tells of “bitter combat” and a “bloody stalemate” between American and opposing North Korean and Communist Chinese forces, but never mentions the horrific results of the American air war.

US planes dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula–635,000 tons–and more napalm–32,557 tons–than against Japan during World War II. Yet in the 1,700 words the textbook spends on the Korean War, neither the word “bomb” nor the word “napalm” is used even once.

Some American military leaders were far more truthful than the textbook is. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, said:

[W]e killed off…20 percent of the population…We…burned down every town in North Korea.

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled:

[W]e were bombing every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved.

In August 1951, war correspondent Tibor Meráy saw “complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital…[there were] no more cities in North Korea.”

Churchill condemned the US’ widespread use of napalm as being “very cruel,” saying the US was “tortur[ing] great masses of people” by “splashing it all over the civilian population.”

Emblematic of American culture’s endless capacity for self-absorption, the textbook spends 458 words on the squabble between President Truman and General MacArthur and tells us the war cost the US $67 billion, but only gives a count for American casualties, not Korean or Chinese.

Worse, in “analyzing events” at the end of the chapter, students are asked to consider “whether fighting the Korean War was worthwhile,” but only in light of “the loss of American lives”, “the fear of communism that enveloped the country at the time”, and “the stalemate that ended the war.” Korea’s war dead–2.5 million–are never once referenced.

As a whole, the texts and materials give students a very misleading picture of the US and its interactions with the world. It often works—for example, I 100% believed these distortions when I was a student and had first been taught them.

Contrary to the conservative campaign against teachers allegedly poisoning students’ minds, a social studies teacher who tells students the truth about this history is not “indoctrinating” students—we’re fighting indoctrination.

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was recently recognized by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner for “exceptional levels of performance.”