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Rethinking American History, Completely

December 29, 2004

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. By Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Regnery Publishing, 2004. Xv + 270 pgs.

Thomas Woods's superb new book has already achieved fame as the first Austrian-inspired book to be on the New York Times bestseller list in many years. It also delivers much more than it promises. Woods offers his book as a guide to "those who find the standard narrative or the typical textbook unpersuasive or ideologically biased" (p. xiv). This suggests that Woods has principally students in mind as his audience; but many others will benefit from reading the book. Woods displays a remarkably broad knowledge of the latest specialized research on various episodes of American history. This permits him, again and again, to raise illuminating points that will instruct even knowledgeable readers.

The book is no mere compilation of surprising facts. Woods has rather organized his account around a central theme. Americans have, from the colonial period to the present, flourished so long as they lived in a free economy, accompanied by a government strictly limited in powers. But throughout much of our history, the efforts of Americans to live freely have confronted a formidable enemy: the Leviathan state. Woods shows that the federal government, far from being the protector of the rights of minorities, has been the main obstacle on the path to liberty.

But, one might object to this account, was not the American settlement conceived in sin? How can one say that Americans always sought to live freely when the earliest Puritan settlers began their "free" society by theft of Indian lands?

Woods meets this initial challenge head on. The Puritans did not steal from the Indians: they bought land from various tribes, in willing and beneficial exchange. "[W]hile the king had issued colonial land grants, the Puritan consensus ... was that the king's charter conferred political and not property rights to the land, which Puritan settlers sought by means of voluntary cession from the Indians. The colonial government actually punished individuals who made unauthorized acquisitions of Indian lands" (p. 8, emphasis in original).

The American colonists, as they developed a free society, realized that a strong central government threatened their achievements. Once they gained independence, they were not about to surrender the freedom that they had won from the British to a new despotism. Woods ably brings out that although the supporters of the Constitution were the centralizing party, as opposed to the more prescient Antifederalists who warned of the possible dangers of the new regime, even they sought to restrain national authority.

In this connection, Woods emphasizes the Tenth Amendment, which "guaranteed the states' rights to self-government ... Since the states existed prior to federal government, they were the source of whatever power the federal government had" (p. 26).

All well and good in theory: but how could the federal government be kept within strict limits? To rely on "checks and balances", Woods insightfully comments, does not suffice: to think otherwise is to rely on the federal government to police itself. Jefferson and his followers argued that the states had the right to nullify laws they deemed unconstitutional. If a state resisted in this way, the operation of the disputed law would be suspended in the state, pending a resolution of the matter by a conference of the states. By no means was this theory an invention of Southern firebrands, anxious at all costs to cement slavery in place. Though the nullifications of 1798 did not find favor with the Northern states at the time, "they used the unmistakable language of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 when nullifying the fugitive slave laws" (p. 39).

The politically correct historians who are the objects of Woods's assault would here interpose an objection. Were not states' rights the key to the defense of slavery? How without a strong central government could slavery have been ended?

Woods easily turns aside this counterargument. The Civil War—as he points out, not a genuine civil war since the South did not wish to replace the national government—was not fought to end slavery: Lincoln rather aimed to consolidate national power. In opposing Lincoln's dictatorship, the South defended the cause of liberty, a fact that was not lost on the great classical liberal Lord Acton. In a letter of 1866 to Robert E. Lee, Acton said that he "saw in States' rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy" (p. 74).

In the pursuit of their centralizing mission, the Northern armies shocked European historians by their assaults on civilians. Woods, illustrating his excellent command of the historical literature, cites in this connection the seldom-mentioned classic of F.J.P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism. He argued that the Northern forces "broke deliberately and dramatically from the European code of warfare that had developed since the seventeenth century and that had forbidden targeting the civilian population" (p. 71).

Given what has already been said, it will come as no surprise that Woods does not view Reconstruction with favor. He maintains, here following Forrest McDonald, that the Fourteenth Amendment, a key element both in the plans of the Radical Republicans and the machinations of their centralizing successors down to the present, was never legally ratified. His argument is straightforward: the Southern states were required to ratify the Amendment before their governments were legally recognized. If so, their acts of ratification had no legal force, since they were made by legislatures not part of the union.

Despite the horrendous destruction of the Civil War, America recovered and prospered, owing to a largely free economy. But the centralizers and proponents of government never learn the lesson that freedom works better than coercion. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Herbert Hoover responded with the supreme inanity of trying to keep wages up. In doing so, he ensured massive unemployment. (For the causes of the depression, Woods refers readers to Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression.)

Franklin Roosevelt of course continued and greatly extended Hoover's interventionist policies. In doing so, he prolonged the depression throughout the 1930's, and prosperity did not return until after World War II. Woods is careful to note, here following Robert Higgs, that the war itself, with its vast conscription of men and resources, was not a period of economic good times.

With much of this economic story, readers of The Mises Review will be familiar. But once more showing his ability to find the little known but significant fact, Woods comes up with something remarkable. The New Deal made constant efforts to increase the power of labor unions, and "progressives" often cite the Wagner Act and similar measures as among Roosevelt's greatest triumphs. Woods remarks: "The ways in which labor unions impoverish the economy are legion, from distortions in the labor market to work rules that discourage efficiency. In a study published ... in late 2002 ... economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway of Ohio University calculated that labor unions have cost the American economy a whopping $50 trillion over the past fifty years alone." (p. 150, emphasis in original)

Despite the manifold failures of interventionism, some of the self-styled intellectual elite thought that interference with the market had not gone far enough. Until the onset of the Cold War, sympathy with the Soviet "experiment" was widespread among academics, journalists, and government employees. Some of the sympathizers went beyond intellectual flirtation; Alger Hiss, among many others, aided Soviet Russia through espionage. Woods suggests that the much-maligned Senator Joseph McCarthy was in substance correct in his claims about Communist penetration of the U.S. government.

Much of this is relatively well known, but Woods has once again highlighted a surprising fact. Thanks in large measure to the assiduous efforts of his disciple Sidney Hook, John Dewey has acquired a reputation as a leading anti-Communist. Woods reminds us that Dewey once held entirely different views. "Progressive educator John Dewey, in a series of articles for The New Republic in 1928, could hardly contain his enthusiasm for Soviet Russia. 'I have never seen anywhere in the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy and intelligently occupied children,' he recalled" (pp. 159–60).

Dewey had earlier supported American entry into World War I; and, as Woods makes clear, support for intervention at home goes hand-in-hand with an aggressive foreign policy.  The economic interventionist Woodrow Wilson, influenced by partiality toward England and by his desire to reshape the world, abandoned America's traditional policy of noninvolvement in European power politics. Woods stresses Wilson's blatantly unfair prewar diplomacy. Wilson insisted that Americans had the right to travel on armed belligerent ships, holding the Germans to "strict accountability" for American lives lost in submarine attacks. At the same time, he accepted the British hunger blockade of Germany, though this cost many times more lives than the German policy.

Franklin Roosevelt proved an apt pupil of Wilson in the events leading to America's entry into World War II. Roosevelt's "destroyers for bases" agreement with the British in September 1940 might have provoked a German declaration of war: nevertheless, Roosevelt saw no need to secure the approval of Congress. Woods as always has found a telling quotation. Edward Corwin, one of the foremost  Constitutional scholars of the time and by no means an opponent of the New Deal, commented: "Why not any and all of Congress's specifically delegated powers be set aside by the President's 'executive power' and the country be put on a totalitarian basis without further ado?" (p. 176). Roosevelt's efforts to provoke a German declaration of war failed, but he succeeded in getting America into the war through the "back door." His aggressive policy toward Japan provoked the Japanese attack: as Secretary of War Stimson noted in his diary on November 25, 1941, the question was how "to maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot" (p. 181).

I shall conclude with one more surprising fact that Woods has brought to light. He calls attention to the vital work of Julius Epstein, a longtime researcher at the Hoover Institution, on Operation Keelhaul. In this nefarious program, at least one million Russian prisoners of war were forcibly returned to Russia. In one incident,  "About 200 Soviet nationals were among the prisoners of war in Fort Dix, New Jersey.... They were taken prisoner with the solemn promise that under no circumstances would they be repatriated to the Soviet Union, where they faced certain death. That promise was betrayed so that the American president might be faithful to Uncle Joe [Stalin]" (p. 188).

I have been able to offer only a sample of the many topics that Woods discusses. His account of civil rights legislation and his discussion of the fallacy that Marshall Plan aid brought about European recovery after World War II should not be missed. His stimulating book helps to correct the many myths that today pass for American history.

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