AMERICAN HISTORY REVISED, 200 STARTLING FACTS
HISTORY THROUGH THE SKYLIGHT
For most of the past 16 years I have lived abroad. Having always taken America for granted, my living in Romania and Cyprus made me confront the wonderful question posed in 1782 by the Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, “What, then, is the American?”
Living in Europe, I encountered considerable scepticism about American foreign policy from European and Middle Eastern businessmen and diplomats. “Oh would some power the gift give us,” said the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us!” So in my spare time I plunged into hundreds of history books and international newspapers. The result was a fascinating odyssey of discovery into America’s rich past. Not that it helped me in political debate (never my intent anyway), but it did keep the conversation going.
I found that the best way to diffuse hostility and single-mindedness (of which I encountered plenty) was to entertain my audience with little-known stories of history that suggested greater knowledge than theirs, but with humility and a broad perspective. When asked about American militarism, I countered with the many opportunities America had to take over places like Canada and Cuba – and didn’t. When accused that America was not a democracy, I countered that the Founding Fathers never intended it to be (really?). When told that Guantanamo was a violation of the Bill of Rights, I said that the Bill of Rights was never all-inclusive. The idea of universal rights was not a legacy of our slaveholding Founding Fathers, but of Afro-Americans and civil rights workers who had battled to correct the injustices of our past, plus the feminists who had paved the way for equal rights for women (an opportunity only late coming to many of their own countries, by the way).
More often than not, my audience would be flummoxed and not know what to say. They might complain America had too much global power, I told them to relax, America has not won a military war since 1945. And look at what happened to a far more powerful empire, England in the early 1900s. We all know what happened to Great Britain…
Understanding history, they would tell me, requires seeing many points of view. Excellent idea! When one foreign diplomat argued that the Indians got the raw end of the deal in the sale of Manhattan for $24, I offered the Native American advice to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.” Turn the question around and ask yourself from the buyer’s perspective: “How did the Dutch make out on the sale?” Of course nobody knew the answer. When informed that the Dutch invested huge amounts of money in a huge overseas base and lost it all – raising the obvious parallel of modern-day Iraq where the U.S. is facing insurmountable bills, oh my, how my European skeptics immediately agreed with that!
Then there were the hundreds of Romanian young people I met in my part-time capacity as alumni interviewer for high school students applying to Harvard. I was amazed at how open and receptive they were to America – in sharp contrast to their American fellow applicants who took so much for granted. It reminded me that my country which gave me my passport, my education and my values, is for millions of people… a dream. If America is a dream, I must learn more about it. After all, who doesn’t want to know more about something so enticing as a dream?
By knowing my history and viewing America with a sense of wonder, I engaged in many delightful debates and dinner party conversations. Nobody could get angry when I teased them, “Did you know that…?” Touché׳! It was a clever way to broaden people’s perceptions and make them less emotional and judgmental. Whenever I suggested that what’s happening in the world today is “not as simple as you think,” I would point to “history, supposedly fixed in stone, right?” and then provide examples that proved the opposite, that even history has its massive share of inconsistencies, twists and turns. I would even go so far as to tease people: “Suppose it never would have happened?” “Impossible!,” they would say with utter and complete conviction.
Really? Two weeks before taking office in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in a car attacked by a madman who sprayed the car with bullets. Had FDR been assassinated, the next President would have been the mediocre Vice President-elect, John Nance Garner. In 1930 Adolf Hitler was sitting in the right front passenger seat of a car that collided with a heavy trailer truck. Had the truck braked just one second earlier, Hitler would have been dead. In 1940, while crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, an Englishman used to looking to the right looked the wrong way and was hit by a taxicab – but survived. Had Winston Churchill walked a second faster, he could have been run over. In 1964 the Secret Service in Dallas installed a protective plastic bubble over the President’s black Lincoln convertible, but it was such beautiful day JFK asked that it be removed so people could see him better.
Much of what history books tell us is dry and narrow. Take a look at your child’s high-school textbook, and groan! No wonder many kids don’t want to study. Dates, battles, Presidents and social trends are all essential building blocks, but not the stuff of day-to-day reality that one can readily relate to. “American history,” says historian and novelist Gore Vidal, “has fallen more and more into the hands of academics” (not to mention textbook publishers and State school boards who insist on including every viewpoint to the point of blandness). One longs for an anecdote, a human interest story, a startling revelation, an epistle of courage, a killing of the bad guys – a moral lesson (believe me, kids know the difference between good guys and bullies). To the ancient Greeks, istoria meant a story or a tale as much as history. For centuries before the printed word, the great epics like the Iliad or Beowolf – even the Bible – were told through stories over the campfire. Said Samuel Johnson (of Johnson and Boswell fame in 19th-century England): “Anecdotes are the gleaming toys of history.” Asked how to make history interesting to today’s schoolchildren, historian Barbara Tuchman said simply: “Tell stories.”
A simple story can speak a thousand words. Years ago, American history came alive to me in 20 seconds. The college professor was giving a lecture about John Adams. Apparently, Adams had a roll-top desk at his Massachusetts farm where he spent much of his time during his term in office… The desk had several cubby-holes, one for each department of government. One was marked “War,” another “Indian Affairs,” another “Customs Revenue,” etc. That, ladies and gentlemen, was how the President of the United States ran the country in those days.Imagine!
From that moment on, I marvelled at our nation’s history – not at what it said but at what it didn’t say. Several years later at Harvard Business School – certainly the last place I expected to run into American history – we were told about the early days of IBM. In 1945, founder and chairman Thomas J. Watson was asked the size of the potential world computer market. His prediction? Just 5 computers…
Even though the story may be apocryphal (it originated from an enemy of Watson), it was not far off the mark. In those days the early computer – the size of a room with its ungainly wires and bulbs always breaking down – was viewed as an impractical contraption that would be useful only for academia and the military. If you consider this hard to believe, put yourself in the past and ask yourself what you would do with a room-size box that just clanked and whirled, a machine lacking the “brains” of an operating system like Microsoft’s (far off in the future). This exercise – imagining something before it actually exists – is a very difficult effort.
Understanding our past requires imagination, using the talent of a William Lear. In business we try to use this same skill whenever we evaluate a new business deal or try to out-smart the stock market. If predicting the future requires imagination, does not “predicting” the past?
Narrow-mindedness, said William Lear, is the bane of critical thinking. Virtually every history book describing the U.S. in the 1890s emphasizes “the rise of American power” and the annexation of overseas territories. Viewed in the larger global perspective, however, such a view looks absolutely provincial. Not mentioned and therefore unknown to most Americans today – especially those who swallow the line about America being the only world superpower – America at the turn of the century was a minnow compared to Great Britain, an empire that dwarfed anything America has ever achieved (or ever will). The statistics are awesome: England owned an empire covering over a quarter of the earth’s land surface, and ruled the seas with its Royal Navy. Its navy and trading companies (Hudson’s Bay, East India, etc.) controlled a third of all world trade. Half the world’s ships flew the Union Jack. London was the world’s financial hub. The British land possessions encompassed over 400 million people – 20% of the world’s population – interlocked by a common language and an undersea cable network of 83,000 miles utilizing the internet of the day, the telegraph (a British invention). So awesome was Great Britain in 1900 that the South African business magnate Sir Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes Scholars fame) predicted the day would come when England would re-colonize the United States…
When we look at the past, we look at it from the lens of the present – a straight line, if you will. In actual fact, the past was another generation or two far removed, totally different. Take, for example, the hundred-year struggle for women’s rights. Look again, carefully. When Alice Paul of the newly-formed National Women’s Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment of 1920, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, she aroused a storm of opposition from… of all people, the League of Women Voters. Women’s groups saw the ERA as a threat to their cherished “protective labor laws” that limited excessive hours, required special facilities for women workers, and forbade the employment of women in certain physically-demanding occupations. Those in support of the ERA were thousands of men, employers, and members of the political right who actually welcomed the competition of smart women in the marketplace.
We all know Santayana’s dictum that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but what is it we are trying to remember? We need to dig beneath the surface to understand what actually happened, and why people did what they did. What happened in “the past” is fixed in stone; what we say about it later is “history.” The two are not always the same. What makes history intriguing is discovering these discrepancies… to learn what we know is not necessarily so, to discover “secrets” we didn’t know, and to recognize that what happened almost didn’t happen. This is the delightful stuff of cocktail party conversation: Did you know…?
Every day we open the newspaper and read stories about the inability of Congress to reach a decision and pass a bill. So what else is new? During the days of Valley Forge when Washington’s troops were freezing and starving, Congress’ reaction to the problem was to give it to a committee. There were only 25 active members of Congress, but they managed to create 114 committees in 1777, then another 258 in 1778. Gen. Washington got so fed up handling all the inquiries he wondered how he would find time to fight the war. Several years later, after the war was over, the Confederation of American States sent the 13 States a $3 million bill to pay the war debts incurred in fighting the British. A legitimate bill, you say? Well, by 1787 it had collected less than $120,000 – 4%. Congress could no better manage the country’s affairs then than it can now.
“The past is a foreign country,” a historian once wrote. Perhaps. But the closer one looks, the less foreign it becomes. Even the “god-like” Washington, the founder of our country, the only man to be elected by unanimous vote, had his problems. Was his Presidential holiness really the case (the way we view it through “history”)? Halfway through his Presidential term he made a treaty with the British that made many Congressmen so angry they sought to have him impeached. Hard to believe? Well, the leader of this movement was a man who later became President himself, one of our great ones: Andrew Jackson.
A popular buzzword nowadays is bipartisanship, with many people pleading for better relations and cooperation between the two major parties and between the White House and Congress. Back in the 1830s President Andrew Jackson had such acrimonious relations with Congress, especially with Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, that when the new Treasury Building was being built, he had it situated right next to the White House so as to block his view of the Capitol. “Now I can’t see the Capitol any more!,” he bragged. For this great President, “bipartisanship” meant drawing a line in the sand.
History teaches us facts, but understanding history requires going beyond the facts and learning the full story, especially the human element. Go to Washington, D.C. to the Lincoln Memorial and gaze upward at the solemn face of Abraham Lincoln. Our greatest president, yes – but also a virtual manic-depressive who hired a gravedigger on two separate occasions to dig up his dead son Willy so he could see him again (a privilege, so far as we know, exercised by no other President). And to have a wife like he did! In 1864 she was telling friends that Mr. Lincoln must win re-election so she could use his $25,000 salary to pay off her $27,000 of clothing bills. When he won, she still went out and splurged on 300 pairs of gloves and a $2,000 dress for the Inauguration. Trivia? Hardly: maybe having such a wife was what brought out Lincoln’s innate qualities of sagacity and patience. Said Lincoln to a merchant annoyed at the First Lady: “You ought to stand, for fifteen minutes, what I have stood for fifteen years.”
Go down the road to the Jefferson Memorial, and stand in awe of the powerful “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Except for one thing: Jefferson never wrote it. A major landowner, he wrote “Life, Liberty and Property,” and when his fellow members of the Constitutional Convention objected and changed “Property” to “Pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson got so upset he went to all his friends and tried to mount a lobby to get “Property” restored. He failed, and so we glorify him – for sentiments he did not feel. Even today, historians teach children mis-understandings: by “liberty,” Jefferson meant not liberty from tyranny, but liberty for property (later immortalized in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution protecting Americans from being deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law”).
It is fine to read about great people and great deeds, but how can we relate to people at such a high level? They seem to live on another planet.
We all know about the radiation unleashed by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. In the summer of 2000, I was on a business flight from Athens to Cyprus, reading the Olympic Airways in-flight magazine, when I came across this astounding statistic: “The radiation released at Chernobyl… is estimated to have been at least 200 times greater than that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
Well, isn’t that interesting! (Maybe you knew this, I certainly didn’t.)
But don’t stop there, keep asking questions like Eleanor Roosevelt did. The country that suffered the greatest radiation, it turned out, was the United States. In top-secret tests hidden from the public, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission conducted 126 atmospheric tests in Nevada from 1951 to 1962. These tests released radiation 148 times the radiation of Chernobyl. How much compared to Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Multiply 148 by 200, and the answer is almost 30,000…!
Our most creative insights come from questioning what we hear, and exerting the effort to dig deeper and use our imagination to make connections.
What follows is history through the skylight. We let it fall where it may – like it or not, liberal or conservative, friendly or unfriendly, achievement or pure chance. By showing events that are surprising or not widely known, we enlarge our understanding and appreciation of the richness of America’s past. Unlike most “revisionist” or “multicultural” histories being written nowadays that focus on injustices, we have no particular preconception other than a fascination and curiosity about “What really happened?”
Truth and insights rarely come in a neat package wrapped with a ribbon. “It is better to be vaguely right,” said John Maynard Keynes, “than precisely wrong.” It is better to have judgment and common sense and be able to see the big picture, than to possess detailed minutiae that really are not important (like a lawyer trying to trip up the other side on a technicality). In all of American history, there is probably no better example of this than the ongoing dispute about Pearl Harbor, a controversy that refuses to die. Rather than stirring up the controversy further, let us take a different approach and look at how the world was back then. Everyone knew full well Japan was pounding the war drums, the only question was where and when. When war finally came on an early Sunday morning, it came as a jolt, but it was, in historian John Lukacs’ memorable words, “a surprise that was expected.” Yet for decades now, academicians bent on proving conspiracy have been poring over every document coming in and out of the White House, trying to find incriminating memos proving FDR secretly knew about the coming attack. They could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble by asking one fundamental question that cuts through all the fog: Assuming FDR wanted war, why not warn the fleet and make the first battle a victory? Wouldn’t that be the logical thing to do? End of discussion…
Or take the other great 20th-century event that has every conspiracy buff looking under unturned stones: the JFK assassination. Maybe there was a “second shot” from the grassy knoll, maybe there wasn’t. Because of the configuration of buildings which created an echo, it was scientifically impossible to say exactly where the gunshot sounds were coming from. But no matter, the more important fact was that “the area was teeming with people.” Assassins do not use rifles when there’re a lot of people around, they use handguns. Observes one historian: “It is conceivable that a man with a rifle might have escaped notice. However, not only is this most unlikely, but attempting to assassinate from the knoll would be so dangerous that it is hard to believe any assassin with even minimum rationality would have chosen such a spot.” Again, end of discussion…
Re-creating history does not take a genius, sometimes it takes only common sense and being able to recognize the obvious. Beware of too much history, for often the causes are quite superficial. Ever wonder why so many Irish immigrants to America settled in Boston rather than New York? Very simple…
The boat fare was $6.50 cheaper.
Ever ask yourself when you visit the U.K why the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road? Back in the early days of the automobile, all cars had the steering wheel on the right. This was because most roads were unpaved, and the driver wanted to make sure he didn’t drive off the path into the ditch. Then came along Henry Ford, who moved the steering wheel to the left. He foresaw the day of paved roads and fast cars, where the driver’s main concern would be the oncoming traffic. America is a forward-thinking nation.
It is also one with a limited appreciation of history. According to the American Bar Association, nearly half of all Americans cannot identify our three branches of government. 83% of Americans never take a course in American history beyond high school (though that may not be such a bad thing given what they seem to be taught nowadays). Many college students think that Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating an end to slavery in his “I have a dream” speech. The state of New Jersey recently issued new history standards that omitted any mention of George Washington, and students at one college in our celebrity-obsessed era rated Bill Clinton a better President than George Washington. Many American citizens don’t know what war Ulysses Grant fought in, or why the League of Nations failed, or why espionage was such a critical factor in World War II. Do you think any of them are aware that there was once a book read by an incredible 120% of the entire American voting population? (Common Sense by Thomas Paine). Politics was a passionate subject in those pre-TV days: new-found freedoms and liberties were not taken lightly. In the 1854 debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act expanding slavery into the territories, four years before he debated Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas said he could have “travelled from Boston to Chicago by the light of the fires kindled to burn him in effigy.”
None of us can ever be like the hyper-kinetic Theodore Roosevelt – he read a book a day – but we can certainly do better in our understanding of how America came to be. Consider the story of Benjamin Franklin. When the Second Continental Congress declared rebellion against King George III, Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris to enlist the support of King Louis 16th. It was a difficult assignment, trying to get a king to help a group of anti-king reactionaries overthrow another king. The French monarch invited Franklin to play a game of chess. Franklin surveyed the various pieces – king, queen, knights – and made his move. It was a move that had never been done before, and has never been done since. But was it effective? Yes, absolutely.
His move? He took the two king pieces off the board. “In America we have no kings,” he told his startled host. The two men then played the only kingless game of chess ever played. Months later, the king agreed to support the man whose candor had so impressed him.
The people and events chosen for this book meet two criteria: they are largely unknown, and they make a point worth remembering. By relating them to the present, we experience “the thrill of learning singular things.”
Seymour Morris, Jr.