Our leaders manipulate history to work their will—even using it to send citizens into war
Gov. Jim Gibbons was having troubles right out of the chute, just days after taking the oath of office.
His fumbling and circuitous effort to force state casino regulator Keith Munro off the Gaming Control Board after saying he wouldn’t do so (and instead of just asking Munro to step down) had made the governor appear arrogant and deceptive—"conniving,” analyst Jon Ralston called it—as well as incompetent. A new approach was needed.
Soon, the governor’s representatives were trashing Munro as someone who would undermine the state’s sacrosanct gambling regulator apparatus.
After an alibi sentence calling Munro “an upstanding individual, a fine public servant and a good Republican,” the governor’s press secretary, Melissa Subbotin, then slid in the shiv: “Mr. Gibbons feels that moving forward with Keith Munro’s politically motivated appointment would be undermining the tradition of the Gaming Control Board being apolitical. That would be moving back to the dark ages when politics and personal interests ruled the Gaming Control Board. This administration is not for sale.” The last sentence was widely read, particularly in Las Vegas, as suggesting something corrupt.
In a state like Nevada, where the percentage of new residents is higher than elsewhere, this rendering of the “dark” history of gambling regulators encountered little resistance. The governor said there were dark days in the Control Board’s past from which the state should recoil. Who could dispute it?
But not all Nevadans were newcomers. Those who had been around for a while knew darned well the governor was making it all up. The Board had never been compromised in the fashion described.
Ed Pearce, a reporter who grew up in Fallon half a century ago in a news family, knows where all the bodies are buried. On his Sunday interview program he said, “But on the other hand, we have the governor’s press secretary saying, ‘Hey, listen, that was a very political appointment, and it hearkens back to the dark ages, the bad old days of state gaming control.’ I was wracking my brain to try to remember what those bad old days were because the Gaming Control Board from the beginning has, I think, been where Nevada’s reputation for good gaming control has [been].”
It was Gibbons who was making political use of the Board, by misrepresenting its history.
The Gibbons rewriting of history apparently originated with the governor himself, who sent his assistants out to peddle the line, because his aides attributed it to him. (Munro “basically was a political appointee, and Gov. Gibbons says the board can’t go back to the bad old days,” said Gibbons aide Brent Boynton.) It was a wise precaution. Gibbons had long had a habit of seeing what he wanted to see in history.
In this case, it worked. Not many reporters in Nevada had the institutional memory to call Gibbons on his deception the way Pearce did. Those without such memory didn’t bother to check the claim out before they published it or put it on the air.
The misuse of history for political ends is employed regularly and repeatedly because the depth of knowledge about history in the United States is about a quarter of an inch—and much of what we do “know” is wrong.
Repetition in the service of falsehood
History, whether current or distant, is a political weapon. The battle over history is fought again and again:
• For 30 years, the Mexican government barred any mention in textbooks of its Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of students in Mexico City, and when the long-governing principal political party was finally turned out of power, a textbook was introduced that reported the massacre, and a special prosecutor was appointed.
• Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica established a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate state crimes committed in Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Such “transparency commissions” are often useful in examining the history of repressive regimes.
• After fighting in Kosovo ended in 1999 and official investigations began, it became clear that the wartime claims of genocide, atrocities, mass graves, rape camps and crematoriums that had fueled Western intervention were less than complete and not entirely accurate.
• In Mississippi, the files of the State Sovereignty Commission, a government arm of white repression in the civil rights era, were thrown open to the public.
• In South Korea, it was seen as a significant political move when textbooks were rewritten to give credit to the World War II anti-Japanese activities of North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung.
• When Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about the Rafael Trujillo dictatorship, La Fiesta del Chivo, was published, it set off debate in the Dominican Republic about the relationship between leading families and institutions and Trujillo.
• When the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum opened an exhibit that included material on the rape of Nanjing, and the Smithsonian Institution planned an exhibit on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, critics succeeded in having the exhibits altered or cancelled.
• In the United States, evangelical Christians are now busily engaged in a campaign to convince the nation that the founders did not intend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee a secular nation but instead wanted a religious nation that exercises “godly dominion” over “our neighborhoods, our schools, our government … our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors—in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”
This last campaign is a fascinating mirror image of an earlier campaign. Today’s evangelicals are trying to rewrite the founders’ history, which would be a neat trick because their evangelical ancestors of the pre-Civil War years were critical of the founders for writing a secular constitution that never mentioned God. As the founding generation died off, the evangelicals of that period called the Constitution “negatively atheistic” and launched an effort to amend the Preamble ("We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging … The Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the Nations …") that sometimes came close to succeeding. It was seriously introduced in Congress as recently as the 1950s. But when it failed conclusively, its followers turned their attention to what two historians called “a staggering historical flip flop"—convincing the nation that the founders intended a religious nation all along. Their strategy: Repeat their arguments so often that they became accepted as true.
This is a technique familiar to some scholars and journalists, not all of whom see it as misleading. New York Times reporter David Stout maintains a healthy skepticism toward those stories in the “Reservoir of Truth, my term for things that have been repeated so much that (of course) they simply have to be true. And so often they are not.” On the other hand, historian Stephen Ambrose argued that stories of voter fraud in Illinois and Texas in 1960 were “too widespread and too persistent, to be entirely without foundation,” which suggests that those who use repetition in the service of falsehood will at least sometimes get their reward.
My syndrome can beat up your analogy
These battles over whose history is true have often preoccupied public policymakers. The Munich analogy and the Vietnam syndrome are proof of it.
The Munich analogy argues for not repeating the experience of the 1930s, when Britain and France permitted Hitler to seize lands and nations—most notably at a Munich conference in 1938—instead of opposing his acquisitiveness from the beginning. This whetted his appetite, the analogy says, and led to world war.
In the 1960s, hawks and doves battled over the applicability of the analogy to Southeast Asia. No less an authority than Winston Churchill seemed to disdain the idea that Vietnam was a good place for application of the analogy. But then Churchill’s role in relationship to Munich has never been well understood. After the war, he tried to set down guidelines to limit the effect of Munich:
“No case of this kind can be judged apart from its circumstances. … Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. … How many wars have been precipitated by fire brands!”
Few listened to Churchill’s warnings against overreaction to Munich. The analogy has caused many unnecessary wars. President Clinton used it in his war in Kosovo: “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?”
The Vietnam syndrome, by contrast, imposed military restraint on U.S. presidents and Congress by a public that wanted to avoid the kind of military adventure their leaders had launched that had so damaged the nation. Almost from the end of Vietnam, U.S. officials—and Democrats were among them—tried to discredit the Vietnam syndrome, and in trying, they rewrote history with a vengeance:
• The history of the war was revised, as in this largely fictitious version by Ronald Reagan (Feb. 11, 1982): “France gave up Indochina as a colony. … North and South Vietnam had been, previous to colonization, two separate countries. … Ho Chi Minh refused to participate in such an election. … Ho Chi Minh closed the border and again violated that part of the agreement. And openly our country sent military advisers there. … But it was totally a program until John F. Kennedy, when these attacks and forays became so great, that John F. Kennedy authorized the sending in of a division of Marines.”
• Attacks were mounted on the facts of the war that hawks found inconvenient. Conservative leader Lynn Cheney even attacked Oliver Stone’s film JFK for one of the things it got right—a 1963 quote from Lyndon Johnson to Pentagon officials: “Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.”
• Small wars in which the United States could employ overwhelming force and score quick victories were launched, reducing public reluctance to use force. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” George Bush the Elder said after the Kuwait war.
• During the Vietnam War, soldiers and veterans had been shunned and abused by hawkish groups like the VFW and American Legion but were embraced by war critics. To cover up that history when the war was over, a poisonous myth about antiwar activists spitting on returning veterans was spread. During the Weimar Republic, the same story had been circulated by German Nazis about leftists abusing veterans returning from World War I. This is one U.S. myth that was created by repetition—after it was used in innumerable conversations, newspaper columns, books, television programs and movies, it took on credibility, all without ever proving the case with specifics.
Lying into Iraq
These techniques were also useful in launching the chickenhawks’ dream war—Iraq, the war that was supposed to permanently redeem the use of U.S. force. In leading the nation to war, the rewriting of history was employed regularly:
• The Reagan administration concluded that a 1988 gas attack on the Iraqi town of Halabja had been committed by Iran. Fourteen years later, by giving short shrift to contrary evidence, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an 18,000-word piece arguing that Iraq had committed the attack. George W. Bush and Richard Cheney seized on the article about the old incident as proof that “he gassed his own people!” When conservative journalist Jude Wanniski, a former Las Vegas editorial writer, criticized the manipulation of the Halabja story, he was labeled a Holocaust denier, which shows the risks to those who buck the conventional wisdom or current hysteria. It was not necessary to whitewash Saddam Hussein in order for reporters to treat the story as what it is—an issue in dispute.
• In building their case for war in 2002, Bush, Cheney and their supporters kept arguing that Saddam had kicked U.N. inspectors out of Iraq. What actually happened, on Dec. 16, 1998, was that the inspectors fled the country because (1) Clinton, facing a collapse of moderate GOP support in his potential impeachment, was threatening to bomb Iraq, and (2) a spy scandal was about to erupt—the United States had planted agents in the inspection team, and they had just been detected, endangering the inspectors, who hastily departed.
This is a problem that is with us every day. Our history requires almost the same vigilance as our liberty.
On Sept. 9 last year, the New York Times appeared to have begun rewriting the myth of the WMDs that the Times itself had done so much to spread: “The possibility that Saddam Hussein might develop ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and pass them to terrorists was the prime reason Mr. Bush gave in 2003 for ordering the invasion of Iraq.”
Might develop? In fact, Bush said repeatedly that Iraq had already developed such weapons (Sept. 26, 2002: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and … could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given.”) Thanks to the media monitor group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the Times was hit with a flood of complaining mail and issued a correction.
Some such incidents of rewriting history are easy for reporters to detect if they’re willing to do the work. USA Today could have caught Bush and Cheney lying about the inspectors being kicked out merely by checking its archives. It had carried a Dec. 17, 1998, story about criticism of the inspectors for abandoning their work without permission.
Textbooks also have a role in preventing manipulation of policy through rewriting of history. “The powerful story of the Alamo, structured into the president’s character, was one cause of Vietnam,” wrote one of Lyndon Johnson’s biographers. Would Johnson have been so bewitched by the story of the Alamo if history books had reported candidly and accurately that the Texans were fighting to protect the institution of slavery from the new abolitionist Mexican constitution?
Presidents have been lying the United States into danger for much of its history. If those textbooks told us so in plain language and gave examples from the rich history of lying presidents, would we—and Congress—have been so willing to believe George Bush’s claims? Would 655,000 Iraqi citizens and 3,300 United States citizens still be alive?
Instead, history textbooks—enervated by interest group demands that their agendas be addressed—are filled with bland and meaningless material.
The technology of history
If news, as an old adage has it, is “history in a hurry,” it also becomes necessary to police that history. Once news accounts become accepted as valid, they become history.
There are times when the sheer amount of historical misinformation is daunting, particularly because the means of spreading it has become so much more sophisticated. The American Journalism Review has called the problem “The Nexis Nightmare … the Misinformation Explosion.” It noted in 1994, “Fueled by the growing popularity of both commercial and in-house computerized news databases, journalists have found it that much easier to repeat errors or rely on the same tired anecdotes and experts.”
There is a huge amount of bad information on matters large and small, and with the advent of new technologies, the adage attributed to Mark Twain about a lie traveling around the world while the truth is putting on its boots is outdated. It no longer takes that long. In an instant, with a keystroke, misinformation sweeps all before it.
But those means can also be used quickly to discredit myths and lies. Four years ago this week, on April 9, 2003, history was misrepresented right before our eyes. The U.S. television networks showed footage of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Fardus Square being pulled down by a huge crowd of cheering Iraqis. But the networks had framed their camera shots tightly and at near range to create a crowd where none existed. Swiftly, wide-angle shots of Fardus Square were posted on the Internet to show the small group present. In some shots, it was almost possible to count all the people in the sparse crowd, many of whom were U.S. soldiers (http://gammablog.com/?m=20040409). Of mainstream outlets, only the Boston Globe published an account questioning the techniques used in the news coverage.
When Washington Times writer Frank Gaffney quoted Lincoln as saying that congressmembers who in wartime “damage morale and undermine the military” should be “exiled and hanged,” the online magazine Salon quickly pointed out that Lincoln said no such thing and that, in fact, Lincoln had himself been one of those antiwar members of Congress who attacked the war against Mexico into which President James Polk lied the United States.
Lincoln, of course, is the all-purpose vessel into which activists like to pour their own views. The Lincoln portion of Paul Boller and John George’s They Never Said It is the book’s largest section.
As a member of the Nevada Assembly in the 1990s, Gov. Gibbons kept a Lincoln quotation on the bulletin board in his office, a litany of sayings that absolved the rich and powerful from the social compact: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help small men by tearing down big men. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich,” etc. Lincoln never said it, according to Lincoln scholar Thomas Schwartz on the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency Web site. It takes just moments to find that information.
With any kind of luck, more folks will learn how to do it.