Textbooks, War and the Military in
Supporters of American history courses often claim that these courses lead to a more enlightened citizenry. A major duty of U.S. citizens is “to analyze issues and interpret events intelligently,” one textbook says. Indeed, eighteen‐year‐olds (especially males) may be expected to fight, so such classes might encourage young people to understand why and how America has fought its wars.
Textbooks do give considerable coverage to war. Triumph of the American Nation, probably the best‐selling high school textbook of the 1980s and early 1990s, devotes about 17 percent of its text (150 pages) to U.S. military history. Another 2.5 percent relates closely to war. Included are 15 pages on the Revolutionary War, 9 pages on the War of 1812, 8 pages on the Texan and Mexican Wars, 29 pages on the Civil War, 5 pages on the Plains Indians Wars, 6 pages on the Spanish‐American War, 17 pages on World War I, 41 pages on World War II, 3 pages on the Korean War, and 12 widely scattered pages on the Vietnam War. This coverage is typical and the proportions are similar to coverage in shorter, easier texts. There is an almost complete lack of coverage of Indian wars in the colonial and early national periods.
Textbooks do make efforts to include various racial groups, but such attempts are often clumsy, probably because publishers want to win adoptions and avoid offense. Thus, 5,000 black soldiers fought alongside whites in the Continental army, “with courage and skill,” says Triumph of the American Nation. In reality, of course, some fought “with courage and skill”—like some white recruits—and some did not fire their guns and ran off—like some white recruits. A more important point would be that the British recruited African Americans, especially slaves, more easily than did the colonists, but this is not covered, presumably because it might offend some textbook adoption committees. Authors do a somewhat better job on gender and war and gender and the military.
Textbooks provide useful detail and good maps—particularly for the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. However, coverage on the home front is not nearly as good. The topic of internal opposition to the Confederacy, for example, gets little attention.
Layout editors often contribute a further obstacle by assuming that students have short attention spans and making frequent random topic changes. Triumph of the American Nation interrupts the outbreak of World War I to treat “The World's Ocean.” And while describing the dismemberment of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union, the authors insert over a page on irrigation in the Western United States. Another popular textbook, The American Pageant, by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy (1994), avoids such pitfalls. But some texts aimed at less advanced readers offer no coherent narrative of the Civil War, simply a series of boxed topics.
Who are the authors of most high school American history textbooks? According to Hillel Black, whose The American Schoolbook (1967) is probably still the most important study of this topic, the names on the cover of a textbook rarely represent the people who actually wrote it. Lewis Todd and Merle Curti may have written the first draft of Rise of the American Nation in 1949, but when its title changed to Triumph of the American Nation in 1986, Curti was almost ninety and Todd was dead. (For the latest incarnation, the title becomes Todd and Curti's The American Nation, 1994, with a new author listed.) In an article entitled “The Ghost Behind the Classroom Door in Today's Education (April 1978), a person who never taught a history class or earned a history degree tells of writing textbooks and ancillary material for publishers. Since the history profession does not review high school texts, errors by these ghostwriters or even by professional historians may go uncorrected for years, including the claim by one text that Truman ended the Korean War by dropping the atomic bomb!
Two omissions loom even larger. First, coverage is often sanitized. The poet Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War, “The real war will never get into the books.” Certainly, the true nature of war does not get into most high school textbooks. James W. Loewen's analysis, in Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995), of the photographs used to illustrate the Vietnam War, demonstrates this clearly: rather than the famous photographs of the My Lai Massacre or the napalmed girl running naked toward the camera, many publishers choose nondescript images of soldiers walking through rice paddies in Southeast Asia.
Second, authors and publishers often avoid moral and strategic issues. On 8 December 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States in the Pacific War abandoned all international rules governing submarine warfare and began attacking Japanese shipping—military or commercial—without warning. This policy is defensible, but the defense might make awkward discussions in U.S. textbooks of Berlin's unrestricted submarine warfare as one of the reasons the United States entered World War I against Germany.
Similarly, America's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II remain controversial. Because high school texts often avoid controversy, a typical account of the ending of World War II maintains that “Japan rejected [the call] for its unconditional surrender” on 29 July; “the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima” and “two days later” (actually three) “dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki”; “on August 10 the Japanese government asked for peace”; and “on August 14, 1945, President Truman announced by radio that Japan had accepted the Allied peace terms.” The clear implication is that the bombs alone forced Japan to accept unconditional surrender (from Todd and Curti, Triumph of the American Nation, 1986).
There are issues here of both fact and morality. What role did the announcement of Soviet entry in the war against Japan have in precipitating surrender? Given that Gen. Douglas MacArthur acceded to Japan's condition that Emperor Hirohito remain on the throne, is the surrender best understood as unconditional? Did the United States drop the Hiroshima bomb partly to in fluence the Soviet Union in the postwar period? Was it correct to drop either the first or second bomb? The American Pageant summarizes the bomb as “a fantastic ace up [America's] sleeve.” Having witnessed the Smithsonian Institution's reversal on its Enola Gay display, most textbook publishers are unlikely to explore this controversy further.
As their titles imply, high school textbooks take a generally triumphal view of American history. They treat war as they do other topics, supplying detail about individual campaigns but little analysis and no moral judgments. Students memorize facts for exams but often forget most of them by the time they graduate. According to Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn in What Do Our 17‐Year‐Olds Know? (1987), two‐thirds of American seventeen‐year‐olds cannot place the Civil War in the right half century. High school history textbooks currently fall for short in developing an adequate understanding of U.S. history, let alone America's military history.
[See also Disciplinary Views of War: Military History; Public Opinion, War, and the Military.]
James W. Loewen
"Textbooks, War and the Military in." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/textbooks-war-and-military
"Textbooks, War and the Military in." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/textbooks-war-and-military
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