Taking Liberties with History

by Michael Sean Winters

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Both political parties tend to distort the truth in order to serve their ideological ends. To cite only one example, find me the Democrat who is willing to address the awkward fact that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was an avowed racist who thought birth control was necessary to control the population growth of the “inferior races.” There are photos of her speaking at a Klan rally. 

Nonetheless, this year, indeed for the past seven years, the GOP has become increasingly unhinged from reality. We all know that they have developed a penchant for denying the reality of climate change. They like to tout the importance of “open carry” laws that allow a person to carry a firearm in public. My housemate mused the other night that he wondered if that policy would apply at their national convention. After all, guns don’t kill people; People kill people.

But, the historian in me is especially irked when politicians take grave liberties with the historical record. This bothers me not only with politicians. The History Channel had a series on the American Revolution and, in the first episode, when discussing the colonists’ rising discontent with the British parliament, they showed a picture of the current British parliament buildings, which were built in the mid-1800s and, therefore, did not exist when the Revolution was beginning. That sort of thing makes me crazy.

Last week, Republicans excoriated President Obama for going to Cuba, visiting a dictator, and not securing any relief for political prisoners or dissidents as a requirement for his visit. I am no fan of the Castro regime and have been happy and proud to assist the work of Cuban dissidents over the years. But, if the Republicans are right, what then are we to make of Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China? There were no preconditions, no release of political prisoners, no opening of civil society for dissidents. And, whatever evils the Castro regime has perpetrated, Mao was one of the great monsters of the twentieth century, responsible for millions of deaths.

Sen. Ted Cruz, in one of his stump speeches, begins his litany of President Obama’s foreign policy mistakes by criticizing the president for removing the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office shortly after taking office. I am a huge fan of Churchill, to be sure: His writing is superlative and, although he was wrong about most of the public issues of his day, he was right about the most important issue and right when it mattered. But, Senator Cruz: You are no Winston Churchill. And, if Cruz believes Churchill is so wonderful he deserves to have his bust in the Oval Office, I wonder if he concurs with this statement of Churchill’s:

[T]he principle of nationalisation is accepted by all, provided proper compensation is paid. The argument proceeds not on moral grounds, but on whether in fact we could make a more fertile business for the nation as a whole by nationalisation than by relying on private enterprise and competition.

Now, I find those words unobjectionable. They were spoken in the House of Commons in October 1943 when the subject of nationalizing the coal mines was brought up. Churchill opposed nationalization at that time because the National Government, consisting of all parties, had adopted the position that all contentious issues between them that did not have an immediate impact on the war effort would be deferred until after the war. But, earlier, after the First World War, Churchill had supported nationalizing the railroads, although he later criticized the manner in which it was done and the strikes and strife that accompanied the effort. Back to the plot: Is there a Republican candidate who could speak so disinterestedly about the subject of nationalization? In fact, we could reverse the adverb and say the principle of nationalization is accepted by none, except for Sen. Bernie Sanders who wants to nationalize health insurance.

The most egregious claim GOP candidates make these days that betrays an utter lack of appreciation for the lessons of history is the charge that President Obama is to be faulted because he does not take the advice of his military advisors. To be sure, Republicans overstate the case: There is a lot of give-and-take between the president and his advisors. But, more importantly, are we not glad that President John Kennedy resisted the advice of his military advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Every student of politics or U.S. history reads Thirteen Days as a freshman. Did none of the GOP candidates ever read that book?

The charge is especially noxious coming from Cruz who fashions himself a champion of the Constitution. Surely, he is aware that the founders were deeply concerned about the threat posed by a standing army and, consequently, insisted that the military be subject to civilian control. America, subsequently, never had to really worry about the threat posed by a standing army, although our electorate has demonstrated a penchant for electing former generals to the presidency, a penchant that has produced many mediocre presidents. But, the founders wanted the chief magistrate to be able to spurn the advice of his military advisors and so it is kind of funny that Cruz the originalist is leveling this critique, and doing so just when the country is getting ready to elect a president who, for the first time, will be able to follow or not follow the advice of her military advisors.

As I say, both parties have their problems, but there is no comparing the zaniness on the right to the shortcomings on the left, at least not this year. And, for distorting and misunderstanding and misrepresenting the historical record, the GOP takes the gold medal. 

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