Oklahoma attempts to ban AP U.S. History

Over the past 20 years or so, conservative politicians have added criticizing the way U.S. history is taught to their laundry list of complaints about the liberal takeover of America. You know the criticisms by now, most likely, as they have probably been voiced in your own state: students are taught that American exceptionalism is a lie; that American history is a long, unbroken string of racist crimes and hate; that big government is good; and that the Civil War was fought over slavery (for our take on the last one, see What made the north and south different before the Civil War and Amazing Fact! the Civil War was fought over slavery). In Oklahoma, a state House committee has bowed to state Republican complaints that the new AP exam is “unpatriotic and negative” and approved a bill to remove AP funding and create a new U.S. history exam to replace it. “[State Rep. Dan] Fisher said Monday that the AP U.S. History course emphasizes “what is bad about America” and complained that the framework eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism,”according to the Tulsa World.”

Where to start.

First, let’s laugh at the complaint about American Exceptionalism. We all take it to mean that because of its founding principles, America has a special mission of democracy and justice to carry out in the world, and that mission, which we have always carried out successfully, has ennobled our nation. But that’s not what the term “American Exceptionalism” really means. it was coined by that tireless chronicler of American ways and means, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe,… have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.

Andrew Jackson facelift

We were transacting some business yesterday and happened to get an old $20 bill from an ATM. We were comparing the old and new and couldn’t help noticing how Andrew Jackson was airbrushed to look substantially younger and more handsome in the new bill:


In the new bill, on top, his eyes have been made larger and the deep bags underneath his eyes have been removed. His jaw has also been widened and shortened, changing his face from its familiar long rectangle to more of a heart shape. Jackson looks positively appealing in the new bill. One has to wonder why this was done…

If only we had old $1, $5 and $10 bills to analyze. Maybe Washington, Lincoln, and  Hamilton have had similar makeovers. If anyone out there can send images, please do!

Sons of Liberty on “History” is terrible and stupid and partly accurate

Everyone by now is talking about History.com’s Sons of Liberty and how blazingly inaccurate it is. Everything that can be falsified has been falsified, from the ages of the leading participants to their motives to their actions. The AV Club sums it up better than we can here.

We went to the History.com website to take a look and were intrigued, given the circumstances, to see a box called “Historians’ View” on the landing page. Once clicked, we came to a page that begins with this statement:

“SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please check out the links below.”

A slew of links out to other resources follow this, and most of them are accurate, which seems baffling at first—if you know the real story, why not tell it?

But that brief statement explains all. Should the “History” channel offer historical fiction rather than fact? No. Should it present historical fiction as a documentary for TV viewers, with this disclaimer buried below the episodes on the website? No. Should it promote 21st-century gun values by claiming that they are part of our hallowed revolutionary history? No.

The latter is most important, because the Revolution was all about our evolution from a tradition of mindless, horrible violence to a focused legal, philosophical, and military fight for liberty and justice. In our post The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence, we describe the terrible violence and destruction that Americans felt no qualms about using when they were upset, or for no real reason at all. Violent action was sanctioned in the American colonies in ways it never was in Britain. Mobs formed at the drop of a hat, and destroyed people’s homes and businesses—literally tearing them apart brick by brick—to settle personal grudges as well as political arguments. Tarring and feathering, which is somehow presented as a harmless prank today, involved holding people down naked and pouring boiling tar over their bare skin, then covering them with feathers. At the time, it was called “the American torture”. It cost many lives.

It was this kind of violence that the real Sons of Liberty’s leaders began to realize had to go if Americans wanted to claim they were calling for a just war against Britain. The Boston Tea Party was the striking departure from that tradition of violence. It was deliberately carried out without costing a single life—the men who called for the protest and led it in the harbor read the riot act to all participants: no one was to use any violence against any one. The protest had to be completely nonviolent for the same reason Martin Luther King wanted civil rights protests to be nonviolent: to show the injustice of the inevitable hostile reaction when compared with the high ideals of the protestors. And it was successful. The Tea Party was completely nonviolent, and that’s what aroused general public sympathy throughout the American colonies when the British cracked down so hard on Massachusetts in retaliation.

So making “Sons of Liberty” violent is indeed to “capture the spirit of the times”, as the disclaimer says, and if early episodes showed the unthinking violence our forefathers used early in the run-up to revolution, it would be completely accurate. But then it has to show the evolution away from violence in late 1773. It has to focus on the efforts of John Hancock, the Adams cousins, and others to swerve the growing energy for revolution away from mindless personal attacks to directed, politically powerful stands for liberty that could serve as building blocks for that liberty.

Instead, this series unsurprisingly focuses on imaginary affairs and other forms of make-believe that just confirm our judgment that the series’ producers and the “History” channel either a) did not know the real story or b) did not believe the facts were interesting enough to present, or both. It’s baffling how many shows about historical events believe those events were so incredibly boring they’re not worth making a show about, and fill in with guns and sex and made-up speeches and events instead. If you think the facts are boring, just write your fictional show and be done with it. Why call it Sons of Liberty when it’s not about them?

Perhaps one day, 100 years from now, someone will write a miniseries about the producers and management at the History Channel that shows them all as ex-cons who commit terrorist activities on the weekends. They could hardly complain, could they, from beyond the grave?

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima was NOT a fake!

In our third and last installment of reading famous American photographs, we cover Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the February 23, 1945 photo by Joe Rosenthal showing five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima:


Rarely does a photograph convey urgency and movement as fully as this. The effort of the man on the right to physically plant the flag pole into what looks like difficult, hard ground is clear. His head is turned down, looking at the ground, focused on his work. The next man to the left is also focused on training the pole into the ground. The man behind him pushes the pole upward, and the last man has just lost his grip on the pole as it raises. His arms still strain upward with the force of his effort. The wind is just about to unfurl the flag, signifying victory. Yet for all the movement, the men also seem made of marble—it looks very much like a sculpture. The perfect triangle composition that takes your eye from the flag down the pole to the man planting it, across to the men holding the pole, and back up to the flag is classic. There is nothing in the sky to distract from the lone symbol of the flag—no airplanes, no shells exploding.

The first question might be, why are there only four men? Unfortunately, one man is almost completely blocked from view behind the second man from the right because their bodies were lined up as they both worked to plant the flagpole. Here’s a helpful diagram:


This outline also gives us the men’s names. Franklin Sousey, Michael Strank, and Harlon Block would all be killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima: Stank and Block on March 1, within hours of each other, and Sousley on March 21, just days before the official end of the Battle on March 26, 1945.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was critical to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific. It was the first Japanese home island to be invaded by the U.S. in its “island-hopping” strategy of taking the small but strategic Pacific islands the Japanese relied on to refuel planes on their way to bigger targets. Often these islands were so small that they were uninhabited. But each island the U.S. landed on was defended to the death by the Japanese, who knew that a) they needed these islands as stopping points to faraway destinations and b) that the Americans were slowly but surely working their way to invading Japan itself. When U.S. forces invaded Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, they were met with even fiercer resistance than before.

The Americans wanted to capture Mount Suribachi as soon as possible so the Japanese could not use it as a lookout and a place from which to shell incoming U.S. forces. It was taken relatively quickly, on February 23, just four days into the battle. But the fighting was far from over, as the Japanese barricaded themselves into pillboxes dug into the hillsides and fired on U.S. forces for another unbelievably fatal month.

There were actually two different flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi. The first was ordered by Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson and sent Harold Schrier, Earnest Thomas, and Henry Hansen up the mountain with a 40-man combat patrol. Johnson is said to have given Schrier a flag and said “If you get to the top put it up.” Schrier did, and received a Navy Cross for volunteering for the mission. A photographer named Louis Lowry who joined the patrol took photos of this first flag-raising.

The sight of the flag so inspired the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, who was at Iwo Jima, to say “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” According to legend, he asked General Holland Smith if he could have it as a souvenir. This reportedly enraged Lt. Col. Johnson, who felt the flag belonged to his battalion. To keep it away from Forrestal, Johnson ordered another group up the mountain to replace it. This was not the only reason, of course; Johnson wouldn’t endanger his men in such a petty mission. They needed to put up a bigger flag that could be seen better by men on the landing beaches. And so the second, famous group went up about two hours after the first group. They had been laying telephone wire on Mount Suribachi during the first flag raising. Joe Rosenthal took his photo and history was made. But he almost missed it; while he was setting up for a good shot, the men began raising the flag, and Rosenthal had to grab his camera to get a shot before it was over. As Rosenthal took photos, Sgt. Bill Genaust shot newsreel footage of the event. (Genaust was killed on March 4.)

When Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed, the AP photograph editor immediately spotted the shot and sent it to New York. The photo was printed in hundreds of newspapers in less than 24 hours. It spoke to the bravery of the U.S. armed forces, the pride of the U.S. victory at Iwo Jima, and the danger Americans were facing in the Pacific theater.

But then trouble began. Rosenthal asked the men to pose for a group photo after the flag-raising. When he was asked a few days later if his photo was posed, he said yes—not knowing the questioner was referring to the already-famous flag-raising photo and not the group shot. Word spread that the photo was a fake. The popular New York radio program Time Views the News claimed that “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted… Like most photographers he could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” The Pulitzer Prize the photo had already won was threatened with revocation. When he realized the error, Rosenthal went to his grave defending the photo. Genaust’s newsreel film proved that Rosenthal’s shot was really from the flag-raising as it happened, and most people realized it was not fake, but for decades the conspiracy theory persisted in the shadows—growing up in the 1970s, one of us at the HP remembers hearing it was faked, and accepting this claim without much ado, as children do. Hopefully by now, that rumor is finally dead.

In honor of the other U.S. servicemen who risked their lives to plant the flag, we give you a photo of the first flag-raising on Mount Suribachi:


There’s not the same immediate energy as the more famous photo, but this image does capture the grim resolution of the men. As the flag is steadied in its plant, one man in the center sits down, seemingly exhausted, eyes on the horizon. One man stands looking in the same direction, perhaps at the U.S. forces continuing to land on the beaches below, for whom the flag is a signal that Japanese shells will no longer rain down on them from the peak. The mountain is captured, the flag is raised, but the battle is not over, and even as the photographer faces the men, the soldier closest to him keeps a lookout inland for Japanese fire. The moment is not as technicolor as the more famous photo, but the bravery and commitment are just as real.