- Interpretive frameworks: A house divided
- The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
- The Fifth Estate
- A progressive framework for analysis
- Peace & justice values
- Secrecy and covert action
- Propaganda: Selling war and intervention
- Managing the news media
- The ideological dimension
As early as 1776, American diplomats were busily attempting to woo European governments to support U.S. objectives. Over the following decades, moreover, the survival of the young republic depended on managing complex economic and military threats from abroad. Growing confidence encouraged increasingly ambitious uses of power. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, U.S. presidents had sent forces into action in territories stretching from Cuba and Peru to the Marquesas Islands, Tripoli, and China.
From the Ohio Country westward, the American nation-state was built on the conquest of peoples – Native American, Hispanic, French, and others – incorporated without their consent, who were compelled to give up their traditional ways of life, who often faced removal to new lands further west, and who, in some cases, were threatened with annihilation by acts of violence perpetrated either by frontiersmen or by the U.S. military. . . . What is often forgotten is the fundamentally imperial nature of the U.S. conquest of a large portion of the North American continent.
Interpretive frameworks: A house divided
The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
In reality, the destruction was nothing near mutual. U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3.8 million Vietnamese, 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians, and about one million Laotians, as compared to 58,220 U.S. soldiers. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 6,162,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, which is 2.74 times the amount dropped in all of World War II. The U.S. sprayed some nineteen million gallons of environmental poisons on South Vietnam, resulting in miscarriages and birth defects long after the war ended. Vietnamese soldiers, of course, did not invade, occupy, bomb, burn, poison, kill, and wreak havoc in the United States.
More detailed scholarly studies do not necessarily produce more enlightened interpretations. Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, in Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (1998), describe U.S. covert operations in Iran and Guatemala as “tests” for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Allen Dulles. Regarding Iran, they write, “he succeeded fully. By August 1953 the CIA had routed the Tudeh party, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne.” The success of the operation in overthrowing Iran’s democratic government is said to have “reinforced the administration’s confidence” in the CIA’s next mission to oust Guatemala’s democratic leader Jacobo Árbenz the following spring. The authors go on to quote, without irony, the Eisenhower administration’s National Security Directive 162/2 which declares that the U.S. should “assist in achieving stability” in the Third World. The authors, as such, have not only adopted the views of Washington officials but also their coded language. In reality, U.S. leaders sought “stability” only for U.S. allies and client states while plotting to undermine and overthrow governments perceived to be unfriendly, the overall effect being global instability.
U.S. officials lectured about democracy while they and their covert operatives undercut free speech, bought foreign politicians, encouraged fixed elections, and plotted to assassinate foreign leaders . . . The United States pressed certain nations to honor human rights while turning eyes away from human-rights violations committed by allies and trading partners. American policymakers championed the principle of self-determination while they clung to decaying colonial regimes and snubbed the nonaligned movement. Washington lobbied for open trade doors abroad while practicing the closed door at home. The United States raced toward nuclear supremacy while it demanded nuclear nonproliferation for others. If the double standard did not undercut American assertions of moral superiority, other behavior did. U.S. bombing campaigns and sabotages left millions jobless, homeless, and dead. The unsavory embrace and arming of dictatorial strongmen such as [Cuba’s Fulgencio] Batista, the Shah [of Iran], and [the Philippines’ Ferdinand] Marcos facilitated their schemes to spy on, jail, and murder their domestic critics. The United States fueled civil wars, often through covert actions, disrupting societies and economies, keeping the poor poor, and spawning a plethora of anti-Americanisms.
The nationalist orientation in academia today is less nationalistic than it once was. Successive progressive challenges over the decades have opened the door to mainstream acknowledgement of egregious foreign policies in certain areas. Indeed, there are now subfields of history in which critical appraisals have become the norm. The study of U.S.-Native American relations has become a kind of Truth Commission in revealing the cruelties visited upon indigenous peoples by Anglo-American “settler colonialism” and its racist underpinnings. Scholars of U.S.-Latin American relations have dug deeply into the contradictions of U.S. support for repressive governments and rightist coups d’états. Stephen Rabe, in The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (2012), argues that “historians can go too far in denying the realities of the global distribution of power or the active U.S. role in fomenting chaos in the region during the Cold War. . . . Historical inquiry mandates that both the causes and consequences of decisions be analyzed.”
The Fifth Estate
A progressive framework for analysis
Peace & justice values
The single most important lesson drawn by many people after the Second World War was to avoid a third one, a lesson aptly described in the United Nations Charter as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” In May 1946, nine months after U.S. aircraft dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein wrote an appeal to several hundred prominent Americans, warning, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” He called for new military and foreign policies that would replace international competition and war preparations with cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts, freeing up vast amounts of resources and talents for constructive purposes. Since then, halting steps have been taken toward these goals. International agreements have been forged proscribing aggression, genocide, and “crimes against humanity.” Universal human rights principles have been set forth encompassing economic, social, and political rights. Ecological sustainability goals have been established in response to global warming, environmental pollution, species and habitat loss, and overpopulation.
This evolving international moral architecture is relevant to the study of history in two ways. First, it establishes ethical standards by which scholars and citizens alike may judge the conduct of nations – and all nations should be judged by the same standards. Second, it cautions historians against “normalizing” war, against treating war as a permanent condition of international relations rather than as a problem to be solved. In effect, this means defining progress as moving toward a more cooperative world order and nonviolent conflict resolution at all levels. The goal of abolishing war in the 21st century is not unlike the goal of abolishing the institution of slavery in the 19th century. Once thought to be impossible, it was nevertheless achieved; and once achieved, it became one of the great hallmarks of human progress.
In keeping with the idea of the history profession as the Fifth Estate, it is useful to identify major challenges to democratic accountability in relation to U.S. foreign policymaking. In 1973, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Imperial Presidency, warning of a trend toward unaccountable executive authority. Investigations by Senate and House committees around that time confirmed the trend, revealing secret air strikes in Southeast Asia, covert aid to insurgent groups in Africa, CIA assassination plots in Latin America, and FBI surveillance of U.S. citizens along with secret operations “designed to disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order.” The FBI’s targets included Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as local, state, and federal elected officials. Congress attempted to restore its eroded Constitutional powers by passing the War Powers Act of 1973, which restricted the president’s ability to unilaterally wage war, the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, which required the president to report all CIA covert actions to select Congressional committees, and the Clark Amendment of 1975, which terminated covert U.S. assistance to guerrilla forces in Angola (which had been kept secret from Congress).
Secrecy and covert action
Some U.S. covert actions have had grave consequences for the American people. A CIA-directed covert invasion of Cuba by Cuban expatriates in April 1961 led Cuban leader Fidel Castro to seek protection from the Soviet Union in its aftermath. Soviet leaders were hesitant at first to grant Castro’s plea to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, but as the U.S. was planning a second invasion (under the code name “ORTSAC,” or Castro spelled backwards) and had recently placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders decided to do so in secret. When the Kennedy administration discovered the missile sites, still under construction in October 1962, the result was an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation that nearly led to nuclear war – but was fortunately resolved through discrete negotiations.
Propaganda: Selling war and intervention
The democratic process may act as a constraint on leaders’ ability to go to war, but deception provides a way around that constraint. Indeed, we can go further. Exactly because “democratic decisions for war are determined and constrained by public consent,” as the liberal institutional logic says, democratic leaders have powerful incentives to manufacture that consent through whatever means necessary…. Most important, they can exploit information and propaganda advantages to frame issues in misleading ways, cherry-pick supporting evidence, suppress damaging revelations, and otherwise skew the public debate in advantageous directions…. In practice, leaders resort to varying degrees and types of deception to sell wars.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created a new agency in the State Department, the Office of Public Diplomacy (S/LPD), for the purpose of selling the public and Congress on his Central America policies. The agency’s tasks were basically to whitewash the sordid reputations of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military and the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan insurgents known as “Contras,” both of which were responsible for heinous human rights abuses. President Reagan, known as the Great Communicator, lionized the Contras as “freedom fighters” and “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” even as former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner testified before Congress in April 1985 that “the Contras’ actions have to be characterized as terrorism, as State-supported terrorism.” The Office of Public Diplomacy was forced to shut down after the General Accounting Office concluded that it had engaged “in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies.” A later report by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, dated September 7, 1988, revealed that the agency had employed “groups of private citizens outside the government” that “raised money for Contra weapons, lobbied the Congress, ran sophisticated media campaigns in targeted Congressional districts, and worked with S/LPD to influence American public opinion through manipulation of the American press.” Government propaganda and manipulation were similarly employed in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003.
Managing the news media
The collusion continued through the Korean War and the early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which began in 1950. Over the course of the Vietnam War (1965-73), however, the media gradually weaned itself from government-fed information and accommodating viewpoints. News reporting became more skeptical and war photos, more graphic; for example, showing Vietnamese children burned by U.S. napalm bombs. The media also took stock of continuing protests at home and a growing division among elites. One critic, Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chastised the administration for “outright misleading statements” and for pushing Pentagon-funded films designed “to sell the American people on the Vietnam War policy.” Such denunciations made it easier for the media to challenge administration claims, if only by giving voice to critics (Martin Luther King was a foremost critic during the year before his assassination on April 4, 1968).
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. . . . “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.
There were, of course, reasons for the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation, and scholars are obliged to ferret out these reasons, strategies, and underlying motives and make sense of it all.
The ideological dimension
This self-serving world-view manifested in the 19th century in the form of “manifest destiny,” an informal ideology that combined religious, political, and racial ideas into a righteous justification for U.S. territorial expansion in the 1840s, then overseas expansion in the 1890s. It surfaced in President Woodrow Wilson’s appeal to make the world “safe for democracy” as a justification for entering the Great War in 1917, subsequently used to advance U.S. economic interests and geopolitical power across the world. Exceptionalist beliefs powered Cold War ideology which framed the U.S. as the “redeemer nation,” intent on assuring “the success of liberty” everywhere, even as the U.S. often did the opposite in practice. U.S. leaders have continued to maintain that the U.S. – and only the U.S. – can be entrusted with world leadership and superior military power as such power will presumably be used in benevolent and protective ways.
It needs to be repeated: the leading myth of US foreign policy, the one which entraps more Americans than any other, is the belief that the United States, in its foreign policy, means well. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are honorable, if not divinely inspired. Of that most Americans are certain. And as long as a person clings to that belief, it’s rather unlikely that s/he will become seriously doubtful and critical of the official stories.
The “realist” camp is said to eschew this moralistic framing, but in fact such framing has proven strategically useful, not the least for garnering public support for U.S. foreign policies and wars. The good-versus-evil ideological overlay allows policymakers to treat potential threats as existential ones based on assumed intentions (e.g., they might attack at any time), which in turn can be used to justify the projection of U.S. power – establishing foreign bases, deploying U.S. forces, engaging in regime-change interventions and wars, aiding pro-U.S. governments or insurgent forces, and building up arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The terms used to describe this power projection, such as “containment,” “forward defense,” and “preemptive war,” invariably convey the idea that the U.S. is defending its interests, allies, “core values,” and so forth.
As it turns out, every enemy or rival of the United States in the last half-century, from the North Vietnamese to the [Nicaraguan] Sandinistas to [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein, has “only understood” force. In 1986, President [Ronald] Reagan announced a “victory in the global battle against terrorism” after sending a message “in the only language [Libyan leader Muammar] Khadafy seems to understand,” which was in that case an air strike that killed the Libyan leader’s fifteen-month-old daughter. Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, and other U.S. officials consistently argued throughout the 1990s that the various Balkan leaders, especially Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevik, only understood the language of force. . . . In the Pentagon during the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld understood the Ba’ath part in Iraq to be essentially a reincarnation of the Nazis.
U.S. imperialism in Asia and Latin America
U.S. leaders embarked on a new “manifest destiny” of empire-building beginning in the late 19th century. The U.S. took possession of Eastern Samoa and the Hawaiian Islands, gained control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines through a war against Spain in 1898, and joined with other imperial powers in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. Encouraged by the British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling to take up the “White Man’s Burden,” the U.S. replaced Spain as colonial master of the Philippines, denying Filipinos the independence for which they had fought.
Not to be deterred, President Theodore Roosevelt rekindled neo-imperial ambitions in the Central America-Caribbean region by stealthily acquiring the Panama Canal Zone in 1903. This was followed by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine which asserted the ostensible right of the U.S. to “exercise international police power” and militarily intervene in any nation in the Western Hemisphere deemed guilty of “chronic wrongdoing,” though in fact there was no international law to enforce, only U.S. dictates. Decried by Latin Americans as “Yankee imperialism,” the U.S. made involuntary “protectorates” of Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti, periodically sending in troops to secure compliant governments and protect U.S. corporate economic interests.
Lessons of two world wars
The First World War (1914-1918) took the lives of ten million people worldwide, including 116,000 U.S. soldiers. Widespread disillusionment with the outcome of the war provided fertile soil for critical assessments in its aftermath. Historians C. Hartley Grattan, Henry Elmer Barnes, Sidney B. Fay, Walter Millis, H. C. Peterson, Charles C. Tansill, and Charles A. Beard all eschewed the demonizing stereotypes of Germany that had proliferated during the war and sought to illuminate the war’s deeper, complex causes. Grattan, in Why We Fought (1929), argued that the Wilson administration had taken the U.S. into war in large part to preserve the profits of bankers and merchants dependent upon Allied trade. Barnes, in the Forward to Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry (1934), wrote that, notwithstanding “the evils of the armament industry,” there are “broader forces, such as patriotism, imperialism, nationalistic education, and capitalistic competition, [that] play a larger part than the armament industry in keeping alive the war system.” Millis, in Road to War (1935), blamed the sensationalist press along with the munitions industry and business elites for convincing “innumerable sensible Americans” that “Germans were a peculiarly fiendish and brutal race.”
America’s experience in World War II invigorated nationalist narratives. The war was commonly recognized as a necessary fight, a defensive war in which Americans had rallied to the cause. Critics focused on particular issues, such as the internment of U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry, Allied saturation bombing of European and Japanese cities, and the alleged necessity of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The popular nationalist narrative posited the U.S. as the “arsenal of democracy” that saved the world from Nazi and Japanese domination. This was not a myth, as the efforts and sacrifices of Americans were great, but neither did it acknowledge the greater role played by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazi war machine; nor did it recognize the Soviet interpretation of the war as a victory for socialism over fascism. The heroic U.S. narrative also eclipsed earlier progressive inquiries into the underlying causes of war.
Such one-sided critiques opened the way for progressive-minded scholars to challenge nationalist interpretations and rewrite the Cold War story. A “New Left” revisionist school arose in the 1960s, led by William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, Marilyn Young, Thomas Paterson, Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, and others. If the conservative narrative connected the Cold War to America’s role in World War II, the progressive narrative connected it to a longer history of U.S. expansionism and interventionism.
Gabriel Kolko, in The Politics of War (1968), depicted the Soviet Union as defensively responding to Western attempts to encircle it. He reviewed the origins of the Korean War (1950-1953) and, while not justifying the North Korean attack on South Korea, cited South Korea’s military buildup and periodic armed forays into the north prior to the attack, thus balancing attributions of blame. Kolko furthermore argued that the U.S. had become a counter-revolutionary power, engaged in a global war against the left.
The Vietnam War era
Along with U.S. foreign policy courses, interdisciplinary peace studies programs surged during the Vietnam War era, indirectly aided by the sizable and vocal antiwar movement. In the subfield of peace history, new studies of older peace movements were undertaken, including a half-dozen on the nearly forgotten Anti-Imperialist League at the turn of the 20th century. Such studies validated antiwar dissent as part of a long American tradition and furthermore recognized citizens – and students – as agents of change. Foreign policy could not be left to establishment experts.
As for the Vietnam War, in 2005, SHAFR president David L. Anderson declared that the “prevailing scholarly interpretation maintains that American military intervention in Vietnam was a mistake in its origins and its conduct,” in contrast to “a minority view that accepts uncritically the assumption that the deployment of American armed forces in Vietnam . . . was justifiable.” That said, views differed as to what kind of “mistake” had been made. Progressive critiques challenged U.S. imperial motives at the core, indicting the whole U.S. venture in Vietnam that began in 1950 as morally and legally wrong. As stated by the journalist Robert Scheer, “The war was a lie from the first. It never had anything to do with the freedom of the Vietnamese (we installed one tyrant after another in power), but instead had to do with our irrational Cold War obsession with ‘international communism.’”
Indeed, there was inadequate accountability, and intentionally so by the Reagan administration. In June 1986, the World Court ruled that the U.S., by supporting the Nicaraguan insurgents, was in breach of international law and must pay reparations to the Nicaraguan government in the amount of $370 million “for all the injury caused to Nicaragua.” The Reagan administration predictably ignored the ruling. In contrast to Gaddis’s rosy account, Latin Americanist scholar Thomas W. Walker described Reagan’s undeclared war against Nicaragua as “one of the greatest human tragedies of the second half of the twentieth century.” Noam Chomsky, linguist scholar and popular leftist critic, argued in The Culture of Terrorism (1988) that what impelled the U.S. to attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government was not the threat of totalitarian communism, but “the threat of a good example,” that is, a good socialist example. U.S. leaders, according to Chomsky, were intent on destroying governments that instituted socialist-type policies of benefit to the masses, as such governments would likely inspire imitation in other impoverished countries. One reviewer described Chomsky’s views of international relations as “left realism.”
Post-Cold War triumphalism and its critics
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 were celebrated by political conservatives across the United States as an out-and-out U.S. victory. Among historians of American foreign relations, however, this “victory” was problematic. Official Soviet documents in newly opened Russian archives produced no evidence of a grand plan for world conquest; instead, Soviet leaders appeared cautious, worried about German rearmament and U.S. encirclement, and hesitant to support Cuba’s revolutionary activism. They used their communist ideology “to legitimize or justify policy rather than determine it,” according to Melvyn Leffler. Based on his research in “enemy archives,” Leffler encouraged humble reflections on U.S. policies, writing in 1996, “Americans’ sense of rectitude, stoked by victory in the Cold War, encourages them to overlook the extent to which they have tolerated and even aligned themselves with evil regimes when their own interests were not endangered or when it served their interests to do so, thus making life worse for peoples elsewhere.” Leffler described his own views as a blend of “revisionism and realism.”
In the public arena, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the “New World” (October 1492) sparked a major historical debate, resulting in the downsizing of many planned celebrations to commemorations. In July 1990, the National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission began planning a grand celebration under the banner “500 Years of Pride.” Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and their allies, meanwhile, promoted “Indigenous Day” and planned a convocation in Ecuador to celebrate “500 years of resistance.” According to the Los Angeles Times, critics viewed Columbus Day celebrations as “an Orwellian attempt to deny the genocide, the theft of land, the destruction of civilizations and the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.” The defenders of Columbus countered by playing down the brutal history of conquest and playing up European cultural heritage in the Americas.
The “War on Terror” and U.S. hegemony
Public criticism of the U.S. war in Afghanistan which began on October 7, 2001, was relatively muted, as the mastermind of the terrorist attack, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was holed up in the country. The war in Iraq, however, launched on March 20, 2003, sparked large protests beforehand and outrage afterward as it became known that the Bush administration had initiated the war on false premises – Iraq had no ties to terrorists and no hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction. With his security rationales having fallen through the rabbit hole, President Bush turned to familiar Wilsonian idealism to justify continued U.S. occupation. He proclaimed in his 2005 Inaugural Address, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” The word “support,” of course, hardly describes the violent, regime-changing invasions that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We should not celebrate the Pax Americana’s passing. We diplomatic historians are well-practiced at exposing the failures and hypocrisies of American foreign policy. To grasp the stakes of the present moment, we must also contemplate the Pax Americana’s successes. For seventy years, the United States upheld a stable, peaceful international order while facilitating the diffusion, in an uneven fashion, of modernity. The results, on balance, have been more positive than negative.
Such views were more subdued but not dissimilar in essence from those of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the primary architect of the Iraq War, and his daughter, Liz Cheney. In their book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America (2015), they wrote, “We have guaranteed freedom, security, and peace for a larger share of humanity than has any other nation in all of history. There is no other like us. . . . We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.
Between the end of World War II and 1990, more than 20 million people died in violent conflicts. . . . Most of them were civilians. In raw numerical terms, this death toll equals more than three My Lai massacres every day for forty-five years. Nearly all of them have been forgotten. This book argues that this violence was not simply an accidental consequence of local wars or superpower meddling. Rather, massacres such as My Lai were integral components of the Cold War world.
For British historian Eric Hobsbawm, in On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (2008), the current era of U.S. global dominance marks the last stage of Western imperialism. “In these circumstances,” he wrote, “there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, let alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony, unprecedented in history, by a single state, such as America, however great its military force. The age of empires is dead. We shall find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.”
Although the British empire has long collapsed, the debate over its character and effects has continued. Sneh Mahajan, an expert on British imperial policy in India, wrote in 2012, “British policy makers as well as historians like to assume that British history was the story of progressive spread of justice and liberty, that their role in the world was essentially a peaceful one, that their government protected the existing empire, that their trade and culture prevailed because of intrinsic merit alone where free competition was allowed by others, and that their country resorted to force only in self-defence.” Mahajan took issue with this nationalist British view along with historians such as Niall Ferguson who have promoted it:
In the academic discourse as well as public consciousness of the twenty-first century in the West, a sort of collective amnesia has been created around the unsavoury aspects of empire and imperialism relating to horrendous loss of life, the feeling of racial superiority and extraction of resources that accompanied the construction and maintenance of empires. In fact, alongside the resurgence of imperial history, there has been an attempt at ‘legitimation’ and ‘normalisation’ of imperialism by placing the will to empire beyond the reach of critical examination in public and academic discourses in the US and other Western countries. There has been complete indifference to the very visible acts of brutality in the democratic society of the West, what to say of any sense of outrage. This has happened despite the intervention of postcolonial and postmodern theories and a formidable body of work on colonialism and empire in all social science disciplines.
On critical evaluation
The invocation of fraud has a long history, dating to the overthrow of Reconstruction and then to the late 19th century, when southern states systematically stripped African Americans men of the right to vote (women, already disenfranchised). The mechanisms varied, and sometimes creative, but they shared a rhetoric that emphasized fraudulent elections as the justification for eliminating Black Americans from the polity. . . . There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud then, and there is no evidence today. But for more than a half century, historians were complicit tin the propagation of this insidious myth: that Reconstruction was an era drenched in political corruption and ‘redeemed’ by white southerners, who recognized Black disfranchisement as the key to ensuring the ‘integrity’ of their democracy.
The fact that historians had been complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes in the past made it all the more imperative for historians to speak out in the present.
I have long noted from personal observation and from polls that feel-good, patriotic histories and biographies, particularly of presidents, that sell well appear to have a greater impact on the public and apparently on politicians and policymakers than do documented academic studies that challenge conventional wisdom of foreign and war policies. . . . What, however, has given me concern is that our elected officials empowered to make policy and those who aid them, especially in the executive branch, have tended to manipulate history by selecting flawed precedents from it to suit their own purposes. Too often, it seems, they have garbed their decisions in issues affecting the lives and deaths of millions as benevolent, patriotic, or necessary for protecting national security when they were not. . . . I am persuaded, though that we have the tools that can enhance awareness of government’s mishandling of the military might entrusted to it. Because most historians in our field concentrate on the recent past, we can draw on our expertise to add balance to the chorus that sings in praise of mindless flag waving, or wars, or warrior presidents who have acted beyond their constitutional powers, and of their policies though blemished and costly in blood and dollars.
Walter LaFeber has argued that scholars of American foreign relations have a special responsibility to counter “triumphalist history” and related “illusions” that have led the United States into tragic wars in Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere. As he wrote in 2007: “Scholars and journalists helped pave the way for these tragedies by assuming the beneficence of all kinds of American power, misunderstanding the Asian and Latin American nationalisms and perspectives on that power, and believing that presidential authority (especially during the cold war) was too weak and needed systematic uplifting.” These tragedies were perpetuated not only by “political and policy figures who misunderstood their nation’s history and, consequently, historical choices,” but also by “the writers who did nothing to counter such illusions. The illusions included the nature of American power and the natures of human beings.”