Recently, a few conservative intellectuals have raised serious questions about the College Board’s effort to develop a new curriculum for the Advanced Placement history courses. Stanley Kurtz, at National Review Online, writes that “this Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective.” Naturally, the College Board argues that its intent is only to provide “balance,” to streamline the curriculum, and to enhance teacher flexibility. In other words, all benign matters that educators should welcome.
Are Kurtz and the other critics, like National Association of Scholars executive Peter Wood, right in their criticism? Wood argues in a preliminary report, like Kurtz, that “this newest revision, however, is radical.” The board, he notes, citing other critics, is substituting a specific curriculum in place of their previous broad frameworks, promoting a negative view of the United States, and erasing major figures (the Founding Fathers, of course) from American history.
Wood is concerned that “perhaps more than other parts of the college curriculum,” the board is turning history “into a platform for political advocacy and for animus against traditional American values.” Moreover, he thinks that the “College Board has turned AP U.S. History into a briefing document on progressive and leftist views of the American past. It is something that weaves together a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity group grievances.”
We have seen this particularly in the books of Howard Zinn and his followers, and in the book and video series on World War II and the Cold War by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. And, as we know, their works are widely adopted in the assigned readings of many high school teachers and college professors. Within the academy, there has also been a widespread adoption of monographs that are based on race, class and gender to the exclusion of the old type of political history that once exemplified the best the profession had to offer.
These charges have led to an attack on the board’s critics, as revealed in this harsh column in the Los Angeles Times by columnist Michael Hiltzik. Its blaring headline reads: “The right wing steps up its attack on the teaching of U.S. history.” Rather than address the substance of the claims made by critics like Wood and Kurtz, Hiltzik offers his readers a standard left-wing McCarthyite smear, arguing that it is nothing less than “an anti-intellectual assault.” He accuses Kurtz of declaring that a “grand conspiracy” exists made up of left-leaning history professors to emasculate their profession by belying the concept of “American exceptionalism.” (Kurtz’s answer to Hiltzik can be found here.)
To weigh the accuracy of the claims made by Kurtz and Wood, I read the College Board report. As a historian of recent America, 1900 to the present, and U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century, I evaluated what the curriculum offers in the area of my own expertise. I’ll start with Period 7, 1890-1945. Take as an example how it frames questions about Progressivism and the New Deal. The report puts it this way:
Progressive reformers responded to economic instability, social inequality, and political corruption by calling for government intervention in the economy, expanded democracy, greater social justice, and conservation of natural resources.
There is no indication that Progressive reform actually may have been instituted by corporate regulators for their own benefit, at the expense of small manufacturers and producers. This argument, by historians like Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein and Martin J.Sklar, whose pioneering work changed the standard view of progressivism, is not even raised as an alternative way to comprehend the Progressive era. The paragraph, as structured, reflects the old traditional left/liberal view of the Progressive Era, and takes it as a given.
Referring to the New Deal era, the authors write:
The liberalism of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal drew on earlier progressive ideas and represented a multifaceted approach to both the causes and effects of the Great Depression, using government power to provide relief to the poor, to stimulate recovery, and reform the American economy.
Radical, union and populist movements pushed Roosevelt toward more extensive reforms, even as conservatives in Congress and the Supreme Court sought to limit the New Deal’s scope.
The above paragraphs are standard left-wing history, offering an analysis that has been challenged by many historians (including myself here on a leftist site — and the same essay in a book I co-edited on the site of the laissez-faire Ludwig von Mises Institute). The board presupposes that the New Deal was a positive advance on earlier Progressivism and that it stimulated recovery, which it did not since, quickly, the U.S. entered what was dubbed “the Roosevelt depression.” And it omits the failures and challenges to the large business-dominated orientation of the New Deal as reflected in the corporatist structure of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). It is skewered to reflect the position that pressure from the Left was good and necessary, since it led to more extensive reforms that, of course, conservatives opposed.
Turning to Period 8, 1945-1980, I find that the board’s proposals for teaching foreign policy are, at first, more balanced. The proposal states accurately that the US “sought to stem the growth of Communist military power and ideological influence, create a stable global economy, and build an international security system.” It also notes that the U.S. sought “to ‘contain’ Soviet-dominated communism through a variety of measures, including military engagements in Korea and Vietnam.” In Latin America, the board says later, the U.S. “supported non-Communist regimes with varying levels of commitment to democracy.” It does not condemn these policies, letting readers make their own judgments. Perhaps it is because the early Cold War policies were implemented by the liberal administration of Harry S. Truman, and not by conservative Republicans.
When it comes to the later period, however, when Republicans controlled the administration, the period synopsis is particularly biased and egregious. This is evident on its discussion of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. The board writes:
President Ronald Reagan, who initially rejected détente with increased defense spending, military action, and bellicose rhetoric, later developed a friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to significant arms reductions by both countries.
This is indeed biased in the way that Peter Wood specifies, in a preliminary evaluation for the National Association of Scholars, about the period Recent America — 1900 to the present. Wood writes the following as evidence for why he sees the board’s proposal as little more than leftist propaganda:
The selection of these three key concepts and subsidiary themes for “Period 9” (the last 34 years) is odd. Any effort to distill to a handful of points the rush of contemporary and near-contemporary events is, of course, fraught with difficulty. But where some see the rise of “a new conservatism in U.S. culture and politics,” others with equal justification see the rise of an aggressive new progressivism in U.S. culture and politics. Where APUSH sees “the rapid and substantial growth of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches,” others with equal justification see the rapid and substantial growth of multiculturalism and secularist ideologies such as diversity, feminism, sustainability, and gay rights.
Where APUSH sees a key concept in “the end of the Cold War and new challenges to U.S. leadership in the world,” others with equal justification see the liberation of Europe from a tyranny rooted in the outcome of World War II and the final discrediting of communist ideology. Where APUSH emphasizes President Ronald Reagan’s “friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev” and “significant arms reductions by both countries” as the hallmark of President Reagan’s foreign policy, others with equal justification see President Reagan’s commitment to a nuclear deterrent in the face of the Soviet-sponsored “nuclear freeze” movement and his advancement of the “Star Wars” nuclear defense initiative as turning the tide against the Soviets.
In sum, almost every item in the APUSH picture of recent history seems to argue for one side of a dispute. It is, of course, possible that teachers of AP courses will themselves recognize that one-sidedness and attempt to correct it. But the AP U.S. History exam will be keyed to the College Board’s agenda, not whatever corrective lens teachers may provide.
Is Wood correct? On its treatment of Reagan, he certainly is. Jeffrey Herf in his book on the European missile crisis of the ’80s, War By Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance, and the Battle of the Euromissiles, shows that missiles put into West Germany offset the Soviet introduction of its missiles in Eastern Europe, which helped maintain deterrence and thus helped prevent a substantial danger posed by Soviet adventurism. In opposing the stationing of the missiles in Western Germany, the Western peace movement echoed Soviet propaganda and in essence took the position of the Soviet Union which favored unilateral disarmament by the West. Nowhere is such a counter narrative mentioned or even cited as a possible alternative analysis, as it should have been.
Moreover, it is widely recognized that the Soviet economy could not expand while putting all its budget into defense spending, and that Reagan’s policies helped expose the contradictions in Soviet economic planning that exacerbated its decline. As for “bellicose rhetoric,” the term itself accepts left/liberal attacks on Reagan, and most probably is referring to the accurate description by Reagan of the Soviet Union, when he called it an “evil empire” and when he challenged Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this Wall.”
On domestic policy, the board argues that “as liberal principles came to dominate postwar politics and court decisions, liberalism came under attack from the left as well as from resurgent conservative movements,” which is certainly true. It does not tell students how to expand on this, although it suggests in the way the curriculum is worded that the effort to expand the definition of “rights” is positive, and that those pressuring for more “social and economic equality” and who seek to “redress past injustices” are correct. In mentioning LBJ’s Great Society, it says that “liberalism reached its zenith” with the Great Society programs and by Supreme Court decisions that “expanded democracy and individual freedoms, Great Society social programs and policies, and the power of the federal government,” before concluding that “these unintentionally helped energize a new conservative movement that mobilized to defend traditional visions of morality and the proper role of state authority.”
This characterization assumes the success of Johnson’s Great Society programs, and the summary does not indicate anywhere that, in fact, they failed, and in the long run compounded the problems they supposedly had solved, such as increasing welfare dependency. It also suggests critics of its plans were all conservatives, giving students no leeway to learn that liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan became sharp critics of the programs, including welfare, and efforts to end racism by government edict without addressing problems in the culture that prevented African-Americans from moving from poverty to the middle class. It suggests that the only other critics were on the left, and that they assailed liberals for “doing too little to transform the…status quo at home and pursued immoral policies abroad.” Clearly, the wording used expresses the authors’ own bias towards the viewpoint of the Left, and is written in a manner suggesting that the authors agree with that leftist perspective, while denigrating any criticism made from the right.
The report is better in the section that outlines how a student might answer an essay question (pp.117-120 of the report) on how the New Deal, the Great Society and conservative movements would deal with changing the federal government’s role in American society. The board presents different ways in which a student might answer the question in a successful essay on whether the New Deal was conservative or revolutionary, or made minor reforms but hedged on whether or not to do more, and whether or not the New Deal was “substantial but had negative effects.” Students, it notes, can even modify the question and answer it differently than suggested, by arguing the New Deal took a “middle course” between groups calling for radical change and others advocating minor incremental reforms. The section on how students might answer a complicated essay question is not biased, and it appears almost as if someone else other than the previous authors wrote this section.
Except for the two areas I point to — the long discussion on how essays may be answered and early Cold War U.S. policy — critics Stanley Kurtz and Peter Wood are correct in their arguments. Kurtz makes it quite clear that he is not asking for history to be taught only from the viewpoint of scholars on their side of the political divide. What he is concerned with is the demand that it be taught only from the side of the Left, rather than, as he puts it, be taught “from various perspectives.” He lets readers see the evidence that the Left wants only its position adopted and taught. At one point he refers to a speech by Thomas Bender that appears on the College Board’s own website. Bender writes that early American history “is not only about utopian dreams of opportunity or escape, whether from religious persecution or from poverty. It is also about the beginnings of capitalism, and it is about capture, constraint, and exploitation.”
Bender is the man who Kurtz points out “is the leading spokesman for the movement to internationalize the U.S. History curriculum at every educational level,” a major critic of the idea of American exceptionalism, and a scholar who has played a major part in the development of the new approach now offered for the AP courses.
Bender’s claim for teaching a history that will change the way in which American history is taught is the scholarly example of Barack Obama’s campaign speech in which he said we were steps away from a “fundamental transformation” of the United States. The newly proposed AP placement test curriculum is part of the New Left’s goal of making “a long march through the existing institutions” that would end with a new radicalized United States, on the road to socialism. By emphasizing hegemony in the sphere of culture, taking their cue from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, they have now moved a further step ahead in that long march.
Jeffrey Herf, a major historian of European history, has added this very important addendum to the issue of Reagan administration foreign policy, which has been distorted in the summary provided by the authors of the new proposed AP standards. Here is Herf’s statement:
My thanks to Ronald Radosh for mentioning War by Other Means and the arguments in it. The AP discussion of these issues does appear to need some changes along the following lines.
First, in response to the deployment of SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union with three independently targeted nuclear warheads, the NATO alliance led by the Carter administration agreed to the “double-track decision” of December 1979 to deploy Pershing ballistic missiles in West Germany and Cruise missiles in West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Britain if the Soviet Union refused to dismantle or drastically reduce its SS-20 arsenal. Pressure for the decision came from the center-left government in West Germany led by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Its purpose was to reassure the West Europeans that if the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe, it would face a high possibility of retaliation against its own territory. This was a restatement of NATO’s long standing policy of extended deterrence.
Second, in 1981, President Reagan proposed a “zero-zero” option that proposed to abandon the NATO deployments completely if the Soviet Union would dismantle its SS-20 arsenal targeted at Western Europe—but also capable of reaching 2/3 of humanity in Asia and the Middle East. The Soviet Union, and much of liberal opinion in Western Europe and the United States, denounced Reagan’s zero-option as a cynical ploy intended to justify deployments. The “peace” movements in Western Europe opposed the NATO deployments even if the Soviet Union did not abandon any of its intermediate range forces. France’s Socialist President Francois Mitterand quipped that “the Soviets deploy missiles and we deploy pacifists.” Much of the Democratic Party in the United States abandoned support for the NATO deployments which Carter had set in motion.
Third, following hysteria about a “nuclear holocaust,” the missiles were deployed in 1983. The deployments represented the single most important defeat of Soviet policy in Europe in the entire history of the Cold War. The hard liners in the Kremlin had miscalculated that the pressure of the Western left would undermine NATO resolve. Reagan’s determination, along with that of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand foiled the Kremlin’s efforts. The defeat of the hardliners in 1983 was of great importance for the ability of Mikhael Gorbachev to make that case that a “new thinking” was need in foreign policy. The Western—not just American—but the Western hardline of 1983 brought about a hugely significant and still largely underappreciated victory in the Cold War.
Fourth, in 1987, the INF Treaty was signed. It was based on Reagan’s zero-zero option of 1981. The United States withdrew all of its Pershing and Cruise missiles from Western Europe and the Soviet Union dismantled its entire arsenal of SS-20s (and older SS-4 and SS-5) intermediate range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
Fifth, I do not know of a single analyst or historian who denounced Reagan’s foreign policy in Europe who has subsequently acknowledged the success of the hardline in Europe from 1981 to 1983. The warming of relations with the Soviet Union was possible because Soviet policy changed and it changed because its hardline had suffered a crushing defeat in the battle of the euromissiles, a battle that was one of the most important, and thank goodness still peaceful, political battles of the entire history of the Cold War.
Last, War by Other Means received critical acclaim but is out of print. It may be a good idea to publish a revised and updated version. Historians of the Cold War tend to give these momentous events much less attention and import than they deserve.
Distinguished University Professor of History
University of Maryland