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A True History of the United States, by Daniel Sjursen

There is no shortage of books aimed at telling a more accurate general history of the United States, one not constrained by red, white and blue-tinted glasses. Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States, first published 42 years ago, is a classic example. Jill Lepore’s 2018 These Truths: A History of the United States is a more recent entry.

Now we have A True History of the United States, by Daniel A. Sjursen, published last year. The Republicans are really going to hate this one, going by its subtitle alone: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism. And the author’s bio will infuriate them even more: a retired Major in the U.S. Army, with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a history instructor at West Point Military Academy.

It was his role as instructor that inspired Sjursen to write this book:

Poll after poll demonstrates that year after year Americans’ basic historical knowledge reaches newly obscene lows…. Frankly, it is embarrassing to watch, and often tragic in its consequences.

I was first struck by the severity of this problem when I returned to my alma mater, the United States Military Academy—West Point—to teach freshman (“plebe”) American History 101….

Most cadets entered West Point having been taught—and thus understanding—a rather flimsy brand of US history. These otherwise gifted students’ understanding of the American past lacked substance or depth and pivoted on patriotic platitudes. Such young men and women hardly knew the history of the country they had volunteered to kill and die for. That, I thought to myself, is how military fiascoes are made.

This book aims to be a correction to the shallow, white-washed story that the current Republican Party increasingly wants to legislate as the only history lessons our youth should be exposed to. In its 39 chapters, the author not only explores the “indigenous genocide, racialized slavery, hyper-capitalism, and militarist imperialism” of the subtitle, but explains how that history is connected to the rising income inequality, poor healthcare and scanty social benefits, high incarceration rates, persistent racism, low political participation, and overseas militarism that are dominant in the United States today.

There are times when it reads like what is described as its origin story—a freshman history course—but for the most part it is well-written and entertaining, and unafraid to examine any number of the sacred cows of the US past. The early chapters recount the roots of American racism in the commercial endeavors of the Virginia colonies and the religious zealotry that arose in the New England colonies. He unravels the various tangled self-interests that led to the American Revolution in a chapter entitled “Patriots or Insurgents,” a phrase at the heart of today’s political divisions.

And so it goes, looking at “Andrew Jackson’s White Male World and the Start of Modern Politics”, “The Fraudulent Mexican-American War”, “Lies We Tell Ourselves About the Old West”, and “Wealth and Squalor in the Progressive Era.” He is even unafraid to ask the question about World War Two: “Just How Good was the ‘Good War’?

The United States’ role in the Second World War has been so mythologized that it is now difficult to parse out truth from fantasy. There even exists a certain nostalgia for the war years, despite all the death and destruction wrought by global combat….

However, there is a significant difference between a necessary war—which it probably was—and a good war. In fact, good war might be a contradiction in terms. The bitter truth is that the United States, much as all the combatant nations, waged an extraordinarily brutal, dirty war in Europe and especially the Pacific. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt cut nasty deals and allied with some nefarious actors to get the job done and defeat Germany and Japan.

The final third of the 600+ page book deals with history in the living memory of many potential readers, from the Cold War, JFK, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, Clinton, Obama. and Trump. You can judge his observations on recent decades from your own perceptions. Certainly, much of what he recounts was already familiar to me, but I learned a lot as well. His arguments were not always persuasive, but were always interesting.

Expect Republicans to include this one on their lists of books to ban.