A Brief History of the History Wars

Conservative uproar over the New York Times’ 1619 Project is just the most recent clash in a decades-old battle over how we should understand American history.

A photo illustration of the 1619 Projects, various negative Twitter responses, a painting featuring slaves, and other slavery markers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via by Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, and Jamal Wilson/AFP/Getty Images.

The 1619 Project—the New York Times Magazine’s ambitious special issue arguing for an expanded 400-year history of America centering the story of slavery and its repercussions—has apparently made many leading conservatives very angry. My colleague Ashley Feinberg has assembled a summary of their reactions, from (she paraphrases) “It makes me feel bad about my country” to “Everybody’s already heard about slavery.” It’s a veritable panoply of pique.

The backlash is … interesting … to watch, but it’s worth noting that this is old soup, warmed over. After Jamelle Bouie (who has a great essay in the 1619 Project on racism and anti-democratic thinking) and I published our Slate Academy podcast project on the history of American slavery in 2015, we assembled a taxonomy of the negative reactions we received. I spied some familiar statements in the conservative backlash to the Times’ effort. Ilya Shapiro: “Slavery is a human sin, not a uniquely American one”; Erick Erickson: “The Times … minimizes or undermines the cost white people paid to free slaves”; Newt Gingrich: “Slavery was AND IS terrible (there are slaves today who need liberating).”

Four years ago, Bouie and I struggled to find words to describe these types of responses to the very mention of American slavery. They’re not quite myths? Not quite lies? In the end, the umbrella description I liked best was “misdirection”—the word encapsulates why tweets like these are so annoying and upsetting. Liberals feel obligated to correct these statements with (strong) arguments and (correct) facts, none of which will ultimately persuade these people to rethink their positions. For the sake of our collective cardiovascular health, we would do better to recognize these skirmishes over American history—in which conservatives demand that a positive vision of our nation’s past, studded with successes, inventions, and “great men,” take pride of place in our public culture—as recurrent episodes in a particular decades-old front of the culture wars. That way, we could stop wasting our good faith on old, dead-end conversations.

To see how long the right has been refining this approach, you could look back to January 1995. That month, under political pressure, the Smithsonian canceled a planned exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was to be held at the National Air and Space Museum. The proposed exhibit of the Enola Gay—the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that, piloted by Paul Tibbets, dropped the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima in August 1945—drew criticism starting in late 1994, when the Air Force Association, unhappy with the planners’ slant toward thoughtful and away from celebratory, released a draft script (label copy, images, an artifact list) to the media. The curators and historians who were putting together the exhibit fought their critics for a few months, before radically revising the exhibit to be much blander and more patriotic. The curator of the Smithsonian’s aeronautics department at the time said of the conflict between the two groups: “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? I don’t think we can do both.”

Historian Edward Linenthal and editor Tom Engelhardt put together a 1996 book of essays about the exhibit’s cancellation and its aftermath, called History Wars, which argues that this 1990s fight over historical memory was the opening salvo in the American right’s use of history as a culture war. The story of how the canceled exhibit became political fodder for the ascendant right—outlined in the book in an essay by historian Mike Wallace—sounds excruciatingly familiar today.

“The United States has never had a State Ministry of Culture to dictate historical ‘lines,’ but it’s had plenty of private vigilantes patrolling cultural institutions to ensure they promoted ‘patriotic’ perspectives,” Wallace wrote, pointing to the American Legion’s 1925 declaration that history textbooks “must inspire the children with patriotism” and “speak chiefly of success.” But Wallace dates the opening of the 1990s history wars to Rush Limbaugh’s 1993 book See, I Told You So, in which Limbaugh described the tenets of the supposed historical “indoctrination” taking places in schools: “Our country is inherently evil. The whole idea of America is corrupt. The history of this nation is strewn with examples of oppression and genocide. The story of the United States is cultural imperialism—how a bunch of repressed white men imposed their will and values on peaceful indigenous people.”

The 1994 publication of a massive new set of National Standards for United States History, meant to be what Wallace describes as a “voluntary guide for teachers,” provoked a great deal of this kind of culture-warring. Lynne Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal critiquing these standards and did a series of interviews (Wallace wrote) “chant[ing] the standard mantra: a core group—gripped by a ‘great hatred for traditional history,’ and intent on ‘pursuing the revisionist agenda’—had, ‘in the name of political correctness,’ made sure that a ‘whole lot of basic history’ didn’t appear.” According to Cheney, these history standards “lacked a tone of affirmation.”

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

The ubiquitous use of this term as a critique, McPherson wrote, shows the gap between academic historians’ understanding of history—“a continuing dialogue between the present and the past,” a matter of fact-finding, yes, but also of interpretations and reinterpretations—and the static set of “truths” the history culture warriors present as “actual history.” But for some reason, “We Love Our Ever-Evolving Project” (the liberal academic position) doesn’t have quite the same ring as “We Want to Hear About Heroes.”

The question of whether particular histories are positive or negative about “America” is hard to contest from an academic historian’s perspective, because the real answer, for most academic historians (and maybe a lot of people?), is a big shrug. For most historians, it’s just not interesting to think of history as a place you go to feel good, or bad, about America. “America” is so big, and so complex. Patriotism might be a side effect, but it’s not the point of historical study.

That’s why an alternative vision of patriotism, like the one that Nikole Hannah-Jones articulated in the 1619 Project’s opening essay—“Black Americans … have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy”—is so valuable. This is a complex and yet immediately legible argument, expressed as public history, buttressed in the package by other arguments that are in turn informed by years of academic historical work. It is the “realest” sort of history, the kind that enriches articles and exhibits and historic sites with new information about the daily lives and struggles of non-elite people and minority groups. And the good news is, even if it’s giving some conservatives heartburn, plenty of readers seem ready to eat it up.