History text has pinpoint accuracy (except for the facts)

Decisive Decades: Revised Edition
A History of the Twentieth Century for Canadians
By A.B Hodgetts and T.D Burns

Reviewed by Ulli Diemer

Dwight MacDonald once commented that the characteristic of a Luce magazine [e.g. TIME and LIFE] was that everything was accurate about any given article except its main points. Decisive Decades: A History of the Twentieth Century for Canadians, is like that except that the facts, not just the main points, are often wrong, or distorted, as well.

It’s impossible to do a detailed analysis of a 500-page high school textbook, so a few examples will have to suffice.

The discussion of Vietnam is typical. With the comment that “French colonial rule followed the typical European techniques of that time. Western material, educational and religious values replaced the traditional culture of the Vietnamese” the book skims glibly over the barbarous process of colonialization by which the country was conquered, the traditional society forcibly destroyed, the economy warped, and the ancient culture seriously damaged.

It claims that the Geneva settlement of 1954 called for the division of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel, a statement that, depending on how you interpret it is either a barefaced lie or a complete distortion of the fact that the settlement explicitly stated that the 17th parallel was a temporary military truce line, not a division.

Diem, it claims, “was remarkably successful in rebuilding South Viet Nam", a statement for which it would be difficult indeed to find a shred of supporting evidence (and of course none is offered).

Hanoi’s response to this alleged remarkable success is said to have been “one of infiltration and preparation for a new offensive,” a claim that is not even made by US military authorities, who admitted that Hanoi was only too eager to avoid any kind of provocation so that the reunification elections could take place as scheduled. Every authority at the time, from Eisenhower on down, was certain that the Communists would win any free election, and that therefore one had to be prevented at all costs. “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-Chinese affairs.” wrote Eisenhower, “who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Communist Ho Chi Minh.” But Decisive Decades makes no mention whatever of the refusal by Saigon and the US to hold the scheduled elections.

Minor distortions abound as well, like the statement that the NLF was a new name for the Viet Minh, when in fact both sides of the war agree that the NLF had a broader, different composition.

The myth of the 1964 attack on American destroyers is repeated. Napalm is described as “liquid fire to smoke the Viet Cong out of their underground warrens”, surely one of the more remarkable euphemisms ever to appear in a school textbook.

The question of peace talks is presented as if poor Lyndon Johnson’s reasonable terms were continually turned down by the warmongering communists, an interpretation which was insupportable even before the Pentagon papers revealed the US role in sabotaging peace initiatives.

There’s more, much more, to the way this piece of history alone is caricatured and twisted by these two gentlemanly apologists for genocide; those interested in pursuing the matter further might check Noam Chomsky’s American Power and New Mandarins and his For Reasons of State, as well as I. F. Stone’s In a Time of Torment, for copious documentation and hundreds of references to the facts which Hodgetts and Burns so painstakingly ignore.

Various other distortions emerge in a random flipping through the pages. The discussion of Marxism is as comical as anything to anyone familiar with Marx’s writing, as the authors obviously are not. But at any rate, they see no need whatever to offer anything as trivial as evidence for statement like “The picture of society being a constant inevitable struggle between two classes – completely ignoring the middle class – is also a piece of a straightforward communist doctrine suitable, perhaps, to certain backward areas of the world, but in no way applicable to a modern, industrialised country.“ Presumably they feel that the obligation to portray a position accurately and to refuse it with actual arguments. Is a 'straightforward piece of communist doctrine' suitable, perhaps, to certain backward areas of the world, but in no way applicable to a modern high school textbook.

But it’s on the overall level of interpretation of history that the book is most laughable (except as propaganda). Idealistic America in an evil world, sometimes making mistakes, but always acting from the best of motives, even if some of her leaders were less than saints. Democracy versus communism. Canada’s steady growth to nationhood. Ad nauseam.

The whole book is the kind of simple-minded moralism that I thought had been laughed even out of the Canadian intellectual community. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this kind of trash continues to appear but it is certainly unfortunate that thousands of high school students are going to be subjected to the work of these intellectual charlatans, whether they want to or not, and without ever being given any hint that they are other facts, (or rather that the facts are otherwise) and other interpretations.

First published in The Varsity, c. 1973.

Keywords: Canadian HistoryPropagandaTextbooks