History in a Corner?

Many, many writers have been commenting on the emerging course in “Advanced Placement – United States History”. I have been fascinated to follow the debate in the journal Perspectives on History. Viewing the discussion as an outsider, I think that the conservative side of the argument is painting itself into a corner.

Recent reports in the Patriot Post and CNS News have outlined the conservative position. It is stated that they accept that American history can have its flawed and unflattering points, but that the proposed AP framework threatens to overemphasise these flaws at the expense of the grand and ennobling story.

I tested the line of argument by considering the reliably conservative Patriot’s History of the United States in relation to the war against Japan (1941-5). Chapter 17 discusses the war as part of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, and this focus on the American experience is certainly proper given its stated focus. In this context, it is not surprising that it does not discuss how the population of east Asia viewed the war, save for observing that –

In its relentless march of conquest, Japan had grabbed more territory and subjugated more people than any other empire in history and, for the most part, had accomplished all this in a matter of months …

Consistently with this, the chapter is titled “Democracy’s Finest Hour”. The problem with this approach to the history is that it is simply misleading as a direct result of not considering the experiences of “others” (like Asians, commoners, non-soldiers). When these perspectives are considered one finds that the Japanese were frequently welcomed (at least initially) by native populations as liberators from Dutch and French imperial masters (1). The war against Japan, then, can be considered less as a war for democracy and more as a war to re-establish a colonial order. By leaving out evidence that tends to such a conclusion and not addressing it, a highly fragile history is built that can be discredited with new information. Conservatives in such a case put themselves in the position of needing to admit error or to defend the indefensible.

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(1) Sebastian Conrad and Prasenjit Duara, Viewing Regionalisms from East Asia (Washington DC, 2013) at p.23; Ethan Mark, ‘The Perils of Co-Prosperity: Takeda Rintaro, Occupied Southeast Asia, and the Seductions of Postcolonial Empire’ (2014) 119 American Historical Review 1184.

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