SOMEONE OUGHT TO write a book called Down the Memory Hole. It would discuss the multifarious beliefs that American conservatives held until the second half of the 20th century but subsequently gave up without fuss or embarrassment. Conservative leaders have not only abandoned their forebears' understanding of such events as the Civil War, World War I, and the civil rights movement, they have imposed on their followers exactly opposite views. A case in point is the revisionist historiography of Larry Schweikart, coauthor--with Michael Allen--of A Patriot's History of the United States.
Schweikart, a regular on Fox News, takes to task "leftist" historians who disparage America's past or glorify the expansion of public administration. In the latter respect, he offers a useful antidote to the mainstream liberal history of my youth, particularly to exaggerated claims about FDR pulling us out of the Depression. Schweikart also tells the truth about such productive, non-activist presidents as Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower, who have long been treated by left-leaning court historians as inferior to the leaders who built the welfare-warfare state. Schweikart notes the integrity of Grover Cleveland--one of our most morally upstanding but largely ignored chief executives--and dares bring up the discomfiting fact that most of those in the State Department whom Joe McCarthy deemed to be security risks were exactly that.
Yet many of the views that this patriotic historian considers far leftist are actually those of the Old Right. And notably, war and the social upheavals associated with it are the subjects where the revisionism is most glaring. Schweikart and other historians attached to the conservative movement define patriotism as defending wars that our government involved us in--or, beyond that, affirming that America is "the greatest country that ever existed."
Presumably, if America is now the most admirable country of all time, the devastations that got us where we are must all be celebrated. American pride has come to center on praising the present, which is supposedly under siege from the anti-American Left. The problem here is that the Left has even more reason than the patriotic Right to be proud of the American present. After all, culturally and politically, the Left has created American history as we now know it--a narrative of ever greater progress toward personal and group emancipation, which culminates in our offering the fruits of democracy to the world. To question the price of this achievement in war and bloodshed is to be unpatriotic as well as politically incorrect.
Conservatives' understanding of history changed profoundly between the 1950s and the 1980s--not because of superior evidence coming to light and forcing a re-evaluation but because of new political agendas. As neoconservatives migrated from Left to Right, they brought with them what in the 1950s had been thought of as the Cold War liberal or "consensus" interpretation of history. Between the 1960s and 1980s, neoconservative and Old Right views of history clashed, particularly in the vituperative disputes over Lincoln's place in the American pantheon. Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, and M.E. Bradford saw Lincoln as our own Caesar, and Kendall warned of "an endless series of Abraham Lincolns ... each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the possibility of self-government, each ultimately willing to plunge America into Civil War rather than concede his point." By contrast, Harry Jaffa, a Lincoln enthusiast, declared that views like Kendall's amounted to "a distinctive American fascism, or national socialism."
The Jaffaites prevailed. Today, hardly anyone in my heavily Republican region of Pennsylvania can imagine criticisms of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or FDR's prosecution of World War II as anything other than anti-American. …