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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bad History and Political Rhetoric

At The New York Times, Adam Goodheart and Peter Manseau write that political figures often err when speaking about history.   Democrats often speak of the national unity behind public works projects such as the transcontinental railroad, but in the mid-1850s, regional deadlock over the route delayed the start of construction for years.  "Only the Civil War settled that question." The authors cite a similar example:
The story of the Hoover Dam has also been heavily tinted in rose and sepia. Asian-Americans were forbidden from working on the project, while African-Americans were limited to menial labor and accounted for less than 1 percent of the work force. In August 1931, work halted as construction bosses faced off against striking laborers, who had just seen their wages slashed even as the punishing heat of the Nevada summer killed more than a dozen men in barely a month. (Dozens more are believed to have died from other hazardous work conditions covered up by the project managers.) The heroic endeavor only got back on track after all the workers were threatened with immediate dismissal.
Republicans such as Mitt Romney make mistakes as well.
Speaking before a veterans’ group in San Diego on Memorial Day, for example, he made the seemingly uncontroversial assertion that the United States is “unique” and “exceptional in the history of the world” as the only nation that “has been willing to lay down the lives of hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters and take no land in return.” (It is a line he had used on previous occasions, attributing it to Israeli President Shimon Peres.)
No one in the crowd seemed to notice the incongruity of Mr. Romney’s making this declaration on soil that once formed part of the Republic of Mexico. San Diego fell to the United States after troops under Capt. John C. Frémont marched into the city in July 1846, hauled down the Mexican flag and imposed martial law. Over the following six months, American troops fought intermittent skirmishes against local partisans, culminating in a pitched battle in which 21 American soldiers were killed. American control of California — along with other lands making up more than half of Mexico’s prewar territory — was confirmed in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War.