Remembering America: How We Have Told Our Past

  • Published
Remembering America: How We Have Told Our Past by Lawrence R. Samuel. University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 204 pp.


Military professionals--those who read Air and Space Power Journal and other service-equivalent publications--are voracious consumers of history for both personal and professional reasons. We seek not only the lessons of our predecessors as we grapple with contemporary challenges, but also a clearer vision of ourselves as Americans and members of the armed forces. For this reason, a history of American history may interest readers of this journal.

Remembering America begins at the end of World War I. American history up to that point, according to the author, was universally positive, creating the concept of American exceptionalism--a concept that many historians then or now accept as accurate. The rise of progressivism in America brought with it a new crop of historians willing to look at American history more inclusively. Author Lawrence Samuel credits them with presenting the broader perspective of oppressed minorities and the enemy point of view from our various wars, resulting in a more accurate analysis of the American experience. Thus began a pattern in which American history shifted from a uniform construct to a malleable story subject to the vagaries of our contemporary condition and the biases of historians. What should have expanded American history through inclusion actually invalidated previous versions through a process that dismantled our national identity. With the inclusion of each new group--ethnic, racial, sexual, economic, or otherwise--the traditional stories of America are continually watered down and pushed into the background to the point that many individuals now scoff at American exceptionalism, much to the detriment of our sense of Americanism. The biases of twentieth-century progressive historians were just as prevalent as those in any other era. What they left us is an American history, as Samuel sees it, devoid of any absolute truths, drawn not from facts but from contemporary interpretation based on contemporary mores.

History is a continuous argument in the search for the American story and our national identity. The quest for meaning included struggles over presentation. Many, if not most, Americans claim to dislike history. We fret over low student test scores and a general lack of knowledge among the populace. We approach each new announcement as if it is a recent development, but the truth is that Americans’ poor historical knowledge is nothing new. Every test or survey taken since at least the 1940s has yielded similar results. Some suggest that history should be folded into the teaching of other subjects, such as social studies--a recommendation that has caused some people to question not only how we teach history but also whether we even need to offer it as a stand-alone subject.

The entire discussion brings into question whether Americans' supposed dislike of history is accurate. Robust sales of history books and historical novels, as well as the appeal of history-based movies, television shows, and video games, seem to contradict that belief. Their popularity counters the claim that Americans do not like history, further indicating that the problem concerns something other than a lack of interest. The challenge lies in how to present history as relevant and meaningful to what is happening today. Historians have never been able to accomplish that goal on a broad and sustaining scale. The reasons run the gamut of economics and politics that put the teaching of history under a perpetually dark cloud.

The author claims that Remembering America is a cultural history of American history that fills a void where none previously existed. Producing cultural histories is this author's genre of choice. He previously wrote a cultural history of psychoanalysis and one of the American dream. Calling this book a cultural history may afford it some level of credibility by making it seem special in some way, but that is overblown. This book is too short to be more than an adequate, but brief, introduction. It skims the surface of the waves of history without diving deeply into any one aspect. Covering approximately 8 decades in fewer than 200 pages of text is hardly exhaustive. What we have here is an extended historiographic essay, a survey of the process of capturing and presenting American history. Additionally, readers may detect a certain political leaning that may be the result of brevity, or it may reflect the author's worldview. Readers can decide for themselves.

After reading this book, one may be left with a decidedly pessimistic view of the future of American history. Society's lack of historical intelligence is reflective of current national challenges. Historians have failed to provide an image of America on which to build a foundation. Rather than offering an accurate rendition of our national story, historians, like the pseudojournalists of today, blather on with politically motivated fairy tales and horror stories that do not educate as much as indoctrinate. Regardless of one's leanings, Remembering America is recommended, not because it is great history but because it might spur readers of Air and Space Power Journal to begin looking at history more critically.

CSM James H. Clifford, USA, Retired
Robins AFB, Georgia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."