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Generally, historians were no match for the right-wing assault on the Standards, which one conservative think-tank writer likened to propaganda “developed in the councils of the Bolshevik and Nazi parties and successfully deployed on the youth of the Third Reich and the Soviet empire.” Lynne Cheney, then a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blasted the Standards in the Wall Street Journal as “politically correct” and full of “politicized history.” (A few years earlier, as the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cheney had granted five hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars to help fund the project.) Radio host Rush Limbaugh accused historians of depicting America as “inherently evil,” and contended that the Standards should be “flushed down the sewer of multiculturalism.” The media swarmed to get Cheney debating celebrated historians such as Joyce Appleby, Eric Foner, and Gary B. Nash, who was one of the Standards’ lead authors. Critics often complained that the criteria too frequently mentioned Harriet Tubman, at the cost of eliding figures such as George Washington.

If such critics had read the Standards carefully, they would have known that the suggestions were merely guidelines, and fully voluntary for school districts. But the Senate, caving in to vicious op-eds and conspiracy theories about cabals of liberal academic historians, voted to repudiate the project, claiming that it showed insufficient respect to American patriotic ideals. The debate left an important legacy. As Nash and his co-authors wrote in “History on Trial,” a 1997 book on the controversy, curricula are often mere “artifacts” of their time, and necessarily vulnerable to “prevailing political attitudes” and “competing versions of the collective memory.” Nations have histories, and someone must write and teach them, but the Standards remain a warning to all those who try.

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A similar tension was at the heart of a controversy at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which in 1993 began to plan an exhibit on the dropping of the atomic bomb. The show had especial significance to the American military community. As Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt write in “History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past,” the stakes were no less than “how the premier achievement of American airpower—arguably the one instance in which strategic bombing, not an army invasion or a navy blockade, triumphantly ended a major war—would be treated at the most popular museum in the world.” Complicating this question was the duty, for historians and the museum, of interpreting the world’s only use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population. In the fifty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman’s decision to use the bomb had undergone several reconsiderations, based on new evidence, by scholars and by some generals of the Second World War.




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