The History Channel has been criticized for its recent specialty in "he-man" reality shows about truckers, sharpshooters, and lumberjacks or wacky conspiracy theories and New-Agey faux history topics (Templars, Nostradamus, ancient astronauts, etc.). This series has been widely heralded as the History Channel's return to its roots, but they might have been better off sticking with Ancient Astronauts and the Templars. Quite simply, this series is awful.
Even a lot of the negative reviews miss the point. If it was just a problem of using celebrity commentators rather than historians, questionable emphasis, or leaving things out, I'd have no problem with this series. As a US History teacher, I'm fully aware of how ponderous specialist history can be. There's a place on TV and in the classroom for accessible, interesting presentations of US history, even if they "leave some things out." I bought this specifically with the idea of showing it to my students. But it's not a matter of celebrity talking heads or "leaving out something real important," it's a matter of inventing US history out of thin air. Quite simply, this ISN'T US History. I'm not really sure what it is, but anyone who subjects their history students to this garbage is really being irresponsible.
OK, first of all, you have to swallow the weird videography: the endless, repetition of sweeping airborne pans of the wilderness or the seacoast, slow motion close-ups of a bullet flying through the air, and animated shots of the bottoms of sailing vessels. Either they have a very small video-clip library or the world's most unimaginative video editor.
Then there's the hype - the narrator's favorite line, used every few minutes and as every fadeout for commercials, is "What happened next would change the course of US History forever."
But those are nits: the real problem is that this video ISN'T US HISTORY. One simple example demonstrates the point. Their coverage of the Revolution says there were three main reasons we won: Washington's leadership, Daniel Morgan's sharpshooters assassination of General Burgoyne's Indian scouts and British officers during the Saratoga campaign, and the machinations of the Culper Spy Ring in New York City. Are you kidding?
Washington's leadership clearly was an important cause of victory, but even this one has some problems. Some of their examples about Washington's leadership are a little weird. For example, they make a big deal about his inoculation of the army for smallpox while it was at Valley Forge, which was at best the 4th most important thing Washington accomplished over that momentous winter -- fighting off the Conway Cabal, holding the army together, and appointing Steuben drillmaster were far more important than this sideshow story. Seemingly, the main reason they tell about the inoculations is because it fits their template -- Americans and technology, conquering the world.
But that's a quibble. I can think that the smallpox inoculations are a pretty minor incident, but that's an editorial decision. The other two big "causes" of victory, the Culper Spy Ring and Morgan' sharpshooters, are the problems.
First Culper's Spy Ring. The best thing that can be said about the Spy Ring is that at least it did exist, and it's a legitimate, minor story about a theater of the war (New York City in the last couple years of the war) where no major battles were fought (while the action took place in the South and the Caribbean, both areas not mentioned in the series). But it's a minor story, barely mentioned, if at all, in the textbooks, not covered in any curriculum. And the show spends more time on a step-by-step description of how the ring passed a message than they spend on the debates of the 2nd Continental Congress on independence.
And the story they tell about the Culper Ring? Well ... the British navy is planning to attack Newport, which will endanger the French fleet, but the Culper Spy Ring finds out and gets a message to Washington, who moves his army forward to fake an attack on New York City. The result is yet another time that "the course of the Revolution is changed:" the British don't move and THE FRENCH NAVY IS SAVED, so they can be used decisively in the next campaign. What? Are you kidding? Something that didn't happen is something that "changed the course of the war?" A non-campaign that's not mentioned in any high school textbook I've ever read "changed the course of the war?"
Later, there's no mention of the critical part played by the French navy in the Yorktown campaign, so the viewer is left to wonder why saving the French navy was so important. You have to wonder why the producers make such a big deal out of such a trivial story -- until you remember that the Culper Spy Ring was the subject of an episode of the History Channel's weird, conspiracy theory show called "Brad Meltzer Bays at the Moon" (or something like that). Why worry about trivializing US history when you have a chance to do some good cross-promotion?
But at least the Culper Ring, minor as it is, actually happened. The coverage of Morgan and Saratoga is even worse because they simply MADE IT UP. The story they tell of Burgoyne's travails totally ignores the real problems Burgoyne faced: problems with St. Leger's expedition, Howe's failure to move up the Hudson to meet him, and his losses at the Battle of Bennington, all vital parts of the campaign and significant contributors to Burgoyne's failure. Instead we get this simple-minded narrative that Daniel Morgan and his rifle-armed sharpshooters invented a totally new style of warfare: hiding in the woods and bushwhacking the Redcoats (in reality, this "brand new" type of warfare was routinely used by both sides in the Indian wars that had been going on for 150 years). And Morgan's strategy, throughout Burgoyne's long march, was to pick off Burgoyne's Indian scouts (thus causing the remaining ones to desert so that Burgoyne's knowledge of the local area was lost) and then assassinate his officers. In short, another custom-built example of America's triumph through the use of new technology.
One of his talking heads says "the guy who fired the shot that killed Simon Fraser may have contributed as much to independence as anyone." Give me a break. Without question, Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolution but the story this video tells is unrecognizable. Burgoyne didn't fail because Morgan assassinated his scouts and officers.
For one thing, Morgan didn't arrive in the area until nearly a month after the Battle of Bennington, which marked the point where Burgoyne's situation went from serious to dire. Morgan's leadership and troops certainly played a key role in the pitched battles at Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights. But the attribution of Burgoyne's defeat (and, in fact, American victory in the Revolution) to this "new way of warfare" that Morgan invented and applied throughout the campaign is pure fantasy. Morgan and his riflemen played no role whatsoever during Burgoyne's march -- they weren't even there for most of it. And the rifle, far from being a magical technology that revolutionized warfare, was actually a minor, difficult to use, niche weapon -- useful for sharpshooting but worse than useless in most combat. And it's simply irresponsible to turn Fraser's death into one of the pivotal moments of the Revolution. It was an important moment in the battle and probably prevented the British from rallying, but there was a lot of hard fighting still to go and many twists and turns (Arnold's heroic arrival on the field, for one thing) after Fraser was killed. Yet they endlessly recycle this summary of the reasons for our victory: leadership, technology, and spying. One (leadership) true but argued with bogus examples and the other two utterly fabricated. And in case you miss the point, they must remind you another dozen times over the course of later episodes that the rifle basically won the war.
The other parts I watched were very mixed. The section on the Great Depression is almost as bad as the American Revolution. It is simply unrecognizable. Like most of the video, they stitch together 3-4 10 minute segments to tell the whole story -- everything else is ignored. The story of the Great Depression? Well ... the stock market crash didn't really have any effect on anything, everything was hunky-dory until a bank run the next year. We apparently didn't have a President at any point during the Depression. I don't think Hoover is mentioned at all and FDR gets just one quick mention. No mention of the New Deal. "The Depression" is pretty much defined to mean "the Dust Bowl." And our efforts to fight the Depression pretty much consisted of building Hoover Dam and carving Mount Rushmore. To show how silly this is, the carving of Mount Rushmore started two years before the Depression and it only involved 400 workers. It was a tourism-promotion scheme, not a jobs program. Hoover Dam involved more workers and was partly conceived as a jobs program, but it too started while Hoover was president. And a one-sentence mention of some public works programs that didn't work. Seriously. Any history teacher using that segment of trash to supplement their lesson on the Great Depression should lose their teaching license.
I didn't like their portrayals of the Civil War or WWII at all. While I didn't spot the egregious fabrications of the Revolutionary War episode, they had no narrative of events at all and instead picked a couple themes and beat them to death (for example, in the Civil War, mass production of bullets, the scale of the slaughter, medicine, and the impact of the railroad and telegraph).
Then there's their weird fixation on high explosives and accidental explosions as a key driver of American history. When they tell us (at length) the dramatic story about some ridge that was supposedly the key barrier to the construction of the Erie Canal and how dangerous it was with the Irish immigrants using gunpowder to blow the ridge up, that was a little weird but ok. But then there's the even more dramatic story how the key to the Transcontinental RR was the Donner Pass tunnel and nitroglycerine was so dangerous that even the Irish quit and only the Chinese would go in and plant it -- and then we hear about this thunderstorm that accidentally blew up the dynamite while they were making Mount Rushmore -- and the detonators that were accidentally spilled on the floor by a bunch of female factory workers during the middle of a thunderstorm. Really? No mention of Guadalcanal, Midway, Iwo Jima, or any European battle other than D Day, and we get 10 minutes about dropping detonators on the floor? And of course finally we get the "Challenger" explosion.
Some other sections aren't atrocious. The introductory section on Jamestown and Plymouth, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the controversy about slavery, and civil rights were a little simplistic and hyped, but they were ok. I wasn't sure the Donner Party was worth 10 minutes for any reason other than sensationalism (and foreshadowing that story about the TCRR tunnel through the same pass), but the basic story of the Oregon Trail and the Gold Rush was well told. The section on the boom of the early 20th century was ok: Ford really did make the car available to the common man and in the process changed the nature of work, having a car really did "change everything" as Liev Schreiber told us (for about the 87th time), and Spindletop really was the oil well that inaugurated the whole Texas-Oklahoma oil boom and made oil an inexpensive industrial commodity.
Other assertions -- cotton looms led directly to the computer industry, for example, or the major social impact of whale oil -- seem a little overheated. And they have this way of dropping in dramatic factoids, some of which are ridiculous (Morgan's riflemen could fire 3X as far as the "average range of a modern FBI sniper shot") and many of which make you go "huh?" (whale oil is still used in the Hubble telescope).
Their sections on what happeed after World War II are mixed. They eventually get around to the Cold War and mention the space race (briefly) in that context. But that comes at least 20 minutes after their first run-through on the US in space. First time through, the story is literally "we led the way in flight with the Wright brothers, and aviation was built through WWI and WWII and then the Boeing 707 came along and people could fly nonstop from coast-to-coast so a trip that took the pioneers 5 months (show recycled image of covered wagons) now took 5 hours and then we went in to space and JFK said let's send a man to the moon by the end of the decade so America's wonderful engineers and that wonderful NASA worked together and we made it." Wow, great story, left out one or two little details like the fact that Sputnik was as big a deal at the time as Pearl Harbor and the nation gathered around the TV in dread whenever the Russians beat us to another milestone in space (first dog in space, Yuri Gagarin, etc.) So their basic story about the US in space totally misses the main theme that it was an intense Cold War competition and that we were behind most of the time ... But it's a nice story.
Some of the modern stories were ok, though I got tired of the device they used for every one of them, tying it back to one of their themes (show image of people in canoes, Daniel Boone on the Wilderness Trail, wagons headed west, Transcontinental railroad, primitive cars, and then lead into the building of the Interstate Highways; rinse, recycle, repeat endlessly).
And there are parts -- the Donner Party, the specifics about the Erie Canal construction, the important role of African Americans in the whaling industry -- where I just don't know enough to evaluate what they assert. And was the whaling industry and whale oil so important in US history that it deserves perhaps 5X as much time as the debates about independence and the constitution combined? Problem is, there are so many inaccuracies that I don't know whether I can trust the parts where I don't have detailed knowledge.
I think their problem is that they developed a template (Americans are adventurous, entrepreneurial, fight back, use advanced technology, have highly organized industrial systems, and use both new technology and spying in wars). And then they go out and manufacture a story to fit the template, whether the story fits the template or not. And the steady flow of superlatives (this next thing we're going to talk about "changed everything") wears you down.
The people who see the video as "anti-American" or "left wing" or "just telling the bad stuff" simply demonstrate how over-sensitive the flag-wavers have become. Does the video say slavery was bad and that we stole the land from the Indians? Well, duh. But despite acknowledging certain unpleasant facts, the overall message is overwhelmingly pro-American, in fact kind of jingoistic. We're rugged, we're individualists, we're entrepreneurs, we're risk-takers, we civilize the wilderness, we tame everything in our path, "we turn our dreams ..... into reality." Yes, Al Sharpton and Sheryl Crow are featured as talking heads, but for the most part it's a "hurray for us, we conquered the world and provided opportunities for lots of people -- eventually" message. And, I did see three one-time GOP presidential candidates (Gingrich, Giuliani, and Trump; not exactly Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry, I realize, but still 3 GOP candidates) as well as Sean Hannity on the list of commentators. No, the problem with celebrity talking heads isn't their political bias; it's their lack of independent knowledge. When you see one of them chiming in with a quote that supports the producers' thesis, that's not because a lifetime of research led them to that conclusion -- they're just actors, reading the script the producers gave them.
I'm all for accessible US history. But if you showed this to your history class, your discussion of errors would be longer than the video. Mel Gibson's movies "Braveheart" and "the Patriot" have been rightly criticized for their inaccuracies, but they're better history than this video. Heck, "Ax-Men" is better history.