Even More Things Your History Class Got Wrong

Caveman Computer image from Cormack Consultancy

Today’s history teachers must have a difficult job. They have to lecture to disinterested and bored students about a subject they, for the most part, really don’t care about. They can’t liven things up with some videos from the History Channel anymore, because the History Channel is now just one of far too many 24/7 Reality TV marathons. On top of these problems, the Internet has made it far, far easier for people to look up history facts for themselves, and discover just how wrong some of the things our history teachers told us really are.

Yes, it’s time once again to un-learn some of the most common “facts” you were taught in school and find out the truth.

Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean

Charles Lindbergh image from the Library of Congress

The Truth: Two British men crossed the Atlantic eight years before Lindbergh did.

NY Times image from Aviation History

Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown flew from Newfoundland to Ireland on June 14-15, 1919. They were both test pilots for the airplane maker Vickers, Ltd. The company had modified a special Vickers Vimy plane with extra fuel tanks for the flight, and the pair were entrusted with a bundle of about 200 letters to be delivered in Ireland. They were competing for a prize offered by the Daily Mail newspaper: £10,000 for the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop in a single plane. They braved hours in the air, knowing that their plane could easily wind up in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue. They flew through thick, freezing fog, even as night fell and the exhaust pipe from one of their engines broke and burst into flames. When they finally did reach Ireland, they attempted to land in what looked like a green field, but turned out to be a thick bog.

Oops.

Oops.

Miraculously, neither pilot was hurt, and they lived to be national heroes rewarded with knighthoods and monuments built to their achievements. And then Charles Lindbergh stole the spotlight, and everyone forgot about them.

So what’s with our history books?

The Alcock-Brown flight inspired the creation of a new prize. The Orteig Prize would give $25,000 to the first person to fly from New York City to Paris. This was the prize Lindbergh won in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, and the reason he made so many headlines.

To be fair, Lindbergh’s achievement was a bit more impressive. For one thing, he flew alone, not with a co-pilot. Secondly, the distance Lindbergh covered was far, far longer – more than 1,600 miles longer!

The biggest reason we remember him and not the British pilots, though, has to do with the mass media. Alcock and Brown faded into obscurity after their moment of fame. Lindbergh not only grabbed the spotlight, he stayed there. He became a big-name celebrity, writing an autobiography, touring the world, helping to fund scientific research, and campaigning to keep America out of World War II. Furthermore, his baby son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, an ordeal that became known as the “Crime of the Century” in the press and paved the way for future celebrity-crime media circuses.

Thus, we end up forgetting all about those two obscure British aviators who actually made the first Atlantic crossing, in favor of the man who became a household name worldwide.

Before Columbus, people thought the Earth was flat

Flat Earth image from Big Education Ape

The Truth: Human beings have known the world is round for thousands of years.

I live in a coastal town. When I look out over the ocean, sometimes a sailboat will disappear over the horizon. Did it fall off the edge of the Earth? Of course not, as evidenced by the fact the boat will eventually return to port and its crew will NOT say “You wouldn’t believe what happened to us! We fell off the edge of the Earth! It was unbelievably hard for us to climb back up with our boat in tow!”

Yeah, no. It is pretty easy to deduce that the Earth is round, with some simple geometry. All you need is the Sun, which is why both the shape and size of the Earth were calculated by the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes in 240 BC. Eratosthenes was living in Egypt, and learned that in the Egyptian city of Swenet on the summer solstice, the sun is directly overhead at noon. At this particular time and place, a pole would cast no shadow. Eratosthenes didn’t live in Swenet, however; he lived in Alexandria. So, one summer solstice day at noon, he decided to see if a pole in his hometown would cast a shadow. It did, and he measured the angle of the shadow.

Now, using these two measurements (a zero-degree shadow in Swenet and a 7.2-degree shadow in Alexandria) and the distance between the cities where these measurements were taken, he made some geometric calculations and not only figured out that the Earth must be a sphere, he calculated how big the Earth must be.

THIS is what Columbus was challenging, and why everyone thought he was crazy. Nobody argued that the world wasn’t round, but Columbus believed that Eratosthenes had made a grave miscalculation. According to Columbus, the Earth was actually far smaller than the ancient Greeks thought. In fact, he argued, the Earth was small enough that a westward voyage to Asia was economically feasible. Centuries later, of course, NASA has taken precise measurements of exactly how big the Earth is. Obviously Columbus’s estimates were wrong, but the fascinating thing is that Eratosthenes’s measurements were actually very close to the true answer. In fact, that ancient Greek calculation was off by less than 2%!

So what’s with our history books?

You can’t spell history without “story”, and people like to interpret history as a story. We like clear-cut heroes and villains, and we like to see patterns that make all the events we learn about make sense. We don’t like thinking of history as a jumble of isolated events and accidents, because we crave a deeper meaning.

The most common of these narratives is a “Tale of Progress”. We like to imagine our ancestors as primitive and superstitious. We interpret our history as an inexorable march of science and culture toward the peak of technological superiority and rationality that we are. We tell ourselves that we are the product of generations of constant improvement, the apex of what humanity can achieve.

Er... maybe not.

Er… maybe not.

People are people, and whether we like to admit it or not, our ancestors were just as smart as we are. They simply didn’t have the technology or access to education that we do now.

The Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War was a military disaster for the U.S.

Tet Offensive image from the National Archives and Records Administration

The Truth: The Tet Offensive was a military disaster, but for the other side.

The United States was never officially “at war” during the Vietnam War, we were simply “helping” the anti-Communist South Vietnamese government fight pro-Communist Viet Cong rebels. Our “help” was controversial from the beginning, and there were plenty of accusations that some soldiers in the U.S. military were attacking and killing unarmed civilians. (To be fair, though, so were the Viet Cong.)

Yet the plain fact on the ground was that America and our South Vietnamese allies were winning, in the sense that we were destroying the Viet Cong’s effectiveness as a fighting force. The Tet Offensive was a last-gasp measure by an overstretched, under-supplied, dying force that was on its last legs. And it was a disaster for them.

The Viet Cong, whose base of support came mainly from rural areas, hoped and expected that city-dwellers would join their uprising to give them a breath of new life, but that didn’t happen. Instead, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces crushed the rebels so completely, that after the battle ended the Viet Cong basically disappeared as a fighting force. It was a major victory for the Americans. From this point on, the Vietnam War wasn’t a war against a rebellion in South Vietnam; it was a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam, with northern troops making up the majority of the Communist forces.

So what’s with our history books?

The Tet Offensive may have been the final, dramatic collapse of the Viet Cong, but it sure didn’t look like a collapse on TV. Up until this point, most of what American audiences watching the nightly news saw of the Vietnam War was repeated reassurances by military commanders that we were winning and the Viet Cong were collapsing. Then, without warning, the Viet Cong managed to simultaneously strike dozens of cities all across South Vietnam. News cameras rolled as bombs and gunfire shattered once-peaceful cities.

It didn’t matter that in most cases, the rebels were pushed back within a matter of hours, or that American and South Vietnamese casualties were far lower than those of the rebellion. What mattered was that it looked to news reporters like Walter Cronkite that the Viet Cong were an unstoppable force of destruction, and it appeared as if the military had been misleading the American public. This was one case where perception was far more important than reality, and the perception that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won took hold of the American public’s imagination.

Antiwar protest image from Jewish Currents

I once saw a T-shirt in a store that specialized in military nostalgia. It showed a map of Vietnam and read “We were winning when I left.” That really sums up the end of the Vietnam War in a nutshell – the United States, right or wrong, decided to give up the fight. Without our help, South Vietnam couldn’t keep fighting. It collapsed and the country was reunited under Communist rule.

This just goes to show that often the media and popular perception of events is what ends up in the history books, not the actual events themselves. Sometimes, it just pays to be a little skeptical and dig up your own answers.

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