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Lies Across America, by James W. Loewen

Review by Allen Best

History – July 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Lies Across America – What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
By James W. Loewen
Published in 1999 by The New Press
$26.95 hardback, 479 pages
ISBN: 074329629X

THIS GUY CAN REAM. He made a name for himself by writing Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which he debunked the history purveyed by 12 leading high-school American history books. Now he takes on historic sites across the land, from Alaska to Florida, again and again showing where women, blacks, and Amerindians have been slighted or worse.

In Alaska, for example, he points out that North America’s highest mountain had been anointed as Denali by the Amerindians who lived nearby, but along came somebody who liked the stance of William McKinley on the gold standard, and hence we have Mt. McKinley. This was before McKinley became president, much less martyred. Only owing to a congressman from Ohio, representing the hometown of McKinley and blocking a name change, do we still have an official Mt. McKinley.

There are the sins of omission. For example, tours of the house where James Buchanan lived in Pennsylvania deny that this ante-bellum president was a homosexual, despite strong evidence he was as much out of the closet as in.

Most interesting to me was his section on the Philippine-American War.

It lasted four years, in contrast to the several months of the Spanish-American War. It resulted in the deaths of 10,000 Americans, and in the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipinos. Still I had never heard of this, the war with so many parallels to the Vietnam War.

Of greatest specifically local interest is the chapter on Leadville’s National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s titled: “Licking the Corporate Hand that Feeds You.” The six pages drip with sarcasm. Loewen bites hard.

The museum is a “blatant example of how corporate sponsorship dictates what is and is not presented,” he says. Executives and scientists, mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestants, populate the museum’s mining hall of fame. Ignored are the actual miners, the anarchist Italians who mined granite in Vermont, the Cornish lead miners in Wisconsin, the Finnish socialists who mined copper in Michigan, and so on.

He assails the museum for failing to mention the terrible toll of uranium mining, 450 cancer deaths by 1990, or of black lung, silicosis, and the rest. “But if even killing miners one at a time isn’t worthy of notice,” he adds, “I had imagined that a few major mine disasters would get some attention.”

See what I mean about the sarcasm?

He talks about the 1917 Hastings Mine explosion near Ludlow, which killed 121 men, and about the labor wars, of the IWW’s Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill — none of them mentioned in Leadville.

As to the notion that the modern mining industry now extracts metals without leaving environmental scars, a theory promoted at the mining museum, Leowen very simply cites the story of the Summitville mine disaster in the San Juan Mountains of recent years.

“The museum would attract more visitors if it told more actual history,” he concludes. “Spending an hour watching an industry pat itself on the back is, ultimately, boring.”

This guy pulls no punches.

— Allen Best