Conventional wisdom says history is written by the winners. But Seymour Morris, a former corporate executive who's lived abroad for the past 12 years, challenges that assertion. Many of the people or events that shaped America's destiny may be unknown, but their impact is critical.
In American History Revised -- 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It Into The Textbooks (Broadway Books), he neatly illustrates the twists and turns. His book is eye-opening, interesting and lively. If schools put it on the curriculum, kids would pay more attention.
American History Revealed is divided into 10 chapters; the headings are thematic but broad-based, such as "Forgotten by History," "American Self-Identity" and "Not What You Think." Rather than a dry recitation in chronological order, it's an extraordinary compendium of intriguing facts.
Morris believes "understanding our past requires imagination." There are secrets and discrepancies to reconcile, and 200 startling facts curiously omitted from textbooks, all of which altered American life -- a stark reminder that seemingly irrelevant events can have enormous consequences.
For example, the Revolutionary War may have been avoided if King George III had accepted America's "Olive Branch Petition," which expressed loyalty to the Crown and requested reconciliation. The Colonists resisted authoritarian rule, but they maintained their allegiance to Britain. Acceptance would have changed both nations' futures.
In 1963, the Secret Service in Dallas installed a protective bubble over JFK's convertible, but it was such a beautiful day that the president insisted it be removed so people could see him. Kennedy, determined to end the Vietnam War, was replaced by LBJ, who ordered a massive assault.
What's interesting about Morris' premise is how often individual carelessness affected events. George Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware was spotted by a loyalist, who alerted the British commander. But he got drunk, and didn't bother to read it, ensuring the rebels a successful sneak attack, which decisively turned the tide of war.
Similarly, the U.S. government maintains the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise. In fact, an outlying radar base at Opana reported a large contingent of planes headed to Pearl Harbor. Rather than relay the message to the admirals at the base, the lieutenant ignored repeated warnings, ultimately costing 2,400 lives and destroying the fleet.
Enlarging our scope is the goal of American History Revised; it doesn't celebrate the famous or offer revisionist or politically correct images. It's a user-friendly guide to how fate determines destinies. Consider: one of our most famous presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was a fluke. President McKinley's veep died in office; Roosevelt was the third man offered the post. A year later, McKinley was assassinated, and Roosevelt entered the White House. Abraham Lincoln won in 1860 with only 39.8% of the vote -- the smallest percentage ever recorded, thanks to two third-party candidates.
But without Haym Salomon, a Polish Jew and personal friend of Washington's, our fledgling government might never have existed. He financed the Revolutionary War, securing loans based on personal credit. Post-war, he saved the U.S. from financial collapse. The debt owed is incalculable; yet when he died -- impoverished -- he hadn't been repaid a dime.
History also neglects those who were celebrities in their day, but later consigned to oblivion. Inventor Nickola Tesla is the father of the alternating current, the basis of electricity's distribution system. A master theoretician, Tesla's experiments form the basis of radar, X-rays, MRIs, robotics. His electricity technology was superior to Edison's. Like Hedy Lamarr, whose radio frequency patent led to spectrum technology, the basis for cell phones and Internet access, he died broke and forgotten.
George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, was luckier. He made a fortune, but he also gave his workers decent pay, benefits, profit-sharing and a retirement program. A generous, moral man, who returned his company's profits on WWI contracts, Eastman's pictures enriched people's lives; his business practices were a blueprint for enlightened capitalism. Wall Street, are you listening?
American History is filled with such people and events. It should be required reading for anyone in public office, a potent reminder that real history, not the tabloid fodder sprayed across the nightly news, is often made far from the limelight.