Two Sides to History
THERE is an old saying that goes something like this: “It makes a difference whose ox is being gored.”
The point of this saying is that the same event can look different to different people. It depends upon each one’s background and interest in the matter.
It is usually easier for a person to be generous and unprejudiced about a problem as long as he is not too closely involved. But what happens if the problem moves into his own backyard, as it were? Then he may be prone to view it in a different light.
Nations are like people in this respect, except that their attitudes affect millions of persons and the course of world history. As long as a problem does not touch a nation directly, it can be very noble and generous in its outlook. But as soon as the national interest is directly involved, it may quickly change its stance.
So it is that two countries can take completely opposite views of the same problem or point of history. However, this does not mean that one (or both) is deliberately lying, though that could be the case. Indeed, they may not even be aware that they are presenting almost totally different interpretations of the same events.
A look at a few historical situations will reveal that this is true. It will help us to appreciate that misunderstandings between nations are almost unavoidable under today’s political systems. It also emphasizes how badly all mankind needs a better system of government.
The average citizen of the United States is aware of certain “facts” about Canada, the vast country that lies to his north. But his information may not go much beyond knowing that there are descendants of the British, French and Americans living there, that they see the northern lights, and that the Mounted Police ‘always get their man.’ If he is old enough he may have heard about the Dionne quintuplets.
One of such “facts” the average American assumes is that for the past two centuries Canadians as a whole have loved Americans. Indeed, he may feel that Canadians would no doubt have been willing to become a part of the United States if the British or Canadian governments would have permitted it. But is this the way it really was?
A consideration of history from Canada’s viewpoint reveals many things generally unknown or ignored by most Americans. For instance, Americans would find it difficult to believe that Canadians do not always think so kindly of their neighbors to the south. This is because most Americans fail to remember, if they ever knew, that the first English-speaking Canadians were ‘Loyalists.’
These ‘Loyalists’ were people who chose to remain loyal to British rule when the thirteen American colonies rebelled against England in the 1770’s. While the colonists regarded their action as a rebellion against tyranny, the ‘Loyalists’ regarded it as a rebellion against the established ‘law and order.’ Again, it depended upon whose ‘ox’ you were considering.
Anti-British mobs tarred, feathered and sometimes even murdered the ‘Loyalists,’ who were forced to flee, literally for their lives. They went to Canada. In most cases they lost their personal property and lands, which were confiscated and never paid for.
The approximately 50,000 or more Americans who chose to support the government of England understandably did not like or trust the country from which they had to flee. And the events of the next one hundred years did little to change their minds. Americans twice invaded Canada, and on at least two other occasions it was the victim of attacks based in the United States. The people who fled, who resented, and remembered are the forefathers of many present-day Canadians. While they no longer have the same fears, some resentment still remains.
America Invades Canada
In the early years of the American War for Independence, it seemed only logical to the rebelling colonists that the French in the north would gladly join them in ousting the British from North America. So colonial forces invaded Canada. But despite some early success the invasion was a failure.
The major obstacle was that the inhabitants of Canada, whether French or ‘Loyalist,’ did not want to become part of the new American setup. The Americans considered this an example of people who did not know what was good for them. Why, a chance to throw off the British yoke and join the free Americans! How could the Canadians refuse? But they did, and the invasion began a long era of bitter feeling between the two countries.
Only a few years later, as part of a worldwide conflict between England and France, the United States and Canada again came to blows. Americans are taught that the War of 1812 was fought to preserve the rights of neutrals and maintain the freedom of the seas. But many Canadians viewed the matter in a different light. They believed that the War of 1812 was begun as a pretext for the conquest of their country.
The Canadians based their conclusions on such remarks as those made by the Americans Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. Clay, a statesman and orator, is quoted as saying: “It is absurd to suppose that we shall not succeed. I am not for stopping at Quebec or anywhere else but I would take the whole continent from her [England] and ask no favor.” Jackson, a military man, thought that such an expedition would meet no resistance and would be, in his words, “a military promenade.”
They were in for a rude shock. The ‘Loyalists’ again were willing to take up arms and defend Canada for England. In the war that ensued, the Americans invaded Canada and burned the capitol buildings at York (now Toronto). However, they were unable to gain any real foothold. Toward the close of the war, partly in retaliation for the burning of York, the United States capitol at Washington was burned by the British. But very few Americans today know about the American invasion of Canada or what was done to York. Instead, the burning of Washington, the defense of Baltimore at Fort McHenry, and the writing of the national anthem are given much space in American history books.
Another quarter of a century passed. Then the American presidential election campaign of 1844 led to a further confrontation. During this time the phrase “Manifest Destiny” came into use. This term described the American belief in the inevitable territorial expansion of the United States, and its right to do so.
It was maintained by some that the destiny of the United States was to rule all of North America. This led to a boundary dispute involving a large section of Canada. Although it was finally settled by compromise, it appeared to Canadians as another in the list of attempts by Americans to gain the whole of Canada.
After the discovery of gold in Alaska years later, the United States and Canada engaged in a bitter dispute over the boundary of the Alaskan panhandle. President Theodore Roosevelt stated that Canadian claims were “an outrage, pure and simple.” On the other side, Canadian Sir Wilfrid said in parliament: “I have often regretted, and never more than on the present occasion, that we are living beside a great neighbor who, I believe, I can say without being unfriendly to them, are very grasping in their national actions.”
Why do Americans know and understand so little of this background? The answer lies primarily in the textbooks used to instruct pupils. These usually gloss over or ignore the Canadian side and concentrate on pride of country at the expense of historical objectivity. But then, Canadian textbooks usually do the same from their viewpoint.
Thus, although both sides report the part of the truth that suits them, in the long run they both suffer from ignorance, which can and has led to trouble. Yes, “it makes a difference whose ox is being gored.”
Relations with Mexico
In past generations the United States has also had difficulty with its southern neighbor, Mexico. Both sides have felt that their position was not only justifiable, but right.
The foremost thing to keep in mind from the Mexican viewpoint is that Mexico, like Canada, is not and does not want to become an American appendage. Yet, until recently the course of history since Mexico’s independence from Spain in the early 1800’s has been one of continued American interference in Mexican affairs.
Since Mexico’s independence, about half of her territory has been seized by the United States. First the area of Texas was annexed and made a state in 1845. Then the whole of what is now the southwestern United States was demanded. The Mexican War of 1846-48 resulted, in which United States forces invaded Mexico and occupied the capital, Mexico City. Of this war, World Book Encyclopedia states: “Many historians believe the war was an unnecessary attack on a weaker nation.”
The United States thus forcibly took from Mexico the regions of California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. These were added to her acquisition of Texas. All of this was a direct result of the American idea of “Manifest Destiny” so prevalent at the time.
Many Americans “remember the Alamo” at San Antonio. There the entire garrison of Americans was killed by Mexican troops under General Santa Ana. But most Americans forget, or never did know, that San Antonio had been part of Mexico. Mexico regarded the battle as the putting down of rebellion in her territory. America used it as a rallying cry in its campaign against Mexico, seeming to justify its intervention in Mexican affairs.
In the early 1900’s Mexico underwent a series of political upheavals. American business interests seemed to be endangered, so in 1914 United States marines landed at Vera Cruz and occupied the city. This was in direct violation of a treaty forbidding such acts. Many Americans were surprised to find how much Mexicans resented this. Two years later President Woodrow Wilson sent an army under General Pershing into Mexico in chase of the chieftain “Pancho” Villa, who had raided a town in New Mexico. While Americans were indignant at Villa’s raid, Mexicans bitterly resented another American invasion of their country.
The last few decades have been less hectic, but Mexicans in general still feel the pressure of their big neighbor to the north. They no doubt wish that Americans could see themselves as Mexicans see them. Yes, history looks different to people in different countries, for “it makes a difference whose ox is being gored.”
Most Americans have been raised in an atmosphere depicting American Indians as “savages” that needed to be crushed to protect early settlers. With few exceptions, in motion pictures, books and magazines the Indians were ‘the bad guys.’
But centuries before any white settlers came, the Indians had inhabited the American continent. Only in comparatively recent history, in the 1600’s, did white settlers come from Europe, particularly England. They began pushing inland, westward, from the Atlantic seaboard. And whose property were they taking? It was all Indian land. So from the Indians’ viewpoint, the settlers’ movement west was no more than an invasion and stealing of Indian territory.
The ensuing destruction and ‘resettlement’ of Indian tribes is one of the darkest pages in American history. In Newsweek, Geoffrey Wolff, reviewing the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, calls it a “damning case against our national roots in greed, perfidy, ignorance and malice. The motive force for our theft of land and identity from the Indians was Manifest Destiny, the belief that white men were ordained to rule this continent.” Wolff adds: “The books I review, week upon week, report the destruction of the land or the air; they detail the perversion of justice; they reveal national stupidities. None of them—not one—has saddened me and shamed me as this book has.”
Yet, before the European settlers came, were all the Indian tribes peaceful, cooperative, free from bloodshed and plunder among themselves? Not at all, for many of them were in constant conflict with each other.
Thus, the events that have taken place on the North American continent have been viewed quite differently, according to who was doing the viewing. But, then, is it any other way elsewhere? Is it not true that every nation interprets history according to its own interests? Almost always the view is similar to the one declared by a famous American: “My country, may she always be right; but my country, right or wrong.”
Such attitudes in all nations have been responsible for much hostility and bloodshed. Indeed, history is filled with the sickening reminders of such misunderstanding and blunders under man’s rule. How obvious it is that human government, however well intentioned, is simply incapable of providing a system that brings true liberty, justice and equality for all.