Kevin McCarthy isn’t ignorant of history. What he did was worse

by Marcos Bretón

When former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made the incredible remark that the United States has never sought land after winning a war, except to bury its war dead, he was pilloried on social media and mainstream media for being ignorant.

McCarthy, a California Republican, proudly shared his untruth on social media last Sunday. For the record, his exact words were: “In every single war that America has fought, we have never asked for land afterwards,” McCarthy boldly belts in the video. “Except for enough to bury the Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice for that freedom we went in for.”

He actually said this about a month ago at the University of Oxford, before an audience at the Oxford Union, the debate society at the famed university. As Politifact reported, the debate “addressed the value of U.S. intervention around the world.”

Politifact gave McCarthy’s comment a “pants on fire” rating, the lowest rating they give. Why wouldn’t they?

McCarthy’s own home state of California was once the spoils of war between Mexico and the United States. Yes, McCarthy’s birthplace is land seized by the United States after a war.

But even though McCarthy is known to occasionally act dumb for political purposes, he’s not dumb at all.

McCarthy’s comment wasn’t ignorance and it wasn’t particularly partisan either. He was repeating political propaganda in the service of historical erasure, an American affliction that has been bipartisan for generations.

Like many American leaders and influencers of various political stripes, McCarthy was pushing the myth of American exceptionalism by making the preposterous claim that the United States achieved its dominance immaculately instead of through land grabs attained by waging war, threatening war, or menacing weaker combatants with economic might.

From the conquered territories of California, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii to lands seized by force from Native Americans, we know — or we should know — the United States has repeatedly seized land by force.

Old lie in new clothing

It’s common for liberal commentators to mock McCarthy as a spineless buffoon, but what he said was neither funny nor easily dismissed. Rather, McCarthy described a modern version of a lie as old as our national founding.

The ultimate American brainwashing of Manifest Destiny was that our nation under God was ordained to conquer North America, and so it did.

American aggression in pursuit of land or valuable and strategic assets has always been justified by the lies we’ve told ourselves to glorify our more violent ambitions. For our country, “To the winner goes the spoils” has meant amassing the power of controlling a heroic narrative by rewriting history to our liking.

What lies are more powerful than those that become unquestioned truths promoted by our government, Hollywood and inadequate history books fed to American schoolkids?

The lie that McCarthy told is the same lie that drives the rage against “Critical Race Theory,” or any examination of slavery in the United States. It’s the same lie at the heart of current efforts to ban books or pack school boards with activist ideologues across America.

A different view

It’s a lie that has shrouded undeniable truths in American history and has left some of us learning about that history long after we had completed our “education” in American schools. I’ll never forget being a 31-year-old man standing in a Mexico City museum where I came upon a mural depicting the U.S.-Mexico war from a perspective I had never considered.

The artwork I saw is called “Ninos Heroes,” which is Spanish for child heroes. It’s painted on the ceiling of a castle in Mexico City, which was attacked by American forces in the latter stages of the U.S.-Mexico war. Legend has it that a teenage Mexican military cadet climbed to the top of the castle and jumped to his death while wrapped in the Mexican flag, rather than surrendering it to troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott. Two images stood out: the mournful look on the face of a child as he was about to die and the faceless, foreboding depiction of the American troops looking down on him from above. In this piece of art, the Americans were neither heroic nor morally innocent.

They were invaders, combatants and conquerors. It blew my mind because nothing in my formal education or in my cultural references had ever depicted American troops that way. I had grown up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, which was deeply unpopular, but even then our folly was based on trying to stop “the spread of communism” in Southeast Asia.

But here, in this hemisphere, it’s a different story. On assignment for The Bee in 1995, I traveled to Guatemala, where some locals could barely hide their contempt for me and the other Americans with me. The driver we hired told me why when his tongue was loosened over dinner and beers. His name was Alfonso and he spoke of his anger toward the U.S. for destabilizing his country by backing a coup in 1954 that toppled a democratically elected president and replaced him with a military dictatorship.

Decades of dysfunction and unrest followed in Guatemala and throughout Central America, unrest that has contributed to the flood of migrants now massing on the U.S.-Mexico border. There seems to be almost no connection in the minds of many Americans between the destructive U.S. foreign policies and the migrants who fled countries upended by those policies.

Lies masquerading as truth

This disconnect is rooted in the lie that McCarthy told. That lie has created a sense of historical ignorance in many of us who don’t know or don’t care about the U.S. seizing lands in pursuit of its own strategic interests, and the damage caused by American boots on the ground.

To say these things plainly is to be accused of hating America. That’s because as a nation, we may “hold these truths to be self-evident,” but we still can’t handle some of them.

Marcos Bretón oversees The Sacramento Bee’s Editorial Board. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years.