Review: Don't Know Much about History

Don't Know Much about History
Don't Know Much about History
Kenneth C. Davis
Avon Books, New York, NY, 1995

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — April 18, 1998, 5:30pm

Years ago, in what an American president called, "one of the most unjust [wars] waged by a stronger against a weaker nation" (140), a powerful country fought against its southern neighbor for the sole purpose of territorial expansion. No, this quote was not George Bush condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but then-Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant speaking out against the American war with Mexico which began in 1846 and ended with the United States acquiring Texas. Yes, this actually happened, but who knows about it? Kenneth C. Davis knows, and he tells it to you in Don’t Know Much about History.

From pre-U.S. North America to Bill Clinton, Davis tells the facts about what happened and where. Although Davis writes mainly about American history, you’ll find out about major world events as well. You’ll learn about how during World War II Germany invaded Poland from the west and Russia invaded Poland from the east. You’ll learn how and why President Roosevelt sat down with Churchill and Stalin and laid the plans for what would set the stage for the Cold War — and how Roosevelt died only a few months after (311-315).

This book doesn’t set out to uncover secrets. The facts presented here are not new. Their seemingly revelatory appearances are probably because American history has been taught (in my opinion) in a very limited way in American public schools, and the facts have been "screened" to a large extent, to uphold commonly held myths — many times this is done unconsciously . The facts that are actually true are not presented in any way that would make one want to learn them. Davis does an excellent job, using a question/answer method, of presenting just the facts (any doubt surrounding the issue is always noted) and presenting them in a way that makes one want to keep reading. American history is suddenly a new novel that is just as interesting as any piece of fiction.

In Don’t Know Much about History, events are suddenly no longer unconnected entities in a vacuum. Whenever appropriate, Davis relates the events being discussed others. Thus, one learns how Henry David Thoreau was connected to the Mexican War discussed above, and how he wrote "Civil Disobedience" to describe his opinions. But you’ll also learn that his ideas greatly influenced another major historical figure over 50 years later, who was called Mahatma Gandhi (see notes on Mohandas K. Gandhi Autobiography). Furthermore, Davis explains that Gandhi’s ideas and actions likewise influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activities, over 50 years after him (144-145). After finishing the book, you’ll have a better realization of how history constantly connects diverse places and times.

Davis’ book is appropriate for the "history illiterate," someone who has no true knowledge of history, yet might have heard about various events (or only their names) without knowing any details. But not only does Davis provide an overview of the events, he reveals facts that even the "history experts" you know may not be aware of. For example, two of the most influential events responsible for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson permission to take "all necessary measures" in Vietnam, were the repeated attacks on the American destroyer Maddox in 1964. Depending on your level of history expertise, you may be quite surprised to learn that the first "attack" began with the Maddox firing on three North Vietnamese torpedo boats — which started approaching the Maddox after it invaded North Vietnamese territory, not while "in international waters, as the United States would later claim" (370). The second attack was never confirmed, and later "attributed to weather conditions and jittery nerves among the crew" (371).

If you need a jump start on history, Don’t Know Much about History will truly help you out. It’s a great book to carry around, is a pleasure to read, and each section doesn’t take long to finish. There could hardly be a more enjoyable and leisurely way to cover what you missed (or forgot about) in your American history class. After this book, you’ll have a solid base to continue studies in specific areas of history. Davis has several books in the "Don’t Know Much about..." series (which is a trademarked phrase, by the way.) I’m looking forward to finding out what I can learn from the others.