Myth America

Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past


By Kevin M. Kruse

By Julian E. Zelizer

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In this instant New York Times bestseller, America’s top historians set the record straight on the most pernicious myths about our nation’s past.
The United States is in the grip of a crisis of bad history. Distortions of the past promoted in the conservative media have led large numbers of Americans to believe in fictions over facts, making constructive dialogue impossible and imperiling our democracy.  
In Myth America, Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer have assembled an all-star team of fellow historians to push back against this misinformation. The contributors debunk narratives that portray the New Deal and Great Society as failures, immigrants as hostile invaders, and feminists as anti-family warriors—among numerous other partisan lies. Based on a firm foundation of historical scholarship, their findings revitalize our understanding of American history. 
Replacing myths with research and reality, Myth America is essential reading amid today’s heated debates about our nation’s past. 

With Essays By

Akhil Reed Amar • Kathleen Belew • Carol Anderson • Kevin Kruse • Erika Lee • Daniel Immerwahr • Elizabeth Hinton • Naomi Oreskes • Erik M. Conway • Ari Kelman • Geraldo Cadava • David A. Bell • Joshua Zeitz • Sarah Churchwell • Michael Kazin • Karen L. Cox • Eric Rauchway • Glenda Gilmore • Natalia Mehlman Petrzela • Lawrence B. Glickman • Julian E. Zelizer



American Exceptionalism

David A. Bell

“American exceptionalism” has a double meaning. It first arose as an analytical term, referring to the proposition that the social and economic structures of the United States represent an exception to normal laws of historical development. To the extent that the analysis came with a value judgment attached, that judgment was negative. The United States was a historical aberration—a country that was failing to evolve in the proper, desired direction. More recently, though, the analytical meaning has been overshadowed, in the political sphere, by a prescriptive, moralizing one that refers less to American difference than to American superiority. When politicians today invoke “American exceptionalism,” they almost always mean that the United States has desirable qualities that other nations lack and has a special, chosen, superior role in human history.1

This essay will first look briefly at the question of whether it makes sense to call America “exceptional.” It will then turn at greater length to the strange history of the term American exceptionalism itself, explaining why it has acquired such prominence and what has been at stake for those who have used it. In the process the essay will call attention to the two most important actors in that history: the man initially responsible for promoting the term in the 1920s and the man who did the most to introduce it to the US political mainstream seventy years later. They were both ardent radicals, albeit of rather different sorts: Joseph Stalin and Newt Gingrich.

Is America in fact “exceptional”? To address the question concisely, consider these three propositions. First, most nations can be considered exceptional in one sense or another. After all, the word refers to deviation from a norm—but which norm? Can we group together all aspects of a nation’s development—social, economic, political, cultural—into a single framework? Marxists have very often answered this question in the affirmative, and it is therefore not entirely surprising that the term American exceptionalism originated in the international communist movement. But for those who don’t subscribe to such all-embracing theories, the situation is murkier. A nation may look exceptional with respect to one criterion and entirely typical with respect to another. In fact, scholars have managed to demonstrate that nearly every nation on the planet represents an exception to the planetary norm. They speak of the “exception française” and the “deutsche Sonderweg,” or special path. A sizable literature exists not only on “Chinese exceptionalism” but also on “Serbian exceptionalism.” Tunisia’s relative success in navigating the Arab Spring led some to speak of “Tunisian exceptionalism.”2 The relative paucity of references to British and Japanese exceptionalisms may derive simply from the fact that scholars of both countries take the exceptional status of each so utterly for granted.

Second, very few of the copious contemporary discussions of “American exceptionalism” have come close to showing that America really does represent a deviation from a significant international norm. Doing so in a serious way would require paying attention not just to America itself but also to the countries from which America supposedly differs—something that might even involve speaking a language other than English. Yet virtually none of the politicians who speak so readily about “American exceptionalism” even mention other countries, except in the vaguest sense, and surprisingly few of the scholars who use the term discuss other countries in a systematic way.3

Finally, modern nationalism by its nature has led virtually every nation to strive to distinguish itself from others: to highlight and even to exaggerate its own unique qualities and to proclaim its own unique destiny. French nationalists tout the elegance and sophistication of their “civilization.” Serbians have traditionally considered themselves the shield of Christianity. Haitians take pride in being the first country whose people freed themselves from slavery. China has its uniquely harmonious, rational Confucian culture.4 The idea of “American exceptionalism,” in other words, falls squarely into an entirely common pattern. There is nothing exceptional about it.

Taken together, these three propositions strongly suggest that the term American exceptionalism makes very little analytical sense. Whereas scholars have found it useful to look at specific ways in which US national development differs from that of other countries (for instance, America’s failure to develop a robust socialist movement or a Western European–style welfare state), these differences do not justify calling America an exception to a comprehensive planetary rule.

On the other hand, the idea itself has had a fascinating if also dispiriting history. Before the term entered political life in the late twentieth century, political narratives about America’s exceptional character served to justify various projects of national aggression against both Native and foreign peoples, but they also highlighted what Americans saw as their best qualities and their moral duties, giving them a standard to live up to. The term American exceptionalism has done much not only to displace these earlier narratives but also to erase their aspirational moral content. Today, the term most often serves as an empty symbol, a mere marker of difference and superiority and a convenient rhetorical cudgel in the country’s unending, vicious political combat. As such, somewhat ironically, the rise of the term illustrates the decline of American idealism. Historians have sketched out parts of this story very well, but this last piece of it in particular, and therefore the overall arc, have so far attracted less attention.5

From the moment Europeans arrived on American shores, they crafted stories about their special destiny, and in the early-modern Western world, such stories usually invoked ancient models. First, there was ancient Israel: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). Not only did the God of the Old Testament select Israel from above other nations, and not only did he bind it to him by a covenant; in doing so, he also bound its people to one another in a tight web of commandments and ritual practices, giving their community exceptional homogeneity, cohesion, and endurance. Of course, in the eyes of medieval and early-modern European Christians, the covenant was less a gift than an obligation, and one at which ancient Israel had woefully failed. The other model was Rome, the most powerful empire in all history, one whose institutions, laws, and language still marked Europe centuries after its fall and whose history and literature remained the foundation of formal education until deep into modern times. Fables of national origin spun by medieval and early-modern European poets tended to copy the epic story of Rome’s founding imagined by Virgil in the Aeneid.6

The first of these models in particular is often seen as having special importance for American history and for the story of “American exceptionalism.” Early-modern Protestants, in their fervent and fearful belief that God had predetermined only a small elect for salvation and consigned the rest of the human race to damnation, found comfort in imagining themselves part of a new chosen people: a new Israel. The idea found purchase in England, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Dutch South Africa—and also in New England. Indeed, the idea of an “American Zion” retained a powerful hold on the national imagination until well into the nineteenth century, if not beyond. Out of this history has come the idea, shared well beyond the walls of the academy, that America’s sense of itself flows directly from that foundational moment when Puritan settlers, imagining themselves a new chosen people, alighted in the Western Hemisphere. Historians and politicians alike have highlighted one text in particular: John Winthrop’s lay sermon “Model of Christian Charity,” supposedly delivered on board the Puritans’ ship Arbella in 1630, containing the words “we shall be as a city upon a hill” (Ronald Reagan later embellished it into “a shining city upon a hill”).7

But Americans’ sense of themselves and their character was never so unitary. The insistent attention to the Puritans of New England tends to eclipse the fact that the inhabitants of all the British colonies, and their successor states, imagined themselves as Romans at least as often as they saw themselves as Israelites.8 Puritan rhetoric might have been resonant, but as Daniel Rodgers has demonstrated, Winthrop’s sermon itself remained virtually unknown until the nineteenth century, and its text, far from expressing confidence in some sort of grand new national mission, breathed with agonized doubt regarding whether the colonists could uphold the obligations of the covenant. To be as a city on a hill meant above all exposing one’s conduct to the world’s judgment.

The stories that nations tell about themselves also change over time, and America has had a bewildering and contradictory plethora of them. John Winthrop accepted inequality as a basic premise of human existence, valued subjection to God above political freedom, and expected happiness only in the world to come. His vision for an American community had little in common with that of the Americans of the revolutionary generation who championed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this world and took pride in seeing their republican experiment copied across the globe. In the nineteenth century a powerful and fundamentally new American myth arose: that of the endless frontier. For its proponents, the essence of the American spirit lay in restless movement westward. As the Mexican writer Octavio Paz later summed up the idea, “America was, if it was anything, geography, pure space, open to human action.” In much the same period, those Americans who considered slavery the “sole cause” of civilization (William Harper) identified the country with this horrific institution and believed that America had a special mission to promote human bondage throughout the world.9

In the later nineteenth century, yet more material flooded into the already-crowded canon of stories that supposedly defined America’s essence. On the one hand, there was the vision of the country as a land of immigration, with a “golden door” open to people from around the world seeking freedom and opportunity. Yet just two years after Emma Lazarus composed those words in her poem about the Statue of Liberty, the influential clergyman Josiah Strong published a best-seller, Our Country, which identified America with the “Anglo-Saxon race” and its struggle for Darwinian supremacy in the world. By the end of the century, men like Senator Albert J. Beveridge were championing America’s acquisition of an overseas empire as “the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.” The twentieth century added further stories: that of the United States as an active apostle of democracy, spreading it not just by example but also by persuasion and if necessary by force, or somewhat differently as what Madeleine Albright called “the indispensable nation,” guaranteeing global peace and security.10 Yet another set of stories identified America above all with the spirit of free enterprise, generating exceptional wealth and prosperity.

Among all these stories, and all these definitions of an American spirit, character, or mission, it is hard to find a common ideological thread, let alone to unwind that thread back to a single moment in the year 1630. Some expressions of what makes America exceptional have put strong emphasis on one vision or another of “freedom,” but not all of them (not John Winthrop’s or William Harper’s or Josiah Strong’s). Some of them still have resonance today, but not all. They arose at different moments and for different reasons, serving the needs of different constituencies. Some of them justified the expropriation of native land; others legitimized military adventurism from the Philippines War to the Iraq War. But many of them also served to promote a moral ideal: to be God-fearing, or self-reliant, or welcoming of strangers, or promoting of peace throughout the world.

The term American exceptionalism itself did not originally have much connection to these patriotic narratives. Indeed, the first people to use it, as members in good standing of the international communist movement, considered such narratives to be little more than bourgeois mystification. For them, anything that made America exceptional was, by definition, not a virtue but a problem.

How and where did the term first appear? In the 1920s an American communist named Jay Lovestone tried to explain, nervously, to Joseph Stalin’s Comintern why communism had made such little progress in the United States. The reason, he suggested, was that the path followed by American capitalism represented an “exception” to the normal laws of historical development. But Stalin would have none of it. He knew the danger of allowing Communist parties around the world to craft distinct, independent paths for themselves, in line with what they claimed to be particular national circumstances. In 1929 he blasted Lovestone as a “deviationist” and condemned the very idea of “American exceptionalism” as a species of ideological heresy. American Communists loyally repeated his point in their own publications.11

The term might easily have died a natural death then and there, in the sectarian debates of the Depression. But American intellectuals of the mid-century, usually from a socialist background, picked it up again as they sought to explain why a strong socialist movement had never arisen in the United States. Following from their inquiries, a broader academic discourse gradually took shape around the different ways that America represented an exception to general rules of historical evolution, for instance because it had avoided the “feudal” stage of history. In an era of vibrant social-scientific inquiries into comparative social and economic development, lavishly funded by foundations and government agencies eager to understand why some nations did turn toward socialism, the topic of “American exceptionalism” flourished. But into the 1980s these discussions remained essentially scholarly. The figure most associated with the term was probably the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. Vigorous debates also took place among historians about the exceptional nature of American labor politics and America’s failure to create a full-fledged welfare state.12

But then “American exceptionalism” jumped from the seminar rooms to the culture at large. The frequency of its appearance in the Google Books database rose nearly twelve-fold between 1985 and 2019. In the LexisNexis periodical database it rose nearly twenty-five-fold just between 2000 and 2010.13 What had previously been an academic term of art became a rhetorical weapon in the increasingly polarized US political landscape.

Many figures helped the term make this transition, but Newt Gingrich—a history PhD who considers himself an intellectual and likes to show off his command of scholarly language—was the most important. In the 1994 election, in which Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years, the then minority whip was already making the term a centerpiece of his stump speeches:

We have to recognize that American exceptionalism is real, that American civilization is the most unique civilization in history, that we bring more people of more ethnic backgrounds together to pursue happiness with greater opportunity than any civilization in the history of the world. And we just don’t say that anymore. Let me be candid. Haitians have more to learn from America than Americans have to learn from Haitians. The same is true of Bosnia. As far as I’m concerned, this counterculture notion, this politically correct notion that, “Oh, gee, we shouldn’t make any value judgments,” that’s silly.

Gingrich has since returned to “American exceptionalism” at every possible opportunity. It is arguably his Big Idea. He has taught college courses on the subject, some of them available online.14 With help from a ghostwriter he has produced a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. And with his wife, Callista, he has turned the book into a film titled A City upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism (a Citizens United production).15 He presents America as possessing more freedom, more opportunity, more faith, and more moral strength than any other nation on Earth (although his discussion of these other nations is cursory in the extreme) and as having a unique mission to transmit its values to others.

Gingrich’s passion for American exceptionalism was not, of course, motivated by abstract intellectual curiosity. With his unerring instinct for the political jugular, he recognized that the term could provide a highly effective political weapon against the Democratic Party and “the Left.” By the 1990s, with international communism vanquished and McCarthyism long largely discredited, accusations of treason no longer served the Republican cause well. But the charge of not believing in “American exceptionalism” could accomplish the same purpose in a more subtle manner by casting Democrats and leftists as unpatriotic, countercultural cosmopolitans who, in an age of globalization, preferred other countries to their own and who despised the values of ordinary Americans. For Gingrich, demonstrating America’s exceptionality has always mattered less than denouncing the Left for not believing in it. Other conservatives—notably William Kristol and David Brooks, whose “American Greatness” project was grounded in the idea of America as “an exceptional nation founded on a universal principle”—arguably took the term more seriously. But they had less influence than the Georgia congressman.16

In a basic sense, of course, Gingrich was right about at least one set of his ideological opponents. Very few Americans who describe themselves as “progressive”—and almost no academics in this category—would subscribe to Gingrich’s version of American exceptionalism. The more progressive that Americans are in their politics, the more likely they are to see America as exceptional, if at all, in large part because of the harm it has done: the treatment of indigenous peoples, slavery, US foreign policy in the twentieth century, and contemporary inequality and racism. In a 2011 Pew Research poll, 67 percent of “staunch conservatives” agreed with the statement “The U.S. stands above all other countries,” whereas just 19 percent of “solid liberals” did.17

Mainstream Democratic politicians, though, were not so squeamish, especially after September 11, 2001. As the LexisNexis statistic suggests, the use of the term American exceptionalism, already on the rise, accelerated significantly after the terrorist attacks. To many, the term offered a ready explanation for why the attacks had occurred: Al-Qaeda struck at us because it hated our exceptional values and positive role in the world. The idea of “American exceptionalism” also served as a source of pride in a country badly shaken by the catastrophic events. And the idea justified subsequent actions, including especially the invasion of Iraq, as natural extensions of America’s historic, exceptional mission to spread democracy throughout the world.18 Mainstream Democrats not only embraced the term but also found that its very emptiness made it strategically useful. They could happily profess their belief in American exceptionalism in the hope of winning over, or at least appeasing, voters who had very different ideas about what made America “exceptional.” In the early 2000s the journalist Charlie Rose made a habit of asking interviewees if they believed in American exceptionalism, and mainstream Democrats almost always answered in the affirmative. In 2007 Barack Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod told Rose that “I really do. I think that, you know, we are a remarkable experiment, an ongoing project in self-governance… we are and should be a beacon to the world.”19

But throughout the early twenty-first century the term continued to serve the purposes of the Right especially well, never more so than when Obama himself burst upon the political scene. The son of a foreign, Black, Muslim father and a white American mother widely described as a hippie, and with a cool, professorial mien, Obama could easily be caricatured as the embodiment of cosmopolitan, countercultural, “un-American” values. At a 2009 press conference, Edward Luce of the Financial Times asked Obama if he believed in American exceptionalism. Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Obama went on to offer a warm appreciation of America’s special place in world history, but Republicans gleefully quoted him out of this context and fell over themselves to pillory him for the remarks. Obama himself, recognizing the power of the attacks, quickly began inserting even more fulsome praise for American exceptionalism into his speeches, but the Republicans continued to highlight the original remarks. Gingrich, in his 2011 book, called Obama “outright contemptuous of American exceptionalism.”20

The strange story of “American exceptionalism” did not end with the Obama presidency. Donald Trump took it in yet another strange new direction. Trump detests as elitist and phony the sort of pseudo-intellectual lucubrations that Gingrich adores. He prefers the blunt language of “making America great” and “winning” to the multisyllabic complexities of “exceptionalism.” He has, on occasion, read speeches that incorporate the concept, as in his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination in 2020.21 But as he made clear in a 2015 interview, and amply confirmed in his actions as president, he does not in fact see America as an “exception” to any sort of worldwide pattern. Trump’s vision of history and of international affairs is one of brute competition between nation-states that differ principally in their degree of toughness and strength, not in their essential qualities. When asked directly about “American exceptionalism” in the interview, Trump responded:

I never liked the term. And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego [sic] and I don’t need terms like that… I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much. On top of taking it back, I don’t want to say, “We’re exceptional. We’re more exceptional.” Because essentially we’re saying, “We’re more outstanding than you. By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.” I don’t like the term. I never liked it.22

Gingrich and other conservatives, who would have spontaneously combusted if Barack Obama had spoken these words, largely acquiesced to Trump on this issue. In the 2016 presidential campaign, it was the mainstream Democrat Hillary Clinton, not her opponent, who repeatedly invoked American exceptionalism. (“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill.”)23

With Trump, did we reach the end of “American exceptionalism” as a salient political concept? Between him and those on the other side of the aisle who (for very different reasons) share his dislike for the term, the fraction of Americans who see it as having real meaning and serving a real purpose is almost certainly shrinking. Some on the left may continue to see America as having played an exceptionally destructive role in world history, but this version of the concept does not exactly have much potential as an electoral slogan. The sad experience of the United States in the COVID-19 pandemic, when the country proved “exceptional” only in the incompetence of its government on many levels and the bizarre resistance of much of the population to basic public health measures, made the myth harder to sustain than ever. As one much-cited article put it in August of 2020, “In a dark season of pestilence, Covid has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism.”24

Yet we have been here before. In 1975, well before Gingrich came on the scene, the sociologist Daniel Bell wrote an article titled “The End of American Exceptionalism.” Reflecting the grim mood of the post-Vietnam moment, he commented: “Today, the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.”25 The diagnosis was understandable, but the obituary was premature. The notion of America having a unique role among all nations and the specific term American exceptionalism proved far too useful to pass away in that earlier season of national despair. The very vacuity of the notion has been its strength, for it can be filled with whatever content is desired, even as it flatters US audiences by assuring them of their membership in the elect. There is little reason, then, to think that it will pass away in the new season of despair that we are living through today. But the mere notion of being exceptional can do very little to inspire Americans actually to be exceptional and to aspire to become a better people.


  • “[Myth America] brings together outstanding historians who draw on rich, often surprising recent research by themselves and others to present a much more complicated and less congratulatory picture of many of the most contentious issues in the nation’s history. Moreover, these essays treat readers to wonderfully accessible, jargon-free historical writing.”—Lizabeth Cohen, Washington Post
  • “An authoritative and fitting contribution to the myth-busting genre.” 
     —Carlos Lozada, New York Times
  • “The book’s incisive essays poke holes in everything from American exceptionalism and white backlash to Confederate monuments and America First, taking us on a sobering tour through some of the nation’s deepest and darkest chapters.”—Vanity Fair
  • “The book’s essays…are exemplary models of political and cultural history.”—Slate
  • “Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse marshal a fine array of historians for a bestselling assault on rightwing nonsense.”—Guardian
  • “Illuminating and sharply written…Distinguished by its impressive roster of contributors and lucid arguments, this ought to be required reading.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • Myth America’s contributors take direct aim at the lies that are the lifeblood of the myths that grip American culture and politics today. This book is a collective work of courage in a time when ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ have never been so widely abused; if we believe in our craft as public historians and journalists, Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer show us the way.”
     —David W. Blight, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass
  • "An extraordinary essay collection by an extraordinary group of historians—each determined to make our national history usable in all the best ways. The truth does exist, and they tell it well. Together, they make an indispensable intervention for our troubled times."—Beverly Gage, author of G-Man
  • “Punching through the information overload with clear-eyed analysis, research rigor, and stylistic verve, this collection reveals the real history behind today’s headlines and upends long-enduring myths. Powerful, timely, and essential.”—Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code
  • “If you want to cling to your most cherished myths about history, this is a dangerous book. But at a time when both truth and history are under siege, Myth America has given us a blunt fact-check of many of the fictions that have come to dominate our political and cultural debates. An immensely important contribution and indispensable reference tool for confronting both the wish-casting and the disinformation about our past.”—Charlie Sykes, editor in chief, The Bulwark

On Sale
Jan 3, 2023
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books