A couple weeks ago, NPR’s On the Media interviewed the historian Nick Turse, author of the recent book Kill Anything That Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam, about the Pentagon’s website commemorating the Vietnam War, which went up, rather quietly, in 2012. It turns out that the site is full of historical misinformation. For example, the website’s timeline reproduced the Johnson Administration’s story of the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, much of which has since been proven not to have happened. And it also suggested that President Nixon had been open with the public about Operation MENU, i.e. the secret bombing of Cambodia. It’s worth listening to On the Media’s interview with Turse, as the story of the Pentagon’s Vietnam history site highlights a problem with online history that we may see grow in the future.
Of course, the problem of politically motivated, inaccurate history is not in any sense limited to the internet. But historians (and other academics) have devised systems of peer-review that allow a careful reader to find books and journals articles that are at least very likely to be largely truthful. We have not yet adopted any similar system for websites. And while there are all kinds of reasons why someone might be suspicious of the Pentagon’s version of the Vietnam War, my guess is that the site is being used by schools across the country (indeed, the site’s Commemorative Partners include a number of high schools).
And bad websites are, in a way, worse than bad books, as the web is simply easier for most people to access than history books. And, especially for a generation that lives on its electronic devices, websites can be a more attractive place to get one’s historical information than old-fashioned printed materials.
All of which should not lead us to wring our hands about the dangers to historical knowledge posed by the internet. Rather, it should lead us to think about ways to make it easier for laypeople to determine what might or might not be a good history website.
As far as the Pentagon’s website is concerned, Nick Turse’s public truth-squading might have had a positive effect. A recent visit indicates that at least two of the problems he cites have been at least partially corrected: the Gulf of Tonkin incident timeline entry now says the supposed second attack on the USS Maddox didn’t happen; and the Operation MENU timeline item correctly notes that Nixon kept the bombing of Cambodia secret from the American public. The entry on the My Lai massacre corrects some of the mistakes Turse notes — increasing the death total from the 200 civilians of official accounts at the time to “up to 500” that better matches what we now know. But the Timeline still refers to it as an “incident,” not a “massacre,” and the extremely brief entry can still be read to hold Lt. William Calley solely responsible.
However, few historical websites are this high profile….and fewer still will get NPR stories devoted to them. Historians, especially the growing number of us who spend much of our professional lives online, ought to devise a more systematic way of vetting historical websites.