Roundup: Talking About HistoryFollow RU: Talking About History on RSS and Twitter
This is where we excerpt articles about history that appear in the media. Among the subjects included on this page are: anniversaries of historical events, legacies of presidents, cutting-edge research, and historical disputes.
Diane Ravitch, in the Austin-American Statesman (Feb. 18, 2004):
The nation has come to expect a lot of laughs and outrage whenever Texas is engaged in the regular process of deciding which textbooks to buy (or"adopt") for public schools across the state.
In fact, schoolchildren in Texas and throughout the nation would be far better served if Texas eliminated the entire textbook adoption process.
Why should bureaucrats and elected officials have the power to tell publishers what to leave in and take out of their textbooks? Why should small advocacy groups have the power to demand that the books be revised to please them?....
History textbooks are subject to review by pressure groups that insist that words and events that offend them are removed. Feminists have gotten publishers to delete hundreds of words that begin or end with the three letters"man." Even the term Founding Fathers may no longer be used in U.S. history textbooks, because it offends feminists. Conservative groups have also gotten state education departments and publishers to drop words, sentences and paragraphs that refer to fossils, evolution, dinosaurs, witches and other topics that offend them.
In my recent book"The Language Police," I identified hundreds of words, topics and images that are carefully deleted from textbooks and state tests because of political pressure. Nowhere is this pressure more keenly felt than in the process of state textbook adoptions, where one-issue groups can intimidate state agencies and publishers with surprising ease by threatening to brand books" controversial."
State textbook adoption does not produce better textbooks. Because of the pressures exerted by the 21 states with adoption processes, all the books look like peas in a politically correct pod. All suffer from a dull uniformity. They carefully skirt controversy and avoid anything that might offend anyone.
Ironically, the states that do not adopt textbooks have higher test scores in reading and math.
Texas should show the way to the other 20 states that adopt textbooks by getting rid of this system. Its main effect is not to improve quality but to politicize and sanitize the books.
Samantha Levine, in a Special Issue of US News devoted to the history of exploration (Feb. 23, 2004):
There's the Magellan spacecraft, the first to thoroughly map Venus. There's a Magellan mutual fund, a Magellan healthcare insurance company, and dozens of other businesses and products all named in honor of the Portuguese explorer known as the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But that admiration may be misdirected. It seems that Ferdinand Magellan's slave, Enrique, was actually the first man to complete the circuit.
Enrique did not make the journey by choice, of course. Most likely born on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Enrique was sold to Magellan in nearby Malacca in 1512, during one of the navigator's earlier voyages. When Magellan set off on his quest to find a passage through the Americas to the East Indies, Enrique was part of the crew, ending up back in Malacca nearly 10 years later. Having started far to the east, he thus completed his circumnavigation before anyone else aboard--let alone Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines and never made it home.
Worldview. Still, Magellan's tenacity--even fanaticism--vastly enlarged the world that Europeans knew. Laurence Bergreen, author of a new book about Magellan, Over the Edge of the World, says the difference between Christopher Columbus's jaunts across the Atlantic and Magellan's trip across the vast breadth of the Pacific was like the "difference between going to the moon and going to Mars." Along the way, Magellan discovered and somehow navigated the 330-mile labyrinth of fjords and bays we now call the Strait of Magellan and was the first to note the Pacific's critical trade winds. "This was the first modern voyage that gave us our sense of what the world was actually like," says Bergreen.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in the WSJ (Feb. 19, 2004):
Can there be a way to prepare one's mind for the spectacle now before us, in which the History Channel explains its worthy reasons for airing a film back in November -- part of the 40th anniversary of JFK's assassination -- identifying Lyndon B. Johnson as the criminal responsible for John Kennedy's murder? We can but try.
Start with a different theory put forward in 1997 by Jim Marrs, a former Texas newspaper reporter, which holds that the president's murder might well have taken place because President Kennedy had full knowledge of alien landings on earth -- and there were those who didn't want him spreading the news to the American people.
Hugh Aynesworth, a former reporter for The Dallas Morning News, tells us in his fascinating "JFK: Breaking the News" (International Focus Press) that at a debate after the publication of Mr. Marrs's book, which boasts confidences from the president about his deep wish to tell the public about the extraterrestrial visitations, Mr. Aynesworth had a question. Did he really believe, he asked the author, that JFK's alleged comments -- ascribed to sources like a former steward and the "loadmaster" for Air Force One -- constituted, as the book said, "tantalizing" evidence that the president had been killed to keep him from sharing news of alien visitations? To which he received the reply, "What should I have done, ignored it?"
The History Channel management would understand; its own explanation for the LBJ documentary reflects roughly the same point of view -- if one it put less forthrightly. The History Channel has, of course, plenty to be less forthright about. After all, claims about JFK and alien visitations aren't in the same league of offenses as the Johnson documentary, conceivably the most malignant assault on sanity and truth -- not to mention history -- in memory. Titled "The Guilty Men," the film is based in part on a book of the same name by one Barr McClellan, who provides a grand assortment of testaments from the fever swamps. Still, the documentary's ever deepening mess of charges and motives is never less than clear about its main point -- that Lyndon Johnson personally arranged the murder not only of the president, but also seven other people, including his own sister.
The work of British producer Nigel Turner, this story -- described by British journalists who looked into its claims as total nonsense when it aired in England -- didn't make much news when it appeared here in November. Though it did cause an appalled Tom Johnson, former head of CNN and now chairman of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, Texas, to try -- unsuccessfully, it would turn out -- to get through to the president of A&E, parent company of the History Channel, to ask for a rebuttal. For months there was silence from A&E, the History Channel. Not, however, from viewers who had, it seems, begun besieging the LBJ Foundation with threats to tear the place apart. They had, after all, seen the documentary on a network named the History Channel -- which would not, they assumed, present a story so horrendous in its implications if there was nothing to it. And indeed, after "The Guilty Men" first aired, the network seemed to defend the program with a statement saying it was "presenting a point of view that has been meticulously researched."
Guy Gugliotta, in the Wash Post (Feb. 16, 2004):
When it surfaced in 1957, it was too good to be true: a purported 15th-century world map depicting an island to the far west labeled Vinilandia Insula -- the fabled Vinland -- proof positive, it seemed, that Norse explorers had reached North America long before Columbus.
Thanks -- but no thanks -- the British Museum told the intermediary who offered to sell it to them. It's a phony.
Later that year, however, New Haven, Conn., book dealer Lawrence Witten bought the map and an accompanying medieval manuscript for his wife, paying $3,500. Soon after, he visited Yale University Library to view a seemingly unrelated manuscript fragment purchased by Thomas E. Marston, the library's curator of medieval and renaissance literature. Witten asked to borrow it.
That night, Marston got an excited call from Witten. Marston's manuscript, Witten's manuscript and the map were all written in the same hand, Witten said. Furthermore, worm holes in all three works matched up. They apparently had been bound together, with Marston's manuscript as the meat in the sandwich. The map had to be real.
Thus began the affair of the"Vinland Map," a 13-by-19-inch sheet of parchment depicting not only Vinland, but also remarkably detailed renderings of Iceland and, especially, of Greenland, which -- if the map is real -- is portrayed as an island for the first time in history.
Forty-five years after the map's"discovery," its authenticity remains a subject of fierce debate. In the last two months, the journal Analytical Chemistry has published two articles by front-line combatants in the dispute.
One, by retired Smithsonian research chemist Jacqueline Olin, argued that the presence of anatase, or titanium oxide, in the ink did not mean the ink was modern, as had been alleged in earlier research. She suggested the ink may well have been medieval, made from a simple leaching process from the titanium-rich mineral ilmenite.
The other, by Kenneth Towe, also a retired Smithsonian analyst, reminded readers that the map's anatase had a crystalline structure identical to commercial anatase, a ubiquitous synthetic compound used to enhance colors in paint. Olin's analysis, Towe charged, was"a 'rehash' that is too often biased, misleading or inaccurate."
In May, Danish businessman Jorgen Siemonsen, a well-known debunker of Viking frauds who is agnostic on the map, will sponsor a debate between believers and skeptics as part of a conference on the"Dynamics of Northern Societies."
And coming a month later will be a book-length study titled"Maps, Myths and Men, the Story of the Vinland Map," which will make the case that it is a 1930s forgery by a German Jesuit priest intent on making the Nazis look like fools.
At this juncture, a preponderance of evidence points toward forgery, but the argument is not over, and the stakes are high. If it is authentic, the map is priceless, the oldest known depiction of North America. Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the map's current resting place, at one point reportedly insured it for $25 million. If it is not authentic, however, it is an amusing curiosity -- worth what Witten paid for it, perhaps, but not much more.
Drew Gilpin Faust, in the NYT (Feb. 15, 2004):
The Post Office has issued not one but two Harriet Tubman stamps; the National Standards for United States History have named Tubman as a figure who should be familiar to students by the fifth grade; Google lists more than 90,000 entries under her name; Amazon.com offers more than 1,200 results in its book category, including one entitled ''Girls Who Rocked the World . . . From Harriet Tubman to Mia Hamm.''
Tubman is far better known in American popular culture and among schoolchildren than she is in the serious historical literature. There has been no adult biography since 1943. Now three scholars have published studies almost simultaneously. Who is Harriet Tubman and why should we care about her? What can we know of her life, how can we know it and how should it shape our understanding of American history?
Tubman was born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore sometime in the early 1820's. She saw her sisters sold, bore scars of whippings all her life and suffered permanent disability from a head injury incurred when an enraged overseer hit her with a weight hurled at another slave, who was trying to run away. In 1849, fearing she would be sold, Tubman fled north, connecting with antislavery activists through what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. She returned to the South more than a dozen times to lead her brother, parents and, ultimately, about 70 individuals to freedom. By the late 1850's, Tubman was appearing on the antislavery lecture circuit and was widely hailed as a heroine across the North. John Brown, who visited her in Canada to seek her help in planning his abortive 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, called her ''General Tubman.'' During the Civil War, Tubman served as teacher, laundress, cook, spy and scout for the Union forces, helping to connect Northern troops with networks of slave information. In June 1863, she played a crucial role in a Union raid in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman settled in Auburn, N.Y., where she struggled economically the rest of her life, undertaking domestic work and public speaking to support herself and dedicating much of her energy to philanthropic efforts on behalf of the freed people. She also became a regular speaker at woman suffrage gatherings, demanding to know if women's wartime deeds ''do not place woman as man's equal, what do?'' Tubman sought government acknowledgment of her own wartime service -- ''as nurse and cook in hospitals and as commander of several men . . . as scouts,'' as her pension application attested. Her claim was rejected, and she was provided instead with a monthly widow's pension, raised from $8 to $20 in recognition of her work as a nurse. Even the intervention of her congressman did not win official validation of her role as a scout and spy. Deeply spiritual, Tubman died in 1913 with clergymen at her side and a profession of Christian faith on her lips: ''I go away to prepare a place for you.''
Bill McCleery, in the Indiannapolis Star (Feb. 16, 2004):
Twelve days after killing President Abraham Lincoln, assassin John Wilkes Booth was gunned down inside a Virginia barn.
Or was he?
Inspired by a coded message written in the late 1860s, a retired Indiana State University professor has spent decades searching for information about Lincoln's assassination. For Ray Neff, that odyssey culminated in the publication last year of his book,"Dark Union."
Neff's most sensational claim: that Booth escaped his pursuers and lived almost 20 more years after killing Lincoln. The dead man purported by authorities to be Booth was someone else, the book claims.
Booth, Neff maintains, fled overseas to India and assumed the identity of John Byron Wilkes, a man who lived in Terre Haute and whose personal information Booth supposedly purchased. Among the evidence cited by the book is a copy of Wilkes' will that names friends and relatives of Booth as beneficiaries.
"Dark Union," written with co-author Leonard Guttridge, suggests that conspirators -- who originally plotted to kidnap Lincoln -- extended beyond Confederates embittered by the Civil War. It also included northerners enriching themselves through a food-for-cotton trade scheme, the authors claim. And, they add, it included radicals from Lincoln's Republican Party opposed to the president's hints of a lenient reconstruction of the South.
"We don't have all the answers," said Neff, 80."But we do have a lot of answers to a lot of things."
Deborah Kong, for the Associated Press (Feb. 15, 2004):
Californians like to think of their state as a freewheeling, tolerant place, one that entered the Union back in 1850 unbesmirched by the stain of slavery.
But Joe Moore says there's just one problem with that sunny vision of the past - it isn't true. Though it was admitted to the Union as a ``free state,'' slavery still existed in 1850s California, and Moore is leading a project to shed light on its contradictory history.
His proof is in print: in an 1852 ad announcing the public auction of a black man valued at $300; newspaper accounts of fugitive slaves who were arrested; and, county records certifying slaves bought their freedom from their owners.
Moore and a team of researchers have uncovered these and other, often overlooked pieces of California's past after months of digging through the archives of museums, historical societies and libraries across the state.
``We believe this is one of America's lost stories,'' said Guy Washington, regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, who has worked closely with Moore.
Moore and researchers at California State University, Sacramento have been converting the documents into digital files, and plan to post them on the Internet at http://digital.lib.csus.edu/curr next week. When completed, the new online archive will provide insight into the challenges blacks faced in California of the 1800s.
``The story that's being told is the diversity and richness and the determination of a small community in the 19th century,'' said Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a history professor at Sacramento State who is supervising student researchers and is married to Joe Moore.
After gold was discovered near Sutter's Fort in 1848, blacks joined a stampede of others migrating West, hoping to strike it rich.
For those early black pioneers, the state's policies appeared promising. California's first constitution, adopted in 1849, dictated that: ``Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.'' A year later, under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
But many found California a far cry from the land of opportunity they'd envisioned. Officials were unwilling to challenge slaveholders who brought slaves into the state. And other laws, such as one allowing people to bring slaves into the state if they stayed only temporarily, undermined the constitution, Shirley Moore said.
Editorial in the NYT (Feb. 13, 2004):
The History Channel, an entertainment outlet with a serious name to live up to, has finally agreed to reconsider its"documentary" charging that Lyndon Johnson conspired to have President John Kennedy assassinated. It's about time.
The channel initially promoted the show and its ludicrous accusation by darkly announcing that"the roots of the crime lie buried deep in the heart of Texas and revolve around" President Johnson. The show featured the freewheeling imaginings of Barr McClellan, a retired Texas lawyer whose book demonizing Johnson is rooted in supposed confidences from sources who are now conveniently dead. The book is rich in patently unhistorical touches, insisting that Johnson was at a shadowy meeting on the eve of the assassination with Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and two Texas oilmen. This is the stuff not of history, but of the Texas conspiratorial satires of the late Richard Condon.
A demand to set the record straight was understandably pressed by the late president's outraged relatives and colleagues. This issue is about fairness and common sense, not the freedom to broadcast. After the initial controversy, the channel admitted it had failed to"make it apparent that the material presented in this program is a theory." The program was one of several taking up unproven but titillating conspiracy speculations, from the Mafia to Cuba; the channel insisted that some deserved"public debate" and that there had never been"one clear-cut finding." This stance seems to equate any and all bits of what-if fantasizing with the Warren Commission's lengthy inquiry and firm conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the murderer.
After public pressure, the channel is now pursuing an independent review by three respected historians. The History Channel's reputation, as much as Johnson's, is in urgent need of this corrective. The program has already generated a flood of truly misinformed complaints and accusations for the Johnson presidential library. In clinging to his harebrained narrative, Mr. McClellan admits that he dabbled in"faction": fictional projections. That's the last thing the History Channel needs to stand for.
Steven Aftergood, in Secrecy News, the newsletter of the Federation of American Scientists (Feb. 13, 2004):
Life will be discovered on Mars, the CIA predicted. Unfortunately, it will be communist!
As late as 1989, the CIA estimated that it was "likely" that the soon-to-collapse Soviet Union would undertake a manned mission to Mars.
"We believe the Soviets are planning for a manned Mars landing mission some time after the year 2000," the CIA analysis stated.
See "Soviet Options for a Manned Mars Landing Mission," CIA Directorate of Intelligence, December 1989, released in "sanitized" form in 1999, here:
Numerous declassified intelligence documents on the Soviet space program, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, have been declassified and disclosed by the CIA. A selection of such documents (thanks to Jeff Brower and AT) may be found here:
Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Soviet space will want to get a copy of "The Moon Race End Game: A New Assessment of Soviet Crewed Lunar Aspirations, Part 1" by Peter Pesavento and Charles P. Vick, in the current issue of Quest Magazine (volume 11, no. 1, 2004).
The authors take full advantage of the latest declassified documents and, by interviews with government officials, go beyond what is in the declassified record.
The article is not available online, but information about Quest Magazine may be found here: