Roundup: Talking About History
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.
Philip Kennicott, in the Wash Post (May 30, 2004):
Americans find the making of large national monuments so contentious and painful that it's surprising we build any at all. From 1987, when the idea was proposed in Congress, through this weekend's opening festivities, the National World War II Memorial has provoked so much controversy that it would be tempting to dismiss it all as just so much white noise from the black art of cultural criticism. But that would dismiss more than just an array of aesthetic and land use issues; it would dismiss a basic, contrarian stirring in the nation's psyche, a stirring as essential to the American democratic spirit as leavening to bread. Some cantankerous part of us does not like monuments at all. That is a good and important prompting, and something, if it weren't so paradoxical, that we should probably build a...
Les Payne, in memory of Vernon Jarrett, the first black columnist at the Chicago Tribune; in Newsday (May 30, 2004):
Two hours away from my lecture at Stillman College, I needed a grenade. Speakers should always arm themselves with this percussion device when steadying the wandering minds of students at college, even a Presbyterian one like Stillman.
I phoned Vernon Jarrett in Chicago for the exact language of the Alabama slave law that forbade the teaching of blacks to read. He quickly coughed up the 1848 law carrying a penalty of a $200 fine, imprisonment and public lashing. I hit the podium that Sunday with a scholarly sheen that Vernon had been polishing since I met the Chicago columnist in 1975. Google might issue up the slave act nowadays with the right words, but in a Tuscaloosa hotel room without a laptop,...
From the Associated Press (May 29, 2004):
Take out your pencils and a clean sheet of notebook paper.
Sunday being the 150th anniversary of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, here's a pop history quiz.
Pretend the act died in Congress instead of being signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. With that in mind, answer these three questions:
When was slavery abolished in the United States?
What party has won six of the last nine presidential elections?
Whose picture is on the $5 bill?
The answer to all three questions: Who knows?
The law got Abraham Lincoln back into politics, led to the formation of the Republican Party and sparked what some historians consider the real first battles of the Civil War.
"It would be hard to find another single piece of legislation in all of American history that had greater consequences...
Marissa Nelson, in Canada's London Free Press News (May 29, 2004):
Teachers are the key to keeping our country's history alive, but at least one noted historian questions their ability to handle the responsibility. "It's a bleak picture . . . I wish they were up for the job," says Jack Granatstein, chairperson of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century. "Many teachers think war is something that should be taught as a bad thing, which neglects the heroism."
Schools teach children their rights in Canada, but not the responsibilities that come with citizenship, he says. We don't even know what opinions teachers are giving children, he adds, and whether they're sound.
"History is very important in a country that is as multi-cultural as we are. It's very important to understand the price we pay for that....
From the American Revolution Roundtable (June 2004):
On Tuesday, March 30, Tom Fleming treated Round Tablers to a highly unorthodox version of how the United States persuaded Napoleon Bonaparte to sell the United States the vast territory of Louisiana. He began with President Thomas Jefferson's startling 1801 offer to the French government to help it regain the island of Santo Domingo, and incidentally eliminate its black revolutionary ruler, Toussaint L'Ouverture. From there we roller- coastered with Tom as Jefferson discovered that Napoleon had secretly pressured Spain into retroceding Louisiana to France and the even more dismaying discovery that the"Man of Destiny" was shipping 15,000 troops to dispose of Toussaint and his"gilded Africans" (Napoleon's phrase) with orders to then head for New Orleans and begin setting up a French satellite state in the Mississippi Valley. Secretary of State James Madison took charge of foreign policy and decreed that the United...
Jay Matthews, in the Wash Post (May 28, 2004):
Tiffany Charles got a B in history last year at her Montgomery County high school, but she is not sure what year World War II ended. She cannot name a single general or battle, or the man who was president during the most dramatic hours of the 20th century.
Yet the 16-year-old does remember in some detail that many Japanese American families on the West Coast were sent to internment camps."We talked a lot about those concentration camps," she said.
As Washington begins a massive Memorial Day weekend celebration of the new National World War II Memorial on the Mall, interviews with national education experts, teachers and more than 100 public school students suggest that Charles' limited knowledge of that momentous conflict is typical of today's youths.
Among 76 teenagers interviewed near their high schools this...
Those of us who publicly opposed placing the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington argued that doing so was a prescription for failure. If the memorial were to respect the sight lines, symmetries and elegance of the Mall, it would be too small to do justice to the grandeur of the Second World War. And if the memorial were large enough to reflect the majesty of its subject, it would overpower and ruin the delicate harmonies of the Mall.
The World War II memorial has just opened, and it is indeed a failure. The good news is that the Mall survives. The bad news is that for all its attempted monumentality, the memorial is deeply inadequate -- a busy vacuity, hollow to the core.
The memorial is a parenthesis, quite literally so -- two semicircular assemblies of pillars cupping the Rainbow...
Rachel Browne, in the Australian Sun Herald (May 23, 2004):
DR Blanche Menadier is an honorary research associate at Macquarie University who has excavated at Troy nine times. She gives her verdict on how the film Troy compares with The Iliad.
* Fact: The area believed to be Troy is situated near two rivers, overlooking a fertile plain.
* Fiction: The film Troy was shot in a sandy, barren area of Malta which looks nothing like Turkey's Aegean coast.
* Fact: In Homer's Iliad, the Trojan War takes place over 10 years.
* Fiction: No one ages in the film, and the war seems to wrap up in about three weeks.
* Fact: There is no development of Achilles as a romantic figure in The Iliad. In fact, historians widely agree he had a homosexual relationship with his friend Patroclus.
* Fiction: Brad Pitt's Achilles is depicted as a ladies' man, with a prominent love scene with Rose Byrne's character Briseis. There is no...
Randy Boswell, in the Gazette (Montreal) (May 22, 2004):
Canada was the Ground Zero of modern history, says a controversial new book by a bestselling British author.
Historian Frank McLynn says the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, long understood by Canadians to be the pivotal event in this country's past, should really be seen as the turning point in the entire history of the modern world.
The victory over the French not only marked the birth of the British Empire and ensured the global dominance of the English language but also made possible the existence of the United States, he claims.
In 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World, McLynn urges scholars to reconsider the collective significance of a series of resounding British victories over France in Europe, India, the West Indies and North America.
He places General James Wolfe's Sept. 13, 1759 triumph at Quebec City over the Marquis de Montcalm at the...
Timothy Noah, in Slate (May 24, 2004):
What is so godawful about Washington's new World War II Memorial? Not even Pappy Chatterbox, a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation (he had a desk job in Florida, but still can't bring himself to laugh at Mel Brooks'"Springtime for Hitler") could muster any interest in seeing it during a recent visit. Like every other college graduate in America, he'd read all about what an eyesore it was. He figured it wasn't worth seeing. So did I, until I happened to drive past it and decided to take a closer look.
The memorial, set to be dedicated on May 29, has received a near-unanimous Bronx cheer from the critics."This is all stock celebration,"...
Liz Taylor, in the Seattle Times (May 24, 2004):
Over a decade ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a timeless book,"Generations," (Perennial, $16.95) in which they discussed the intriguing phenomenon they call the"peer personality" of the generations. That is, every birth group has a personality, shaped by events that happened to its members when they were young. No matter how different we are from each other, we tend to think and react similarly to people our own age.
"You and your peers share the same 'age location' in history," write Strauss and Howe,"and your generation's collective mind-set cannot help but influence you — whether you agree with it or spend a lifetime battling against it."
Why is this important?
Because where we're born in history has a huge impact on how we age, which in turn has a huge impact...
Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in the NYT (May 22, 2004):
With commemorations from coast to coast to remind them, most Americans already know that this week was the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Unfortunately, what they don't realize is that the country missed an equally important anniversary two weeks ago, that of Hernandez v. Texas the perennially overshadowed antecedent to Brown that was decided on May 3, 1954.
That case merits commemoration not just because the Supreme Court used it to finally extend constitutional protection to Mexican-Americans, important though that is, especially now that Latinos are the largest minority group. It's worth celebrating because Hernandez got right something that Brown did not: the standard for when the Constitution should bar group-based discrimination...
Joel Beinin, in the Nation (May 13, 2004):
For the last three and a half years the Israeli army has deployed American-supplied F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, armored Caterpillar bulldozers and Merkava tanks powered by engines made in the USA in an unsuccessful effort to suppress the second Palestinian uprising. According to both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Israel is engaged in a war despite the spectacularly unequal military balance in the conflict. Moreover, Palestinian civilians and the infrastructure of Palestinian society have been its principal victims. Almost all of the 2,886 Palestinian fatalities since September 2000 have been civilians, about eighty of them "collateral damage" to 230 extrajudicial assassinations, which are themselves violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In the same period there have been 950 Israeli fatalities, 672 of...
Harriet Baskas, National Public Radio (May 21, 2004):
After a brief attempt at selling itself as a family vacation land, Las Vegas is restaking its claim as America's most decadent destination.
Unidentified Man: Yeah, hi. I was wondering, could I get a wake-up call tomorrow morning please? Could I get that to go to my cell phone instead of my room? Well, here's the thing. I--I'm not quite sure if I'm going to be in my room tomorrow so...
BASKAS: A new national ad campaign sports the tag line 'What happens here stays here.' The ads are paid for by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. And while gambling and a bit of hanky-panky seem to be acceptable, the authority's Terry Jicinsky says illegal mob activity isn't an image the city wants to promote.
Mr. TERRY JICINSKY (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority): It's part of our history. It was acknowledged as part of our history. It isn't really what Las Vegas is about today.
BASKAS: Las Vegas...
Recorded sometime in the eighth century b.c., the Iliad represents the culmination of several centuries of oral epic poetry that wove a complex story of the relationship between mortals and gods. This narrative takes place against the bloody backdrop of the ten-year-long Greek siege of the city alternatively called Ilios or Troy, a war launched over the abduction of the beautiful Greek queen Helen by the Trojan prince Paris.
The ancient Greeks and Romans generally believed in the historicity of the Trojan War, and even Alexander the Great paid homage at what they believed was the site of the great battle. But eventually Troy was forgotten except for the Iliad, and it wasnt until the late nineteenth century, when Heinrich Schliemanns excavations at the site of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey raised the...
Scott Galupo, in the Wash Times (May 21, 2004):
... The World War II Memorial, sober and sunk low in a long frame of elms, rests between the two structures that anchor the Mall.The monument to America's first great warrior, George Washington, towers over it on one side. The statue of America's great uniter, Abraham Lincoln, looks on from the other.
In such company, the location and initial look of the new memorial to those who fought in World War II had its doubters. It would trample on ground consecrated by the civil rights movement, some said. Its design smacked of imperialist architecture, others said.
The controversy, settled in granite and bronze, came down to this: Was World War II the lives lost, the victories gained a hinge event of American history, on par with the founding and the Civil War? Or not?
Historians say it was: The war transformed...
Scott Sherman, in the Nation (June 7, 2004):
... In the wake of the Vietnam War, the [New Yok Review of Books] became a formidable--and, in some sense, unique--journalistic institution. Many of its readers reside in academia, but the paper has a devoted following in the upper reaches of media, politics and philanthropy, which gives it an influence vastly out of proportion to its circulation of 130,000. (One recent essay, Peter Galbraith's "How to Get Out of Iraq," even caused a stir among some military intellectuals.) That influence translates into dollars: In contrast to virtually all serious literary and political journals, which drain money from their owners, the Review has been profitable for decades. But the formula is not without its imperfections, which have grown more pronounced in recent years. The publication has always been erudite and...
Tina Brown, in the Wash Post (May 20, 2004):
History is hot. And not just because of Brad Pitt's flying thighs.
There's such an outpouring of books from historians at the moment, you can't throw a canape in Manhattan after 6 p.m. without hitting a tweedy scholar wearing the dazed expression that comes with a sudden release from the past.
The city has been crawling with superstar academics peddling their tomes at tonier-than-usual launch events and overstuffed gigs at the Council on Foreign Relations. Everybody's looking for lessons to support wherever they stand on the meltdown in Iraq, and they're drawing them from books as disparate as Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton," Niall Ferguson's "Colossus," Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin," David Fromkin's "Europe's Last Summer" and James Chace's...
Kris Axtman, in the Christian Science Monitor (May 14, 2004):
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pushed off from the banks of the Mississippi River near St. Louis on May 14, 1804, along with a group of skilled botanists, zoologists, and survivalists, the two had little idea of what lay ahead.
Their only directive, given by President Thomas Jefferson: Reach the Pacific Ocean.
The journey, which lasted two years and four months, is widely taught as one of America's greatest adventure stories - symbolizing the country's strength of spirit and thirst for discovery.
But only when it's taught from Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clark's perspectives. For the 114 native American tribes they encountered along the route, it wasn't a story of "discovery." In fact, for many Indians, the expedition and settlement to come were a death sentence.
So it's no surprise that the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey is causing...
Cass Sunstein, in the LAT (May 17, 2004):
When the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education on this day in 1954, it overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson, one of the most infamous decisions in the history of the court.
In that case, which dated back to 1896, the court ruled that the Constitution allowed the prosecution of a 30-year-old African American shoemaker named Homer Plessy for refusing to sit in the "colored" car on the train.
The Plessy decision enshrined the idea of "separate but equal" for more than half a century. Justice Henry Brown's opinion for the majority concluded that although the 14th Amendment was clearly meant to "enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law," it couldn't possibly have been meant to abolish "distinctions based upon physical differences," or to enforce "social equality," or to require "a commingling of the two races...