American History 101

The Different Ways of Teaching About Freedom
How we interpret the past.
May 19 2005 4:30 AM

American History 101

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Dear Diane,

When Slatereaders heard you announce that you "agree that the central theme in teaching history is freedom," they may well have concluded that of the many conflicts that need to be taught in American history, maybe the confrontation between historians like you and me wasn't so prominent after all. But as we wind down our discussion, I want to emphasize just how different the approaches entailed by that same thematic focus can be—and what different light they can shed on the U.S. and its role in the world.

Let me start by saying that though it may surprise you, I agree that students should learn about the Stalinist system, the purges and the gulags (though I'll confess I've never thought about assigning Stalin's writings to students; I'm not sure writing was Stalin's forte). But when we teach World War II, which you mention, we need to let students know that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. We should try to understand why Time named Stalin "Man of the Year" in 1940. We should teach that the turning point in the defeat of Hitler was not the Normandy landings, but rather the Battle of Stalingrad, and that the Russians had 20 million deaths in World War II while the U.S. had 400,000.

The Cold War has a way of distorting what came before. One example is the recent statement in Riga by President Bush that, at Yalta, FDR somehow failed to ensure the freedom of Eastern Europe. As Arthur Schlesinger explained on the Huffington Post, Bush doesn't seem to know that Eastern Europe in January 1945 was occupied by the Red Army. "No conceivable diplomacy could have saved Eastern Europe from Soviet occupation," Schlesinger explained. "And military action against the Soviet Union was inconceivable so long as the Pacific War was still going on." At the time the atom bomb had not been tested; we needed the USSR to join the war against Japan, which Stalin at Yalta promised to do in August. But maybe Bush's ignorance is not really his fault; maybe his high-school history teacher was the football coach.

Of course the use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises other questions. Japan had offered to surrender, but not the "unconditional surrender" the U.S. demanded; was this demand justified? To what extent was the bomb intended as a signal to Stalin? How and why did the Allies move from condemning attacks on civilian populations at the beginning of the war to making such attacks crucial to the Allied strategy for victory? These are immensely rich and significant issues where we need to teach the conflicts. Such issues inevitably complicate any simple vision of America's role and allegiance to certain principles.

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You say "freedom" should be the central theme not only in our teaching of U.S. history, but also world history. I agree: It's important for students to learn that the Cold War ideology dividing the world between "free" and "slave" peoples concealed the way American power shored up dictatorships in the Third World: Diem in Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Saddam during the 1980s—and we might draw parallels in the post-Cold War world to U.S. support for Musharraf in Pakistan today. In other words, teaching about freedom in the world means teaching that the U.S. has often been an enemy of freedom.

You may reply that this approach amounts to demonizing America. But is it "anti-American" to teach students about the ways freedom has been denied and limited in our past? In some ways this is the biggest question of all on which historians disagree. Once again fairness requires that we make that question part of the curriculum—that we teach that conflict, too.

Jon

Jon Wiener is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a contributing editor of the Nation, and is the author, most recently, of Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower.

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