Tag Archives: Cold War

Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

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Videos for the Classroom: Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book

In our belated homage to Dr. Seuss on his March 2nd birthday, the Neighborhood presents a video of one of Seuss’ greatest–and most controversial–works.

In 1984, Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book caused a sensation in classrooms, libraries and especially the corridors of power in the Reagan administration.  A satirical parable about the arms race, militarism and especially nuclear war, The Butter Battle Book was so controversial that public libraries across America banned the book over its  viewpoints.

Given the Cold War hysteria of the early Eighties, the book’s content was rife for discussion.

The book chronicles the long-simmering conflict between the Yooks and the Zooks, two cultures at war over breakfast food.  The Yooks butter their bread on top, while the Zooks butter theirs on the bottom.  This innocuous difference leads to an escalating arms race, culminating in the development of an “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo”–a weapon designed to wipe out all life with no counter-defense.  The book ends as both generals hold their tiny Armegeddon devices, ready to drop at any moment.

Like the Lorax, Seuss’ other well-known political work (then about the environment), The Butter Battle Book is not your traditional feel-good children’s story.  A cliffhanger is left as we don’t know what happens with the Yooks and Zooks and their factories of death.

Yet Seuss’ nuclear fable differs in that it feels much more hopeless, more helpless–and thus much more sinister.

Attached is the 1989 animated special of the book by TNT.  It was created by an equally controversial animator in Ralph Bakshi, who created a work very close to the wording and intent of the original book.  Narrated by charles Durning, the special was so well made that Seuss himself considered it the most faithful adaptation of his work ever made.

This is my all-time favorite Seuss work, and is brimming with classroom debate and discussion at any age.

Enjoy…and stay away from butter altogether.  It’ll kill you in the end :)

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The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel

At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.

As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.

By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.

It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.

When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest.  In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation.  They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).

Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”

It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.

It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France.  Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.

All of these people rotting in hell (we hope).  All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.

We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature.  The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.

Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives.  To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.

Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets.  In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters.  The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.

During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order.  To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak.  Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.

As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government.  Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state.  I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.

The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes.  Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want.  The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.

Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?

There’s no easy answer to that.  We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics.  Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.

The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:

An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.

A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.

YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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This Day in History 11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thefalloftheberlinwall1989The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.

Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders.  The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.

Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War.  Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold.  For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.

For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever.  If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games. 

 I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist.  Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained.  When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room.  I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship.    No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE). 

Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.

Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace.  They were there, and they we there to stay.  As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist.  It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.” 

Then I heard about what was happening in Poland.  Yes, I was a wierd kid: the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa fascinated me. 

I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union.  A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime.  The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982.  Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.

The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power.  By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up.  Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost).  On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted.  There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.

The result was a flood of anger and resentment.  Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc.  The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.

Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down.  And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west.  That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.

As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now.  Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad.  But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget.  Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.

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A Long-Winded History of Presidential Addresses to Congress

ObamaSpeechThe Presidential address to Congress is the “After School Special” of American politics.

In the course of over two centuries of representative government, the President sometimes summons both houses of Congress to deliver an address that contains a “very special message.”  It usually involves a “national crisis” or an “urgent threat” which “imperils our national character.”  At the same time, the President asks to “stop bipartisan bickering” in order to “find a solution” so that “America can be strong again.”

In the end, we all learned an important lesson (cue the Full House moral music).  Both sides decide to settle their differences.  More often, they wait until the President stops spouting and continue business as usual.  Besides, everyone hated that “Just Say No” episode of Punky Brewster, anyway.

I was thinking about these addresses as I was reading about the hubbub from President Obama’s recent address to Congress concerning health care reform.  You would think that such an address would be effective, considering the exalted office and the rare instance of both houses sitting together.

History has proven otherwise.

Giving speeches to Congress is one of the few tasks of a President that is spelled out specifically in the Constitution.

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” – United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 3, Clause 1.

The “State of the Union” is the only speech the President has to do by law, and he doesn’t even have to show up.  Notice that the Constitution doesn’t say “give a speech”, but rather “give to the Congress Information…”  Thomas Jefferson thought giving a speech from the “Throne” was too much like the British monarch opening Parliament, so starting in 1801, he wrote his address to be read by clerks.  This practice continued until Woodrow Wilson reverted to speechmaking in 1913.   

Presidential addresses to Congress apart from the “State of the Union” were extremely rare.   According to the clerk’s office of the U.S. House of Representatives, the President has only addressed both houses 61 times in American history.  60 of these speeches were given after 1913.   

The first joint-session address was John Adams’ address of May 16, 1797.  He addressed the legislature about the worsening relations between the United States and Revolutionary France.  Since many of the legislators were pro-French, the address fell on deaf ears.  This would not be the first time.  Between 1797 and 1913 not a single speech was made by a sitting president to a joint session of Congress.  Not even Abraham Lincoln—although the guy was painfully shy, so he gets a pass.

The real maelstrom of hot air begins in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  The guy had it all: bookish snobbery, rabid racism, and a dipstick diplomacy that opened up for a second world war.  Oh how he shared his book learning with the world: his 18 speeches before Congress is still a record, and it doesn’t even include his State of the Union addresses.  He touched on everything: tariffs, currency reform, Mexican relations (before WWI, the Mexican Revolution was a big problem.  The 1914 message was probably about Pancho Villa alone.), railroad disputes, and of course, that little problem out there called World War I.

Chief executives have been comparatively mum since old Woody left us in 1921.  The following are some important Presidential speeches since 1913.  You can judge how effective they are.

April 2, 1917 – Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war against Germany.  On December 4th, just for good measure, he sneaks a war declaration against Austria-Hungary into his State of the Union address.  You know, in case Germany felt lonely.

January 8, 1918 – Wilson again, this time at his dipstick best.  Here he outlined his plan for peace in postwar Europe: his famous “Fourteen Points.”  When the final treaty came up a couple years later, the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected it.  This was probably the last time a Massachusetts senator voted against a Democratic President.

February 7, 1923 – Warren Harding addresses Great Britain’s mounting indebtedness to the United States.  This is unremarkable, except to remind Americans when our money was actually worth something.

December 8, 1941 – Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war on Japan following Pearl Harbor.  This time, Germany decides to jump the gun and declare war on us.  You know, in case Japan felt lonely.

March 1, 1945 – Roosevelt delivers the results of the Yalta Conference, where FDR feebly called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” while Uncle Joe molested his nephews by keeping Eastern Europe for himself.

November 17, 1947 – Harry Truman outlines US aid to postwar Europe.  Postwar Europe responds by purchasing tight-fitting sweaters, smoking filterless cigarettes and developing an anti-American attitude that would make Uncle Joe proud.

March 17, 1948 – In his address about European security, Truman told a packed House chamber: “Uncle Joe took WHAT??!!”

January 5, 1957 – Dwight Eisenhower delivers speech on the state of the Middle East.  He says two words: “Fucked up.”  He then corrects himself, “Sorry.  Fucked up royally.”  Ike makes his tee time at Congressional with time to spare.

May 25, 1961 – in his only non-State of the Union speech, John F. Kennedy addresses a host of “urgent national needs,” such as foreign aid, national defense, civil rights and the space race.  He urges speedy resolution, as he senses he’s “on the clock.”  In fact, he’s just being fellated by a stewardess under the podium.

March 25, 1965 – Lyndon Johnson addresses Congress on the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Southern legislators put fingers in their ears, pretending not to hear.  An hour with Huey Newton and a ball-peen hammer makes them whistle a different tune—and it ain’t “Dixie.”

June 1, 1972 – Richard Nixon reports on his trip to Europe: “Yep, they still hate us.”  Continues covering up Watergate.

October 8, 1974 – Gerald Ford speaks on the economy, learning the hard way that oil-rich Arab sultans do not accept mood rings as collateral.

April 20, 1977 – Jimmy Carter pleads with America to conserve on energy.  Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda are the only ones who listen.

February 18, 1981 – Ronald Reagan wants to talk about economic recovery, but can’t remember.

April 28, 1981 – Reagan remembers what he wanted to talk about in February, inflation.  His solution involves inflating Moscow with radioactive waste.  Tip O’Neill chuckles politely.

September 11, 1990 – George H. W. Bush addresses Congress and the nation about the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  Bush can’t stand letting that precious crude go to waste.  September 11 passes insignificantly for another 11 years.

March  6, 1991 – Bush comes back to announce that the war is over: he got his crude back.  Good boy, Schwartzkopf. 

September 22, 1993 – Before both houses of Congress and with the economy in the shitter, Bill Clinton takes a stab at health care reform.  America goes ballistic and elects its first Republican Congress since the Truman years.  Bill sticks to riding the coattails of a surging tech bubble.  He also keeps his stabbing to young interns from now on.

September 20, 2001 – George W. Bush addresses a shocked nation reeling from the horrors of 9/11.  He announces the creation of a “Director of Homeland Security.”  At first, he wasn’t sure what this meant.  After reading up on Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo, Dick Cheney got the hint.  He then filled in the boss with the details.

September 9, 2009 – Barack Obama takes another stab at health care reform, with an economy in the toilet and Americans disgruntled at his policies.  Sounds a lot like 1993, doesn’t it?

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Cold War Propaganda – “Bert the Turtle” and “He May be a Communist”

It’s June, and the sweltering heat means only one thing–that’s right, time for a movie!

This first one is one of my favorites.  I show it every year around June and it is incredibly instructive.  Of course, prepare your students with background information about the atomic bomb, the Cold War, etc.  This is especially good for New York, since this was filmed in Queens.

The second is a collection of films highlighting anti-Communist sentiment in the 1950s.  As a teaching tool, this can definitely be used with the first video.  Demonstrate how fear of Communism and the use of cartoons helped to create a mass culture of fear and insecurity. 

Enjoy this film with your classes.   Remember to “Duck and Cover” when you see the flash!

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