Monthly Archives: September 2009

Videos for the Classroom: Adlai Stevenson’s finest moment – The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

This is really commemorated about a month later than now, but it leads to a great teachable moment I had with my kids.

We’re studying the powers of the President, and I thought it would be fun if the students worked on a case study of an event that involved Presidential action.  I picked the Cuban missile crisis, and I laid out a dossier of the facts of the case: missiles were discovered in Cuba by an American spy plane.  The United States is under pressure from the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Turkey.  The Russians are not saying for certain that there are missiles.  The United States is prepared to escalate with possible military action. 

I had the class divide into groups, take the facts and create a course of action.  Amazingly, their plans mirrored the plans created by Kennedy’s cabinet and Pentagon officials in 1962.  One group favored a military option, a direct strike on the Cuban missiles.  Another group favored a covert operation to disable the missiles.  Still another favored a unilateral pullout from Turkey as a sign of goodwill.

What was most astonishing was my last group.  They actually said, “Maybe we should get other countries on our side by showing them what we have.”  By doing so, they figured, it would make the Soviets look like the bad guy, the aggressor.  I was floored.  These were barely teenagers and they tackled delicate foreign policy like a pro.

The videos today illustrate what happened, which is what my last group of students drew out in their own way.  The first video is actual footage of the Oct 25, 1962 meeting of the United Nations Security Council, where US ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronts Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin about the missiles in Cuba.  A two-time presidential loser, Stevenson won me over with this, his finest hour.  In a clear, lucid voice, he tells Zorin he is willing to wait “until Hell freezes over” for an answer to his questions about the missiles. 

And then came the photos.  Zorin didn’t have a chance.

I also included the fictionalized version from the film Thirteen Days.  It isn’t that fictionalized, as the dialogue in the UN is almost verbatim from the real thing.  These are both gems to use with your students.  They illustrate how delicate and complex foreign policy can be–yet incredibly direct when we’re in the right.

At the very least, it shows a time when both Republicans and Democrats can conduct foreign policy with a pair of brass ones.


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This Day in History 9/28: The Importance of the Norman Conquest

Bayeux_Tapestry_WillelmDuxSince when did a spat among clans of Saxons and Vikings have such an impact on world history?

Today we commemorate such a family feud.  On this day in 1066, William II, Duke of Normandy–also known as “the Conqueror” or “the Bastard”–invaded England on a quest to seize the throne from the sitting monarch Harold Godwinson.  The ensuing climactic struggle, the Battle of Hastings, would have far-reaching effects on both English and European history.  It is an effect that touches all our lives today, including our students.

The problem is an interesting one for students of monarchs and dynastic succession: how do you settle a dynastic dispute with a monarchy that does not have a straight succession?  England’s monarchy was not based on heredity, but rather selected through the Witenagemot, the assembly of nobles and clergy that advised English kings since the 800s.  When Edward “the Confessor” died in 1066, the Witenagemot respected Edward’s wishes and selected Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as King of England.

Yet a number of foreign nobles were of a different opinion.

Normandy, a state in northern France ruled by Viking immigrants known as Normans, had an ambitious ruler of its own, and he had his own claim to the throne.  William of Normandy, known as the “Bastard” due to a dubious birthright, claimed that Edward promised him the throne 14 years earlier.  Furthermore, Harold Godwinson had alleged pledged loyalty to HIM two years before the conquest.  To make things all nice and legal, William had Pope Alexander II consecrate his claim to the throne, thereby giving William religious as well as temporal legitimacy.

William was not alone.  Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hardraada, also claimed Harold Godwinson’s throne.  He claimed that his predecessor, King Magnus, made an agreement with the earlier Danish king of England Hardecanute, stating that if either died without an heir, the other would take over as king.  Harald also had a curious ally: Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, who had attempted to seize the throne himself and joined Harald Hardraada’s claim in an effort to dethrone his brother.

Harold Godwinson had two armies going against him.  This is never a good thing, and Harold can’t divide his forces.  He fights what he thinks is the stronger force first, that of Harald Hardraada and his brother Tostig.  On September 25, 1066, after a four-day forced march, Godwinson defeats the Norwegian force at Stamford Bridge

William invades three days later, and wisely decides to wait for Harold rather than chase after him.  By October 14, Harold’s exhausted army finally faces William’s Norman juggernaut at Hastings.  After a murderous day of fighting, Harold and many of his Saxon nobles are killed, and William marches toward London.  On Christmas day, 1066, William the Bastard, William the Conqueror becomes King William I of England.  Every British monarch since William can trace their roots back to this “bastard.”

So why is this blood feud so important?

The Norman conquest changed the face of England.  The feudal system of France was superimposed and strengthened with the complex institutions that existed in Saxon-era English government, resulting in the future development of a Parliament and a protection of basic rights.  The Norman government would forever forge a bond between England and France, for good or ill.  Norman nobility and clergy would dominate England, relegating the local Anglo-Saxon populations to subservience both politically and culturally.  Both groups would eventually intermarry until they evolved into the modern English people.

The most important impact, however, was in language.  Without the Norman conquest, English would look very different than it does today.

The Normans spoke a language that was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French, so it had words that were familiar to the English of 1066.  French would become the language of government after the conquest, and English would develop alongside among the population, borrowing and adapting French words into their Anglo-Saxon tongue.  What developed was Middle English, and by the mid-13th century this became a language used by both nobility and commoners throughout the kingdom.  The greatest example of this is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Here is the first stanza of the General Prologue, and notice the French influence, along with the connections to modern English.

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
     The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
     And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
     Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
 5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
     Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
     The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
     Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
     And smale foweles maken melodye,
 10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
     (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
     Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
     And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
     To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
 15 And specially from every shires ende
     Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
     The hooly blisful martir for to seke
     That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.”

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The Gutting of a Georgetown Tradition: Meddling with “Map of the Modern World”

I had another post in mind today at the Neighborhood, but this news was sent to me by my fellow alumni and its getting my blood up.

In an earlier post on geography, I mentioned a course I took at Georgetown called “Map of the Modern World”, a 1-credit boot camp of world geography and geopolitics.   As a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) I had to take this course as a graduation requirement–since the qualification exam rendered me, in Professor Pirtle’s thundrous voice, “geographically ignorant.”  Even though it was a killer for a one-credit course, it was one of the most rewarding courses I took.  I know of no other university that has a geography course that even comes close.

Yet, just as it does in the world of education, the “boutique” theories seem to be adopted by administrators as if they were flavors of the month.  Such is the case at SFS, where the new dean, James Reardon-Anderson, wants to take over the course personally.  Instead of the classic geopolitical survey that each student in the SFS has received (gratefully) for decades, Reardon-Anderson plans to restructure the course as a study of geographic forces and human interactions.  The grit-and-grind of the Mercator map is replaced by the soft Venn diagrams of interactions, encounters and relationships.

The scholarship behind this change shouldn’t be new to many people–the work of Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA and author of the popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Diamond’s work postulates that the driving forces behind human interaction, as well as human inequality, are the geographic forces that have shaped the development of Earth’s multitude of societies.

Diamond’s work is not at issue.  What is at issue is using his theories in a course that was never designed as an anthropological or sociological survey.  To really see the difference, here’s the old course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit-hour course is designed to provide you with regional overviews of the evolution of the world political map since 1800. The objective of this course is to enhance your basic working knowledge of the political map of the modern world as a first step in understanding world events and international relations. The method of instruction
will be lectures supported by a heavy dose of maps and short outside readings. The lectures will focus on the evolution of the modern political map of each region and on major nationalist, ethnic, boundary, and territorial conflicts and tension areas.

Here is the new course description:

Map of the Modern World – 1 Credit

This one-credit course is designed to provide basic knowledge of the physical and political geography of the world. Weekly lectures cover the fundamental forces that shape the physical geography and the effects of physical geography on human behavior in ten regions of the world. The final exam covers information presented in the lectures, the location and capitals of contemporary states, and the identification of major geographical features. The final examination is multiple choice and graded pass-fail. The course is required for graduation from the School of Foreign Service.

As a point of clarification, ths course was always a requirement to graduate and was always graded pass-fail.  Yet the differences are obvious.  Map of the Modern World was a course designed for future diplomats and international leaders in order to establish a baseline knowledge of the world and its machinations.  Period.  Since the SFS was designed as a school for training future diplomats, this makes perfect sense.

Reardon-Anderson’s version is cute.  It’s too cute.  In fact, it’s more like an elective course than a requirement for a school of international relations.  Because of the new dean’s penchant for the theory du jour, students at Georgetown will be less than adequately prepared for the roles they aspire to after graduation.  No 1-credit course can do justice to Diamond’s theories while preserving the original goal of establishing background knowledge of the political world to students of international affairs. 

It’s embarrassing that such a change is even considered, let alone approved.  Climate change, human interactions, geographic forces–these are all worthy of study.  But not in Map.

This leads to my last point.   Map of the Modern World was a rite of passage for students in the SFS program at Georgetown, the oldest school for international studies dating back to 1919.  Every year, each spring, freshman entered the large lecture hall in the Reiss Science Building for 45 minutes of backbreaking maps, charts, definitions, treaties, Latin terms such as “uti possidetes” (one of my old classmates please correct my spelling), and the logjam of minutia that make the modern international system. 

Damnit, that boot camp did a body good, and no boutique theories or Johnny-come-lately techniques should mess up a good thing.

I’m calling on all my former SFS alumni, alumni from other Georgetown schools, even non-alumni that visit the Neighborhood to take action and stop Reardon-Anderson’s quest to sink the SFS into “geographic ignorance.”

A Facebook group has been made for those who want to join, linked here.  Those wishing to express their opinions directly to the school can e-mail Dean Reardon-Anderson at  Be sure to CC Dean Lancaster at

Lets save at least one piece of our education that actually worked.  Show the administration at SFS that some cows are too damned sacred to make into hamburger.


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