Month: April 2014

Professor Salerno and Putting the Public Back in History

Several days ago, Professor Salerno published a short essay entitled “Recasting History: The Public Option” on the web site of The New England Journal of Higher Education:

This piece provides a nice summary of what public history is about, describes what kinds of graduate programs are available in public history, refers to public history on the undergraduate level, and mentions Professor Salerno’s own course in public history. Check it out!


Why Celebrate Anniversaries?

Anniversaries are closer than they appear

Recently, I was thinking about anniversaries and the way a people remember our past. These thoughts were inspired partly by the last post on One Thing after Another which pointed out the difficulty of using past years to frame contemporary events. Our calendar is filled with anniversaries that tell a version of our nation’s history: July 4 and March 17 (at least for Bostonians) as well as April 4 and November 22. And then, of course, there is September 11. Every year the news offers somber reflections on December 7, August 6, and November 9—all dates associated, broadly speaking, with World War II. Earlier this month, President Obama and several former presidents gathered in Texas to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Even the “Google doodle” seems, more often than not, to draw attention to the birthday or death anniversary of some fairly famous (or unfairly obscure) historical figure.

This year, people all over the world are gearing up for reflections on important events that are enjoying “big” anniversaries. This summer marks one hundred years since the outbreak of World War I, which has already prompted numerous stories about the events of 1914, and meta-stories about how we talk about the events of 1914 (and meta-meta blog posts like this one that comment on the commentary about the events of 1914). Although it will probably garner less attention, this September will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that started World War II in Europe. Fittingly, Germany and Poland were at the center of events fifty years later—1989—that signaled the end of the Cold War. Come November, expect countless stories recalling the excitement and awe jubilant Berliners felt at destroying the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain. 1914, 1939, 1989—these years seem to tell the story of Europe in the twentieth century: the spark of two great wars and the events that ended nearly a half century of Cold War, unfolding conveniently at twenty-five and fifty year intervals.

On this side of the Atlantic, Americans will be looking back not only to 1989 (and 1939, and 1914), but also to 1964. In June of that year, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This event took place shortly after the tragic murder of civil rights activists James Earl Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. (A story that was later told in the movie Mississippi Burning, which was released in . . . 1989.) August 2 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on the USS Maddox off the coast of North Vietnam. Two days after the initial clash, American ships mistakenly reported a second attack, which led to U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam and a Congressional resolution authorizing the President to take further action if necessary. The Tonkin Gulf Incident was thus an important step in the gradual Americanization of the Vietnam War.

I had these thoughts in mind when I stumbled across this article about the way we elevate certain years and their particular importance to human history. I’m sympathetic: when we try to force historical truths into tidy boxes that correspond with a single year or decade or century, we run the risk of over simplifying things. When historians talk about the “long nineteenth century,” they acknowledge that historical eras do not fall neatly into one-hundred-year periods. The same is true for specific years. Was there something about 1968 that contributed to social and political upheaval? Was it that different from 1967 or 1969? Or is it something of a coincidence that demonstrations and assassinations unfolded during the same calendar year? In reality, it is probably a little bit of both. Social movements beget other social movements, which explains why they might be concentrated in the same period. And in some instances something about a particular year could in fact make it very different from the years before or after—look at the eruption of Tambora. But often it is pure chance that a sequence of events falls during a single calendar year, and not partly in one year and partly in the next. It is not hard to imagine the events of 1968 starting just a little bit earlier or a little bit later, and thus being spread over two different years. In this alternate history the events might have taken place in the same way, but our image of “1968” would be very different. So I’m skeptical (though a little intrigued) by a book claiming that 1959 was “the year that changed everything.”

At the same time, people seem to respond to this approach. Part of the interest in 1914 is that it really might have been a “year that changed everything.” So if talking about important years gets people to think more about the past, I’m all for it. I just hope that we talk about why a year might be important—but also why it might only be part of a larger story.


2014 is Not the New 1914, China is not the New Germany, and America is not the New Britain

Europe in 1914

In the blog War on the Rocks, Michael Neiberg published an interesting piece on a phenomenon that has recently taken off among commentators of the international scene:

As we approach the centenary of World War I’s outbreak, a number of observers have tended to compare the current international situation to the one existing in 1914. In these scenarios, the United States assumes the role of Britain in 1914: a sated, world power that seeks to defend the status quo. China is the new Germany, an important regional power that increasingly throws its weight around in world affairs. However, these are not the only analogies made to 1914. As Neiberg points out, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, has likened the current situation between his country and China to Anglo-German relations before World War I. Commentary inspired by the crisis in the Ukraine has Russia as the new Germany and one of the Baltic states as the new Belgium. Others have framed Syria as the new Balkans, a cockpit of great power competition.

Obviously, this means of understanding the past is not unique to our time. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy turned to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962), an account of World War I’s outbreak, for guidance in finding a peaceful resolution. And during the 1990s, observers repeatedly claimed that the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia would precipitate a new Balkan crisis much like the one that had led to world war in 1914.

Of course, 1914 is not the only date to which statesmen refer in times of trial. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden, Britain’s Prime Minister, saw Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s leader, as a reincarnation of Hitler. Eden did not hesitate to compare the situation in Egypt to the Munich crisis of 1938. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (who was a World War II veteran) described Saddam Hussein and the Middle Eastern situation in much the same way.

As Neiberg points out, there are real problems with seeing the contemporary world through 1914 lenses or the lenses of any other year for that matter. For one thing, although Great Power competition was a long-term cause of World War I, the Great Powers were actually getting along relatively well in the summer of 1914. What really lit the powder keg of Europe was a conflict between a weak, declining Great Power (Austria-Hungary) and a rogue, medium-sized country (Serbia). Reckless decision-making on the part of these two states, coupled with irresponsibility among several of the Great Powers (particularly Germany and Russia), led to a world war. In other words, the Great Power competition between Britain and Germany was not a major factor in the outbreak of the war. If that’s the case, what does that say about relations between the new Britain (America) and the new Germany (China)? In other words, how useful is the 1914 analogy in getting the United States right with China today?

Even more important is the general difficulty with making historical analogies of the sort that Neiberg criticizes. 2014 is clearly not the new 1914. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, and technologically, the world has changed immensely in the last 100 years. Not only that, unlike the leaders who guided the fortunes of the Great Powers in 1914 and blindly headed into the abyss (in the same way that we all blindly head into the future), our statesmen have the benefit of hindsight and know what happened in 1914. The problem, of course, is that knowing what happened in 1914 is not immediately relevant to what we see today. George Santayana’s claim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (which has become something of an axiom), is incorrect because history never repeats itself; circumstances are always different.

If historians always dwell on the uniqueness of events, what then is the value of history as we survey the present? A potential answer to this question emerged when Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2013), spoke at the NHIOP last week. An audience member asked what we could learn from the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Logevall’s response was cautious and rightfully so. As he pointed out, events do not teach lessons; people construct various lessons from events. The lesson Logevall himself learned from the Vietnam experience was that American power is limited and that policymakers needed to remember that ends have to be balanced against means.

Some people may have been disappointed by this response because they expected a more specific answer. Perhaps they anticipated something akin to The Princess Brides’s “Never fight a land war in Asia” (a dictum endorsed by even higher authorities such as Douglas McArthur when he command UN forces during the Korean War and Robert Gates when he was Secretary of Defense).

However, as Logevall’s answer suggests, the study of history does not provide precise answers as we tackle today’s problems. Rather, the study of history cultivates judgment, and that is where its true value lies.

Agliato Lays Down the law at Upton & Hatfield

Joey Agliato

Joey Agliato ’15 (Hauppauge, NY) is a history major minoring in criminal justice. Aside from playing forward on the men’s hockey team, Joey also participates in the Team IMPACT program which has allowed ten-year-old Benjamin Roy, a cancer survivor, to be a formal part of the squad.

This semester, Joey is doing an internship at Upton & Hatfield, LLP in Concord. Here’s what he said about the experience.

Q: How did you get interested in law?

A: I have two cousins who represent different sides of the law: one is a police officer, and the other is an attorney. As I grew up, my cousin the police officer told me a number of stories about arrests and cases, and I came to see why criminals do what they do. At the same time, by listening to my cousin the attorney, I began to understand the process required to put criminals behind bars. Hearing about the various stages of criminal procedure made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in criminal justice or law.

Q: What tasks do you perform at this internship? With what kind of law are you dealing the most at this firm?

A: At Upton & Hatfield, I summarize cases and write briefs on decisions. I take notes and research past precedents as well as laws pertaining to current open cases that my firm is handling. I also draft legal documents and letters to various clients or officials in the area. For example, I request copies of police reports of financial statements to help build a case. At the firm, I deal mostly with labor and employment law.

Q: What surprised you most about this internship? What have you learned from this experience?

A: What surprised me the most is the amount of research and preparation a lawyer does when working on a case. I was also surprised by the responsibilities I acquired through my hard work. I learned that if you care about what you are doing, ask a lot of questions, and see an assignment through to the end, your employer will be very pleased.

Q: What was the best thing about growing up in Hauppauge?

A: I got to live in close proximity to my cousins. Hauppauge is a small town with a very close-knit population which was something I really enjoyed. Everyone looks out for one another and contributes to the success of the community.

You’ve Heard of Waterloo, But Have You Heard of Tambora?

Tambora Eruption

One Thing After Another noticed a great article on discussing a volcanic eruption that occurred 199 years ago this week–just a few days before the battle of Waterloo was fought and Napoleon went down to decisive defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington.

In 1815, the Tombora eruption in Indonesia killed 100,000 people directly through lava flows, tsunami, and a blanket of ash that turned the sky black for a week. But its indirect effects were even greater. According to two recent books, the eruption led to a new deadly strain of cholera that killed tens of millions of people, the rise of opium cultivation in China, and the acceleration of British arctic exploration (the volcanic ash melted the polar ice caps leading to visions of a Northwest Passage). In American history, the results can be seen in the Year Without a Summer of 1816. That year, seven inches of snow fell in Boston in JUNE and the temperature often hovered near forty degrees deep into July. The shortest growing season on record led to record outmigration from New England to the midwest and record crop prices for those who could harvest a crop. The price drop three years later (when weather returned to normal) led to the Panic of 1819 and major bank failures.

The number of outcomes rippling out from this one event in a fairly remote place tends to surprise people. I suspect this is because we (even historians) sometimes forget two crucial aspects of the past. First, the world was global long before the internet.  Diseases spread rapidly even when travel occurred by ship. The nineteenth century already had a well-developed world market for some raw materials and commodities, and a famine in one place meant an economic incentive to plant more in another. But perhaps most startling to those reading and studying history is the fact that the greatest historical actors are not always human beings. The climate, the landscape, and natural disasters are major historical players.

Recently the Saint Anselm College History Department began offering a class in U.S. Environmental History and it has been eye-opening. Looking at wind patterns, rainfall, soil fertility, and storm frequency as agents in history helps move the focus from the Anthropocene (the period of human influence on the earth) back into a geological history shaped primarily by wind, water, and animals. We are used to thinking about how humans shaped the environment, but less accustomed to asking how the environmental conditions shaped humans and their history.  The Tombora eruption gives us a chance to rethink the influence of nature as an agent in history, setting conditions, precluding options, or provoking change.

For further reading see:

Dubrulle Lands Advance Contract

Hugh at Vicksburg

Associate Professor Hugh Dubrulle just signed an advance contract with Louisiana State University Press. The working title of his manuscript is “A War of Wonders”: How Britons Imagined the American Civil War and Learned Its Lessons. One Thing after Another grabbed Professor Dubrulle while he was rushing  to a Faculty Senate meeting and pumped him for information.

Q: What is an advance contract? Is this good news?

A: It’s very good news. In an advance contract, both the author and the press are bound to do certain things. The author pledges to turn in a clean manuscript, along with illustrations and other matter, by a particular deadline. The press’ commitment is much more of an “if x, then y” sort. If the author meets his obligations and the press finds the manuscript acceptable, then the press is bound by certain guarantees when it publishes the work.

Q: How does the press go about figuring out whether the manuscript is acceptable or not?

A: After the author submits the manuscript to the press, the press sends it out to several experts in that particular field. These experts are referred to as readers or referees. They read the manuscript and send written reports to the press detailing the work’s strengths and weaknesses. They also provide a recommendation about whether the press should publish the book or not. Often, they recommend revisions of various sorts. It’s this process that we refer to as “peer review.” The editors at the press read the material sent to them by the referees and reach conclusions of their own regarding the manuscript. Much of the material produced by this review process gets forwarded to the board that runs the press, and it’s the board that makes a final decision about whether to publish or not.

Q: What is your book about?

It’s about how the American Civil War affected public discussions that were very important to Britons. My work focuses particularly on how the war influenced British debates about political reform, race, nationality and nationalism, and military affairs. I argue that in order to understand the British reaction to the American conflict, you really need to consider the images of America and Americans that Britons had developed in the thirty years leading up to the war. These images fundamentally shaped the way the British understood the war’s meaning and significance.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been interested in the American Civil War. In fact, one of my very first memories consisted of going to Vicksburg with my parents when I was 2 ½ (see photo above). My fascination with things British arose much later—when I was in college. If I had to attribute that interest to a single thing, it was reading Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That in a World War I course. Graves is not a very reliable narrator, but there was something so stereotypically and comically British about the way he told his story (even though some of his experiences were horrible) that really touched me. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to find a way to combine my interests, and that’s how I came up with this topic.

For more information about LSU Press, go here:

Professor Andrew Moore has also published with LSU Press in the past. To see his book, The South’s Tolerable Alien, on LSU Press’ site, go here:

Madsen at the Currier Museum

Lexy Madsen ID

Lexy Madsen ’14 (Southbury, CT) is a history major and one of the department’s work-study students. Having studied abroad in Granada, Spain, last year, Lexy has embarked on a new adventure: she currently interns at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH. One Thing after Another asked her about this unique experience.

Q: What is your internship like at the Currier Museum? What do you do in a typical day?

My internship at the Currier Museum revolves around research, although I do occasionally have the chance to participate in the programs and activities the Education department hosts for the public. At the Currier, my main task has involved conducting research for the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s traveling exhibition: Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey:

I have also researched recent loans and acquisitions, along with art from the permanent collection, including works by such artists as Tiepolo, Miró, and Rembrandt. I then use this research to create teaching tools used by the Head Educator in docent training sessions. This task involves in-depth research so that the educator can understand the subject thoroughly while still remaining accessible to a wide audience of viewers with varied backgrounds in art history.

I occasionally participate in some of the many programs that the Currier hosts for the public. One such program is the Alzheimer’s Café, where patients and their caregivers are invited to the Currier for art-based discussions and activities. Another event in which I participated was a teacher-based training session on VTS (Visual Training Strategies) which provides teachers with the tools to start and hold a conversation with students regarding art. The main goal consists of sparking creativity rather than delivering an art history lecture.

Q: Many of our majors intern at the Manchester Historical Society or a law firm. Why did you pick the Currier Museum?

A: I hope to work as a curator in an archaeological or art museum upon completion of my master’s degree, and for this reason, I chose to intern at the Currier Museum of Art. When first applying, I chose the areas of Research and Curation as two fields where I would prefer to intern. Although I originally hoped to work in the Curatorial department, my placement in the Education department has fostered an amazing growth in my understanding, appreciation, and interest in a wide variety of art forms and practices. I have also had the chance to interact with other departments briefly including the Design department and Registrar.

Lexy Madsen

Q: How did you get so interested in art? Was there a particular event or person who led you in that direction?

A: The catalyst for my love of art was visiting the Museo del Prado in Madrid when I was in high school. Francisco Goya’s Pinturas Negras series, as graphically horrid as it is, proved so emotionally provoking that I never thought of art in the same way again ( In that one visit, my perception of art as something beautiful or something made solely for aesthetic reasons was shattered. I realized the incredible power and meaning that art can truly express. I understood the way in which an artist can start a conversation with the public.

Q: As a history major who is very much interested in art, do you try to find connections between the two?

I constantly find connections between art and history. Many people view art solely as a product of human desire for the beautiful, but I see art through a much different lens. When I look at art, I often think of the culture that created it. I find myself thinking of who the artist was, what troubles they faced, why they created the piece, and what was happening in the society around them. These questions are what interest me so much about Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Goya’s art changed dramatically over the course of his career, just as Spain was influenced by war and political upheaval. The effect of such an unstable society on Goya’s art was the subject of my senior thesis, a hybrid of historical and art historical approaches to the artist’s work.

I also understand art and archaeological artifacts as a means to study past cultures. This process was augmented by my participation in the Classic Department’s excavations in Orvieto and Castel Viscardo during my sophomore year. The excavation linked material culture with peoples I had only studied in textbooks or about whom I’d read in fictionalized accounts. Working with artifacts at the excavation in Italy helped influence my understanding of material culture as key to understanding history.

Q: Recently you received news about graduate school. To what programs were you admitted? To what career path do you hope these programs will lead?

A: I have been accepted to the the Art History and Archaeology Master’s program at Columbia University, the Master’s program for Art History at University of Texas, Austin, and the Master’s program for Art History and Archaeology from New York University. As I mostly applied for master’s programs, I hope to work as an Assistant Curator after furthering my education.

World War I: History, Memory, and Commemoration

WWI 18 pd 1917

The latest issue of The Economist has just hit the newsstands (and the internet) with an extended article about World War I: “Still in the Grip of the Great War: 100 Years after 1914.”

This essay provides a sketch of the historical arguments surrounding the origins of the conflict and discusses some of the more recent works on the war. At the same time, it also speaks to the connections between academic history, popular memory, and official commemoration. Simply put, academic history is what professors write, popular memory is how the public remembers, and official commemoration is how governments choose to memorialize. In every category, as you may imagine, positions are contested to greater or lesser extents. At the same time, all three of these categories are linked, but all three are very different. For instance, academics can influence popular views of an event (to use an example from the article, Alan Clark is a good case in point, although most academics would dispute his academic credentials), but the way professors study such things differs immensely from the way in which the public goes about remembering the past. In the particular case of Britain and World War I, historians are not really on the same wavelength as the public. Where much of the British public still seems attached to the notion that World War I was a great, pointless, bloody tragedy, historians increasingly tend to argue that a) Britain ought to have fought and b) Britain fought as well as it could. Finally, both academics and popular opinion can inform official commemoration. Britain again is an excellent case in point. For a number of reasons (some of which are outlined in the article), the British government is more committed to commemorating World War I than other European states. And that commitment has led to a vigorous debate that has involved both professors and the public.

Why spill all of this ink (or use up all these pixels) over something that happened a century ago? Sure, The Economist points out that World War I and its origins are “endlessly fascinating, hugely complex and charged with emotion.” But what are the stakes in this debate over the war? As in many other cases, arguments about history reflect disputes about the present. As The Economist asserts, “the controversies about the causes, strategies and consequences of the war are matters of contemporary concern.” Britain’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was wrong to suggest that “there was a crude left/right split over the war” in Britain today, but where one stands on the war says something about where one stands now when it comes time to discuss international relations, the use of force, and a host of related issues. These collisions between history, memory, and commemoration occur all the time.

An obvious example of this sort of thing that occurred in America is the huge debate that took place between 1994 and 1995 over an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum entitled The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War. The exhibit included a portion of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To make a long story short, the debate culminated in the cancellation of the exhibit. You can read more about this story in the following essay (Michael Hogan’s “The Enola Gay Controversy: History, Memory, and the Politics of Presentation”):

Although the argument over representations of the Enola Gay involved veterans groups that did not believe the Smithsonian’s exhibit respected their own lived experience of World War II, this debate was not just about the past; it had great contemporary relevance. Moreover, the split was not a simple division between right and left. To quote Edward Linenthal, who wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education shortly after the incident’s conclusion, the exhibit had been “caught between memory and history,” between the “commemorative voice and the historical voice.” Surely, the same thing will happen with World War I among the countries that dare to commemorate it.