When is History History?: It Never Ends

History is never ending. An event, frozen in time, never really is frozen. History is never history. It is always alive. It continues to grow and change despite some wanting to let it lay. This holiday weekend finds history alive and well in the United States. Steven Spielberg’s recent movie Lincolnis a tour de force for actor Daniel Day Lewis. But at its core, the movie is the ever evolving story of history. New scholarship, new documents, new points of view, a letter here, a new found diary there, and new interpretations lead to a vibrant investigation of the past to shed light on the present for the future. History is never stagnant. Ever.

Spielberg giving direction in the balcony of the House of Representatives for the movie Lincoln

In my own life, I have come to revile claims of “revisionist history.” All history is revisionist. This is what history does. History is not just a recording of past events and dates. There are points of view to be recorded; multiple ones taken from many different people. A look at the Civil War doesn’t include just the northern white man’s view. There are dozens of viewpoints about the events of that conflict from Copperheads to slaves to southern women to freedmen to Native American to slave owners to abolitionists to conservatives to radical republicans and many more. In the case of the movie Lincoln, the movie explores some of these including the staff in the White House and the telegraph office. But the main view of the movie is how President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of all these points of view, forged ahead to get the 13th Amendments through the House of Representatives before the end of the war.

New Stuff Has to Come To Light
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how John Chambers, Tony Mendez, and others helped get six Americans out of Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. This information was never released until 20 years after the fact. I found it surprising the CIA released the new of how the escape took place considering the current state of affairs with Iran. However, the incident is just one way in which new information changes how we look at the past. Originally, the Canadian government took credit for the rescue, but now things have changed. And that is history. It is not stagnant.

For the past few years, in addition to my teaching of history, I have had to teach a section of Language Arts in my small rural school. I integrated the literature section of the class to read stories having to do with what was being learned in the history class. For World War II, we started reading the play about the Diary of Anne Frank. In addition to reading the play, the students investigate online concentration camps and together as a class, we learn about Auschwitz. In recent years, there has been a focus on the everyday German’s role in the Holocaust. In doing some research the past few years, other roles in the Holocaust have emerged as photo albums of Germans in control of the camps emerged. It is a staggering portrayal of not only how events and their perceptions can change with new evidence. The scrapbooks portray the Germans in ways unimagined. The story of how the album came to be is here.

The US Government controls the biggest repository of information that has yet to see the light of day. Presidential documents are about 50 years behind. The Kennedy Assassination still has over 50,000 pages of material that has yet to be released. Sometimes National Security plays a role in their release. At other times, the living may not want to see it nor want it seen. Take President Harry Truman, for example. While alive, his presidency was not seen as a success by historians of the time period. But over the course of the past 60 years, hindsight has changed how Truman’s actions played out. Documents were released which showed Truman to be tough as nails. Historians, due to the release of such evidence now rate Truman higher for his time as President.

Truman’s response to a Joseph McCarthy telegram

History is always going to be filled with such tidbits. Sometimes, these tidbits are in the hands of archivists, the government, or locked away in someone’s basement or attic. History can be buried and unearthed even thousands of years after an event. For when these tidbits come to life, we see things in a new light and have a new appreciation for the past. You never know about history. And I hope that never changes.


A Decade Ends

Another decade ends and another decade begins. The march of time just keeps on ticking and tocking. Looking back at this decade requires a lot of pain, suffering, and sunglasses. There were some bright spots, some low spots, and some really low spots. But what will the 2000s be remembered for? Here is a list of the ten most memorable events of the decade so far. After all, things do change along with our perception of them. Who knows, in ten years, these could all change and our view of the decade along with it.

10. The Economic Meltdown – brought on by a lack of regulation, extended debt, high gas prices, and variable interest rates, the economy of the US, and most of the world, almost went in the dumpster in the fall of 2008. Huge bailouts have stemmed the tide for the time being, but many consumers and savers are still wary.

9. Social Networking – Blogs, Twitter, Facebook have changd how we perceive the news and get the news. in 2009 alone, the riots in Iran and Michael Jackson’s death showed that the world is more connected than previously thought.

8. Google – Who knew a little search engine would become one of the world’s fastest growing companies in less than ten years. It’s new phone and diversification have brought Google to behemoth proportions.

7. iPod/iPhone/Apple – No other cultural event changed the daily lives of people more than Apple products. Starting with the iPod, then the iPhone, Apple has been on a roll since a month after the iPod debuted in the fall of 2001.

6. Patriot Act – In rural America, the Patriot Act doesn’t get much play. However in urban America, it was everywhere. From libraries to government buildings to transportation systems to traffic security cameras to sporting events, the heightened sense of security pervaded the landscape of the American city.

5. Afghanistan – Eight and a half years later and there is no end in sight. Still no Osama and now Dick Cheney is commenting on Obama’s lack of leadership on the war. What was Dick doing for eight years? Oh, that’s right, he was shooting people in the face here at home. Anyway, as 30,00o more troops arrive in the coming months, new tactics and strategies to deploy these soldiers are needed as the Taliban and Al Qaeda are resurgent not only in Afghanistan but as well as in Pakistan.

4. Iraq – However, with Iraq, the end is in sight. American troops will most likely start coming home this summer with Iraq maintaining it’s own security thereafter. For the first 4 years of the conflict, that didn’t look like it was going to happen. Mismanagement of the war from the Pentagon to the White House to the State Department sullied all the goodwill the US had gained after September 11. Luckily, General David Patreus brought in a new strategy in 2005 and a surge and helped to lower the violence.

3. A Black President – 250 years of slavery – 100 years of segregation. A man of African descent is elected President of the United States and he doesn’t get the top spot? It must have been a really bad decade.

2. September 11 – In most decades, a terrorist attack on the United States would have been number one. In the US, this is the number one event of the last ten years. The events following both united and divided a nation. From the War in Afghanistan to the War in Iraq, everything came back to this point in time. Some justifiably, others not.

1. Tsunami
– in 2004, over 230,000 people were killed when a tsunami hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other Indian Ocean nations. The lack of a warning system,like that in the Pacific, doomed most of the victims. While having a short term severe economic impact on the region, the psychological and environmental damage still continues. This once in a lifetime natural disaster changed how we look at the power of the sea and how we truly are at the whim of mother nature.

All in all, it was not the best decade. As I enter my sixth decade on this rock, the 2000s would have to rank at the bottom of those decades as they pertain to the state of the world. Who knows, in time, these events will slide up or down depending on what happens in the next decade.

Other events considered…
The 2000 US Presidential Election, Hurricane Katrina, Landing in the Hudson, Blagojevich, The Detroit Bailout, Health Care¬† Debate, The Sarah Palin Phenomena, The Politics of Hate and Fear, The Red Sox Win the World Series, Michael Phelps 8 Gold Medals, Iran, Halo,¬† Wii, Enron, Blackouts, Human Genome, Climate and Weather, Digital TV, High Definition TV, Texas Hold ‘Em, Death of Newspapers, News as Entertainment, Obama Nobel Peace Prize, Rubber Band Wristbands, Harry Potter Novels, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and the sudden death of Michael Jackson.

Send me yours…and Happy New Year!

Baseball and the Civil War

As I watched the Yankees C.C. Sabathia dominate the Los Angeles Angels last night, it got me thinking how the great game of baseball spread itself coast to coast and beyond. One war that caused the deaths of over 600,00 Americans also changed the fortunes of our modern world. Amidst the carnage, devastation and doldrums of the marches, one little game emerged that would spread across the country as soldiers took it back home and it became America’s past time. What you had in the Civil War was people from all different parts of America coming into contact with each other. Things were passed along and taken back home. What TV, movies, and radio would do for American Culture in the 20th century, the Civil War did the same in the 19th century.

Baseball has always been, and will always be, the great American game.Walt Whitman stated long before the Civil War:

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us.”

Just as WP Kinsella so eloquently stated in Shoeless Joe, baseball has been, and always will be, an important part of America. It is a barometer of our times; past, present and future. But it was the Civil War which brought baseball across the continent. Expansion of the US started when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Jefferson envisioned an America stretching from coast to coast. Over the next fifty years, Americans slowly moved westward leaving behind their loved ones and the game that would soon be born in the East. Baseball too, moved slowly with Manifest Destiny in the years before the war. As Americans moved towards war in the 1850s, baseball moved with it.

Author Michael Aubrecht states:

Although early forms of baseball had already become High Society’s pastime years before the first shots of the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter, it was the mass participation of everyday soldiers that helped spread the game’s popularity across the nation. During the War Between the States, countless baseball games, originally known as “townball”, were organized in Army Camps and prisons on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. Very little documentation exists on these games and most information has been derived from letters written by both officers and enlisted men to their families on the home front.

Baseball played during the war was very different than the game we know today. Some rules included: The Striker (batter) gets to choose where he wants the pitch. The Pitcher must throw underhand. No leading off the bag. No base stealing. No foul lines. All balls are fair.
Other key facts:

  • The name of the game itself varied from community to community – some teams played “round ball,” while others played “town ball,” “goal ball,” “baste ball,” “old cat,” and “barn ball.” Early versions of the sport required the pitcher to throw underhanded.
  • Outfielders or “scouts” did not use gloves and the baseball itself was softer.
  • Batters were called “strikers” who eagerly wished to hit “aces” or home runs.
  • Outs were called “hands out.”
  • A pitcher stood on the “pitcher’s point” and threw toward the “striker’s point” where the striker (or batter) stood poised above the “plate” or what is now referred to as home plate.
  • The plate itself was a white iron disk, tin plate turned upside down, or whatever could be found as a substitute.
  • Fielders could retire batters by either catching the ball in the air or on one bounce.
  • The more controversial practice of actually aiming the ball at runners to get them out was eventually banned.

Although the rules have changed, the things that make baseball great have not – a sweet single, a great catch, a well thrown ball, a ball hit in the gaps. These elements have been there since the beginning. It was the war that spread it across the nation which now spread from coast to coast. Just as America sped up after the Civil War, so too did baseball. The National League was formed in 1876 with 8 teams. The coming industrialization of America created more leisure time for a growing nation and baseball seamlessly fit into the new day. But it all got going near a battlefield far, far away…

For Further Reading: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7497.html