by Mark Alexander
Unit 7 of The American Vision, “Global Struggles,” covers the period from 1941 to 1960, providing an overview of the decades’ important events and issues that improves greatly upon the triumphalist Cold War textbooks that I remember reading as a teenager. The authors clearly intended to write something more complex than a simplistic story of the inevitable onward march of American greatness, and they have included references to complicated and difficult historical events that I was never taught in high school. Instances of discrimination, marginalization, and persecution introduce historical complexity to the narrative, but too frequently these issues are presented in a way that fails to explain or condemn them sufficiently while creating the impression that these ugly chapters of our past are exceptions that stand apart from the rest of history.
The first chapter of this unit, “A World in Flames, 1931-1941,” briefly describes the events leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. Depictions of Nazi racial attitudes and of the Holocaust are generally accurate (if brief and vague), but nowhere is this hateful and genocidal ideology directly condemned as unfounded and dangerous nonsense. Many passages could have been easily changed to reveal the false premises and nonsensical pseudoscience behind Nazi racial ideology. For example, “Hitler blamed the Jews for many of the world’s problems, especially for Germany’s defeat in World War I” (Appleby, et al., 684) could easily be improved simply by writing “Hitler falsely blamed the Jews.” Better still would be a single, definitive sentence explaining that German Jews fought with distinction for Germany in WWI and were in no way responsible for the country’s military defeat.
Instances of discrimination, marginalization, and persecution introduce historical complexity to the narrative, but too frequently these issues are presented in a way that fails to explain or condemn them sufficiently while creating the impression that these ugly chapters of our past are exceptions that stand apart from the rest of history.
This chapter also attributes all anti-Jewish policies and actions exclusively to Hitler, “Nazis,” “Nazi leadership,” or “the Nazi regime” (Ibid, 694-700). In fact, the perpetrators of the Holocaust included officials, soldiers, and civilians who were not Nazis and who did not necessarily hold murderously racist beliefs, and the forces of the Third Reich found willing collaborators in every country that they occupied. High school students should learn these things, and it is crucially important that we all understand that regular individuals from a highly educated and modern society not greatly unlike our own also participated in murderous and genocidal crimes.
There is, of course, an entire chapter in the unit devoted to American participation in the Second World War, “America and WWII, 1941-1945.” While it understandably focuses on military developments, this chapter also includes information on difficult topics such as segregation in the American military and the forced internment of Japanese American citizens. While the authors deserve praise for raising these complicated issues in our past, at times it appears that excuses are made for these discriminatory practices. For instance, the text accepts the logic that led to the American internment camps by stating (without explanation or evidence) that President Roosevelt “must have felt justified” for authorizing the forcible relocation and concentration of Japanese American families because the military forces of Imperial Japan continued to attack the territory of the United States (Ibid, 732).
The chapter concludes with a brief introduction to the controversial decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities and a limited discussion of the International Military Tribunals of Nuremburg and Tokyo. Unfortunately, the brief allusion to the defendants at Nuremburg reinforces the earlier limited characterizations of the perpetrators as being the “leaders of Nazi Germany” and “lower-ranking officials and military officers” while ignoring the subsequent trials of doctors and civilian industrialists (753).
The third chapter, “The Cold War Begins, 1945-1960,” presents an account of the origins of the early Cold War period. The authors attempt to present a balanced narrative that acknowledges different perspectives, and the text is critical of McCarthyism and the hysterics of the postwar Red Scare. The authors acknowledge that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran several covert operations, but they do not give readers a complete picture of the extent of state-sponsored persecution of American citizens suspected of Communist sympathies or of the extent of secret CIA operations to undermine regimes not deemed friendly enough to American interests (let alone the agency’s dismal success rate and its reliance upon alleged war criminals in its anti-Soviet operations).
The final chapter of this unit, “Postwar America, 1945-1960,” focuses on domestic politics and popular culture. A great deal of the chapter discusses the advent of television and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, but for some reason the authors decided to separate these topics from a discussion of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, which they chose to tackle in Unit 8. Although a subsection of this chapter briefly discusses the poverty and discrimination faced by different marginalized communities in America, the momentous topics of race relations and the struggle for equality are not included in the wider story. Separating the histories of marginalized peoples from their countries’ historical narratives can lead to the false and problematic impression that their contributions to society are marginal. This danger is evident in The American Vision, for example, as the authors’ separation of minorities from the broader national story minimizes black musicians’ creative abilities and inaccurately attributes the origin of rock ‘n’ roll to white people. This inaccurate impression is even stated explicitly: “Soon, white artists began making music that stemmed from these African American rhythms and sounds, and a new form of music, rock ‘n’ roll, was born” (Ibid, 805).
A careful review of “Global Struggles” makes it seem that the authors struggled with how much information and nuance to present to their audience. Difficult topics are introduced, but details necessary for complex understandings are often absent. The authors deserve much credit for presenting these historical events and issues to high school readers, but the separation of historical subjects from one another may produce some inaccurate or otherwise problematic historical impressions. In the end, this seems to reflect a fundamental tension between the authors’ impulse to instill pride in American history and their desire to cultivate students’ ability to be critical of the uglier chapters of our shared past.
Bergen, Doris L. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, and Elvis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Breitman, Richard, and Norman J.W. Goda. Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2011.
Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Delmont, Matthew F. The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.
Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Reeves, Richard. Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2015.
Walker, Samuel J. Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Mark Alexander is a PhD candidate in history at the George Washington University. He currently works as a research assistant for the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers and as a contracted researcher for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Mark’s research interests include the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Cold War.
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