Army Teaches Wrong Lesson in Nation’s High Schools

Today is the 68th anniversary of bombing of Nagasaki.  Our friend and ally Pat Elder describes in his op-ed below how high school text books get the history wrong.  See our Zinn Education Project for resources for teaching about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

– Kris Collett

pat-elder-20120105-190This summer the world will pause to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Americans are still supportive of Truman’s decision despite overwhelming historical evidence the bomb had “nothing to do with the end of the war,” in the words of Major General Curtis E. LeMay.

Americans suffer from a misinformation campaign initially perpetrated by the Truman administration and carried on to this day by high school textbooks that continue to tell the story as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indispensible in ending the war and saving countless American lives. The historical record is clear, however. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

There is no hint of controversy regarding the decision to drop the bomb in the majority of texts in use in American classrooms and many textbooks contain blatant historical inaccuracies, but the greatest purveyor of historical mistruth is the U.S. Army’s Leadership, Education and Training (LET 3) Custom Edition for Army JROTC. JROTC is the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. More than a half million American high school students are enrolled in JROTC classes nationwide.

JROTC students do more than march in uniform on the football field. They study government (the unit on constitutional law is entitled “You the People”), and they study a “history” of sorts. The JROTC treatment of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is riddled with falsehoods and leaves students convinced that destroying those cities was the right thing to do.

Thanks to policymakers and military leaders of the era who have subsequently told their stories, we know today what transpired. We can also thank Professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland for a stellar academic career dedicated to analyzing American policy in this regard. Quite simply, President Truman dropped those bombs on a defeated Japan to tell the Russians and the world to back off. We had two bombs and we were going to use them. In a typically cavalier fashion, Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander, U.S. Third Fleet remarked, “It was a mistake to ever drop [the bomb]. . .they had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. .”

Today we know:

  • The bombs weren’t needed to win the war. Every top U.S. military leader of the era has since stated that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were militarily insignificant.
  • The idea that dropping the bombs saved a million American lives is completely fabricated. The war against Japan could have been “won” without additional loss of life.
  • The Japanese had been trying to surrender for months. They simply wanted to guarantee their emperor’s safety, a desire the Americans eventually allowed.
  • The Japanese would have unconditionally given up without the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Soviet Union entered the war.
  • The bombing was not so much the last military chapter of the Second World War as it was the first Chapter of the Cold War.

The authors of the JROTC course book grapple with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan within the context of an ethical case study where students discuss ethical choices and consequences inherent in a series of historical events. Rather than presenting an unbiased version of events, the discussion is tainted by a strong preference toward bombing Japan, complete with falsehoods and inexcusable omissions.

The JROTC text packages all the most prevalent misperceptions regarding Truman’s decision into one outrageous historical account. The U.S. Army is teaching high school students that using atomic weaponry was necessary to forestall a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland that would have cost a million American lives. The text leaves the impression that the Japanese military in mid-1945 was extraordinarily powerful and that the Japanese were fanatical in their resolve to resist. The text also perpetrates the falsehood that the top brass supported the bombing when in fact all of the top brass subsequently came out to object to its use. Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the Army’s version of events distorts the complex geostrategic mix involving the Soviets.

The Army text leaves out Japanese attempts to surrender. The book makes no mention of the prior agreements to bring the Soviets into the war against Japan or the Soviet declaration of war on August 8th. The JROTC text fails to recognize that Japanese power quickly disintegrated during the first 6 months of 1945, especially after the US firebombing campaign destroyed 180 square miles of 67 cities, killing more than 300,000 people, figures that exclude the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book doesn’t describe absolute American control of Japanese skies in the summer of 1945.

Consider the following selections from Leadership, Education and Training 3:

“The Soviet Union had not participated in the Pacific campaign, choosing to remain neutral with Japan while fighting for survival against Germany. Truman was in Potsdam meeting with Churchill, trying to enlist the aide of Stalin, when he learned of the atomic test at Trinity.”

At face value this is true, but this statement represents the totality of the Army’s discussion of the Soviet role. The JROTC text minimizes the importance of the Soviets while elevating the significance of the atomic bombings in bringing about Japan’s surrender. The Soviets are portrayed as being weak but it was Stalin’s decision to enter the war and the Red Army’s assault on Manchuria on August 9th and subsequent rapid advance through weak Japanese defenses that caused the Japanese to immediately sue for peace.

Truman and his trusted advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes both believed the bomb would keep the Russians in line in Eastern Europe. Dropping the bomb launched the Cold War. It wasn’t necessary to end World War II.

During the Tehran Conference in 1943 Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan after Hitler was defeated. In 1945 at the Yalta Conference Stalin agreed to enter the War with Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. The Soviet invasion began on August 8, 1945, precisely three months after the German surrender on May 8th. The start of the invasion fell between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. In the words of Air Force General Claire Chennault,”Russia’s entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped.” An examination of the Japanese historical record confirms this point. It is reprehensible for the Army to omit a more thorough discussion of the pivotal role of the Soviet Union in bringing about an end to the war.

“Truman was troubled by the mounting casualties in the Pacific as Allied forces drew nearer the Japanese home islands. Driven by the Bushido warrior code, the Japanese were prepared to resist to the last, and more willing to die than surrender.”

Truman knew a week before Potsdam that Japan’s emperor had intervened to attempt to end the war and there were several attempts at peace before this. Japan was prepared to surrender, provided that it could retain its emperor but Truman had two bombs and he was determined to use them to fire a kind of a shot across the bow to the Soviets as post-war Europe was taking shape. General Douglas MacArthur understood it this way. “The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

Colonel Charles Bonesteel, Chief of the War Department Operations Division Policy poignantly described the situation in the summer of 1945, “The poor damn Japanese were putting feelers out by the ton so to speak — through Russia.”

“The Joint Chiefs told Truman to expect over 1,000,000 American casualties and even larger number of Japanese dead in the pending attack on the home islands.”

This is false. There’s no record of the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally studying the decision and they never made an official recommendation to the President, according to Alperovitz. Additionally, the Joint Chiefs never claimed to be involved. The claim of 1 million casualties as a result of an (unnecessary) American invasion is a complete fabrication. It originated from a 1947 Harper’s article by Secretary of War Stimson. Stimson invented the number. It is not based on a shred of historical evidence.

For his part, President Truman randomly selected the number of American lives ostensibly saved as a result of dropping the bomb. He said it would “save thousands of American lives.” He later remarked, “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.” He also said, “I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved by making that decision.”

The Japanese position was hopeless by the summer of 1945. They were trying to surrender because they were defeated. According to Brigadier Gen. Carter W. Clarke,“We brought them down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold looked at the situation from the air, “The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.”

“By August 1945, the United States had two nuclear bombs in its arsenal. On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Over 140,000 Japanese were killed in the blast, and an uncounted number died from the lingering effects of radiation. On August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The next day, August 10, 1945, Japan indicated its willingness to surrender.”

Japan had been indicating its “willingness to surrender” for some time before the bombs were dropped. The Japanese finally acceded to allied surrender terms because the Soviets had invaded Manchuria the day before.

Every top American military leader was revolted by Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. They couldn’t see its military necessity. It is incomprehensible that the today’s Army feels compelled to contradict its greatest leaders who understood the role of the military in relation to its political superiors. Commander of the U.S. Army Strategic Air Force, General Carl Spaatz understood the separation.He said,”The dropping of the atomic bomb was done by a military man under military orders. We’re supposed to carry out orders and not question them. “That was purely a political decision. [It] wasn’t a military decision..”

Top Naval officers joined in the chorus. Admiral William D. Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff said, “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet echoed the sentiments of his colleagues, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”

“Truman appointed a committee to evaluate using the atomic bomb. The committee examined many options, including a demonstration in Tokyo Bay, but Los Alamos was uncertain the device would detonate. Rather than lose a valuable war asset, and to emphasize its destructive power, the committee recommended dropping the atomic bomb on a city.”

Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman’s personal representative on the Interim Committee, was the most influential member of the committee and steered policy in the direction of using the new weapon without warning on a Japanese city. It was Byrnes who saw the bomb as a promising way to keep the Soviets in line in the post-war era.

Impressionable high school juniors are on the receiving end of this despicable propaganda. It is astonishing how easily the Army’s authors dismiss a quarter-million lives.

The discussion of the decision to drop the bomb in the JROTC text ends with the following:

“When thinking of ethical decisions that affected U.S. and world history, try to imagine how history would have been changed if the Atomic bomb had not been dropped on Japan during World War II. Would the war have continued much longer? Would the U.S. have been attacked again by the Japanese, as they had been at Pearl Harbor the year before? Because the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th, do you think that thousands of Soviet and U.S. soldiers would have lost their lives?”

Based on the information contained in the JROTC text, it is “clear” to American high school students that the war would have dragged on indefinitely if we hadn’t dropped the bomb. We had to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki to keep the Japanese from attacking America as they did in 1944, and we had to do this to save American and Soviet lives!

JROTC lessons are developed and taught by Senior Army Instructors (SAIs) and Assistant Instructors (IAs). Although SAI’s have college degrees, they are typically not state-certified teachers. AIs must be retired from the Army and may be hired with a high school diploma provided they earn an associate’s degree within five years. AIs are the only unsupervised non-professionals allowed to instruct students in classrooms in most states across the country.

Public school officials rarely exercise control over the curricular content of the JROTC program or the professional qualifications of its instructors. It’s time they did.

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Pat Elder is the Director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy,  an organization that works to prohibit the automatic release of student information to military recruiting services gathered through the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) in high schools across the country.

Resources for American Indian Month

Over the years, Debbie Reese’s work has been an important resource for educators. Her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, is an authoritative source of analysis, and was one of the country’s “go to” sites when early this year Tucson suppressed the Mexican American Studies program and banned books like Rethinking Columbus.

Reese has been kind enough to allow us to reprint her articles in our publications—see, for example, “Fiction Posing as Truth,” in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2; and “Teaching Young Children About Native Americans,” in the curriculum material that accompanies the DVD, Unlearning Indian Stereotypes.

In Reese’s essay and resource listing below, she addresses librarians: “Too many people think that American Indians died off, due to warfare and disease. When the emphasis in library displays is American Indians of the past, you inadvertently contribute to that idea.” This is worth remembering for all educators, at all times—but especially now as we enter the “official” Native American Month. Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico.

Resources for American Indian Month 

by Debbie Reese

November is the month that the President of the United States designates as Native American Month. Below are suggestions on how you might get your library ready for parents, teachers and students who come into your library looking for materials on American Indians.

In this post, you’ll find links to ALA’s READ posters that feature Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. You’ll also find links to the Indigenous Languages Development Institute, where you can buy a wall clock with numerals in a Native language, and READ posters in Indigenous languages, available from the Tulsa American Indian Resources Center:

Creating a Library Atmosphere that Welcomes American Indians

In these posts, you’ll find recommended books about American Indians, by age group:

Top Board Books for the Youngest Readers

Top Ten Books for Elementary School

Top Ten Books for Middle School

Top Ten Books for High School

If you want some guidance on how to help students do research on American Indians, using encyclopedias and websites, see:

Resources for Projects on American Indians

If you’re looking for books and materials about boarding schools for American Indians, here’s some:

Boarding Schools for American Indians

If you want guidelines on how to evaluate the content of a Native site, here’s an excellent page about that:

Guidelines for Evaluating American Indian Web Sites

And, if you want to develop your understandings of the ways that American Indians are not “multicultural” or “people of color”, see:

We Are Not “People of Color.”

If you’re looking for a Question/Answer book about American Indians, this one by the National Museum of the American Indian is outstanding:

Do All Indians Live In Tipis?

Did you know that “papoose” is not the American Indian word for baby?

Papoose?

Did you order Louise Erdrich’s newest book in the Birchbark House series? If not, do it today! Chickadee is terrific!

Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee

I’ll close with this:

Too many people think that American Indians died off, due to warfare and disease. When the emphasis in library displays is American Indians of the past, you inadvertently contribute to that idea. Librarians are a powerful group of people. You can help Americans be less-ignorant about American Indians.

Research studies show that American Indian students drop out at exceedingly high rates. Scholars attribute this, in part, to their experience with curricular materials in school. Materials set in the past, materials that stereotype American Indians, and materials that are factually incorrect or highly biased against American Indians, cause Native students to disengage from school. Libraries can interrupt that disengagement, or, they can contribute to it…

As human beings, we love to see reflections of ourselves and our hometowns. They can a source of pride or a boost to the self-esteem. But—that is only true if they are accurate. Native people want that, too, but American society has a long way to go to get there.

Libraries can get us there, but we’ll need your help year-round, not just in November. I hope the resources I share in this email will be ones that you spread out, all year long. If you’ve got questions, let me know.

Thanks,

Debbie Reese, PhD
Tribally enrolled: Nambe Pueblo
Email: dreese.nambe at gmail dot com

Related Resources

Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood,” by Sherman Alexie. Rethinking Schools  magazine, Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2011.
  Unlearning Indian Stereotypes. Narrated by Native American children, this DVD teaches about racial stereotypes and provides an introduction to Native American history through the eyes of children. Useful for elementary through adult education.
  Rethinking Columbus. More than 80 essays, poems, interviews, historical vignettes, and lesson plans reevaluate the myth of Columbus and issues of indigenous rights.

Rethinking Schools Fall 2012 Magazine: Race and Place

The fall issue of our magazine is now available on our website. The theme is Race and Place—teachers explore the context for today’s foreclosure and homelessness crises, and answer the question: Why don’t black and brown people in the United States have more inherited wealth?

In “Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot” master teacher Linda Christensen helps high school students begin to answer this question—and write historical fiction along the way—with an exploration of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

Then Katharine Johnson brings the Civil Rights Movement home to elementary school students with a role play about redlining in their own city: “‘Why Is This the Only Place in Portland I See Black People?’ Teaching Young Children About Redlining.”

In “Boot Camp for CEOs,” education writer Alain Jehlen investigates the Broad Superintendents Academy, which filled 48 percent of all large district superintendent openings last year—including Chicago’s Jean-Claude Brizard.

PLUS an exclusive interview with esteemed educator/scholar/activist Lisa Delpitauthor of “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. 

And much, much more.

Check our fall issue, subscribe, and return here to let us know what you think!

 

It’s Columbus Day…Time to Break the Silence

by Bill Bigelow

This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

TOP: Some of the books removed from classrooms. BOTTOM: The film “Precious Knowledge” captures the impact and effectiveness of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.

For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, “What’s the name of that guy they say discovered America?” A few students might object to the word “discover,” but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. “Christopher Columbus!” several called out in unison.

“Right. So who did he find when he came here?” I asked. Usually, a few students would say “Indians,” but I asked them to be specific: “Which nationality? What are their names?”

Silence.

In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others’ classes, I’ve never had a single student say “Taínos.” So I ask them to think about that fact. “How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven’t you heard of them?”

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It’s what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be “the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: “As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today.” After all, Columbus did not merely “discover,” he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—”Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” Columbus wrote—and “punished” them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it “did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians.”

Corporate textbooks and children’s biographies of Columbus included none of this and were filled with misinformation and distortion. But the deeper problem was the subtext of the Columbus story: It’s OK for big nations to bully small nations, for white people to dominate people of color, to celebrate the colonialists with no attention paid to the perspectives of the colonized, to view history solely from the standpoint of the “winners.”

Rethinking Columbus was never just about Columbus. It was part of a broader movement to surface other stories that have been silenced or distorted in the mainstream curriculum: grassroots activism against slavery and racism, struggles of workers against owners, peace movements, the long road toward women’s liberation—everything that Howard Zinn dubbed “a people’s history of the United States.”

Which brings us back to Tucson: One of the most silent of the silenced stories in the curriculum is the history of Mexican Americans. Despite the fact that the U.S. war against Mexico led to Mexico “ceding”—at bayonet point—about half its country to the United States, this momentous event merits almost no mention in our textbooks. At best, it is taught merely as prologue to the Civil War.

Mexican Americans were central to building this country, but you wouldn’t know it from our textbooks. They worked in the Arizona copper mines, albeit in an apartheid system where they were paid a “Mexican wage.” In the 1880s, the majority of workers building the Texas and Mexican Railroad were Mexicans, and by 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad had 4,500 Mexican workers in California alone.

They worked the railroad, and they worked for their rights. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers united in Oxnard, California, to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. As Ronald Takaki notes in A Different Mirror, “For the first time in the history of California, two minority groups, feeling a solidarity based on class, had come together to form a union.” They struck for higher pay, writing in a statement that “if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them.”

Nowhere was this rich history of exploitation and resistance being explored with more nuance, rigor, and sensitivity than in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Like Rethinking Columbus, Mexican American Studies teachers aimed to break the classroom silence about things that matter—about oppression and race and class and solidarity and organizing for a better world. Watch Precious Knowledge, the excellent film that offers an intimate look at this program—and chronicles the fearful, even ludicrous, attacks against it—and you’ll get a sense of the enormous impact this “rethinking” curriculum had on students’ lives.

This coming Monday, October 8th is the day set aside as Columbus Day. Let’s commit ourselves to use this—and every so-called Columbus Day—to tell a fuller story of what Columbus’s voyage meant for the world, and especially for the lives of the people who’d been living here for generations. And let’s push beyond “Columbus” to nurture a “people’s history” curriculum—searching out those stories that help explain how this has become such a profoundly unequal world, but also how people have constantly sought greater justice. This is the work on which educators, parents, and students need to collaborate.

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If you care about nurturing a people’s history and ending Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, click here to find out how you can take action.

This column was first published at GOOD.

Related Resources

Rethinking ColumbusRethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Teaching Guide. Edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. 2003. 192 pages. Readings and lessons for pre-K to 12 about the impact and legacy of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

The Line Between Us

The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.Teaching Guide. By Bill Bigelow. 2006. 160 pages. Lessons for teaching about the history of US-Mexico relations and current border and immigration issues.

Howard Zinn at 90: Lessons from the People’s Historian

Howard Zinn was a great friend of Rethinking Schools. He generously allowed us to reprint articles of his in the magazine and our books. He agreed to be interviewed by Rethinking Schools editors.  He gave us kind blurbs for our books. He mentioned our work in his talks and referred teachers to us. Most important, Howard Zinn taught us about the world and inspired us to think more deeply about social change. To commemorate his 90th birthday, Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this article as part of the Zinn Education Project’s article series, “If We Knew Our History.”


This Friday–August 24–would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States.

“That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.

Painting of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly

It’s always worth dipping into the vast archive of Zinn scholarship, but at the beginning of a school year, and as the presidential campaign heats up, now is an especially good time to remember some of Howard Zinn’s wisdom.

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, the Zinn Education Project sponsored a talk by Zinn to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. Zinn reminded teachers that the point of learning about social studies was not simply to memorize facts, it was to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye.

2012-08-20-NCSSvideo.jpg

In this talk, available as an online video as well as a transcription, Zinn insisted that teachers must help students challenge “fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box.” Because without this critical rethinking of premises about history and the role of the United States in the world, “things will never change.” And this will remain “a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism.”

A key premise that needs to be questioned, according to Zinn, is the notion of “national interests,” a term so common in the political and academic discourse as to be almost invisible. Zinn points out that the “one big family” myth begins with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States…” Zinn noted that it wasn’t “we the people” who established the Constitution in Philadelphia — it was 55 rich white men. Missing from or glossed over in the traditional textbook treatment are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in Western Massachusetts, immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787. No doubt, the Constitution had elements of democracy, but Zinn argues that it “established the rule of slaveholders, and merchants, and bondholders.”

Teaching history through the lens of class, race, and gender conflict is not simply more accurate, according to Zinn; it makes it more likely that students — and all the rest of us — will not “simply swallow these enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.”

As Zinn told teachers in Houston: “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors. No–we’re a country of divided interests, and it’s important for people to know that.”

Another premise Zinn identified, one that has become an article of faith among the Tea Party crowd, is “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States is fundamentally freer, more virtuous, more democratic, and more humane than other countries. For Zinn, the United States is “an empire like other empires. There was a British empire, and there was a Dutch empire, and there was a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire.” The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires, although textbooks cleanse this imperial bullying with legal-sounding terms like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession.

Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. As Zinn told teachers in Houston, “it’s very bad for everybody when young people grow up thinking that patriotism means obedience to your government.” Zinn often recalled Mark Twain’s distinction between country and government. “Does patriotism mean support your government? No. That’s the definition of patriotism in a totalitarian state,” Zinn warned a Denver audience in a 2008 speech, included in a new volume, Howard Zinn Speaks, edited by Anthony Arnove (Haymarket Books, 2012.)

And going to war on behalf of “our country” is offered as the highest expression of patriotism–in everything from the military recruitment propaganda that saturates our high schools to the social studies curriculum that features photos of U.S. troops heroically battling “enemy soldiers” in a section called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the popular high school textbook Modern World History.

Howard Zinn cuts through this curricular fog: “War is terrorism … Terrorism is the willingness to kill large numbers of people for some presumably good cause. That’s what terrorists are about.” Zinn demands that we reexamine the premise that war is necessary, a proposition not taken seriously in any high school history textbook I’ve ever seen. Instead, wars get sold to Americans–especially to the young people who fight those wars — as efforts to spread liberty and democracy. As Howard Zinn said many times, if you don’t know your history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. Leaders can tell you anything and you have no way of knowing what’s true.

Howard Zinn wanted educators to be deeply critical, but never cynical. When speaking to the teachers in Houston, Zinn insisted that another premise we needed to examine is the idea that progress is the product of great individuals. Zinn pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had never been an abolitionist, and when he ran for president in 1860 he did not advocate ending slavery in the states where it existed. Rather, it was largely the “huge antislavery movement that pushed Lincoln into the Emancipation Proclamation–that pushed Congress into the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Zinn urged educators to teach a people’s history: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Thus when we single out people in our curriculum as icons, as “people to admire and respect,” Zinn advocated shedding the traditional pantheon of government and military leaders: “But there are other heroes that young people can look up to. And they can look up to people who are against war. They can have Mark Twain as a hero who spoke out against the Philippines war. They can have Helen Keller as a hero who spoke out against World War I, and Emma Goldman as a hero. They can have Fannie Lou Hamer as a hero, and Bob Moses as a hero, the people in the Civil Rights Movement — they are heroes.”

And to this, there is one final “people’s history” premise we need to remember — whether in education or the world outside of schools. As Howard Zinn reminded the audience of social studies teachers in Houston: “People change.” Zinn did not look to President Obama to initiate social transformation; but in 2008, he saw the election as confirmation that the long history of anti-racist struggle in the United States produced an outcome that would have been inconceivable 30 years prior. And this shift in attitude should give us hope.

As we remember Howard Zinn on what would have been his 90th birthday, let’s count him among the many social justice heroes who offer proof that people’s efforts make a difference — that ordinary people can change the world.

Related Resources:

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

It includes a new introductory essay by veteran teacher Bill Bigelow on teaching strategies that align with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools

The latest “If We Knew Our History” column from the Zinn Education Project is by Dave Zirin. In the article, Zirin tells the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The ongoing “If We Knew Our History” columns show why it is so important for teachers to “teach outside the textbook”–to bring a people’s history to our students. The Zinn Education Project is a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools

by Dave Zirin, Sportswriter

This iconic photo appears in many U.S. history textbooks, stripped of the story of the planned boycott and demands, creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance.

It’s been almost 44 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand following the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and created what must be considered the most enduring, riveting image in the history of either sports or protest. But while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside.

When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’sUnited States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, “Young Leaders Call for Black Power.” The photo’s caption says simply that “…U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.”

The media—and school curricula—fail to address the context that produced Smith and Carlos’ famous gesture of resistance: It was the product of what was called “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” Amateur black athletes formed OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, to organize a black boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games. OPHR, its lead organizer, Dr. Harry Edwards, and its primary athletic spokespeople, Smith and the 400-meter sprinter Lee Evans, were deeply influenced by the black freedom struggle. Their goal was nothing less than to expose how the United States used black athletes to project a lie about race relations both at home and internationally.

OPHR had four central demands: restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, hire more black coaches, and disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. Ali’s belt had been taken by boxing’s powers-that-be earlier in the year for his resistance to the Vietnam draft. By standing with Ali, OPHR was expressing its opposition to the war.

By calling for the hiring of more black coaches as well as the ouster of Brundage, they were dragging out of the shadows a part of Olympic history those in power wanted to bury: Brundage was an anti-Semite and a white supremacist, best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler’s hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. By demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia, they aimed to convey their internationalism and solidarity with the black freedom struggles against apartheid in Africa.

The wind went out of the sails of a broader boycott for many reasons, partly because the IOC re-committed to banning apartheid countries from the Games. The more pressing reason the boycott failed was that athletes who had spent their whole lives preparing for their Olympic moment simply couldn’t bring themselves to give it up.

There also emerged accusations of a campaign of harassment and intimidation orchestrated by people supportive of Brundage. Despite all of these pressures, a handful of Olympians was still determined to make a stand. In communities across the globe, they were hardly alone.

The lead-up to the Olympics in Mexico City was electric with struggle. Already in 1968, the world had seen the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, demonstrating that the United States was nowhere near “winning the war”; the Prague Spring, during which Czech students challenged tanks from the Stalinist Soviet Union, demonstrating that dissent was crackling on both sides of the Iron Curtain; and the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban uprisings that followed—along with the exponential growth of the Black Panther Party in the United States—that revealed a black freedom struggle unassuaged by the civil rights reforms that had transformed the Jim Crow South. Then, on October 2, 10 days before the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympic Games, Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students and workers in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square.

Although the harassment and intimidation of the OPHR athletes cannot be compared to this slaughter, the intention was the same—to stifle protest and make sure that the Olympics were “suitable” for visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and an international audience. It was not successful.

On the second day of the Games, Smith and Carlos took their stand. Smith set a world record, winning the 200-meter gold, and Carlos captured the bronze. Smith then took out the black gloves. The silver medalist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman, attached an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch onto his chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand.

As the stars and stripes ran up the flagpole and the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in what was described across the globe as a “Black Power salute,” creating a moment that would define the rest of their lives. But there was far more to their actions on the medal stand than just the gloves. The two men wore no shoes to protest black poverty, as well as beads and scarves to protest lynching.

Within hours, the IOC planted a rumor that Smith and Carlos had been stripped of their medals—although this was not in fact true—and expelled from the Olympic Village. Brundage wanted to send a message to every athlete that there would be punishment for any political demonstrations on the field of play.

But Brundage was not alone in his furious reaction. The Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute”. Time had a distorted version of the Olympic logo on its cover but instead of the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” it blared “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.” The Chicago Tribune called the act “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” Smith and Carlos were “renegades” who would come home to be “greeted as heroes by fellow extremists,” lamented the paper.

But the coup de grâce was by a young reporter for the Chicago American named Brent Musburger who called them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers.”

But if Smith and Carlos were attacked from a multitude of directions, they also received many expressions of support, including from some unlikely sources. For example, the U.S. Olympic crew team, all white and entirely from Harvard, issued the following statement:

“We—as individuals—have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.”

Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause—civil rights. As Carlos says, “A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

The story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics deserves more than a visual sound bite in a quickie textbook section on “Black Power.” As the Zinn Education Project points out in its “If We Knew Our History” series, this is one of many examples of the missing and distorted history in school, which turns the curriculum into a checklist of famous names and dates. When we introduce students to the story of Smith and Carlos’ defiant gesture, we can offer a rich context of activism, courage, and solidarity that breathes life into the study of history—and the long struggle for racial equality.

‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

By Bill Bigelow

You may have seen that an administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, just upheld the decree by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program violates state law. Judge Kowal found that the Tucson program was teaching Latino history and culture “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” According to CNN, one lesson that the judge objected to taught that the historic treatment of Mexican Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Try this “history detective” experiment. Ask the next person you encounter to tell you what they know about the U.S. war with Mexico. More than likely, this will be a short conversation, because that war (1846-48) merits barely a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The most recent textbook I was assigned when I taught high school history in Portland, Ore. was American Odyssey. In 250 pages devoted to pre-20th century U.S. history, the book includes exactly two paragraphs on this war. (The district’s new adoption, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, doubles the coverage to a whopping four paragraphs.)

(Download Teaching Activity PDF from the Zinn Education Project: “U.S. Mexico War: ‘We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God’“)

And yet this is the war that “gave”—in the words of American Odyssey—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado to the United States of America. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war, ratified the annexation of Texas, which had broken away from Mexico largely because of Mexico’s policies against slavery.

Most Mexicans know that the war against Mexico was another chapter in U.S. imperialism—a “North American invasion,” as it’s commemorated in a huge memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. But don’t take Mexicans’ word for it. Here’s what Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock, aide to the commander of U.S. forces Gen. Zachary Taylor, wrote at the time in his journal about the war’s origins:

“I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. … We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”

Exactly. President James K. Polk, himself a slave-owner, had ordered U.S. troops into an area claimed by Mexico and inhabited by Mexicans and waited for them to be attacked. And when they were, Polk claimed aggression and the U.S. had its war. The invading U.S. Army actually called itself the Army of Occupation.

The abolition movement regarded the war as a land grab to expand slavery. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the Mexican invasion as “a murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil and damning curse, negro slavery.”

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defense of his position that people should not pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau argued that a minority can act against an unjust system only when it “clogs by its whole weight.”

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program would likely have known this history, because, after all, this is the story of how people living in Tucson no longer live in Mexico. But according to Judge Kowal, the program violates state law. That law bans curriculum that might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” And, as mentioned, Kowal complained that the material in Mexican American Studies was presented in “an emotionally charged manner…

I have not seen the full Mexican American Studies curriculum, although I know it includes important texts like Rudolfo Acuña’s classic Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book studied in every teacher education program worthy of the name.

But I’m wondering how one can teach about the history of the U.S. relationship with Mexico in a manner that is not “emotionally charged.” You want to talk about “bias”? What about the bias of a textbook that can “cover” a war like that waged against Mexico in two paragraphs, or four paragraphs, and fail to so much as quote a Mexican, an abolitionist, a soldier, a woman, an African American, or a Native American—or fail to describe the death or injury of a single human being? What about the bias of a textbook or an entire curriculum that can discuss invasion and war in a manner that is not “emotionally charged”?

Here’s a U.S. infantry lieutenant who wrote his parents after a U.S. officer named Walker was killed in battle, quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

“Gen. Lane … told us to ‘avenge the death of the gallant Walker’ … Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing—many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens … their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses ransacked … It made me for the first time ashamed of my country.”

In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote that this was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …”

The problem with the school curriculum in this country is that it is not emotionally charged enough. Poverty rates are skyrocketing—especially for children of color. People are losing their homes because of the criminal behavior of huge financial institutions—and race has a lot to do with who profits and who suffers. This country’s military is still being sent to invade and occupy—and murder people with silent, invisible drones. The rich and powerful poison our atmosphere, our water, our food, and our children.

So, yes, let’s have a curriculum that gets emotional—and that tells a fuller truth than is offered in our textbooks. And let’s stand in solidarity with the teachers and students in Tucson who are demanding to teach and learn about things that matter.

Bill Bigelow is Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He is author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Related Resources:

The Line Between Us The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life. Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.
A People's History for the Classroom A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. Teaching articles and lesson plans — drawn from an assortment of Rethinking Schools publications — emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history, and raise important questions about patterns of wealth and power throughout U.S. history.

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