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October 10, 2012

History Division News
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» Universities in the Big Society

Where’s the best place to research the American Revolution? Boston, the urban crucible of resistance to British rule? Or Virginia, home to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Both have much to offer, but there’s also a wealth of material in … Continue reading

June 1, 2011

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» Jack Johnson – the most hated black man in America

Jack Johnson Few people outside the world of boxing have heard of Jack Johnson. However, in the early years of the twentieth century, Johnson was perhaps the most hated black man in America. Continue reading

February 9, 2011

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» Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, perhaps the online community’s most well-known ‘whistle blower’ website, is currently under house arrest and awaiting extradition to Sweden for alleged sexual offences. Wikileaks has revealed previously secret details about the workings of the Church of Scientology, civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unflattering discussions between diplomats about foreign leaders. To some, Assange is a hero, to others a criminal. For example, in 2009 he received an award from Amnesty International. However, a number of US politicians have asked for his arrest, with one — former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – even claiming Assange should be executed for treason. How do we put such opposing viewpoints into historical context? Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from a previous whistleblower controversy.

This current year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine officer, who worked for the Rand Corporation, and his friend Anthony Russo, leaked a number of top secret documents to the New York Times. They revealed:

- President John F. Kennedy’s role in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese head-of-state, Ngo Dinh Diem.

- The US’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos.

- The US had doubts if the ‘Domino Effect’ — the underlying reason for the Vietnam War — applied to Vietnam at all.

- That President Johnson had lied persistently to the American people about the scale and scope of the war.

- That American and Vietnamese civilian casualties were much higher than those reported by the US media.

- That the war was still being fought not to keep South Vietnam ‘free’, but to avoid a US humiliation.

The ‘Pentagon Papers’, as they came to be known, was a 7000-page history of the Vietnam War, originally commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and completed in 1968. These documents were meant to be seen only by senior Department of Defense staff, and by members of the Johnson administration. Ellsberg had worked for McNamara as a policy advisor and was originally a supporter of the war. However, by the end of the 1960s he had become an antiwar activist, convinced that individuals had a moral duty to oppose immoral actions, even if it meant imprisonment. After failing to convince senior politicians such as William Fulbright and George McGovern to release the documents, Ellsberg contacted the New York Times, which began publishing excerpts in June 1971.


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The full weight of the state was brought to bear on Ellsberg. A warrant was issued for his arrest for alleged espionage. Nixon administration employees burgled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something incriminating against him. They also secretly recorded his phone calls. These illegal acts were revealed at Ellsberg and Russo’s trial, and both were found not guilty of theft, conspiracy and espionage.

If it wasn’t for Ellsberg’s moral decision to oppose what he saw as an immoral war, we probably never would have known about the duplicity and illegal behaviour of three US administrations, and in particular, the myth of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ administration might not have been exposed. The verdict of history therefore seems to vindicate Ellsberg’s actions. I wonder, 40 years from now, will we view Julian Assange’s whistle blowing in the same light.

Brian Ireland

November 8, 2010

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» Speech of the Century - Vote Here

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Speeches in History


Last week saw the death, at the age of 82, of Ted Sorensen, one of John F. Kennedy’s key associates. It was Sorensen who drafted Kennedy’s landmark ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ speech, delivered at the new President’s inauguration in Washington, January 1961. Tom Griffin, the University of Glamorgan’s media spokesperson, reflects here on Sorensen and his achievement.

Kennedy’s ‘Ask not’ speech was certainly memorable, but how does it rank alongside other great speeches of the modern era? Have a look at (or listen to) some of the other contenders at the Guardian's 'Great Speeches' mini-site and vote for your favourite. Comments - and alternative suggestions - can be entered below. Our poll closes at midnight on November 18th

Chris Evans

April 21, 2010

Welsh Institue of Health and Social Care Blog
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» The Yanks are still coming

Having just returned from a holiday in the USA it was interesting to read David Hands’ blog about President Obama’s health reforms. Those of us brought up with the virtues of the Welfare State running through our veins find it astonishing that such a large body of American opinion should oppose enabling an additional 40 million American people to access health care. One news story I picked up in Florida was of a doctor placing a sign in his surgery saying supporters of Obama were not welcome. He later said that he was merely making a point and would not, of course, have turned any of his patients away!

My immediate reaction to the US health care debate was to conclude that the political ideology which underpinned the thinking of Obama’s opponents was so distant from mainstream thinking in this country that everyone would be as surprised as me that there should even be a debate. A bit naïve and idealistic perhaps but my way of offering my own personal vote of confidence to our National Health Service. Then I watched the first Prime Minister television debate and began to reflect on how much we have been influenced by the American way, or certainly American initiatives, in the last 30 years or so.

Here are some of the examples which came to mind. Out of town retail parks; Macdonalds and other fast food outlets; deregulation of public transport and the growth in car use; 24/7 opening hours; Starbucks and other coffee houses; 24/7 news coverage; 4×4 trucks; the internet; mobile phones; the growth in commercial television; and the acceptance of a whole new way of spelling our language, epitomised by the acceptance that it is ok to spell it ‘epitomized’. We could have a poll on which are good and which are bad, which we like and which we don’t, but the truth is that all these things, and others, are here to stay.

The worry I have is that I think a tacit acceptance that ‘what America does today, we should do tomorrow’, has crept into our culture and if this is allowed to run its ultimate course it would lead to the demise of the NHS, the BBC and any other institutions which were based on the notion that the collective good is more important than the individual. The first TV election debate summed this up perfectly. It was all about which of the 3 party leaders could impress us more, not which policies would produce the best way forward for our country. The fact that they are representatives, albeit leaders, of their parties seemed to be lost. It was described by some journalists as the most public job interview in history. It was an American presidential debate superimposed on a British political system.

Personally, I thought the first debate was a dispiriting event and, again naively perhaps, find it offensive and concerning that voters should be influenced by the colour of a suit and tie, the degree to which you looked down the lens of the camera, and your ability to tell a joke, all of which featured in the post-debate analysis. Interestingly, Karen Lewis’ blog on the 15th April about the richness of storytelling as a means of understanding real issues was in sharp contrast to the universal opinion of the political journalists that the 3 leaders had all been guilty of overdoing the anecdote, typified by ‘a cancer patient in wherever was telling me last week that he couldn’t get the right drug because….’.

We are yet to see, of course, whether the TV debates will actually lead to changes in voting but we should all be concerned that 90 minutes of television, which covered no more than 8 questions, all relating to home policy, can lead to such dramatic movement in opinion polls. We are told that there is now no going back and that the debates will now be a permanent feature in Parliamentary elections. And if you think I’m overstating this Americanisation theory, have a look at the way all the parties seem to be supporting the introduction to Charter schools which many believe represent the potential end of our state schools.

I’m sure if Alistair Cooke was still alive and presenting his ‘Letter from America’ we would all be listening in carefully to find out what we’ll be doing differently in the next few years.

Written by Tony Garthwaite, WIHSC Senior Fellow

March 23, 2010

History Division News
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» Science, Race and Slavery

What we're reading: Chris Evans on Darwin's Sacred Cause

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Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010).

The popular image of Charles Darwin is of a reclusive sage, wholly driven by his scientific interests. A rather different picture emerges in a new book by professors Desmond and Moore, whose 1991 biography of the great naturalist was highly acclaimed. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause they give us Charles Darwin as the enemy of slavery. Anti-slavery, they claim, was an abiding passion and one that influenced Darwin’s science.

His grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, were both active opponents of the slave trade, and the young Charles grew up in a militantly abolitionist household. His epic voyage on HMS Beagle not only took him to places that influenced his evolutionary theory – like the Galapagos Islands – it took him to Brazil, where slavery was flourishing as never before in the 1830s. Darwin was haunted by the experience.

Desmond and Moore interpret Darwin’s views on evolution in this light. His insistence on the common ancestry of all human beings was a challenge to the new schools of anthropology, which were predictably popular in the slave states of the American South, that saw different races as having entirely separate ancestries.

Some of the scientific debates get a little involved but Desmond and Moore write in a lively fashion. Recommended to anyone interested in racism and anti-racism in the history of science. Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010) is available from via this link.

Chris Evans researches slavery and its abolition and teaches a second-year module on The Ending of Atlantic Slavery: 1776-1888

Image source and notes

October 5, 2009

History Division News
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» Historian visits Cursed Earth

Brian Ireland writes for 2000AD

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Dr. Brian Ireland has written a short article for 2000AD about the epic Judge Dredd story 'The Cursed Earth'. Brian is writing a book about movement and mobility in the United States, and is particularly interested in the road genre in cinema, literature and music. In this short article, Brian discusses the Cursed Earth story in the context of road genre films and novels, and focuses on the recurring plot theme contrasting urban and rural America -- the city versus the frontier motif. The article is scheduled to appear in 2000AD Prog 1659 (on sale 28 October).

A longer academic article by Brian, entitled 'Errand into the Wilderness: The Cursed Earth as Apocalyptic Road Narrative', has been accepted for publication by the Journal of American Studies (Cambridge).

October 2, 2009

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» The beginnings of a new society

<image class="left" title="Moctezuma Exhibition - British Museum" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/10/2/moctezumalink.jpg" alt="Moctezuma - British Museum" />

The History Society has been resurrected this year by a group of students who call themselves ‘The History Boys’; enthusiasts who enjoy any subject with historical significance. The society has taken off with an excellent response from the student body with applicants ranging across nearly all subjects that Glamorgan teaches.

The aim of the society is to go to the places where history is alive. Lectures and class work are all well and good, and in nearly all cases, very enjoyable. But we feel that history is something that should be ‘lived’ and experienced rather than just taught. It is this reason that has become the driving force behind our main goal… Field trips.

The first field trip of this year was organized almost immediately after the society’s inception with a trip to London scheduled on the 21st November 2009. Participants are free to do whatever they like in London, although the History Society has outlined a few places of special interest that directly relate to taught courses. An example of this is the Moctezuma exhibition in the British Museum, the Aztecs being an important subject in the first year Atlantic and the Making of the Modern World module.

Other places included the tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament to name a few. Needless to say that interest has been high. We have also made links and contacts within the Western Front Association and hope join them on a field trip to the First World War battlefields in Belgium and Northern France next year. One of the main mandates of the society is that the members choose what they would like to see, so it will not be long before more field trips are planned both for this year and for next.

The society is open to all students at Glamorgan with an interest in the past. Being a History student is not a prerequisite of membership, nor will it ever be. Anybody is free to join, participate and attend meetings, field trips and guest lectures. Anybody who is interested in joining can contact myself (Pete Driscoll – Society Secretary) on 08037582@glam.ac.uk or by joining our group page on Facebook.

Pete Driscoll

February 16, 2009

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» News from the Classroom: Violence in America

Third Year Option: Violence in America

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The United States of America is a violent country. On any average day in the U.S. there are 81 gun-related deaths. The murder rate for American men aged between 15 and 24 is 37 per 100,000 — 60 times that of England and Wales. In 25 years of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, 3,000 people died. However, even this horrendous death toll pales in comparison to the murder rate of just one large American city. In New York, over 2,000 people were murdered every year from 1987 to 1994. The response of American law enforcement is to fight violence with violence: according to Amnesty International, in 2002 a total of 71 prisoners were executed in the United States — more than in Syria, North Korea Saudi Arabia and Libya combined.

The United States also exports violence abroad. Even in peacetime, it spends more on its defence budget than the next dozen countries combined. From the Berlin Blockade until just prior the World Trade Center attacks, there were over 200 American military incursions in other countries. No wonder that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Noam Chomsky reminded Americans that they should “recognize that in much of the world the U.S. is regarded as a leading terrorist state”.

Using examples from American literature, television, cinema, comic books, and popular music, the students on Brian Ireland's second-year module, Violence in America, are investigating America’s culture of violence. Why is the United States so violent? Some argue that the entertainment industry is to blame. Through watching contact sports, Hollywood movies, music videos, computer games and television shows, Americans unarguably are exposed to many violence images. For example, one survey has estimated that the average American child sees 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18, and witnesses 16,000 murders. Yet American culture is exported around the world, with no corresponding increase in levels of violence in those countries that are the most eager consumers of violent American entertainment. Some argue that America’s brutal past acts as a paradigm for today’s violent society. Perhaps the seeds of violence sown during the frontier wars against Native Americans, or during the African slave trade, are now being reaped? The United States is, however, not exceptional in having a violent history. Germany and Japan were responsible for two world wars, yet now have much lower levels of violent crime than the United States. Maybe it is the high level of gun ownership that leads to violence? The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that citizens have the “right to bear arms”, and this is one right that Americans are not slow to exercise: the FBI estimates, for example, that there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the United States. Nevertheless, gun owners claim that their weapons make them safer: the influential National Rifle Association promotes firearm ownership, claiming that citizens need to be armed to safeguard their political liberties. Indeed, they might argue, if it were not for well-armed citizen militias, the U.S. might still be part of the British Empire!

January 13, 2009

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» Barack Obama

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"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

These are the words of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. Obama will soon take up residence in the aptly-named Whitehouse, the presidential mansion built by slave labour. Dr. Martin Luther King once said "history is a path upward, not downward", and Obama's election demonstrates, at least to an extent, that this is true for African-Americans. It is, after all, within living memory that African-Americans were denied even the most basic rights in the United States. Until the wide scale civil rebellion of the 1950s and '60s, known as the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans were second class citizens in their own country. It is perhaps difficult for modern-day students to appreciate what that actually means. Full citizenship meant access to the American Dream and all the economic and social benefits that entailed. For African-Americans, however, the dream was more like a nightmare. U.S society was supposed to be 'separate but equal'. There were, however, two Americas, divided by what W.E.B. DuBois called 'the color line'. African-Americans faced discrimination from kindergarten to the grave, in schoolrooms, in the criminal justice system, in higher education, and in employment practices. In most areas of the South, African-Americans were obliged to use separate facilities to whites. This meant separate drinking fountains, waiting rooms, public parks and toilets. Whites would enter public buildings by the front door, whereas blacks would use the back entrance. In at least one case, blacks and whites used different Bibles when swearing an oath in court. Restaurants and cafes had separate eating areas for blacks and whites, and on most inter-state bus routes, blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. In addition, few blacks in the South were registered to vote, and those who tried to register faced 'literacy tests', intimidation and violence. In short, while American society was separate, it was, however, anything but equal.

The Second World War marked the beginning of the end of the doctrine of white supremacy in the United States. Black men who had fought in the war against Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism, also fought for a 'double victory' against racism at home. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began the long, slow process of desegregating the public school system. In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks' calculated act of civil disobedience led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventual desegregation of public transport in both the city and in wider Alabama. Other acts of disobedience beginning at a Woolworth’s lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and then all across the South, led to the desegregation of many businesses. Black and white 'Freedom Riders' faced such horrific violence from locals and police that President Kennedy set in motion policies that would ensure all interstate transport facilities were integrated by 1962. Individual acts of bravery and sacrifice were repeated across the nation: U.S. Airforce veteran James Meredith, with the help of hundreds of U.S. Federal Marshals, faced down a violent mob of racists to become the first African-American to enrol at the University of Mississippi. Meredith would later be shot and wounded at a Civil Rights march and whereas he survived the attack, others would not be so fortunate. NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered by an assassin in front of his wife and children. In Birmingham, Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was bombed by white racists. Three young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as they worked to register black voters in Mississippi during the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964. A few years later, Martin Luther King Jr., who many saw as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and a man who espoused a policy of non-violence, was murdered by another lone white gunman. By this point, however, King had lived long enough to see the beginning of the end of state-authorised discrimination. While the stroke of a pen cannot change economic conditions overnight—as evidenced by riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, Detroit 1967, and in South Central Los Angeles in 1992—the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did much to level the playing field of equality and opportunity.

This is, therefore, a deeply symbolic triumph for Obama and also for the American people. If there is such a thing as the 'national mood', it is surely much brighter now than it has been for most of the last decade. Furthermore, many non-Americans previously alienated by the policies of the Bush Administration, are looking forward to the new Obama era. However, with such raised expectations comes the possibility—perhaps even the probability—of disappointment. Once the euphoria of victory has passed, Obama will have to face some sobering facts. Only two previous presidents have been elected to lead a country in such dire straits—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Lincoln, Obama will be a reluctant war president, as he attempts to extricate U.S. Armed Forces from the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. And like Roosevelt, Obama faces an economic crisis that will get much worse before it gets better. But great men rise to great challenges. Americans remember Lincoln and Roosevelt as two of their greatest presidents. Will Obama be as fondly remembered? Only time will tell.

Brian Ireland