Lecture Description

In the late twentieth-century United States, Americans took an extraordinary interest in the nation’s past. But they fervently disagreed about how it should be represented. In short, history wars gripped the nation. Growing numbers of Americans took to heart George Orwell’s truism that “who controls the past controls the future.” For conservatives, history would redeem the nation from all that had gone wrong since the sixties. For those on the left, history was no less important. The left-wing interpretation of American history, like the right-wing version, often acted as a form of redemption. The greater attention paid to the history of blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, immigrants, women, and workers was, in part, a means of redeeming the humanity of people previously swept away by traditional historical narratives that accentuated the role of powerful white men. But left-leaning Americans also understood the purpose of history as a tool for social transformation. This division in how Americans saw the American past played out in a number of high profile cases, including controversies over the National History Standards and the Smithsonian’s attempts to display the Enola Gay.


Public History and Memory

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