The American Historian

Reviews

Douglas M. Charles, Clare A. Lyons, Sean Neilly, and Nick Roland

1971. Maximum Pictures, 2014.

Reviewed by Douglas M. Charles

 

For decades, dating from the 1930s, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI maintained a carefully crafted public image. Eventually rising to the level of mythology, this image touted the professionalism of FBI agents, the employment of scientific investigative techniques, and the above-reproach nature of the Bureau. The reality, of course, was markedly different. Hoover’s FBI after 1936 all but abandoned criminal investigations as a priority in favor of non-criminal intelligence gathering and instead focused on radical political activity, increased its own bureaucratic power while trying to influence American opinion and events, and protected American culture from what Hoover saw as un-American forces. Hoover’s long-maintained, if fictitious, public image was shattered in 1971 after a group of otherwise ordinary, publicly spirited citizens broke into an FBI office and pilfered then leaked FBI documents that confirmed the reality of the FBI’s activities. The film 1971 successfully details this break-in and the resulting public exposure of FBI activity.

1971 is a documentary film that effectively employs historical reenactments of the break-in. While this technique often fails to impress professional historians, because it is so well done in 1971 and inserted alongside interviews with actual break-in participants, I think the format works well. The film also includes interviews with former Washington Post journalist Betty L. Medsger, one of the journalists originally offered the stolen FBI documents and who published excerpts of the documents in the Post. (In 2014 she published a book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, in which she revealed for the first time the identities of the burglars and their stories.) Further boosting the film’s documentary credentials, 1971 includes commentary from the dean of FBI historians, Athan Theoharis. All of these elements, together, make this a strong and compelling documentary.=

The Media burglars—who styled themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI—were a collection of young activists led by Haverford College physics professor Bill Davidon and also included John C. Raines, a professor of religion at Temple University. Motivated by the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the momentous events of 1968 (the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy) and inspired by draft-resistance activists who burgled local draft boards and stole documents to disrupt conscription, Davidon concluded that some sort of nonviolent disruption tactic was needed to expose the FBI’s suppression of dissent.

Davidon’s group avoided security-heavy FBI field offices and focused on an FBI resident agency, a small FBI office with minimal security staffed by only a dozen or so agents and located in a suburban Philadelphia apartment building. One member of the Commission who had studied locksmithing picked the office door; once the door was opened, the group stuffed about one thousand documents into suitcases and then departed. They then sorted the documents, wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, and copied them on Xerox machines at Haverford and Temple. The group leaked the documents to three newspapers and two politicians. Only the Washington Post decided to publish the documents, which proved the FBI had engaged heavily in monitoring and suppressing political dissent; all of the other recipients, including Sen. George McGovern, returned the stolen documents to the FBI.

The revelation of nefarious and illegal FBI activity was a watershed moment. For the first time the public had hard evidence—actual FBI documents—that shattered the FBI’s mythic image. The documents allowed others to uncover the FBI’s illegal and extensive COINTELPRO disruption program, which subsequently led to congressional investigations of the American intelligence community. The break-in also made it possible for scholars to study FBI primary documents. The film 1971 details all of this, and more, in an engaging and compelling way. The Media break-in was a central event in the exposure of controversial government activity in the early 1970s, and this important film brings these never-before-known and compelling details to the broader public.

 

Douglas M. Charles is an associate professor of history at Penn State University–Greater Allegheny. He is the author of J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939–1945 (2007).

 

 

Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History

Edited by Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman

University of Wisconsin Press, 2014

Reviewed by Clare A. Lyons

 

Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman have assembled a terrific book for anyone teaching U.S. history to high school or college students. It is designed to explain why, and especially how, educators can integrate LGBT history into their existing courses. The volume contains superb essays by scholars and teachers that speak to pedagogy, sources, and methods, and includes seventeen topical essays that span the breadth of U.S. history, from colonial same-sex experiences to contemporary same-sex marriage.

The authors make a compelling case that bringing LGBT history into the U.S. history curriculum is both important and enriching. Historicizing same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity gets to the core of what good history is about: comprehending how people in the past understood their world differently than our own. The LGBT history they present opens up questions and enriches analytical thinking. As contributing teachers Emily K. Hobson and Felicia T. Perez put it, this is a history about “systems of knowledge, state policies, and social movements, not sexual acts” (p. 89). If the task of teaching LGBT history in the classroom seems daunting, the first section of the book presents first-hand accounts by high school and college teachers who have taken the plunge. They represent a broad range of teaching experiences: public and private schools, affluent and impoverished student bodies, hostile and sympathetic parents and administrators, survey and elective courses, tight and flexible time constraints. Each teacher attests to the importance this history had for their students.

Much of the book’s focus is on integrating Queer history into the units and analytical frameworks a course already contains. For example, a unit on the nineteenth-century gender system and separate spheres can easily incorporate the history of romantic love between women and that between men. Some chapters discuss how to bring Queer history into staple topics in U.S. history courses: colonial America, the far West, urbanization and industrialization, World War II, the Cold War, Civil Rights, 1960s radical movements, and the rise of the New Right. Other chapters focus on topics more commonly associated with LGBT history: landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, same-sex parenting, the history of AIDS, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” same-sex marriage, and transgender history. The essays are full of teaching exercises the contributors have used in their own classrooms, useful primary and secondary sources, and specific historical details of individual lives.

Five essays on sources and teaching methods contain a treasure trove of materials. These essays offer more than a bibliographic encyclopedia. Essays on oral history, fiction, documentary films, popular culture, and online digital resources such as Outhistory.org (the premier online source of U.S. LGBT history) present extensive resources but also focus on how to use the materials to great effect.

Especially helpful are wonderful examples of strategies to achieve specific goals. For example, several chapters discuss how to demonstrate the social construction of sexualities by revealing unexpected histories, such as transgender lumberjacks in the American West, or third gender/Two-Sprit persons in Native American cultures. Other chapters illustrate teaching intersectionality by exploring life histories, such as that of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Yet another chapter takes a global perspective by examining seventeenth-century Japan, where men were expected to desire both women and boys. The beauty of the book is that teachers can pick and choose the subjects and approaches that fit into their own vision for their courses.

Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History also grapples with the politics of developing LGBT curriculum in distinct local and state educational environments, suggesting strategies to recruit support or counter objections. This is essential reading for teachers working to integrate historical skills into the Common Core, teaching LGBT content now part of the AP exam, or who are involved in curricular transformation projects, including the one initiated by California’s 2011 Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Responsible (FAIR) Education Act. “Outing the past” by integrating LGBT and Queer history into our U.S. history courses also counters the self-hate and homophobic bullying engendered by academic silence. The contributors to this volume have outlined a plan of action for curricular transformation. Let us heed their call.

 

Clare A. Lyons teaches history at the University of Maryland and is the author of “Mapping an Atlantic Sexual Culture: Homoeroticism in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” which appeared in the January 2003 edition of William and Mary Quarterly.

 

 

Reading, Thinking, and Writing about History: Teaching Argument Writing to Diverse Learners in the Common Core Classroom, Grades 6–12.

By Chauncey Monte-Sano, Susan De La Paz, and Mark Felton

Teachers College Press, 2014

By: Sean Neilly

 

The next time a politician or activist criticizes the Common Core State Standards, let’s hope they spare the Literacy in History/Social Sciences portions of the standards. The Literacy in History/Social Sciences portions are intended to develop analytical reading and writing skills to endure beyond secondary schooling and into college and the world of work. Historians use such skills as the foundation of their professional work, but the truth is that nearly everyone needs to be able to think historically. Reading, Thinking, and Writing about History is designed to grow students’ capacities to think and write historically in a structured and persistent way across much of a year of study of American history.

The book is based on the research of Sam Wineburg (who wrote the book’s foreword) and others who want students to turn historical thinking into a natural act. It uses engaging topics and approaches, classroom-ready handouts and lesson plans, and abundant samples of student work. It is an essential resource for teachers faced with the challenges of integrating critical reading and writing skills into their classrooms while coping with the loss of planning time, large class sizes, and reduced funds to spend on student resources. The activities in the book can be easily differentiated in a diverse classroom that includes advanced students in need of extensions and struggling students who need modifications to the demands or quantity of the work.

The book begins with a persuasive review of the research that demonstrates the need to integrate history and literacy, along with the need to teach historical thinking skills in an explicit manner. The authors go on to describe a “cognitive apprentice” approach that relies heavily on a clear structure for work, teacher modeling, and periodic student and teacher reflection. Included in the framework for this kind of teaching are two student-friendly tools: IREAD and H2W. The IREAD tool provides a dependable protocol for students to utilize in their exploration of sources. It “teaches students to analyze and annotate primary sources” culminating in an evaluation of the “quality of an author’s facts and examples.” H2W provides students with the structure for their historical writing as they proceed through the various lesson explorations. The book then moves through six explorations of historical topics based upon readings of primary and secondary sources with increasing demands on students for critical reading and writing. The topics span from the revolutionary era through war with Mexico in 1846. Accompanying each chapter are student work samples, presented warts-and-all for teachers to use and share as needed. The historical narratives are often engaging and surpass the quality of the narratives provided by most textbooks.

This great work generates a desire to see additional volumes created both for more historical topics, such as twentieth century American history, and more history classrooms, especially world history classrooms. This book should allow novice teachers to have success in introducing critical reading and writing skills and allow expert teachers to further hone their craft.

 

Sean Neilly is a social studies teacher at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School and the Social Studies Curriculum Facilitator for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. He is also an adjunct professor of secondary social studies methods at Coe College.>

 

 

The Better Angels

Brothers K Productions, 2014

Reviewed by Nick Roland

 

The latest entry to the crowded field of silver-screen Lincolnalia examines young Abraham Lincoln’s life on the Indiana frontier. The Better Angels seeks to explain the origins of Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinary character through his relationship with his family, his exposure to evangelical religion, and the experience of poverty. This artistic treatment effectively reminds viewers that Lincoln’s image as a self-made man belies the especially significant role that his mother and stepmother played in Lincoln’s life.

Although written and directed by A. J. Edwards, The Better Angels clearly exhibits the stylistic fingerprints of producer Terrence Malick. Malick’s characteristically beautiful cinematography is on display once again, this time in black and white. The film lacks a strong narrative and plods through a period of approximately four years, although viewers unfamiliar with the obscure details of young Abraham Lincoln’s life will be hard-pressed to determine exactly how much historical time passes during the course of the film. Such aesthetic choices are hallmarks of a Malick production and will probably be as welcomed by his fans as they are panned by his critics.

Setting aside questions of style, to a historian’s eye the film does some things quite well. The isolation and poverty found on the early-nineteenth century Indiana frontier is well represented. Lincoln is typically associated with Illinois, antislavery, and Republican politics, but viewers are reminded through the accents of the cast that Lincoln came of age in an essentially southern culture. We are also reminded of Indiana’s border-state status when young Abraham encounters a slave coffle moving through a forest. While this incident represents a bit of artistic license by the filmmakers, it demonstrates that Indiana continued to have small numbers of slaves within its borders during the time Lincoln resided there, notwithstanding the Northwest Ordinance and the Indiana constitution of 1816.>

Another scene that is particularly well done depicts the outbreak of milk sickness in the Little Pigeon Creek settlement in 1818. The outbreak claimed a neighbor, Lincoln’s aunt and uncle, and eventually his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Now a forgotten scourge, Midwest milk sickness was a feared disease in the nineteenth century and was caused by ingesting the milk or meat of free-roaming livestock that grazed on white snakeroot. In the film, the onset of milk sickness is accompanied by an atmosphere of looming terror that reminds the viewer of the ubiquity of sudden, unexplained death in antebellum America and hints at the origins of Lincoln’s melancholy and fatalism.

Despite a few scenes that deviate slightly, such as Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s burial and a scene in which the young Lincoln builds a fence with a Native American, on the whole the movie is remarkably true to the historical record of Lincoln’s early life. Unfortunately, as evidenced by The Alamo (2004), detailed historical accuracy does not a great historical movie make. The film’s oblique narrative and scant dialogue don’t lend themselves to character development, which, one could argue, should be the primary focus of the film. While it won’t be particularly useful in history classrooms, The Better Angels should be of interest to Lincoln aficionados and students of historical memory. Perhaps as remarkable as Lincoln’s humble upbringing is his enduring appeal to filmmakers and audiences alike.

 

Nick Roland is a graduate student in U.S. history at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the American South and Texas in the nineteenth century. His writing has appeared on the public history website Not Even Past and in the Handbook of Texas.