Don’t Know Much About History

For our various driving trips over the past few months I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. It’s a vast overview of American history from pre-Colonial days until 2001. I found it to be oddly captivating, especially as it helped to fill in gaps in my knowledge of history, including the War of 1812, Reconstruction, the Korean War and more.

Any overview of history is sure to have its biases and make choices of content and coverage that someone is sure to disagree with. But some of those choices were especially interesting. For example, the Battle of the Bulge in World War II received more coverage than the Apollo moon landing. Alan Greenspan and his control over the boom economy of the 1990s received about as much coverage as the Kennedy assassination. Uncovered spies in the last decades of the 20th century were given thorough treatment in a chapter on the failures of the FBI, while the World Trade Center bombing was only mentioned in passing during the account of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I imagine it’s hard to put history in perspective, especially recent history. But how we make those choices is certainly fascinating.

Looking back on the entire book, it’s bizarre how much space is given to war. Each and every war was given a thorough overview, including the reasons for the war and the important milestones of each war, such as major battles. It seems odd to give so much space to each individual battle. Surely wars themselves and the reasons for each war were important to cover, but I don’t get the emphasis on each minute rise and fall. Wars shape our society, without a doubt, but I would think other social factors would have more importance than the Battle of Midway.

The other feeling I was left with was the incredible failure of mankind. Again and again we’re confronted with disgusting realities, whether it’s the Constitution declaring black men to be three-fifths of a person, the savage treatment of Native Americans justified by their supposed savageness or the national superiority that sees immigrants as lesser persons, despite the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants.

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was one such incident, a racially motivated powder keg that saw an entire black neighborhood burned to the ground and several hundred people killed. It was such an ugly affair that it was expunged from local records and never acknowledged until recently.

History is full of this kind of sadness.

But as I was driving across the prairies of Kansas hearing about the civil rights movement, I found moments of hope. In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case the Supreme Court finally overturned more than 50 years worth of racism that had been enshrined in U.S. court decisions. What’s perhaps most amazing about this is how Chief Justice Earl Warren convinced the other justices to issues a unanimous ruling, leaving no question as to the utter defeat of segregation. The back story is even more intriguing, that the court was actually re-hearing the case and that Warren was appointed chief justice before this final re-hearing. Ironically, President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of Warren the “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”

I was hearing this history while driving past exits for both the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. You don’t always think about it, but Kansas has been a flashpoint for racial progress going back to the Bleeding Kansas days when the territory was at the middle of a slave vs. free state debate.

In spite of all our failures, weakness and stupidity—both then and today, for surely we have our own failures we’ll one day be explaining to our children—there is always room for hope.

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