Monthly Archives: November 2010

Korea–a really brief look at how we got here

Korea has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as China and Japan.  If it was not under the thumb of its neighbors in modern times, it was under the influence of imperialist European nations.  We might as well begin at the conclusion of World War II, when Korea had been forcibly liberated from Japan–a period of brutal treatment that has not been forgotten (as is evident from the Japanese textbook scandal a few years back which riled China, North Korea and South Korea with its glossed over account of Japan’s war crimes committed against the occupied people of these two countries).  Not unlike World War II Germany, Korea was divided by the Soviets and the Americans in the Allied attempt to defeat the Japanese.  The Soviets established the Korean Workers’ Party and installed their man, Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung, founding the People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, accompanied by Soviet withdrawal.  When the South declared its independence the Korean War began with North Korea’s invasion.  Thus, it was one of the few hot spots during the Cold War.

Kim Il-Sung, the "Eternal Leader", with his son, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader".

When folks refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war they are in part referring to the preference to look at the Second World War and Vietnam, while neglecting this brief but brutal conflict.  Over two million people died between 1950-1953.  Only twenty thousand fewer Americans died in that span than died in seventeen years of the Vietnam War.  In the end, with the involvement of U.S.-led coalition forces, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, two Koreas were forged in brutal warfare, separating families and isolating the people of North Korea.

A Map of the Korean Peninsula (1993, CIA)

Roughly along the 38th Parallel is a no-man’s land, legendary for its absurdly large collection of land mines, which is guarded around the clock by North Koreans on the north wall and South Koreans and Americans on the south wall.  American forces have remained in South Korea since the Armistice that ended the Korean conflict.  (They have mostly been welcomed, but more recently their presence is controversial to a younger generation, especially given a level of inappropriate behavior by some soldiers.)  Whereas South Korea has achieved some economic stability, the North has been in a dire situation for decades with extremely poor health, short life expectancy and widespread hunger and starvation.  Conditions for aid have often been dependent on a more humane government, but it has sacrificed its people for weapons and a desire to establish a nuclear armament.

The physical darkness of North Korea and metaphor for the internal conditions.

Throughout the last decade and a half, the West and North Korea’s neighbors have been concerned about its attempt to negotiate for nuclear energy to solve some its internal problems.  The potential to turn energy into arsenal has always been a concern, though many agree that clean and abundant energy would be an asset to a nation that is significantly behind in medicine, food production, manufacturing, everything but military arsenals.  The so-called Six Party talks, named after the six countries at the table: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been orchestrated on numerous occasions to discuss the nuclear situation.  In the last decade North Korea even agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA of the United Nations to conduct investigations and inspections intended to insure that all nuclear-interests were peaceful, but ultimately failed to make good on such promises.  Traditionally, China has insisted on protecting the North, and as with a small sibling, scolding and cajoling them into cooperation, but many question China’s influence, particularly in light of its recent economic changes.  Current events, including two attacks, may sorely test China’s right to keep little brother from straying into international conflict.

Kim Jong-il's family

In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died after amassing a substantial military regime, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese aircraft, artillery and guns, and was replaced by Kim Jong-il.  It is believed that the next succession is under way from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, but given its closed society it is difficult to say for sure what it is intended.  If Kim Jong-il is about to end his career as North Korea’s supreme leader, it is worth remembering the brief thaw in North-South relations which many Koreans, separated since the conflict in the early 50s, were reunited.  It came during a brief period of hope that has since evaporated.  In contrast to this touching scene, we may also recall the presentation of his father as Eternal Leader ten years after his death and the fact that the country resembles nothing so much as a giant concentration camp.

The Kims. Kim Il-Sung holds the sickle of the USSR to emphasize his background.

In the last few months, North Korea has become increasingly provocative.  The most recent missile attack on Seoul has certainly ignited the South and led many to question whether war can be avoided–an unpleasant thought under the “best” circumstances but more disturbing now, given the confirmation of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities on par with Iran.  It becomes more difficult to predict what the next course of action will be and whether a non-violent solution is possible.

North Korea ups the ante...

This has been every bit as brief as advertised and as such is likely to be vulnerable to the inaccuracies or misguiding points that are often the product of brevity.  For this reason I wanted to provide some fast but more thorough resources recommended for further investigation.

For a quick analysis on economics, history and current political situation, such as it is known, the first place to start is the CIA World Factbook for North Korea: and for South Korea:  I would also suggest the US State Department to see what it is providing and saying about current events.

For a summary on Korean history in an easy to access package, try the BBC’s website:  From that page you can link to country profiles on both North and South as well as recent headlines and news.  While you are there you may want to make use of the timeline: and the summary of the Korean War–it is succinct, but more in depth than what I provided.  There are better and more academic sources out there, not least because they are written by political scientists, economists and historians, but they are not so brief.

The Economist also provides a brief commentary on the current situation and what should be done:

For a report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities visit Foreign Policy

Foreign Affairs also provides analysis on North Korea’s political situation in general with two articles from August 2010: and October 2010:  Note: both of these articles predate the most recent round of hostilities and the most escalating to date.

Finally, I recommend The Week, with its broad summary coverage of what the media is reporting and how it is commenting:–Bonus!: the site includes cartoon commentary!

Raising the next generation of Kims.


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Historical fiction and historical education

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A college semester is actually a surprisingly short period of time, which can be further compressed into shorter condensed seasonal mini-semesters during the summer and winter.  I find it difficult to make use of good documentaries let alone tap into fictional historic films or mini-series in the three hours or so a week I actually spend with my students.  I will tap into the handy Monty Python excerpt, but largely for levity as opposed to valuable information, and even then only briefly.  Perhaps it is because I teach excessively broad surveys, but I have a hard time making use of some quality historical fiction that can be a useful medium for drawing students into the foreign cultures that we study.

In my first semester as an adjunct, I provided an extra credit assignment that combined a Hollywood adaptation of history with a packet of primary sources.  Most students did not do it.  But, I think I am going to try to tweak this concept and include it as available extra credit built into my syllabus.  I only offer extra credit if I think the assignment offers something intrinsically beneficial to the students beyond the bonus points.  Therefore, the film or novel has to provide a gateway to the historical period for the students or to make them hungry for more.

This came up recently twice in the last week for me.  The first instance came during the Civil War Symposium where the members of the panel recommended the movie Glory as an apt film for Civil War classes that resonated with students.  The screenwriter, Kevin Jarre, supposedly based the plot on the letters (actual primary sources) of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and two novels.  It tells the story of the first black regiment to fight in the Union, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Army, from the perspective of its commanding officer.

The other instance came more recently during movie time on Thanksgiving evening–after all, who really wanted to watch the Bengals bungle again!?!  We watched 1993’s Remains of the Day.  While both films were about epic war events, the latter did not deal with the actual conflict but the day to day response of a handful of English lords during the period of appeasement preceding World War II.  The conflict is based on the belief that the post-World War I period created unfair terms for Germany and that following the horrors of the Great War another world war must be avoided at all costs pitted against the ever-growing sentiment in England that the Germans were a danger to everyone in the free world.  The conflict is also evident in the hearts and minds of the people reflecting on their contributing roles in the actions towards appeasement.

I have read a great deal of historical fiction and seen a fair number of films, but outside of extra credit it is hard for me to fit them into survey courses.  These are tools that arguably more useful at the high school level because the school year is much longer.  I do think there can be a genuinely useful application, but it is harder to find the time to add it in without making such projects part of homework or extra credit.

I would be really interested in hearing from other people about their own experiences as either student or instructor when it comes to the use of historical fiction in film or literature.

Below are the two film excerpts I show most often in my 101 class for the Romans and the Black Plague:

I also use this when I talk about the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction

The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

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Filed under Historian's Journal, Lectures had my great idea first!!

And, here I was thinking I was so original and creative!!


Click on the image to get a closer look at all the brilliant stuff in this poster--a great breakdown!


I was visiting a great site and resource called Teaching History and came across this poster that they offer for free.  This has a lot of stuff that is straight out of my introductory classes each semester.  I thought I was pretty clever, but apparently I am not that original after all!!

Check out the poster and then check out my earlier blog on introducing the subject and the field each semester: “A Metaphor to Explain What Historian Do.”

Clearly, I am on to the right track!  I just received the free poster in the mail yesterday and it is fantastic.

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Soccer and World History?


Ancient Athenian playing a soccer-like game. (National Museum of Archaeology, Athens, Greece)


In preparation for my sports history class next semester at the Community College of Baltimore County, I have been preparing a unit on soccer–the game the world plays . . . even if the U.S. does not.  It is also the sport over which the most ink has been spent.  Because of its penetration into the societies that really play it, it is something that has garnered the attention of political scientists, economists and sociologists, but not so much by historians.


The Ball is Round, A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt


It is with that in mind that I have started to develop the reading list, both my preparatory list and my students’, and have started reading David Goldblatt’s 974-page tome, The Ball is Round, A global history of Soccer.  Goldblatt’s argument is simply that soccer must be part of modern historical writing, “Whether the historians like it or not, football [soccer] cannot be taken out of the history of the modern world and the history of the modern world is unevenly, erratically but indisputably etched into the history of football,” (xvii, Goldblatt).  I have argued that sports and other hobbies and interests open windows onto exquisite views of our human past, but I cannot think of a single modern history that has included soccer.  In my mind, sports potentially provides a spark of interest for people who may not know why they should care about history.  Goldblatt argues that it should be considered not as a gimmick to get attention, but as a genuine contributor to history.  I have thought its value is the connection to the culture.  Goldblatt agrees, but thinks it is still more than that, contributing to the culture’s history.


A recent tribute to Kurt Landauer, club president of FC Bayern Munchen until the Nazi regime forced the club to expel its Jewish members--the only club not to do so voluntarily before such laws.


I wonder if Goldblatt is to be taken seriously.  Certainly, his latter point about history etching itself on the sport has to be accurate, but on considering whether it is the case that soccer can be included versus must be included . . . I am not yet sure.  I will say this: the Cold War should not be covered without a look at the international competitions as a way to demonstrate the apparent success of two conflicting ways of life–regardless of how accurate that presentation actually was.


The Miracle on Ice: The US is victorious over the USSR at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games in New York--incredible win considering the state of the nation and the Cold War


Come to think of it,  is it is not easy to think of the Nazi regime’s insistence on the physical prowess of the mythical Aryan race without thinking about the Olympics preceding World War II.  For that matter, I can seldom think of baseball without thinking of Cuban refugees and a certain Venezuelan dictator’s failed attempt to make the Big Leagues (poor Hugo Chavez).  Perhaps Goldblatt really has it right and I have undersold my own attempt to bridge sports and history.  Maybe we as historians do ourselves and our scholarship a real injustice by ignoring sports in the final analysis of [modern] world history.


A stamp for the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany--an affair that violated virtually all of the idealistic purposes of the Olympic Games, but also frustrated Hitler with the success of American Jesse Owens.



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V. The City as Stage and Shrine | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

Visitors seldom come to Washington DC specifically for the city the way they might visit New York or Chicago.  They typically visit for what the locals often refer to as “the marble”.  On the one hand, DC’s great federal buildings represent the shrines of our democratic government, the legacy of the good things our forefathers set in motion even though it was imperfect.  It is as Kennedy said in Berlin in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (translation: “I am a jelly doughnut”) speech: “Democracy may not be perfect, but we have never had to build a wall to keep our people in!”

In addition to the Capitol and the White House, there are other things that draw people to the city such as the universities like Georgetown University, Howard University and Gallaudet University.  There are religious buildings such as the National Cathedral and the National Shrine of  the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  There are also the museums such as the National Memorial Museum of the National Holocaust, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art–all federally owned and maintained, so free to the public (i.e.: taxpayers).  And, cultural attractions such as the Kennedy Center, Verizon Center (concerts, the NHL’s Capitals, the WNBA’s Magic and the NBA’s the Wizards) and National’s Park (MLB’s Nationals).  But, the biggest draw are the monuments and those federal buildings that have an iconic place in America’s civic religion.

These icons are pilgrimage sites for the American family, but also have become the  stage with which to relate the ideas of one’s cause to the ideas that make America unique and special–freedom and rights–even where deficiencies are found or perceived.  Thus, the meaning of the cause is to be tied to the cause of the forefathers or Lincoln, and, because of the place’s history, the cause of the Civil Rights movement which so early identified the value of these spaces for its mission.  What follows, to conclude this series about Washington DC and its places and spaces, is a photo essay devoted to the usage of the city as shrine and stage.

After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to desegregate Constitution Hall for international opera star Marian Anderson's performance, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her concert to be held at the Lincoln Memorial.

Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial

March for Life along Constitution Avenue from the White House up to the Supreme Court

AIDs Quilt on the National Mall

The Promise Keepers' Rally on the National Mall

Demonstrations for Immigrants's rights at the Capitol

Glenn Beck's Rally to Restore Honor

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

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IV. The Capital’s Space | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

In honor of Veteran’s Day and Armistice Day, thank you.

While DC is a city never far from federal jurisdiction there are several places that have always been part of the capital as opposed to the city: the Capitol, the White House and the National Mall–though the separation became more complete over time.  Where L’Enfant drew up the original plans for the National Mall, what we see today is a renovated design based on the 1901 McMillan Plan.  Some of its designs have been implemented, but as Dr. Judy Scott Feldman and her organization, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, have pointed out the Plan has faltered and is now in the hands of several different departments and jurisdictions.  Plans for the National Mall are first and foremost in the hands of the National Park Service which has projects for the Mall that it tackles as money comes in.  Additionally, the Capitol Architect, the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the District government all have competing plans in the pipeline.  So, while the space has failed to be fully developed along the original plans, and has in fact evolved in some respects away from these plans, the future is unclear and a cohesive whole–part of the goal for McMillian Plan–seems unlikely.

Andrew Ellicott's remembered version of Pierre L'Enfant's original design.

Notice the position of the Potomac River in these two images!

1901's McMillan Plan, intended to create a cohesive design for a democratic stage.

The competing visions and boundaries of the National Mall.

The Mall has always been a disorderly space of competing claims and as a result is really a compilation of ideas and interests.  Dr. Mark Levitch spoke at the conference this past weekend about the plans and ultimate failures to build a World War I Memorial where the National Gallery of Art now stands–a plan that would be tied to providing the city with a large auditorium space.  The World War I Memorial was tied to existing plans for a George Washington Memorial–again the main feature here was an auditorium.  At first, George Washington was dropped and the emphasis was to build just a World War I victory memorial, and there existed a real fever among Americans to fund and build such memorials.  George would be reinstated in the plan and there was an attempt to link the hero of the Revolutionary War with General John J. Pershing, American hero of World War I.  In the end, neither building would be built (only a foundation would be laid) and no National World War I memorial would be built on the National Mall–the only 20th century American war not so represented (though a DC WWI memorial can be found among the trees on the south side of the Reflecting Pool).  Levitch suggested that the project’s chameleon-like nature to re-envision itself into various George Washington and [other] plans was as much to blame as anything, though other factors contributed.

While tomorrow’s post will look at the use of this space as a democratic stage (mostly through photography), I did want to direct interested people to the website for Feldman’s organization, which provides information about existing plans and a suggested direction for future management called the 3rd Century Mall which specifically considers its democratic functions as public space.

Thanks to Mark Farrell for directing me to this particular workshop at the conference!!

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