Why Write for Children?

By Harriet Alonso, Emerita Professor of History, The City College of New York, CUNY

This coming November 21, Seven Stories Press will publish my first Middle Grade historical fiction, Martha and the Slave Catchers. For over thirty-five years, I have been writing non-fiction books for adults, so you might wonder why I took up my pen (I mean, keyboard) to write for children. And why choose fiction? Believe me when I say that I have thought about these questions nearly every day now for the almost seven years it took me to reach this point. Let me share some of that journey with you, especially as it relates to my commitment to our values as peace historians.

Some non-exact time somewhere around 2010, I started to have the flash of an idea that I might like to try writing a story for children. Part of my reasoning had to do with plain and simple frustration with college students taking my U.S. survey course who were clueless about so much of U.S. history. I could forgive the students who had not been educated in the U.S., but a good number of my folk came directly out of the New York City school system. Why did they know so little? And why were newspapers and educational journals citing studies indicating that most junior and senior high school students hated history? Now, I guess I should ‘fess up here and admit that when I was in those exact same grades way, way back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I hated history, too. My students often found it incredible when I told them that. But, I said, in the 1980s, I discovered women’s history, and the world changed. So, with the advent of social history, why hadn’t it changed for them?

I had no answers, but I began pondering about what small part I could play in eradicating our bad reputation. One inspiration was a graduate course I team-taught with a colleague in the School of Education called Social Studies Inquiry for Childhood Education that focused on how to build curriculum around the U.S. woman’s rights/suffrage movement. One thing led to another, and through conversations with several educators and a whole lot of reading, I became interested in the materials used to teach children about history. I guess that’s what my brain was centering on when the idea for writing a children’s book crept up on me.

I had written a few pieces of adult fiction but had never seriously tried to have them published. But the children’s book idea was very enticing. And as for subject matter? Well, it seemed an easy choice. The very well-known author’s adage, “Write what you know,” definitely led my way. I had spent ten years researching and writing Growing Up Abolitionist: The Story of the Garrison Children which came out in 2002. Yet, I had never grown tired of reading about abolitionist children, the Underground Railroad, and the personalities involved in that part of our history. In fact, that project led to my developing and teaching courses in U.S. Family History, the History of Childhood in America, and Biography and the Antislavery Movement. When I last taught the U.S. Survey, I asked my students how many of them had studied about U.S. slavery. All had, but none knew anything about the antislavery movement. So I concentrated on that. Several students later told me that the information had opened their eyes to something very new and exciting. Throughout this period, the seeds for Martha and the Slave Catchers took root.

As I tested the waters, I realized that I had to learn a whole lot about how to write for children. During the winter of 2013, when I was on sabbatical, I took two invaluable courses in Writing Children’s Literature at the Gotham Writers Workshop. Every exercise I was assigned I used to try out a different plot point, various voices, different scenarios. By the time I was done with the courses, I had the rough draft for the novel. I then spent a year revising and sending out query letters to agents and editors. In the fall of 2014, I signed with Marie Brown Associates and two years later with Seven Stories Press which is currently expanding its children’s imprint, Triangle Square Books for Young Readers. Seven Stories is a publisher dedicated to human rights and social justice. Check them out at www.sevenstories.com.

Martha and the Slave Catchers is a story about the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 on the lives of two children in Connecticut. Here is a brief synopsis of the plot:

Danger lurks in every corner of almost fourteen-year-old Martha Bartlett’s life—and all because her mama and papa, agents of the Underground Railroad in Liberty Falls, Connecticut, decide to claim as their own the light-skinned orphan of a runaway slave who died in their attic hideaway. They name him Jake.

After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is enacted, two hired slave catchers, Will and Tom, kidnap Jake and take him south to the plantation of Robert Dawes, his supposed biological father and “master.” Always ambivalent about her demanding, mischievous, and learning impaired brother, Martha nonetheless feels guilty about his disappearance. After all, it was her job to watch over him on that very day he was snatched. She pledges to find him and bring him home.

Martha becomes part of an Underground Railroad plan to rescue Jake. That journey takes her away from the safe world she has always known to a world full of danger, bigotry, violence, and self-discovery. Missing their connection with famed slave rescuer, Harriet Tubman, Martha and Jake are forced to start their perilous journey north with only each other to depend on. Meanwhile, Will and Tom are always close on their heels. Will they receive help from the Underground Railroad in their escape? Will they make it to safety? Will they ever see their home and parents again? These and other questions are answered by the end of the novel.

I wrote Martha and the Slave Catchers with several ideas I want to share with young readers. I guess you can say, I want to help to build upon the beliefs we in the Peace History Society share about peace, human rights, and nonviolence. To do this, I definitely followed the “write what you know” principle for crafting fiction. But I also kept in mind several rules about writing for Middle Grade students, especially the importance of placing the children in steadily escalating danger which they get themselves out of, keeping the pacing fast, and taking my readers seriously.

So, what are those things I know about?

First, I know about the Garrisons and other abolitionist families, and I borrowed from their stories. There are several incidents in Martha’s story that came right out of my book on the Garrisons. (Some of these are explained on the Martha and the Slave Catchers page on my website: http://harrietalonso.com. I titled the list, “What are the Historical Facts behind Martha and the Slave Catchers?”). I want children to know that young people in the past were raised by parents who felt so strongly about human rights that they put themselves in danger by hiding runaways in their homes. Martha’s home education mirrored that of real abolitionist children in terms of what she read, the games she played, and in her early training that it is sometimes necessary to keep secrets and tell lies if it means freedom for an enslaved individual. When I wrote the book, I was not anticipating the current uncertainty of our own freedoms and those of immigrants in this country. Now I wonder if the story will take on new meaning.

Second, I wrote about what it was like to be a child of two or more races and/or ethnicities in the nineteenth century. Jake is a light complexioned mixed-race child being raised as white in a predominantly white community. Martha discovers at age thirteen that she was a foundling who will never know what her racial background is. My own son is Puerto Rican and European Jewish. I remember well his questions about this mix when he attended elementary school in the 1970s. At times, he was dismayed, and offering up the character of Juan Epstein from the tv sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter, didn’t seem to help. I think it took him some time to work the whole thing out. So, this was something familiar to me personally as it is to many parents and children in mixed-race and adoptive families. Questions of identity are no strangers in children’s lives.

Third, I wrote about disability. Jake is what in today’s terms we could describe as autistic. Because I needed him to be able to perform independently and to be a partner in his and Martha’s escape from the slave catchers, I gave him clear abilities. But my own grandson, who is severely autistic, does not have Jake’s capabilities. Over the years, I have observed his and other autistic children’s behavior and used them to build Jake. His hand movements, his rocking, his fits, his jumping. . . all of these things are taken from my grandson’s experiences. My hope is that the siblings of these children will identify with Martha’s frustration with Jake, but that they will also grow, as she does, to understand their siblings and appreciate and love them for who they are.

Finally, children’s book writing instructors tell us budding writers to get rid of the adults as quickly as possible so that the main characters can save themselves. And while I did adhere to this rule pretty well, I did not do it completely, largely because Middle School readers are still young enough to appreciate their need for supportive adults. However, I did manage to sidetrack Martha’s mother with deep depression and her father, therefore, with too much to do to pay attention to his children. In that way, Martha could be the main person who saves Jake from slavery and brings him home. But Martha and Jake have a strong adult structure that supports them, and that is the antislavery community and the Underground Railroad. I want children who read my book to understand that while children can be strong and creative and brave, there are also adults in their lives who will cushion them, guide them, and help develop them into the next generation of human rights activists.

Of course, I am nervous about the reception Martha and the Slave Catchers will receive when it comes out in the fall. And I am somewhat excited about the new little character who keeps popping her face into my thoughts demanding some attention. I can say for sure that it is challenging to write historically sound, exciting books for children, but I hope some of you will give it a try. If you are thinking about this or currently playing with a story, please get in touch with me. I’d love to see PHSers build on this idea. After all, children are our future, and we must nurture them in the best ways we know how.

I can be contacted at halonso@ccny.cuny.edu.

 

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Should Limiting North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions Be the Responsibility of the U.S. Government?

By Lawrence Wittner

(This article was originally published on History News Network)

In recent months, advances in the North Korean government’s nuclear weapons program have led to a sharp confrontation between the government leaders of the United States and of North Korea.  This August, President Donald Trump declared that any more threats from North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  In turn, Kim Jong Un remarked that he was now contemplating firing nuclear missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam.  Heightening the dispute, Trump told the United Nations in mid-September that, if the United States was forced to defend itself or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Soon thereafter, Trump embellished this with a tweet declaring that North Korea “won’t be around much longer.”

From the standpoint of heading off nuclear weapons advances by the North Korean regime, this belligerent approach by the U.S. government has shown no signs of success.  Every taunt by U.S. officials has drawn a derisive reply from their North Korean counterparts.  Indeed, when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, escalating U.S. threats seem to have confirmed the North Korean government’s fears of U.S. military attack and, thus, bolstered its determination to enhance its nuclear capabilities.  In short, threatening North Korea with destruction has been remarkably counter-productive.

But, leaving aside the wisdom of U.S. policy, why is the U.S. government playing a leading role in this situation at all?  The charter of the United Nations, signed by the United States, declares in Article 1 that the United Nations has the responsibility “to maintain international peace and security” and, to that end, is “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”  Not only does the UN charter not grant authority to the United States or any other nation to serve as the guardian of the world, but it declares, in Article 2, that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”  It’s pretty clear that both the U.S. and North Korean governments are violating that injunction.

Moreover, the United Nations is already involved in efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  The UN Security Council has not only condemned  the behavior of the North Korean government on numerous occasions, but has imposed stiff economic sanctions upon it.

Will further UN action have any more success in dealing with North Korea than the Trump policy has had?  Perhaps not, but at least the United Nations would not begin by threatening to incinerate North Korea’s 25 million people.  Instead, to ease the tense United States-North Korea standoff, the United Nations might offer to serve as a mediator in negotiations.  In such negotiations, it could suggest that, in exchange for a halt to the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the United States agree to a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and halt U.S. military exercises on North Korea’s borders.  Giving way to a UN-brokered compromise rather than to U.S. nuclear blackmail might well be appealing to the North Korean government.  Meanwhile, the United Nations could keep moving forward with its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons―a measure both Kim and Trump despise (and might, in their opposition to it, even bring them closer together), but is very appealing to most other countries.

Critics, of course, say that the United Nations is too weak to deal with North Korea or other nations that ignore the will of the world community.  And they are not entirely incorrect.  Although UN pronouncements and decisions are almost invariably praiseworthy, they are often rendered ineffective by the absence of UN resources and power to enforce them.

But the critics do not follow the logic of their own argument for, if the United Nations is too weak to play a completely satisfactory role in maintaining international peace and security, then the solution is to strengthen it.  After all, the answer to international lawlessness is not vigilante action by individual nations but, rather, the strengthening of international law and law enforcement.  In the aftermath of the vast chaos and destruction of World War II, that’s what the nations of the world claimed they wanted when, in late 1945, they established the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, as the years passed, the great powers largely abandoned a United Nations-centered strategy based on collective action and world law for the old-fashioned exercise of their own military muscle.  Unwilling to accept limits on their national power in world affairs, they and their imitators began engaging in arms races and wars.  The current nightmarish nuclear confrontation between the North Korean and U.S. governments is only the latest example of this phenomenon.

Of course, it’s not too late to finally recognize that, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, savage wars, accelerating climate change, rapidly-depleting resources, and growing economic inequality, we need a global entity to take the necessary actions for which no single nation has sufficient legitimacy, power, or resources.  And that entity is clearly a strengthened United Nations.  To leave the world’s future in the hands of nationalist blowhards or even prudent practitioners of traditional national statecraft will simply continue the drift toward catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

BURNS AND NOVICK, MASTERS OF FALSE BALANCING

By Jerry Lembcke

This article was originally published on Public Books.

When Karl Marlantes takes the screen during the new PBS film series The Vietnam War, he says coming home was nearly as traumatic as the war itself. Later, he describes being assaulted by protesters at the airport, invoking the image of spat-on Vietnam veterans, an image that Los Angeles Times editorial writer Michael McGough said in 2012 was based on a myth. An edifying myth, McGough called it, but still a myth.

With The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have created a film that rehashes some old, tired tropes. In doing so, they distort what soldiers, veterans, and antiwar activists alike know about the war and its aftermath, especially inside the United States.

In their May 29 New York Times op-ed advertisement for the series, Burns and Novick give a lofty rationale for their film. Succumbing to another cliché, they claim it is about healing. But the discourse of healing misleads as much as it informs, presupposing a prewar America that was a seamless unity, where everyone got along. As sociologist Keith Beattie showed in his 1998 book The Scar That Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War, that America was mythical. The real one was already torn by racism and McCarthyism, and frayed by modern technology. Domestic class conflict and racial and gender anxieties, too, continued right through the war, as the historian Milton Bates pointed out in his 1996 book The Wars We Took to Vietnam.

That fractured America was complicit in its going to war, not simply a passive victim of it. Burns and Novick intentionally exclude scholars like Beattie and Bates, however. “No historians or other expert talking heads” mar their film, they told the Times’s reviewer Jennifer Schuessler. “Instead,” Schuessler reports matter-of-factly, their “79 onscreen interviews give the ground-up view of the war from the mostly ordinary people who lived through it.”

Ground-up views are susceptible, especially after 40 years, to the very myths they are supposed to belie. Memories that are 40 years old are too influenced by movies, novels, newspapers, and television—or those dreaded historians—to count for documentation. Lawyers, judges, and courts concluded years ago that eyewitness accounts of crimes that are only hours old are unreliable—so, 40 years? Or 50? In the hands of filmmakers, however, such accounts are too easily and too often used as a veneer to manage viewer perceptions.1 Here Burns and Novick offer false equivalences, or “balance” in journalistic parlance. In promoting healing instead of the search for truth, The Vietnam War offers misleading comforts.

The contradictions of The Vietnam War pile up from the start. Its creators might claim a ground-up view—and the film does give us lot of grunt-level footage, like Marines in rice paddies and GIs jumping out of helicopters—but the prevailing interpretations of these scenes come from elites. Some of these notables would be better cast into confessional booths than onto PBS screens, too. For example, John Negroponte, a prominent interpreter in the film, used diplomatic appointments as cover for covert activities over a half-century of US-engineered (or –attempted) regime-change operations.

Just over 30 years old when he began his Vietnam assignment, Negroponte developed a reputation as a “hardliner” in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam, once breaking with his superior officer Henry Kissinger for making too many concessions to communist North Vietnam. Later in his life, he took lessons from Vietnam to America’s adventures across the world. As ambassador to Honduras between 1981 and 1985, Negroponte built the small and friendly nation into a bustling military platform for cross-border operations against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua; when popular opposition to the US military presence in Honduras arose, he enabled and covered for the murderous death squads of General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. As a delegate to the United Nations in the early 2000s, he helped sell the invasion of Iraq on the false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Once characterized by journalist Stephen Kinzer as “a great fabulist,” Negroponte’s prominence in The Vietnam War will have viewers of many political stripes scratching their heads.

A historical documentary in search of consensus, The Vietnam War indulges in Cold War common sense. It pits East against West and the United States against Communism. It could have been made in the 1980s. More recent scholarship might have provided a fresher frame and more comprehensive account of the war. For instance, Gareth Porter, in his 2005 Perils of Dominance, argues that the US stepped into a swamp of local-level conflicts, where East-West ideological tensions were largely irrelevant. Philip Catton’s 2002 Diem’s Final Failure and Philip Taylor’s 2001 Fragments of the Present put peasant-landlord conflicts characteristic of Vietnam’s disintegrating feudal system on the research agenda. Had they brought to life this new thinking about the war, Burns and Novick would have made a more enduring contribution.

Instead, The Vietnam War gives us a throwback to the days when fighting the Communist bogeyman justified all manner of US military intervention. The film is organized around a drumbeat of the Communists did this, the Communists did that—Communist aggression, Communist assassinations, Communists kill their enemy wounded. A former Vietnamese officer describes a 1970 battle as setting the “good” Vietnamese against “the worst of the Vietnamese … the Communists.”

Antiwar activists, anxious about how the movement is treated, will be among the most eager viewers of The Vietnam War, but they will find only cool acknowledgment and some common misrepresentations. War opponent Bill Zimmerman provides one of the most thoughtful and sincere interviews in the film; war veteran W. D. Ehrhart, now a well-published poet, mans up with a touching recollection of his participation in an atrocity; veteran and author Tim O’Brien talks about his own “failure of nerve” when faced with the option of resisting the military, reads from his 1990 novel The Things They Carried, and slams the legal proceedings that allowed the My Lai murderers to go unpunished.

We get the inspiring story of Jack Todd, who dutifully followed other men in his family into the army but later deserts from Fort Lewis, Washington, and goes to Canada; and of Valerie Kushner, who comes out against the war and endorses peace candidate George McGovern for president while her husband, Hal, is still held as a POW in Hanoi. But if you think these paeans to the peacemakers put Marlantes’s betrayal fantasies behind us, think again.

Burns and Novick are the masters of false balancing, the technique of countering one story line with another to create the impression of objective evenhandedness. The same good-guy, bad-guy lens through which the war was viewed also filtered perceptions of the antiwar movement at home. Jack Todd is one of 30,000 Americans who deserted to Canada but, we are reassured, 30,000 Canadians volunteered to go to Vietnam. Never mind that, by other estimates, over 100,000 Americans are estimated to have gone to Canada during the war. The first figure apparently called for such dubious balancing because, as we later learn, Todd regrets having renounced his US citizenship.

The one-dimensional picture of draft resisters in Canada that the film paints would have become fuller and more nuanced had the filmmakers consulted John Hagen’s 2001 book Northern Passage: American War Resisters in Canada. In it, Hagen shows that group to be full of highly creative and capable young men, most of them model citizens in Canada, recognized for their contributions to education, politics, and the arts. We have to wonder, though, if the clarity of scholarship might have conflicted with the message Burns and Novick wanted to send.

Valerie Kushner appears to be a strong and principled fighter for peace—a challenging image to “balance.” But Burns and Novick are up to the task of turning her resistance inside out. They assert, with no supporting evidence, that Kushner was “exploited” by the North Vietnamese, and take at face value the claim of husband Hal, returning from captivity, to have been shocked at the sight of American girls in miniskirts.When the couple’s marriage dissolves, Valerie Kushner comes out looking, well, not so good.

This is how mythmaking works. The film goes directly from the Valerie Kushner story to “Hanoi Jane,” to, er … the opening scene of the 1968’s Barbarella, where we see Jane Fonda as the underdressed namesake of the film. This clumsy invocation of the femme fatales of wartime perfidy running across the millennia—from Lysistrata to Malinche, Mata Hari to Tokyo Rose—if the reminder is needed, helps build the gendered narrative of the war being lost to home front weakness, our POWs forsaken and forgotten, and troops returning from Vietnam scorned by protesters, and spat on by girls.

Some veteran protesters receive better treatment in the film, including those associated with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The group’s 1971 medal-turn-in ceremony is treated well, but Andrew Hunt’s 1999 The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War would have provided documentation, as would have the testimony of founders like Jan Barry or leaders like Barry Romo, who went to Hanoi with a peace delegation in 1972. Donald Duncan, the Green Beret who “quit” the Army in protest of the war in 1965, inspiring many others to do the same, is missing from the story, and that’s a shame.

By the end of the film, even the glimpses we’ve been given of veterans politicized and empowered by their time in Vietnam are overridden by victim veteran imagery—itself a stand-in for the America that was wounded and left traumatized by the war. The Vietnam War echoes Jimmy Carter’s “mutual destruction” thesis that Vietnam and the United States were equally damaged by the conflict, and its final scenes leave little doubt that the injury to America was inflicted by its own people, not the Vietnamese. With “The Wall” as backdrop, we hear “Bridge over Troubled Water” and Columbia University student activist, now housing lawyer, Nancy Biberman’s repentance for calling veterans “baby killers”—another trope attributed to the antiwar movement for which there is no supporting evidence.

Stories that Vietnam veterans were called “baby killers” are now as common as the spitting stories. They seem to fill some need for the people who tell and believe them. Perhaps it is a need for conformity to the now-dominant narratives about the war and those who opposed it, or guilt that the war was fought by those less privileged than those who fought against it. Whatever the reason, the stories keep alive the idea that the war could have been won if home front support had not wavered—and that wars like it can be won in the future if We the People stay loyal to the mission.

  1. For a masterful classic book that employs interviews, see Christian Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking, 2003).
  2. Such claims contributed to the myth that POWs were kept isolated and psychologically fixed in a (mythical) prewar innocence that was then shattered when they returned home. In fact, most of the POWs were shot down after miniskirts had become fashionable; and even while they were captives, the North Vietnamese made American news magazines available to them.

Featured Image: Operation “Yellowstone” Vietnam: Following a hard day, a few members of Company “A,” 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry (Mechanized), 25th Infantry Division, gather around a guitar player and sing a few songs (January 18, 1968) (detail). National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives

by Lawrence Wittner

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another―and the world―with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States.  In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology.  The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers.

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States.  Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all.  Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion.  Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s.  In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff.  Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward).  A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label.  According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version:  nuclear “Chicken.”  He wrote:  “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.”  But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.”  Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.”  When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war.  However, at the last minute, both men backed off―or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision―and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments.  The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders.  Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States.  The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north.  Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men?  Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature―much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.”  Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully.  That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them.  And so the fundamental problem continues:  As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September.  Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated.  Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally published on History News Network.

Hot Off the Presses: The International Peace and Development Training Centre Schedule of Programs for Late 2017-2018

The International Peace and Development Training Centre (IPDTC) is launching our calendar of training programs for the second half of 2017 and 2018. Trainings in 2017 include a series of Advanced Certificate Programs at the IPDTC Global Academy in Cluj-Napoca, and Executive Leadership and Intensive Core Skills Trainings in London.  

In October of this year we are hosting the two Advanced Certificate Programs:  Making Prevention, Early Warning & Peacebuilding Effective: Lessons Learned, What Works in the Field and Core Skills; and Designing Peacebuilding Programs: Improving the Quality, Impact and Effectiveness of Peacebuilding and Peace Support.

We have provided customized programs for UN Missions and Agencies all over the world, as well as for governments, negotiating parties, intergovernmental organizations, and local, national and international organizations working in peacebuilding, violence prevention, social cohesion, and post-war stabilization, recovery and peace consolidation. 

There is a reduction of -15% if three or more members of an agency / organization register. For more information see www.patrir.ro/training or email training@patrir.ro

 Claire Payne, IPDTC Coordinator

Teaching and Living Totalitarianism in a World Heritage Site

by Ayanna Yonemura

On Saturday, July 8, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, added Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to its list of World Heritage sites. Despite the wars that have plagued Eritrea’s short history, Asmara’s modernist and art deco architecture remain amazingly well-preserved. For six months in 2002, from the moment I woke up, during my walks through town to teach at the University of Asmara and while I ran errands on its main avenue, Asmara’s architecture dazzled me. However much I admire it though, this extraordinary aesthetic beauty doesn’t prevent me from thinking of my Fulbright months in Eritrea as my time of teaching and living totalitarianism.

Living in the Italian totalitarian era-constructed environment added a bizarre twist to my surreal and disturbing experience of Eritrea’s totalitarian political environment. Teaching about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin’s regimes as part of a modern world history course was part of my unplanned participant observation of living under a totalitarian regime; as was lodging for four months in a government-owned hotel, the Emba Soira. Experts describe much of Asmara’s notable architecture with words like “futurist” and “bold” and, while the hotel hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention, they would be similarly impressed with the Emba Soira’s interior.

The hotel interior’s main feature is streamlined, light, wood furniture coordinated in every room throughout the hotel from the restaurant, lobby and bar on the main floor to the two stories of guest rooms. Pastel-trimmed Italian linens and modern light fixtures gently accent the furniture. Visually, it was like living in a dream. While the phones were tapped, at least the hotel staff let me know if I had gotten phone messages—a courtesy I did not enjoy when I rented an apartment and shared a phone line with my landlady.

Located on the Horn of Africa and with a lengthy Red Sea coastline, Eritrea is the world’s third youngest country after East Timor and South Sudan, and government officials have spent many years of the nation’s short history lobbying UNESCO for Asmara’s World Heritage site status. Italian architects and Eritrean laborers built most of Asmara’s remarkable architecture in the 1930s during Italy’s totalitarian years under Mussolini (1922-1943) and while Eritrea was an Italian colony, 1889-1941. Italy lost Eritrea in WWII.

After Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrilla fighters waged a thirty years war for independence that ended in 1991 when they defeated Ethiopian forces. In 1998, Eritrea fought a border war against Ethiopia. I set off for the Fulbright on New Year’s Eve of 2001, a year after this latest war’s ceasefire, having postponed my original departure date after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

I had postponed my trip, because while most of the world focused on New York in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Eritrea’s President Afewerki seized the opportunity to crackdown internally. Students of the University of Asmara, his nation’s only university, were among the groups whom he targeted. The university students spent several months under armed guard in an Eritrean desert, literally one of the hottest places on earth, doing forced labor. Teaching at the university was a condition of receiving a Fulbright in Eritrea, and I had looked forward to it. I delayed my departure until the President released the students.

Once I reported at the University of Asmara, I was given the assignment of teaching modern world history to former guerrilla fighters who were, then, government employees at the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. I knew that my students could quickly report every word I said during lectures to the authorities. Following my predecessor’s syllabus as the department chair had instructed, we spent weeks on the German and Italian totalitarian governments of the 1930s. As I lectured about these historical European regimes, I could not help but think of that I was living in a very similar moment. While I described the characteristics of totalitarianism, the parallel examples of Eritrea immediately came to mind. Each time I mentioned “totalitarianism,” I preceded it with “German” “Italian” or “European” making an effort to implicitly but, consistently, stress that I wasn’t talking about Eritrea. I’m sure that at least some my students made the connection but, of course, we never discussed it or anything that was happening in Eritrea.

 

Eritrea Pics 2002
The author (center) with Dr. Gordon Sato (right), the founder of a non-profit dedicated to aiding Eritreans, and one of Sato’s staff members (left) along the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea.

 

Having been a German Studies major as an undergraduate, East Germany was my only reference point for navigating Eritrea. I had learned about its secret police and its state-controlled economy and propaganda through East German literature and some day trips into East Germany, but my studies were limited. As an American who had grown up in West Germany and California, my understanding of anything like a police state was superficial. Still, that limited knowledge gave me some context, some framework, for understanding when the Eritrean government banned Ethiopian music, listened to my phone calls, and I strongly suspect, sent a spy to chat with me at a cafe. Even in friends’ homes and cars, we whispered any unflattering comments we were brave enough to make about the president. I even averted my eyes the time I had to walk right by him to get to the restroom at a restaurant.

My research agenda suffered. The paranoia of librarians kept me out of the main archive for most of my stay and, trained to take copious ethnographic notes, I wrote down almost nothing, aware that government agents had showed up at the home of a previous foreign researcher and confiscated her notes. My notes, in the wrong hands, could lead to the imprisonment or death of Eritrean friends or colleagues. A U.S. security officer had warned me, “Perception is reality.”

For years, fear for friends and colleagues prevented me for publishing anything about Eritrea. Now, it seems that almost every Eritrean I know has escaped. My graduate school buddies successfully sought political asylum long ago and recently, while living in Kenya, I met young Eritreans whose affluent parents had bought their escape and bribed their way into Kenya. Still, during their flights, they were beaten up. In Kenya, they ran businesses but had no legal rights to own a business as they didn’t have legal papers to live or work there.

Since its people voted for Independence in a 1993 referendum, Eritrea has been a one party state and has had the same president, President Afwerki. In 2015, the UN accused the Eritrean government of pushing its people to migrate in order to flee human rights abuses yet also punishing those who try to leave the country without government permission. Then as now, Eritrea is high among the countries of origin for people applying for political asylum in Europe, in the US and, even more so, in East African nations like Ethiopia. Eritreans also make up a disproportionate amount of the African refugees crossing the Mediterranean and in many European camps.

“Cynical political travesty” is how the Eritrea government characterized the 2015 UN report. In 2016, the UN released another report on Eritrean human rights violations to which a New York Time’s opinion piece responded with, “. . .things aren’t as bad as the report claims.” In June 2017, Newsweek published an article on Eritrea called “Africa’s North Korea” citing the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

The UNESCO decision to place Asmara on the World Heritage list is rare positive publicity for the Eritrean government, which responded with a celebratory press release. I doubt if anyone who has been to Asmara would argue about its incredible beauty. Recalling it, I feel in awe of how architecture and design can lift the human spirit, but my strongest memories are of living and teaching totalitarianism.

Ayanna Yonemura holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, a M.A. in African Studies and a B.A. in German Studies from the University of California. She has been honored with two Fulbright Fellowships and a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund National Fellowship. Currently, she teaches Ethnic Studies at California State University Sacramento.

Welcoming Martha and the Slave Catchers — Harriet Hyman Alonso’s Books

My new book, Martha and the Slave Catchers will be published on November 7, 2017, by Seven Stories Press. It is available for pre-ordering at several on-line stores. I know that it has been quite a while since I’ve written anything for this blog, but I’ve been hard at work preparing my first children’s novel […]

via Welcoming Martha and the Slave Catchers — Harriet Hyman Alonso’s Books

Nebraskans and “The Ribbon” for Peace

by Megan Brookhouser

August 4, 1985 was an unremarkable date for many Americans. A normal summer day in the nation’s capital, in other words, scorching hot. However, amid the heat, some 15,000 men, women, and children created a 15-mile chain of banners threading through the tourists and politicians going about their day. The members of the chain knew the significance of the date, for it was the 40th anniversary of the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With it, destroying thousands of civilian lives, decimating entire cities, and wiping away the natural beauty of the land. An event should never have happened, and should never be repeated. That is what these peaceful protesters were advocating through their contributions of time, money, and, most importantly, fabric to the grassroots project simply entitled, “The Ribbon.”

The brainchild of a Colorado grandmother, Justine Merritt, The Ribbon was meant to send a message of peace in an era brimming with the constant threat of violence. Several years before the actual event, Merritt mailed letters to 100 of her closest friends. The pamphlets explained her idea for a nationwide demonstration of peace. She asked each individual to create an 18 x 36-inch banner depicting the things that each person could not “bear to think of as lost forever in a nuclear war.” Each banner was to include small ribbons sewn to all four corners in order to tie the finished products together. Merritt hoped to receive enough banners to surround the entire Pentagon. The mission spread rapidly throughout the nation.

 

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The Ribbon’s organizer, Justine Merritt

 

The idea was especially popular with women’s religious groups. It utilized a stereotype in a productive way, giving old church ladies a purpose for their sewing circles. Bible schools, religious orders, and community organizations joined the cause, creating unique banners through every artistic medium imaginable. Dedicated women created intricate images of needlework. School children painted watercolor landscapes. Each banner contributed a new perspective on the beauty of the world.

As the project grew in popularity, it gained structure. State chairmen were appointed to recruit new participants and collect all the banners at the appropriate time. Rev. Sharee Kelly, a pastor from Loup City, took on the position of Nebraska’s state chairman. With her help, Nebraska contributed an impressive 350 banners to the demonstration in Washington D.C. With the slogan “sew to speak,” Kelly garnered support all across the state. She hosted a Ribbon Dedication Ceremony on July 21, 1985 at St. Josaphat’s Catholic Church in Loup City, NE. Following the dedication, the banners traveled to Lincoln, NE for a state-wide peace demonstration and Ribbon Ceremony on July 24. Governor Bob Kerry presided over the event, contributing his own banner to the chain with the handwritten quote, “We cannot make peace with or as machines.” As the ribbon surrounded the state capitol, Kerry proclaimed August 4th National Peace Day. The next stop for Nebraska’s banners was the nation’s capital.

 

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Nebraska’s chairman, Rev. Sharee Kelly of Loup City, NE

 

Around forty-two Nebraskans make the trip to Washington D.C. for the culminating ribbon ceremony. Local churches volunteered to host out-of-town participants and Nebraskans were generously taken in by Calvary Baptist Church. On August 3, all the project’s participants gathered for a religious service at the National Cathedral. The non-denominational service featured two guests of honor: Fumimaro Maruoka of Hiroshima and Teru Morrimoto of Nagasaki. They spoke of their experiences as survivors of the bombings and of their hope for a peaceful future. Their moving testimonies stayed in the participants’ minds that next day as they prepared for the long-awaited demonstration.

The demonstration was an international effort. The ribbon included banners from twenty different countries, including a 130-foot long section sent from the Soviet Union. It took about 3 hours for the 25,500 panels to be tied together. They stretched for 15 miles. Far exceeding Justine Merritt’s expectations, the ribbon strung from the west steps of the Capitol, to the Lincoln Memorial, and around the Pentagon. The impressive display stopped traffic for several minutes as it crossed the Potomac. Nebraska’s banners generally hovered around the Lincoln Memorial. When the final banner, Justine Merritt’s own, successfully connected the ribbon, balloons were released from the steps of the memorial.

 

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Map of The Ribbon’s route published in The Washington Post

 

The Ribbon effort deserves more recognition than it has received. Few people today even know of the event. However, in a time of protests for gender equality and peaceful law enforcement, The Ribbon is unbelievably relevant. These elderly church ladies used their talents and their stereotypes to their advantage. They created an amazing display of international solidarity and exhibited the power of a peaceful demonstration. The program for the National Ribbon Ceremony included a quote from Albert Einstein, saying, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” While this is true for many reasons, I believe that recognizing and remembering the significance of a date like August 4, 1985 is a good starting point for this new manner of thought.

The Nebraska ribbons are cataloged at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Remembering the U.S. Entry into World War I

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” These are the first words of British historian John Keegan in his book The First World War.” In a war that lasted over 4 years, 1914-1918, 10 million died, 20 million were injured, and 50 million died of Spanish flu, incubated and made worse by war time conditions.

Today a 100 years ago on April 6, 1917 the USA entered World War I. It is a fateful day in human and American history. It was not the war to end all wars that President Wilson promised. World War II followed WWI, then came the Cold War. The map of the Middle East was redrawn in and after WWI and is a cause of grave difficulties today in Iraq and Palestine/Israel for example.

Our World War I Muted Voices Symposium, October 19-22, 2017, will remember those who resisted, dissented, and conscientiously objected to the Great War. The Symposium is being held at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

We have had over 80 paper proposals from the USA and internationally – a wonderful response. Proposers will be hearing by June whether their submission has been accepted. Also attached is an advert that you are welcome to use with your constituency.

Our keynote speakers will challenge. Our panels will inform. The gathering company of scholars, activists, and those just interested, will be rich and encouraging.

Registration is now open. Go to: theworldwar.org/mutedvoices for registration and the conference program. Early Bird registration discount ends September 8. Information on hotels and transportation is also available with registration.

We look forward to joining with you at this event.

Sincerely

Andrew Bolton

Should We Keep Wasting Money on Missile Defense―or Invest in Something Useful?

By Lawrence Wittner

When Americans criticize wasteful government spending, they often fail to realize that the biggest sinkhole for public funds is what’s described as “national defense”―a program that, all too often, does little or nothing to defend them.

Take national missile defense, a program begun with much fanfare during the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan realized that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a nuclear attack upon the United States. According to the President, his Strategic Defense Initiative (lampooned as “Star Wars” by Senator Edward Kennedy) would safeguard Americans by developing a space-based anti-missile system to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Most scientists doubted its technical feasibility, comparing it to using one speeding bullet to destroy another speeding bullet. Critics also pointed out that development of such a system would simply end up encouraging hostile nations to build more missiles to overwhelm it or, if they wanted to avoid the additional cost, to use decoys to confuse it. In addition, it would create a false sense of security.

Although “Star Wars” was never built, the fantastic dream of a missile shield took hold in Congress, which began to pour billions of dollars into variants of this program. And, today, more than thirty years later, the United States still lacks an effective missile defense system. The U.S. government, however, ignoring this dismal record, continues to lavish vast resources on this unworkable program, which has already cost American taxpayers over $180 billion.

One of the major components of the missile defense program is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Better known as GMD, it is designed to use ground-based “kill-vehicles” to destroy incoming nuclear missiles by colliding with them. In 2004, before any indication that GMD would work, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of its interceptors. Today, there are four located at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and 26 at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and the Obama administration has given orders to increase the total to 44 by the end of 2017. The GMD cost thus far is $40 billion.

All of this might be viewed as water under the bridge―or perhaps water down the drain―were it not for the fact that a third GMD site is now being considered. Military contractors are ferociously lobbying for it, communities in New York, Ohio, and Michigan are actively competing for it and, given long-time Republican enthusiasm for missile defense, this expansion seems very likely to be implemented by the Trump administration. The cost? An additional $4 billion.

Is this a good investment? GMD, it should be noted, was designed to defend against a nuclear attack by Iran or North Korea. But, thanks to the Iran nuclear agreement, its nuclear program is frozen until 2030 or later. North Korea is also not a nuclear threat to the United States, for it does not possess long-range missiles. Of 14 North Korean missiles tested during 2016, some failed to clear the launch pad while others traveled distances ranging from 19 miles to 620 miles. Naturally, as a small-scale system, GMD would be of no value against Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal.

In fact, at this point GMD is of no value against anything. Thus far, the Pentagon has conducted 17 tests of GMD interceptors since 1999―all in conditions that should produce success. In a situation quite unlike armed combat, the people conducting the tests knew the speed, location, and trajectory of the mock enemy missiles ahead of time, as well as when they would be launched. Nevertheless, the GMD system failed the tests eight times―a 47 percent failure rate.

Nor has the GMD test record been improving in recent years. Quite the contrary. GMD has failed six of its last 10 tests and three of its last four. In mid-2016, a report written by three physicists and released by the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that the GMD system is “simply unable to protect the U.S. public.” Indeed, they concluded, “the system is not even on a path to achieve a useful ability” to do so.

Why, then, despite the enormous cost and the lack of useful results over many years, is this project continuing? One factor is clearly the U.S. fear of hostile governments. Beyond this, however, as David Willman―a journalist who has done extensive investigations of GMD―has reported, lies “the muscle wielded in Washington by major defense contractors, which have billions of dollars of revenue at stake.” Three of them, in fact―Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman―donated $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October 2016.

GMD “will not work,” U.S. Representative John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Willman. “Nevertheless, the momentum of the fear, the momentum of the investments, the momentum of the industry” carry it forward.

A key factor keeping billions of U.S. tax dollars flowing to this ill-conceived project is the desperation of declining American communities, anxious to attract the jobs a GMD installation would provide. The three communities vying to house the third GMD site are all in the hard-hit Rust Belt, and their public officials are eager to secure it. “Our community has been dying a little bit at a time,” an Ohio mayor explained. “So we’re hoping that the [local] site is selected.”

But if the only good reason for missile defense is that it provides a jobs program, why not invest those billions of dollars in jobs doing useful things? Why not invest in factories turning out solar and wind power components, high-speed rail cars, and inexpensive medicines? Why not invest in health care clinics, day care centers, libraries, schools, job-training facilities, community centers, concert halls, bridges, roads, inexpensive housing, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes?

This country has made useful investments before. With the political will, it could do so again.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark? An earlier version of this article was posted to the History News Network.