The Interview:
Gary B. Nash

By Harold Frost, 2001

“More good history is being written in the U.S. today than 50 years ago.”

Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus at UCLA, is a leading historian of colonial and revolutionary America. His first major book was “Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America” (1974 and subsequent editions). In 1979 he published “The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution.”

Nash was a combatant in the “history wars” of the 1990s, in which the National History Standards, which he helped draw up, became the centerpiece of a large argument. He co-wrote a book about the controversy, “History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past” (1997) and discusses the imbroglio in the latter section of this interview.

He was president of the Organization of American Historians in 1994-95, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received his school’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He serves as director of the National Center for History in the Schools ( His newest work, co-written with Graham Russell Gao Hodges and published in 2008, is “Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeuz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and a Tragic Betrayal of Freedom in the New Nation.”


Q. How did you become a historian, Prof. Nash?

A. I wandered toward a career in history. After I finished my undergraduate degree at Princeton in 1955, I served in the Navy, spending three years at sea; even after I completed my military service I was still at sea, so to speak, when I thought about what to do with my life. So I needed another three years to sort things out, as I worked as an assistant to the graduate dean at Princeton. That job convinced me that an academic life would be pleasant, much more suited to my temperament than something in business or one of the professions. I guess I fell in love with academic life before I fell in love with history.

As I worked in the dean’s office I took a few seminars in various subjects and got bitten by the history bug. I came to think that history was the place where I could perhaps make a career. It seemed to me that a person with some passion for the topic, and an ability to read and write, might be able to make it. I started my graduate training in 1961 at age 29 – a late bloomer for sure.

I will add an important fact in all of this. My formative period was the early 1960s; we were into the civil rights movement, and this made a difference in my decision on what to do with my life. The world was changing. I was caught up in the reformist zeal of the times. I think that sharpened my appetite for looking at the past.

Q. What is your view today of the 1960s? The decade is something of a litmus test, some people viewing it as wonderful, others as an unmitigated disaster.

A. I think of the ’60s as one of the great reform eras in American history, ranking with the period of the American Revolution, the antebellum decades from the 1820s through the ’50s, the Progressive period from the 1890s to World War I, and the New Deal.

Q. As you started graduate school in 1961 did you see history as a tool for social change?

A. Yes I did. I thought a great deal about social change and I saw history as an instrument for bringing it about. The history profession tends to attract people who want change and are eager to see the country live up to its founding principles. Which is not to say that the profession doesn’t attract people of conservative temperament. There certainly are some. But preponderantly, I think that historians are progressives.

Q. Do you still see history as a tool for social change?

A. Maybe not as a tool, but as a way to think about what kind of changes we want.

Q. Might your conception of history as a tool for change have affected your scholarly objectivity? Could such a perspective have influenced your ability to analyze the source material, the raw data you came upon in the archives?

A. When I was in graduate school we were taught that we were dispassionate, objective social scientists, sifting grains of sand without bias, and if you detected any bias in yourself, you had to deal with that problem and eliminate it. In the ’60s, a lot of people in the history profession began to understand that this dispassionate, value-free objectivity was a myth, and always had been, from Thuycidides forward.

I think it’s OK to choose particular topics, to ask large, organizing questions, that come right out of your politics, values, and personality. That’s a subjective process. That’s natural. I think most historians today would agree that this matter of choosing what you’re going to write about, and developing a list of organizing questions, cannot be, and should not be, disassociated from one’s politics, values, hopes, fears, and so on.

But – and this is a very large “but” – as you do your archival research, as you go into that archive and begin to sift through the material, that’s where objectivity should, and must, come in. You don’t go to the archive and read 100 letters from the 18th century, scrap 10 that don’t correspond to what you hoped to find, and focus on five that provide answers to the questions in a way you hoped you could answer them. No. You weigh and assess all 100 letters.

Q. You have a long-standing interest in the American struggle for equality. The historian Richard S. Dunn writes that your Navy service was important for you in this regard.

A. Yes, my Navy service was partly responsible for my social conscience and professional interests. My experience in the Navy put me in contact for the first time with a broad spectrum of Americans, black and white, from all different classes. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and then went to Princeton; in my early years I didn’t rub shoulders at all with the rest of America. From 1955 to ’58 I served on a destroyer in the Atlantic fleet of the U.S. Navy. The Navy at that time had many Southern whites and rural white people from the Midwest, and African-Americans were beginning to make the grade as gunners mates or bosun mates or radarmen, whereas before they had mostly been confined to jobs as stewards and so forth. Being in close touch with this diverse group as an officer, for weeks on end at sea, was fascinating to me. It was a social laboratory: 280 men at sea, a long way from the small towns where they grew up.

There was tension between whites and blacks. Though not so much at sea as when you got into port. When liquor and women got involved, the racial tensions tended to come to the surface. So this was riveting stuff. This Navy experience was the point where I started to think about race in America.

When I got out of the Navy I took the paper-pushing job at Princeton that I mentioned, and meanwhile got involved with migrant farmworkers in central New Jersey, working with a group organized by a carpenter, to try to turn the chicken coops where they were housed into semi-respectable quarters. That too was a compelling experience that helped shape my thinking.

Another formative experience came in 1966 after graduate school. I came to UCLA to teach in August of that year. This was 12 months after the Watts uprising; the ashes were still smoldering, metaphorically speaking. I got involved with a group working in South Central Los Angeles, where Watts is located. This was “Operation Bootstrap,” started just after the fires had finally gone out in Watts, by a regional CORE director, a black man named Lou Smith, and by a retired black Air Force officer. I joined a support group; we’d go down to South Central on Thursday nights and sit around an auto mechanic’s grease pit and talk race. These were inter-racial rap sessions. This was fundamental to forming my views. I found the experience of talking with Lou Smith to be deeply illuminating. He was the son of a Philadelphia police officer; he wanted, with Operation Bootstrap, to move forward without government money.

Q. Please describe the demographic/racial make-up of the U.S. historical profession in the early days of your career.

A. The profession that I entered as a graduate student, from 1961 to 1964, was just beginning to re-do itself in terms of who was coming into the profession. I was studying at Princeton, which was a white male institution; the history profession, too, largely consisted of white males. The history faculty at Princeton – the people that I studied with and learned immensely from – thought it had “integrated” itself by hiring a historian of Jewish background. That was integration for them! (Laughs.) Similarly, when I came to UCLA in 1966, although it was a large urban public university, the graduate program was predominantly male and overwhelmingly white. Well, I can tell you, the contrast with today is striking indeed. If you could drop into a seminar in our graduate program today at UCLA, you would be immediately struck by how diverse the graduate students are, which is to say, how diverse the people are who are going into the history profession. This represents a tremendous make-over of the profession in the last 40 years. As I say, this process was just beginning in the early ’60s.

Q. During the last several decades there has been a shift, on campuses, in the focal point of the profession, from political history, the history of the deeds of leaders, to social history, the history of ordinary people.

A. Yes. The rise of social history runs parallel to the make-over of the profession. As different people came into the history profession – women, people of working-class backgrounds, people of different religious backgrounds, people of different races – they began to take up topics that interested them, and began to ask questions that hadn’t been addressed before.

If you were to line up all the academic history books published 50 years ago, you would see a very interesting fact – they would be arranged along a much narrower band than today. You’d see political history, diplomatic history, military history, and that would be it, pretty much. If, by contrast, you lined up all the academic history books published in the last year, you would see much more Indian history, women’s history, African-American history, labor history than 50 years ago. Similarly, the production of biography today covers a larger sweep of America, a broader range of people.

More good history is being written in the U.S. today than 50 years ago. It’s more broadly based in terms of subject matter, and it’s actually more objective. A narrow political history is a distorted history. A more sweeping history is more objective, more true, taking into account the tremendous diversity of people, regions, religions, and so on in this country.

Life magazine, November, 1968. The 1960s saw the beginning of a flowering of African-American historical scholarship, with young academics eager to go deeper than the work of Ulrich B. Phillips (1877-1934), a white Southerner who taught at Yale and the University of Michigan, the most influential historian of slavery in the first half of the 20th century, whose books, writes historian Peter Novick scathingly, “went beyond a ‘sympathetic treatment’ of slavery – they all but recommmended it.” The revolution in African-American history that began in the ’60s continues today, touching hundreds of campuses and many thousands of students.

Q. Is there something about social history that is inherently progressivist and left-wing?

A. Yes. Social history began with populist, or populistic, sensibilities – with the notion that life is with the people at large, and that history is about the people at large.

Q. I wonder if we could talk about how you do research, how history scholarship gets done, using your 1979 book “The Urban Crucible” as an example. This is your respected study of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in the years leading up to the American Revolution. You describe and analyze the economic struggles, poverty, radicalism, and discontent of people in those cities. Please describe the genesis of the book – how you decided to devote a big chunk of your life to this topic – the research and writing of it, and how long it took.

A. It took 12 years. I remember very well when I started, and I remember when it finally got published. It took a long, long time!

I was very impressed in graduate school in the ’60s by E.P. Thompson’s tremendous, pioneering book, “The Making of the English Working Class” published in 1963 – I was very taken with how he was able to peer into the lives of ordinary people, give

E.P. Thompson (1924-93)

historical agency to masses of people. I was curious to see what could be learned about the lives of ordinary people of the pre-revolutionary period in our country, and how their lives fed the revolutionary impulse. Was it just the leaders from the top who made the American Revolution? Were the people living in these cities merely clay to be molded in the hands of the John Adamses and Sam Adamses and Ben Franklins and George Washingtons? Everyone knew that the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were important in the coming of the American Revolution. But what exactly made them crucibles of revolution?

What took 12 years was getting at these people. I was tackling the kind of sources which are difficult to work with, but are the only kinds of sources that reveal the footprints in the sand, so to speak, of ordinary people. These folks left very little behind in the way of letters, autobiographies, memoirs, and diaries, but they did leave some footprints; my task was to find these footprints and make the best use of them that I could.

Much of my research consisted of sifting through tax lists and working through thousands of probate records. In a probate record you can see what a poor mariner left behind at death – maybe a Bible, an overcoat, a knife and a few other things. You can use this data to begin to get a picture of ordinary lives of mariners and carpenters and clockmakers – how did they fare, economically? How did they fit into the social structure of society? Historians in the 1960s and ’70s were just beginning to use this kind of data. It was a whole new source of evidence for how life was lived in the bottom and middle ranks of society. This use of new sources fed the development of social history, by the way.

At one point in my research I found a 1767 tax list for Philadelphia that I don’t believe had ever been looked at carefully by a historian. Here was a tax assessor, 250 years ago, going up and down every street in Philadelphia, writing down the names of the people who lived in the houses, the number of servants they had, their possessions, the number of slaves they owned. Here on the list is Benjamin Franklin’s house. And here’s a listing of two slaves. I said, “Wait a minute! I’ve read six biographies of Franklin. A slaveholder? How could that be? None of the books mention this.” And yet here was the evidence. I did more digging and learned that Ben and his wife Deborah owned at least five slaves. This was a fact worth knowing, and assessing, one of a thousand such facts, or 10,000, or more.

It was immensely exciting work. It was also tedious and time-consuming, filling up pads and pads and pads of paper, recording what I found. Laptop computers didn’t exist then, of course. I have files full of this material.

I put together a picture of the social structure of the time, positioning people in society, getting an understanding of the economic, occupational, and social structure of the cities. The next step was to move to an understanding of what they did outside of work. Did these people have political consciousness? Can you find them in the streets, protesting? For that, I turned to newspaper accounts, and essays that were published for wide consumption in leaflet form – “broadsides,” they were called – the sort of literary materials where these people were not necessarily the authors, but their voice could be heard via the authors.

I liken it to a detective chase. I was a gumshoe, tracking down materials. I was on the trail.

Q. So you have these two large batches of source material – statistical records on the one hand, offering economic data, and newspapers and broadsides on the other, dealing with politics. And you glean from them powerful conclusions about the mood, tenor, and activity of the times. Yes?

A. Yes. I will add, I see a connection between the two realms – economic and social changes affected the political developments. So, the chapters of “The Urban Crucible” alternate between economic/social chapters and political chapters.

Q. The tax list from 1767 – where, physically, did you find it?

A. It was in the Special Collections branch of the archives of the University of Pennsylvania. The librarians didn’t know how it got there. It was probably given to them by someone who had a family member who created the list long ago. It’s still in the archive (End Note, below), at the Van Pelt Library.

Q. Can you talk a bit more, anecdotally, about your work in the archives? I will mention here that Richard S. Dunn has described you as a “bear” for the archives, for your willingness to hunker down and put in the hours.

A. Another part of my work was in the basement of the City Hall annex in Philadelphia. I spent – oh, my, how many days? – probably 30 or 40 working days there, six or eight weeks, studying the probate records for that city. The archive held a file for each Philadelphia person who died and left a will. In that file you would find, on crumbling pieces of paper, an “Inventory of Estate” that would list the clothes, furniture, and so on, that the person had owned. Everything of any value. Well, most of the staff people in the basement were patronage employees of the city. Every morning they’d see me and say, “Hello Nash, you showed up again huh. Haven’t you seen enough of this stuff?” Finally they said, “We’re tired of hauling this stuff out to you, why don’t you just go in the vault and get whatever you want.” I guess I was interrupting their project – they were running a numbers game out of the basement of the City Hall annex. (Laughs.)

Q. Please compare and contrast your view of the origins of the American Revolution with that of Bernard Bailyn, author of one of the major scholarly books about the period, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.”

A. He is the counter-point to my work. For him, the revolution came from the minds of lawyers and the educated and the well-positioned colonial elite. He has written in very stark terms that the revolution had nothing to do with poverty, or alienation from below, or fractures or seismic shifts in the colonial economy and colonial society. On the spectrum of opinion on how revolutions occur, he’s on the right side and I’m on the left side. A lot of instructors who teach the American Revolution like to give their students a bit of Bailyn and a bit of Nash because it sets up classroom discussions.

Q. Did you feel any trepidation in 1979 about taking on the great Bernard Bailyn?

A. (Laughs.) Well, that’s an interesting question. No. I didn’t have any angst about staking out a position very different from his. He’s a great, great writer, and he commanded tremendous respect. I thought that his first book, on the 17th century merchants of Massachusetts, was fabulous, but I also felt that in his later books, he was moving farther and farther to the right.

Q. A question about relevance. Why does historical knowledge of the type you present in “The Urban Crucible” matter today? What is the significance of this period to the 21st century, other than its impact on the national documents that resulted, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

A. During the revolutionary period a whole set of radical agendas were formulated by the enslaved, by women, by laboring people, and by Native Americans, having to do with equality, freedom of opportunity, and the right to vote. Most of those agendas were not achieved, but they continued on, as living, breathing entitites, passed from one generation to the next. Some of the agendas that were proposed a long time ago, some of the battles that were fought – some of the arguments, some of the goals – we’re still wrestling with today, or we’ve achieved only through a great deal of struggle over many years.

Q. Do you see the nation’s founders, the big names, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and so on, as great? As profoundly accomplished and inspirational?

A. Yes I do. Many of them, certainly. I probably would have been most happy to march alongside the likes of Tom Paine.

Q. Paine’s reputation has certainly oscillated over the years.

A. This is very interesting to me, the way he was pilloried, and buried and forgotten, and how he was brought back to historical memory just in the late 20th century. This is a nice example of why it matters to keep looking back – we keep finding new things, important things that are relevant to who we are today as a nation.

Q. What is your view of Jefferson?

A. A complicated and fascinating man, needless to say. I’ve always loved reading about him; I find, after reading dozens and dozens of books about him, that he keeps changing in my mind. We’ve learned a great deal about him in recent years that we didn’t know before. The new knowledge has not been received happily by everyone. Fawn Brodie’s biography “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography” – when it came out in 1974 she was furiously attacked. She could hardly show her face in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But it’s a fascinating book that reveals a side of Jefferson that other biographers hadn’t shown us.

Q. I find myself trying to decide how fair it is to judge Jefferson’s slave-holding by today’s standards. You yourself have been criticized over the years for applying contemporary standards to the past. I will mention here something written by the historian Henry Steele Commager: “Ideally, the past should be understood on its own terms. Historical events should be examined in the light of the standards, values, attitudes, and beliefs that were dominant during a given period and for a given people, rather than evaluated exclusively by (current) standards.”

A. When I was in graduate school I was taught to steer clear of “presentism” – the “P word.” Presentism is exactly what Commager is talking about: judging the past according to present values, current perspectives and sensibilities; vilifying a figure of the past for not achieving what we’ve only achieved much later. I agree with that in part.

But I also think too much was made of this sin of presentism when I was in school. The advanced positions, the progressive positions, that may have commanded more allegiance in the 20th century, also existed in the 18th and 17th centuries. They were the minority points of view, but they existed, and anybody living then could conceivably have listened to these positions and adopted them.

As we have discussed, I’ve been very interested in equality and inequality. And, as you say, a lot of people think that I’m using notions about equality that are current ideas. But in the 1650s in England, the Levelers, the Muggletonians, and the early Quakers had already staked out ground which some people think could only sensibly be occupied in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Women historians are frequently criticized for using today’s feminist thinking to look at the past. Yet in the 17th century there are wonderful examples of people speaking in some ways quite like modern-day feminists – Anne Hutchison in Boston for example. Not in the same language, but with the same sort of confidence, and belief in her entitlement to speak. She was banished from the community and excommunicated from the church. In the same era, Quakers were investing women, acknowledging in women the same spiritual gifts that the Puritans thought were only the property of males.

Q. Is it then, in your view, a moral failing of Jefferson not to have sought out and found these voices? And is that worthy of criticism by historians?

A. Absolutely, to both questions. It’s not that Jefferson was trapped by his times. He heard the alternative voices and ideas. Benjamin Bannacker wrote a beautiful long letter to Jefferson after Jefferson said he believed that people of African descent were physically and intellectually crippled and could never be truly equal intellectually, and that therefore, whites and blacks could never mingle and live together peaceably. Bannacker rebuked Jefferson at some length.

One of my favorite figures of Jefferson’s era is Anthony Benezet, the son of a French Huegonot immigrant to the United States. He was a Quaker, an ascetic person, a schoolteacher who taught the children of the poor, both black and white. Twenty years before Jefferson wrote “Notes on Virginia” Benezet wrote that after years of carefully observing these schoolchildren, he could see no difference in their ability to learn.

Q. The America of 1776 – how much do we know about it today versus 50 years ago? Will we know more in another 50 years?

A. We know much more today, versus 50 years ago, about the America of 1776. To judge by the number of people who are scrambling for doctorates in history – and to judge by the discoveries we’re making of material that we didn’t know existed – I would say that in 50 years we will know still more.

Q. Do you think social history is being displaced at the so-called cutting edge by postmodernism?

A. Oh God. I hope not. I know that our graduate students are fascinated with postmodernism, but not as much as the people in literature at least. I think maybe postmodernism has reached its height and perhaps is receding some. I think social history’s days are not over, judging from the kinds of books that are coming out, and the dissertations that are being written and turned into books and articles in the journals. Certain kinds of social history I think have been eclipsed. One is quantitative history, which I think doesn’t have quite the cachet that it had 25 years ago.

I will say, social historians share something with postmodernism – that it’s often hard to come up with a single answer or even a single way of interpreting a particular voice or document. Social historians have gone over source material used long ago and found new messages in it; this puts them in the camp of postmodernists to some degree. But postmodernism in its extreme form is, to me, kind of like nihilism. It denies that there’s anything that we can really say about the past with some degree of certainty, that one explanation is as good as another, that one reading of a document is as good as another. That, to me, is postmodernism in its extreme form, and I don’t subscribe to it.

Q. What about the new cultural history, which has encouraged some historians to rethink what moves events, to shift focus from social and economic structures, such as class, to culture, ideas, language, and popular mentalities?

A. Loads of good work has come out of that. It has added into the mix; I think there’s a good bit to be learned there. We have a rich, diverse set of approaches to history.

Q. I would like to ask you a few questions about the “history wars” of the 1990s in which you were involved. This was the controversy centering on the National History Standards for the teaching of history to U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students. These voluntary standards were designed and proposed by a large group of educators, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education; you were co-director of the project. When the standards were announced in 1994, a fair number of people – primarily, it seems, from the right wing, but also such figures as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. – weighed in with criticism. My first question is, do you agree with the idea put forth by historian Edward S. Shapiro and others, that it was social history itself that was on trial in the history wars?

A. Yes. The National History Standards try to reflect the scholarship of the last 40 to 50 years, and a lot of that scholarship is broadly called social history, dealing with women, working people, African-Americans, and Native Americans.

Q. Do you see a connection between the progressivist tendencies of social history and the intense reaction against the standards?

A. Yes. I might offer at this point a bit of background.

We were asked to create two sets of standards: for U.S. history and for world history. Let’s talk about the latter – world history standards. As opposed to Western Civilization standards.

Western Civ is a very important part of world history, of course, but its primary importance in a curriculum comes when you reach the fifteenth century, and, of course, ancient Greece and Rome. From the seventh century to the fourteenth, it’s not Western civilization that should be studied as so centrally important to the world as the rise of Islam and Chinese civilization. There is an incredible wealth of fascinating history to be found there. To find out that the Chinese city of Xian in AD 700 was the most cosmopolitan city in the world – it had 2 million inhabitants – in the eighth century! – and to learn about Chinese science and technology of this period – it just turns your head around! It makes you think in whole new ways!

There was a lot of talk in 1994 and ’95 about too much time spent on esoteric places and periods that kids don’t need to know about, and they should be keeping their eye on the Western Civ ball, and the story of progress and so forth. And, needless to say, there are many ideas that we associate with Western Civilization that ought to be honored. Many of us who developed the standards think there are other things kids should know about as well.

There is, I might add, an ongoing argument in schools between the Western Civ people and the world history people about what should be studied. I come down on the side of the world history people, who want to incorporate Western Civ in the larger framework. Interestingly, some of the biggest backers of world and global education are the CEOs of major corporations, because they do business all over the world, and they want well-trained intelligent young people who know something about the world.

Many of the defenders of Western Civilization that I encountered in this debate seem extremely insecure and defensive about Western Civilization. I don’t know why they feel this way, why they feel that learning about other cultures is an esoteric exercise that’s of no value, why they feel that if American youth learn about other cultures they suddenly won’t honor democracy and freedom and capitalism. I don’t share their fears about this. I don’t think, for example, that schoolkids in California, who in the 1990s began studying three years of world history, are going to have less regard for American values. I don’t think very many of them are going to travel to Sri Lanka or China and try to become citizens there.

I think that some of the right wing critics really misled the public in the way they attacked the standards. One of their favorite tactics, for example, was counting the number of times that this name or that name appeared. They would say, “George Washington only appears one time and Harriet Tubman is cited six times.” That was patently dishonest, because in fact the standards themselves have almost no names. The critics were counting names in the hundreds of “teaching activities” which were included in the book that accompanied the standards. We offered these teaching activities as examples of how to bring history alive in the classroom. They were written by classroom teachers. But the critics put all those teaching activities into this bean-counting machine and used the count of names to great public relations effect. Actually, if you count all the beans, the two names that were used more times than any others were Nixon and Reagan.

Q. The historian Walter A. McDougall wrote a piece in the conservative journal Commentary (May 1, 1995) in which he takes the history standards to task on a number of counts. He discusses how the U.S. standards treat the Cold War. He writes that the standards define the Cold War as “morally neutral.” He says the standards label the Cold War as “swordplay” between the Soviet Union and the United States, and that the standards see the conflict as, in his words, “important not because this nation sacrificed for four decades to contain another totalitarian empire, but rather because it led to the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as the Berlin airlift, Cuban missile crisis, American interventions in many parts of the world, a huge investment in scientific research, and environmental damage that will take generations to rectify. It demonstrated the power of American public opinion in reversing foreign policy, it tested the democratic system to its limits, and it left scars on American society that have not yet been erased.” MacDougall continues, “Accordingly, the lesson plans make no mention of Soviet expansion, or Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism and mass murder. Instead, one of three questions for grades 5-6 is about McCarthyism; three of five questions for grades 7-8 are about McCarthyism; and two of three questions for grades 9-12 are about McCarthyism….So instructed, students would be hard put to explain why the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and ultimately China joined hands in fear of the Soviet Union. So beset by red herrings, students would be easy prey for conspiracy theories linking the Cold War to hysterical anti-Communism or the military-industrial complex. There may be no such thing as Truth-with-a-capital T about complicated historical phenomena. But there is such a thing as discernible Falsehood. And the above is an example – with a capital F.”

A. As you note, he’s talking about the U.S. standards. The world standards do pay attention to Stalinism and to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. So what he claims is missing is not really missing, because it is in the world standards, and the U.S. standards and world standards are two parts of the same package.

On the other hand, it’s true that the way the Cold War was treated in the U.S. standards got a lot of flak. The word “swordplay” really ticked off people on the right, and even liberal cold warriors like Schlesinger, who felt this was too casual or too morally neutral a word. So let’s examine what the U.S. standards actually say about the Cold War.

The first U.S. standard is “The Economic Boom and Social Transformation of Post-War America.” In one part of this, students are asked to “analyze the impact of the Cold War on the economy.” Another standard is, “The Cold War and the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts In Domestic and International Politics.” Students are asked to “demonstrate understanding of the origins and domestic consequences of the Cold War” by “evaluating the ‘flawed peace’ and the effectiveness of the United Nations in reducing international tensions and conflicts.” And they are asked to “explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics.” Is the latter term, to borrow a phrase from Walter A. McDougall, “morally neutral”? Well, I suppose so: “Explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics.” Yes, it’s pretty neutral. One thing we specifically did not want to do was construct these statements, of what students should be able to do, in a way that would lead the jury. I would ask McDougall and various others, how would they rewrite what they expect kids to be able to do? They should take this sentence and rewrite it: “Students should be able to explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics.” Let’s see what they come up with!

Q. One way might be, “Students should be able to explain how the United States resisted Stalinist aggression in Eastern Europe after World War II.”

A. And that’s leading the jury. That’s a much more loaded formulation. We did not want to do that. We want students to think, and to explore the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics.

I think the people who constructed this sentence, about the origins of the Cold War, would stick by it. However, in response to feedback, we did add some material, which reads as follows: “The Cold War set the framework for global politics for 45 years after the end of World War II. The Cold War so strongly influenced our domestic politics, the conduct of foreign affairs and the role of the government in the economy after 1945, that it is obligatory for students to examine its origins, and the forces behind its continuation into the late 20th century. They should understand how American and European antipathy to Leninist Stalinism pre-dated 1945, seeded by the gradual awareness of the messianic nature of Soviet communism during the interwar years and Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and the great purges of the 1930s. Students should also consider the Soviet Union’s goals following World War II. Its catastrophic losses in the war, and fear of rapid German recovery, were factors in Soviet demands for a sphere of influence on its Western borders, achieved through the establishment of governments under Soviet military and political control. Students should also know how the American policy of ‘containment’ was successfully conducted in Europe, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlife, NATO, and the maintenance of U.S. military forces in Europe under what was called the nuclear ‘balance of terror.'”

So what we did was to expand the paragraph on why the Cold War should be studied. And we tried to give a sense of this rising American and European antipathy to Stalinism, but follow that with a statement of how the Soviets approached the Cold War, seeing it as a part of their determination not to be invaded again or undergo catastrophic losses. So that’s how we answered that particular criticism. But we did not change the standard one bit.

Q. Did you ever think you got too caught up in the controversy? Along the lines of, “Why am I arguing with Lynne Cheney and Rush Limbaugh when I could be finding out something interesting about Philadelphia in 1750?”

A. (Laughs.) I confess to feeling that way. I was very uncomfortable with the controversy. Maybe I’m naïve, but I was surprised by it. I didn’t realize I was walking into a buzz saw.

Reviews of “History on Trial” Which Was
Co-Written by Nash as a Response to This Dispute

Q. Are Americans, by and large, better informed historically today versus, say, in the 1950s?

A. That’s not easy to answer. You would think so. History books sell today. You go to Borders, or Barnes & Noble, and you discover that an awful lot of history books are being purchased and presumably read.

Charles Beard’s 1913 book “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” one of the most famous works of history ever written, had an extremely small readership. It became hugely controversial, and a lot of people heard about it, but very few of them sat down and read it. Today the readership for new history books is much larger. Partly that’s because, when Beard was writing, maybe only 20 percent of Americans graduated from high school, and something like five percent of Americans went to college. Today, 85 percent of 18-year-olds graduate from high school, and nearly half go on to some form of college. There’s a much larger, broader readership out there, so, yes, you would think that people are better informed historically. Also, there’s the popularity of The History Channel, which, even though it focuses on political history, military history, biography, is still a tremendously powerful and important medium. And there’s PBS – the Ken Burns documentary films and so on. I do think Americans are more historically informed today than in the middle of the 20th century.

On the other hand, you have these studies of what high school seniors know about American history as they’re finishing school – surveys of this sort seem to come out every 10 or 20 years – they’re remarkably consistent – these kids can’t remember much of anything!

Q. I have this vision of Ray Walston, playing a high school teacher, writing “I DON’T KNOW” on the blackboard “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

A. Well, yes – you get these alarming percentages of high school seniors who for the life of them can’t remember which came first, the American Revolution or the American Civil War. The historian Allan Nevins did a survey of this sort, I think it was published in 1940, showing that young people didn’t know their history. Lynne Cheney’s group in the late 1990s unearthed similar results.

I’m not sure if surveys of young people, testing their ability to recall a certain set of facts, is absolutely the best way to judge the historical literacy of the American public. I do think in general that the adult population in this country, through television, and through a lot of book publishing, is much more historically literate than 50 years ago.

Q. Does it make sense to you that maybe, for many people, history begins to resonate, to stick to the ribs, in the later years of their life? That some of the kids who resist learning history in high school – maybe even hate it because it’s “old,” “irrelevant,” and “boring,” or badly taught, or for whatever reason, will realize when they reach their 30s and 40s that history can be interesting and relevant?

A. I agree strongly with your take on this. Meanwhile, the job of teachers is to show the relevance of studying history to young people. It’s possible. It’s happening at many schools.

Q. Thank you for your time.

A. You’re welcome.

End Note

Journalist Kara Platoni, in a piece in Stanford magazine (March/April 2010), describes a similar moment in the career of another scholar. We offer it here as an additional example of how scholarly history sometimes works:

“In 1973, historian Carl Degler was combing the University archives, gathering research for a book on the history of the family. Sifting through the papers of Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who taught in Stanford’s hygiene department around the turn of the 20th century, he came across a mysteriously bound file. Degler nearly put it aside, figuring it was a manuscript for one of Mosher’s published works, mostly statistical treatises on women’s height, strength and menstruation. But instead, he recalls, ‘I opened it up and there were these questionnaires’ – questionnaires upon which dozens of women, most born before 1870, had inscribed their most intimate thoughts.

“In other words, it was a sex survey. A Victorian sex survey. It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women’s sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren’t so Victorian after all.

“Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex ‘a normal desire’ and observed that ‘a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier.’ Offered another, born in 1862, ‘The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us.’

“The survey’s genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in 1892 as a 28-year-old biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin; she had been asked to address a local Mother’s Club on ‘the marital relation’ and as a single, childless woman seems to have used data collection to fill gaps in her knowledge. Afterward, Mosher continued conducting surveys until 1920, using variations on the same form and amassing 45 profiles in all. Yet Mosher never published or drew more than cursory observations from her data. She died in 1940, and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it.

“‘I remember I was so surprised when I first opened it and saw what was there,’ recalls Degler, 89, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, emeritus. ‘I said to the librarian there, “Did anyone ever use these papers before?” I was sure that they’d been used before. (The subject) was something that was so instantaneously interesting at this point. And they said no, no one ever had looked at any of the papers, and certainly not at that survey. That’s one of the great experiences of my life as a historian.