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October 16 was the fifty-second anniversary of the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come to a nuclear war. While I’m not sure that “celebrate” is the right word for the occasion, here are some links to more information on the topic.

A very detailed timeline of the crisis can be found at

The George Washington University’s The National Security Archive is really the starting place for personal or classroom study. Its online collection “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: the 40th Anniversary” has a great collection of materials.

The audio clip of Curtis Lemay telling Kennedy that he’s “in a pretty bad fix,” memorable to those who’ve seen the film Thirteen Days, can be located most precisely at the Miller Center’s online archive.

The big, interactive web project of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” also includes a nifty app for iPad (I haven’t tried this yet).

Among the most interesting pieces I’ve read is a story from last year in The Atlantic that draws on Sheldon M. Stern’s recent book The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, which approaches the topic in a layered, textual, memory-studies way (as a medievalist, I appreciate these things…).  I think this is really a must-read piece, if you want to get a sense of some of the most recent trends in the scholarship are heading. The core reality of the situation, that the missiles really represented little by way of a strategic imbalance and that Khrushchev saw them as a response the U.S. stationing missiles in Turkey, seems to be well established by Stern, who was the first person to extensively study the Ex-Comm tapes, the conversations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. And the reality was that the removal of the missiles from Cuba was really a swap, the U.S. removing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey some months later. Kind of puts a different spin on things. Schwarz’s analysis, in The Atlantic, of the consequences of the Kennedy administration’s actions in terms of strategy and foreign policy, are substantial fare.

There was one comment after the article, however, which made me look up a few things. The commenter was claiming that it was actually the Eisenhower administration which deployed the Jupiter missiles to Turkey, and therefore that blaming Kennedy for creating his own mess is unfair. Without having read all the voluminous studies of the issue, this is true. The Jupiter missile was pushed by the Eisenhower administration, and negotiations for deployment overseas began in 1958.  The agreement with Turkey was concluded in October 1959, more than a year before Kennedy took office, although it was 1962 before the missiles were actually operational. So the idea for deployment originated with the Eisenhower administration, and I suppose just naturally carried over into the Kennedy administration. So, why not just can the idea, especially since the system was cumbersome and obsolete anyway? The answer would seem to be in Turkey’s role in the Cold War, which made the Turkish government very unenthusiastic about any action that suggested that they were less than a full member of NATO.

It’s always more complicated.

You might not have caught it, but on September 5 The New York Times ran a story titled “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…” The story talks about Gates’ ongoing partnership with David Christian, an Australian academic who’s “Big History” series caught Gates’ attention. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Big History” concept has turned into a major initiative across America, as Gates has been pushing high schools and colleges to adopt the course, described in the article as “a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface.”  Apparently these efforts have been crowned with some success.

I haven’t seen any of the “Big History” course ware or the original course series dvds, so I can’t judge, but the description on face sounded interesting. In this day and age, we’re always trying to make our courses more cutting edge, more innovative–especially if “we” are young faculty anxious to make an impression on the job market. My first thought, then, was that there could be a couple things to learn from the project.

So, I was very interested to see Brian Sandberg’s blog post today, titled “The Problem with Bill Gates and ‘Big History.'”  Sandberg’s critique comes down to two major points, connected by Gates choosing the what and the how of courses “based on what he personally finds intriguing”: 1) “This is education reform as entertainment,” and 2) “This dangerous model of educational ‘reform’ threatens to reduce education to a delivery device for corporate interests and whims, removing researchers and experts from curricular decision-making processes.”

I’d be interested to read more reactions to the NYT story, and to Gates’ initiative in general. Of course, the Foundation’s support of the Common Core system does not inspire confidence. But having observed technology-heavy curriculum development, I can assure you there there is no such thing as a “pure” curriculum development process free of external considerations. As soon as you lock onto a delivery system, a brand, a publisher, you’re in some way limiting innovation and development. Heck, even in non-technology driven curriculum development I’ve seen similar dynamics at work. So, on face, a tycoon’s enthusiasm for a particular type of curriculum or course doesn’t phase me one way or another, at least initially. On the other hand, having been a spectator to the collapse and/or scaling back of MOOC efforts at various schools around the country, and also having observed or read the rather ridiculous results of corporate-driven education policies, I’m not a believer either.

Ultimately, innovation costs money. It’s a sad fact of life, but patrons are as important these days as they were during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. So, before choosing sides in the “Big History” debate, I’d like more data and information.


On Thursday and Friday, I taught the MilArt lesson on 17th-century Britain; basically it goes from Charles I to William and Mary, and functions as a the second of a two-chapter diptych on contrasting systems of war, politics, and society, the other being a France chapter.  One of the problems with old history is that, unless they’re history buffs, students often have a hard time grasping the drama and immediacy of small things like the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” for example. Also, and I think this affects the actual teaching of history-as-discipline, students often have a hard time realizing that “history” gains in personal relevance if you think it somehow impacts what you think and believe. Blatantly obvious, right? Sure, but from what I’ve seen students often have problems shifting from concept to historical example and back again. If you can find that spark to possibly ignite their passions and curiosity, you will have done a great thing. So in that sense, I like to balance “historicist” with “presentist” in the classroom. THIS lesson, on Britain, seemed to lend itself to discussing the relationship of militaries to their societies and governments, and so I asked them to discuss what they thought were the hallmarks of a beneficial and effective civil-military relationship. It went really, really well; they all had opinions which they debated with each other quite vigorously, and by the end of the hour we had brought it back to 17th-century Britain, naval power, and the use of force. There was general agreement that it was a very useful class.

In doing my prep, I assembled a two-slide list of some recent articles and news stories that reflect the ongoing debate on civil-military relations, which I’ve attached to this post. As I pointed out to my students, you can’t have this conversation without someone appealing to history to back up their opinions.  Also worth noting, but not on the slides, is that the term is often used to describe U.S. “global engagement” efforts–such as at the Brookings Institute. And there was a 2005 Harvard publication by Peter D. Fever titled Armed Servants, which might bear some reading, though as public commentary it’s already nearly ten years out of date.  Finally, Suzanne C. Nielsen’s 2005 article “Civil-Military Relations Theory and Military Effectiveness” is also worth a look.

Some important pieces on civil-military relations