10 Things You May Not Know About U.S. History
History often makes for some of the most riveting present-day storytelling (just look at this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture), and in November, cable’s Showtime channel picked up the compelling-history baton and launched a 10-part documentary series with star-power cache, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, along with a companion book that expands upon the series’ coverage.
The untold UB connection is the principal researcher for the series and the book, Eric Singer, lecturer in the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies. On Nov. 8, Singer brought Stone, collaborator Peter Kuznick of American University and two other historians to Baltimore for a University-sponsored screening and panel discussion.
Here, Singer introduces and describes 10 things you may not know (or you very well might) about American history, as plucked from the series and the book.
by Eric Singer
The title Untold History of the United States is misleading in a sense. In an era of information on demand, all of the history in Showtime’s series and in Stone and Kuznick’s book is readily knowable, and the stories have indeed been told before. “Untold” history, therefore, is recognition that many important, fascinating and even essential aspects of our history are not commonly discussed. As a result, certain enduring mythologies, generalizations and fallacies go unchallenged. You may not have known about these 10 “untold” aspects of American history, also described in the companion book, but if you’re interested, you can easily learn more about them through the world’s increasingly expanding and accessible global collection of knowledge.
1. What we know as the Great Depression was not the only great depression. An equally “great” depression to the one that struck in the 1930s happened in the 1890s. The Panic of 1893 and the subsequent five years resulted in 4 million workers losing their jobs and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Believing that the panic was caused by overproduction of goods, many American manufacturers and bankers pushed to open more markets overseas to absorb the surplus. Socialists and progressive reformers, on the other hand, thought that the panic was caused by underconsumption and advocated redistributing the wealth to workers, who would in turn buy excess goods. The former strategy won out.
2. She spoke out against the war. The first woman elected to Congress, Republican Rep. Jeanette Rankin of Montana, was one of only 50 members who voted against Woodrow Wilson’s World War I declaration and the only member to vote against declaring war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack. To a chorus of “boos” on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rankin declared, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
3. The speaking of foreign languages once was banned in the United States. In 1918, in a time of pronounced anti-immigrant—specifically anti-German—sentiment, Iowa’s Gov. William L. Harding banned the speaking of all foreign languages in public and over the telephone in his state. The ban became known as the Babel Proclamation.
4. America produced enough poison gas during World War I to wipe out two continents. According to The New York Times reporter Richard Barry, Edgewood Arsenal, 25 miles northeast of Baltimore, produced enough poison gas “to kill everyone in both North and South America” during World War I.
5. Harry Truman never believed he was cut out for political office. When Harry Truman was inducted as president on April 12, 1945, following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the high-school graduate told everyone he met that it was all a mistake and that he was not qualified to be president. He had been Roosevelt’s vice president for only 82 days prior to the president’s death, and in that time, he had met with Roosevelt a grand total of twice. When a reporter asked how his job was going on his first day in office, Truman responded, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me. I’ve got the most terribly responsible job a man ever had.” Upon another reporter yelling out, “Good luck, Mr. President,” Truman replied, “I wish you didn’t have to call me that.”
6-10 Read the remaining five items in the WebExtra.