There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
Many people still seem to be surprised that protests denouncing the murder of George Floyd have led to global demonstrations (and sometimes direct action) aimed at the removal of monuments that, until a few decades ago, were not publicly contested.
A number of educated Americans agree that Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis defended slavery and fought a war to preserve the inhuman institution. In European and African countries, many citizens recognize that Leopold II of Belgium was the notorious ruler of the Congo Free State. During his reign nearly 10 million inhabitants of the African state were terrorized, tortured, and murdered.
But in the last few weeks, US demonstrators took down statues paying homage to Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator who launched the European conquest of the Americas in the late fifteenth century. What is often omitted from the story is that he also drove the genocide of millions of Native Americans. This conquest eventually led to the massive import of enslaved Africans to the so-called New World.
In the UK, statues commemorating slave traders like Edward Colston and Robert Milligan were also toppled down or removed.
The founding fathers of the United States, who have been under scrutiny in the last few decades, were not spared either. A statue of Thomas Jefferson and another of George Washington were taken down in Portland, Oregon.
Surprisingly, many citizens did not even know who the men were who are represented in these monuments. Most are just now learning that these statues, erected several decades ago, pay homage to men who promoted slavery, genocide, and colonialism.
Despite current disbelief, toppling down and removing monuments is nothing new.
In the Americas, since the American Revolutionary War, and in Europe, during the French Revolution, there is a long history of taking down and removing monuments. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe also propelled the removal of dozens of monuments memorializing leaders such as Lenin and Stalin. There is also a long tradition of creating new monuments in times of change.
What does the current global movement to take down statues honoring white men who supported human atrocities teach us? In nearly two decades studying monuments, memorials, and museums memorializing slavery in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, I learned several lessons. When groups decide to erect a monument to remember an event or a person from the past, they are always driven by present-day motivations.
Many historians have shown how countless Confederate monuments were created starting in the early twenty century. It’s never too much to repeat that groups such as the Sons of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned and sponsored the construction of these monuments long after the end of the Civil War, when the memory of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was at risk of fading. Their goal was clear. They were protecting white heritage during the Jim Crow era. By promoting their values of white supremacy and racial segregation in a period when African Americans were denied access to civil rights, they consolidated their power by imposing the presence of those who lost the Civil War in public space.
In other words, all monuments emerge and disappear because of political battles that take place in the public arena. Likewise, public memory is always political. And in the context of the Americas, it is always racialized because the groups who hold conflicting memories are built along racial lines. Monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and John C. Calhoun symbolize white heritage, a heritage that drew from slavery, white supremacy, and racial oppression. Like the pro-slavery white groups who created these monuments decades ago, white groups who associate themselves with this long-lasting tradition of racial oppression are the ones willing to defend these monuments today.
Lest we forget, in 2015, Dylan Roof murdered nine African Americans in Charleston. A few days before committing this mass murder, he posed with a Confederate flag in a series of pictures. In 2017, far-right and pro-Nazi armed groups went to Charlottesville, VA, to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee. One member of the mob assassinated Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others. In both cases, these individuals and groups promoted the idea that they were defending the cause of their ancestors. Instead they were defending present-day racism.
There is no doubt that these individuals and groups instrumentalized Confederate symbols to promote their present-day white supremacist agenda. That agenda became more radicalized after the first black president of the United States was elected in 2008, and more emboldened by President Trump’s support.
In 2020, more white Americans than ever before came to see Confederate monuments as shrines of white hate. Black people, however, never accepted symbols of white supremacy. It’s needless to state that these statues were constructed without consulting members of the black community, who could not even vote or use the same restrooms as white citizens by that time.
Historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts showed how African Americans in Charleston protested the statue of pro-slavery propagandist John C. Calhoun since its inception, defacing the statue so often that it was placed atop an obelisk to thwart vandals.
The same occurred elsewhere. Starting in the 1990s, black Bristolians protested the omnipresence of statues, buildings, and streets paying homage to the British slave merchant Edward Colston, all over the city. Especially since 2015, South Africans started taking down statues representing the leaders of the colonial era and the Apartheid regime.
When these black citizens demand the removal of monuments paying homage to white men who defended slavery and segregation, they are not only arguing about events that happened in the past, they are denouncing present-day legacies of this past, including their social and economic exclusion and racial violence that became so evident once again after the murder of George Floyd. These black and brown citizens, and their allies, are bringing to light that countries like the United States, England, and France, were built on the wealth generated by the Atlantic slave trade and slavery.
All these societies also emerged on the principles of white supremacy.
Because when black citizens open a textbook, visit a museum, or look at the statues displayed in the major squares of the main European and American capitals they only see images of white men, who were wealthy, who had power, and who very often were slave owners or slave traders. Then when black men, women, and children are challenging pro-slavery statues, they are denouncing this past that remains alive in the present. They are calling attention to their present-day economic and social exclusion.
I am convinced that the fall of pro-slavery monuments offers several opportunities to make amends for past atrocities.
First of all, it is time for the countries that practiced chattel slavery and participated in the Atlantic slave trade to formulate an official and formal apology to the descendants of enslaved people.
The White House recently improvised an Executive Order on Building and rebuilding monuments to American Heroes. Instead, the federal government, states, and municipalities should create commissions to evaluate the existing monuments and memorials. More importantly, they should lead a wide consultation of black and brown citizens to determine which monuments and memorials they want to create in their communities. The example of Lisbon, Portugal, which recently led a broad consultation regarding the creation of a slavery memorial can be a productive model to be followed.
Another crucial step is to create commissions to examine how the history of slavery is taught in US schools. Producing textbooks that fully tell the history of slavery and the populations of African descent in the United States is another measure to make sure that the history of slavery is not erased and is effectively taught to schoolchildren. Making the teaching of African American history mandatory at the school level, as was done in Brazil, and creating a national holiday to commemorate slavery (as was done in France) are also initiatives to be considered in the United States.
As we can see, the removal of pro-slavery statues open up to a great number of alternatives to tell the true story about slavery and the populations of African descent not only in the United States, but also around the globe.
Cover Detail, Negro Traveler’s Green Book, 1956
In New York harbor, the famous inscription at the Statue of Liberty beckons to America those who are “yearning to breathe free.” The message resonates with one of this nation’s founding myths: that bountiful American nature would provide new life for all.
In reality, over time American nature has been retrofitted with an infrastructure of racism, one that gives some people open access to land, clean water, and good air while constricting the access of others to these vital natural resources, or takes them away altogether. In a previous piece for HNN, I began exploring how the standoff in Central Park between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper on Memorial day intertwines with this history. A coincidence on that fateful day helps us hear this history’s deeper reverberations in bodies and places across the nation.
At 8:10 am, Christian was out for a nature walk, pursuing his love of birds and their habitat; Amy was walking her dog, and when he asked her to put her dog on a leash, thinking about the trees and the birds, she tried to unleash the cops on him. At 8:10 pm in Minneapolis, a bystander began filming George Floyd’s arrest. Minutes later, Officer Derek Chauvin started suffocating him and kept it up for almost 9 minutes, knee on his neck artery, as George Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” 16 times—echoing the words of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in Staten Island in 2014.
When Melody Cooper first saw the video of her brother and a woman calling the cops, a scene like that of Floyd’s murder flashed in her mind: “My imagination took me to see him face down on the ground, with police around him, and — this is ironic — in a chokehold, but I didn’t know about George Floyd yet. I just imagined them having him face down in the dirt and killing him that way.” As Christian sees it, Floyd’s murder “happened on the same day and it sprang from the same wellspring.” Their histories are conjoined, even if their fates diverged.
In her remarkable reckoning with the suffocating legacies of slavery entitled In the Wake, Christina Sharpe asks, “What is the word for keeping and putting breath back in the body?” Her answer is aspiration—adding, “aspiration is violent and life-saving.” In the times of slavery and after, African Americans have aspired to find solace and freedom from nature, even as it’s been intentionally fenced off from them. Slave masters drove the people they enslaved to cultivate tobacco and cotton plants into forms they could profit from. As Lauret Savoy puts it, they had the power to “extract work” from her ancestors and also “blood, breath, life itself.” Within this life-choking system, enslaved people grew gardens at night in the no-man’s-land between plantations they made their land, to keep themselves alive physically and spiritually. They navigated by the stars and used nature as “underground” escape routes to states where they could breath the “air of freedom.” As historian Tiya Miles notes, “African-Americans recognized the capacity of nature to function as a resource — better still, an ally — in the fight for physical and psychological freedom.”
After emancipation, African Americans who migrated to northern cities still sought out nature—in the countryside and in urban green spaces. In the Chicago Defender in 1913, health editor Dr. Wilberforce Williams urged his African American readers to spend a day breathing “clean, fresh country air” in “close communication with birds and trees and flowers.” But when Black people pushed for access to the city’s segregated beaches in the sweltering summer of 1919, whites responded by throwing rocks and bricks, one of which hit Eugene Williams, who sunk beneath the waters of Lake Michigan and drowned. A race riot swept through the city for the next four days, leaving 38 dead and 537 injured. In the midst of the conflagrations of the Red Summer of 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, wrote about his 7000 mile sea-to-shining-sea journey across America, from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles and culminating at the Grand Canyon. Even as he beheld nature’s sublimity there in an experience that “will live eternal in my soul,” he mapped the way the color line crossed every cityscape and countryside in America. Against this restrictive reality, Du Bois posed his hopeful credo, in which he insisted that everyone should have “the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color.” And they should have “the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe….”
In the century since, African Americans have persisted in efforts to desegregate American nature, whether as Girl Scouts with their watchful mothers camping on land in the heart of Klan territory or heeding Ebony’s call for Black families to seek out “a magnificent natural area” in a National Park. Or Christian and Melody Cooper’s parents, who “taught us to move through the world as if we had a right to be there.” The deep dilemma they face again and again is illustrated well by the Fall 1956 cover of The Green Book. It seems to show a couple enjoying a leisurely errand into the wilderness in their automobile, like thousands of other Americans after WWII. Imagery aside, we know that the “green” in The Green Book only evokes nature by happenstance, for it bore the name of its publisher, Victor Hugo Green of New York City. His book was a map for African Americans showing how to navigate Jim Crow America, containing information on the small oases of inclusion dotting a landscape of hostility from sea to sea.
Even as white America tried to keep African Americans out of their idea of “pristine” nature, it had no trouble dumping defiled nature—that is, pollution—on Black communities. In fact, the movement for “environmental justice” came from African Americans whose communities had been literally dumped on. The Reverend Benjamin Chavis coined the term environmental racism in 1983 to bring to light “the deliberate targeting of people-of-color communities for hazardous waste facilities, such as landfills and incinerators.” In cities across America, white flight, racially restrictive housing covenants, and myriad forms of formal and informal redlining condemned African Americans to live in decaying, polluted and under-serviced urban enclaves. In 1973, Stevie Wonder gave voice to these conditions in his song about a man born in rural Mississippi who comes to the Big Apple: “His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty / He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York city / He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution / He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution / Living just enough, just enough for the city.”
As Gregg Mitman shows in Breathing Space, the “distribution of allergens and pollutants was not equal in the economically and racially segregated spaces of the city.” In the urban ecology in Harlem, for example, with slum landlords violating housing codes and subjecting residents to crowded and dilapidated conditions where cockroaches ran rampant, African Americans since the 1960s have suffered from asthma at outsized rates. This “ecology of injustice that makes each breath a fight to survive” has also made African Americans exceptionally vulnerable to the novel virus that attacks its victim’s respiratory system. America’s environmental racism means that for Black people access to earth, water, and air have all been constricted.
In his aspirational Dream speech, Martin Luther King asked for freedom to ring, not only from the “curvaceous slopes of California” but also from “Stone Mountain of Georgia”—where Robert E Lee is carved into the wall and where the modern KKK burned a cross to proclaim their own rebirth in 1915. The white supremacist sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, went on to carve the faces of American settler colonial presidents into a mountain in the Black Hills that rightfully belongs to the Lakotas. A fire was burning in nearby Custer last week on the memorial of the man’s defeat at Little Bighorn, as Rushmore prepared for presidential fireworks on July 3rd. Nick Tilson, an Oglala Lakota citizen, points out that “Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well.” Every part of America, figuratively, has a piece of the rocks Borglum inscribed. Some literally have it—in the 1920s, Stone mountain stone was imported to a Seattle graveyard near where I live to create a confederate memorial that still stands.
King spoke of hewing a “stone of hope” from the mountain of white supremacy, and that is what the memorial to King in Washington, D.C. seeks to do symbolically. After his Dream speech, he would go on to express an ecological perspective on race relations, noting that “we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and that “all life is interrelated.” King was once told not to visit a Canadian National Park on account of the white American tourists who would have presumably been disturbed by his presence. King’s last struggle was over environmental justice—the fight to restore the dignity of African American sanitary workers in Memphis. He spoke the night before his assassination of going “up to the mountain top” and looking over to the “Promised land.”
When the Obamas moved into the White House, they tried to redress the way the country had alienated Black people from nature. Michelle worked shoulder to shoulder with kids from every background to create a garden on the nation’s most hallowed ground. The Obamas also created a photo opportunity with a diverse groups of young people in the epicenter of the white wilderness, Yosemite. But the Obamas faced an angry backlash—one racist meme pictured the White House grounds planted completely with watermelons, mobilizing the stereotype that turned the crops some free Black people grew and enjoyed for themselves after emancipation into an object of ridicule.
As Nicole Seymour points out, Christian Cooper explained that he was concerned about how unleashed dogs disturb “ground-dwelling birds” and also the “planting” that people spend a lot of time on. As he knows well, a park that makes air space for shrubs and trees and therefore birds also makes air space for people. Hands in the dirt planting can restore; but when Melody imagined her brother choked by the police shoving his face into the dirt, she was haunted by what had happened to Eric Garner, what might have happened to her brother, and what later happened to George Floyd. At a recent teach-in and vigil entitled “We Can’t Breathe: 400 Years of Institutionalized Violence” hosted by the Race and Pedagogy Institute, my colleague Renee Simms said “you’ll recall that the image that most of us have of Garner is from the video of his murder on a sidewalk in the city being choked by police.” She pointed out that what is often forgotten is that for a time Eric Garner worked for Parks and Recreation as a horticulturalist, but that “Nature and the natural world, plants, are things we don’t often associate with black people.” But poet Ross Gay restored this association, writing that “in all likelihood, he put gently into the earth, some plants, which most likely…continue to grow, continue to do what such plants do…like converting sunlight into food, like making it easier for us to breathe.”
Photo by Author, 2020
The gates to the park that surrounds New York’s City Hall are locked. Visible through the iron bars are the colors green, from the lush vegetation, and blue, from the uniforms of the New York Police Department. Officers look out at crowds of protesters demonstrating and camping with colorful umbrellas to protect them from rain and sun, an array of rainbow-hued signs and banners, and portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Activists have created this “Abolition Plaza” or “Abolition Park,” formerly “Occupy City Hall,” to demand divestment from policing and reinvestment in services for communities. The history of parks and protests in nineteenth-century New York reveals why this powerful action is unfolding outside the gates of City Hall Park, rather than within.
This spot has been a center of political expression since before there was a park, a City Hall, or even a United States of America. Likely the site of a Lenape village before European colonizers arrived in the seventeenth century, this land became “the Common” or “the Fields” for residents of the Dutch and then English settlement at the island’s tip. Aside from grazing animals, foraging for building materials and fuel, and celebrating holidays there, people also used this shared land on the outskirts of town as a place of protest. During the Revolution, the Sons of Liberty called the Common “the most publick place.” It was there that these rebels protested against the Stamp Act by hanging an effigy of the Loyalist mayor, erected Liberty Poles, and sparred with British soldiers who cut the poles down. Alexander Hamilton gave his first speech at the Common and in 1776, revolutionaries read the Declaration of Independence there.
Francis W. Maerschalck and G Duyckinck,“A plan of the city of New York from an actual survey,”
1755, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/73691802/
When the Common became a park in the late nineteenth century, the future of this site of political expression was uncertain. The elite New Yorkers who drove the process of creating the park envisioned a natural landscape for quiet leisure, not activism. When unemployed seamen planned a rally in the park to demand government aid in 1808, the mayor circulated handbills announcing that he “decidedly disapproves” of this action. But New Yorkers refused to stop protesting there, especially after City Hall was completed in 1812 and demonstrations were sure to catch the attention of municipal leaders. The strong iron fence built around the park between 1818 and 1821, though, signaled that protesters could not expect to come and go as freely as they once had.
Still, when historian Henry B. Dawson reflected in 1855 on the Common’s role in the Revolution, he insisted “the Park [at City Hall] is still the refuge of the people when their own, their party’s, or their country’s grievances demand a hearing. Here they freely assemble and discuss their rights and their wrongs.” A spectrum of activists demonstrated in the Park, expressing a range of views that sometimes clashed, and made this spot the political center of a diverse and divided populace.
The Park at City Hall was an especially important political space for Black New Yorkers. Few could vote, thanks to explicitly racist restrictions on suffrage that passed at the same time as all white men gained access to the ballot in 1821. Protests in the park forced authorities, who were likely to overlook the concerns of the Black community, to listen. The most frequent demonstrations mobilized against kidnappers who captured Black people on the city’s streets and attempted to enslave or re-enslave them. These protests began as early as 1826 and multiplied in the era between the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827 and nationwide emancipation. Crowds of Black women and men gathered to support captured community members during their trials in City Hall and sometimes attacked the kidnappers, the police officers who escorted them, or the judges who were generally inclined to rule against freedom. Most whites, even those who opposed slavery, as well as some Black leaders condemned the protests as disorderly and disruptive. But the throngs in the park signaled a threat of riot that could make a difference in the fates of captured people and even contributed to the mayor’s decision to stop enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 within a year of its passage. Park protests were effective tactics in the struggle against slavery.
“Great Meeting in the Park,” The Union, June 14, 1836, *KSC, Rare Book Collection, New York Public Library.
The Park at City Hall was also a crucial site of labor organizing for white men. When nine workers were arrested for engaging in the then-illegal practice of striking in 1836, the newspaper of the General Trades Union announced a “Great Meeting in the Park!!!” An accompanying image showed a light-skinned arm, with a mallet in fist, encircled by oak leaves. This was a fitting logo for a demonstration amidst the trees, where white men united across the trades but excluded workers of color and immigrants from the fight for better wages and working conditions. In the following decades, the labor movement expanded to welcome immigrants with roots in Europe, while white working-class animosity towards people of African descent continued to rise in the lead up to the Civil War. In antebellum New York, the Park at City Hall was a battleground over competing notions of justice, with Black New Yorkers envisioning full social equality and freedom from slavery while white workingmen fought for better wages and conditions just for themselves.
Authorities used policing, the military, and legislation to constrain the long tradition of protesting in the Park at City Hall. Officers chased Black New Yorkers from the park in 1826, but these protesters returned carrying bricks to defend themselves with. Those arrested in the fray that followed were sentenced to three years of hard labor, which was an extremely harsh punishment for the time. Responding to labor rallies at the park in the 1830s, municipal authorities called on the National Guard to seize the public space and perform military drills there that might scare workers into submission. But the labor struggle continued, growing more militant over time. By the 1870s, white workers organized in unprecedented numbers, marching for an eight-hour workday and striking for higher wages. In 1872, city leaders tried to suppress this activism by requiring permits for public meetings and processions. New York was the first city in the nation to limit the freedoms of assembly and speech in this way. To demonstrate in the Park at City Hall, activists now needed permits from the Department of Public Parks. Not only was this bureaucratic process burdensome, but park commissioners often refused to sanction meetings with a radical bent.
Today, the permitting process can take up to a month and carries a fee, effectively restricting the political possibilities of these public spaces. Facing arrest when protesting in parks without permission, activists have gone elsewhere. In 2011,Occupy Wall Street took place at Zuccotti Park, a privately owned plaza required to be open to the public 24 hours each day. The current protest takes place on the broad sidewalk outside the gates of City Hall Park. Still, police officers have handed out fliers noting that camping in parks is illegal. Requiring permits to protest in parks creates grey areas, confusion, and risks.
Most of all, the permitting process strangles freedom of expression in this city. This summer, it has been heartening to see protesters enter parks without seeking authorization. The next step is to open the gates of City Hall Park, restoring this land to its historical role as the city’s political center. Our democracy will be healthier if our constitutional rights to assemble and speak freely can flourish in public parks that belong to us all.
MGM Camera Crew at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, July 1946
It took eighteen months after the first atomic bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, for Hollywood to produce a motion picture about the birth of the nuclear age. The movie studio almost never got that far. Over many months, MGM faced immense pressure for revisions–some leading to outright falsifications–from the director of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, and from the White House, including President Harry S. Truman. MGM also struggled to secure signed releases from the likes of Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, allowing them to be portrayed in the film.
After all of that, the docu-drama The Beginning or The End would debut in February 1947 to mixed reviews and a tepid box office. It was, so to speak, something of a “bomb,” but it survives today streaming and on DVD, and in occasional TV screenings via Turner Classic Movies. It will forever hold the distinction of being the first Hollywood movie on the bomb, but to achieve that it had to beat out a rival production from Paramount, which touted a screenplay written by novelist Ayn Rand.
The New York Times labeled this the “Atom Sweepstakes” but it could also be called the first “nuclear race” of the postwar era.
How did it begin, back in October 1945? The catalyst, oddly enough, was young actress Donna Reed, still a few years shy of her Academy Award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity and then her role in the long-running TV series that bore her name.
The bomb had already made its first appearance in a Hollywood movie, albeit in a cameo role. A minor RKO movie called First Yank Into Tokyo had been rushed into release in mid-September with a tacked-on ending. First Yank told the improbable story of an American pilot, Major Steve Ross, who undergoes plastic surgery to look Japanese so that he can infiltrate a brutal POW camp in Tokyo and rescue an American scientist. A new epilogue showed a U.S. bomber in flight while a narrator explained that “a group of scientists made untold sacrifices so that this B-29 could make its bomb run over the heart of the Japanese empire, bringing final and terrible retribution.”
Two other movies also bluntly added Hiroshima references before release. The spy thriller House on 92nd Street, featuring an introduction by J. Edgar Hoover, had focused on Nazi agents in New York attempting to penetrate a secret wartime project known as “Process 97.” Now dialogue was added to link that to the atomic bomb. A low-budget movie, Shadow of Terror, pictured an American scientist carrying a secret formula to Washington, D.C.–later to be revealed as nuclear in nature–who was threatened by foreign agents.
Then a letter addressed to Donna Reed arrived at her oceanfront Santa Monica home on October 28, 1945. It came from her beloved high school chemistry teacher back in Denison, Iowa. She had stayed in touch with Edward Tompkins for a few years after graduation but then he suddenly vanished, and had not responded to her letters.
That autumn, she had signed for her biggest role yet, as the wife of James Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. At the same time she finally discovered what had happened to Ed Tompkins. A newspaper story revealed that he had helped create the atomic bomb at the top-secret Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After reading the article, she sent him another letter, this time care of Oak Ridge.
Soon she received a reply. “The development of atomic explosives necessitates a reevaluation of many of our previous modes of thought and life,” he began. ”This conclusion had been reached by the research scientists who developed these powerful new explosives long before August 6, 1945.” That, of course, was the day the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, killing more than 125,000, the vast majority of them women and children. Three days later, Nagasaki met the same fate, with a death toll reaching at least 75,000.
Americans, weeks after the Japanese surrender, were relieved that the war was over but nervous about atomic energy. Scientists, political figures and songwriters alike were sounding a similar theme—splitting the atom could bring wonderful advances, if used wisely, or destroy the world, if developed for military purposes. Atomic dreams, and nightmares, ran wild. “Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear,” warned radio commentator Edward R. Murrow, with “survival not assured.”
In the letter to his former pupil, Tompkins explained that the scientists’ initial “excitement” and pride in what they had accomplished was now subsumed by soul-searching. Thousands of Manhattan Project scientists had now formed associations in Oak Ridge, Chicago, Los Alamos and New York to deliver their warnings and “to foster thought and discussion which can lead to adoption of international control of atomic energy.” Contrary to claims by military leaders and politicians, there was “NO possibility” that the U.S. could keep a monopoly on these weapons. The so-called “secret” of the atomic bomb was known internationally. The Soviets, for example, would surely build their own bombs within a few years.
But what did Donna’s old chem teacher want her to do about it? “Do you think a movie could be planned and produced,” he asked, “to successfully impress upon the public the horrors of atomic warfare…. It would, of course, have to hold the interest of the public, and still not sacrifice the message. Would you be willing to help sell this idea to MGM?”
Well, that was a lot for Donna Reed, or anyone, to digest. Just seven years earlier the same man had been delivering quite a different lesson in a classroom. Fortunately she had someone to share it with. This was her new husband, Tony Owen, a slick, fast-talking dynamo who was thirteen years her senior.
In short order Owen would confer with MGM producer Sam Marx, who would take him to meet with Louis B. Mayer, the legendary studio boss. Mayer would greenlight the project, vowing to make it “the most important” movie he had ever produced. Owen and Marx flew to Oak Ridge to meet with Tompkins and his colleagues, and then to Washington to confer with General Groves and various officials. Soon they were even sitting down with President Truman in the White House, who blessed the project and even supplied the title for it when he told them: ”Make your film, gentlemen, and tell the world that in handling the atomic bomb we are either at the beginning or the end.”
Within weeks, the Hearst columnist and author of 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Bob Considine, had written a lengthy treatment, and the famed flyer turned screenwriter (They Were Expendable) Frank “Spig” Wead had drafted a script. Academy Award-winning director Norman Taurog was hired, as were Brian Donlevy to portray Groves and Hume Cronyn to play Oppenheimer.
However, Paramount was running at least even in this race for the first A-bomb movie. Hal B. Wallis, who had produced Casablanca among others, had also announced his film, Top Secret, as a big-budget drama. He assigned Ayn Rand, then back on the bestseller list with her novel The Fountainhead, to write the script. She worked for Wallis six months of every year, and had recently penned for him the Oscar-nominated Love Letters.
Rand wrote a detailed outline of her ideas for the story, which true to her beliefs, took an aggressively pro-capitalist, pro-individual, approach. She planned to grant little credit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, while lavishing it on American industry and “unharnessed” scientists. Only the freedom-loving United States could have invented the bomb. She even managed to interview General Groves as well as the reclusive Oppenheimer (twice), among others.
The New York Times followed the competition closely. The two studios were in a “Race to Produce First Film History of the Atomic Bomb,” one headline boomed.
Then, in March 1946, Hal Wallis suddenly threw in the towel, trading Paramount’s research and all materials, including Ayn Rand’s script, to MGM in return for a share of future profits. Wallis had become disenchanted with Rand’s screenplay and had hired another writer to start working on an alternative. It’s also believed that he had grown weary of chasing so many famous figures for the rights to be portrayed.
But did MGM win the battle but ultimately lose the war? For months it had to make dozens of cuts and revisions under orders from Groves, who had been paid the then-hefty sum of $10,000 to serve as chief adviser–and essentially granted him script approval. President Truman ordered a costly re-take of a key scene to bolster the case for his decision to drop the bomb. He also got the actor playing him fired.
By the time it premiered in February 1947, all of that amounted to little. Eighteen months had now passed since the arrival of the bomb and the movie failed to excite audiences or critics. Time magazine laughed at the film’s “cheery imbecility.” Hal Wallis didn’t make out very well, as there were no profits from the film, which made his share worthless. At least Ayn Rand did get something out of it: She would base Robert Stadler, one of the key figures in her next novel, Atlas Shrugged, on Oppenheimer.
Adapted from the new book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood–and America–Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (The New Press)
You are now seeing why. Whether Americans are aware of it or not, history education informs the values and beliefs we hold today. As a history educator, co-chair of the New England History Teachers Association, and the editor of The New England Journal of History, I am deeply invested in history education. The information that you studied in history class as children or teenagers shaped your understanding of human dynamics and your ability to imagine the situations of other human beings. Your ability to empathize today reflects both your history education and what your parents taught you at home. If your parents’ history education was like yours, they share values like those you hold today about poverty, race, slavery, human migration, imperialism, protest, rebellion—everything—learned during their history classes. What histories have Americans internalized about people of color and/or women in relation to American exceptionalism and patriarchal systems? Why do any of us believe what we do today? How have history textbooks and history teachers shaped any American’s understanding of the world?
For example, did you study Henry Clay and the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color? In an AP US or US History I class, students learn about the American Colonization Society’s belief that free people of color in the United States would be better served by returning to Africa than staying in the United States. Even in a recent AP US textbook I use in my classroom, written by conscientiously inclusive authors, one finds the transportation of free African Americans to the west coast of Africa described in this manner: “Some fifteen thousand freed blacks were transported there over the next four decades” (watch out for passive voice since it hides agency!).
If one investigates transportation to Africa further, Imanuel Geiss in The Pan-African Movement and Nell Irvin Painter in Creating Black Americans reveal that starting in 1830 the Negro Convention movement worked actively to convince the American Colonization Society that abolishing slavery was a better idea than sending African Americans to Africa. In addition, these 15,000 free blacks were not “transported,” but rather white Americans forced many African Americans to emigrate to Liberia. The disparate class and education levels of those free African Americans also enters the equation as educated African Americans fought more successfully against moving to Liberia. In addition, there is no mention in the history text about the highly educated African Americans Samuel Mills and Ebenezer Burgess who traveled to visit the African Institute in England and then (Mills died along the way) journeyed to the Liberian coast to address the practical concerns of moving African Americans to the west coast of Africa. Carter Woodson, the great African American historian, and creator of the first Black History Week tells us about Mills and Burgess, yet he is virtually unknown in contemporary history classrooms. How is relegating a historian of the importance of Dr. Woodson to semi-invisibility any different than the Nazi act of claiming that those who were Jewish created science that was useless?
From this one examination of a historical event, students of history no longer see African Americans solely as victims. The story of the Colonization movement shows us the impact of class and education levels in the determination of who gets sent to the west coast of Africa. Students also learn that there were educated and activist African Americans in the early 1800s working to create an organization such as the Negro Convention movement, and that they travelled outside of America to consider the practicalities of moving to Africa. How does not learning about these facts cause students to shape their understandings of the abilities and agencies of both whites and nonwhites?
Presenting history that creates a picture of the superiority of white culture and abilities, while leaving out the flow of ideas, philosophies and activism of nonwhite cultures, leaves students with a false belief that only white, western culture is capable of achieving greatness. How can history teachers and textbook authors structure history education to significantly decrease the biases, racism, and violence we see today? Americans must demand and invest in changing the method of American history education so that students internalize that all humans are capable of great achievements and that there are no perpetual or inferior victims.
How can teachers and textbook authors stop creating a false sense of white or male superiority, stop shaping implicit biases that support white superiority, and stop developing the minds of our population to believe that people of color are somehow less valuable? Educators can achieve this in our classrooms. Please take this summer to expand your knowledge about the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, LGBTQIA+, and women of American or world history. Rather than focusing on distorted and biased perspectives such as “women were given the right to vote in 1920,” focus instead on the reality that “women fought for and won” the right to vote in 1920. When educators present people such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt, do we include the importance of class—having the time to read, think, learn, write—clarifying that by controlling money and the labor of others to accomplish the daily necessary chores of life, these men were able to accomplish so much? Let us rethink how we teach history. How can educators at all levels move from teaching about history from a victim perspective to one of agency? Let us get busy: history teachers must change the world!
Why is history important? Because it has given birth to the lives we have today.