I recently had a chance to see “The Most Dangerous Man in America”, a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Two things really struck me during the movie.
The first was the fact that I largely didn’t know this story before this year. I had known that the Pentagon Papers were a large leak of defense-related documents to the New York Times during the Vietnam War, and that Richard Nixon was outraged by it. The last part I had learned from The Onion. I really knew nothing of the scale of the leak nor its contents and effects.
The second thing that struck me was how familiar parts of the story were. The documentary covered the lead-up and escalation of the Vietnam War, and the similarity to the Iraq War amazed me. Specifically, the claims made around the Tonkin Gulf incident sounded like they were right out of Bill Moyers’ excellent Buying the War show (which documented the lead-up to the Iraq War).
Finishing the movie, I was a bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t know the story earlier. Why hadn’t I been taught about this in any detail? The relevance of that story to this last decade was quite obvious. The only US history class I took in high school (and since then) was AP US History in 11th grade. If I remember correctly, the AP test was a month or two before the end of the school year, and the test itself only covered through World War II. Since post-WWII America was only covered after the test, it was quite cursory, and it seemed that both the teachers and students didn’t put in too much effort. This is a real shame, as it seems like this period is more relevant than most.
I’ve been making some effort over the last year to make up for this gap in history. Earlier this year, I read The Limits of Power, a short, incisive and generally depressing walk through the last 50 years of US foreign policy. It’s not really a primer on the subject, but if you’re interested in the last 50 years of history, I highly recommend including it in your reading.
Thinking about this gap in education, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a deeper reason for this. If I were a high school teacher, I’d imagine that it would be much more challenging to deal with relatively-recent historical issues in the same way that we deal with issues before the parents’ lifetimes. For example, I’d expect that it’s easier to craft a lesson around the Alien and Sedition Acts than it is to make one about the Patriot Act, because the former really isn’t controversial anymore (though maybe we’re returning to that state of affairs).