Where does one start when talking about the Holocaust? The word derives from the Greek, a burnt offering, a sacrifice by fire. It is one of the greatest crimes in human history. And we are cautioned to learn its lessons. Historian Timothy Snyder argues that "The history that we might understand is rather different than the history that we generally remember and that if we did it right the lessons that we draw from the present and the future would be different lessons than the ones we draw now. And that's important," Snyder says, "because whether we like it or not we are already drawing lessons from the Holocaust. We do it all the time. But what if we understand the Holocaust incompletely or even incorrectly, then we've drawn the wrong lessons and we may be accelerating disaster rather than preventing it."
The 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers has brought attention once more to Daniel Ellsberg. His action in 1971 in releasing the Pentagon Papers blew the lid off of Washington’s mountain of lies and deceptions about Vietnam and ultimately led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. In this never before broadcast program we go back into history as Ellsberg describes the origins of the Vietnam War. He traces early U.S. support for the French effort to retain control of its Indochina colony. He talks about U.S. nuclear weapons policy including threats against the Soviet Union as well as Eisenhower’s offer of nukes to the French to stave off defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The U.S. later totally supplanted the French and expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia. Ellsberg looks at the policy of supporting Diem’s Saigon regime, first by Kennedy then Johnson. Interview by David Barsamian.
There’s a famous quote in George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell understood how important knowledge of history is and how it can be manipulated by the powerful to serve their interests. If the past disappears down the memory hole society is at risk. History is not some neutral ideologically-free zone. It is a highly contested battlefield. The contents of textbooks are subject to partisan bias, often tilting to the right. Inadequate history textbooks help produce adults who can’t distinguish evidence from opinion, fact from fiction. Progressive voices such as Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, and Dorothy Day are often omitted from textbooks or just appear without context. James Loewen said, “Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present. Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.”
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria. He is the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Our Malady and On Tyranny.
Daniel Ellsberg was a company commander in the Marine Corps. In 1959 he joined the RAND Corporation as an analyst. In 1964 he was recruited to serve in the Pentagon under Robert McNamara. He precipitated a national political crisis when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study about Vietnam. He is the author of Secrets and The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. He is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award and the Olof Palme prize for his “profound humanism and exceptional moral courage.” At 90, Ellsberg is still active and speaking out in support of other whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.
James Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, winner of the American Book Award. He also wrote Lies Across America, Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus, and Sundown Towns. He also wrote Teaching What Really Happened and The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White and edited The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. He won the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, the Spirit of America Award from the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. Loewen was a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Vermont. He died in 2021.