Suburbia and Segregation

When I studied American history about 27 years ago, during the late 1980s, we gave a cursory look at the development of post war suburbia. In a packed syllabus there was little american-dream-home-46-scan_pic00282time to do the topic justice. Considering the many millions of Americans the development of suburbia affected, both positively and negatively, it should be regarded as one of the most significant developments in the study of 20th Century American social history. One glaring omission from the textbooks was the racial dimension to the development of suburbia and the fact that it was planned and developed as an exclusively white utopia. Without exploring the racism at the heart of American suburban expansion in the 1940s and 1950s, a disingenuous and misleading version of the past is the only possible outcome; when suburban developments were built there were winners and losers.

Here’s a podcast I did last week that focuses on this aspect of the American Dream

Here too is the video:

Teaching Happy Endings

Riot police guard Hollywood Boulevard

One of the problems with the teaching of GCSE history is the tendency for narrative to insert itself into specific modules. This is perhaps unavoidable as history has been passed on as story for tens of thousands of years and taught as an intellectual discipline for a little over 200. It is important to be mindful, however, that as a module ends, the idea that the issue in question has been ‘resolved’ is ‘over’ and/or ‘fixed’ can be unintentionally communicated to pupils. It goes without saying that this can result in a teleological and ahistorical view of change over time ( i.e. the set of processes that we are describing were merely a set of stepping stones from the past to now, which is the historical end point that people have been trying to reach for so long). It scythes off other viewpoints, voices and questions and imposes a dominant and defined meaning on the past. All bad stuff, but even worse, it prevents learners from critically appraising the present because the present is fine and fixed and it was only the past that was ‘wrong’ somehow. Below are a few examples of the happy ending in action:

  1. Civil Rights.

At the end of most civil rights chapters in US history textbooks (by which I mean UK textbooks that teach the history of America), a section is normally devoted to the advances that black Americans have made since the 1970s. It cites obvious examples of success in sporting or entertainment fields such as James Brown or Carl Lewis, and more contemporary titles might feature the presidency of Barack Obama. Some titles give some coverage of the problems black Americans still faced during the 1980s and 1990s but this is invariably fleeting. The idea that pupils often come away from the module with is that by and large everything is ok for black people in America and that change began with the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965. The dramatic growth of the black prison population in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s is almost never mentioned, neither are the economic and social problems encountered in black communities from the Reagan era onwards. The continuing economic and health inequalities between white and black people  in America and the continuing levels of police brutality are rarely mentioned. The meta-narrative of Martin Luther King and the civil rights campaigns of Montgomery and Birmingham are difficult to square with the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots. To tell pupils that, despite all the Martin Luther King did and struggled for, in 1992 white policemen were acquitted by an all white jury for their attack on the motorist Rodney King is to disrupt the story.

2) The Cold War

Another case in point is the teaching of the Cold War, which culminates with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many modules will run up to 1989 or 1991 and teachers, pressed for time are unlikely to burden the learners with any information beyond that point. It becomes tempting for narrative to reassert itself at this point and for teachers to trot out ideas that even Francis Fukuyama has distanced himself from since, that the end of the Cold War was the end of history. Seeing the Cold War as two binary opposites, good and bad, democratic liberal capitalism and communism makes the construction of narrative all the more likely. At the end of the module the bad guys are defeated and order and justice restored to the world (if you ignore the massive poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe caused by the introduction of free market capitalism and privatisation and the horrors of the Balkan Wars). An implicit and unspoken politics also filters into the thinking of pupils, that some kind of ‘natural order’ of things was restored in 1991 and the world was at peace. The fact that the following two decades have been riven with conflict as a result of the end of the Cold War, that capitalism was not greeted by Russians with open arms and the idea that American hegemony post 1991 has been destabilising , especially after 9/11 is only just starting to feature in textbooks.

In both these examples only certain perspectives are entertained. The large black underclass in America who might not agree that ‘everything is ok now’ do not feature on the syllabus. The various losers from the end of the Cold War from Yugoslavia and Russia to Britain and America where a radical shift against social democratic politics took place are also suitably marginalised. It is a given that teachers only have so much time in which to deliver lessons and are constantly under pressure to simplify, standardise and yet attain ever greater results. The outcome is a simplistic, misleading, unreflective and limited analysis of the past which teaches pupils that ‘it happened back then, it was fixed by someone else and it’s not happening now’.


The Jarrow March, 1936

Scenes from the Jarrow Crusade, 1936

By 1934, Britain appeared to have survived the worst effects of the great depression. Unemployment had begun to decline and new light industries in the south and the midlands had developed, supplying consumer goods for an affluent middle class. Britain’s economic problems were regionalised, however, and in the worst affected areas such as South Wales or Tyneside adult unemployment exceeded 70 percent. This podcast explores the response of the Jarrow ship workers, who look part in one of the many protest marches to London that were organised throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Their march, in 1936 received minimal support from the Trades Union Congress or the Labour Party, both worrying that they might be accused of radicalism by Britain’s Tory supporting right wing press.

You can hear the podcast here

Britain’s involvement in Vietnam 1945

From 1943 onwards, long before the outcome of Britain’s war against Japan in Asia was certain, British colonial administrators pondered about what to do with French Indochina (occupied by Japan in 1941), once the Japanese were defeated. They knew comparatively little about the colony and believed it would be best to return it to the French at the end of the Unknownwar. This decision was not taken in order to help the French or as an act of charity towards them, it was designed to counter a deadly threat to the British Empire. The British were concerned that if Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) became independent through its own efforts, it would set a dangerous precedent for Britain’s colonies in Malaya, Singapore, Burma and India. It was for this reason that Britain chose to occupy South Vietnam or Cochin China, while the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang Army occupied the north. The British misjudged the nationalist mood of the Vietminh fighters who had resisted the Japanese throughout the war and they enabled French colonists to seize power, ignoring the newly established Vietnamese Republic. The resultant bloodshed was just the start of three decades of war across Indochina that ended with the unification of Vietnam in 1975. For more on Britain in Vietnam listen to the podcast here

Victorian Women’s political publishing

Between the 1850s and the 1930s in Britain, women political writers and journalists saw a dramatic development in the opportunities available to them. As Victorian censorship laws changed in the mid century and as divorce and property laws became ever more contested and unjustifiable, political writing that linked women’s civil rights with their political rights abounded. The first titles for women that were not written by men or that were more than merely a lady’s column in a national newspaper emerged. The extent to which this writing was truly egalitarian and aimed at women of all social classes,

Lydia Becker

not just ‘ladies’ was very limited. The suffrage movement did not for the most part embrace a particularly classless ethos and the question of votes for the working classes divided the movement. As the 19th Century came to an end, however, publications such as Votes For Women, edited by Emmeline and Frederick Pethwick Lawrence, were far more explicit in their ideological content and their arguments, whereas earlier publications such as Barbara Bodichon’s English Woman’s Journal were forced to skirt around the topic of suffrage altogether.

For more on the suffrage movement and its journals watch the video below:


France’s Colonial Empire

In the inter war years both the British and French empires, the last two major colonial players after the First World War, struggled to contain economic and ideological storms that threatened to tear them apart. These sometimes allied, sometimes antagonistic imperial systems were fundamentally different from one another on an organisational and ideological level, watch the video below for more on how France’s empire operated:

Joseph Goebbels and Total War

By early 1943, Adolf Hitler was an increasingly remote and reclusive figure in Germany. His health had declined due to the stresses of the war and he had begun to suffer from Parkinson’s disease. The Nazi government attempted to suppress the defeat at Stalingrad of the German Sixth Army (which had marched triumphantly into Paris three years earlier), but by February it was announced that the army had been lost, sacrificing itself for the Reich.

Berlin, Großkundgebung im Sportpalast


The catastrophe, combined with Hitler’s diminished presence became an opportunity for his propagandist Goebbels to increase his role and make a bid to be a de facto wartime leader under the auspices of a new policy ‘Total War’. Goebbels was still deeply loyal to Hitler and whilst he never usurped him, he increasingly became the public face of the regime.

To find out more watch the video below:


The Partition of India

In 1947 British rule in India came to an end and the subcontinent was partitioned into a Muslim East and West Pakistan and a majority Hindu India. The British Judge who drew the new borders of these states was Cyril Radcliffe, a secretive and territorial figure who had no prior knowledge of India. The result was catastrophic bloodshed as communities were divided, ancestral lands were lost and millions had to flee ethnic violence or the prospect of being stranded in a state where they would be a minority. Conventional accounts of the end of th082109124544cs-lead-1e British Empire and Indian Nationalist accounts of the struggle for liberation place the partition as a footnote in an otherwise palatable tale. British historians sympathetic to the imperial project have often presented the end of empire as an ordered and civilised affair. The reality was far different. It was an immense human catastrophe that Britain could distance herself from as she did not take part in the violence. However, the divide and rule politics of the raj, combined with an astonishing indifference and in some quarters, incompetence, led to mass bloodshed along the ‘Radcliffe Line’.

Watch the video below for more:

Churchill, Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter, 1941

In August 1941, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt met along with their top military and diplomatic advisors at Placentia Bay off the coast of Newfoundland. Their discussions shaped the western allied war aims and laid the foundations of a post war order based on the United Nations. American intervention in the war seemed increasingly likely following the introduction of lend-lease and the barely conceal naval war that was being waged between American warships and German U-Prince_of_Wales-5boats in the Atlantic. The meeting at Placentia Bay was not simply a love-in for the two leaders but a chance for Roosevelt to assess the terms on which America would come to Britain’s aid. In particular, the Americans were keen to know what
kind of post w
ar economic order would emerge and what the British Empire would look like after the war, as there was understandable reluctance across the American political classes to fight a war against Nazism merely for the preservation of British imperialism.


For more on the historic meeting and the Atlantic Charter watch the video below:

Hunger, Housing and Stalin’s First Five Year Plan

UnknownIn 1928 the Soviet economy experienced a moment of massive change. For four years, as power struggles between Stalin and the ‘troika’ of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev left Russia in a period of confused collective leadership, the biggest question had been one of economic direction. It was unclear how long Lenin’s New Economic Policy that had been introduced in the aftermath of the civil war and allowed a limited amount of free enterprise in Russia was meant to continue. Lenin, who died in 1924 after several strokes robbed him of speech did not make clear how long it should be, though he implied it might last many decades. Stalin decisively answered the question of when the NEP should come to an end by introducing the Five Year Plans, the massive state led industrialisation of Russia. It was inevitably the Russian people who would bear the economic and social burdens of the plans, which created a massive influx of labour from the countryside to the towns and cities. There was very little housing provision to begin with but overcrowding and shanty towns (Magnitogorsk was being built during this period and began life essentially as a tent city in the arctic north) defined the era for many Russians. Poverty and hunger became epidemic problems during the first plan, with only the civil war years to rival them in terms of hardship.

For more on Stalin’s first Five Year Plan see the video below:

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