All Children Are All Our Children, by Doug Selwyn

All Children Are All Our Children by Doug Selwyn

Review by Peter Lang, 2018

What would schools and communities look like if the health and well-being of all our children were our highest priorities? More important than test scores, profits, or real estate values? What actions would we take if we wanted to guarantee that all our children were growing up with what they needed to be healthy, happy, and successful—and not just some of them? The United States was once among the healthiest countries in the world. As of now, it is ranked no better than twenty-ninth. Those who bear the brunt of our worsening health are the poor, people of color, and, most of all, our children. All Children Are All Our Children situates our ongoing health crisis within the larger picture of inequality and the complex interplay of systems in the U.S. based on class, privilege, racism, sexism, and the ongoing tension between the ideals of democracy and the realities of corporate capitalism. Public education is caught in the middle of those tensions. All Children Are All Our Children begins by defining what we mean by health, looking at the many factors that support or undermine it and then identifies steps that can be taken locally in our schools and in our communities that can support the health and well-being of our young people and their families, even as we work towards necessary change at the state and national policy level.

“Accessibly written with sharp-as-nails political analysis, in All Children Are All Our Children, long-time teacher and education activist Doug Selwyn indicts the inhumanity of corporate education reform while righteously arguing that healthy schools start with healthy communities and healthy kids. If you are interested in understanding how to really fix our schools, read this book.” – Wayne Au, Professor, School of Educational Studies, University of Washington Bothell, editor & author at Rethinking Schools

“In All Children are All of Our Children, Doug Selwyn asks us “What would it look like if we decided that the health and well-being of our children was our number one priority?” The answer is our schools and education system, indeed our entire society, would be transformed. In the tradition of John Holt and Herbert Kohl, Selwyn draws on his five decades of teaching experience, conversations with students, parents, health care professionals, social workers, educators and a deep dive into the research literature as he constructs a devastating portrait of the well-being of American children. But this book is not about despair, rather Selwyn fashions hope for children, schools and society with the message that the only education for social change is action to bring about that change and he offers us a multiple pathways to follow as we, step-by-step, transform ourselves and our society into one that makes the health and well-being of all children our first priority.” – E. Wayne Ross, Professor of Education, University of British Columbia

Dr. Selwyn takes a wide-angle view of the US educational system, allowing the reader to see how many variables in our imperfect society impact our students’ education, health, and happiness. He poses the uncomfortable question of whether we truly care for all our children and pushes us to reflect on our own compliance, lack of action, and even ignorance of the big picture. As a former student of Dr. Selwyn and now a classroom teacher, I am familiar with that nudge into the uncomfortable which inevitably pushes me to action.  His conclusion is a hopeful one: if our communities have the power to erode our educational system, those same communities have the assets to work together and begin the difficult and necessary work of change. – Diane Dame, Teacher, Saranac (NY) School District.

Supporting Civics Education With Student Activism by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society by Pablo A. Muriel and Alan J. Singer

This book empowers teachers to support student activists. The authors examine arguments for promoting student activism, explore state and national curriculum standards, suggest activist projects, and report examples of student individual and group activism. By offering suggestions for engaging students as activists across the K-12 curriculum and by including the stories of student activists who became lifetime activists, the book demonstrates how activism can serve to bolster democracy and be a component of rich, experiential learning. Including interviews with student and teacher activists, this volume highlights issues such as racial and immigrant justice, anti-gun violence, and climate change.

Support Civic Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society is an exemplary contribution to civics by showing how students can take part in democracy with social activism unafraid of expressing views and showing up personally when confronted by political and social issues, a noted contribution for the usually dull and legalistic way social studies and civics are taught. Filled with excellent examples of participatory democracy in action by students and their teachers.” – Jack Zevin, Professor Emeritus, Macaulay Honors College/CUNY, and Co-Director, The Taft Institute for Government

“Every social studies teacher should read this book. It is about how students became involved in their democracy and made critical changes in their communities. Pablo Murial and Alan Singer taught students the tools of activism and leadership. Students believed in social justice; their actions come from the heart.  Get to know the stories of the students and their teachers. This is an extraordinary book.” – Valerie Pang, Professor, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University

“In today’s challenging times, social studies teachers are more important than ever in developing student civic literacy. A core component of this effort is in promoting student activism, so they can both exercise and benefit from such practices.  Pablo Muriel and Alan Singer, in their book Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society, provide a template for teachers to help students become the type of citizens we profoundly need today.” – Mark Pearcy, Assistant Professor, Rider University, College of Education and Human Services, Executive Editor, Teaching Social Studies

“This is the book social studies educators K-12 across the nation need today. As an advocate for civic education, I find this book practical, informative, and most importantly, empowering for young people. It takes you on a journey of the authors’ own self-discovery as activists and their experiences as teachers encouraging student voice in and outside the classroom. A true guide for any educator who supports students as change agents.” – April Francis-Taylor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and member of the NYSED Civic Readiness Task Force.

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

The City, by Deborah Stevenson

Review by Thomas Hansen

Deborah Stevenson presents here an in-depth philosophical and sociological portrait of global cities and their changing nature.  As many cities change—from Chicago to Mumbai—millions of people are impacted by the altered spaces, increased costs, morphing purposes, and altered neighborhoods that are part of the transformed blocks and buildings we call cities.

Stevenson presents mesmerizing images of how cities change, the difference between daylight and nighttime commerce, and the role of the city in providing a playground for alternative and anonymous persons.  One interesting note is that many people fill up the cities at night, coming to town to drink and carouse and then abandoning the cities once again in the wee hours.  The city has many roles and many functions indeed.

Currently, most people live in cities, and therefore they work, eat, shop, travel within a space apart from rural areas where most of the food is produced on this planet.  This disconnect is something very important to consider.  The author is informed and shares information from others who can help describe the city and explain it.

            The author gives us a great deal to think about and draws on experts in other fields who contribute to the study of urban spaces.  Part of the “Key Concepts” series from this publisher—there are about three dozen titles currently—this book draws upon a variety of schools, fields, and frameworks (p. 3).  Stevenson makes good use of all the fields and how they connect to sociology.  Stevenson also gives alternative views of urban sociology a chance (pp. 12-14) and incorporates other perspectives as she profiles the city.  

            Among other interesting concepts the author presents here is the notion of the “Trojan Horse of gentrification (p. 46).”  Certainly in many cities there are many cases of upheaval when neighborhoods change.  I think personally of Chicago and how families are in shock as their spaces are destroyed, rearranged, removed, refashioned, and otherwise conquered by others.

            I think of a friend who said recently, “Look what they did to my room!”  He was referring to a small basement space in a one-bedroom apartment which through gut rehabbing had been turned into a two-bedroom condominium.  His room had disappeared—had turned into part of a new living room.  It is radical change—and the huge impact of the city upon its people—that needs to be studied and recorded in books such as these.   

            The text has several uses for educators.  For example, social studies teachers can use it as background reading for recent historical information about immigration, movements toward cities, and the changing face of the metropolis.  In addition, there are implications for its use in a variety of advanced high school courses as a resource for students doing projects on spaces, the environment, financial investments, banking, and global issues, patterns, and problems.

            The book could also be used in various college courses as recommended or additional reading for giving students more information on “spaces” and also for talking about the “progress” of gentrification.  The disconnect between dwelling in the city and producing food in the country, the policies generated in the city far from the fields of food production, the loss of intimate spaces within cities, and the anonymous and entertaining aspects of the city at night are all interesting themes to explore in student reports and in further expert research. All of the above positive things being said, the book is theoretical in tone and sometimes dense reading.  The difficulty level should be considered if it is to be used in classes for students in high school or for lower undergraduate courses.

Great American City: Chicago & the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert Sampson

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, by Robert Sampson

Review by Thomas Hansen

This book explains in very technical ways why, and how, neighborhoods matter.  Using questions over time, this compilation of studies looks at a wide variety of what makes neighborhoods safe, effective, and secure.  Sampson presents here some interesting questions to pose citizens throughout the City and then provides technical explanations and presentations of the results.

The book comprises several studies that look at a variety of questions.  For example, Sampson wants to know whether a given neighborhood is safe and what that means.  Is there a great deal of crime?  Suicide?  Poverty?  Loss of jobs?  What is the family structure like in that neighborhood?  Do students succeed in school?  Is there purpose within the family?  Hopelessness?  Support from parents or other adults?  From members of the church?

Another emphasis of the book is how neighborhoods differ.  If X exists in a given neighborhood, does that mean Y also exists?  What about a neighborhood bounded by another one with rampant Z?  If someone finds a letter on the ground, will they place it in a mailbox?  If someone sees a crime, will they report it?  What influences school completion?  A lack of violence in the neighborhood?  Parents with gainful employment?  Being in a neighborhood near another one with elevated school completion rates?

This is an in-depth study of neighborhoods.  Readers with a good deal of background in statistics and quantitative research will have no problem dealing with the variety of data and presentation of the data here.  Readers without such background can still get a lot of information from this book—just not on the level at which the book is constructed.

I recommend the book, especially for teachers, researchers, and policymakers who need very clear and very detailed information on the topics presented in the book.  The book will fit into advanced sociology courses about Chicago, into courses on how to show the results of a grouping of related studies, and into discussions on policies and governance. 

Although the text fits into graduate and advanced undergraduate levels more easily because of the level of background knowledge, information on statistics, and familiarity with social sciences required, it can also be important for teachers of advanced high school students.

Related to the Common Core Standards, the book dovetails into units on grades 11-12 technical readings and units including perspectives to explore and argue.  It is also a fine reference work for grades 11-12 honors students and AP students writing research papers on topics and conclusions supported by the advanced data and presentations provided here.  

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis

American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis.

Review by James J. Carpenter

            While ordering lunch at a deli in South Carolina, the young cashier noticed I had a book with me. “Whatcha readin’?” he asked. “A book on American history” I responded. He then went on to lament how history is being deemphasized in school and to question how were we to avoid repeating the errors of the past if we don’t know what they were. The book I had that day was American Dialogue by Joseph J. Ellis.  Ironically, Ellis’ book deals in part with the very issue the young man raised; namely, what we can learn from the “ongoing conversation between past and present” (p. 4). I must confess I am a fan of Ellis’ writing and have read several of his books on early American history. The sub-title to his latest work, The Founders and Us, especially piqued my interest. Was this another attempt at deciphering the intent of the founders as it pertains to current issues or was it something else?  As I read each chapter, I discovered this work was significantly more and I saw important connections for classroom teachers.

            Following a preface, Ellis divides four chapters into two parts each: Then and Now. Each chapter focuses on what he identifies as four enduring issues that are more salient and challenging in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Ellis establishes the historical foundation for each subject and then examines the complexity of each in the context of a divisive political climate complicated by domestic and international obstacles. Acknowledging that a true conversation with the founders is obviously impossible, he attempts to connect their concerns regarding these controversial topics with those of modern America. Hence, his use of the term dialogue in his title. The four areas he identifies are race, equality, law, and foreign policy. In each case, Ellis chooses one member of the founding generation as the central figure with whom to engage in his “dialogue”: For race, it is Thomas Jefferson; for equality he chooses John Adams; James Madison is his focus for law; and for our diplomatic relations abroad he uses George Washington. In the Now portions of each chapter, Ellis situates each current issue “as recent entries in long-standing patterns” (p. 8). His choice of both issues and founders reflect, he argues, “what is still an ongoing argument about our destiny as a people and a nation” (p. 7). Ellis’ final chapter is an epilogue he uses to discuss the successes and failures of early American leadership because he believes “the founders managed to maximize the creative possibilities of their time more fully than any subsequent generation of political leaders in American history” (p. 228).

            His discussion of each issue is both insightful and challenging. For example, choosing Jefferson for his chapter on race is perfect given Jefferson’s conflicted and apparent hypocritical relationship with slavery and African Americans. Ellis argues that Jefferson’s criticism of slavery “operated at an elevated region of his mind, which never descended to the ground that he walked and that his slaves at Monticello worked” (p. 22). He was incapable, according to Ellis, of imagining a biracial society, let alone a multiracial one. In the modern context, this darker element of Jefferson’s legacy is reflected in a more subtle version of racism fueled “by white assumptions of black inferiority” (p. 58). The resurgence of more strident voices on this issue only complicate the fulfillment of the democratic ideal of racial equality as implied, if not expressed, by Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. In examining equality, Ellis compares the views of John Adams with those same famous words: “all men are created equal.” He portrays Adams as more of a realist or even a cynic who “insisted that inequality was the natural condition of mankind.” Not only did Adams mean differences in physical and mental attributes, he also believed distinctions based on money and social class “always were and always would be a permanent fixture in all societies on earth, including the aspiring republic called the United States…” (p.81). In twenty-first century America, Ellis argues “we currently inhabit a second Gilded Age” characterized by “unacceptable levels of economic inequality” (p. 114); A result Adams “tried to tell us … was virtually inevitable over two centuries ago” (p. 115).

Considered the “Father of the Constitution” by many if not most, Madison was the “obvious person to focus on” in his chapter on law. Ellis argues that during the period of 1787 to 1789, Madison’s actions “just might constitute the most brilliant political performance in American history” (pp. 121-122). Considering him to be a pragmatist, Ellis describes Madison’s changing constitutional interpretations from opposing Hamilton’s plans for strengthening the national government to later rejecting John C. Calhoun’s secessionist arguments not as inconsistency but rather a reflection of Madison’s willingness “to accommodate what the evolving political context required” and “as political adaptions of principle to changing conditions” (p. 149). Ellis contrasts this Constitutional adaptability to the originalist interpretations perhaps best exemplified by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. For Ellis, if arguably the chief architect of the Constitution interpreted its words differently according to the historical context, how can modern jurists rigidly apply eighteenth-century understandings to twenty-first century issues by “channeling the wisdom of the founders” (p. 170)?

Just as Madison was the logical choice for the previous chapter, George Washington, as “the primary architect of American foreign policy in the founding era,” was the clear option to review the origins of American foreign policy (p. 173). Ellis concentrates on the contradiction inherent in a democratic republic being an imperial nation at the same time. His first example of this is Washington’s failure to protect the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes in the western territories acquired in the Treaty of Paris (1783). He continues with problems of neutrality during the war between Great Britain and France in the 1790’s culminating with the highly partisan debate and vote over Jay’s Treaty (ratified in 1796). In analyzing Washington’s Farewell Address, Ellis believes that focusing on the prescription for an isolationist foreign policy overshadows a more important, “deeper message” to be found in the address; namely that “foreign policy must be based on a realistic appraisal of American interests, not on popular referendums or nostalgic memories” (p. 193). It is this advice, he argues, that has been ignored since the end of the Cold War, a period distinguished by “nearly perpetual war” without “successful outcomes,” despite “the overwhelming military superiority of the United States” (p. 211). This has resulted in a policy that “became an inherently improvisational process” (p. 209). American exceptionalism today means the opposite of its original understanding: “In effect, precisely because the conditions shaping the American founding were unique, it was highly problematic to presume that the American model was transportable beyond the borders of the United States” (pp. 215-216). The future of our foreign policy, according to Ellis, is destined to continue to be an erratic one.

            Ellis emphasizes that the founders, and especially the men he uses in each chapter, were not godlike or superhuman. Rather, they were men of talent who were able to make the most of that particular moment in time. Ellis also stresses that the founders did not speak with one voice. They “harbored different beliefs about what the American Revolution meant” (p. 232). These differences were at the heart of the arguments that occurred when major issues arose. For Ellis, this “made dialogue unavoidable” (p. 232). It is this diversity of opinion that prevents any political party or special interest group from claiming to know or represent the framer’s intent. Ellis alleges that “it is the argument itself, not the answer either liberals or conservatives provide, that is the abiding legacy” (p. 232). And it is this assertion that makes this book important reading for social studies teachers. It can serve as a springboard for ideas to get students to see history as relevant and not as a dead discipline. Teachers can pose interesting questions for students to consider and have them consult historical references for evidence to support their answers. For example, students can probe the meaning of the democratic ideal of equality. How has this concept expanded over the century? What does equality mean in a society still grappling with issues of race or of enormous economic differences? What is the relationship between equality and equitable treatment? Teachers can also have students investigate the complexity of current issues in historical context. For instance, what did the Second Amendment mean in 1791? Given the extent of gun violence in the United States today, is there a need to revisit or revise the existing amendment? Is there a role for the federal government in addressing economic disparity? What should the role of the United States be in world affairs?

            The value of this book for teachers is the emphasis Ellis gives to the importance of history. Not just to memorize dates and events but to illustrate the differing opinions held by our revered historical figures. Making students aware of this reality will enable them to better evaluate sources and to critique current arguments surrounding controversial issues. Indeed, Ellis is openly critical of “the most flagrant forms of ideological prejudice” employed by leaders or analysts who are guilty of “cherry-picking the evidence” to support a current political or social issue (p .7). An informed citizenry in a democracy requires more than a knowledge of facts; it requires the necessary critical skills to detect political bias and to make better informed decisions.

            We are living in one of the most polarized eras in American history. Citizens are regularly bombarded with claims as to what the framers’ intent was in grappling with twenty-first century problems. In part, Ellis rebuts this practice by reminding us that appealing to the past to shed light on current solutions is problematic. “By definition, all efforts to harvest the accumulated wisdom of the past must begin from a location in the present, so the questions posed of the past are inevitably shaped either consciously or unconsciously by the historical context in which they are asked” (pp. 6-7). Ellis’ goal is not to resolve any dispute as to the founder’s intent or “to find answers” but rather “to argue about [these questions]” (p. 9). And this, to me, is the value this book has for educators entrusted with teaching future democratic citizens. Democracy is built on deliberation, debate, and even arguing. However, as Ellis demonstrates, the founders understood the value of compromise as a means to keep moving forward. Not all compromises were successful but they at least enabled the nation to avoid remaining stagnant. In an era when both parties employ a “my way or the highway” approach to solving critical issues, our students need to understand that reason can facilitate problem solving. Dialogue, even intense disagreement, about issues is at the heart of democratic government. Ellis’ book offers examples of how teachers can use the founders to confront controversial questions in the twenty-first century.

Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

I decided to read Caste in my search for new perspectives for information and resources to guide teachers with the teaching of ‘hard history’ about institutional racism in our country. From the events in my lifetime (since the civil rights movement) and more specifically the events of the past few years, I was skeptical of the claim of systemic racism in America. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste convinced me that the problem is real and needs to be addressed by social studies teachers K-12.

My Personal Perspective

First, allow me to comment on my perspective which is reflected in my experiences as a white citizen and teacher.  My experience in Paterson as a teenager and student at Eastside High School in 1960 reflected fear of the black community which is based on two unprovoked attacks on public transportation and theft of our family’s car. My experience in college was positive and some of my closest friends were black. As a first-year teacher in New York City in 1969, when busing was instituted to integrate schools, my experience was also positive.  I introduced an African American history course and was the advisor to the Harambay or diversity club for students. My black students were very successful even though they were victims of harassment on their route to school on public transportation.  I even rode the B52 bus to school for several weeks during a time of increased racial tension in Queens to offer protection and security to students in our school. Many, perhaps all, of the black high school students I taught over 46 years, were successful in their dreams of attending the colleges of their choice and in their careers.

I recognize that my perspective is influenced by the zip codes of the districts where I taught, the ability level of the students in my classes, and the faculty in the schools and departments in the three districts where I taught. Your experience is likely different than mine and the events of the past four years have motivated me to reflect on what I taught, how I taught, what my students may have remembered, and the importance of teaching about the African American experience with empathy and problem-solving strategies in addition to historical documents and videos. My students learned history in teams and I listened to what they were telling me. I want to think that I contributed to their self-esteem and gave them confidence to make smart decisions in their interactions with people.

My Great Awakening

In my research for this book review, I participated in a Zoom with my New York City students from 45-50 years ago. Both black and white students commented that the racial issues of 2020 were greater than what they experienced in the 1970s. I have very little to offer about this observation except to say that the lessons I taught about Emmett Till, the Starpower simulation game I used to teach about privilege, the movie Roots, and the discussions motivated by current events in those years gave my students an understanding about the power of individuals to abuse, the inequalities of wealth, respecting authority, and the importance of education.

Caste is a valuable resource for teachers and students based on the voices of victims, citizens, leaders, and historical examples.  The information in each chapter is authentic and provided me with new insights into America’s past.  In my reading of Caste, I found myself repeatedly saying “I wish I had known this” or “why didn’t I know this?” The three resources below are reasons to read Caste and supplement the way you are likely teaching United States or World History.

The first resource is the metaphor of an old house.  I have used this metaphor to illustrate the need for reform or renovation in my teaching of the Protestant Reformation and progressive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have also used the metaphor of tearing down an old house to teach the concept of revolution.  Isabel Wilkerson’s use of the metaphor reflects on the generations who occupy the house and the need for each occupant to look at what is behind the paint or wallpaper on the walls.

She uses this metaphor to present the idea of the architecture of caste or our place in society. Through this metaphor I have come to understand that the problem is deeper than race and it is the way all of us dehumanize individuals, use stereotypes, and forget that we are all the same. In Caste, we are confronted with the framework of joists, beams, and headers in the way the colonial era used labor, viewed property, and labeled indigenous populations, people from Africa and the Caribbean, and individuals from the Middle East, Far East, and South Asia by the color of their skin.

The new owners of this house in 1776 wanted to end the importation of slaves and offer liberty to those who fought in the American Revolution.  But the framework of caste, race, inequality, and social injustice remained as some of the occupants from the Enlightenment generation owned slaves and supported segregation.

The occupants of the antebellum generation were more radical in their renovations of this house through abolition and voices to end slavery. Unfortunately, others sold slaves breaking up families, captured fugitives, and exploited cheap labor.  After the Civil War, part of the house was replaced with constitutional amendments while the other half of the house added structural supports to the foundation of segregation, racial tension and lynching.

The 20th century generation, including the 30 years I was a teacher and administrator, saw significant renovations to the architecture of ‘this old house’ through the civil rights movement, educational opportunities, and Supreme Court decisions.  Unfortunately, the problems present since 1619 continued as black populations had the highest rates of high school dropouts, incarceration in prisons, divorce, health problems, lower life expectancy, targets of racial profiling, and the list continues.

Even with the appointment of black justices to the Supreme Court, the election of President Barack Obama, and notable leaders of color in every sector of the economy, the problems of race, injustice, violence, fear, and discrimination are continuing and escalating. Isabel Wilkerson explains this as evidence of the caste system in American society.

As a grandparent, I observed the questions our grandchildren asked in their discovery of people of color around the age of three. This is why education in the home and in pre-school is essential.  Parents and educators, siblings and peers, have the ability to rebuild ‘the house’ in this generation. 

My Epiphany Experience

The second resource is how the book presents the claim or argument of caste in America and the evidence used to present this argument. I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson in a presentation about Caste, and was intrigued by her response that she does not present an argument in her book but instead presents a ‘prayer’ for going forward. This is a powerful and inspiring statement!  However, my review found powerful examples documented in history, by historians, and from the news in support of her thesis that systemic racism in inherent in the way we think and behave.

Although there are excellent comparisons to Nazi Germany and India, it is the examples provided in the book that haunted me and convinced me that social injustice exists in schools, neighborhoods, government, business, and within me. Here are just a few examples:

Forest Whitaker, and Academy Award-winning actor walked into a gourmet deli in his Manhattan West Side neighborhood and was frisked in front of other customers.  The incident occurred in 2013. Whitaker said, “It’s a humiliating thing for someone to come and do that. It’s attempted disempowerment.” (p. 107)

“In 2015, the members of a black women’s book club were traveling by train on a wine tour of Napa Valley. When their laughter caused some white passengers to complain, the police were called and the women were told to leave the train.” (p.293 and The Guardian, September 13, 2015)

“In 2018, the owner of a Pennsylvania golf club ordered black women, who were members of the club, to leave because they were not moving along fast enough on the course.” The police were called. (p. 293 and CNN, April 25, 2018)

The unnamed college professor who picked up his mail in his luxury apartment opened one of his letters and was told by the man next to him in the elevator that “You’re supposed to be delivering the mail, not opening it.” (p. 213.)

At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a woman called campus police on a female graduate student who had fallen asleep while studying in a common area of her dormitory, Officers demanded her identification even after she unlocked the door to her room. She was told, “You’re in a Yale building and we need to make sure you belong here.” (p. 217)

Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr. was riding a Greyhound bus after he was honorably discharged in February 1946. The bus driver called the police at the next stop in Aiken, South Carolina where Sgt. Woodard, still in uniform, was arrested for disorderly conduct.  The police chief beat him with a billy club which left him blind. The NAACP brought this to the attention of President Truman who ordered an investigation.  The local prosecutor did not accept the testimony of Sgt. Whittaker and he was found guilty.  His defense attorney spoke racial epithets to his face. (p. 227-228)

“Offenders in Georgia were eleven times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black.” (p. 241)

The examples of social injustice are carefully documented from multiple states and over three centuries.  It is painful to read these examples even though as a history teacher I am aware of the violence against Americans of color and women.  The evidence is overwhelming when presented in each chapter and on almost every page. Although I did not want to accept the claim that a caste system based on color is in the America where I live and teach, I became convinced and humbled by my guilt and silence that institutional racism is real.

My Call to Do Something

These factual observations opened my eyes to and ‘ugly America’ that I was not addressing with my circle of family and friends. The documented reports in Caste are not only discussion starters for a class in Sociology but a call for action to a five-alarm fire in K-12 social studies classes. As we learned in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, we are living in two Americas.  Every history and social studies teacher and department needs to address the problem of injustice and unequal treatment in the curriculum. Behaviors are more likely changed by education than by legislation!


The first action I took while I was reading this book was to develop a comprehensive resource for teachers in middle school and high school on African Americans and Latinx Americans. The second step I took was to identify best practice curriculums on African American history. These are posted on the Links page of the NJCSS website,  The third action I took was to write this book review and publish it. I am aware that I need to do more regarding human rights education, racial and social injustice, environmental sustainability, LGBTQ awareness, and teaching world religions.

In a webinar sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves, Isabel Wilkerson made the statement that she intended her book as a prayer for the future. I did not grasp the meaning of her statement until the Epilogue where she wrote, “Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself not tolerate them.” (p. 387).  We must teach students how to live with courage in a dangerous world.

At the end of 2020, 335,000 Americans have died as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The death rate for African Americans is 2.7 times that of white Americans. What is not documented is the number of minorities, with health care insurance, who are not able to have a conversation with their doctor about how to get tested, the care they will be receiving, and the options for medications and treatment available to them.

Caste is written in 31 chapters over approximately 400 pages which allows for a debate in class or a faculty book discussion. This is a book that needs to be discussed and debated. Teachers are the catalyst for curriculum reform in social studies and English Language Arts. A thread is needed to weave the political, social and economic events between 1619 and the present with the horrific accounts of injustice, slavery, discrimination, and abuse.  The positive accounts of contributions to America’s stories of industrialization, democracy, service to country, are critical to ending the legacy of caste in America’s social and cultural history.

Perhaps this is best told through the voices and stories of natives, slaves, abolitionists, sharecroppers, immigrants, voters, athletes, entrepreneurs, and the families of victims. An interesting story that I enjoyed is the one on pp. 379-80. About Elsa and Albert Einstein opening their home to Marian Anderson who was denied a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ after singing to an overflow crowd at the McCarter Theatre. For the Einstein’s this was not a one-time act of hospitality but an action of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. This is how educators change the stubborn behaviors of caste and privilege.

How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower

How Ike Led
The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions

By Susan Eisenhower
Reviewed by Hank Bitten

Having taught 20th century United States’ history for over 30 years, I regret to say that the Eisenhower administration is overshadowed by thematic events relating to the Cold War and civil rights over several decades. In this book published by President Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan, who is the daughter of John Eisenhower, there are lessons to be learned and analyzed from the 1950s that are connected to our most recent current events and dialogue.

For example:
Negotiating with a divided Congress
 Appointments that would influence the future direction of the Supreme Court
 Presence of extremist groups
 Racial and social injustices
 Health of the President
 Competitive views over a balanced federal budget v. large deficits
 Fake news or disinformation
 Vice-President who could become president or run in a future election

How Ike Led is a book that should be of interest to high school and college students and every social studies teacher. The book offers fresh perspectives from the memories of Ike’s teenage granddaughter and comprehensive interviews with living members of his administration and historians. I admired President Eisenhower as my ‘first’ president during my elementary school years in part because of his
popularity with my parents, especially my father who served in World War II. I also followed President Eisenhower’s policies closely as we debated and discussed them in the context of President Kennedy’s New Frontier.

As a teacher, I taught my students the significance of Eisenhower’s decisions on the interstate highway system, building natural gas pipelines across America, the St. Lawrence Seaway, admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states, his leadership in the Suez Canal crisis, bringing America into the competitive space race, and the historic ‘kitchen summit meeting’ and visit of Nikita Khrushchev to Eisenhower’s Gettysburg home.

An interesting comparison with President Trump is for students to develop a thesis (or a Claim) regarding how historians have judged the success of presidents who never held an elected office before becoming president. These are General Zachary Taylor, General Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, General Dwight Eisenhower, and Donald Trump. President Trump is the sole exception in this group with no prior military or appointed government service. Ask your students to test the claim if political experience in an elected office is necessary for presidential leadership?

The book is organized into sixteen chapters with eleven chapters dedicated to analyzing the principles and decisions of President Eisenhower. I encourage you and your students to read the whole book as this review will focus on McCarthy, civil rights, and the space race.

With the election of President Eisenhower, the first Republican elected president since Herbert Hoover 25 years before, the Republicans were concerned about one political party dominating the legislative and executive branches for more than two decades. The unexpected defeat of Governor Thomas Dewey (NY) in 1948 amplified these concerns. The ratification of term limits in the 22nd Amendment was one
attempt to prevent a repeat of the unprecedented four terms of FDR by protecting the legacy of our competitive democracy.

In the first weeks following Eisenhower’s inauguration, Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953 creating uncertainty in the stability of the world’s second nuclear power. In his first year, Eisenhower negotiated a ceasefire with the Communists of North Korea, implemented a system of cost-benefit analysis to control military spending, and advocated for the expansion of social security to ten million new workers
with substantial increases in their benefits. These decisions were criticized by the right wing of the Republican Party who feared Eisenhower’s inexperience as a politician and the consequences of transferring the savings from defense to domestic priorities.

The McCarthy Hearings
The New Republic (10/2/2020)

Teaching the Cold War from 1946-1989 is challenging for teachers because every major event (Eastern Europe, Berlin, Fall of China, Korea, displaced persons, Marshall Plan, missile gap, Cuba, Southeast Asia, Middle East, space race, summit meetings, and Afghanistan) require more than the approximate three weeks or 15
days permitted in a traditional U.S. History course. The insights by Susan Eisenhower provide a perspective for a unit or series of lessons with students determining the effectiveness of President Eisenhower’s decisions regarding the televised McCarthy Hearings of April – June 1954.

For example…

1. How should President Eisenhower respond to Senator McCarthy’s criticism of Charles (Chip) Bohlen as ambassador to the Soviet Union?

2. How should President Eisenhower respond to the undocumented attack of disloyalty against Ralph Bunche, a distinguished African-American diplomat at the United Nations and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950?

3. How can President Eisenhower advance his agenda in a divided Senate with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and 1 Independent? (President Eisenhower needed every Republican vote, including the support of Senator McCarthy but in July 1953, Senators Tobey (NH) and Taft (OH) died. Senator Taft was replaced by a Democrat.)

4. How should President Eisenhower respond to the passage of the Bricker Amendment (Senator Bricker is a Republican from Ohio) regarding the limitations of the president to make agreements with foreign governments?

5. How should President Eisenhower respond to the report that the Soviet Union allocated millions of dollars to the American Communist Party to interfere in our government? (Venona Project)

6. How should President Eisenhower respond to Senator McCarthy’s directive to federal workers to “disregard presidential orders and laws and report directly to him on graft, corruption, Communism and treason?”

In cooperative groups, representing different perspectives (i.e. State Department, National Security Council, Mamie and Eisenhower’s brothers, Think Tank, Members of the House, Members of the Senate, CIA, journalists, etc.) discuss the options below and make recommendations to President Eisenhower on the six questions above.

Options to Consider:

a. Work behind the scenes with moderate members of Congress

b. Make public announcements criticizing Senator McCarthy’s public hearings

c. Be patient and quiet

d. Direct the Attorney General or FBI to investigate Senator McCarthy

e. Support the hearings and investigations to win support of the conservative Republicans

President Eisenhower chose the option to remain patient and quiet. He understood Senator McCarthy as one who desired to be the center of public attention and that in the course of the hearings, he would likely make mistakes. Throughout the book, Susan Eisenhower, an accomplished author, policy strategist, and historian, offers her own interpretations, which students can use as the basis of their “claim” or argument and research evidence to support or reject it. For example, “He had the power over the thing McCarthy had most deeply desired – to engage Eisenhower in this circus, thus legitimatizing his own status as an important leader while raising himself and his shameful shenanigans to the level of a coequal branch of government.” (p. 201) Consider having your students discuss or debate the validity of her “claim.”

Civil Rights

Historians are divided on President Eisenhower’s record on civil rights. Many teachers only focus on school integration with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka KS and Little Rock, AK. President Eisenhower’s record on civil rights provides students with an opportunity for inquiry, research, and evidence based arguments. Consider the important personal information on President Eisenhower’s character and support for African Americans from his youth through his presidency as provided by Susan Eisenhower.

Abilene High School was integrated when Ike attended it (1905-1909). He was the only football player on his team to shake hands with an African American player from an opposing team. As a military leader in World War II, Ike insisted that the blood supply be integrated and when Australia refused to allow the black division Eisenhower deployed after Pearl Harbor, he rescinded the order. He also supported the desegregation of schools in Washington D.C. and appointed E. Frederic Morrow (from Hackensack, NJ and Rutgers Law School) to his personal staff and J. Ernest Wilkins Sr. as Assistant Secretary of Labor.

In considering evidence about President Eisenhower’s record on civil rights, students should research evidence regarding the record of American presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Students might also research the records of Eleanor Roosevelt and both black and white leaders during the civil rights period of 1900-1960. On September 24, 1957, President Eisenhower made one of the most controversial decisions of the 20th
century which could have devastating consequences for him and the United States.

In the context of the questions the United States is facing today about race, equality, policing, criminal justice, education, and opportunity, the leadership role of President Eisenhower is worth analysis by students. On this date, President Eisenhower announced the first imposition of federal troops in the South since Reconstruction (90 years before). He deployed 500 troops from the famed 101st Airborne paratroopers who landed on Normandy in 1944. (p. 244) This was in response to the deployment of the Arkansas National Guard a few days earlier by Gov. Oval Faubus to “preserve peace and good order by preventing the integration of nine African American students into Little Rock High School. (Listen to Eisenhower’s 12 minute Address to the American people and visit the sequence of online documents on this decision at the Eisenhower Library) Senators and governors threatened to cut funds for public schools, Senator Olin Johnston (D-SC) called for a state of insurrection, President Eisenhower was accused of being a military dictator, the Southern Manifesto was signed by 12 senators and 39 congressmen, and violence and lynching of innocent black Americans increased.

The leadership of President Eisenhower was further challenged in the federal courts when the Little Rock Board of Education petitioned the Eastern District Court of Arkansas on February 20, 1958 to “postpone the desegregation efforts because of chaos, bedlam and turmoil in the community.” (p. 260)

The Court agreed to a 21/2 year postponement of preventing black students from attending Little Rock High School. On September 12, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Aaron in favor of desegregation. The decision was unanimous and personally signed by each of the nine justices! The decision was transformational in the education of students in the United States of America! The Doll Experiment by psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clark provides a powerful vision of the effects of racial

Susan Eisenhower also included the letter from the parents of the nine black students who entered Little Rock H.S. in her book. The letter speaks volumes about human and civil rights as does the interview by Oprah Winfrey with the Little Rock Nine in 1996. (September 30, 1957)

We the parents of nine Negro children enrolled at Little Rock Central High School want you to know that your action in safeguarding their rights have strengthened our faith in democracy. Now as never before we have an abiding feeling of belonging and purposefulness. We believe that freedom and equality with which all men are endowed at birth can be maintained only through freedom and equality of opportunity for self-development, growth and purposeful citizenship.

We believe that the degree to which people everywhere realize and accept this concept will determine in a large measure American true growth and true greatness. You have demonstrated admirably to us, the nation and the world how profoundly you believe in this concept. For this we are deeply grateful and respectfully extend to you our heartfelt and lasting thanks. May the Almighty and all wise Father of us all bless guide and keep you always….” (p. 259)

President Eisenhower replied to this letter on October 4. In the context of President Eisenhower’s decisions on civil rights and Little Rock, how will your students
analyze his record? While Eisenhower is pledging his support for the rule of law in the desegregation of schools, why was he reserved in the civil rights and voting rights legislation he proposed in his 1956 State of the Union address? Will your students evaluate President Eisenhower as a proactive leader to end the violence and discrimination against black Americans or will they decide that his reserved approach continued to deny 75% of African American citizens the right to vote?

Space Race

The story of NASA and the transition to the private enterprise of space is slowly evolving into our curriculum as it competes with complex domestic and foreign policy issues in the first two decades of the 21st century. The development of technology, space exploration, military technology, cybersecurity, and the impacts on climate are embedded within the performance expectations of social studies curriculum and the C3 Framework. The United States put its first satellite (Explorer 1) into space on January 31, 1958 and six weeks later on March 17, it launched its first solar powered satellite into orbit.

Explorer 1 (January 31, 1958) NASA
Vanguard, First solar-powered Satellite (March 17, 1958)
Composite illustration assembled from static display of satellite, Earth from orbit and telescope photo of stars. Science Hi Blog

President Eisenhower’s administration laid the foundation for the freedom of space, the peaceful pursuit of scientific research on the continent of Antarctica, the Alliance for Progress, the innovative technology of the U-2 reconnaissance program, Nautilus missiles, and civil defense. These initiatives proved to be game-changers for America’s leadership at a time when balanced budgets were considered essential to the security of the United States.

In the middle of these significant initiatives in a divided Congress, Senator John F. Kennedy made a speech in the U.S. Senate on August 14, 1958 calling attention to the ‘missile gap.’

“In 1958, Sen. John F. Kennedy, without access to classified information, and relying only on public sources, was persuaded by Joe Alsop, a Georgetown neighbor and social friend, to make a speech on the floor of the Senate. It was there that Kennedy used the term “missile gap” for the first time, an expression that was a ringing indictment of Eisenhower’s budget conscious ways, accusing him of failing to provide adequate security for the United States. In his speech Kennedy asserted that the Soviet Union could destroy ’85 percent of our industry, 43 of our 53 largest cities, and most of the Nation’s population.” (p. 287) Kennedy’s Speech on Missile Gap

History would reveal during the Kennedy administration that there was no missile gap. Actually, the United States had 160 operational Atlas ICBMs to six in the Soviet arsenal! (p. 301) The information in this book provides an opportunity for teaching students the skills of searching for credible evidence.

Students need to research maps, photographs and census data in addition to primary and secondary source documents. This takes time, patience, perseverance, and guidance in searching for factual information in multiple locations, organizing information, engaging in rigorous analysis and providing complete documentation.

In conclusion, teachers might ask their students what lessons we can learn from the leadership style of Dwight David Eisenhower during what our textbooks call the decade of the military industrial complex. Susan Eisenhower writes, “The measure of a leader is more than the sum of his or her successful decisions: qualities of character, including empathy and fairness, are also central to any person worthy of that status.” (p. 307)

In answering this question, students might ask if President Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were leaders of this paradigm, if the presidents in their lifetime meet this standard (Presidents Obama and Trump), and to what extent local leaders in school, government, and business are leaders who meet it.

Bryan Stevenson: On Equality and Social Justice

Bryan Stevenson: I know this to be true

On Equality and Social Justice

Book Reviewed by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

I am a history teacher who wanted to learn about the perspectives of racial inequality and social justice as a result of the events during the summer of 2020. Although I have a strong content background in the history of African Americans, slavery, reconstruction, prejudice and discrimination, constitutional law, the economics of poverty, and human rights, I never taught a course on social inequality, criminal justice, or how to address problems in this area.

A former student, Dr. Christopher Borgen, who is a law professor at St. John’s University, introduced me to the Equal Justice Initiative and its founder, Bryan Stevenson. After visiting the EJI website and learning from others that Bryan Stevenson was a past speaker at an NCSS convention, I read his book, all 66 pages in about 30 minutes!

The book was different from what I was expecting. When I read the description on the Amazon website, I was expecting stories of convicted felons on death row who were falsely accused and then represented by Dr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Instead, I discovered that I shared the same hopes, values, and mission as Bryan Stevenson, even though our life experiences were very different. The things we shared were loving grandmothers, disappointing high school educational experiences, religious faith, and a calling to help people by making a difference in their lives. My world view that we are placed into situations by circumstance (or divine intervention) was reinforced in the 66 pages of what I read.

Bryan Stevenson lived in a rural town in southern Delaware from 1959 until he graduated from Eastern University (PA) in 1977. He attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Public Policy and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. After moving to Atlanta, he was an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in 1989 he founded the non-profit law center, Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. His life’s work is committed to eliminating life-without-parole sentences and capital punishment for juveniles. The Equal Justice Initiative have won reversals or release for 135 wrongly convicted death row prisoners.

The EJI opened the Legacy Museum in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama to focus on racial inequality and the challenges of race discrimination in the criminal justice system in the United States. The current digital exhibits on racial justice, Reconstruction, and criminal justice reform are informative.

As a white, middle class, educated person living in a suburban community, my wife and I taught our children and now we are teaching our grandchildren that the police are your friend.  We instill in them that if you are ever in trouble to seek the advice of the police who are easily recognized by their uniforms. This is teachable because all of us deserve to be treated equally! The book provides examples of how “our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests ad wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences, not just wrongful shootings.” The example of injustice is the story of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Ronda Morrison, an eighteen-year old white woman. He was treated unfairly because he was targeted, the victim of false testimonies, convicted of a life sentence by an all-white jury, and then this sentence was changed to the death sentence by judicial override.  This short book emphasizes the power of mercy and redemption and how simple interventions based on perseverance can lead to justice and goodness and change lives.

The K-12 educational experience of Bryan Stevenson gave me a different perspective of my own experiences. I was educated in the Paterson Public Schools from 1952-1964. I went to overcrowded schools, we were attacked by black teenagers from the other side of the real estate dividing line, lacked a college preparatory experience even though I was in the Academic program, and skipped two years graduating at age 16. Bryan Stevenson’s experience was similar and yet opposite. Although he went to school a decade later, his mother and grandmother were anxious every day about his experiences in an integrated school. Both of our mothers and grandparents were influential in teaching us to read (newspapers and encyclopedias) and we were both the first in our families to attend and graduate from college.

The second perspective I gained from this book was first introduced to me in Race Matters by Cornell West. I read this book in the 1990s and the narrative demonstrated by African Americans through all the years of segregation, insecurity, and prejudice is one of love, hope, and a desire for acceptance. During the current national dialogue of racial inequality and social injustice, I think back to my first years as a teacher at Martin Luther High School in Maspeth, Queens. This was the year of the strike by teachers in the New York Public Schools and the year that neighborhood schools ended and busing to integrated schools began. As a new teacher, I was instructed to start an African American History course, even though college courses in this field were rare and not part of my education. As a result, I learned with my students, enrollment increased to multiple sections, and my students taught me about their experiences in East New York, (and other communities), threats against them on public transportation, and the difficulty in finding work. I also learned about the experiences of their parents in the workforce at a time when the Bakke decision by the Supreme Court challenged the validity of minority quotas.

The third perspective, the one that motivated me to write this book review, was the role and influence of the church and the driving values that motivated the life work and decisions of Bryan Stevenson.  I discovered in this narrative the importance of social and emotional learning, that solutions are always a process rather than an answer, and the importance of teachers in educating students.

It is important for teachers to understand the narrative of fear.  This is evident in the restrictions of the plantation, denial of literacy, and Jim Crow segregation.  It is also evident in the classification of drug addicts and users as criminals instead of individuals with a sickness or mental health condition. Fear is a powerful force in the human condition. We are taught to fear the consequences of breaking laws and rules as well as fearing failure.

It is equally important for teachers to teach and be a voice of hope and help. The social studies teachers I am privileged to know want to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. This is why civic education and historical context is important to them because the context supports equality, freedom, respect, justice, respect, and human rights. These are the threads that weave every day in the lessons of ancient societies, the Enlightenment, totalitarian rulers, colonial America, abolition, suffrage, Reconstruction, the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society, and the American Dream.

The impressive personal story of Bryan Stevenson is one of notable accomplishments but the difference he has been able to make in the lives of people through the Equal Justice Initiative is very similar to the impactful stories of teachers.  Although our calling is to teach social studies, we are also teachers of life skills, the extraordinary lessons of handling crises, and how to persevere through the frustrations of declining test scores and disappointments. Teachers are always modeling resilience, perseverance, and help.

Another lesson that was reinforced for me through this book was the concept of leadership. Leadership in the classroom is demonstrated by getting our students to support common goals of listening to others, searching for the truth, asking questions, doing our best, and supporting each other.  Bryan Stevenson also includes speaking out for what is right!  This includes making our classrooms and schools free from fear and anger, free from complacency and ignorance, and places where students feel comfortable to ask questions, learn different perspectives, and respect the competing ideas that are inherent in a democracy.

There are many lessons throughout this book and they will speak to each person in a different way. Regarding civic engagement, it is important to follow the calling in one’s heart in addition to their cognitive knowledge of what needs to be changed. It also means to think small when there are big problems. Bryan Stevenson lives in a state with a very high poverty rate and a record of harsh punishments against people. The lesson I came away with is to make a difference where I can, even if it is in the lives of just a few. For your students, let them know that they are witnesses to everything they see – bullying, sexism, injustice, inequality, favoritism, patronizing, cheating, lying, exaggerating, complacency, etc.

The book takes only a few hours to read but the messages in the book will last a long time!

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, by Dr. Stephen Kotkin, Princeton University

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 By Dr. Stephen Kotkin, Princeton University

Application to European and World History by Hank Bitten

The opening sentence, the thesis statement, by Dr. Kotkin is capitalized: “JOSIF STALIN WAS A HUMAN BEING.” This is supported by the evidence that he carried documents wrapped in newspapers, was an avid reader with a personal library of more than 20,000 books, and a man who enjoyed his tobacco from Herzegovina. Throughout the book there are the details of the floor plans of his apartments and hunting lodge, passion for his 1933 Packard Twelve luxury car and relationships with his mother, two wives, and children.

1933 American-made Packard Twelve

This is a fascinating read about Stalin, the ‘seemingly humane man’ and totalitarian ruler, his handling of the failures in agriculture and limited successes in manufacturing, propaganda and party purges, solidification of Party power, perspectives on capitalism, fascism, socialism, and communism, and the threats the U.S.S.R. faced from Germany, Japan, the long civil war in China, and even the small independent state of Poland. As a teacher of U.S., European, and World History, I likely spent too much time on the impact of the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships than on the global perspective of the new Soviet empire and Japan’s vision in the Far East. The advantage of Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 is that it provides teachers with examples for decision-making lessons in every year from the first Five Year Plan until the evening of Operation Barbarossa.

The eloquently phrased statement below by Dr. Kotkin is an argument for high school students to analyze and debate. History is about thinking and students need to investigate sources, determine their reliability, and develop their own thesis statement.

“A human being, a Communist and revolutionary a dictator encircled by enemies in a dictatorship circled by enemies, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, an embodiment of the global Communist cause and the Eurasia multinational state, a ferocious champion of Russia’s revival, Stalin did what acclaimed leaders do: he articulated and drove toward a consistent goal, in his case a powerful state backed by a unified society that eradicated capitalism and built industrial socialism. “Murderous” and “mendacious” do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume.  At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions.  His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize.  But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness.  Dictators who amass great power often retreat into pet pursuits, expounding intermittingly about their obsessions, paralyzing the state.  But Stalin’s fixation was a socialist great power.  In the years 1929-36, covered in part III, he would build that socialist great power with a first-class military.  Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.” (p. 8)

It is difficult to find humor in a book about a leader responsible for killing (and starving) millions of people but Dr. Kotkin finds the right time to tell us about the goodwill tour of Harpo Marx.  In the middle of a counterrevolutionary terrorist plot against Stalin, a possible war with Japan, and FDR trying to save American capitalism from default. Harpo Marx (an American comedian) while interacting with a Soviet family in the audience has 300 table knives cascade from his magical sleeves! (p.145)

The lessons for teachers and students are enriched by the details in this book. For example, Dr. Kotkin’s analysis of the failures of the collective farms in the first four years of the First Five Year Plan provide factual data for teachers and resources for developing engaging decision-making activities for students.

In 1929, the USSR had only 6 million out of 60 million workers employed, an unemployment rate of about 90%! Livestock and grain prices crashed as did the U.S. stock market with a 25% decline in four days of October. But in the USSR, there was a surprise harvest of 13.5 million tons. This led to forced collectivization of 80% of the private farms and the deportation of kulaks as Stalin understood the importance for agricultural security in an insecure state. Food was essential to the industrialization of the Soviet Union and for the police, army, and ordinary people. By contrast, a Soviet worker needed to labor for sixty-two hours to purchase a loaf of bread, versus seventeen minutes for an American. (p.544)

“But the dictator himself would turn out to be the grand saboteur, leading the country and his own regime into catastrophe in 1931-33, despite the intense zeal for building a new world.  Rumblings within the party would surface, demanding Stalin’s removal.” (pp. 70-71)

Decision Making Activity:

Should the USSR focus on agricultural reforms before starting a program of industrial reforms? (1929-1934)

The decisions facing Stalin had to be overwhelming:

  • His government faced increasing debt
  • There was no organized educational system to assimilate the diverse population
  • He needed to increase agricultural productivity
  • The Communist Party was divided between followers of Trotsky and Stalin
  • The military did not have any airplane or pilots
  • Peasants were quitting the collectives by the hundreds of thousands in search of food with millions facing starvation.  
  • There were violent protests against local officials as one-third of the livestock perished and inflation soared.
  • Cholera epidemics killed about one-half million and the catastrophe in the Ukraine resulted in 3.5 million deaths, 10% of the population.

“Collectivization involved the arrest, execution, internal deportation, or incarceration of 4 to 5 million peasants, the effective enslavement of another 100 million; and the loss of tens of millions of head of livestock.” (p.131)

Decision Making Activity:

With military expansion in Japan and Germany, civil war in China, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, should Stalin and the USSR focus on investment in military technology and building an army?

The research of Dr. Kotkin offers teachers a treasure of statistical data and insights into these critical years of Stalin’s survival. In 1931, “Japan had 250,000 troops (quarter of a million) in the Soviet Far East and Stalin had 100,000 with no fleet, storage facility or air force.  At best they could transport troops on five trains a day.” (p.84). Without exports and with severe budget cuts, the USSR manufactured 2,600 tanks by the end of 1932. This was possible because Stalin secretly increased the budget for military spending from 845 rubles to 2.2 million.

The construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (1933) was a significant investment for exporting minerals and increasing state revenue. Stalin’s infrastructure projects illustrate his understanding of the importance of industrialization. Unfortunately, the White-Sea Baltic Canal was less than fifteen feet deep in most places, limiting use to rivercraft. Stalin was said to have been disappointed finding it ‘shallow and narrow.’”  In 1937, Stalin celebrated the opening of the Moscow – Volga River canal with a flotilla of forty-four ships and boasting that Moscow was linked to five seas. (White, Black, Baltic, Caspian, and Azov). Sadly, it was built with Gulag prisoners and according to Professor Kotkin, 20,000 perished. (p.404)   Stalin also started The Great Fergana Canal (1939) and the Moscow subway system.

The White Sea-Baltic canal system

The personal accounts from diaries and interviews is a reason for teachers to read this book. For example, Stalin’s wife, Nadya, was diagnosed with angina and a defective heart valve. Although Dr. Kotkin notes that Stalin was not a playboy, as was Mussolini, Stalin’s flirtation with a 34-year-old actress after the November 7 Revolution Day parade pushed Nadya over the edge. Her body was found in a pool of blood in her room on the morning of November 9 by Karolina Til, the governess of young Svetlana, Vasily, and Artyom. The cause of death was reported as appendicitis, although it was a suicide.  In the middle of this personal tragedy, 9-year-old Svetlana wrote:

“Hello, my Dear Daddy.” I received your letter and I am happy that you allowed me to stay here and wait for you….When you come, you will not recognize me. I got really tanned. Every night I hear the howling of the coyotes.  I wait for you in Sochi. I kiss you.”  Your Setanka.” (p.135)

Another example of the ‘seemingly human qualities’ of Josif Stalin is a description of an evening birthday celebration for Maria Svanidze, governess, Svetlana said she wanted to ride on the new Moscow metro and Stalin and the family walked on the newly opened subway.  It was dark.

Moscow’s subway system

“Stalin ended up surrounded by well-wishers.  Bodyguards and police had to bring order.  The crowd smashed an enormous metal lamp.  Vasily was scared for his life. Svetlana was so frightened, she stayed in the train car. We ‘were intimidated by the uninhibited ecstasy of the crowd,’ Svanidze wrote. “Josif was merry.” (p.234)

By 1933, Stalin’s fortunes were changing for the better. This is why history is often unpredictable. The collectivized fall harvests were good and the unbalanced investments of the first Five-Year Plan finally produced results.  Socialism (anti-capitalism) was victorious in the countryside as well as in the city. The USSR joined the League of Nations, Harpo Marx toured the USSR, and the United States sent Ambassador William C. Bullitt to Moscow.

Decision Making Activity:

Did the United States and other countries extend diplomatic recognition to Stalin and the USSR prematurely?

Although Stalin refused to pay (or negotiate) the debt of 8 billion rubles owed to the United States since the end of World War I, he announced debt forgiveness of 10 million gold rubles to Mongolia on January 1, 1934, about 45 days after President Roosevelt agreed to formal recognition. (p.196) In 1983, the USSR repaid its debt to the United States.

The anti-terror law to protect the security of the Soviet Union led to the arrests of 6,500 people following the death of Kirov, a member of the politburo.  Gulag camps and colonies together held around 1.2 million forced laborers, while exiled “kulaks” in “special settlements” numbered around 900,000.  But the state media was able to boast that there were less murders in all of Soviet Union than in Chicago (p.286) For the two years 1937 and 1938, the NKVD would report 1,575,259 arrests, 87 percent of them for political offenses, and 681,692 executions.” (The number is closer to 830,000 since many more died during interrogation or transit.) (p.305)

Decision Making Activity:

Did Stalin have a reason to fear for his power or did he desire the personal power of a despot?

First, the economy between 1934-36 was relatively good as the Soviet Union escaped the tremendous debts of other countries during the Great Depression because of its limited exposure to global trade, a planned economy, and the famine ended.  Stalin was suspicious of the imperialists in Britain and France, feared they would establish an anti-Soviet coalition, and attack through Eastern Europe. He needed to isolate or eliminate potential threats in the military and friends of Trotsky whose publications presented Stalin as a counter-revolutionist and one who betrayed the teachings of Marx. The Soviet empire (USSR) is a large country and assassinations are difficult to prevent.

The influence of Trotsky continued for more than a decade after his exile. Trotsky headed the Red Army until 1925 and everyone worked with him. In 1936, the NKVD arrested 212 Trotyskyites in the military, including 32 officers. (p.350)  “After a decree had rescinded Trotsky’s Soviet citizenship, he had written a spirited open letter to the central executive committee of the Soviet…asserting that ‘Stalin has led us to a cul-de-sac….It is necessary, at last, to carry out Lenin’s last insistent advice: remove Stalin.” (p.372) Who could Stalin trust?

In the Middle of the Thirties the World Changed

Dr. Kotkin offers a detailed analysis of how these civil wars impacted the geopolitical balance of the new class of world leaders in Britain, France, and Germany along with the poor military record of Mussolini in Ethiopia.  The Spanish and Chinese civil wars in the east and west presented challenges and opportunities for Stalin. Stalin sent 450 pilots and 297 planes, 300 cannons, 82 tanks, 400 vehicles and arms and ammunition. Stalin is the leader of the politburo but none of his top leaders had a university education.

Although these two conflicts are different, they are caused by extreme poverty and the failure of government to solve the social and economic problems. They also involved foreign interference, although in the Chinese civil war, Japan occupied significant areas of the country. Although communism was a political presence in both civil wars, it did not follow the revolutionary reforms of Lenin or Stalin. The situation in Spain likely clarified Stalin’s world view regarding his fear of conspiracies from within, the consequences of a long conflict, and the complexities of revolutionary movements.

An example of scholarship I found useful is the removal of Spain’s gold reserves, estimated at $783 million, dating back to the Aztecs and Incas. (p.343) A significant portion of this money flowed to Moscow financing the costs of new armaments. A second example is the tragic record of genocide resulting in the execution of more than 2,000 prisoners in Madrid’s jails. The human rights abuses involved the evacuation of several thousand innocent people. I was not aware of this organized attempt by Spanish communists and their Soviet advisors. (p.350) but important to classroom instruction.

The madness continued “On April 26, 1937, the German Condor Legion, assisted by Italian aircraft, attacked Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basques, at the behest of the Nationalists, aiming to sow terror in the Republic’s rear.  The attack came on a Monday, market day.  Not only was the civilian population of some 5,000 to 7,000 (including refugees) carpet-bombed, but as they tried to escape, they were strafed with machine guns mounted on Heinkel He-51s.  Some one hundred and fifty were killed.” (p.407)

The Basques surrendered.   Every effort was taken to keep Soviet involvement from the people, although Trotsky was able to influence. “He sent a telegram from Mexico to the central executive committee of the Soviet, formally the highest organ of the state, declaring that ‘Stalin’s policies are leading to a crushing defeat, both internally and externally. The only salvation is a turn in the direction of Soviet democracy, beginning with a public review of the last trials.  I offer my full support in this endeavor.” (p.434)

Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) is only 18 months into the future.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Some 10,000 miles away in China, the USSR is confronted with the Nanking Massacre, invasion of Mongolia, and continuing fighting between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. But in 1936, there was an attempted coup in Tokyo. There was much confusion regarding who in the military was behind this failed attempt because it was clearly anti-capitalist but according to Richard Sorge, the Soviet intelligence officer in the German embassy in Tokyo, it was not connected to any communist or socialist organizations.  Stephen Kotkin provides substantial research on the work and missteps of Richard Sorge providing insights into how Soviet intelligence worked during the Stalin years, especially in Berlin and Tokyo. For example, Sorge photographed the full text of a secret document and sent it to a Soviet courier in Shanghai who eventually got it to Moscow stating that “should either Germany or Japan become the object of an unprovoked attack by the USSR,” each “obliges itself to take no measures that would tend to ease the situation in the USSR.” (p.356)

The Capture of Chiang Kai-shek

Stalin in the middle of his “House of Horrors” and the purges of 1937-38 discovered that history would test him as a diplomat, military strategist, and intelligence gatherer even though he had no experience in these areas. One of his first tests came to him on a cold December morning with the capture of Chiang Kai-shek, age 49, in central China. This was a turning point.

“At dawn on December 12, (1937) his scheduled day of departure, a 200- man contingent of Zhang’s personal guard stormed the walled compound.  A gun battle killed many of Chiang’s bodyguards.  He heard the shots, was told the attackers wore fur caps (the headgear of the Manchurian troops), crawled out a window scaled the compound’s high wall, and ran along a dry moat up a barren hill, accompanied by one bodyguard and one aide.  He slipped and fell, losing his false teeth and injuring his back, and sought refuge in a cave on the snow-covered mountain. The next morning, the leader of China-shivering, toothless, barefoot, a robe over his nightshirt-was captured.” (p.360)

The detailed and descriptive connections that teachers love to share with their students, especially Zhang Xueliang’s relationship with Edda Ciano, Mussolini’s daughter and the wife of the Italian minister to China, make the story of history very realistic and relevant!

Decision Making Activity:

Should Stalin support Chiang Kai-shek or order him killed based on Shanghai Massacre in 1927 with the execution of thousands of communists?

If Chiang Kai-shek is killed, will Japan extend its presence in China?

If Chiang Kai-skek is released, will he defeat Mao Zedong, someone Stalin considered influenced by Trotsky?

In the middle of this turning point situation and the continuing fighting in Spain, Stalin’s House of Horrors executed 90 percent of his top military officers in the purges of 1937-38, about 144,000. “Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (p.347) “The terror’s scale would become crushing.  More than 1 million prisoners were conveyed by overloaded rail transport in 1938 alone.” (p.438)

“Violence against the population was a hallmark of the Soviet state nearly from its inception, of course, and had reached its apogee in the collectivization-dekulakization…They would account for 1.1 million of the 1.58 million arrests in 1937-38, and 634,000 or the 682,000 executions.” (p.448). The news of Hitler’s territorial acquisition of Austria (March 12, 1938) and annexation of the Sudetenland (September 30, 1938) will occur within a few weeks and months.

For teachers looking for an inquiry or research-based lesson on Stalin’s purges, consider this statement by Dr. Kotkin: “World history had never before seen such carnage by a regime against itself, as well as its own people-not in the French Revolution, not under Italian fascism or Nazism.” (p. 488) The madness was similar to the spread of a virus with one arrest infecting others. It only required an executive order (or consider it a ‘prescription’) to cure the infection of suspicion.

On the Eve of Destruction

By 1938, Stalin had 11 years of experience as the absolute leader of the Soviet government. During these 11 years he had changed the domestic policy of the Soviet Union. In 1939, Time Magazine honored him as Man of the Year for his accomplishments. The issue characterized Stalin as a man of peace by comparing him to Mussolini, Hitler, and Roosevelt. He was also Man of the Year in 1943. Your students will find this interesting!

Time Magazine’s Man of the Year issue for 1939

This is the year Stalin celebrated his 60th birthday (Dec. 18, 1878) and it is also the time when the world changed.  Stalin would begin a journey where he lacked experience and because he arrested and executed 90% of his top military leaders resulting in no one to go to for diplomatic or military advice. Stalin was left with Peter the Great and the realpolitik of Bismarck for the play book on how to handle Mussolini, Hitler, and Chamberlain, Churchill, and Roosevelt.

“Germany’s mobilization was so sudden, ordered by the Fuhrer at 7:00 p.m. on March 10, 1938…Events moved very rapidly.  On March 12, a different Habsburg successor state vanished when the Wehrmacht, unopposed, seized Austria, a country of 7 million predominantly German speakers.  It was the first time since the Great War that a German army had crossed the state frontier for purposes of conquest, and, in and of itself, it constituted an event of perhaps greater import than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped spark the Great War mobilizations of 1914.” (pp.558-559)

The Soviet Union had a border on the west of almost 2,000 miles and a 2,600-mile border in the east with China. The Soviet Union had an inefficient transcontinental railroad, a small air force, an army that did not understand the Russian language, 6,000 nautical miles of coastline, seaports that were easily blocked by mines or ice, and a small navy! Stalin understood the fate of the Soviet Union as Japan had 300,000 forces in Manchukuo and 1,000,000 in northern China and controlled Peking, Tientsin, and Shanghai in less time than it took me to write this review! (p. 457)

The brilliance of this book is in the details and interesting personal stories. In the context of writing about Stalin’s introduction to foreign policy, Dr. Kotkin describes the life of Benito Mussolini in vivid detail with comparisons to Stalin and Hitler.

“On a typical day in 1938, spent an hour or two every afternoon in the downstairs private apartment in the Palazzo Venezia of Claretta Petacci, whom he called little Walewska, after Napoleon’s mistress.  The duce would have sex, nap, listen to music on the radio, eat some fruit, reminisce about his wild youth, complain about all the women vying for his attention (including his wife), and have Walewska dress him. Before and after his daily trysts…the duce would call Claretta a dozen times to report his travails and his ulcer.” (p.525) 

“Stalin’s world was nothing like the virile Italian’s.  Women in his life remained very few. He still did not keep a harem, despite ample opportunities…..If Stalin had a mistress, she may have been a Georgian aviator, Rusudan Pachkoriya, a beauty some twenty years his junior, whom he observed at an exhibition at Tushino airfield.” (p.525)

Decision Making Activity:

Faced with these rapidly changing events as a result of the decisions of Japan and Germany, what should Stalin do?

  1. Seek an alliance with another state?
  2. Change the budget priorities from rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union to military spending?
  3. Begin a campaign of disinformation to the Soviet people about the international threats?
  4. Double down on finding Trotsky and have him executed to avoid an internal threat of revolution?
  5. Name a possible successor, should something happen to Stalin.

Throughout the book there are provocative claims that should challenge AP European History students to think: For example: “So that was it: Germany foaming at the mouth with anti-Communism and ant-Slav racism, and now armed to the teeth; Britain cautious and aloof in the face of another continental war; and France even more exposed than Britain, yet deferring to London, and wary of its nominal ally, the USSR.  Stalin was devastating his own country with mass murders and bald-faced mendacities, but the despot faced a genuine security impasse: German aggression and buck-passing by great powers-himself included.” (p.593)

Investigate or Debate:

Stalin passed the supreme test of state leadership in 1939.

Stalin failed the supreme test of state leadership in 1939.

The first argument should investigate the evidence regarding the risks and rewards of selling resources to Hitler and Germany. Did this enable Hitler to become stronger or did it enable the Soviet Union to gain trade revenue to rebuild its military and infrastructure? The lessons of geography, imperialism, alliances, and military preparation from 1914 are complex and difficult for a state leader to master. 

Hitler needed the resources of oil, steel and grain and the Ukraine in the Soviet Union was the treasure. Poland understood Hitler’s motives and knew that an attack on the Soviet Union by Japan would likely extend their short-lived independence.   Dating back to the end of World War I, Polish forces still occupied the western Ukraine along with German troops. If the Blitzkrieg was to take place in six months, Germany needed these troops. Meanwhile, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) desired independence and Pavel Sudoplatov, from the Soviet Union, blew up Yevhen Konovalets, the OUN leader, with a concealed time bomb in a box of chocolates in a Rotterdam restaurant. In two years, he will get to Trotsky. (p.596)

Students should also use the analysis and end notes in this book to determine if Stalin made the right decisions regarding who he trusted.  Could he trust President Roosevelt? Neville Chamberlain, Adolph Hitler? Richard Sorge? Edouard Daladier?  Stalin: Waiting for Hitler. 1929-1941 is a debater’s dream with 160 pages of notes and a Bibliography of almost 50 pages in size 3 font!

The year, 1939 marked the opening of the World’s Fair in New York City with thousands of visitors; it is also the year when the Nazi’s smashed Jewish owned stores, businesses, and synagogues in November 9-10, killing at least 100 innocent Jewish people.  Was Stalin the best person to stop Hitler or did his silence empower him? There is evidence in the book to support both arguments.

These are challenging events for students to grasp and some of the best lessons for historical inquiry and “What If” scenarios. To emphasize the complexities of role-playing history in real time, consider that Lithuania relinquishes the deep-water Baltic port of Memi (Klaipėda) to Hitler’s ultimatum and Romanian businesses negotiate partnerships with Germany providing access to the unlimited oil supplies in the Ploiesti region. (p.613). During these fast-moving events, Stalin promoted Nikita Khrushchev to the politburo (p.605), Alexi Kosygin as commissioner of textile production, and Leonid Brezhnev to party boss in his region. (p.603).

“Khrushchev had to authorize arrests, and, in connection with the onset of ‘mass operations,’ he’d had to submit a list of ‘criminal and kulak elements,’ which in his case carried an expansive 41,305 names; he marked 8,500 of them ‘first category’ (execution). At least 160,000 victims in Moscow and Ukraine, would be arrested under Khrushchev during the terror.” (p.520)

We are now on a countdown of less than six months to Blitzkrieg and two years to Operation Barbarossa.

Historical Claim: “The Fuhrer really be stopped or even deflected?” (p.641)

The arguments below are a sample of the resources in the narrative of Dr. Kotkin’s book.

Hitler’s rearmament starved Germany of resources. This limited Hitler’s ability to fight in a long war and it negatively affected the German people.  Hitler could not risk a war with the Soviet Union if his intention was to dominate western Europe.

Three weeks before the planned attack on Poland, Stalin entered into official talks with Germany on August 11, 1939 and by August 20, an economic agreement was finalized.

Mussolini did not sign the Pact of Steel until August 25, less than one week before the invasion.

France had 110 divisions compared to Germany’s 30, with only 2 considered to be combat ready. (p. 680)

The invasion of Poland was planned for August 25 but Hitler got cold feet after he gave the final order.  Would Hitler risk a world war over Poland, which he could also obtain by negotiation or ultimatum?

Italy also desperately needed resources. Mussolini told Hitler he needed 7 million tons of gasoline, 6 million tons of coal, and 2 million tons of steel.

The history of the world might have taken a different course. For example, one week before the blitzkrieg of Poland, the Soviet air force fired on Hitler’s personal Condor by mistake when it was flying to Moscow with Joachim von Ribbentrop aboard to sign the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They missed. (See another example on page 10 about Rudolph Hess’ plane crash in Scotland and the failed assassination plot against Adolph Hitler in Munich)

On September 1, 1939 the blitzkrieg began. “The Germans in Poland, by contrast, had lost between 11,000 and 13,000 killed.  At least 70,000 Poles were killed and nearly 700,000 taken prisoner. The atrocities would continue long after the main combat was over.  More than a million Poles would be forced to work as slaves in Germany.” (p.688) The day before Hitler gave the order to double the production of the new long-range ‘wonder bomber”, the Ju88 for use against Britain.

Frozen in Finland

On the afternoon of November 26, 1939, five shells and two grenades were fired on Soviet positions at the border, killing four and wounding nine. “An investigation by the Finns indicated that the shots had emanated from the Soviet side. They were right.  “The Finns maintained that Soviet troops had not been in range of Finnish batteries, so they could not have been killed by Finnish fire, and suggested a mutual frontier troop withdrawal.” (p.722) The Soviets never issued a formal declaration of war. Hitler would now see the strength of the Soviet armor, even though the Finns were still using 20-year-old tanks from World War I. (p.726)

The Winter War of 1940-41 is a significant event in the timeline of World War II. Unfortunately, it is one that most teachers and students overlook because of the fast-moving events between Blitzkrieg and Barbarossa. The Red Army suffered frostbite in the -45-degree weather, guerrilla attacks with flammable liquids stuffed in bottles and ignited by hand-lit wicks (Molotov cocktails), and stuck on the ice of frozen lakes. (p.727) Would the history of the 20th century be different if Stalin defeated Finland in a matter of weeks and Hitler and Mussolini saw the strength of the Soviet military? Would the history of Europe be different if Finland maintained its independence? Students need to investigate what went wrong with the strategy of the Soviet Union to control Finland and the Baltic Sea. Winston Churchill had limited knowledge of Stalin and the Soviet Union when he made the statement below. In fact, he only gained popularity as few months before as a result of Hitler’s Lebensraum. Given this understanding, how accurate is his statement below?

Winston Churchill stated it clearly on January 20, 1940: “The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent.  They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force.  Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle.” (p.740)

“Finland paid a heavy price for the avoidable war.  Nearly 400,000 Finns (mostly small farmers) upward to 12 percent of its population – voluntarily fled the newly annexed Soviet territories for rump Finland, leaving homes and many possessions behind, and denying the NKVD victims to arrest.  Finland suffered at least 26,662 killed and missing, 43,357 wounded, and 847 captured by the Soviets.” (p.748) Finland lost its independence to Nazi Germany.

“Still the Soviets lost an astonishing 131,476 dead and missing; at least 264,908 more were wounded or fell to illness, including the frostbitten, who lost fingers, toes, ears. Total Soviet losses neared 400,000 casualties, out of perhaps 1 million men mobilized – almost 4,000 casualties per day.” (p.748) On March 5, 1940, Stalin approved the execution of 21,857 captured or arrested Polish officers.

Another “What if” situation, similar to the shooting down of the plane taking Ribbentrop to Moscow in August, occurred only two months after the blitzkrieg and during this winter war in Finland when “Georg Elser planted a bomb in one of the columns right behind the podium of the Munich Beer Hall where Hitler was scheduled to speak on November 8, 1939. It was a year-long plot planned by Elser. But fog forced Hitler to travel from Berlin to Munich by a regularly scheduled train.  He began his speech early and left ten minutes before the explosion. Eight were killed and 60 were wounded.” (p.700)

If you enjoy these unexpected stories, Dr. Kotkin offers another bizarre account, involving Rudolph Hess, which took place during the Attack on Britain in 1940.

“On May 13, although details were scarce, he (Stalin) learned of a sensation reported out of Berlin the previous night: Rudolf Hess, deputy to the Fuhrer within the Nazi party, had flown to Britain.  “Late on May 10, a date chosen on astrological grounds, in a daring, skillful maneuver, he piloted a Messerschmitt Bf-110 bomber across the North Sea toward Britain, some 900 miles, and, in the dark, parachuted into Scotland.  His pockets were filled with abundant pills and potions, including opium alkaloids, aspirin, atropine, methamphetamines, barbiturates, caffeine tablets, laxatives, and an elixir from a Tibetan lamasery. He was also carrying a flight map, photos of himself and his son, and the business cards of two German acquaintances, but no identification.  Initially, he gave a false name to the Scottish plowman on whose territory he landed; soon members of the local home Guard appeared (with whisky on their breath).  The British were not expecting Hess; no secure corridor had been set up.  Hess was among the small circle in the know about the firmness of Hitler’s intentions to invade the USSR.” “Hitler stated that Hess had acted without his knowledge, and called him a ‘victim of delusions.’” (pp.866,67)

On the eve of the Battle of Britain and Fall of France, Dr. Kotkin offers a view of the Soviet home front. Stalin, a leader with no military experience, worked aggressively since 1936 to build the largest army in the world. Considering the debt of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, what price did the people pay?

(I apologize that I cannot verify the accuracy of the data below but offer it for the purpose of discussion regarding the changes occurring in the Second Five Year Plan with an emphasis on industrial production.)

Soviet Union GNP, 1928
Soviet Union GNP, 1937

source: (R.W. Davies, Soviet economic development from Lenin to Khrushchev, 40.)

“The Red Army was expanding toward 4 million men (as compared with just 1 million in 1934). Some 11,000 of the 33,000 officers discharged during the terror had been reinstated. Consumer shortages had been worsening since 1938.  At the same time, alcohol production reached 250 million gallons, up from 96.5 million gallons in 1932.  By 1940, the Soviet Union had more shops selling alcohol than selling meat, vegetables, and fruit combined.” (p.781)

Britain, France and the Fate of the Soviet Union

As the war intensified in 1940 with the attack on France, Stalin was forced to reassess what was developing. He knew, or thought he knew, that the Soviet Union would be safe from German invasion for resources as long as Hitler was fighting in western Europe. But the battle in France began on Mother’s Day and ended shortly after Father’s Day. (May 10 – June 25) The French air force was no match for the Luftwaffe and the French had done little regarding the installation of antitank obstacles and bunkers in the Ardennes. (p.766) “The French lost 124,000 killed and 200,000 wounded, while 1.5 million western troops were taken prisoner; German casualties were fewer than 50,000 dead and wounded.” (pp.767)

What did Stalin think?  Stalin depended on the French military and Germany fighting in western Europe. Did Stalin connect the missing pieces of the puzzle regarding the importance of Russian oil and supplies to Germany’s power? Between July 10 and the end of October 1940, Germany bombed Britain. The British lost 915 planes but the Germans lost 1,733 planes, almost double the number. (p.794)

The only silver lining in the storm clouds over western Europe for Stalin was on August 20, 1940. After five years of failed attempts to get Leon Trotsky, including the discharge of 200 bullets into his bedroom on May 27, 1940, Ramon Mercader managed to smash a pick into his head.  Nearly 250,000 watched the funeral possession in Mexico City. For Stalin, the revolution was now complete!

Decision-Making Activity:

Meeting of the politburo, January 1941. Have your students prepare a report to Stalin about the best defensive strategy for the Soviet Union for 1941. The members of the politburo have just received an intelligence report from Richard Sorge in the Germany embassy in Tokyo regarding an expected target date for an attack on the Soviet Union on May 15, 1941.

Here are the facts: (pp.819-830)

  1. The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact is no longer certain.
  2. The Winter War against Finland was a military disappointment.
  3. Germany controls a significant part of France, including Paris.
  4. It is a risk for Germany to fight a two-front war against Britain and the Soviet Union at the same time.
  5. It is estimated that Germany has 76 divisions in the former Poland and 17 in Romania, with an estimate of 90-100 in western Europe.
  6. The Soviet Union is spending 32 percent of its budget on the military and has the largest army in the world at 5.3 million. Germany spends about 20% of its budget on the military.
  7. Germany and Italy need supplies of oil, steel, and grain.
  8. The USSR promised to ship Germany 2.5 million tons of grain, some from strategic reserves, and 1 million tons of oil by August 1941, in return for machine tools and arms-manufacturing equipment.
  9. The Soviet border from the White Sea to the Black Sea is 2,500 miles and vulnerable to attack at any point.
  10. Franklin Roosevelt will be inaugurated as President of the United States on January 20, 1941 and is committed to supplying Britain with aid as an ‘arsenal for democracy’.
  11. The war in the Balkans began on October 28, 1940 and Italy’s offensive is moving slowly.
  12. The United States broke the Japanese intelligence code, should Stalin explore help from the United States?
  13. The Soviet Union needs to expand the trans-Siberian Railroad.
  14. Stalin does not believe Hitler and the German army are invincible and they can be defeated.
  15. The NKVD captured 66 German spy handlers and 1,596 German agents, including 1,338 in western Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics.

Here are the Unknown Factors: “Hitler estimated it would take four months to defeat USSR” (p.882).

  1. Would a blitzkrieg attack on German forces along the Soviet frontier deliver a knockout blow?
  2. Will a surprise Soviet attack on Germany move Britain and Germany to negotiate a settlement.
  3. Should the Soviet Union move back 100 miles to draw the Germany army into Soviet territory and they encircle them?
  4. How will Churchill and Britain react to a German attack on the Soviet Union? How will FDR and the United states react?
  5. Are the Germans secretly moving their army on trains from western Europe to the Soviet frontier?
  6. If Germany intervenes in the Balkans will this enable them to invade the Soviet Union?
  7. Is Richard Sorge a double agent that should not be trusted?
  8. What are Hitler’s plans?
  9. Will a Soviet campaign of disinformation be effective?
  10. Will an accidental war break out with an unknown incident at the border?

This is a fascinating book to read and I have decided to leave the creative and carefully researched Conclusion that Stephen Kotkin has written as a surprise. It is perhaps the best ending of a book or documentary that I have read. I cannot wait to read the third volume of the attack on the Soviet Union and the aftermath.

Regarding my opening statement: “The opening sentence, the thesis statement, by Dr. Kotkin is capitalized: “JOSIF STALIN WAS A HUMAN BEING.” Perhaps the argument is correct. Stalin loved his mother, was the father of three children, and witnessed the unfortunate early deaths of his two wives, Kato Svanidze, at age 22 of illness and Nadezhda Alliluyeva, of suicide at age 31. Even though in my reading of this book, I understood Stalin as stoic and emotionally removed from his executive orders leading to the imprisonment and execution of millions, I kept thinking that he lived with feelings, remorse, and personal guilt. I may never know but I can speculate.

Personal Note:

A thousand-page book is not a quick read. My five grandchildren were impressed with the size of the book and why the grandfather would read about a man who did terrible things. I documented my quotations carefully with the intention that teachers might use them as a reference guide should they purchased this book. I am happy to give them to you upon request.

My first course in Russian history was in 1967. It was a wonderful introduction to Russian culture, geography, socialism, communism, and 20th century foreign policy. As a teacher, I read Professor Kotkin’s books and attended several of his lectures, I never had the luxury of taking a second college course.  As a first-year teacher in New York City in 1969, I made arrangements for Alexander Kerensky to speak with my students. Unfortunately, he broke his arm and was hospitalized in April and passed in June 1970. In the 1960s, Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, moved to Long Island and later to Pennington, NJ and Princeton. Although I never had an opportunity to see her, I was mesmerized by her decision to come to the United states so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1999, I had the pleasure of dinner with Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev.

The NJCSS also advertises the Prakhin International Literary Award on Nazi Holocaust & Stalinist Repression.  Information is on our website,

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Review by Georgiena Bobbie Robinson

Context matters. I mean that in terms of the context in which I read. Sometimes, I put a book aside as not relevant, not interesting, or just not the right book at the right time. Currently, my context is the COVID-19 pandemic and my safer-at-home lockdown. For escape, I’ve turned to books, but perhaps oddly, to non-fiction. The more dire the situation, the more tragic the true story, the better I feel. In troubled times, I find solace. In tales of disaster, I discover courage and resilience, pain and
perseverance, hope and victory. Everywhere these books take me, I find context for understanding what we face today and lessons for living through catastrophe. In the early spring of the pandemic, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile (2020) and
Black Death at the Golden Gate (2019) by David K. Randall were gripping page-turners.

So is The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2016) by Kate Moore. Moore took me to the radium-dial factories of Newark and Orange, New Jersey and then to Illinois through a story I had never heard before. During World War I, young women from working-class families found good-paying jobs painting watches and other instruments that glowed in the dark for the military. After the war, the desire for these watches exploded, factories expanded production, and the women recruited their younger sisters and friends to join them at companies such as Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, United States Radium Corporation, and Radium Dial Corporation.

The Radium Girls, as they were called, were excited to be front and center at the radium craze. Discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie, radium was rare and one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Two decades later, radium was considered a wonder drug, a cure-all for just about everything. Consumers drank radium potions and swallowed radium pills; the wealthy went to radium clinics and spas. Products from jock straps to mosquito sprays claimed, often falsely, to contain radium. The radium dial factories engaged the girls in an important war effort, painting luminous airplane instruments, gunsights, and ship’s compasses. This was a job for women – some as young as 14 – with excellent fine motor skills. Many earned more than their laborer fathers and brothers. The radium girls enjoyed the female
camaraderie of the factory floor; they bought nice clothes and danced the nights away with eligible young men; they were happy; they glowed.

Quite literally, the women glowed. As they painted, they mastered the technique of dipping the fine camel-haired brushes into the radium paint, then their mouths to wet the brush into an even finer point. Paid by the piece, their goal was to paint the
small dials as precisely and quickly as possible. With every dip, the girls swallowed the radioactive substance. Despite their care not to waste paint, the fine dust covered their hands, their hair and their clothes. When they walked home together at night,
hung their glowing dresses in their closets, and stood in front of a mirror, the girls “fairly shone in the dark,” like “otherworldly angels.”

By 1921, the first of the Radium Girls was sick. Teeth fell out, jaws crumbled, bone cancers grew, women failed to conceive or miscarried. Through the 1920s and 30s, many died painful deaths, some quickly, some slowly. Initially, the girls, their dentists and their doctors made no connection to their work. When the first finally did,
linking their own illnesses with those of friends and co-workers, the companies denied that the paint could be the cause. Radium, after all, was harmless, they testified.

The Radium Girls is the story of the courageous women and a handful of doctors and
lawyers who take on powerful corporations and a legal system determined to thwart them at every turn, calculating that they can outlive the dying women. Company officials lie and cover-up; mayors and chambers of commerce welcome jobs during the Great Depression; neighbors turn on the women and their families; victims of radium poisoning die. The not-yet-dead fight on. Though few of the Radium Girls themselves would benefit, eventually laws were written, saving other lives.

Kate Moore uncovers the lives of these women and makes their heartbreaking story
personal. She shows us that the fight for workers’ rights and lives never ends, but that change is possible. The Radium Girls belong with The Jungle’s meatpackers and the Triangle Shirtwaist women in our history lessons. In our Covid-19 pandemic times, the fight for workers’ lives continues; the Radium Girls light the way.

Radium Girls at work in an Orange, NJ factory.
Ad by United States Radium Corp.