Vietnam Protests at New Jersey Universities

Vietnam Protests at New Jersey Universities

Dan Hamlin

For many, Princeton is a place of prestige and cultural and educational exceptionalism that only the best of the Ivy League can offer. A university such as this is on the cutting edge of tomorrow, where great minds assemble to become future presidents and Nobel laureates. Such has been Princeton’s tradition since colonial times. From founders being founding fathers to multiple presidents, Nobel laureates, and world-renowned physicists, one would be remiss to say that Princeton is not one of the most important and influential schools in the United States, let alone the world. One also cannot overstate the importance of tradition at Princeton University. At a university showcasing James Madison as a notable alumnus on its website,[1]It is clear that Princeton is a place of prestige.

The 1960s and 70s are a particular time in American history where education and student activism became particularly important to the American public. Students were the loudest advocates for change during this time and serve as an excellent example of the value of students taking advocacy in their educational careers. Students in this time would protest in many different ways and about many different things. Issues that concerned students in the 1960s and 70s included civil rights campus issues and the war in Vietnam; these protests would look different at each university depending on the culture and the history of it. So, one would likely expect Princeton: a place of deep and rich American tradition, to be where liberal protest dies, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s when such protests were well beyond the norm. However, this is not the case. During the Anti-Vietnam War movement, Princeton University experienced an explosion of support from students and faculty sympathetic to the movement. It even boasted its Students for a Democratic Society chapter, which garnered massive student support. However, as the movement got bigger and bigger, tradition started to derail the movement at Princeton University in favor of more modest ways to protest the War in Vietnam. Princeton University is one of New Jersey’s most influential colleges and will provide enormously valuable insight into the Student protest movement in New Jersey, as it is representative of how long-established universities in New Jersey were impacted by the student protest movement. Whereas Rider University provided insight into how smaller less established universities in New Jersey were impacted by the movements, Princeton will illustrate “Established Universities” coped with the movement, illustrating how colleges impacted the broader movement.

Princeton University, where future leaders begin their journeys, was one of the earliest universities in New Jersey to speak outright against the war in Vietnam. Although the war in Vietnam began much earlier, in 1955, opposition to the war was minimal at best, and no sources spoke critically of the war. It was in 1962 that the evidence of discontent began to show. It was in April of 1962 that the School newspaper, The Daily Princetonian published an opinion piece about the war after the release of images of the conflict in Vietnam that Princeton began to show some opposition to the war. The article argues that “unless we base our policy on a response to the fundamental problems of the country and thus end the discontent on which the Communists thrive, we will see many more pictures of bodies in fields, ending only in an ignominious withdrawal from a country in which we will have forfeited the popular support without which victory is impossible. The article questions the need for American involvement at home; Americans face many more present dangers.”[2]Here, one can see the Princeton students first asking questions about the war and the merit upon which America is involved as time goes on.

However, these questions become action. In the ensuing years, discontent at Princeton will begin to fester, on par with that of other Universities from across the nation.[3]However, on October 8th of 1965, Students for a Democratic society officially arrive at the Princeton campus, signaling a massive upgrade in student support for the Anti-war movement.[4]Despite the step forward, not all campus is united in this mission. Very early on, there were instances of resistance to SDS and increased support against the war in Vietnam. In December of 1965, an SDS banner saying “Even Princeton” was stolen, and at an SDS demonstration, “some came to heckle, some came to argue, some came to support,” said the SDS chairman Johnathan M. Wiener. Wiener also later says how “unprecedented” the support has been, especially considering the “traditional Princeton apathy.”[5]Later in early 1966, a conservative teach-in about American military strategy occurred, led by the Conservative club and directed by conservative faculty on campus.[6]These instances are undoubtedly reactionary to the more significant campus-wide attitudes but merit inclusion as they are evidence of Princeton’s traditional values combatting this liberal movement on campus.

In 1966 the movement began hitting its stride as the protest became a standard fixture on campus. As the movement grew, students’ voices grew. In a march 1966 article polling students about the issues they are most concerned about, the Anti-war protest polled near the top however was outshined by campus-related issues, such as food and living conditions.[7] While this says little about the student protest of the war in Vietnam, it reveals two critical things about Princeton at the time. Firstly, Princeton students were incredibly active on campus at this time, inspired by the enthusiasm caused by the Anti-war protest. Secondly, this shows that the most significant external issue to Princeton students was the war in Vietnam, suggesting growth in support for anti-war protests.

As protests grow and time progresses, and anti-movements grow, so too does student involvement in SDS. By May of 1968, SDS had grown to massive heights,  leading The Daily Princetonian to raise the question, “SDS or UGA?” The UGA is the student government association elected by students and meant to represent the students. As the article reads, “There is no other strong political interest group on campus, and the UGA has proven itself to be an impotent governing body capable only of reacting to events and unable to cause creative change where change is needed. The SDS has easily and naturally taken over the vacuum in student leadership. There is now a genuine danger that relevant student issues and the entire student power concept will be identified with the SDS banner and that as these issues come of age, the SDS will increasingly be taken as the voice of the Princeton student body.” This speaks to the incredible power that SDS had by 1968. This article suggests that SDS was the governing body of Princeton University at the time. As the article states there are “nearly 150 members and well over 200 sympathizers.”8 making it the largest student organization on campus. This article illustrates the effect of the anti-war movement on Princeton university, as the SDS, an organization founded to oppose the war in Vietnam, has committed a quasi-coup of the student government, crippling their effectiveness. Princeton is fully invested, and SDS is at the peak of its power on campus. Nevertheless, this success is short-lived.

As students returned in the fall of ‘68, SDS had a significant setback. At a meeting about protesting the new student government in UGA, SDS had an ideological setback, causing a split into two camps. The “revolutionary” who intended on a walk-out at the UGA meetings, vs. the “Liberal politics” camp who decided for a more moderate course of action. The division “threaten[ed] to cripple the effectiveness of that organization and to interrupt the workings of the student-faculty Committee on the Structure of the University”[8]This ideological the split was the beginning of a slow and unceremonious decline in SDS’s popularity on campus. This ideological split was one typical among SDS chapters as the organization progressed into more radical and less palatable avenues.[9]nevertheless, students at Princeton were still appalled by the War in Vietnam and continued protesting the war. However, with the ideological split, this came in different forms.

By April 1969, the radicals are performing more radical actions, fiercely attacking conservative opponents and blocking marine recruiters. These actions cause SDS to be seen as “not working against “the authorities” alone but against other students. This position cuts much of their sympathetic support.”[10]SDS is losing traction at Princeton University, and campus life is becoming more volatile. What that does not mean, however, is that students’ opinions on the war are changing. It is just saying that they disagree with the extreme methods of one organization. In fact, by this point, Princeton and its faculty are united in a front against the anti-war movement as evidenced by the history department’s united efforts to publish an anti-war resolve and include it into their curriculum.[11][12]The splintered movement is a confusing time for Princeton university, as radical acts persist on campus, yet the anti-war movement continues to grow.

Just as Rider had severe reactions to the Kent State killings, Princeton, too, reeled from the national outcry. Over 900 students marched around campus in protest, eventually ending up at the Institute for Defense Analysis. A peaceful protest broke out, protesting the military presence on campus. At the same time, Faculty endorsed a strike of Princeton’s involvement with the Department of Defense after the “senseless killing of four students at Kent State.” Princeton deciding to cut ties with the military is a significant step for the University, as the government undoubtedly relied on Princeton’s prestige to foster new and innovative military thinkers and ideas; an example of Princeton’s prestige and culture influencing their protests, as very few other colleges can take this kind of meaningful action against the government, nor can students from many other universities find a place on campus to focus their anger.

Over the next few years and despite SDS’s ideological split, the movement does not simmer. As more and more opposition against the Nixon administration occurred, the student body became more and more independent against the war in Vietnam, culminating in massive campus-wide strikes and walkouts in 1972. At this time, the Nixon administration was in the exaggeratedly long process of withdrawing troops, and at Princeton, the anger boiled into legitimate action. The April 20th, 1972 edition of The Daily Princetonian almost entirely talks about the organization of strikes and walkouts due to current events. Peace pamphlets are hung around campus, and important board members resign due to mounting pressure. A “Frivolous spring parade around campus turned into an anti-war protest” that raised around “300 students” marching around campus and breaking into smaller protests late at night. The campus was very active at this time. There are also mentions of a picketing schedule for the upcoming week.[13]after these sporadic instances of protest occurred for the remainder of the war until 1975; This is perhaps because the movement as a whole got bigger and became a national issue, one that was now in the halls of congress.[14]

Princeton is a trailblazing school, one where the undergrads move on to do monumental things post-graduation. This was no different in the late 60s and early 70s; however, the student body had more of a fire lit under them to get motivated—the student body at Princeton University was incredibly active during the Anti-war/social movements around the time of the Vietnam war. However, Princeton, having the tradition and strong minds, never reached the full extent of the protest and demonstrations as a more prominent school. So, as a result, Princeton was greatly affected by these movements, but never to the entirely extreme end that a school like Rutgers experienced.

[1] Princeton University Alumni, ed. “Notable Alumni.” Princeton University.

[2] Slocombe, W. B. “The Political Side.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ),  April 27, 1962. 620427-01&getpdf=true.

[3] Kennedy, Patrick D. “Reactions against the Vietnam War and Military-Related Targets on Campus: The University of Illinois as a Case Study, 1965-1972.” Illinois Historical Journal 84, no. 2 (1991): 101–18.

[4] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ). “Liberal Activist Group to Open Local Chapter.” October 4, 1965. 651004-01&getpdf=true.

[5] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ). “SDS Banner Tempts Thief, Draws Crowd.” December 3, 1965. 651203-01&getpdf=true.

[6] Durkee, Robert. “Conservatives Stress Military Victory: Teach-ins Urges Vietnam Action.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), January 7, 1966. 660107-01&getpdf=true.

[7] Miller, Damon. “Student Protests: What Are the Issues?” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), March 11, 1966.

[8] Balfor, Richard. “SDS Walk-out Threatens Structure Committee.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), October 2, 1968. 81002-01&getpdf=true.

[9] Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[10] Buckner, Bruce. “Campus Braces for Upcoming Radical Action.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), April 23, 1969. 690423-01&getpdf=true.

[11] Berkowitz, Ed. “Historians Circulate Anti-War Resolve.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), October 2, 1969.

[13] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), April 20, 1972. 720420-01&getpdf=true.

[14] Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Misjudging Adolf Hitler

Misjudging Adolf Hitler

Alan Singer, Janice Chopyk, and Debra Willett

The 21st century has witnessed a resurgence in authoritarian and potentially fascist movements in many parts of the world including in the United States. As a result of Congressional hearings and judicial action we know that armed militias like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers were active participants in the January 6, 2021 assault on the United States Capitol Building. They wanted to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election and threatened to murder the Vice-President of the United States. Commentators like Madeleine Albright (2018) and Timothy Snyder (2017; 2018) make the point that Fascists pretend to respond to public sentiment and populist movements, but that is really just a strategy to achieve power by stirring popular discontent, resentment and fear to undermine democratic institutions. Snyder believes that in the twenty-first century, the gravest threat to democracy is virulent nationalist populism and sees the potential for the rise of authoritarianism in the United States as a response to a real or perceived danger. He quotes Hannah Arendt, who wrote that after the Reichstag fire in Germany, “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander” (Snyder, 2017: 110; Arendt, 2003: 6). Arendt’s statement highlights the need for an activist component in civics education as well as a deeper understanding of how fascists came to power in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. During that period in the west many commentators misjudged the threat of fascism to world peace. Snyder and Albright call for promoting active citizenship and resistance against tyranny by educators committed to democracy and liberty, important goals in the National Council for the Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 to a German speaking family in a region that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later became part of Austria. He did not become an actual German citizen until February 1932. In 1913, Hitler moved from Vienna in Austria to Munich in Germany and with the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the German Army. In the army Hitler rose to the rank of corporal and received the Iron Cross for service on the Western Front. Just before an armistice was signed in November 1918, Hitler was temporarily blinded and hospitalized following a British gas attack on German troops in occupied Belgium.

While still in the army, Hitler became part of the military’s propaganda department, and was assigned to speak to troops promoting nationalism and anti-Socialism. He also joined an anti-communist, anti-Semitic right wing political party. Under Hitler’s direction the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party or Nazi Party and in 1921 Hitler became its official leader. In 1923, Hitler participated in the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch that tried to take over the government of the German state of Bavaria. He was captured, convicted of treason, and spent nine months in prison where he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a manifesto of Nazi ideology. In a September 1930 election, the Nazi Party increased its representation in the German parliament, the Reichstag, from 14 to 107 seats, making Hitler the leader of the second largest party in Germany. In January 1933, with the Nazis Party holding a third of the seats in parliament, Adolf Hitler became chancellor, or Prime Minister, of a coalition government. Once in office, Hitler quickly moved to ban all opposition and in July 1934 he proclaimed himself “Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor.”

Dorothy Thompson of the United States and Gareth Jones of Wales were two of the earliest western reporters to meet with and speak to Adolf Hitler. In their reports, they misjudged his threat to democracy, world peace, and human rights in their reporting. In 1931, the Nazi Party invited Thompson to interview Hitler for Cosmopolitan magazine and in 1932, Thompson republished the interview as part of a book, I Saw Hitler! (New York: Farrar & Rinehart). Much of the article and book are dismissive of Hitler as a person. Thompson described him as a man of “startling insignificance,” “inconsequent and voluble,” and “the very prototype of the Little Man” (13-14). She characterized the interview with Hitler as “difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolf Hitler. He speaks always as though he were addressing a mass meeting . . . a hysterical note creeps into his voice, which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance” (16).

Hitler, not surprisingly, was offended by his depiction in the Cosmopolitan article and Thompson was forced to leave Germany. In the foreword to the book, Thompson wrote. “My offense was to think that Hitler was just an ordinary man, after all. That is a crime in the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people” (v). To her credit, Thompson later became an anti-Nazi activist in the United States, denouncing fascism in public addresses, her magazine and newspaper columns, and on radio broadcasts.

In a February 1933 article for The Western Mail & South Wales News, Gareth Jones described his meeting with Adolf Hitler during a shared airplane ride. Jones, like Thompson, was not initially impressed with Hitler, writing “When his car arrived on the airfield about half an hour ago and he stepped out, a slight figure in a shapeless black hat, wearing a light mackintosh, and when he raised his arm flabbily to greet those who had assembled to see him, I was mystified. How had this ordinary-looking man succeeded in becoming deified by fourteen million people?” Later on the flight, Jones discovered what he considered the other Hitler and reevaluated him. “Hitler steps out of the aeroplane. But he is now a man spiritually transformed. His eyes have a certain fixed purpose. Here is a different Hitler. There are two Hitlers – the natural boyish Hitler, and the Hitler who is inspired by tremendous national force, a great Hitler. It is the second Hitler who has stirred Germany to an awakening.” Jones had just completed a tour of the famine-ravished Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, and viewed Hitler and Germany positively in comparison.

The West’s uncertainty about Hitler’s threat to world peace comes across in Time magazine’s selection of him as its 1938 “Man of the Year.” It conveyed a sense that Americans should be impressed by the figure of Adolf Hitler as he strides “over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror.” Hitler, in five years, “lifted the nation from post-War defeatism” and transformed it into “one of the great military powers of the world today.” Time editors considered Nazi rule in Germany “no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning.” The article was published in January 1939, eight months before Germany invaded Poland igniting World War II.

In November 1938, during a parliamentary debate, future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations . . . Hitler is Fuehrer because he exemplifies and enshrines the will of Germany.” As closure for lessons on the rise to power of fascists in Europe on the 1920s and 1930s, students should discuss why Churchill, Jones, Time magazine, and Thompson, at least initially, seemed to misunderstand and minimized Hitler’s threat to democracy in Germany and world peace.


Albright, M. 2018. Fascism: A Warning. New York: HarperCollins.

Arendt, H. 2003. The Portable Hannah Arendt. New York: Penguin Books.

Snyder, T. 2017. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin.

Snyder, T. 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Penguin.

Online sources for this article include:

Document 1: “I Saw Hitler!” by Dorothy Thompson (Farrar & Rinehart, 1932) (Excerpts)

Instructions: Dorothy Thompson interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931 for an article in Cosmopolitan magazine. Read excerpts A, B, C and D and answer questions 1 – 3. (Note: Hitler spelled his first name Adolf. Thompson wrote his name as Adolph in the magazine and book.)

A. “When finally I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog. He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. The back head is shallow. The face is broad in the cheek-bones. The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial. There is in his face no trace of any inner conflict or self-discipline” (13-14).   B. “And yet, he is not without a certain charm. But it is the soft, almost feminine charm of the Austrian! When he talks it is with a broad Austrian dialect. The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics. There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea. His is an actor’s face. Capable of being pushed out or in, expanded or contracted at will, in order to register facile emotions” (14).   C. “The interview was difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolph Hitler. He speaks always, as though he were addressing a mass meeting. In personal intercourse he is shy, almost embarrassed. In every question he seeks for a theme that will set him off. Then his eyes focus in some far corner of the room; a hysterical note creeps into his voice which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance. He bangs the table. ‘Not yet is the whole working class with us…we need a new spirit…Marxism has undermined the masses…rebirth in a new ideology…not workers, not employers, not socialists, not Catholics…But Germans!’ This, in answer to the question: What will you do for the working masses when you come to power?” (16-17)   D. “It is an important question. Millions of Germans follow Hitler because he has proclaimed war upon the banks, upon the trusts, upon “loan-capital.” He has asserted time and time again that he will abolish the rule of one class by another. What actually do these statements mean, in terms of practical politics? I couldn’t find out, and anyone who can is a better interviewer than I. When I dared to interrupt the stream of eloquence by bluntly repeating my question, he replied (rather coyly) that he didn’t intend to hand his program over to his enemies (the German Chancellor) for them to ‘steal’” (17).  


  1. What was Thompson’s initial reaction to Adolf Hitler?
  2. Why does Thompson describe the interview as difficult?
  3. In your view, why would Adolf Hitler be annoyed or angry at his portrayal by Thompson?
  4. In your view, based on these excerpts and your knowledge of German history between World War I and World War II, should Thompson have issued a warning about the Adolf Hitler? Explain.

Document 2. “A Welshman Looks At Europe, With Hitler Across Germany” by Gareth Jones (Excerpts), The Western Mail And South Wales News, February 28, 1933

Instructions: Gareth Jones met Adolf Hitler in February 1933 a month after Hitler became German Chancellor. Read excerpts A, B and C and answer questions 1 – 3.

A. “If this aeroplane should crash then the whole history of Europe would be changed. For a few feet away sits Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany and leader of the most volcanic nationalist awakening which the world has seen. Six thousand feet beneath us, hidden by a sea of rolling white clouds, is the land which he has roused to a frenzy. We are rushing along at a speed of 142 miles per hour from Berlin to Frankfurt-on-Main, where Hitler is to begin his lightning election campaign. The occupants of the aeroplane are, indeed, a mass of human dynamite. I can see Hitler studying the map and then reading a number of blue reports. He does not look impressive. When his car arrived on the airfield about half an hour ago and he stepped out, a slight figure in a shapeless black hat, wearing a light mackintosh, and when he raised his arm flabbily to greet those who had assembled to see him, I was mystified.”    B. “How had this ordinary-looking man succeeded in becoming deified by fourteen million people? He was more natural and less of a poseur than I had expected; there was something boyish about him as he saw a new motor-car and immediately displayed a great interest in it. He shook hands with the Nazi chief and with those others of us who were to fly with him in the famous “Richthofen,” the fastest and most powerful three-motored aeroplane in Germany.  His handshake was firm, but his large, outstanding eyes seemed emotionless as he greeted me. Standing around in the snow were members of his bodyguard in their black uniform with silver brocade. On their hats there is a silver skull and crossbones, the cavities of the eyes in the skull being bright red.”    C. “We are now descending, however. Frankfurt is beneath us. A crowd is gathered below. Thousands of faces look up at us. We make a smooth landing. Nazi leaders, some in brown, some in black and silver, all with a red swastika arm-band, await their chief. Hitler steps out of the aeroplane. But he is now a man spiritually transformed. His eyes have a certain fixed purpose. Here is a different Hitler. There are two Hitlers – the natural boyish Hitler, and the Hitler who is inspired by tremendous national force, a great Hitler. It is the second Hitler who has stirred Germany to an awakening.”  


  1. What was Jones’ initial reaction to Adolf Hitler?
  2. Why does Jones decide there are two Hitlers?
  3. In your view, based on these excerpts and your knowledge of German history between World War I and World War II, should Jones have issued a warning about the second Hitler? Explain.

Document 3. Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (1938), January 2, 1939 (Excerpt)

Instructions: For it’s January, 1939 edition, Time magazine selected Adolf Hitler as its 1938 “Man of the Year. “Read excerpts A and B and answer questions 1 – 3.

A. Adolf Hitler without doubt became 1938’s Man of the Year . . . [T]he figure of Adolf Hitler strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror . . . Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today . . . Rant as he might against the machinations of international Communism and international Jewry, or rave as he would that he was just a Pan-German trying to get all the Germans back in one nation, Fuehrer Hitler had himself become the world’s No. 1 International Revolutionist.   B. That the German people love uniforms, parades, military formations, and submit easily to authority is no secret . . . What Adolph Hitler & Co. did to Germany in less than six years was applauded wildly and ecstatically by most Germans. He lifted the nation from post-War defeatism. Under the swastika Germany was unified. His was no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning . . . Germany has become a nation of uniforms, goose-stepping to Hitler’s tune, where boys of ten are taught to throw hand grenades, where women are regarded as breeding machines. In five years under the Man of 1938, regimented Germany had made itself one of the great military powers of the world today.  


  1. According to this article, what are the key achievements of Adolf Hitler?
  2. Based on these achievements, do you think Hitler merited selection as “Man of the Year“? Explain.
  3. Write a Letter-to-the-Editor of Time explaining your point of view.

Why Should War Criminals Operate with Impunity?

Why Should War Criminals Operate with Impunity?

Lawrence Wittner

(Republished from History News Network)

The issue of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine highlights the decades-long reluctance of today’s major military powers to support the International Criminal Court. In 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established by an international treaty, the Rome Statute. Coming into force in 2002 and with 123 nations now parties to it, the treaty provides the ICC, headquartered at the Hague, may investigate and prosecute individuals for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. As a court of last resort, the ICC may only initiate proceedings when a country is unwilling or unable to take such action against its nationals or anyone else on its territory. In addition, although the ICC is authorized to initiate investigations anywhere, it may only try nationals or residents of nations that are parties to the treaty, unless it is authorized to investigate by the nation where the crimes occurred.

The development of a permanent international court dealing with severe violations of human rights has already produced some important results. Thirty-one criminal cases have been brought before the ICC, resulting, thus far, in ten convictions and four acquittals. The first ICC conviction occurred in 2012, when a Congolese warlord was found guilty of using conscripted child soldiers in his nation. In 2020, the ICC began trying a former Islamist militant alleged to have forced hundreds of women into sexual slavery in Mali. This April, the ICC opened the trial of a militia leader charged with 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur, Sudan. Parliamentarians from around the world have lauded “the ICC’s pivotal role in the prevention of atrocities, the fight against impunity, the support for victims’ rights, and the guarantee of long-lasting justice.”

Despite these advances, the ICC faces some serious problems. Often years after criminal transgressions, it must locate the criminals and people willing to testify in their cases. Furthermore, lacking a police force, it is forced to rely upon national governments, some with a minimal commitment to justice, to capture and deport suspected criminals for trial. Governments also occasionally withdrew from the ICC, when angered, as the Philippines did after its president, Rodrigo Duterte, came under investigation.

The ICC’s most serious problem, however, is that 70 nations, including the world’s major military powers, have refused to become parties to the treaty. The governments of China, India, and Saudi Arabia never signed the Rome Statute. Although the governments of the United States, Russia, and Israel did sign it, they never ratified it. Subsequently, in fact, they withdrew their signatures. 

The motive for these holdouts is clear enough. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of his nation from the process of joining the ICC. This action occurred in response to the ICC ruling that Russia’s seizure of Crimea amounted to an “ongoing occupation.” Such a position, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “contradicts reality” and the Russian foreign ministry dismissed the court as “one-sided and inefficient.” Understandably, governments harboring current and future war criminals would rather not face investigations and possible prosecutions.

The skittishness of the U.S. government toward the ICC is illustrative. Even as he signed the treaty, President Bill Clinton cited “concerns about significant flaws” in it, notably the inability to “protect US officials from unfounded charges.” Thus, he did not submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification and recommended that his successor, George W. Bush, continue this policy “until our fundamental concerns are satisfied.” Bush, in turn, “unsigned” the treaty in 2002, pressured other governments into bilateral agreements that required them to refuse surrender of U.S. nationals to the ICC, and signed the American Servicemembers Protection Act (sometimes called the “Hague Invasion Act”), which authorized the use of military force to liberate any American being held by the ICC. 

Although subsequently the Bush and Obama administrations grew more cooperative with the court, aiding it in the prosecution of African warlords, the Trump administration adopted the most hostile stance toward it yet. In September 2018, Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly that the United States would provide “no support” to the ICC, which had “no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.” In 2020, the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions and visa restrictions on top ICC officials for any efforts to investigate the actions of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Under the Biden administration, however, U.S. policy swung back toward support. Soon after taking office, Biden—in line with his more welcoming approach to international institutions ― dropped the Trump sanctions against ICC officials. Then, in March 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine produced widely reported atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, the U.S. president labeled Putin a “war criminal” and called for a “war crimes trial.”

The ICC was the obvious institution for action. That March, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution backing an investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine and praising the ICC. Weeks before this, in fact, the ICC did open an investigation.

Even so, it is unclear what the U.S. government can or is willing to do to aid the ICC in Ukraine. After all, U.S. legislation, still on the books, bars substantial U.S. assistance to the ICC. Also, Pentagon officials are reportedly opposed to action, based on the U.S. government’s long-time fear that U.S. troops might some day be prosecuted for war crimes.

For their part, Russian officials have claimed that the widely-recognized atrocities were a complete “fake,” a “fabrication,” and a “provocation.” In Bucha, stated the Russian defense ministry, “not a single local resident has suffered from any violent action.” Not surprisingly, Russian authorities have refused to cooperate with the ICC investigation.

Isn’t it time for the major military powers to give up the notion that their war criminals should be allowed to operate with impunity? Isn’t it time these countries joined the ICC?

The U.S. Response to the Holocaust was Part of a Longer Pattern of Appeasing Fascism

The U.S. Response to the Holocaust Was Part of a Longer Pattern of Appeasing Fascism

Roger Peace

(Reprinted from History News Network)

The six-hour documentary film on the U.S. and the Holocaust produced by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein has many merits. It vividly portrays and personalizes the horrors and inhumanity of the Nazi murder machine, examines the diversity of responses within the United States, and highlights the State Department’s resistance to allowing more Jewish refugees into the country. Inspired by an exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the film reflects the museum’s extraordinary cache of recorded interviews and resources. 

Most importantly, it teaches the right lessons. When asked what she hoped people would gain from viewing the film, Botstein, the child of Jewish refugees on her father’s side, said, “I hope they learn something and have conversations about their role in a democratic society and their responsibilities to fellow human beings. To be kind to your neighbor, to think about what you would do and what you should do when things get hard and complicated. How can we work together?”

Yet I also agree with critic Martin Ostrow, the director of a previous PBS film on America’s response to the Holocaust aired in 1994, that Burns and company treated President Franklin D. Roosevelt with kid gloves. “It’s a shame,” wrote Ostrow, “the series brings nothing new to understanding Roosevelt’s troubling decisions and motivations.” 

To understand the Roosevelt administration’s motivations and actions – or non-actions – one has to examine the U.S. and British policy of appeasement toward fascist states during the 1920s and 1930s. This larger story has been explored by a number of scholars, including Arnold Offner in American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938 (1969), David Schmitz in Thank God They’re on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorship, 1921-1963 (1999), Jacques Pauwels in Big Business and Hitler (2017), and Jonathan Haslam, The Spectre of War: International Communism and the Origins of World War II (2021).

Essentially, the policy of appeasement was based on the view that communism constituted a mortal threat to Western society, whereas fascism was acceptable, if not a positive antidote to communism. Indeed, when Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, U.S. officials welcomed his National Fascist Party as a force for stability and a bulwark against Bolshevism (communism). “In developing American policy,” writes Schmitz, “officials in Washington were mainly influenced by Mussolini’s establishment of a stable, noncommunist government that welcomed American trade and investments.” This view, in turn, “allowed American officials to ignore Mussolini’s brutal repression of all opposition groups, destruction of Italy’s constitutional government, and rule by violence.” 

Conservative British leader Winston Churchill was of a similar mind. Following a meeting with Mussolini in Rome in January 1927, Churchill praised the dictator at a press conference, saying, “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

Mussolini provided the role model for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Upon Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933, the American ambassador to Germany, Frederic Sackett, wrote, “From the standpoint of stable political conditions, it is perhaps well that Hitler is now in a position to wield unprecedented power.” 

In 1937, after more than four years of Nazi dictatorial rule and anti-Jewish policies and propaganda, the U.S. State Department continued to maintain that fascist-type governments were compatible with U.S. interests, free trade, and the international order. A February 1937 report written by the department’s European Division defined fascism as a respectable movement of the propertied classes aimed at defending the existing order and private property against Bolshevism. Where fascism was in power, the authors judged that “it must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle classes, will again turn to the Left.” The goal of the United States, as such, was to ensure that Germany would recover economically. Should the economy falter, they warned, “war is possible, if not probable.”

Some members of the U.S. diplomatic corps pushed in the opposite direction. Most prescient was George Messersmith. He had been in the Foreign Service since 1914 and served as the consul general in Berlin from 1930 to April 1934 before becoming minister to Austria. In March 1934, he strongly advised that the U.S. not renew the major trade agreement with Germany, the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Consular Rights, ratified in 1925, which was due to expire in 1935. 

Messersmith argued that the treaty would only spur German rearmament. He pointed out that the long-range “mail planes” recently purchased by Germany were “easily convertible to bombers.” Contrary to Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s benefic view of international trade, he wrote in May 1934 that “a government with really peaceable intentions does not produce armaments, train its people in military exercises, and create such an extraordinary spirit in the schools, even among the very young.” Rather than build up the German economy, Messersmith hoped that economic instability would bring down the Hitler regime.

Disregarding Messersmith’s pleas, a special State Department committee recommended approval of the trade treaty, noting that trade warfare would mean the loss of nearly one billion dollars in American investments. The U.S. and Germany renewed the treaty in June 1935, which in turn enabled U.S. corporations to trade and invest in Germany without restriction. Messersmith lamented in 1936 that American firms were allowing their capital to be “used for the maintenance of the German industrial program and in some important directions for German rearmament, which is obviously not intended for defensive but for aggressive measures.” American business leaders, he added, “are not blind to all of this.”

U.S. business investments in Germany were substantial when Hitler took over in 1933, and continued to grow thereafter. “Perhaps the Germans could have assembled vehicles and airplanes without American assistance,” writes Pauwels. “But Germany desperately lacked strategic raw materials, such as rubber and oil, which were needed to fight a war predicated on mobility and speed. American corporations came to the rescue.” 

As Nazi repression and militarization proceeded, U.S. corporate leaders faced the choice of whether to continue their operations in Germany or pull up stakes and take a financial loss. Virtually all remained. The reigning philosophy in Corporate America was expressed by Alfred Sloan, Jr., chairman of the General Motors board of directors, in a letter to a stockholder in April 1939: “According to my belief . . . an international business operating throughout the world should conduct its operations in strictly business terms, without regard to the political beliefs of its management, or the political beliefs of the country in which it is operating.”

Ambassador William Dodd in Berlin criticized this economic appeasement. He wrote to President Roosevelt on October 19, 1936: “At the present moment more than a hundred American corporations have subsidiaries here or cooperative understandings. The DuPonts have three allies in Germany that are aiding in the armaments business. Their chief ally is the I. G. Farben Company, a part of the Government which gives 200,000 marks a year to one propaganda operation on American opinion.” Dodd also noted the investments of Standard Oil, International Harvester, and General Motors in German rearmament.

Another mark of appeasement was Roosevelt’s appointment of Hugh R. Wilson to replace Dodd. Ambassador Dodd had been a thorn in the side of the Nazi regime, avoiding Nazi celebratory events and beseeching the Roosevelt administration to protest Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, albeit to no avail. Wilson, during his first meeting with Hitler on March 3, 1938, complimented the dictator as “a man who had pulled his people from moral and economic despair into the state of pride and evident prosperity which they now enjoyed,” according to his own account. Eight days after the meeting, German troops marched into Austria.

U.S. diplomatic and economic appeasement carried over into the muted U.S. responses to Jewish repression as well as the establishment of strict immigration quotas. On June 16, 1933, Roosevelt effectively established his administration’s policy with respect to Jewish persecution in Germany in a missive to Dodd in Berlin: “The German authorities are treating Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a government affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.”

Roosevelt began to have second thoughts about the policy of appeasement in 1937. In February, he questioned a State Department report which concluded that “economic appeasement should prove to be the surest route to world peace.” In May, he wrote in a letter to William Phillips, ambassador to Italy, saying that the “more I study the situation, the more I am convinced that an economic approach to peace is a pretty weak reed for Europe to lean on. It may postpone war but how can it avert war in the long run if the armament process [in Germany] continues at its present pace – or even at a slower pace?”

The U.S. and Great Britain abandoned the policy of appeasement only after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Thereafter the policy became anathema. During the war, the U.S. aligned with the communist Soviet Union and fought against Germany and Italy, thus reversing its prewar orientation. The foreign policy establishment, meanwhile, blamed its abandoned appeasement policy on the antiwar movement rather than its own anti-communist vendetta – which it revived after the war.

“During the Second World War, millions of Americans fought and sacrificed to defeat fascism,” writes Lynn Novick, “but even after we began to understand the scope and scale of what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, our response was inadequate and deeply flawed.” 

Indeed, it was inadequate in a number of dimensions. The Roosevelt administration could have prevented U.S. corporations from aiding the Nazi state, particularly in rearmament. It could have united with the Soviet Union early on in opposing German expansionism. It could have spoken out strongly against Germany’s human rights abuses and opened the doors of immigration wider, even on a temporary basis, fulfilling the promise set in the bronze base of the Statue of Liberty, written by Jewish immigration activist Emma Lazarus in 1883, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Suppressing or Inhibiting Teaching

Suppressing or Inhibiting Teaching

 Cynthia Vitere

I have been teaching history on the secondary and college level for almost thirty years. Much of this time has been spent as a teacher on Long Island, New York where my area of expertise has ranged from contemporary issues and criminal justice to leading the International Baccalaureate program in history in my current district. As a trained historian, educator and administrator I bring all of these mindsets to my curriculum and pedagogy.

In considering the question of how one addresses attempts to suppress or inhibit teaching I believe it is essential to first discuss one’s understanding of the discipline of history, why we teach it and how we teach it. Why do we ask students to take a history course? I believe the most important function of history education is to establish the foundations for informed democratic citizenship. In the primary grades, students develop a narrative of U.S. history and at the secondary level they acquire the tools to examine and critically analyze that narrative. This critically thinking student is empowered and encouraged to then articulate multiple narratives which reflect our pluralistic society. Education is no longer a hierarchical relationship between the teacher and student, but a collaborative relationship where knowledge can be nourished and exercised through regular open discourse.

When I first engage students in my classroom, too many of them assume that history is a set narrative with established facts that must be memorized. Very few students like history. Many adults I meet say they hated history class as children but now appreciate it because they finally see its utility. It is not their fault; as that educational experience is the rule for most of us, rather than the exception. For me, it wasn’t until pursuing my graduate degree in history that I was truly engaged in thinking and acting like a historian. I quickly learned that the historical narratives we tell are governed by time and place, by the perspectives of the historians and their audience, and by the availability of evidence. Historiography, or the study of how history is written, tells us that this process of continuity and change results in fantastic disputes among scholars; disputes that rarely trickle down to the high school classroom. For many, this critical history is not welcome in the classroom because it is perceived as being “too hard” or “too nuanced for the high school student”. Since “that’s not going to be on the test” it is deemed irrelevant, or worse yet, an expression of the teacher’s political agenda.

I do have a point of view. I want my students to take a seat at the historians’ communal roundtable, use the critical thinking skills particular to history, and contest our curriculum. By acknowledging the role of race, gender, class, ethnicity and every other “divisive” lens students confront the fullness of our sometimes painful past and forge a meaningful place for their own individual narrative in our shared story. For much of my career this approach to history education was not controversial but encouraged and valued as an essential component of civics education.

When I first started teaching history I was asked to create and implement a course in Multiculturalism. This course was initiated in response to racial and ethnic tensions in my district. This senior elective was seen as a corrective to those divisions. There was a desire to confront racism, ethnocentrism and sexism head on. While this was a challenging course, I felt fully supported by my administrators to engage my students with challenging readings and to moderate discourse which was frequently impassioned, sometimes tense, but ultimately a source of greater understanding and community building.

Since 9/11 the question about what should be taught in a history classroom became more problematic. With so many of my students’ families directly or indirectly affected by 9/11, history was no longer a distant topic. One had to regularly question how your topics and discussions might upset students or community members. I began to introduce trigger warnings into my practice as a way to acknowledge students’ emotional challenges, sensitively modify my instruction, but not silence necessary discourse.

With the election of President Obama the issue of race became more problematic but not one to be avoided. In my economics and history classes I freely used the PBS program entitled “Race: The power of an Illusion”. This program and its complementary website provided interactive resources which challenged student preconceptions about race and how it has influenced government legislation and programs in the 20th century. Students were challenged to critically examine, discuss and assess the subject matter. Although this curriculum demanded careful implementation, I never felt significantly anxious about the curriculum or my pedagogy. I never experienced any negative feedback or reproach. When I consider using those resources today, a paralyzing doubt stops me. Even though my graduate mentor and acclaimed historian Ira Berlin is a source in the program, the current political educational environment stops me from freely using him. Why? The website explicitly addresses the structural and historical nature of racism. Simply put, I would be targeted as a practitioner of critical race theory and pilloried.

If I were to teach the transformation of my pedagogy I would ask my students to identify a chronology of contributing factors. I would introduce the following: the emergence of Donald Trump as the voice of the Republican Party, the 1619 Project, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Covid-19 Pandemic. When the 1619 Project was published in August of 2019 I was excited by the opportunity to introduce a reframing of American history. The beginning of my year focused on having students examine, discuss and evaluate the use of 1619 and 1776 as the defining dates in our national origin story. Excerpts from Nicole Hannah Jones’s introduction, as well as the rebuttal by Marxist and conservative historians were considered. We replicated the debate that ensued among historians. Students were not insulted, nor did they feel bad about themselves or experience any less pride as Americans. What they did do was engage in a lively critical discussion. With this introductory unit I sought to establish the transitory nature of history and the importance of critical thinking. I was neither worried or challenged by this lesson.

This, of course, is not the world we live in today. As 2019 turned into the presidential election year of 2020, the critical engagement of race became much more politicized. Still, I did not veer away from the lens of race as it is a foundational factor for historical inquiry, especially American history. After four years of the Trump Administration’s attack on evidence-based reasoning, the engagement of history became much more problematic. The normalization of framing evidence that you don’t like as fake by politicians and members of the media on both sides of the political spectrum impacted the classroom. Students would actually respond to historical evidence and claims in class with “fake news” as a silencing response. When silence is the aim, discourse itself is the problem. As a practitioner of critical thinking and discourse, my pedagogy became increasingly problematic. By 2021, I would become a target in our contemporary political culture wars.

As a teacher of the two-year IB History of the Americas curriculum, we examine U.S. history in year one and the emergence and consolidation of 20th century authoritarian regimes in year two. As I was teaching the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s Enabling Act the January 6 insurrection took place. The continuity of this contemporary event and our historical inquiry provided a teachable moment. Students read contemporary German authors’ examination of American events from their unique historical perspective. The narratives were examined, interrogated and disputed. The sources were used to stimulate discussion, not as an equation of Nazi Germany 1931 and the United States 2021. I believed that I had a responsibility to my students to address what was happening around them, but felt that I had to mediate it through the lens of the past. Unfortunately, silence, self-censorship and discomfort became an unwelcome norm. I increasingly incorporated student writing in private blogs so that they could safely and critically engage history and contemporary events. Increasingly, I, too, self-censored in response to my discomfort. In speaking with colleagues both in the United States and on international IB web spaces, the professional fear was palpable. Was it possible to address these momentous events or was it best to safely stick to the proscribed curriculum? While many departments worked collectively to navigate a response, many others avoided discussion and left pedagogic choices to the conscience of individual teachers. In collective avoidance of this thorny issue, many hoped to protect themselves from acrimony.

Ultimately, the practitioner of critical pedagogy will be targeted by those who choose to close the door on the past, no matter how carefully they tread. My public crucible was in response to a lesson which asked students to assess the impact of racism. I did not feel comfortable or safe directly addressing the George Floyd/Derrick Chauvin trial but I did feel a professional responsibility to address the deep threads of racism and division. As a way to displace the dialogue, I focused on student generated claims which judged quantitative analysis to be more objective and useful than qualitative analysis. I asked students to apply these lenses to the impacts of racism. Students did engage in critical discourse, but what I found is that many do not want critical discourse to be taking place in public schools. If we cannot engage in critical discourse then we as educators have lost our most important teaching tool.

In historical retrospect, what have I learned? I would like to say that the experience of having my curriculum and pedagogy subjected to media and community scrutiny and attack would energize my efforts as a democratic educator. The reality is not so heroic. Much like the American Revolution, ⅓ of my professional and personal community supported me, ⅓ actively opposed me and ⅓ avoided me at all costs. This did not surprise me. When nations slide towards authoritarianism, teachers are often the first targets. The public attack on my pedagogy made this slide harder to deny and avoid. It made all teachers the target.

As teachers we are public figures who are under incredible pressure and scrutiny. One can hope to lay low and never make a mistake or misstep. One can stick to the text and avoid anything that hints of controversy, but this is not tenable. I came into education with a toolbox. The tools have evolved over time, but their purpose remains the same. My use of these tools in our current climate is much riskier. My curricular choices are more conservative, I hesitate to bring contemporary documents into our discussions of the past. I speak obliquely and ask neutered questions. To do differently is too charged, too dangerous, and too divisive but I must also acknowledge that there is a point at which I cannot surrender who I am as a critical educator. History itself calls on me to hone my critical pedagogy for these challenging times. The risk of not doing so is too great. The challenge for today’s social studies educators is how to cultivate democratic students in a world that is increasingly opposed to democracy? I do not have a singular answer, but I commit myself to seeking new methods and mediums so that we as social studies educators can reject complicity and collectively facilitate the better angels of our nature.

Apprehensive About Teaching

Apprehensive About Teaching

Adeola Tella-Williams

The attack on Critical Race Theory is creating controversy in education. For the first time in my professional career, I am apprehensive about teaching any subject having to do with race, religion, Blackness, Whiteness and all things cultural. Why? The simple answer lies in the attempted coup of education by some parents over their misunderstanding about Critical Race Theory and conflating it with Culturally Relevant Teaching. IT IS being used as a political ping-pong, mainly by the Republicans to erase parts of American history that mainly deals with the cruelties of slavery and mistreatment of people of color. While apprehensive, I remain true to history and will always teach as I have been doing for the past 20 plus years.

I have been an educator for 21 years. I began my teaching career in East New York, Brooklyn, as a middle school Social Studies teacher at one of the lowest performing schools in New York City. Regardless of the school’s low performance status, my students were some of the smartest and kindest I have ever taught. They were aware of the shortcomings of their reality. They knew the truth and were not afraid to voice their opinions, good, bad or indifferent. It was fun and challenging teaching them, but they took their agency, no one had to give it to them. After a year in Brooklyn, I left in 2000 to teach conversational English in Tokyo, Japan for a half year and returned to East New York for another year. The past two decades, I have been in the Uniondale School District. I took a sabbatical in 2016 to teach in the United Arab Emirates, where I taught Humanities to Arab, continental African, Canadian, South American, and Indian middle school scholars at American International School, Abu Dhabi. This year, I am teaching African and Latinx History to upperclassmen and Global History to 9th graders in Uniondale High School.

In my years as an educator, I have assisted and led many activities and events outside of the classroom; most notably, a student forum on police brutality in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting back in 2014. I also created a girls Rite of Passage program in 2004 at one of the two middle schools in Uniondale. When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I assisted the Uniondale High School in planning a “controversial” inauguration assembly in recognition of the first African American elected President of the United States. The program was considered “controversial” because a number of white teachers objected and boycotted the event.

I have also worked with Dr. Alan Singer, professor at Hofstra University, for many years. I asked him to lead a discussion on the complexities surrounding the Iraq war back in 2003 to my middle schoolers and he was the keynote speaker for a forum held between two racially segregated communities, Oceanside and Uniondale. We discussed police brutality and other racially charged issues on Long Island in 2015. The discussion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destructive also produced heated faculty blowback.

I have immersed myself in “controversial,” or as I would prefer to call them, “contemporary issues” my entire career. I am finding that in this day and age, the topics I chose to cover back then would be considered blasphemy today. For example, Bridges was created to foster empathy, and collaboration amongst White, Black and Hispanic students who live in neighboring communities, attend different schools, and have little contact with each other. It is the goal of the program to engage students in the evaluation of contemporary issues related to race, economics, and politics that will lead to well-rounded, active, and engaged citizens. In Bridges, difficult conversations are encouraged and the asking of challenging questions is nurtured. Divergent points of views are not shunned with the understanding that students can agree to disagree with civility. In this program we have discussed the January 6th insurrection, the legacy of segregation on Black and Brown communities, cross-cultural experiences of Black and White students, and other contemporary issues that would make those who dislike Critical Race Theory very uncomfortable.

Back in 2014, when I decided to do the forum about police brutality in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting with my Participation and Government scholars, I did not think of the backlash or its “controversial” nature. I thought about the hopelessness I saw in my students that September. They looked at me as just another teacher. It was as if they gave up on learning and embraced the Read, Answer Questions, Pass a Test and Repeat pedagogical style. But, little did they know, I was not that teacher, I have never been that teacher. Recognizing this hopelessness in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting prompted me to change the way I would teach this course. As it was my first time teaching the course, I wanted to make it real for the students. After all, it’s a “Participation” in Government class. I took that term “participation” literally and decided they would be active, as opposed to passively learning in this course. Therefore, learning through doing became one of the goals. Their hopelessness from my perspective was due to the way the year began, with the shooting coupled with normal senioritis and a genuine boredom for all things related to school. Therefore, empowering their voices became my mission, and so I challenged them to put on a forum on police brutality. After all, our early ancestors, who created great civilizations in Africa, Greece, Rome and the Americas, held forums to gauge the feelings of their subjects on controversial issues. Furthermore, forums give voice to the voiceless and empower citizens to take further action. To me this is how a democratic society prospers; it actively engages young people early on.

Gone are the days of sitting in the class and taking notes on how great democracy is when in reality my students were not having, or seeing, that same example in their day-to-day lives. In their world, fairness was a fairytale. To them education was boring and they were tired and ready to graduate and join the rest of humanity in the rat race called life. However, I refused to let them leave in this manner. I was, and am, still very idealistic and optimistic about education and what it can do for young people charged with taking over, ready or not. Nonetheless, I charged them with putting on a school-wide forum on police brutality. They were very reluctant at first, as they were not used to being placed in leadership positions. But I assured them that the worst that can happen is the principal says no and then they don’t have the forum, but they had to ask first. They asked and to their surprise, not mine, the principal agreed. My principal at the time, was very supportive of student engagement. Having a strong principal makes a world of difference for a teacher like me. She was not afraid to support any program or event that gave students a voice. Again, as their teacher, my concern was not the backlash. My goals were to help them love learning, give them agency and have them practice their voice.

In preparation for the forum, they researched about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of police brutality in America. I felt they needed to see the trend, be informed, and be armed with solid information when they spoke in front of their peers. I wanted them to be confident when they took to the stage. I wanted them to lead. Many scholars are not given the tools to be leaders in real world scenarios. It was important to me to have these non-AP scholars lead an academic forum in front of their peers who only saw them in non-academic settings. These were scholars that always got in trouble; they were not jocks or honor students, just “regular,” sometimes forgotten people. I wanted them to be heard and seen, as they have something to say and lots to give.

All of the above were also my goals in starting the Rite of Passage program. These were also my goals when I decided to be the first advisor of the Bridges High School program. I believe giving scholars the opportunity to lead and participate in real world scenarios makes education palatable – it makes it real. As with science and math, many scholars ask, “When will I need this in real life?” Some teachers are able to show the why and some aren’t. These days however, STEAM and STEM have become the norm. As a history teacher, Historical and Civic Literacy is just as important as STEAM and STEM to me. Making space for these contemporary issues gives students agency and time to hone their Social Studies skills of argumentation, observation, listening, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing and application.

When I started the Rite of Passage program some ten years ago in my district, it was to help girls of color, especially darker hue girls, accept themselves in a world that constantly ignores them. Another goal was to help girls get along better, to learn how to respect each other despite their difference in hair texture, complexion or whatever else distract girls from being their best. While I did not see this program as controversial, today it seems as though it is. With the Crown Act being passed in California and other states, African textured hair seems to be a problem in the workplace and in schools. Girls of color are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school, starting in pre-school. Programs like the Rite of Passage aim to reveal the controversial issues that plague Black girls. Many of the girls I had in the program have since graduated college and are well into their careers. I have received Facebook posts and text messages from them referencing our time together and how impactful those times had on them then and now.

Simply put, I am an educator who does not shy away from contemporary topics or historical controversies in and out of the classroom. My goal has always been to make sure scholars love learning and intrinsically love the art of learning about themselves, within the context of mirrors, windows, and glass sliding doors. I also aim to instill the love of learning in order to help them make their communities a place they are proud of and value. My upbringing in a Jamaican-Nigerian household has strongly shaped my approach as an educator. I also received these messages from my upbringing in my African American community after moving to the United States in 1987 from Nigeria.

Curriculum focused on Culturally Relevant Teaching is under attack and it is being interwoven in the debate about Critical Race Theory. While some elements of culture are in Critical Race Theory, the philosophy was not intended for K-12 education. When parents fail to understand the importance of creating safe spaces for scholars to speak about controversial issues or contemporary issues, it marginalizes young people of color. For instance, White teachers make up 79% of the teaching staff across America, and Black and Hispanic teachers make up less than 5% of the teaching staff in predominantly white schools. Where is the diversity of thought when scholars graduate from high school? How are students of color being taught, let alone having their issues addressed in forums or in the classroom? When does a white child meet or interact with a Black or Brown teacher? These are questions that need to be raised in education. But how can we discuss these and other topics when Critical Race Theory is being conflated with Culturally Relevant Teaching and anything having to do with race or culture is seen as divisive rather than an integral part of progress? School is the place to teach and grapple with controversial topics in a responsible way, of course. The attacks on Critical Race Theory and Culturally Relevant Teaching are making it harder to teach controversial topics in history as well as put on programs about contemporary issues as I have done in the past, creating a tense environment to discuss these topics freely and responsibly. I am afraid educators like me will continue to be apprehensive about teaching subjects having to do with race or spear head programs that raise contemporary issues. I am afraid that the attack on CRT will take over education and take us back to a time when teachers wrote notes on the board, students copied, memorized information, did not or could not ask questions, took a test, barely passed and moved on to the next grade anyway. This type of “teaching” has not been productive, especially in Black and Brown school districts. As a result of this style of pedagogy, if you can call it that, our Black and Brown scholars have been mislabeled, wrongly disciplined and have been marginalized from the curriculum. Really, they are just bored and uninterested in an education that fails to recognize them. As educators we have a responsibility to speak up and not allow the attack on Critical Race Theory to lead us back to the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s when schools did not address the academic needs of Black and Brown students, but instead disproportionately placed them in SPED classes and suspended them in droves, creating the school-to-prison pipeline that so many in education reference today. All students really need is a true education.

The Nazi in the Classroom

The Nazi in the Classroom

Gary Ostrower

(Reprinted with permission from History News Network)

Three days after World War II began, as Nazi troops stormed into Poland, Ohio-born Edward Vieth Sittler (1916-1975), a 23-year-old study-abroad student in Germany, applied for German citizenship. Not only did he become a German citizen; he renounced his American citizenship, became a member of the Nazi Party, and then broadcasted Hitler’s propaganda to American troops in Europe. 

What kind of propaganda? Among other things, he had denounced FDR as a traitor, called for his impeachment, denounced Jews as war profiteers, and predicted that the US would suffer defeat and partition unless it surrendered. Sittler had company. A number of other Americans also served Hitler, including the notorious Axis Sally. After VE-Day, they were arrested by the American military. The Department of Justice charged all but one with treason; the one was Edward Sittler.

Why not Sittler? Because he was no longer a U.S. citizen and only citizens can commit treason.

Sittler soon returned to the United States. Odd that he would be invited back, but the Department of Justice wanted him to testify against the others. He did, sort of. He testified for both the prosecution and the defense. He also used the technicalities of American immigration law to remain in the U.S., perhaps aided by his anti-communism during the 1950s. During that decade, he taught at a number of small colleges including Shurtleff College in Illinois, Thiel in Pennsylvania, Alfred University in western NY, and in 1959, C.W. Post College on Long Island (part of Long Island University today). 

In December 1959 an enterprising reporter for the Long Island Daily Press discovered that he had a Nazi past, the story went national. Protests from veterans’ groups and Jewish organizations flooded into the CW Post president’s office. The college allowed him to “resign.” But Sittler wasn’t about to fade away. He initiated efforts to regain his American citizenship. The Immigration and Naturalization Service investigated him. It recommended against granting him citizenship. Was this proper? Immigration law states that citizenship shall be conferred if an applicant has shown “good moral character” and attachment “to the principles of the Constitution” and has been “well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States” for five years preceding his or her application. Sittler argued that he met this requirement, and nothing suggests otherwise. But when Sittler went to Federal Court to reverse the verdict of the Immigration Service, the highly respected Judge Lloyd McMahon of the US District Court in New York rejected his petition. The judge wrote in a blistering opinion that Sittler’s testimony to the Immigration Service was riddled with “distortions, half-truths, incomplete answers, misleading responses, evasion, [and] concealment” so that “the court can give it no credence whatever.” 

In fact, Sittler claimed that he had simultaneously been loyal to both U.S. constitutional principles and to Nazi Germany. What the judge understood, but Sittler did not, is that he could indeed be loyal to the Constitution or to Nazi ideology, but not to both at the same time. Sittler then appealed to the second highest court in the land, the U.S. Court of Appeals. Same result. He didn’t help himself by asserting that that he had believed stories about Nazi persecution of Jews were just communist propaganda.

One other corner of this story bears mention. Sittler had told C.W. Post’s Dean L. Gordon Hoxie before he was hired about his Nazi past. Then why hire him in the first place? The college president, “The Admiral” Richard L. Conolly, later explained that everyone has the right to “repent [and] mend his ways.” Only after publicity about Sittler threatened to embarrass the college — and President Conolly – did CW Post demand his resignation. 

And then we have the matter of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) strongly criticized CW Post because Sittler had not been granted a hearing before the college cut ties with him. The fact that Sittler had agreed in advance to resign if his Nazi background became a problem was considered irrelevant. To the AAUP, the college had violated his “due process” rights. The AAUP viewed this as abridging the principle of academic freedom.

Was Sittler still a Nazi at heart after he returned to the US in 1946? The answer remains murky. Apparently, nothing he did at any of the colleges where he taught revealed Nazi sympathies. Even Jewish students found him unobjectionable. Did he lie when he applied for naturalization? Sure, for he undoubtedly knew that telling “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” would doom his application. Today, his case is forgotten. It shouldn’t be. It raises questions that are still relevant about the law of treason, of citizenship, and about the meaning and limits of academic freedom.[1]

Twists and Turns in the Sittler Saga as Reported in the New York Times

Questions to Consider

  1. Why was Sittler originally permitted to return to the United States?
  2. Why wasn’t Sittler prosecuted for treason?
  3. Should Sittler have been allowed to teach in the United States?
  4. Should Sittler’s United States citizenship have been restored?
  5. Did U.S. officials act responsibly in their treatment of Sittler?
Treason Case Jury to Hear 3 Germans, Will Testify in Capital as U.S. Moves to Reindict Chandler, Best for Nazi Broadcasts New York Times, October 19, 1946    Three Germans will arrive in about a week to testify before a Federal Grand Jury in the cases of Robert Best and Douglas Chandler, American citizens who are charged with broadcasting Nazi propaganda directed against this country from a Berlin radio station. The Justice Department also stated today that new indictments would be sought against the two men, who with six other persons were indicted three years ago for treason in their broadcasts. Under present plans, the Department expects to bring Best and Chandler to trial sometime in November. They will be flown to this country from an Army prison camp at Obresul, Germany. The Germans are Karl Linnard Schotte, an actor and employee of the German broadcasting system in the American Occupation Zone; Edward Vieth Sittler, a singer born in this country, but who has renounced his citizenship, and Margaret Eggers of Hamburg, now an employee of the British Military Government. They will presumably testify to having seen or known that the broadcasts were made by the prisoners. In treason cases, the Government must present two witnesses to an overt act.
Chandler Accused by ‘Best Friend,’ He Testifies that he Watched U.S. Writer Broadcast Propaganda for Nazis New York Times, June 14, 1947          That he had seen Douglas Chandler, American writer on trial here in Federal Court here on charges of treason, speaking into the microphone of the German Broadcasting Corporation was testified today by Edward Veith Sittler, American-born German naturalized Nazi. By his and Chandler’s own statements, Sittler was Chandler’s best friend in Berlin. This did not keep Sittler, born in Baltimore and initiated as a member of Hitler’s party in 1940, from testifying against Chandler on fifteen counts which the Government contends were “overt.” Two persons must provide direct testimony against any person charged with treason if he is to be sentenced to the ultimate penalty – death – or for imprisonment for treason. This was repeatedly emphasized to the jury by the presiding judge as phonograph records bearing what was testified to be Chandler’s voice condemning “the Jews” and warning of the “menace of communism” were played in court. Sittler testified today that his wife, Margaret, was with him on most of the occasions when he observed Chandler’s activities directly. It was thought, therefore, that she would be the second eyewitness. The Sittlers have four children who were brought to this country with him for the trial.
Hopes to Fight Deportation New York Times, February 16, 1950 Edward V. Sittler, former college professor, and admitted wartime Nazi, said today he would fight deportation to Germany if he could raise the money. Told that the Government had ordered him deported, the former professor at Michigan College of Mining and Technology said he would appeal “if at all possible.”
Sittler Appeals Deportation New York Times, December 22, 1950 Edward V. Sittler, former Michigan college teacher who worked for the Nazis in World War II, today appealed from a Nov. 29 deportation order. Mr. Sittler, a native American, went to Germany in 1939, became a German citizen and worked for the Nazi radio. He was brought to tis country by the Justice Department in 1946 to testify in treason trials. He got teaching jobs at Northwestern University and the Michigan College he of Mining and technology.
School to Review Hiring of Ex-Nazi, Post College staff Meets Today on Case of Teacher Who Broadcast in War By Roy R Silver, New York Times, December 15, 1959 Officials of C.W. Post College will meet with the faculty here tomorrow to review the college’s appointment of a former Nazi-party member. Admiral Richard L. Coolly, retired, president of Long Island University, Post College’s parent school, said today that the meeting would cover particulars on the appointment of Dr. Edward V. Sittler as Associate Professor of English and Modern Languages. Dr. Sittler, a 43-year-old native of Delaware, Ohio, has been attacked as having renounced his American citizenship in 1939 propaganda during World War II. The attacks, made in anonymous letters to the college, also said Dr. Sittler has been dismissed from two teaching positions because of his past activities. Dr. Sittler said he had been a news commentator and not a political analyst. He said he had “tried to be as factual as I could.” “I don’t think I ever broadcast deliberately and false information,” Dr. Sittler said. Dean R. Gordon Hoxie of Post College and Admiral Conolly said that Dr. Sittler’s background had been thoroughly investigated before he had been named to the faculty in September. Dr. Sittler said that he had gone to Germany to study in 1937. Two years later he renounced his American citizenship and became a citizen of Germany, where he became a civilian employee of the radio office. He was returned to this country in 1946 as a German national to testify in the treason trial of two Americans who had broadcast for the Nazis. No charge was made against Dr. Sittler. Dr. Sittler was dismissed from Northwestern University, from which he had received his Ph.D., and the Michigan Institute of Mining and Technology. Since then, he said, he has worked at odd jobs and taught at four small colleges. His last employment before Post was at Alfred College, Alfred, N.Y.
Post Faculty Backs Hiring of an Ex-Nazi New York Times, December 16, 1959 The faculty of C. W. Post College in Brookville, L. I. endorsed yesterday the college’s hiring of Dr. Edward V. Sittler, a former Nazi party member. Meanwhile Senator Jacob K. Javits, Assemblyman Alfred Lerner of Jamaica, Queens, and six veterans’ organizations demanded a Federal investigation of the appointment. Admiral Richard L. Connolly, retired, the president of Long Island University, Post College’s parent school, said in a statement that “there was no evidence of sedition or sub version against the United States involved.” Senator Javits has requested details from the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Dr. Sittler’s entry into this country as an immigrant from Cuba in 1954. Meanwhile, the Civil Liberties Union said a teacher should be judged on his competence, not on his political associations.
Former Nazi Voluntarily Quits as a Professor at College on L. I., Dr. Sittler Resigns to Avoid Embarrassing C. W. Post, L. I. U. Chief Says New York Times, December 17, 1959 Dr. Edward V. Sittler, a former Nazi party member, resigned from the faculty of C. W. Post College here today. In announcing the resignation, which had not been requested, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, retired, the president of Long Island University, said: “In order to relieve the college and the university of embarrassment incidental to the recent publicity concerning his case, Dr. Sittler has tendered his resignation as a member of the faculty of the college. “This action came at a time when I was engaged in restudying his suitability as a faculty member. I have accepted his resignation. “I want to make it perfectly clear that in defending Dr. Sittler the university in no sense had any sympathy for his former Nazi viewpoint, but was concerned only for his rights as an individual and member of an academic faculty.” Dr. Sittler had been hired in September by C. W. Post College, a branch of Long Island University, for a one-year term as associate professor of English and modern languages.
Ohioan Explains Work for Nazis, Ex-Professor, in Citizenship Bid, Says He Was Misled on Trip to Germany New York Times, March 30, 1960 An Ohio-born broadcaster for Nazi Germany who is seeking to recover his American citizenship offered his explanation yesterday for renouncing it in Berlin in the spring of 1940. Dr. Edward V. Sittler, the appellant, resigned from the faculty of C. W. Post College of Long Island University last December when his past came under attack. He testified at a hearing on his petition at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 20 West Broadway. He said he applied for German citizenship in the fall of 1939 because he thought Germany was “up against a crucial test” with enemies in Europe and “needed a helping hand.” He said that on receiving his certificate of German nationality he notified the American Embassy in Berlin that he was giving up American citizenship. He said he had scarcely imagined that Germany might later be at war with the United States. Dr. Sittler said he was drafted briefly into the German army, but was deferred against his wishes and returned to his former duties. He was a translator and later an announcer and commentator for the “U.S.A. Zone” of the Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft, the German state broadcasting corporation in Berlin. He emphasized the immaturity and the superficiality of his political understanding when he went to Germany at the age of 21 in 1937 to study German with a view to teaching comparative literature. He acknowledged joining the Nazi party in 1942 or 1943. His present view, he said, is that “the only genuine security lies in a constitution and a legal system.”
Nazis’ Radio Aide Cites his Naivete, Disbelieved Wartime Report of Death Camps, Sittler Tells Inquiry Here New York Times, March 31, 1960                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Dr. Edward V. Sittler, who became a German citizen and broadcast over the Nazi radio in World War II, said yesterday that during the war he had heard only one report of extermination camps. “I thought it was incredible,” he told a preliminary hearing at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 20 West Broadway, on his petition to regain the citizenship he renounced in 1940. He said the report came in 1943 from Gerhardt Wagner, his immediate superior in the Berlin broadcasts beamed to the United States. He said Wagner had heard on a trip to northern Poland and Lithuania that German Jews ostensibly sent there for resettlement were actually being put to death. Dr. Sittler later testified that he had suggested that Wagner be investigated “to see if he was a Communist agent.” He told also of his wartime friendship with and assistance to Douglas Chandler, an American-born broadcaster for the Germans who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the United States. Mitchel Levitas, reporter for The New York Post, testified under subpoena to the accuracy of quotations in an account he and Ted Poston of the same paper published Dec. 15 following an interview with Dr. Sittler. These included statements by Dr. Sittler that Hitler had the good of his country at heart, that Hitler and National Socialism were a tragic and disgraceful chapter in many respects, and that the influence of the Jewish community on President Roosevelt was one of the prime reasons the United States had become involved in World War II. Dr. Sittler, under questioning by his attorney, William Stringfellow, acknowledged “errors” in his past, then said, “I look on America as my home and want to re-establish my citizenship with it.”
Sittler Loses Citizenship Plea; His Activities as Nazi are Cited, Examiner Rules He Does Not Deserve to Regain His Rights as American New York Times, September 2, 1960 Dr. Edward V. Sittler’s plea for the restoration of his United States citizenship should be denied, an examiner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service recommended yesterday. Dr. Sittler, a 44-year old native of Delaware, Ohio, lost his citizenship in 1940 when he became a German citizen. During World War II he was a radio broadcaster for the Nazis. The examiner, William J. Kenville, said the applicant’s wartime conduct, including membership in the Nazi party, “must be regarded as indicative of an utter and complete lack of faith in the democratic way of life under which he had been reared in the United States, and of completely embracing the diametrically opposed totalitarian form of government then existing in Nazi Germany.” Mr. Kenville also reported that Dr. Sittler’s testimony was “not at all convincing that he has changed his mind or altered his philosophy since 1945.”  

Citizenship Plea Lost by Ex-Nazi, Ban on Renaturalization of Sittler is Upheld By Edward Ranzal, New York Times, April 13, 1963. The United States Court of Appeals refused yesterday to restore citizenship to an American who became a Nazi propaganda broadcaster in Germany during World War II. The judges were divided 2 to 1. The 47-year old American, Edward Vieth Sittler, became a German citizen in 1940, but returned here after the war and sought to regain his American citizenship. Since his return he has been a professor or instructor in various colleges and universities in this country. In each instance he lost his position when it was learned that he had been a Nazi. Sittler, who has five children – two born here and three in Germany — is residing with his family in West Germany, according to Roy S. Babitt, assistant United States Attorney.

[1] Note from Gary B. Ostrower: I was a student at Alfred University when Sittler taught here in 1958-59. My roommate, a Jewish student from Yonkers, was a student in a German class that Sittler taught. I know even today a number of people—former colleagues and neighbors—who knew and continue to think highly of Sittler. I think it is fair to say that we all were stunned when news broke in 1959 about Sittler’s Nazi past.

New York Local History: Yonkers Sculpture Garden

New York Local History: Yonkers Sculpture Garden

For Juneteenth 2022, the City of Yonkers debuted a permanent art exhibit honoring the legacy of the nation’s first freed slaves. The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden includes five life-size bronze sculptures created by artist Vinnie Bagwell depicting formerly enslaved Africans. The sculpture garden is located along the Yonkers Hudson River esplanade. According to Bagwell, “Public art sends a message about the values and priorities of a community. In the spirit of transformative justice for acts against the humanity of black people, I am grateful for those who supported this collective effort. The strongest aspect of the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden coming to fruition is that it begins to address the righting of so many wrongs by giving voice to the previously unheard via accessible art in a public place while connecting the goals of artistic and cultural opportunities to improving educational opportunities and economic development.”

In Yonkers, Philipse Manor Hall was the seat of the Philipsburg Manor, a colonial estate that covered more than 52,000 acres of Westchester land. The Philipse family was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and probably as many as two-dozen enslaved African slaves worked and lived at the manor. The enslaved Africans were freed in 1799, one of the first large emancipations in the United States. New York State finally ended slavery in 1827.

New York Local History: Underground Railroad in the North Country

New York Local History: Underground Railroad in the North Country

Source: North Country Public Radio

A few minutes outside the small town of Peru in New York’s Champlain Valley, there is a small farm that looks like any other in the area. A cluster of silos and red barns with fading paint are flanked by snow-covered fields and apple orchards, dormant for the winter. But this farm has something unique. A blue and yellow New York State historical marker identifies the property as a stop on the Underground Railroad, where “runaway slaves were concealed and protected on their way to freedom in Canada.”

There was no actual train involved in the network, explains Jacqueline Madison, the President of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association. “It was a trail of conductors who helped them along the way [and] safe houses where they could stay,” she notes.

Communities from Watertown to Lake Champlain were part of that network of safe houses that helped people escape slavery in the American south during the decades leading up to the Civil War. Escapees typically traveled by foot or water. The railroad moniker was part of a secret code: safe places to stay were called stations and the owners of those properties were known as conductors. A full journey on the Underground Railroad typically took several months.

This is the history that Madison and the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association are dedicated to preserving. The group operates a museum in Keeseville, in the Champlain Valley south of Plattsburgh. It features the stories from both sides of the Underground Railroad: Black passengers and white conductors. One exhibit is dedicated to the former owner of that historic Peru farmhouse, a man named Stephen Keese Smith. The abolitionist Quaker purchased the property in 1851 and quickly established one of the barns as a hiding place for runaway slaves headed to Canada. There is no way to know with certainty exactly how many people Keese Smith aided while working as a conductor. But his later writings provide an estimate. “He talked about helping people get to freedom and he thinks he spent about $1000 doing that,” Madison explained. “And if we spent $2.50 per person, he would have helped over 400 people.”

Exact numbers are nearly impossible to come by in historical records because those helping escaped slaves often avoided keeping a paper trail. Involvement in the Underground Railroad was extremely dangerous for everyone, black or white. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that escaped slaves be returned to their former owners – and carried stiff penalties for anyone who aided them. “If you were caught helping someone get to freedom,” Madison noted, “you could lose your property, you could be jailed, you could be fined. Terrible things could happen to you, your family, and friends if they suspected them of helping as well.”

The North Star Underground Railroad Museum fills up the bottom floor of an old 19th Century house. It’s packed with maps, faded newspaper articles, and portraits of notable members of the North Country section of the covert network. Standing before a map, Madison explains the various routes freedom-seekers would have followed to reach Canada. A western path originating in Pennsylvania went through Buffalo, up to Watertown, and crossed the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg. Two escape routes followed Lake Champlain: one through Vermont and another running from Albany to Rouse’s Point along the lake’s western shore. To find their way, escapees used folk songs learned on the southern plantations. They worked as a kind of secret oral map; with coded lyrics guiding freedom seekers on their journey north. One such tune called Follow the Drinking Gourd referenced landmarks like certain rivers and offered hints for how to identify friendly conductors. Drinking gourd was code for the Big Dipper – a celestial constellation that can be used to identify the North Star.

Although details can be hard to piece together, some stories of those who passed through the North Country to freedom have been recovered. An article written in 1837 by Vermont-born abolitionist Alvan Stewart for an anti-slavery newspaper recounts the story of an anonymous man who travelled through the North Country on his way to Canada. “I was headed to Ogdensburg, on my way north to Canada from South Carolina,” an actor declares in a re-enactment exhibit at the North Star Museum. “I had come up through the Champlain Canal, and then gone through Clinton and Franklin County.” That unknown man did eventually reach freedom north of the border, but his quest nearly ended in disaster just a few miles from his destination.

Outside of Ogdensburg, he stopped into a post office looking for work. Since New York had outlawed slavery in 1827, that would not necessarily have been out of place. However, slave owners offered rich rewards for the return for those who escaped, and slave catchers were permitted to operate even in anti-slavery states under the Fugitive Slave Act. When the anonymous freedom seeker entered the post office near Ogdensburg, the postmaster recognized him and explained that a reward for his capture had been posted. “I said to him, if you send me back then they’ll do terrible things to me,” the re-enactment continues. “Whip me. Hang me. Skin me alive. I begged him not to turn me in.” In this case, the postmaster ignored the reward, worth about $20,000 in today’s terms, and helped the man cross the St. Lawrence River into Canada.

Other escaped slaves decided to settle in North Country. In 1840, a Franklin County landowner named Gerrit Smith pledged to donate more than 120,000 acres of wilderness land in the Adirondacks to free black men. It would eventually become a settlement known as Timbuctoo. A man named John Thomas received 40 acres of un-cleared land from Smith. Thomas later sold that to buy a larger plot near Bloomingdale, NY, which he turned into a successful farm. Many years later, Thomas wrote his benefactor a letter, thanking Smith for the “generous donation” and revealing that he and his family greatly enjoyed the peace and prosperity of their “rural home.” Although Thomas was successfully established himself in the region, that was not the case for most recipients of Smith’s land. Harsh winters and tough soil drove many of the Black farmers to sell the land they had received and move away. The climate was not the only danger; at least once, slave catchers came to the area looking for Thomas. According to Madison, they first approached his neighbors seeking their help. As Madison tells it, Thomas’ neighbors informed the slave catchers that he was armed, would forcibly resist capture, and declared their intention to assist Thomas in repelling the catchers. The slave catchers are believed to have given up their pursuit.

In his later letter to Smith, Thomas hinted that his adopted community had begun to treat him as one of their own. “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition until I began to be regarded as an American citizen,” he wrote. This may also be a reference to civic participation. At the time, New York State required men to own at least $250 worth of land to obtain the right to vote. Thomas’ obituary was published in the Malone Palladium in May 1895. It described him as “much respected in the community where he lived so long.” His descendants still live in that community. Through genealogy research, Madison and the North Star Museum discovered that two of John Thomas’ great-great grandsons still reside in the North Country. One of the descendants lives less than two miles from the cemetery in Vermontville where Thomas and his wife are buried.