Keeping History Current

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     In an editorial for the Washington Post published earlier this week former First Lady Laura Bush compared images of children being separated from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security to scenes from the home front during World War II: “These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” Her reference reiterates the importance of helping our students to understand historical time and place. As we witness the public outcry over the current administration’s policies towards families seeking to enter the United States, it is a meaningful moment to consider ways in which we can connect students’ thinking about current events to the historical eras we cover in class. Engaging them in discussion of public opinion, past and present, is a great way to stimulate conversation. Here are just a few examples of ways in which the home front of the World War II era offers fruitful connections to current events.  

National Interests versus Human Rights

Ask students to think about the United States’ role as a world leader and military power during the Second World War: did our leadership require that our nation hold itself to a higher standard of morals? What responsibility did our leaders have to the nation’s citizens and did that responsibility eclipse responsibilities to the men and women of other nations? How did economic debates factor into political decisions? Ask students to apply those same questions to modern-day political issues.  

Students can think about these questions through the historical lens of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and through the contemporary example of how the United States is responding to refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged nations. On the web, ask students to visit The Jewish Virtual Library to learn about the Wagner-Rogers Bill. The excellent, though somewhat dated, PBS series The Great Depression (see Episode 6 “To Be Somebody”) contains a short segment on how public opinion influenced President Roosevelt’s decision to not support an expanded refugee program in 1939, which can easily be shared in class through YouTube.


The debate over immigration will likely continue to rage into the fall semester. Ask students to think about how their opinions are being shaped by both the news media and the government. What sources do they find credible? How might they seek out additional sources to challenge their long-held beliefs?

Milton Eisenhower, head of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), narrated the short-film “Japanese Relocation” which was presented to the public in 1943 to explain internment. I use this 9 minute piece as a staple of my discussion of World War II. Eisenhower offered viewers a succinct explanation for government policy broadcast over images of relocation in progess. As they watch, ask students to weigh the pros/cons of Eisenhower’s argument. Today’s students --  comfortable with questioning government policies and pronouncements -- are able to poke holes into Eisenhower’s justification of Executive Order 9066 with surprisingly little background information. My students have expressed particular interest in Eisenhower’s argument that the US Government was “protecting” those of Japanese descent. Use this short film in conjunction with the National Archives site “Japanese Relocation and Internment” which provides images and lesson plans.

Political Cartoons

In virtually every print or web-based news source today we can find visual analysis of current events.  “Daily Cartoon” (New Yorker) and are good places to start for opposing (liberal v. conservative) viewpoints. Most daily newspapers contain at least one editorial cartoon. Ask students to bring cartoons of interest to class and allocate the first five minutes to sharing.

My students have enthusiastically studied the World War II-era cartoons of Theodore Geisel (aka, Dr. Seuss) using the web collection Dr. Seuss Went to War  (University of California at San Diego). The site is indexed both chronologically and thematically making it accessible for discussion of nearly any topic for the period 1941 to 1943. Ask students to consider Geisel’s depictions of the Japanese versus those of Germans and Italians. How do modern-day cartoonists depict people of color or people who are not American?

These are just a few ideas I’ve been thinking about as I watched and read the news over the past week. If you have additional ideas to link current events to any historical era or topic, please share!

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.