Don't Know Much

Dictators and Democracy: A Don’t Know Much About® Audio Minute

More than two thousand years ago, some Greek men gathered on a hill in Athens, raised their hands, and changed the world. 

Listen to a quick history of “people power” and the threat posed to democracy by a Strongman.

 

 

Read more in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy

STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy

The latest: Strongman named among Washington Post Best Books of 2020
A *Starred Review from Publishers Weekly
“A fascinating, highly readable portrayal of infamous men that provides urgent lessons for democracy now.”
A *Starred review from Kirkus Reviews says:

“History’s warnings reverberate in this gripping read about five dictatorial strongmen. This complex yet accessible title examines the lives and deeds of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein….

A pitch-perfect balance of nuanced reflection and dire warning.”

Read the full review here

In a new *Starred Review, Shelf Awareness says:
“Kenneth C. Davis (Don’t Know Much About series) conveys his plentiful knowledge of dictators in this powerful, spine-tingling biographic work that covers five of the world’s most horrifying autocrats. Grounded in thorough research, Strongman expertly explores the fragility of democracy through the devastating reigns of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein.”

 

STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy published on October 6, 2020.

This is the story of the rise to power of five of the most deadly dictators of the 20th century — Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein.

A review in Booklist says, “Davis does not sugarcoat his material, inviting long thoughts with his assertion that this is a decidedly human story that points to real people as evidence that evil exists in this troubled world.” 

Full review here.

In addition to telling how these men took unlimited power, brought one-party rule to their nations, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people, the book offers a brief history of Democracy and discusses the present threat to democratic institutions around the world.

In a time when Democracy is under assault across the globe, it is more important than ever to understand how a Strongman takes power and how quickly democracy can vanish –even as millions cheer its death.

Order the hardcover and e-book from Holt Books.

An audiobook is available from Penguin Random House.

 

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR STRONGMAN

“I found myself engrossed in it from beginning to end. I could not help admiring Davis’s ability to explain complex ideas in readable prose that never once discounted the intelligence of young readers. It is very much a book for our time.”

Sam Wineburg,  Margaret Jacks Professor of Education & History, Stanford University, author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).

Strongman is a book that is both deeply researched and deeply felt, both an alarming warning and a galvanizing call to action, both daunting and necessary to read and discuss.”

Cynthia Levinson, author of Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today

  “A wake-up call to democracies like ours: we are not immune to despots . . .  Strongman demonstrates that democracy is not permanent, unless it is collectively upheld. This book shakes that immortality narrative.”

Jessica Ellison, President of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies; Teacher Education Specialist, Minnesota Historical Society

Rarely does a history book take such an unflinching look at our common future, where the very presence of democracy is less than certain; even rarer is a history book in which the author’s moral convictions incite young readers to civic engagement; rarest of all, a history book as urgent, as impassioned, and as timely as Kenneth C. Davis’ Strongman.    

Eugene Yelchin, author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose.

 

NEWS of STRONGMAN – This book is a selection of the Junior Library Guild.

 

 

 

Book Excerpt- “Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy”

Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires work, participation, and sometimes sacrifice. And it can be very fragile.

 

 

 

SE-Oct-2020-Davis-FIN

 

This is an excerpt from my new book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, published in the October issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).

Learn more about the book, published on October 6, 2020, here

 

 

You can also listen to a sample of the audiobook version here.

Four Reasons Why Incumbents Fail to Win a Second Term

What can the past tell us about 2020?

What keeps single-term Presidents from earning a second term?

Here are America’s twelve single-term Presidents. The list leaves out the eight men who died in office, and the five Presidents (see Note below) who only served out the term of a deceased –in one case, resigned— predecessor and were not reelected in their own right,

2d John Adams (Not reelected)
6th John Quincy Adams (Not reelected)
8th Martin Van Buren (Not reelected)
11th James Knox Polk (Pledged to serve a single term and did not seek a second term)
14th Franklin Pierce (Denied nomination)
15th James Buchanan (Did not seek a second term)
19th Rutherford B. Hayes (Pledged to serve a single term)
23rd Benjamin Harrison (Not reelected)
27th William Howard Taft (Not reelected)
31st Herbert Hoover (Not reelected)
39th Jimmy Carter (Not reelected)
41st George H.W. Bush (Not reelected)

Grover Cleveland deserves a footnote here. The 22nd President was elected in 1884 and then defeated in a controversial election, despite winning the popular vote in 1888. But he won again in 1892 and returned to the White House in 1893 as the 24th President.

Clearly, the first rule about being reelected President is to avoid having the name Adams. We can also set aside James Knox Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes as exceptions; they did not run for a second term, for differing reasons.

But there are a few common themes here:

•Tough act to follow: Several of the Presidents who failed in a bid for a second term were following an extremely popular President: John Adams (after Washington), Martin Van Buren (Andrew Jackson), William Howard Taft (Theodore Roosevelt), and George H.W. Bush (Ronald Reagan).

Each of these men had to contend with the expectations —and perhaps the “fatigue factor”— of following in the footsteps of four of the most popular Presidents in history. Taft’s case is also unusual –he had to run against his popular predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and finished third, with Woodrow Wilson winning the 1912 election.

•Not the People’s Choice: John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election based on the vote in the House of Representatives. His opponent, Andrew Jackson, the popular vote winner, called it the “corrupt bargain” and won four years later.

Although Hayes had pledged not run again, he also became President in 1876, when a special Commission awarded him some disputed electoral votes, denying the popular vote winner, Samuel Tilden. Harrison also won a disputed election in 1888 in which election fraud wass credited with giving Harrison the electors from Indiana.

Ineffective: Pierce and Buchanan, who both were contending with a nation heading almost inexorably towards Civil War, are often ranked among the worst American Presidents; neither was renominated by their party. Most of the other one-termers score fairly low in presidential rankings. Jimmy Carter was given poor marks for his handling of the Iran hostage crisis. But his loss may have more to do with the next key theme.

•It’s the economy stupid: Many elections are won and lost on pocketbook issues. Opponents called Van Buren “Martin Van Ruin” as the nation endured a long economic downturn. Herbert Hoover presided over the Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter, saddled with unemployment, inflation, and high interest rates (remember 12%?), and George H.W. Bush were also hurt by severe recessions on their watch.

During his first term, Ronald Reagan was saddled with a deep recession and a high unemployment rate (10.8% in November 1982). Reagan suffered a sharp setback in the midterm elections of 1982. But over the next two years, the economy began to turn and Reagan went on to a landslide victory to secure his second term in 1984.

The history of Presidential reelection fortunes? Maybe it is all about the “benjamins” in the end.

What happens in 2020?

•The incumbent is following a popular president

•He was not elected by popular vote

•He has failed on handling a pandemic

•The economy is in serious trouble

We’ll see if history’s lessons apply.

 

*Among the Presidents who took office on the death (or resignation) of the President, there are five who did not win a term of their own and they also receive generally low historical ratings:
10th John Tyler (Denied nomination)
13th Millard Fillmore (Denied nomination)
17th Andrew Johnson (Denied nomination)
21st Chester A. Arthur       (Denied nomination)
38th Gerald Ford (Lost bid for second term)

 

Don’t Know Much About® Halloween–The Hidden History

(Video directed and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2015)

When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the autumn social calendar was highlighted by the Halloween party in our church. In these simpler day, the kids all bobbed for apples and paraded through a spooky “haunted house” in homemade costumes –Daniel Boone replete with coonskin caps for the boys; tiaras and fairy princess wands for the girls. It was safe, secure and innocent.
The irony is that our church was a Congregational church — founded by the Puritans of New England. The same people who brought you the Salem Witch Trials.
Here’s a link to a history of those Witch Trials in 1692.

Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of a Celtic Druid celebration that marked summer’s end. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sow-een), it combined the Celts’ harvest and New Year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. This ancient Druid rite was tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death — as the last crops were harvested, the final apples picked and livestock brought in for winter stables or slaughter. Contrary to what some modern critics believe, Samhain was not the name of a malevolent Celtic deity but meant, “end of summer.”

The Celts also saw Samhain as a fearful time, when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead broke, and spirits walked the earth, causing mischief. Going door to door, children collected wood for a sacred bonfire that provided light against the growing darkness, and villagers gathered to burn crops in honor of their agricultural gods. During this fiery festival, the Celts wore masks, often made of animal heads and skins, hoping to frighten off wandering spirits. As the celebration ended, families carried home embers from the communal fire to re-light their hearth fires.

Getting the picture? Costumes, “trick or treat” and Jack-o-lanterns all got started more than two thousand years ago at an Irish bonfire.
Christianity took a dim view of these “heathen” rites. Attempting to replace the Druid festival of the dead with a church-approved holiday, the seventh-century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs. Then in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to remember the departed and pray for their souls. Together, the three celebrations –All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls Day– were called Hallowmas, and the night before came to be called All-hallows Evening, eventually shortened to “Halloween.”
And when millions of Irish and other Europeans emigrated to America, they carried along their traditions. The age-old practice of carrying home embers in a hollowed-out turnip still burns strong. In an Irish folk tale, a man named Stingy Jack once escaped the devil with one of these turnip lanterns. When the Irish came to America, Jack’s turnip was exchanged for the more easily carved pumpkin and Stingy Jack’s name lives on in “Jack-o-lantern.”

Halloween, in other words, is deeply rooted in myths –ancient stories that explain the seasons and the mysteries of life and death.

You can read more about ancient myths in the modern world in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and more about the Salem Witch Trials in Don’t Know Much About History.

Don't Know Much About Mythology (Harper paperback/Random House Audio)
Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Pop quiz: What did Washington get when the British surrendered at Yorktown?

(Original post updated 10/16/2020)

Answer: All of the enslaved people in Yorktown who had escaped to the British in hopes of freedom.

http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/surrender-lord-cornwallis

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (Source: Architect of the U.S. Capitol)

When the British forces under Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and his French allies on October 19, 1781, the terms of capitulation included the following phrase

It is understood that any property obviously belonging to the inhabitants of these States, in the possession of the garrison, shall be subject to be reclaimed.

(Article IV, Articles of Capitulation; dated October 18, 1781. Source  and Complete Text: Avalon Project-Yale Law School)

Thousands of  escaped enslaved people had flocked to the British army during Cornwallis’s campaign in Virginia in what has been called the “largest slave rebellion in American history.”

They had come in the belief  that the British would free them. Cornwallis had put them to work on the British defense works around the small tobacco port, and when disease started to spread and supplies ran low, Cornwallis forced hundreds of these people out of Yorktown. Many more died from epidemic diseases and the shelling of American and French artillery during the siege.

The African Americans in Yorktown included at least seventeen people who had left Washington’s Mount Vernon  plantation with the British, as well as members of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved community also captured earlier in 1781. They were all returned to bondage, along with thousands of others as Virginian slaveholders came to Yorktown to recover their “property.”

4isaacgrangerjefferson-uva

Isaac Granger Jefferson at about age 70 (Courtesy: Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library)

Among them was Isaac Granger Jefferson, a five-year-old boy who was returned to Monticello and later told his story.

The stories of some of the people “reclaimed” by Washington are told in my bookIN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives. 

 

The Battle of Yorktown and role of African-American soldiers there –as well as the fate of the enslaved people in the besieged town — are featured in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah.

 

 

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)

“A fascinating exploration of war and the myths of war. Kenneth C. Davis shows how interesting the truth can be.” –Evan Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones

Student Town Hall- “Hear Our Voices” October 20

JOIN A STUDENT TOWN HALL HERE: YOUTH VOICES — A STUDENT TOWN HALL

OCTOBER 20, 2020 7 PM ET

With 2020 being an election year, there are many topics and questions on the minds of our students.

Join me with National Council for the Social Studies President, Stefanie Wager, in the first NCSS Virtual Town Hall to hear directly from students about their concerns and question

  • What issues matter most to you?
  • Do you see yourself in the political process?
  • How well does our election process work for you, and how could it be improved?
  • What do you see as the future of democracy in America?
  • Does America’s two-party political system work, or can it be changed?
  • Is 18 the “right” voting age?
  • Is democracy in peril in our current partisan environment?

 

Learn more and register here;

Posted on October 13, 2020 Comment Share:

When a President Asks Americans to Sacrifice

President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

On October 5, 1947, President Harry S. Truman gave the first-ever televised address from the White House.

That’s an interesting fact in itself. Television was still a novelty and there were only some 44,000 sets in American homes. Most Americans still got their news from the radio and that would rapidly change as television became a fixture in the American landscape.

But more remarkable is what he said. The president asked Americans to make a sacrifice.

Truman requested Americans refrain from eating meat and eggs on different days to help stockpile food supplies as post-war Europe struggled to recover from the ravages of World War II.

The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches. Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality.

The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help–generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.

I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries…

It is simple and straightforward. It can be understood by all. Learn it–memorize it–keep it always in mind. Here it is: One: Use no meat on Tuesdays.

Two: Use no poultry or eggs on Thursdays.

Three: Save a slice of bread every day. 

Four: Public eating places will serve bread and butter only on request.

Complete Text and Source: Harry S. Truman, Radio and Television Address Concluding a Program by the Citizens Food Committee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project October 5, 1947.

The effort was largely symbolic and was a prelude to the far more ambitious Marshall Plan, which had a much greater impact on post-World War II Europe. Officially known as the Economic Recovery Act of 1948, it was signed into law by Truman in April 1948.

This piece of history is all the more striking during the current presidency and a pandemic. More than 200,000 people have died. Large numbers of Americans are out of work. Families are on food lines. Can you imagine anyone in this government urging a sacrifice for the public good?

It would be a great reminder of the “better angels of our nature.” But what are the chances?

Posted on October 5, 2020 Comment Share:

Who Said It? (10/5)

Save a slice of bread every day.

President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman in the first-ever televised address from the White House (October 5, 1947).

As post-war Europe struggled to recover, Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat and eggs on different days to help stockpile food supplies. The effort was mostly symbolic and was a prelude to the far more ambitious Marshall Plan which had a much greater impact on post-World War II Europe.

The food-saving program which has just been presented to you has my wholehearted support. I am confident that it will have the support of every American.

The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches. Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality.

The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help–generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.

I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries…

 

It is simple and straightforward. It can be understood by all. Learn it–memorize it–keep it always in mind. Here it is: One: Use no meat on Tuesdays.

Two: Use no poultry or eggs on Thursdays.

Three: Save a slice of bread every day. 

Four: Public eating places will serve bread and butter only on request.

Complete Text and Source: “Radio and Television Address Concluding a Program by the Citizens Food Committee,” October 5, 1947. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Read more about Truman and the post war world in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, Don’t Know Much About History and The Hidden History of America At War.

 

A Parade More Deadly Than War

[Update of 11/2018 post]

In late September 1918, Philadelphia put on a parade to sell war bonds in the midst of the outbreak of what was commmonly called Spanish flu. It was a catastrophe. I recounted this event in an article for Smithsonian.

As we live through the most deadly pandemic since 1918, it is more important than ever to understand the lessons of history. Specifically, from 1918 we should have learned these simple lessons:

•Lies, propaganda and censorship can kill

•Ignoring science is lethal

•Misplaced priorities are More Deadly Than War

Read this story of Philadelphia and the flu.

 

 

It was a parade like none Philadelphia had ever seen.

In the summer of 1918, as the Great War raged and American doughboys fell on Europe’s killing fields, the City of Brotherly Love organized a grand spectacle. To bolster morale and support the war effort, a procession for the ages brought together marching bands, Boy Scouts, women’s auxiliaries, and uniformed troops to promote Liberty Loans –government bonds issued to pay for the war. The day would be capped off with a concert led by the “March King” himself –John Philip Sousa.

The city sought to sell Liberty Loans, bonds to pay for the war effort, while bringing its citizens together during the infamous pandemic.

Read the complete article: “Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu” from Smithsonian Magazine

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