The other day my students brought in newspaper articles about the Civil War that were published in the New York Times between 1961 and 1965. They were allowed to search any topic and then had to write up a brief analysis of what they discovered. I asked them to staple the articles to their analysis so I could spend some time with their sources. In our discussion about Lincoln this interesting little article came up which reports on a Moscow radio broadcast that references the president. The article was published on February 14, 1961:
Tribute Paid to Lincoln in Moscow Broadcast
Abraham Lincoln, the Moscow radio said today, is a name “dear to the heart of the Soviet people.” A broadcast beamed at North America and heard here declared that the Soviet people “can sympathize with and understand Lincoln’s democratic views and his sincere and deep sympathy for the working people.” “Today, when the peoples of all countries see as the main task the struggle to preserve peace,” the broadcast went on, “we return to the words of Lincoln. Let us strive to do all that will achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” “We honor the great President and United States citizen because he represented the revolutionary and democratic traditions of the American people, traditions which found expression during difficult years of the struggle against fascism.”
What followed was a nice discussion about why our supposed ideological enemy, during the Cold War, would honor one of our presidents. One student suggested it was a clever piece of propaganda designed to undercut the American peoples’ self confidence. In other words, if the Soviet people revere one of our own than than Americans may doubt that there is such a wide gulf between the two nations. Another student argued that it was an attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to reach out in hopes of cooling tensions during the height of the Cold War. Finally, another student hesitantly made the point that perhaps the Soviets really do revere Lincoln. What followed was some very awkward silence, but I decided to ride it out in hopes that the conversation would continue. The problem, it turned out, was that some of the students had difficulty considering such a possibility. Even though they were born after the end of the Cold War they’ve been trained to remember this period by those who did experience it for different lengths of time. We talked a bit about the connection between the plight of the slaves and how the working class fits into communist ideology. I also reminded them that a large contingent of African Americans traveled and even settled in the Soviet Union as an alternative to the experience of living in a Jim Crow society. It seems safe to suggest that hey would have brought strong views of Lincoln with them, but I am going to have to go back and check out Glenda Gilmore’s recent study to see if she has anything to say.
One of the more interesting points of discussion that came up was why Americans have such difficulty acknowledging that other nations are interested in our Civil War. It’s true. We see nothing unusual about history courses devoted to the study of another country, but we rarely imagine students in other countries studying our own history. For those of you in the classroom who are interested in exploring this theme I highly recommend Dana Lindman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History (The New Press, 2004). The book is broken down by events and each section includes short excerpts from various history textbooks from around the world. They make for some wonderful classroom discussions as students try to understand the reasons behind the various interpretations.