Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Saint or Sinner?

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


This is part two of war in diplomacy. The title here should be Saint or Sinner, the United States on the world today. We’re going to look at the United States in the 20th Century and our adventures as far as war and diplomacy go. Once again, I just want to remind you about how to think about this kind of stuff.

First and foremost, when we talk about wars, let’s think about it this way. Think about the war and learn the dates. Then what was the cause? What was the effect? And what was the importance? So I’ll just quickly talk about that first one, for example. I’m going into greater depth in a moment. But the Spanish-American war, the immediate cause was the explosion the battle ship Maine in Havana Harbor. Another cause might be that the United States wanted to expand its international territories. A fact definitely was that, we gained in fact the Philippines protectorate over Cuba, Puerto Rico. The importance there is the United States did become more of an international power.

As you go through these, this is a good way to keep notes. But it’s a good way to think about History; cause and effect. Cause, effect, importance and with wars, that’s a good way to do it. I’ll pull up a board to show you some stuff about diplomacy a little later. So that’s what we’re going to be looking at.

The second thing that I’m going to say, and I mentioned this before is, learn your presidents. If you know that William McKinley he was elected in 1896, he was president from 1897 through 1901. He was re-elected in 1900, but then assassinated in 1901. Teddy Roosevelt takes over at that point, he's vice-president.

If you really can learn those little facts about each president. Their term of office, and the specific years of those terms of office, and then think about their domestic policy, and their foreign policy, you can be able to study for the AP US History test in a way that makes it really easier, and allows you to have some fun with History. Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts of war and diplomacy from 1885, right up to the present.

So as we approach the 20th Century, the United States, I mentioned before it’s coming out of its adolescence and taking a seat at the adult table, sitting down with the grown ups. The first example of that, is the Spanish American war in 1898. By the end of the Spanish American war, what you see this political cartoon it says 10,000 miles from tip to tip. Here is the United States, and the eagle that represents the United States. Its wings spun all way from the Philippine islands over Hawaii, and over to the East Coast to the middle of the Atlantic, including Puerto Rico. That’s really the result of the Spanish American war.

The Spanish American itself lasted a few months. It really was a very quick expedition. Spain was not a particularly powerful nation at this time. There had been a lot of agitation in the press. And look in your bonus materials for yellow journalism, and you’ll see some background about that. There had been a lot of agitation. It’s kind of the second wave of manifest destiny. Only in this case, it’s about international expansion and not western territory. We’ve already used up the entire continent from East Coast to West Coast, and now we want to expand.

In 1892, we picked up Hawaii as a territory, but we really are looking to go further. By fighting Spain, we have the opportunity to gain the Philippines and the Pacific. I mean it’s really interesting the battleship Maine blows up in Havana Harbor.

One of the first things we do is order Admiral Dewey to invade Manila Bay in the Philippines, because it’s a Spanish colony and now all of a sudden it’s a US colony. We’ve got a huge foothold in the Pacific with now Hawaii and the Philippines. That’s what that map referred to.

This just shows the charge of the Rough Riders. The Rough Riders were a voluntary group led by Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt who had had been governor of New York to show his patriotism, and also because Roosevelt was a real outdoors man and a man of action. He leads this volunteer group called the Rough Riders. Here they are. The famous battle is historically recorded as a charge up San Juan Hill, but I think if you looked it up you would find it was a different hill.

What it leads to is, by 1900, Roosevelt becomes the vice-presidential candidate with William McKinley. You see here, The administration's promises have been kept 1896 to 1900. This is the democratic side. "Gone Democratic" you see things, buildings or factories are closed. "Gone Republican" everything is going well. A run on the bank by the democrats, a run to the bank by the republicans. Then, Spanish ruling Cuba, and it shows people being chained and essentially tortured. Now, American rule in Cuba, you see a school and a farm. It says "The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory, but for humanity sake."

There’s a sense that the United States was on this humanitarian mission once again. Rudyard Kipling, the famous British poet, wrote a specific poem called the "White Man’s Burden". It’s dedicated to the United States in the Philippines.

It’s really a very telling poem and it really reinforces some of the stuff we’ve talked about earlier about White people having a responsibility to take care of all the people of color in the world.

Now we’ve established this international empire, and the United States then really reverts to a certain amount of diplomacy. I’ll talk about that in a little while. The next war that we’re involved in of course, is World War I. What you see here is a posture that says over there are skilled workers on the ground behind the lines on the air service. The United Sates resists entering World War I until 1917. The war starts in 1914. It’s got to do with a lot of secret treaties the European powers have with each other, secret alliances. And basically, it becomes a World War in August of 1814. The United States resist until its shipping lines are so interfered with so often. The sinking of Lusitania becomes a big political issue, that in 1917, Woodrow Wilson who was re-elected in 1916, under the banner of 'he kept us out of war', actually takes us into war.

We were in it for a very short amount of time. We enter the war in April of 1917, and we’re out by November 11th 1918. World War I is a very brutal war. It’s characterized by this trench warfare. You can see a very desolate battle ground. It’s really the first mechanized war and it’s really modern warfare. Airplanes, tanks, huge steel battleships, trench warfare, you see the gas mask that the soldiers were wearing. After World War I, the use of gas in warfare was banned internationally. So it’s a very modern war. It’s very devastating for Europe. The United States really comes out of it pretty unscarred.

You see here this is United States Platoon from Kentucky getting ready to go to war.

Here is some of the trench warfare, and again, wearing the gas masks. My grandfather fought in this war and actually I have at home his relics from World War I, which include his gas-mask and his bayonet. Because there was a lot of hand in hand fighting in World War I, very brutal, really a devastating war. It leads to people feeling like they really don’t want to get involved in a war like that again.

Again, the United States withdraws into a period of isolation and really relies on diplomacy, which we’ll talk about in the third segment of our big ideas section here. But we stay out of war for a while, and then of course we go through the 20s. The great depression of the 30s. Then of course in Europe, Hitler rises to power and Germany attacks Poland on September 1st, 1939, and World War II begins.

The European power of course rally to support Poland. Germany at that time has a pact with Russia. Russia is actually Germany’s ally for a while. Hitler very cleverly has this pact with Stalin, so that he can invade Poland and Russians won’t get in the way. Within two years of course, the Russians bail out on the Germans and become allies with the United States and Great Britain and France.

We all know the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, gets the United States involved in the war. Here is a little Montage of World War II. We can see how the mechanized warfare of World War I has now become really mechanized in World War II.

The fighter planes that were on aircraft carriers, the tanks, the submarines now have become a very sophisticated form of warfare. Bunkers as opposed to trenches. I want you to really concentrate on the words 'World War'. You couldn't go anywhere, and there were no vacations in the World War.

The war took up the world. No matter where you went, you had to be worried about the war going on around you.

So here is just a few photographs. These are German soldiers. This is a hand grenade. The United States and British soldiers called it a potato masher, but it was a German hand grenade. And this of course, at the end of the war, Germany surrendered May 7th, 1945. And on August 6th, 1945, United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima Japan. Three days later August 9th, we dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki.

There’s material in the bonus area that goes into greater detail about the whole decision to drop the bomb. A lot of people think that there is real moral dilemma, Should we have dropped this bomb? And especially, should we have dropped the second bomb? There’s political reasons. There are moral reasons, there are diplomatic reasons. I’ll leave it to you to do some research about that.

What is important is, what you see here is Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, the big three. This is at Yalta. They met in 1945 shortly before Roosevelt’s death, to discuss what would happen in the post war era. What really does happen in the post war era of course, is the cold war. What’s referred to as the Cold War. It’s a diplomatic war, but it has some real hotspots. It’s essentially the communist world led by Stalin and then the Chinese under Mao Zedong and the "free world", the capitalist countries versus the communist countries fighting over who has greatest domain in the world. It's super powers, the United States and the USSR really standing up to each other.

This is a shot from the Korea war.

In 1950, China helps North Korea. Korea has been divided into two sections. The Northern part communists, the Southern part is democratic. North Korea invades South Korea and North Korea with Chinese support. The cold war all of a sudden heats up. Again, when we talk about diplomacy, we’ll talk more about the specific of the Cold War. But right now, we’re talking about the hot wars.

We’ve got Korea. The United States believed that Communism had to be contained, therefore we couldn’t allow that invasion. What you see here is just a battle of the reservoir. The Chinese attacks are in red. The route of withdrawal of the American troops is in blue. It was a very complex war. It was a war that constantly was pushing against the Communists and then pulling back. This is just a Korean War memorial, but it’s in South Africa. I include that because, it was an international war. It wasn’t just the United States. It was a United Nations force against the communists.

This is really on the European side of the Cold War. What you see here, the red represents Russians influence and the blue is the Western powers. So the Cold war you can see, is a struggle between the Communist world represented in red in here, and the "free world" represented in blue. That was what the Cold War was about. It was about a battle of influence over countries. Then you had some countries that were up for grabs kind of; Yugoslavia, Austria. They later fall in one domain or the other. But it’s a constant battle for influence. As I said, it heats up in Korea. Then it heats up again in Vietnam.

This is South Vietnam and this is North Vietnam.

Once again North Vietnam is a communist country. It’s led by Ho Chi Minh. The people in Vietnam to this day refer to Ho Chi Minh as the George Washington of Vietnam. He is a brilliant leader. He is a nationalist leader.

South Vietnam resists the North Vietnamese invasion. The United States once again, in trying to contain communism, starting in 1961, send its troops to South Vietnam. Probably what typifies the United States involvement, or the symbols that most people know are the Huey Helicopters. This is kind of a classic. If you watch Francis Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now", probably I think the best movie about the Vietnam war, even though it’s a little abstract. I think it gives you a real sense of how crazy the war felt for soldiers. But you’ll see in that movie, how he uses the helicopters as a symbol over and over again. They really do.

For those of us who lived at the time as I did, these helicopters really became associated with Vietnam. Even to this day, even if I’m watching the news and I see the new Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq, it’s hard not to think about what went on in the Vietnam conflict.

There was a problem in Vietnam which was in the South. There were a number of people who sympathize with the Northern Vietnamese, and they were called Vietcong or VCs. VC became Charlie, the 'C' became Charlie. What you have here, what you saw very often, were villagers who were suspected of being North Vietnamese sympathizers. Vietcong were arrested and very often put in prison of war camps and questioned about what was going on with the Vietcong, what did they know about the North Vietnamese. So it was a very difficult war to fight. Very much like, there was a great parallel to the American Revolution. Only this time, we became the British.

We are thousands of miles away from home. The people are defending their own countryside and the Imperialist army, like the British, is showing up and trying to figure out who’s on what side. I really would recommend that you think about that parallel, about the United States in Vietnam. It's very similar to the British fighting against the Americans during the revolution. The result is basically the same. The North Vietnamese, like the American colonists, win the war. Now there’s a united Vietnam and, Ho Chi Minh is the George Washington of Vietnam.

One other thing that’s really important is, a lot of the Vietnam War; the United States was a huge super power as we know. It had tremendous armies. And somebody mentioned one way to win the war was to blow them back to the Stone Age, bomb them back to the Stone Age. We tried to do that. Millions of tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, as well as defoliants agent orange. We literally dropped gasoline, jellied gasoline that would explode and burn acres and acres of forest land to try to find out where the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were.

They had an intricate tunnel system throughout the country that allowed them to hit and run. It was very much guerilla warfare. We are very much fighting the Korea and World War II. We’re fighting a very conventional war against very unconventional enemies, and enemies that know their territory. Once again, it’s very much like the American Revolution, where Washington’s genius was that he kept the America army out in the field and the British never captured them. He was able to hit and run and hit and run. That’s what the Vietnamese did to us. There’s a real irony here I think if we look at that.

That’s a quick summary of the hot wars of the 20th Century, starting with the eve of the 20th Century Spanish American war, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict which is really the first hot spot in the Cold War. Then the Vietnam War, which is an elongated war, and it covers about 13 years of US involvement from the first troops being sent in 1961 by John Kennedy, to the withdrawal in 1974 under Richard Nixon.

After that, what we see is a really a lot of diplomacy. There was diplomacy before that as I mentioned. So what we’re going to do now, is we’re going to move away from the hot wars. This episode I said is about war and diplomacy. So now we’re going to move away from these hot wars and start to look at the diplomacy of the 20th Century, and how the United States tried to solve things without going to war. Without using military might all the time.

Now we’re going to look at diplomacy, and particularly 20th Century diplomacy. You might want to take some notes here. What I’ve listed here are the presidents. Remember I told you to pay attention to your presidents. Now not everyone is listed, because not all of them were involved in significant diplomatic events. But I’ve listed the ones that I think would be important for you to know and to pay attention to. I’ve put a little note here about the diplomacy or diplomatic event of their administration, that’s probably the most notable or what you should really pay attention to.

So starting with Teddy Roosevelt, I’ve got the word Gunboat, and Gunboat diplomacy. Teddy Roosevelt of course was known for saying the phrases ‘speak softly, but carry a big stick.’ One of the things he did, he actually brokered a treaty between Japan and Russia in 1907 and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Russo-Japanese treaty. What he did diplomatically for United States is, he took the steel navy, this huge new steel navy, painted all the ships white, so they would look even bigger than they were. So we know white makes us look bigger and black makes us look smaller.

He sent them around the world. So it was called Gunboat diplomacy, because the idea was, here was the United States flexing its muscles. Woodrow Wilson, after World War I presented his 14-point plan, which not only proposed the League of Nations, but really said let’s get rid of secret treaties. Let’s let the newly freed colonial states, have self determination. I mean it’s just a brilliant proposal. The United States itself rejects it, but most of the world thinks it’s a pretty good idea. It’s a wonderful piece of diplomacy.

Franklin Donald Roosevelt engages in what’s called the Good Neighbor Policy, particularly in Latin America. The United States has a very checkered history with Latin America. I’ll put some materials in the bonus area for you about that, because we really have had particularly from the Monroe doctrine on. Roosevelt of course had a color in the Monroe doctrine, which gave the United States claim that the United States had even more power to move in and out of Latin American countries. FDR tries to rectify that with his Good Neighbor policy.

After World War II, Harry Truman was the leader of George Marshall. The Marshall plan rebuilds Europe and it is one of the most brilliant pieces of diplomacy. It cost a lot of money, but in the long run, it’s really one of the greatest pieces of economic diplomacy the United States ever engages in. Dwight Eisenhower is elected right at the end of the Korean conflict and is a strong proponent. A former general of course, a famous general in World War II. Strong proponent of collective security. So NATO, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a key to his diplomatic efforts being part of NATO to stand up to the spread of communism.

JFK, John Kennedy of course introduces a Peace Corp.

The Peace Corps are volunteers. Generally young people who have just graduated from college who go into various undeveloped or underdeveloped nations around the world and really serve as good will ambassadors for the United States. Basically, teach people how to irrigate their fields or bring a health and safety education to various parts of the world. It still exists and some of you might want to check out.

Richard Nixon, two important things. One is his visit to China, and I mentioned that in an earlier episode. We probably wouldn’t be going to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008, if it weren’t for Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Also this SALT, which is the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. He actually starts to negotiate with the Russians about limiting nuclear weapons. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that’s a pretty good move diplomatically.

Jimmy Carter who historically probably won’t be remembered as a great president, did do a significant diplomatic move in bringing the Arabs and the Israelis to the table. And Camp David which is a presidential retreat in Maryland outside of Washington DC. He got Anwar Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin from Israel, to negotiate an agreement, a non-violent accord, and attempt at really bringing peace to the Middle East. It was an incredible initiative and a very important one.

Ronald Reagan of course oversees the end of the Cold War. It’s essentially done by bankrupting the Soviet Union. I’ll talk about this more in a later episode about the presidents, and I’ll talk about Reagan’s presidency and how the Cold War ended. But Reagan is there when the Berlin wall comes down. He’s famous for making a speech by the Berlin wall that says, Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!

Then Bill Clinton’s presidency his support of ending the conflict in Bosnia. There is some military action involved in that. But it’s also a very important diplomatic initiative, because the United Nations is involved.

So what we see here is the United States does try diplomatically to do some things. We don’t have to just use force all the time. What you see here for example, is Ronald Reagan talking to Gobachov and this is toward the end of the Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union of course was the Union of Soviets Socialists Republics, USSR. After this essential defeat of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union breaks into independent republics again. So now you have places like Kazakhstan and the Ukraine. And Russia as separate republics, whereas earlier they were the USSR, the United Soviet Socialist Republics.

The great symbol of the cold war was Berlin. The city of Berlin which was divided into four sectors and this sign represents you’re leaving this American sector. There was a French, English, American, and Russian sector. The Russian sector is where the Soviets built a wall. It became a huge symbol of the cold war and the diplomacy that really characterized the world from the end of World War II, from 1945 right up to 1989 when the war came down. And when once again, Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev and essentially changed the politics of the world.

What we see is the United States did engage in diplomatic efforts throughout its history. But it was very hard to avoid wars.

On balance, if we look back, the 20th Century was a century that was frat with wars. There is the Spanish American war in the eve of it. Then staring with World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war which I didn’t go into any great detail. That’s what these photographs are about. This was the gulf war. It really only took less than two months for us to defeat Iraq in that war, because of our high technology etcetera. Of course we’re involved in the Iraq war again today.

The key thing, I’ll emphasize for you to pay attention to, is the notion of war and diplomacy and really when you look historically to think about with wars, cause, effect, importance. With diplomacy to look at what was the strategy? Who did we negotiate with? Who were our allies? Who was on the other side of the table? And what was at stake? And what was gained.

Just to wrap all this up, watching United States emerge in the 20th century as a world power, it’s a fascinating process. We find ourselves now we're in the role of being the world super power and we’ve got new challenges. We’ve got terrorism. We still have Arab-Israeli problems. We’ve got the energy crisis and our war on drug. So taking this knowledge about war and diplomacy, and thinking about the future projecting ahead, think about yourself in the future even. And not just about the AP US History test. Although if you follow some of the advice I’m giving you, you’re just going to kill that test I can pretty much guarantee that.

But beyond that, you really need to think about what are you going to need to know and be able to do to be a really, really responsible and active citizen in the 21st century? What’s going to distinguish your contribution and your thinking?

I think if you really apply some of the lessons that we’re talking about here, if you really learn about cause and effect, you really think about what’s the importance of that. If you really learn to apply the analytical models like the GREASes, you’re going to be a step ahead and you’re going to get a lot more out of everything you do. In the process, you’re going to have some fun with history.

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