Author Archives: Kathy Olmsted

July 11, 2012, 4:06 pm

Making the New Deal concrete.

This past quarter, I did something different with my upper-division course on America in Prosperity, Depression, and War, 1917 to 1945. Because the course usually has more than 100 students and no teaching assistant (welcome to the University of California), I have never assigned a research paper before. It’s just too hard to mentor and police that many research projects. But this year, I decided to ask the students to research and write on a New Deal project for one of their papers.

I suggested that the students start by looking at Gray Brechin’s terrific site, and then gave them the following prompt:

Write a history of something – a bridge, dam, road, mural, school, public building, sculpture, park, photograph – that was created or built with federal government money during the years 1933 to 1943. In your paper, consider these questions:

  • Which government agencies …

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June 20, 2012, 3:33 am

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed*

Silbey has explained the wonderful possibilities that await a technologically proficient historian who visits a technologically advanced archive.

I wish I could say that I only visit archives where my widely acknowledged technological prowess is encouraged and feted, but alas, this is not the case. There are still many archives in my world that remain firmly rooted in the twentieth century.  For example, UCLA special collections has a number of manuscript collections I need, but does not allow cameras in the reading room. So I find myself spending much of my time in the basement of Young library, frantically taking notes while the non-historians above enjoy the sunshine.

Then there’s the copyright problem for anyone doing newspaper research after 1923. Thanks to the Sonny Bono copyright act of 1998, everything produced since 1922 is under copyright protection, which means…

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July 24, 2010, 10:43 am

'We owe it to history to publish it.'

Daniel Schorr, who died yesterday, is being remembered for his remarkable, decades-long career as a print, radio, and television journalist.  I’m familiar with one small slice of this story: I did an intensive study of his coverage of the intelligence beat for CBS News from 1974 to 1976 – coverage that ultimately cost him his job.  I came away from my research and from my interview with Schorr profoundly impressed by his commitment to disclosure and democracy.  Schorr was true believer in the public’s right to know, and the historical record is richer for it.

It was not easy to get Schorr to talk with me about the most painful incident in his career.  (more…)

July 1, 2010, 4:31 pm

More deadly than the male.

The discussion about Anna Chapman, the alleged femme fatale of the Russian spy ring, shows that our spy narratives have changed very little in sixty years, especially for women.  There always has to be a dead drop, a furtive exchange of bags in a subway station, and a femme fatale, preferably with red hair and a Russian accent.  That’s how it works, even when it doesn’t.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the news media and the FBI insisted on shoving all the accused female Red spies into familiar roles from film noir, even when these roles were patently inappropriate.  In 1948, some newspapers described KGB case officer Elizabeth Bentley, for example, as a “svelte young blonde” in a “form-fitting black dress” who had enticed naïve New Dealers into revealing their secrets. If she was attractive, see, then she must be telling the truth.  To discredit her story, her critics called…

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May 29, 2010, 1:50 pm

California: The experimental society.

Wallace Stegner famously said that California is like the rest of America, only more so.  But when did he say it, and in what context? Yesterday I tracked down the original quote, which appeared in an editorial Stegner wrote for a special Golden State edition of Saturday Review magazine in 1967.

The references to Max Rafferty, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Snyder may seem dated, but in many ways the essay describes the California we know today:

If the history of America is the history of an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, or overcome by new immigrations, then the history of California is American history in extremis.

Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic – only more so.  Its version of the Good Life, its sports, pleasures, and …

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May 28, 2010, 8:07 pm

On the mission of the public university. And the Unabomber.

I was extremely pleased to find today that the 1939 LaFollette committee hearings on free speech and the rights of labor, all seventy-something volumes, were printed, bound, and on the shelf in my library, and I could check out every single volume and take it home until June 2011.  Which got me thinking about public universities, public libraries, and their accessibility to the public, even the Unabomber.

Everyone in Davis knows the Unabomber allegedly used our university library to, um, write his 1995 manifesto.*  The manifesto liberally borrowed from a book by a San Francisco stevedore-cum-philosopher named Eric Hoffer – and I mean “borrowed” in the sense of “if a student did this, she would be referred to Student Judicial Affairs.”   When newspapers published the Unabomber’s manifesto, a UC Davis student noticed that several sections matched underlined passages in the…

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May 2, 2010, 6:38 am

Lost in translation.

In Potsdam for a workshop recently, I took the opportunity to tour the site of the 1945 conference that marked the end of the last war and the beginning of the next (cold) one.  Schloss Cecilienhof is a fake-Tudor mansion that the Emperor built during the Great War (yes, when the Germans were fighting the Tudors’ successors).  Ex-Crown Princess Cecilie fled the palace in 1945, when the Red Army was threatening to batter down the doors.  The Soviets then turned the sprawling complex into a field hospital.

The Allied leaders had wanted to hold the first post-European war conference in Berlin, but there were few places left standing after the onslaught of Allied bombing and Soviet invasion. Schloss Cecilienhof was the closest venue capable of housing the Allied leaders and staff in style, so the Soviet casualties were moved out, and Truman, Stalin, and Churchill moved in.  (Halfway…

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March 13, 2010, 2:46 pm

Great moments with Mr. Nixon.

My colleagues and I were discussing the craziest Nixonian moments the other day, and we decided to come up with a top ten list.  Here it is.  Add your own favorites in the comments.  (Alternatively, you could do the things the Disney folks did to Lincoln, and pick quotes from a variety of different moments to create a special Nixonian pastiche.)  Some questions to ponder:

– was Nixon really our craziest president, or would they all sound crazy if they’d installed voice-activated taping systems?

– who did Nixon admit to having a crush on (see the 14-second beep in item 10)?

1.  On thinking big (April 25, 1972)

Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

Nixon: No, no, no, I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much….

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February 22, 2010, 11:57 am

Great moments with the second-greatest president.*

I happened to be in Disneyland on Lincoln’s actual birthday, February 12, and decided, in a particularly sadistic moment, to take my kids to see the new, revised “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” which just opened in December.  I had fond memories of the last iteration of the show, from the early 2000s, which featured a surprisingly good film and a robotic-yet-stirring rendition of the Gettsyburg Address (Ari informs me that the real Lincoln was actually a robot – “true fact”, he says – and suggests that the imagineers were just being authentic).   Surprisingly, my children did not believe that listening to an animatronic president speak on death and destruction was the best use of scarce Disneyland time, but I cheerfully dragged them out of the southern California sunshine and waited to be transported back in time to the Civil War….

Only to discover that the show is…

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February 15, 2010, 5:58 pm

There they go again.

The CIA has released documents confirming that it used an alleged deep-sea mining vessel called the Glomar Explorer to raise part of a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1974.  This is a step forward for the agency, which in the past has refused to confirm or deny its connection to the Glomar Explorer, but agency officials are still declining to say how much the project cost, how much of the sub they recovered, and what, if any, intelligence they gleaned from the project.

The Soviet submarine sank for unknown reasons about 1,500 miles from Hawaii in March 1968, taking its crew and three nuclear missiles to the bottom of the Pacific.  A year and a half later, the CIA established a task force to study the feasibility of harvesting the 1,750-ton vessel from the ocean floor, some 16,500 feet down.  The task force concluded that it needed to build a huge,…

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November 3, 2009, 2:56 pm

Everything changed.

If you haven’t seen the episode, feel free to read this. No real spoilers ahead.

As someone who knows a little too much about the subject, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Mad Men’s portrayal of the Kennedy assassination.  And when it came, on Sunday night, I thought the episode was beautifully done. But I found myself less intrigued by the portrayal of the event itself than by how the writers used the assassination to advance the one of the show’s main themes: that white, middle-class American women suffered from the feminine mystique in the 1960s, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.  In Mad Men’s universe, John Kennedy died Sunday night, but Betty Draper is just starting to live.

The writers have dropped hints throughout the season that the show would address the assassination: the brief shot of Margaret Sterling’s wedding announcement, with its portentous date; the…

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October 12, 2009, 9:30 am

Another time, another era.

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan considered the abolition of nuclear weapons from the world, but then changed his mind.

The occasion was a summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.  During the summit, Reagan briefly embraced Gorbachev’s proposal to abolish nuclear weapons.  Gorbachev’s price? A promise by the U.S. to confine the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory.

The president’s neocon aides were horrified. Richard Perle, who regarded the notion of nuclear abolition as “ludicrous” and “delusional,” almost single-handedly torpedoed the Reykjavik deal.  Perle didn’t think SDI would work, but he decided to use it as a poison pill to destroy Gorbachev’s initiative.  In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes describes the remarkable conference that Reagan and his aides held in a bathroom, which was the on…

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October 10, 2009, 8:46 am

Sunshine and blood.

On this day in 1933, about 350 farm workers gathered in the small central California town of Pixley to listen to Pat Chambers, a 33-year-old Irish-American Communist union organizer.  Chambers’s union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers International Union, was coordinating the largest farmworker strike in U.S. history up to that point: a walkout by 20,000 mostly Mexican cotton pickers up and down the Central Valley to protest wages as low as ten cents an hour.

The young organizer, who was still recovering from a broken jaw he suffered from a vigilante attack in a recent strike, stood on a truck bed, urging the workers to remain non-violent, but to protect themselves if they were attacked. As Chambers spoke, a caravan of cars and trucks filled with forty growers roared into town and pulled up behind them.  The men spilled out of the cars, brandishing pistols, rifles, and shotguns….

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August 25, 2009, 1:42 pm

Lies about the Church Committee.

After fielding yet another media call about the supposed “dismantling” of the CIA by the Church Committee, I feel moved to systematically address the neoconservative assumptions that dominate the current debate.  In 1975, staffers in the Gerald Ford White House, most notably chief of staff Dick Cheney, started an organized effort to spin the press coverage of Senator Frank Church’s investigation of the CIA.

The talking points of the Ford administration are now taken as gospel truth.  This is not just a matter of historical accuracy; it’s directly relevant to the current discussion.  Because if the Church Committee did destroy the CIA, then we can say that “history tells us” that all CIA investigations are inherently destructive and will endanger our safety.

So, let’s look at the record.  Right after Watergate, Senator Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate …

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August 7, 2009, 3:25 pm


The current claims by the so-called Birther movement that Barack Obama is not a “natural-born citizen” of the United States may seem part of the lunatic fringe. But the Birthers’ basic premise – that the U.S. president is actually the agent of an enemy conspiracy – has a long history in America, and it highlights the tension between American openness and American paranoia.