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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

History Unplugged Podcast Episodes
Making Sense of America’s Worst Moments: Jon Meacham on Understanding -- But Not Excusing -- Slavery and the Indian Removal Act
June 23, 2022 - 37 min
John F. Kennedy once told a presidential biographer that rating presidents from best to worst that it was impossible without a deep appreciation of the office. Perhaps even first-hand experience was necessary: "No one has a right to grade a president - even poor James Buchanan - who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”
While JFK’s view will never stop historians from ranking U.S. presidents from best to worst, he makes a good point that historical figures likely had good reasons for what they did, even if the end result was failure and their reputations were left in tatters. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act or Thomas Jefferson’s failure to provide justice equally (even though he enshrined the equality of all in America’s founding documents) are explainable and understandable, even if they aren’t excusable.
To explore this theme further is today’s guest is Jon Meacham, host of the new podcast, Reflections of History. Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, and several other biographies, presidential or otherwise.
We discuss the lasting legacies of Jefferson, Jackson, and other presidents who rose or fell to the moment. We also discuss which historical figures should get greater recognition, whether the aftermath of the Titanic gives us ideas on how to mourn national tragedies, and the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century, including, but not limited to, NATO, vaccines, the Space Race, and Jackie Robinson breaking down baseball’s color barrier and accelerating the Civil Rights Movement.
Parthenon Roundtable: Which Single Event Would You Eliminate From History
June 21, 2022 - 65 min
All of us have terrible regrets. Accepting that job that became dead-end. Marry someone from high school who ended up being a kleptomaniac with halitosis. Emptying out our life savings to invest in Logan and Jake Paul’s NFT collections Don’t you wish you could take it all back?
While we can’t help you with your personal problems, we are pleased to let you know that the hosts of the history programs that make up Parthenon Podcasts are here to get rid of some of the worst events in history and cleaning up our timeline. In just one hour, we will do the following:

•Prevent the Civil War and Emancipate all U.S. slaves in 1861
•Prevent Saddam Hussein from seizing power in Iraq, thus prevent the Iran-Iraq War and both Gulf Wars
•Prevent half a century’s worth of conspiracy theories that sprung up in the wake of the JFK assassination
•Accelerate the invention of the printing press by 1,500 years by stopping the Bronze Age Collapse
Hope you enjoy this talk with James Early from Key Battles of American History, Josh Cohen from Eyewitness History, Steve Guerra from History of the Papacy and Beyond the Big Screen, Richard Lim from This American President, and yours truly from History Unplugged.
The Worst Movie Ever Made Cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan and Exposed the Cast to Nuclear Radiation
June 16, 2022 - 46 min
John Wayne’s 1956 film The Conqueror was a historical biopic about Genghis Khan far worse than you can imagine. The All-American legend was in full Fu Manchu make-up and depicted the Great Khan as a Mongol madman. He was given Shakespear-esque dialogue that was as grandiose as it was misapplied to the Duke loose way of speaking (one example: “I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her.”) It was a film so embarrassing that it disappeared from print for over a quarter century. Worse yet, half its cast and crew met their demise bringing the film to life by being exposed to nuclear radiation while on set.
To get into this story is today’s guest Ryan Uytdewilligen, author of “Killing John Wayne, the Making of the Conqueror. Filmed during the dark underbelly of the 1950s—the Cold War—when nuclear testing in desolate southwestern landscapes was a must for survival, the very same landscapes were where exotic stories set in faraway lands could be made. Just 153 miles from the St. George, Utah, set, nuclear bombs were detonated regularly at Yucca Flat and Frenchman Flat in Nevada, providing a bizarre and possibly deadly background to an already surreal moment in cinema history.
We discuss the story of the making of The Conqueror, its ignominious aftermath, and the radiation induced cancer that may have killed John Wayne and many others.
The Arsenal of Democracy: How the Revolver and Repeating Rifle Democratized Gun Ownership and Armed the United States
June 14, 2022 - 58 min
The United States is the most heavily armed nation in the world, with an estimated 400 million guns in private hands. But few know that this legacy can be directly traced back to a handful of gunmakers who worked in the Springfield Armory of Massachusetts in the early 1800s. Their names became synonymous with American guns—Colt, Smith, Wesson, Winchester, and Remington among them – and they made firearms portable, powerful, rapid firing, and distinctly American. They also created the nation’s industrial base by making guns out of interchangeable parts, becoming early adopters of the assembly line process.
Today’s guest is John Bainbridge, Jr., author of Gun Barons: The Weapons That Transformed America and the Men Who Invented Them. More than just keen inventors and wily businessmen, these iconic gun barons were among the founding fathers of American industry. Their visionary work in the development of rapid-fire weaponry helped propel the U.S. into the forefront of the world’s industrial powers in the mid-nineteenth century.
Seeking Hitler’s Horses: How a WW2 Infantryman Rescued Equines Caught Up Germany’s “Super Horse” Breeding Program
June 09, 2022 - 57 min
Growing up in the 1930s in Memphis, Tennessee, Phil Larimore is the ultimate Boy Scout—able to read maps, put a compass to good use, and traverse wild swamps and desolate canyons. His other great skill is riding horses.

Phil does poorly in school, however, leading his parents to send him to a military academy. After Pearl Harbor, Phil realizes he is destined for war. Three weeks before his eighteenth birthday, he became the youngest candidate to ever graduate from Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Landing on the Anzio Beachhead in February 1944, Phil is put in charge of an Ammunition Pioneer Platoon in the 3rd Infantry Division. Their job: deliver ammunition to the frontline foxholes—a dangerous assignment involving regular forays into No Man’s Land.

As Phil fights his way up the Italian boot, into southern France, and across the Rhine River into Germany, he is caught up in some of the most intense combat ever as one of the youngest officers in the U.S. Army.

Toward the end of the war, after fifteen months of front-line fighting, he’s sent on a top-secret mission to find the world-famous Lipizzaner horses that Hitler has hidden away.

But it’s what happens in the final stages of the war and his homecoming – particularly the advocacy for amputees and the role that those permanently disabled from war can play in society -- that makes Phil’s story so remarkable.

Today’s guest is Walt Larimore, the son of Phil and author of the new book At First Light: A True World War II Story of a Hero, His Bravery, and an Amazing Horse. He tells a WW2 story about courage, combat, and resourcefulness that continues to resonate today.
Almost President: Stephen Douglas, Thomas Dewey, and Other Failed Candidates That Would’ve Altered History Most by Winning
June 07, 2022 - 38 min
Dozens of American leaders captured their party’s nomination for the presidency but never reached the Oval Office. How would history have changed if they had won? If Abraham Lincoln had lost to Stephen Douglas, a pro-slavery Democrat, in 1860, then Emancipation would be the last thing on his mind during the Civil War. If Richard Nixon had defeated JFK in 1960, then the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Space Race could have also turned out very differently.

To explore these counterfactuals is today’s guest Peter Shea, author of the book In the Arena: A History of American Presidential Hopefuls. We discuss the rise, early career, campaign, and later achievements of historical giants like Aaron Burr and Henry Clay, up through modern candidates to get insight into what it’s like to run for one of the most powerful positions in the world – and come up short.

In a speech Theodore Roosevelt gave after losing the 1912 presidential election, he assigned ultimate credit “to the man who is actually in the arena…who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
4 Foreign Correspondents Spent the 30s Warning About European Fascism. Why Didn't More Listen?
June 02, 2022 - 47 min
In the 1930s, the biggest American media celebrities were four foreign correspondents: Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker, and Vincent Sheehan. They were household names in their heyday, as famous as their novel-writing Lost Generation counterparts, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. They helped shape what Americans knew about the world between the two World Wars by landing exclusive interviews with the epic political figures of their day, including Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, as well as Trotsky, Gandhi, Nehru, Churchill, and FDR. But they also went beyond state press releases and listened closely to dissidents in European nations and heard alarming reports of violence against these authoritarian regimes. And they made waves at home and abroad.

H.R. Knickerbocker was the only foreign reporter whose dispatches Mussolini bothered to read. Goebbels called Knickerbocker an “international liar and counterfeiter.” John Gunther shot to fame with the book Inside Europe (1936), arguing that “unresolved personal conflicts in the lives of various European politicians may contribute to the collapse of our civilization.”

These reporters warned their readers that the dictators wouldn’t be satisfied with the territories they conquered. They vehemently objected to policies of appeasement, and they predicted the coming of the Second World War, putting together the stories they covered—the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Spanish Civil War that broke out the next year, the 1938 German annexation of Austria, and the carve-up of Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement—to make startlingly accurate judgments about what would come next.

The story of these four journalists – and how they changed the news media irrevocably – is told by today’s guest Deborah Cohen, author of Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War. We see how these figures told the major stories of the day as reporters but also shaped them as opinion columnists and book authors. Contests over objectivity in the media aren’t new to the 21st century but age-old. These conflicts about taking sides heated up to a boiling point in the 1930s. Were reporters eyewitnesses or advocates? How far should they go in trying to shape public opinion? We’ll get into all that and more in this episode.
In 1970, a Cyclone Killed 500,000 in Pakistan, Triggered a Genocide, and Nearly Started a Nuclear War.
May 31, 2022 - 44 min
One of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century happened in 1990, when cyclone struck the most densely populated coastline on Earth in today’s Bangladesh. Over the course of just a few hours, the Great Bhola Cyclone would kill 500,000 people and begin a chain reaction of turmoil, genocide, war, and a U.S-Soviet standoff. The storm formed on warm ocean currents of the Indian Ocean. By the time it made landfall, it was about the size of Texas, creating a 20-foot storm surge. Survivors had to climb to the tops of balm trees, as the deluge filled apartments to the second story.

But the worst was yet to come. The cyclone caused a domino effect of cascading catastrophes: flipping a democratic election in the country of Pakistan, which led to a genocide of 3 million Bengalis, a civil war, and all the way up to a nuclear brinksmanship between the American and Soviet navies in which the two nuclear superpowers were an hour away from mutually-assured destruction.

In this episode we are going to explore how revolutions are not always man-made affairs, but often in response to natural disasters. We are joined by Scott Carney and Jason Miklian, authors of The Vortex: A True Story of History's Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation.
We observe that seemingly unrelated small events can snowball not just into national revolutions but international ones or even global war (not least with the parallels to Ukraine today).
Nazi Billionaires: The Business Dynasties That Built Hitler’s War Machine and Still Profit Today
May 26, 2022 - 41 min
After the Allies defeated Germany in WW2, high-ranking Nazis and collaborators lived in a long, strange twilight. The lucky ones were recruited by the Allies (such as Wernher von Braun and his rocket science team who built America’s space program) but others either fled or tried to disappear back into German society.

But many of the closest Nazi collaborators became scions of German industry.

Today’s guest is David De Jong, author of the book Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties. He investigated the secret alliances between Germany’s richest modern business dynasties—many of which also have a large U.S. presence—and the Nazi Party during World War II. The tycoons, lauded by society today, seized Jewish businesses, procured slave laborers, and ramped up weapons production to equip Hitler’s army as Europe burned around them. The brutal legacy of the dynasties that dominated Daimler-Benz, cofounded Allianz, and still control Porsche, Volkswagen, and BMW has remained hidden in plain sight.
War Isn’t the Natural State of Human Affairs: It Shouldn’t Happen, and Most of the Time It Doesn't.
May 24, 2022 - 46 min
War is assumed to be one of the chief features of human history. Plenty of ancient and modern writers back up this perspective (Plato said that only the dead have seen the end of war; John Steinbeck said all war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal, suggesting it was hard-wired into our brutish nature). But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if war isn’t the status quo? This is the argument made by today’s guest, who says prolonged violence between groups isn’t normal. Wars shouldn’t happen, and most of the time they don’t.

We are joined with Prof. Christopher Blattman, a professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago and author of Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. He synthesizes decades of social science from politics, economics, and psychology to help people understand the reasons for war and why they are the exception to the normal state of human affairs, not the rule. On top of that, he uses game theory to explain the five reasons why wars happen.

Using this schema, we discuss why Russia invaded Ukraine; why it took so long for the US to leave Afghanistan; why he thinks it’s unlikely the US will have a civil war; and what to do about the spiking gang violence in big American cities. But what he really focuses on is peace -- what of remedies that shift incentives away from violence and get parties back to dealmaking? He walks us through the places where compromises and tradeoffs have worked, highlighting successful negotiation techniques or exploring often the much-maligned peacekeeping armies actually succeed, even using cognitive behavior therapy on drug lords, with surprising results.
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