Putting History on Trial and Other Moral Options…

There is a post on Civil Warriors that I found through Civil War Memory that sparked my interest. I have been for the past 4-5 weeks in the throws of my first fulltime teaching experience at high school. I am teaching U.S. History B which in this district takes us from WWII to the present.

A month or so ago while putting together my WWII unit another teacher proceeded to tell me about a Hiroshima and Nagasaki “simulation” that I just “had” to do. I was then told how to teach it so that basically there was little chance that the students would not come to the conclusion that dropping the bombs were a morally unjust act and that Truman was guilty of some kind of war crime.

I took the materials and carefully looked them over and the simulation was actually a trial. We were to put Truman and the United States on trial for essentially war crimes. Needless to say, I did not do the “simulation.” Simple reason, it’s a classroom, not a courtroom.

I’m uncomfortable with asking my students to “judge” much of the past, especially when moral judgments are concerned.. Obviously, in certain situations moral judgment is required: Hitler and the holocaust, and the vulgar racism that resulted in the slaughter of Emmett Till are easy examples.

But when it comes to something that was a judgment call at a time when nations were fighting for survival, and something that involved variables that may not mean as much to as today as then, I find it impracticable to attempt any kind of moral judgment. Things such as “presentism” get in the way.

Even if I was successful in conveying the historical context involved in a decision such as Truman’s to drop the bomb, I doubt in my general U.S. History class that it would translate to any real understanding once I present a trial simulation that required moral judgment. Cognitive dissonance would surely wreck any opportunity for real exploration and understanding. Showing my students pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should and do result in shock and horror. Trying to convey the reasons behind the decision to drop the bombs becomes lost in a convoluted emotional response that does not allow for any real exploration.

Not that I do not challenge my students to think critically, but the real difference here for me is the challenge to avoid moral judgments that lack historical context. It seems almost impossible. I want my students to understand the brutal nature of war, but also understand that altruistic motives can still be behind something that seems as vulgar as dropping the bomb on civilians. Instead we looked at photos, read an eyewitness account, and discussed total war. The result was a wonderful class debate about whether war was ever justified, and one that did far more to evoke critical thinking than a rigged trial that had but one inevitable result.

I think any kind of a desire to “judge” certain parts of the past places one on a slippery slope. To me, the fact that Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others owned slaves does not transcend their contribution to our nation. We must understand historical context and not seek moral judgment.

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3 Responses to Putting History on Trial and Other Moral Options…

  1. Brooks Simpson says:

    “To me, the fact that Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others owned slaves does not transcend their contribution to our nation.”

    Interesting comment, but I don’t know how one can assess their contribution to the nation without establishing a full context, which would include their ownership of slaves and their position on slavery. Indeed, the three men held distinct positions, and those distinctions would be worth discussing.

    And, of course, the decision to refrain from moral judgment is in itself a moral judgment. To talk of altruistic motives is to make a value judgment. If one establishes historical context, can one make moral judgments, or do we hold to a moral blandness that equates Frederick Douglass with Nathan Bedford Forrest?

  2. Phil LeDuc says:

    The question of history and moral judgment may be a question that’s being given more thought. I refer you to the November/December 2006 issue of “Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society” and the exchange contained therein entitled “Moral Judgment and the Practice of History”. Prof. Robert Tracy MacKenzie (author of the recent “Lincolnites and Rebels”) takes up the question with a review of Prof. Harry S. Stout’s “Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War”, and Prof. Stout replies. The Nov/Dec issue is not yet posted on their website (www.bu.edu/historic), but hopefully will be there soon.

  3. Farrar Richardson says:

    Hello Mr. Wehner -
    If you wanted to provoke debate, you certainly picked the right topic. I am about to write a piece for my own new blog, Lessons from History (http://farrarrichardson.blogspot.com). This question is one that is constantly on my mind these days. I am writing a biography of my great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, a Yankee who fought for the South, and I will soon have to write a concluding chapter in which I cannot avoid making moral judgements. This is mainly in connection with his quarter century career as Chief Engineer for the State of Louisiana, during which he held a statewide responsibility for levee construction and maintenance. As you must know, levee work in those days was largely handled by convict labor – mostly black men – and working conditions were such that the average life span of the workers was seven years after they were sentenced to prison. Of course, my ancestor was not directly responsible for working conditions, since the State prison function was sub-contracted to the notorious Major Samuel James, who made a fortune renting out cheap labor. But he could have done something to mitigate this evil. (Government was already screwing its citizens by sub-contracting government functions, but that’s another story.)

    Now I know from extensive research that my great grandfather was essentially a good man, but in the absence of proof to the contrary I must assume that he accommodated himself to this evil practice and I must include this negative item in my overall judgement Nor am I going to say that Thomas Jefferson was an evil man (especially since he was my first cousin umpteen times removed) simply because he held slaves and fathered at least one child with a female slave, but he did do a few evil things.

    I think you made the right decision in avoiding the trial format to evaluate the Hiroshima-Nagasaki decisions. I also agree that we must strive to understand historical context. But at the same time we must not avoid the responsibility of making a moral judgement. As an educator, I have thought that striving for such a judgement was particularly important, even if our own social context may render such a judgement imperfect. If we don’t, that is the REAL SLIPPERY SLOPE of relativism.

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