The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

(This essay was originally published as “Remembering the Great Influenza Pandemic” by the Newport Daily News on December 17, 2018.)

One hundred years ago this month the world was celebrating the end of World War I; however, it was still contending with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim was “the most severe pandemic in recent history,” the 1918 influenza pandemic.
It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes originating in birds. A total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected with the virus, one-third of the world’s population. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.

The sickness was first identified in the United States in the spring 1918 among military personnel, and it eventually claimed 675,000 lives in the US. It was so severe that in the period 1917-1918, the life expectancy in the US declined about 12 years, to 36.6 for men and to 42.2 for women, according to the CDC. It struck most age groups; however, it was unique in that it hit the 20-40 year age group especially hard.

Treatment facility in large warehouse

There were three phases of the pandemic in the U.S. It first broke out in military camps and some cities in the spring 1918. Because of the desire to keep wartime morale high, officials suppressed information on the sickness. It is commonly known as the Spanish Flu Pandemic, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral during WW I and had no reason to censor information on its impact.

The second wave, the most lethal, hit in September 1918. It began in Fort Devens, an Army post west of Boston, and also at a naval facility in Boston. About 100,000 Americans died in October alone. The third wave came in early 1919 and lasted through the spring. The pandemic finally subsided during the summer 1919.

At a symposium on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in May, 2018, historian John M. Barry explained the progression of the disease. He repeated the words of a military doctor at the time: “…they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have the mahogany spots over the cheekbones, and a few hours later, you see the cyanosis extending from the ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the [black] men from the white. It’s only a matter of a few hours, then, until death comes.”

In a 1986 interview, Navy nurse Josie Mabel Brown, who survived the influenza, said, “The morgues were packed almost to the ceiling with bodies stacked one on top of another.”
The influenza pandemic inspired great fear. Barry quoted one person who lived through it, saying: “It kept people apart. You couldn’t play with your playmates, your classmates, your neighbors. The fear was so great, people were afraid to leave their homes. You had no school life, no church life, nothing. It destroyed all family and community life. People were afraid to kiss one another, afraid to eat with one another. Constantly afraid.”

It must be remembered that at this time there were no vaccines for protection against the infection, no antiviral drugs for treatment, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. Efforts to control the pandemic were limited to such things as the promotion of good personal hygiene, isolation and quarantine, and the closure of public places, such as schools and theaters. Some cities passed ordinances requiring face masks in public. New York City enacted an ordinance which fined or jailed people who did not cover their coughs.

The CDC maintains that for “more than 60 years, [the] CDC has worked to address the continuing threat of flu and prepare for the next pandemic.” There now exists a “global influenza surveillance system” which includes 114 World Health Organization member states. The Center’s Influenza Division is one of six global influenza centers which monitor and track flu activity worldwide.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News

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The Armistice Ends the “Great War”

(This essay was originally published by The Newport Daily News on November 10, 2018.)

One hundred years ago, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the armistice—the cessation of fighting—took effect, ending the First World War.
The first global war, fought with the massive means of the Industrial Revolution and involving close to two dozen countries, had many effects on the maps of Europe and Asia and the states which participated. Politically, four European-Asian empires fell: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman. In terms of population, a generation of men was essentially killed or maimed in France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. About nine million combatants died and about seven to ten million civilians perished as a direct result of the war. Financially, the war brought Great Britain to her knees and allowed the United States to emerge as the financial capital of the world. Domestically, the principal states became more centralized war machines in search of victory.

The war had begun in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary, following the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks the two major alliance systems of Europe were at war. The principal belligerents stemmed from the two pre-war alliances. The Triple Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary (without Italy) was arrayed against the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria eventually joined the former alliance and were called the “Central Powers.” Italy, Japan, and the United States eventually joined the Entente powers and were called the “Allies.”

By 1914, the Industrial Revolution had magnified the means of warfare tremendously, contributing to the lethality of the war. War materials—not simply rifles, but also machine guns, entrenching tools, artillery pieces, grenades, mortars, boots, and barbed wire—could now be mass-produced. On the Western Front in Europe, this enabled the contending armies to build trench lines from the English Channel far southeast toward the Alps.

The war saw many firsts: modern chemical warfare and gas masks, flamethrowers, steel helmets, tanks, aerial warfare, IQ tests, guide dogs, propaganda film, the military use of X-rays, and wireless radio communication.

Two key factors led the US to enter the war in April 1917: first, the decision by Germany to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and second, the Zimmermann telegram, indicating Germany’s efforts to induce Mexico to join the war against the United States.

With German submarines sinking American ships at will, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the Congress on April 2. Using high, moral language, he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Congress responded with rousing emotion and applause, and on April 6, passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany.

American “doughboys,” as they were called, marched off to war to what became an anthem for Americans during the war: Over There, by George M. Cohan, born in Providence RI. The chorus:
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over
And we won’t come back till it’s over
Over there

American soldiers of the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division, firing a 37 mm machine gun in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
(U.S. Army Signal Corps/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

While Americans saw action only for the closing months of the war, 117,000 soldiers were killed and 202,000 were wounded. Nonetheless the Americans provided essential military and psychological support to the faltering Allies on the Western Front. Historian Geoffrey Wawro states categorically that the “Doughboys won the war by trapping the German army in France and Belgium and severing its lifeline [in the Meuse-Argonne campaign].”
About 53,000 Rhode Islanders enlisted during the war and 612 died. The First Battalion of the 103rd Field Artillery Regiment was composed almost entirely of Rhode Islanders and served gallantly in the war. The citizens of Rhode Island also helped the war effort by creating “war gardens,” volunteering with the Red cross, and fundraising. The Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, a major manufacturer of machine tools, contributed significantly to the industrial war effort.

Historian Jackson Spielvogel calls World War I the “defining event of the 20th century.” The superiority of Europe was gone; the United States was ascendant. An unstable peace settled on Eurasia which would last only two decades. After its revolution in 1917, Russia now became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with rising power and an ideology contrary to the democratic, capitalistic Western countries. Within many countries, government had projected itself into new areas of the economy and society. Many women had taken new jobs and had acquired the right to vote. Intellectually and psychologically, World War I was a jarring and disillusioning experience. With so much death and destruction, the faith in our leaders and in the idea of progress was shattered.

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News.

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Can I Really Be 70!?

(This essay was originally published by The Newport Daily News on October 11, 2018.)

Dear Readers, I am stunned to look at my calendar and realize I shall this month reach the distinguished age of 70. Tell me how this can be.

I have seen so many things: the sunrise over rice paddies in South Korea, horses running wild in the high desert in New Mexico, the majestic, soaring cathedral in Cologne, sting rays off the Grand Cayman Islands, Trafalgar Square in London, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the church where Martin Luther protested against the Roman Catholic Church, the chambers at Dachau, the statue of David in Florence, and the Swiss Alps.

I have ridden on the wonderful, winding Rhine River in Germany, Lake Winnipesauke, NH, the canals in Venice, the Caribbean, the battleship Iowa, and the canals of Amsterdam.

I have experienced so many thrills: the birth of three children and the pleasure of watching all three have their own children. I have wrestled with all my grandsons and bounced all my granddaughters on my knee. I have served our country at home and for seven years abroad—for six in Germany and for one in South Korea. Here at home I have lived with and have come to know the people of Virginia, Georgia, New York state, and Washington, DC. Because of my time abroad, I have been immersed in two other cultures and came to know them. This has given me great perspective on our American culture, the strong points but also its weak points. One can gain great insight in to one’s own country by living in another.

I have learned that in the grand choice we must all face between people and things, I have taken the former and it has served me well. In my experience a focus on things and stuff leads to the desire for more stuff, and more stuff. One can launch into infinite comparisons between one’s own stuff and the stuff of others. There is no future in this. Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea was correct: human relationships are most important.

The ancient Greeks were correct in seeking balance. One of the two most frequent responses from their authoritative oracle at Delphi was meden agan: nothing too much. And then there are the immortal words of Miss Piggy: Never eat more than you can lift.
Speaking of eating, I have eaten eggs, grits, and biscuits in Georgia, ribs in St. Louis, kimchee in Korea, shrimp and grits in New Orleans, Schnitzel mit pommes frites und ein Bier in Germany, pasta in Positano, Italy, and Johnny Cakes and Macoun apples here in New England.

I thank the American citizen and system for providing not only my undergraduate education at West Point, but also my graduate education at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College. West Point changed me not only from a young citizen to a soldier but also from a boy to a man.

I thank my immediate and extended family—mostly deceased—and community in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, for the support, nurture, and examples they provided me. I believe that solid families and communities are the incubators not only for men and women of character but also for good citizens—the lifeblood of a successful civilization. If America is to sustain itself it must restore more of our broken families and communities. As a country then, we shall have the foundation, character, and courage to make the right decisions about our future.

I thank my undergraduate students at Salve Regina University for their attention and eagerness to learn, for keeping me young, and for still laughing at my jokes.
I thank you, my readers, also for your attention, your faith, and your kind words about my essays these past seven years of writing for this newspaper. I hope it shall continue for another hundred.

As a citizen, I still believe in duty, honor, country and in America as an exceptional country. I agree with Senator John McCain in his final letter to us all: “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”

He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News.

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Real Heroes and Fake Heroes

(Note: This essay was originally published as “A Missed Opportunity to Celebrate True Heroes,” by The Hill on September 7, 2018. )

In his reaction to the passing of John McCain, a true American hero, President Trump regrettably has missed a genuine opportunity to bring divided America together in mourning and reflection.

At a rally in Indiana on August 30, several days after McCain’s death, the president did not mention McCain. Rather he spoke again of his 2016 election win. He railed against the media, using again the anti-democratic phrase “enemy of the people.” Once again he stirred hatred and fear by labeling Hispanic gang members as sub-human, using the word “animals.” He invited his crowd to imagine “if Crooked Hillary Clinton had won.” He sowed division rather than unity.

Almost 2,450 years ago in ancient Greece, Athenian statesman Pericles did not pass up such an opportunity. To honor those fallen in battle during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, he gave one of the most famous speeches in Western history. Not only honoring the dead, he also reminded his fellow Athenians of their common democratic ideals and of their greatness. “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” … “everyone is equal before the law.” What counts in public positions is not class, “but the actual ability which the man possesses.” “We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.” We respect especially those laws which protect the oppressed. “Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece….”

It is ironic that neither our president nor Vice President Mike Pence, who did attend the McCain funeral and spoke, took the occasion to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us. It was John McCain himself who did this eloquently in his final letter. “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”

He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”
About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.

Coming of age in the 1950s and early 60s and watching TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke,” my early baby-boomer generation believed in heroes. Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least they did not lie for vanity or personal gain. If they did, we took it as an exception and continued our faith in them. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They did not portray themselves as absolute monarchs like Richard Nixon did when he said: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” They, and other American heroes, did not seem obsessed with celebrity but rather with serving as exemplary citizens of our country. They had served honorably in World War II and Korea and had even led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.

Heroes and stories of the heroic, real and mythical, are essential to the health and sustainability of a civilization. America’s culture wars are, in part, about our heroes—which ones are genuine, worthy of an honored place in America’s Story and worthy of holding up to our children as role models.

Because of his 60 years—five and one half as a POW—of honorable service to our country as a naval aviator and then senator, John McCain has earned the label of “American hero.” By not taking the high road—putting past differences aside and honoring McCain—President Trump has missed an easy opportunity to elevate himself and to elevate Americans together.

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter@Fred Zilian,

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The Battle of Rhode Island (Part II)

(This essay was originally published as “Recounting the Battle of Rhode Island,” by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2018.)

(Note: This is the second of two essays, celebrating the 240th anniversary of the battle.)

The American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (NY) in October, 1777, had a strategic impact on the Revolutionary War. It convinced the French to ally with us. In February, 1778, France signed a treaty of commerce and friendship and also a treaty of alliance with the fledgling United States. Great Britain now faced a much different threat. The US was hopeful and emboldened.

On July 29, the French fleet arrived off Pt. Judith. Under the command of Charles Henri Théodat, Comte d’Estaing, it consisted of 16 ships, with 12 ships of the line and about 4,000 army troops. The British naval forces were clearly overmatched so they took defensive measures. They withdrew their forces spread throughout the island to defensive positions near and in Newport. They also scuttled about 10 ships to prevent them from falling into French hands.

On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport harbor. However, the next day British Admiral Howe and his fleet, a relief force, were spotted off Pt. Judith. On August 10, the fleets were maneuvering for position in the Atlantic south of the bay; however, Mother Nature stepped in. A tremendous hurricane arrived and raged for two days, disabling both fleets.

During this same time, the American forces, led by Maj Gen John Sullivan, had launched an offensive from Tiverton across Howland’s Ferry and landed unopposed in Portsmouth. They quickly occupied the fortifications which the British had evacuated, most prominently, Fort Butts, where the Portsmouth town wind turbine now stands. Gen Sullivan decided on a siege of Newport to try to strangle the British until the French fleet returned to the bay. American forces advanced in the east as far as the high ground east of Valley Rd. (Honeyman’s Hill), in the west as far as the high ground north of Miantonomi Ave.

Worried about the British relief force enroute, Adm d’Estaing informed Gen Sullivan that he was taking his fleet to Boston for repairs. The Americans were stunned and angry; Gen. Sullivan was indignant.

Thus began the unraveling of the allied offensive operation. To make matters worse, the terms of enlistment for several of the militia units were expiring. They wanted to get back to their farms and families. Lastly, sickness, especially dysentery, began to take its toll. On August 24, the siege ended and American forces began a retreat. British commander, Gen Robert Pigot, sensed an opportunity.

By August 29, the American force had declined to about 7,800 men; British-Hessian forces totaled about 6,000 soldiers and marines. The enemy line ran from Quaker Hill to Turkey Hill to Almy Hill. The forces on the western flank were mostly German regiments and they faced, among other units, the 1st RI Regiment, called the “Black Regiment” because of its many black and mixed-race soldiers.

Commanded on this day by Maj Samuel Ward, the regiment was situated behind a “thicket in the valley,” which gave them a strong defensive position. They also used the stone walls in this area as defensive positions from which to fire on the advancing troops. The Regiment had the primary responsibility for holding an important fortification on Durfee’s Hill, now called Lehigh Hill.

Disposition of British, French, and American Forces, Aquidneck Island, French Map, August 1778

(Library of Congress)

Three full assaults by Hessian forces failed to break the line. All the while Hessian cannon were firing on them from Turkey Hill. In his diary, one of the Hessian commanders, Captain Friedrich von der Malsburg, noted that during these assaults, “they found large bodies of troops behind the works and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many Negroes.”
In seven hours of combat that day, the American line held. This allowed for the successful retreat and evacuation of General Sullivan’s Army to Tiverton across the Sakonnet River. Regarding casualties, Gen Pigot’s official report stated combined British, Hessian, Loyalist casualties of 260 with 38 killed. Gen Sullivan reported casualties of 211, with 30 killed.

Tactically, the battle is considered a draw. Neither commander wanted a full-scale battle. British Gen Pigot was happy to get the American force off the island. He had no desire to risk his military force or Newport for a chance to gain a decisive victory. Gen Sullivan was happy to get his force off the island before the British reinforcements arrived.

Strategically, most historians would call the entire campaign a win for the British. They were not captured or pushed off the island. They remained another 14 months until they decided to end the occupation in October 1779.

Nonetheless, this was the first time that American and French forces had planned an allied military operation, one they would have executed, but for the hurricane. Finally, it was the largest battle of the war in New England and the last significant battle in the northern theater, one which unfortunately has never made the US history texts.

A monument to the Black Regiment now stands in Patriots’ Park, Portsmouth, and is dedicated to the “first black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, writes for The Hill and the History News Network, and is a monthly columnist.

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The Battle of Rhode Island (Part I)

(This essay was originally published as “Recounting the Battle of Rhode Island” by the Newport Daily News on August 28, 2018.)

(Note: This is the first of two essays, celebrating the 240th anniversary of the battle.)

Beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764 to 1776, the British government tried in various ways to recoup from the American colonies expenses incurred from defending them during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
Rhode Islanders became increasingly belligerent to what they viewed as unjustified British coercion. In July 1764, Newporters went to Fort George on Goat Island and began firing on the British schooner St. John, after the ship had seized a cargo of sugar from a New York merchant ship. Soon afterwards the HMS Maidstone appeared at Newport with a similar mission: confiscation and impressment of Americans into military service. Incensed Newporters stole one of its boats, dragged it to the Parade (Washington Square) and burned it.
In July 1769, Newporters stripped and burned the Liberty, an armed sloop which had been harassing merchant vessels on the Bay. On June 9, 1772, John Brown of Providence and 60 men seized the HMS Gaspee by force, brought its crew ashore, and set the ship ablaze. Historian Rockwell Stensrud states: “The total destruction of the HMS Gaspee … was a direct assault on the Royal Navy and thus an offensive action against the king and Great Britain itself.”
The so-called “shot heard round the world” came at Lexington on April 19, 1775. British regulars and American militia exchanged fire, and eight Americans lay dead. There was more fighting at Concord that morning, five miles away, before the British retreated to Boston. The war was on.

On May 4, 1776, the colony of Rhode Island severed its relation with the British Crown. The colony’s General Assembly listed the many grievances against Great Britain and its king and declared that all allegiance to the king by “his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, BE, AND THE SAME IS HEREBY REPEALED.”

Though we celebrate this day as our Independence Day, actually it was not until July 19, that the RI General Assembly approved the Continental Congress’s resolution declaring full independence.

The British decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay for several reasons. The British military viewed the bay and the island as a good base of operations in New England. From the bay British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, as well as defend New York City merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston and other ports. The fleet could spend the winter in a protected, deep-water port. At the same time, the Royal Navy could blockade Narragansett Bay and prevent pesky colonial privateers and commercial vessels from Providence, Bristol, Warren and other port towns from exiting the bay.

Politically, Newport was home to many Loyalists, Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown. Many Loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored.

When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, 1776, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of about 9,000 to 5,000 or lower. The main cause of this was the fear of bombardment from Royal Navy warships and of British occupation. Later that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (near Melville, Portsmouth). The force consisted of seven ships of the line (the battleships of the day), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 7,000 soldiers and about 1,500 civilians. The military forces consisted of both British soldiers and their German allies called Hessians (Germans), about equal in number, as well as some Loyalist units. Certainly a good number of Newporters welcomed the arrival and shared the reaction of Hessian officer C. Wende, who recorded in his regimental journal, “One can hardly imagine how majestic the arriving fleet looked.”

In January 1777, Americans began planning to attack Aquidneck Island to end the British occupation. They estimated that they would need at least 8,000 troops. Calls went out to the New England states to send units, which were slow in coming. In the early fall, Massachusetts and Connecticut promised more militia units, and planning for the operation increased. Major General Joseph Spencer was given command, and so the operation was soon called “Spencer’s Expedition.”

All forces were to rendezvous in Tiverton by October 1, 1777. Getting enough boats to transport the troops presented a substantial problem; however, by October, Nannaquaket Pond in Tiverton was filled with 130 boats. In place at Howland’s and Fogland Ferries were units from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. These 8,000 troops would face an estimated force of 3,600 British and Hessians.

By the middle of October, the force was ready; however, boat logistical problems arose. Also, over the next few days, British intelligence learned of the operation. Finally, on Oct 22, the weather turned bad; desertions increased.

By Oct 25, the force had diminished to 5,300, lessening the chances of success. The next day, Gen. Spencer cancelled the operation and released the remaining troops, causing great disappointment and recriminations.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, writes for The Hill and the History News Network, and is a monthly columnist.

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We Must All Be Historians Now: Exploring the inequality of sources with my students

(Note: This essay was originally published as “Perhaps Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Should Not Have Dropped Out of Harvard,” by the History News Network on July 22.)

The full-page ad that Facebook recently ran (May 26) in the Wall Street Journal was a history teacher’s dream. However, rather than taking out the expensive ad, the social media giant might have simply sent a message to its over 2 billion users and held a press conference, advocating forcefully for the study of the humanities, especially for history. In this era of high falsehood and fakery, clearly the American citizen seeking truth needs to understand and adopt the historian’s mindset.

Given the challenges the company has faced in recent months, it is not surprising that the company choose to take out the ad. In mid-March, the New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and wealthy Republican donor Robert Mercer, had harvested private information on more than 50 million Facebook users, a figure later raised to 87 million.

This added to questions Facebook was already facing about the use of the social media platform to spread false news and Russian propaganda to influence US elections in 2016.
On April 10 and 11, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg faced questioning before committees in both the Senate and the House. The primary issues included: the use of user data by third parties without the user’s knowledge, the proliferation of “fake news” and its impact on the 2016 presidential election, and the censorship of conservative media.

Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had been “slow” in correcting problems but maintained that Facebook was taking corrective actions: boosting its disclosure rules for issue ads, committing more resources to delete troll accounts spreading disinformation, ensuring real people own the accounts, adding helpful links next to articles to assist readers in checking information, and giving priority to trusted sources.

Costing probably several hundred thousand dollars, the ad which ran prominently in the paper’s first section had a collaborative and instructive tone. Using the pronoun “we,” the title was a positive assertion and also encouragement to all: “Together We Can Fight False News.” Thankfully, it used the more direct, less Trumpian phrase “false news,” instead of honoring the phrase “fake news,” even though the latter was the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year of 2017.

The ad continued by indicating what Facebook is doing to meet the challenge and what the reader can do. “We are taking action by removing fake accounts and working with fact-checkers. You can learn what to trust with our tips to spot fake news.” It then offered the reader ten pithy and pointed recommendations, most of which align beautifully with the principles history teachers seek to inculcate in their students on how to think critically in evaluating historical documents and images.

Number 1: “Be skeptical of the headlines.” The history teacher strives to instill in students a healthy, dispassionate, respectful skepticism, a trait Amir Bhidé of Tufts University recently emphasized in the Wall Street Journal. Early on in my own history classes, I conjure Thomas Jefferson and his keys words now part of the American Creed: “all men are created equal.” I follow quickly with: However, all sources are not created equal!

Number 3: “Investigate the source.” This relates to the first level of questions history students learn to ask: the who, what, when, and where of a document.

Number 7: “Check the evidence.” This relates especially to documents which are argumentative. What are the document’s major points? What evidence is given? Is the argument logical? Does the author present sufficient evidence? Also, in the essays students write throughout the course, they must use sound, sufficient, text-based evidence.

Number 8: “Look at other reports.” History students learn to compare one document to another which may have conflicting claims and evidence. Especially in World History courses, the students also learn to engage in cross-cultural comparison and analysis. For example, in my classes once we finish the ancient world, teams of students go to the white boards and compare the world’s major religions.

Number 10: “Some stories are intentionally false.” The final, deepest set of questions history students learn build on the previous questions and strike to the veracity, reliability, and credibility of the source. What was the author’s intent and why? How reliable and credible is the source? Using all this information, the student is then prepared to make judgments about the overall quality of the source and how much weight it should merit in the search for historical truth.

Beyond the study of history, the humanities include other fields essential for the conscientious American citizen, seeking understanding and truth in this “post-truth” era. While mathematics and science enable us to investigate, understand, and even shape our world, the humanities’ fields of religion, philosophy, and ethics help the citizen deal with ambiguity and irrationality, give insights into civic virtue, and help the citizen grapple with important questions which have no right answers.

The challenges for Facebook continue. On June 8 the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had arranged “customized data-sharing deals” which gave certain companies special access to user records well after the point in 2015 that it said it was protecting this information. One wonders whether Mark Zuckerberg and the other executives at Facebook should take time to turn to the humanities.

Beyond helping the good American citizen, the humanities can also offer help in this Age of Grand Manipulation to benighted technological behemoths, engaged in Great Power Capitalism and blinded by the god of gold.

Having taught history at the high school and college level for 25 years, Fred Zilian (; @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor (history and politics) at Salve Regina University, RI. He writes for The Hill and is a contributing editor for The History News Network.

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