What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

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Places

Were the Bald Knobbers Law-and-Order Folk Heroes or Murderous Thugs?

In the Lawless Post-Civil War Ozarks, the Vigilante Bald Knobbers Took Government's Place

An illustration depicts Bald Knobbers riding in black horned masks. Courtesy of the Route 66 Museum and Research Center, Lebanon, Missouri.

By Lisa Hix
February 24, 2017

When I was seven years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like Disneyland reimagined as a 19th century mining village, all built around a cave that was a bat guano mine in the 1880s. There, I went on a frightening dark ride called Fire in the Hole.

In the waiting area, …

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Ideas

How Medicare Both Salved and Scarred American Healthcare

The 52-Year-Old Federal Program's Successes Reflect a Complex Legacy

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare Bill into law while former President Harry S. Truman, right, observes during a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. on July 30, 1965. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

By Julian E. Zelizer
February 17, 2017

Before Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 millions of elderly Americans lacked health insurance. They could not afford to go to the hospital, nor could they cover the cost of a physician. Medical breakthroughs ranging from antibiotics to new surgical procedures kept increasing the cost of health care, but the elderly were left out in the cold, and were unable to buy the insurance that was being given to workers in manufacturing jobs.

For them, just going to the hospital …

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Engagements

A Half Century Later, the Cuban Missile Crisis Haunts My Dreams

But as a Child My Fighter Pilot Dad Was My Nuclear Bomb-Smashing Superman

The author and her family when they lived at Homestead Air Force Base, two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The author is on the right. Courtesy of Karen Bjorneby.

By Karen Bjorneby
February 13, 2017

On a Tuesday morning in mid-October 1962, my father received a phone call ordering him to fly from where we lived, Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base outside Kansas City, Missouri, to Grand Island, Nebraska. He had to leave immediately. He couldn’t tell my mother why, but he did tell her that the president would speak later that night on television, and that she should listen.

My mother didn’t need to hear anything more. As soon as he left, she bundled my sister …

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Encounters

When the President’s Best and Brightest Were Also the Richest

The Practice of Tapping the Moneyed Elite Began with WWI—and Was Surprisingly Scandal-Free

Bernard Baruch, a financier and speculator known in his day as “the lone wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first so-called “dollar-a-year men” appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

By Charles Rappleye
February 10, 2017

From our earliest days we Americans have embraced leaders from among the ranks of the nation’s moneyed elite. Voters set the tone when they chose George Washington, the wealthiest man on the continent at the time, as the first president.

But that choice was accompanied by a healthy skepticism of the role of money in the halls of government. As the years went by, recurrent scandals prompted rounds of reform, fostering an intricate system of rules to promote ethical conduct.

The result …

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Ideas

How the Passport Became an Improbable Symbol of American Identity

What Began as an Informal Means of Introduction Became the Ultimate Government-Sanctioned Authenticator

Anna Karen Ramirez, 19, poses with her passport at her home in Alamo, Texas in 2009. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

By Craig Robertson
February 6, 2017

It was originally a European tradition, not ours. But in 1780, needing a more formal way to send former Continental Congressman Francis Dana from France to Holland, Benjamin Franklin used his own printing press to create a new document. The single-sheet letter, written entirely in French, politely requested that Dana and his servant be allowed to pass freely as they traveled for the next month. Franklin signed and sealed the page himself and handed it off to Dana, creating one …

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Encounters

A Jewish Photographer’s Nearly Forgotten ‘Collaboration’ with Cheyenne Indians on the Santa Fe Trail

The Sole Surviving Image of the Perilous Journey Provides a Crucial Bridge to History

The only surviving daguerreotype from Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s journey West in 1853 depicts a view of the Cheyenne Village at Big Timbers. A pair of figures stand to the left; drying hides hang on the right. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Steve Rivo
January 27, 2017

On a cold day in late November 1853, in a place called Big Timbers, in what is today southeastern Colorado, a Jewish photographer named Solomon Nunes Carvalho hoisted his ten-pound daguerreotype camera onto a tripod and aimed his lens at a pair of Cheyenne Indians. At first glance, the resulting image, scratched and faded from years of neglect, seems unremarkable. But in fact it is probably the oldest existing photograph of Native Americans taken on location in the western United …

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Identities

How a Segregated Regiment of Japanese Americans Became One of WWII’s Most Decorated

The About-Face Permitting Japanese Americans to Enlist Provoked Dissent, Anger—And the Remarkable 442nd Regiment

President Harry S. Truman reviews the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Washington, D.C. on July 15, 1946. Photo by Abby Rowe/National Archives and Records Administration.

By Franklin Odo
January 19, 2017

In January 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his War Department abruptly reversed course by allowing Japanese Americans to enlist in the U.S. Army in the fight against Germany and Japan.

This was not a foregone conclusion: The draconian mass removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans had been justified as a military necessity—and continued to be enforced. Two-thirds of those incarcerated were American-born Nisei, second-generation citizens; one-third were Issei, Japan-born immigrants, prohibited by law from applying for naturalization.

In …

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Identities

Why I’m Still Talking About My Incarceration as an American Japanese

The Pain of Remembering Is Deep, But the Danger in Forgetting Is Far Worse

Japanese Americans attending a Sunday school class at the Poston War Relocation Center on the Colorado River in Arizona, about 1944. The author is not among those pictured. Courtesy of the Wada and Homma Family Collection/Densho Digital Repository.

By Chizu Omori
January 18, 2017

I am a member of a once despised minority group, American Japanese, who spent three and a half years incarcerated in an American concentration camp during World War II. Although that ordeal ended 72 years ago, the impact of that experience on my life and its broader implications for American society resonate deeply to this day.

In 1941, at the beginning of the war, roughly 10 percent of the adult “alien” men (Japan-born persons being ineligible for citizenship) were picked up …

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Ideas

How Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse Elevated the Everyman

The Disneyfication of American History Began Long Before the Theme Parks

Souvenir Disneyland scrapbook with Frontierland’s iconic symbols from 1955. Courtesy of Bethanee Bemis.

By Bethanee Bemis
January 3, 2017

There are few symbols of pure Americana more potent than the Disney theme parks. To walk down any of the destinations’ manicured Main Streets, U.S.A.—as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each day—is to walk though a particular vision of America’s collective memory. It’s small-town values. It’s optimism. It’s energy. It’s innovation. It’s a certain kind of innocence. It is by design, the story of the “American Way”—and one that has played a dominant role in shaping the collective …

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Identities

How Alpine Yodeling Mutated Into American Blackface Minstrelry

Vestiges of the Racist Entertainment Persist in Art and Politics

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By Daniel H. Foster and Anne Bramley
December 27, 2016

In 1822 the Austrian emperor Franz I and his ally Tsar Alexander I of Russia held a meeting in a remote valley of the war-torn Tyrolese Alps. They were entertained by the Rainers, a locally renowned family of singing farmers. When the visiting dignitaries heard the improvisational simplicity of the family’s performance of native Alpine songs, they encouraged the four Rainer brothers and their sister to leave the war behind and take their homegrown mountain show on the road.  …

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