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Channeling the Past

Politicizing History in Postwar America

Erik Christiansen

Publication Year: 2013

After the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans looked to the nation’s more distant past for lessons to inform its uncertain future. By applying recent and emerging techniques in mass communication—including radio and television programs and commercial book clubs—American elites working in media, commerce, and government used history to confer authority on their respective messages.
    With insight and wit, Erik Christiansen uncovers in Channeling the Past the ways that powerful corporations rewrote history to strengthen the postwar corporate state, while progressives, communists, and other leftists vied to make their own versions of the past more popular. Christiansen looks closely at several notable initiatives—CBS’s flashback You Are There program; the Smithsonian Museum of American History, constructed in the late 1950s; the Cavalcade of America program sponsored by the Du Pont Company; the History Book Club; and the Freedom Train, a museum on rails that traveled the country from 1947 to 1949 exhibiting historic documents and flags, including original copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Magna Carta.
    It is often said that history is written by the victors, but Christiansen offers a more nuanced perspective: history is constantly remade to suit the objectives of those with the resources to do it. He provides dramatic evidence of sophisticated calculations that influenced both public opinion and historical memory, and shows that Americans’ relationships with the past changed as a result.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xiv

This is a history of the usable past in the postwar United States. Or rather, it is a collection of five interrelated histories of sometimes conflicting, sometimes overlapping usable pasts. In each story, a particular group of Americans purported to teach their rendering of the vital lessons of history to the public. The large number of popular historical productions in this period, the unique ways ...

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Introduction: History’s Past Presence

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pp. 3-20

In the spring of 1947, President Harry Truman formally launched the domestic Cold War by issuing Executive Order 9835, which established the federal government’s employee loyalty program. In November, the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched its investigation of the motion picture ...

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1. The History Book Club Offers the Past as an “Image of Ourselves”

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pp. 21-52

The moment seemed propitious. In 1947 historian Bernard DeVoto sensed that there was an awakening of a “growing national consciousness about the American past. Not only readers but writers are turning to it in increasing numbers,” which meant a “vast production of books about our past.”1 A contemporary referred to a postwar “boom in American ...

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2. Mythologizing History on Du Pont’s Cavalcade of America

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pp. 53-99

So began a 1941 Cavalcade of America radio play about Davy Crockett. These words also serve as an introduction to the Cavalcade itself. Blending together history and myth, accentuating nationalism and patriotism, and defining who and what belongs in the American story, the Du Pont Company’s two-decade-long ...

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3. History, News, and You Are There

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pp. 100-145

In 1953, soon after Du Pont first aired Cavalcade of America on television, another historical program, CBS News’s You Are There, also moved from radio to television. You Are There’s historical interpretations presented 1950s audiences with leftist political ideology almost exactly opposite Du Pont’s. On ...

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4. The Freedom Train’s Narrow-Gauge Iconography

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pp. 146-185

This is the story of an unusual form of public history, one in which the past was delivered on railcars and also through “all methods of mass persuasion.”1 From September 1947 to January 1949, a “Freedom Train” carried 126 of America’s most vital historical documents to 322 towns and cities in all 48 states. More than a third of the population participated in some part of the ...

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5. Building a “National Shrine” at the National Museum of American History

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pp. 186-222

More than ever before, Americans in the 1950s visited and learned history from museums. Dissemination increasingly supplanted preservation as the primary purpose of the museum, as curators sought new ways of reaching the public, and museums became prominent tourist attractions.1 A “new ...

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Conclusion: Once and Future Truths

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pp. 223-233

When we venture into the past we engage in a sort of time travel. One of the sacred myths of science fiction is that time travelers can alter the course of history, in unpredictable ways. When we venture into the past through “authentic” historical dramas such as Cavalcade of America or visit the “real” ...


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pp. 235-251


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pp. 237-282


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pp. 283-295


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pp. 297-302

E-ISBN-13: 9780299289034
E-ISBN-10: 0299289036
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299289041
Print-ISBN-10: 0299289044

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 6 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 859687319
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Channeling the Past

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public history -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • History in popular culture -- United States.
  • Mass media and history -- United States.
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