I teach history to sailors out at sea; not just your typical college level teaching assignment but rather an adventure in adaptability, flexibility, and sleeplessness. There are upsides: “Join the Navy, see the world,” or at least that’s how the slogan once went. Some things never change. Even in this post 9/11 world the United States Navy pulls into a foreign port on occasion, a chance for sailors and this old salty dog to stretch his legs on unfamiliar shores.

Thus, Bergen, Norway appeared beneath my feet; and utilizing the old “feet don’t fail me know” mantra, I went to commencing upon a hiking and walking binge by which my shins are still complaining. Along one of my many treks within this idealic Norwegian city, a piece of street art stopped me in my tracks. I quickly snapped a photo. I came around a corner only to be greeted with an altered image of my country’s imperialistic past. The iconic image of South Vietnamese General General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a captured Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive popped into view, but instead of a gun and a grimaced face, I glanced at what appears to be a garden water bottle and a flower.

Street art in Bergen, Norway captures America's imperialistic past - and caught my attention.

I used this image at the next class meeting. For many of the sailors this United States History course is the first college course attempted. It’s not easy for many of the students to grasp the idea that “History” changes, that what was thought “right” a few generations ago is now considered “incorrect,” and that likely the history we teach today will equally appear incorrect a few generations forward. Their high school experiences (replete as it is with high-stakes testing and fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice entering) trained them to always seek the “right” answer – and that there always is only one right answer – which serves only to blind them to the possibility that History changes, that History morphs, that History states different things from one generation to the next.

And so here it is, street art from Norway about United States imperialism with an altered image from South East Asia: History changing in my lifetime. Perfect timing, too, as the next lesson cued up was the American Revolution. I always start by asking students what they remember about the Revolutionary War. After a few minutes of exploring their perceptions of this American milestone, I present them with a short piece on the historiography of the event. Here’s how historians have remembered the American Revolution starting with David Ramsey’s History of the American Revolution printed in 1793, ending with Staughton Lynd’s Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution published in 1967 (I’d have provided more recent examples, but my PowerPoint slide can only hold so much text: my apologies to Gary Nash). I present how the Whig Historians of the late-eighteenth century and early nineteenth century viewed the event, from their present-centered perch bent on ballyhooing a new nation, colonial liberties in opposition to British tyranny. From here I ask my students to consider what can be glossed over with such a perception – and usually these first time college students can hit the nail on the head, naming off slavery, Indians, Loyalists, and the woes of working women if not the whole of the working class as possible topics by which past Whig historians readily failed to include.

I show them the Imperial School of thought, led by the work of Herbert Levi Osgood’s American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (1904), and Charles McLean Andrews The Colonial Background of the American Revolution (1924). These authors travelled and researched in England and thus concluded that the Revolutionary War was really a function of transatlantic misunderstandings and bureaucratic bungling, a war then that should not have happened at all. Students usually have a difficult time depicting the flaws of the Imperialist in the immediacy. But, because I teach them the saga of John Wilkes, the St. Georges Field Massacre, and the numerous newspapers such as The Crisis, or The St. James Chronicle, or London’s Public Advertiser, students know that there were many voices in the UK (The Public Register and the Freeman’s Journal out of Dublin, for example) that championed the American cause. With a little nudging students eventually come to regard how such an Imperialist perception “cheapens” the conflict, “makes it something less than what it was,” as one student explained.

I then delve into the Progressive School, where Charles Beard’s thesis come to the fore in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), or Arthur Schlesinger’s The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution (1918). But here I ask students to concentrate on the word “progressive” and where in America’s political and social past that this term came strongly to the fore. The massive anti-corruption and anti-corporation movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century thus mirrors the thinking of the historians of this era, and may have created bias in their reporting of the American Revolution.

On to the Consensus School of thought where stories of the Revolution were colored by the lens of the Cold War. Thus we have the championing of John Lockes’ republican idealism, meshed with a reverence for the rule of law, which therefore allowed individuals the liberties and freedom to pursue wealth and property, and oh yeah, happiness. Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) is such an example. Missing from these tomes however are the stories of slaves fighting for liberty – on the side of the British, or how indentured servants worried about contractual obligations may have fought alongside his loyalist master. Nor are there stories of the Regulators (North Carolina) or the Green Mountain Boys (Vermont) and their complex and often divergent points of view from that of the Colonial Army and government as the war progressed.

The social upheaval of the 1960s created two near simultaneous schools of thoughts in Neo-Whigs and Neo-Progressives. Gordon S. Woods’ The Creation of the American Republic (1969) battled with Staughton Lynd’s Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution (1968). The Neo-Whigs asserted that the Revolutionary War was not at all unique nor radical, whereas the Progressives attempted to prove that the struggles between the social classes drove the events during and after the war.

From here, I returned to the photograph of the street art in Norway. I don’t know what the retouched image’s message attempts to convey; I only share with my students that the problem with history is that it has this habit of fading. When I shared this photograph to officers, only about half of them knew the origin: Vietnam 1968. But the other college educated brass had nary a clue. When I showed the image to my students, all of whom are enlisted naval personnel, only one out of ten knew of the origin of this iconic image. History in my lifetime is already fading, and not only that, but the history of my lifetime is often morphed, changed, redeveloped for the purpose of art, media, or marketing and sales.

Joan Didion once wrote about a new mall constructed to look like old Sacramento, California; from the simpler and earlier Spanish colonial times. The shopping center not only gave the perception of existing since prior to the Gold Rush, but shoppers often pondered how wonderful it was to take such an historic building and convert it into a center of consumption. History manufactured.

“The point is,” I tell my students, “is that history does fade away and then, with each new generation: manufactured. History appears newly discovered, newly interpreted, given new stories from scholars who cannot help but be prisoners of the time in which they live and breathe. Then, history fades once more. We forget. We remember. I do not know the purpose of this Norwegian street art. I only know it took me by surprise and that it fit in nicely with a lesson plan bent on explaining how there is no “right” answer, only a multiplex of layered views.

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