Rethinking our global past: new edition of BBC’s ‘World Histories’ magazine

Do you need a glossy but stylish history magazine to dip into during those precious quiet moments in our busy lives? The publishers of the very popular BBC History magazine, a monthly publication which investigates all aspects of history and the past, recently launched an exciting new companion magazine entitled World Histories, and issue no. 2 of this has just been published.

The magazine, which in its launch issue promised to provide what the editor called ‘Fresh Perspectives on Our Global Past’, more than delivers on this objective in the new second issue (issue no. 2, February/March, 2017).


A key feature of the new issue is a focus on the post-1945 ‘Cold War’, with discussion also of the two Russian Revolutions (which happened 100 years ago this year). In the Cold War article, the ‘Big Question’ posed is ‘Did the Cold War ever really end?’ The Cold War, of course, is often thought to have finished in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). But with recent tensions in East-West relations and the possibility of a new arms race, perhaps this view needs to be reassessed. A panel of seven experts assess this question in the magazine and offer their thoughts: Evan Mawdsley, Kathleen Burk, Piers Ludlow, Vladislav Zubok, Hakim Adi, Robert Service, and Catherine Merridale.

During the course of the debate, a number of thoughtful assessments are put forward about the very nature of the Cold War. According to Piers Ludlow, for example, ‘It was a competition between two universalist models: each claimed to represent the future’. It was this competition that came to an end in the period between 1989 and 1991: ‘This does not mean of course that all that has followed has been about peace and goodwill’. Thus, in Ludlow’s view, there is still plenty of division in today’s world. On the other hand, though, the Cold War was ‘a very specific competition’ between two universalist models, and such universalism came to a decisive end in 1989-91 and does not really lie at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s regime or in China’s current vision.

Similarly, two other articles with direct relevance to the above topic are contained in the new magazine. The historian and journalist Victor Sebestyen offers an essay on ‘Lenin’s Lust for Power’, which summarises some of the main findings of his ground-breaking new work Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait (published last month). The latter book has been very well-received by critics. The well-known historian of Russian history, Robert Service, whose recent books have included The Penguin History of Modern Russia (2015), has likewise contributed an essay to the magazine on ‘Russia’s Revolutions’, where he traces the rise and fall of Communist Russia and its impact upon wider world politics in the twentieth century.

Lenin in bw

Interestingly, one of the main arguments set out in Sebestyen’s book, which he has repeated in his new essay for World Histories, is that one of the enduring myths about Lenin being an ‘icy, unfeeling, one-dimensional’ individual devoted solely to the Marxist revolutionary cause should actually be revised: ‘In fact he was a highly emotional man who flew into tremendous rages that would leave him exhausted and almost prostrate’. Thus, his thirst for revenge after his brother was hanged by the Czarist state ‘motivated Lenin as powerfully as did any ideology’.

Elsewhere in the new edition of World Histories the reader will find articles on ancient Egypt, the treasures of Korea, an eyewitness account of the Normandy Landings of 1944, and a journey into the world of Cambodia’s epic empire, which reached its peak during the medieval period. There is also a fascinating short piece on ‘Global Connections’, where the broadcaster and academic Michael Scott offers a number of thoughts on the emergence of the nation state in history and how the 15th and 16th centuries became an age of great exploration and discovery across the world.

And for those who are interested in the process of crafting and writing history, Peter Frankopan, author of the critically-acclaimed The Silk Roads (2015), contributes some reflections on the importance of historians questioning their own work: ‘It is easy to forget that writing history is as important as the events historians detail’.

As with the launch issue, the new second issue also contains a ‘Briefing Section’ where leading expert opinions are given on some of the historical issues behind today’s news, including Syria’s future, Donald Trump, and how the growing tendency of young people to abandon books could (in the estimation of Professor James R. Flynn) result in many of them losing touch with history, a thesis that is based on some recent alarming statistics that are coming out of America.

Finally, for those who are interested in the life and legacy of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (who died in November, 2016), the Briefing Section also includes a piece by Tanya Harmer (an associate Professor in international history at the LSE), in which she puts forward her views on Castro’s appeal during his lifetime, and how this cannot be understood without placing it into a larger international perspective.

With plenty of other articles and news items, the new edition of World Histories is well worth consideration. Retailing at an eye-watering price of £6.99, it might be financially challenging for some students, but it is arguably still quite a bargain. Moreover, if this standard of output is maintained, the magazine will undoubtedly become an essential buy for all scholars of international history and global affairs.

The February/March 2017 issue of World Histories is on sale now.

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Winston and the Aliens: Churchill believed in extra-terrestrial intelligence

Take us to your leader. A newly-discovered typewritten essay written by former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill appears to show how he anticipated later findings about the conditions required for the existence of alien life in other galaxies.

The unpublished 11-page essay, entitled ‘Are We Alone in the Universe?’, was penned by Sir Winston in 1939, a year before he became Britain’s wartime leader. According to recent newspaper reports, the essay – which has excited Churchill scholars and other experts – recently resurfaced when it was found in a box at the American National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The essay was probably intended as an article for the British Sunday newspaper The News of the World (which now no longer exists, after closing in light of the telephone hacking scandal).

churchill-as-a-minister-in-ww1The revelation brings an important new dimension to our historical knowledge of Churchill and his career. In particular, what has surprised but also delighted various commentators (including writers on the history of science) is the extent to which Churchill was clearly fascinated with science and kept himself very up-to-date with the latest findings in physics and biology. Dr. Mario Livio, a prominent astrophysicist (and probably the first scientist to read the essay since it was originally drafted) announced the unique find in the journal Nature on February 15th, and praised the manuscript as a masterpiece of scientific journalism: ‘Asimov wrote about such topics and primarily about such topics. But Churchill was a statesman – and perhaps the greatest statesman of the 20th century. I find it astonishing that he would have been so profoundly interested in these problems’.

Timothy Riley, director of the National Churchill Museum, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper: ‘The first time I saw it, I thought the combination of Churchill and such a big question had to be a fascinating read, and that proved to be right’. He added: ‘It is completely fitting that Churchill would ask such a question. He was keenly interested in science and technological advancement, and supported it throughout his long career’.

Riley also explained that the Museum hoped to make the essay fully available to the public as soon as possible. The full text cannot be made available yet because of copyright issues, but some released extracts from the article indicate that Churchill was confident that there were planets orbiting other stars that could also support life. Churchill wrote: ‘I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets’.

Churchill also described the conditions on planets that could support life, where such planets would be ‘at a proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature’ and also have liquid water (an essential ingredient for life). There is also some evidence that the famous Conservative politician returned back to the essay in the 1950s and revised part of it while on holiday in the south of France.

Historians and biographers of Churchill might be less surprised about these latest revelations. As a number of Churchill experts have pointed out, Churchill showed a keen interest in science and technology from an early age, and when he was stationed in India with the British Army, there is evidence that he read Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species (1859). Moreover, in the Edwardian period, while rising rapidly in the world of politics, the ambitious Churchill still maintained his interest in biology, which (as the historian Clive Ponting noted in his biography Churchill in 1994) even extended to the so-called science of eugenics. He was one of the sponsors of the First International Eugenics Conference in July, 1912, held in London.

Similarly, in the First World War, Churchill was a strong advocate of new technologies and inventions as a way of unlocking the military stalemate on the Western Front (including, famously, the tank). In the interwar period, he also contributed many short articles and pieces of journalism to newspapers and magazines on a wide range of science-related subjects, including evolution, nuclear fusion and new technological discoveries. There is also some tantalising evidence that he was big fan of the work of the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, and was possibly inspired to write about life on other worlds in light of the infamous US radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (narrated by Orson Welles). The controversial broadcast, transmitted in 1938, had created temporary panic in some parts of America about an alien invasion, and subsequently caused quite a debate in popular newspapers about the possibility of life on other worlds.  

In the Second World War, as the new Prime Minister, Churchill was also a strong advocate of employing science as an essential aid in the war effort, appointing some leading researchers and inventors as his scientific advisers in Whitehall, including the physicist R.V. Jones, who was MI6’s principal scientific officer. Significantly, in mid-1941, Churchill also gave the go-ahead for Britain to start developing a new super-weapon – the atomic bomb. When the USA entered the war in December, 1941, Churchill offered British scientific expertise to the Americans, and the two countries then worked very closely together on what became the top-secret Manhattan Project (the American project to build atomic weapons).

churchill_1951When he returned as Prime Minister in 1951, Churchill privately applauded the secret decision taken by the previous PM, Labour’s Clement Attlee, to develop an independent British atomic weapon capability. As something of a Cold War ‘warrior’, Churchill believed it was vital for Britain to show it was still a Great Power, and possession of a nuclear deterrent (as far as he was concerned) was an important way of maintaining such a status in the post-war world.

On the other hand, recent research by the historian Kevin Ruane (Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War, published in 2016), has suggested that, with the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, Churchill’s faith in new technologies took a less optimistic direction. In fact, tests of the new H-Bomb by both the USA and the USSR deeply worried Churchill, and persuaded him in the final year of his premiership that it had become essential for mankind to avoid any new conflict: in his view, political leaders now needed to work for East-West reconciliation in order to avoid the catastrophe of a thermo-nuclear war wiping out life across much of planet Earth.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)



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Trump versus Roosevelt: two leaders compared

The American fascination with, or possibly contempt for, Donald Trump’s election as President has spawned a new wave of documentaries and newspaper articles by commentators attempting to compare Trump to Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).


Trump’s victory, in the face of the opinion polls and unprecedented opposition from both Hillary Clinton’s Democrats and from within Trump’s own Republican Party, was undoubtedly unexpected and a major shock to the political establishment. It will inevitably lead to a period of dynamic instability as America begins to cope with Trump’s unpredictable personality.


Yet, how far can comparisons between Trump and Roosevelt really be pushed? The San Diego Union Tribune wrote recently that, ‘Both were known for touting the virtues of vigour and strength, and appealing to audiences because of their imposing physical presence’. But is it enough to offer an early comparison based solely on both men’s extrovert personalities? Is it wise to compare Trump’s single election victory with Roosevelt who, after all, is considered by numerous U.S. historians as one of America’s greatest Presidents, ranking alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln? On the surface, these two individuals – Trump and Roosevelt – appear to share a commonality in their origins, both being born into wealthy New York families. Both have also been extensively satirised by the media. However, this is probably where the similarities end.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on 27th October, 1858, in New York City, the second of four children. His ancestry, on his father’s side, derived from six generations of Dutch immigrants who settled in Manhattan, becoming financially successful entrepreneurs and joining part of New York’s elite. His mother, Martha Roosevelt nee Bulloch, was a ‘southern belle’, whose family supported and fought for the Confederacy. Theodore, or ‘Teddy’, a nickname he loathed, was known for his physical vigour but grew up as a sickly child suffering from violent attacks of bronchial asthma. Protected from the outside world by home schooling, he was inspired by his father, whom he revered, to commence a demanding physical regimen that included running, weightlifting and boxing, eventually outgrowing many of his illnesses.


He continued this tough physical routine during his time at Harvard, graduating in the top five of his class in 1880. After Harvard, he briefly enrolled in Columbia Law School, for which he was clearly unsuited, and was convinced by friends to leave for a career in politics instead. Roosevelt sought public office and was elected as a New York City Representative to the New York State Assembly, being the youngest ever to serve.

At the same time, he married Alice Hathaway Lee, whom he courted for the previous five years and to who he was totally devoted. Roosevelt lost his wife after just four years of marriage and, on the same day, his mother also died. Roosevelt would write in his diary that ‘the light has gone out of my life’ (see diary page in photo). Following the death of both his mother and wife, Roosevelt retired from politics, moving to South Dakota to take up the life of a cowboy and rancher, learning to rope and ride western style. He established the Elk Horn Ranch and, even though he earned the respect of many of his contemporaries, he was still considered a ‘dude’ rancher. The winter of 1886 ended Roosevelt’s foray into ranching when the temperature fell to minus 40 centigrade, but not before he had completed four books, the last being published just prior to his departure from South Dakota.

Returning to political life in 1886, Roosevelt stood and was defeated in his ambition to be Mayor of New York. Though this was a big a setback, he soon resumed his political career, first as a Civil Service Commissioner, then as New York City Police Commissioner, and finally as Assistant U.S. Navy Secretary, before resigning this position to fight in the Spanish-American War at the head of his volunteer ‘Rough Rider’ regiment (see photo).


Roosevelt returned from the war a hero, and was nominated for the ‘Medal of Honor’ for his actions during the famous charge at Kettle Hill. Interestingly, Roosevelt’s son was also awarded the ‘Medal of Honor’ in World War Two for his actions during the Normandy D-Day invasion, thereby joining Douglas MacArthur and his father as the only other father and son recipients of this honour. Shortly after his return, Theodore Roosevelt was persuaded to enter the race to become Governor of New York, to which he was duly elected in 1899. During his short period in office, he became renowned for his twice-daily press conferences, which were always volatile affairs, and – even more significantly – for the introduction of anti-trust legislation aimed at curbing corporate power (something present-day ‘Trumpians’ conveniently overlook). Roosevelt also championed the working man, enacting legislation to curb the 46,000 industrial accidents reported in New York State each year.

Following the death of the Vice-President in November, 1899, a number of businessmen in New York campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt to be William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 Presidential campaign. Why? Roosevelt was seen as a progressive reformer, who had damaged New York’s industry. By persuading him to run with as vice-President with McKinley, the businessmen hoped they would be rid of Roosevelt’s interference in their businesses. Although McKinley was initially reluctant to have Roosevelt at his side, the two men were elected by a landslide victory in November, 1900. However, the business-backed conspiracy to transfer Roosevelt from the New York Governor’s office to the White House backfired as – just 300 days into the Presidency – McKinley was assassinated on September 6th, 1901.

Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the USA on September 14th, 1901, and he would go on to win re-election in 1904 by an even greater margin than in 1900. During his time as President, Roosevelt would, amongst his many achievements, establish the National Parks, National Forestry Service, enact further anti-trust legislation and initiate the construction of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt was an academic, an historian, a rancher, a military hero and – arguably – one of America’s greatest Presidents.


Whilst one can have a great deal of respect for the entrepreneurial skills of Donald Trump, whose business acumen has made him a billionaire, to compare him to Theodore Roosevelt after just one month in office is both unrealistic and, frankly, incomprehensible. Trump has no military experience, having been given exemption from the draft during the Vietnam War, nor has he ever held public office before the Presidency. He is also notably keen to repeal environmentally-friendly safeguards and regulations.

As such, given all this, I would suggest that he cannot be compared to Roosevelt. Trump has to be given time to establish himself as President and create his own stamp on American history. Any attempt to portray him as the ‘new Roosevelt’ is a failure to understand or even comprehend the achievements and true historic greatness of ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt.

Stuart Smith is studying for his History Degree at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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