Posts filed under 'General'

“The Woman Who Made Iraq”


There is a terrific article in the June issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Hitchens in which he details the involvement of a woman named Gertrude Bell in the early formation of a country whose name every single American recognizes. Friend to both T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill, Bell was a British diplomat and spy who many say was almost single-handedly responsible for the founding of modern Iraq. Educated at Oxford, she was one of the Empire’s leading Arabists at the end of World War I. She rode camels with the Bedouin, was fluent in Persian and Arabic, and even founded an archaeological museum in Baghdad.

Hitchens, as always, provides an intriguing and spellbinding account of this truly extraordinary woman.

Add comment July 2nd, 2007

The 2 F-words You Should Love

Here’s a great post from, one of my favorite blogs. History has many fine examples of how persevering individuals turned failure into triumph…


Add comment June 28th, 2007

The 600th Anniversary of Zheng He


70 years before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in search of a water route to Asia, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and western Pacific with seven maritime expeditions that solidified themselves as the major power in Asia. In 2005 China celebrated the 600th anniversary of the first voyage of the navigator and explorer Zheng He.

In 2005 China celebrated the 600th anniversary of the first maritime expedition of Zheng He (1371-1435), also known as Cheng Ho. Zheng He is China’s most famous navigator, making a total of seven expeditions over 28 years to 30 countries across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and even the east coast of Africa. Some historians even argue that Zheng He’s ships traveled as far as Australia, some 300 years before Cook. He was born in the Yunnan province in 1372, about the time that Genghis Khan was defeated by the emerging Ming dynasty. His parents were Muslims who fought for the Khan, and at 10 he was captured by the Ming army and castrated. He became a servant to a Ming prince, who later rose to become Emperor. The new leader wanted Chinese to extend its reach and influence, and charged his loyal servant with the task of raising and equipping a large fleet for exploration.By the turn of the 15th century, China was already a highly advanced civilization, rich in culture, technology, weaponry, and sea navigation. The expeditions of Zheng Ho resulted in China expanding its influence over much of Asia, and spreading Chinese culture to many parts of the world. Soon after the final expedition, during which Zheng He died during a stopover in India, China became a closed culture, cut off from much of the world during subsequent reigns of emperors and dynasties. As China has begun to emerge from this 500 year period of relative isolation, the memory and legacy of Zheng He has awakened along with it.

For more information on Zheng He, his expeditions, and his legacy, here are a few links:

Add comment March 28th, 2007

Daniel Boorstin Dies at 89

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In 2004, the great American historian Daniel Boorstin died after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. Here is a brief of this great American.The American historian Daniel Boorstin died this weekend after a long and prestigious career. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Americans: The Democratic Experience in 1974, Boorstin served as the 12th Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. He was a truly great historian and one of the most vocal advocates of literacy in 20th century America. He championed the acquisition of volumes of manuscripts for the Library of Congress and helped create both the Center for the Book and the American Folklife Center.

Boorstin was one of the most important historical writers of the 20th century. He published 20 books, including a trilogy on the American experience and one on world intellectual history. But what made him wonderful was his absolute commitment to the value of books and reading. In his acceptance speech upon becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975, he commented that “Mankind has never produced a technical feat to match the book…the computer can help us find what we know is there. But the book remains our symbol and our resource for the unimagined question and the unwelcome answer.” During his term as Librarian of Congress, Boorstin established the Center for the Book to encourage reading and literacy. He also started the effort to renovate the Thomas Jefferson Building, restoring the Library’s main building to its original 1897 condition. Daniel Boorstin fit the perfect image of a university professor and librarian. Routinely donning spectacles and a twead jacket, he spent much of his life behind a typewriter or in a library.

Not long after his appointment as the Librarian of Congress, he organized a press conference. In front of the cameras, he produced an ancient blue cardboard box with a small key dangling from it. He then ceremoniously unlocked it. Inside were the contents of President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated. They included: two pairs of spectacles; a lens polisher; a pocket knife; the fob of a watch; a leather wallet; a linen handkerchief; and nine newspaper clippings. Boorstin had found the box, on a shelf in his new office, untouched for many years. He said his purpose in doing this was to “throw open the great brass doors of the Library of Congress, to open unopened boxes, and to bring the world of books and learning to as wide a public as possible.” He had a mission to bring people closer to literature and history.

Boorstin was, above all, pragmatic. He said that he believed that America was founded on pragmatism rather than ideology. His favorite president was Thomas Jefferson, who also held pragmatism in high regard. His favorite historian was Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Boorstin often commented that Gibbon was an amateur, not unlike himself: no professional association or doctorate in history and hence no need to adhere to the rules he was meant to follow.

He was also way ahead of his time in terms of cultural changes and perceptions. In his 1962 book The Image, he offered a truly unique understanding of the way our contemporary culture uses simulations and false appearances in a vain attempt to transcend everyday life. It was in this book that Boorstin commented, “The American citizen… lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

In his eulogy of Boorstin, the current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, offered these words – “He was an exuberant humanist who brought high literary style to a wide popular audience. He put things together when others were taking them apart. He kept history alive by telling it as his story at a time when many were dehumanizing it, first with ideological prejudice and then with methodological pomposity. He was an optimist but also a critic — providing us an early warning of the difference between real and pseudo events, between people who actually do things and manufactured celebrities who are simply well-known for being well-known. Plato said that immortality lies in one’s children and one’s books. Dan and his incomparable wife and effervescent editorial collaborator, Ruth, have opened both of those pathways to an undying legacy. His outstanding children have spoken today; and a great extended family of readers yet unborn will be benefiting from his books in the years to come.”

Add comment March 28th, 2007

America’s Most Endangered Places

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In the late 1940s, a grassroots effort among environmental advocates and leading historians led to the formation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was officially launched when President Truman signed legislation creating the National Trust on October 26, 1949.

Its primary mission was originally the acquisition and management of historic sites. Since then, the Trust has also taken on additional goals, including financial assistance. The Preservation Services Fund was set up in 1969 to provide financial assistance to local area preservation efforts. Since the 1970′s many other programs have been established including the National Main Street Center, which emphasizes the revitalization of traditional downtown business districts; Community Partners, which focuses on historic residential neighborhoods; and other efforts for rural preservation, heritage tourism, and other programs. The Trust also administers the Preservation Honor Awards, designed to “recognize individuals, organizations and projects that represent the best in preservation.” Since 1966, the Trust has relied exclusively on the financial contributions of private individuals, corporations, and foundations. Today, membership amounts to more than 250,000 individuals and organizations.

The List

In 1988, the Trust published the first of its annual listing of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This list was created to try and create awareness for national historic places that are in the most immediate trouble from development and/or legislative efforts, and spark action to save them. Since 1988, the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list has been one of the most effective tools in the fight to save America’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural, and natural heritage.

The 11 sites chosen each year are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy. Some are well-known, such as Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Others, like the Kennecott Copper Mines in Alaska or the village of East Aurora, New York, are less famous but just as important, because they too represent preservation challenges facing thousands of communities. Each site raises awareness about the dangers to specific parts of America’s heritage and about preservation generally.

The list has now brought national attention to more than 140 significant buildings, sites and landscapes. At times, that attention has galvanized public support to rescue a treasured landmark, while in others, it has been an opening salvo in a long battle to save an important piece of our history. 11 Most has been so successful at educating the public that now more than 20 states and numerous cities and towns publish their own lists of endangered places.

See the 2003 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.


Government policy profoundly affects preservation. Tax rules, zoning laws and building codes, and funding decisions can revitalize traditional downtowns, protect historic buildings, and improve America’s parks — or they can encourage sprawl, damage established neighborhoods, and allow the destruction of historic treasures. The National Trust advocates for better federal, state and local policies in the following areas:

Smart Growth & Sprawl: Not only does sprawl consume open space and demand costly infrastructure — it also drains the life from established communities.

Government Funding: Budget deficits at both the federal and state levels have endangered funding for programs that have preserved America’s heritage.

Tax Credits: Federal and state tax incentives have encouraged the rehabilitation of tens of thousands of buildings and created thousands of jobs.

Historic Schools: Fair funding formulas can keep historic schools at the heart of America’s communities and prevent mega-school sprawl.

Transportation: Federal protections have saved thousands of historic treasures from road building, and thoughtful funding rules have encouraged community-friendly transportation projects.

Housing: Revitalizing older communities is crucial for meeting the ever-increasing demands for affordable and market rate housing.

Getting Involved

Support smarter public policies by becoming a preservation advocate. Join the National Trust’s Preservation Advocate E-Mail Network and receive alerts and a newsletter, the Preservation Advocate News, that describe the latest policy developments and what actions are needed. Also find out more about current proposals in the Trust’s Legislative Action Center, which includes comprehensive information about bills before Congress and the voting records of each member.

* Note: Some of the copy on this page was taken directly from the National Trust website… there you go.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

Interview a Vet

I first became interested in interviewing veterans after watching a television interview with Stephen Ambrose, in which he described the Veteran’s History Project , an ongoing effort sponsored by the Library of Congress to collect first-hand accounts from veterans of 20th century conflicts. The need for this effort, according to Ambrose, is great since we are “currently losing World War II veterans at a rate of 1,100 to 1,500 a day.”I found that rate astonishing. I thought about the veterans I know, many who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and some who fought in Korea and World War II. I found it strange to think that one day they would all be gone, and that I would soon live in a time in which there were no remaining veterans of World War II. Likewise, my kids would someday read an article about that the few remaining Vietnam vets gathering for some type of ceremony. I thought that volunteering might not only be an incredibly satisfying experience, but would also (at least in a small way) serve the interests of future generations who will want to know more about our involvement, and hear the oral history accounts of the men and women who served. Ambrose went on to explain, and I’m paraphrasing now, “Just think about how wonderful it would be if today we were able to hear Lee’s or Washington’s accounts of the events that surrounded them.” I joined the effort, and can honestly say it has been a wonderful experience.

What is it?

The mission of the Veteran’s History Project is to collect and preserve first-hand accounts of U.S. veterans of the following 20th Century wars:

* World War I (1914-1920)
* World War II (1939-1946)
* Korean War (1950-1955)
* Vietnam War (1961-1975)
* Persian Gulf War (1990-1995)

Here’s the intro text from the Veteran’s History Project website (

“There are 19 million war veterans living in the United States today, but every day we lose 1,500 of them. Motivated by a desire to honor our nation’s war veterans for their service and to collect their stories and experiences while they are still among us, the United States Congress created the Veterans History Project… Public Law 106-380 calls upon the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to collect and preserve audio- and video-taped oral histories, along with documentary materials such as letters, diaries, maps, photographs, and home movies, of America’s war veterans and those who served in support of them… Knowing that this and future generations of Americans have much to learn from those who served, we at the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center have embraced this national effort. We encourage you to read the information and instructions on this Web site and to join us in making the Veterans History Project a success. The Veteran’s History Project needs volunteers to conduct interviews with veterans of the 20th century.”

How do I get involved?

It is very simple to participate. First, you need to find a veteran willing to be interviewed for the project. Talk to friends and relatives who might know of a willing participant. If you don’t know any personally, there are many organizations that can put you in contact with veterans, including state chapters of Veteran’s of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Japanese American Veterans Association, Vietnam Veterans Association, Military Chaplains Association, The Retired Enlisted Association, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. Next, you can request an interview kit via an online form at the Veteran’s History Projext website (, or download the forms directly from there. For information on actually performing, recording, organizing, and submitting your interviews, there is a guide on the website as well.

If you’re already involved, drop me a note at and let me know if you have a cool interview to post on Think About It.

Add comment February 13th, 2007



Welcome to Think About It. This is a website devoted primarily to my love of history.

I’ve always loved history. Well, let me clarify that- I complained just as loudly as any other high school student who was force-fed dates and names like buckets of castor oil. And like most students, I often remarked to myself, and occasionally to my teachers, the question posed a million times each school year by kids all over the planet- “how in the world will memorizing [insert fact here] help me when I get out of school?” Not that memorizing the date of the Battle of Hastings hasn’t proven useful over the years (it’s 1066 A.D., for trivia’s worth). But like most people, I found it difficult to grasp history’s true worth, let alone stay awake during lectures.
My parents were born in Ireland, and we went there a few times as a family when I was young. I remember going to Cashel, a castle, during one of our day trips. “The Rock of Cashel” is just outside of Dublin on the road to Cork, and is built upon a hill of solid rock. It was built in the 4th century and was the seat of kings and medieval bishops for 900 years, continuing as an important castle until the early 17th century. Cashel was the original fortification of the Eoghanachta, or kings of Munster; Brian Boru, a legendary Irish king, was crowned there in 977. As a boy, I gazed upon this fortress from the street below, and began to imagine all of the battles that must have been waged on that very hill.

As I stood within the walls of the castle with my father and a cousin, I suddenly became very aware that my shoes were touching the very stone upon which these ancient people had walked, run, played, fought, and died. I could run my hands along walls that had seen those battles, along with great feasts and other important events. I peered through the long slits cut into the massive stone walls which protected the inhabitants from the arrows of attacking archers. I imagined the hearths ablaze with fires, the gates and walls guarded by sentries, and the halls busy with activity. I thought to myself- what a cool place to have lived in! I told my Dad what I was thinking. He smiled, and agreed that it must have been really something to have lived in such a place during such a time, though he gently pointed out many of the modern conveniences that weren’t available to kids back then. We talked about how tough it must have been to live and survive in such conditions.

As I grew older, and began to read a lot of history, I realized that I did love history- I just didn’t like the way it was taught to me in school. And while the subject of history isn’t exactly an ice-breaker in most daily conversations, I find that knowing more about current and past civilizations, cultures, religions, species, and even the earth itself has helped me to better understand and communicate with people from different backgrounds and experiences than my own. And as I begin to view the future as history that simply hasn’t happened yet, my perspective on how one can choose to spend one’s life sharpens, and I draw strength from knowing that countless numbers of people have encountered the same types of life challenges that we all face sooner or later- being a good husband and father, protecting your kids, making a career, doing the right thing, etc. The thing is, well-written history can bring alive people, places, and events that took place even thousands of years ago, and place them squarely in today’s context. It can teach us things, if we are willing to listen. It’s all a matter of perspective. To me, virtually everything is history, or certainly one day will be.

So what about the name, “Think About It?” For me, the term is meant simply to suggest that we all have much to gain from learning about important and interesting history. We gain a richer appreciation for our lives, and perhaps view it in the context of an opportunity, rather than as a given. As far as the site goes, Think About It will focus on many topics, including the history of ideas, exploration, music, film, technology, and the earth itself. This site will offer articles, commentary, book and film reviews, occasional guest articles, interviews, and links to other interesting sites. I hope you enjoy the topics and information put forth. Hopefully, history will be kind.

“…the science of History is a great bulwark against the stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.” Anna Comnena (1083-1153)

Add comment February 13th, 2007


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