An Interview with Robert Etheredge: Why Study American History?

Apr 23, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, tell us a bit about your background and why you wrote this book.

My father was a Marine in World War II and won the Bronze Star. He was very patriotic and instilled that sense of patriotism in me. I grew up visiting historic sites on the East Coast and learned more about America, its flags, and the responsibilities of citizenship as I worked my way through Boy Scouts to become an Eagle Scout. I spent four years at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, and then served as a Naval Officer. After the Navy, I started my career designing and writing computer software. In 1999, I started MiraVista Press to publish a poetry anthology, Poetry for a Lifetime, of my father’s favorite poems and patriotic speeches. I followed that up with two more specialized books that included a number of these items.

In early 2010, I read of a number of studies and surveys indicating that the average American could not even pass the rather simple U.S. Citizenship test given to all new citizens. And shows like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” emphasized how ignorant many citizens were about their country, particularly younger people. I felt that this lack of knowledge threatens the long-term survival of America. I also knew that, without the Boy Scouts or the military, most people never learn basic citizenship. I decided to produce a book that would broadly cover all that has made America great, and what all Americans should know. I included the entire U.S. Citizenship Test, with page references for each question. But unlike many other books designed solely to help people pass the test, I wanted my book to be a complete reference and not just a recap of historical events.

2) I firmly believe that EVERY nation should know a bit about its background- England, Finland, wherever.. .but how do we convince students about this?

I discovered some interesting facts about how other nations handle this problem. Since 2001, seven countries have introduced citizenship tests for the first time, including Australia, Britain, France, and Germany. Our own test was added in 1986 and revised in 2007, and is actually the easiest among all these countries. Many of these countries are suffering from challenges of multiculturalism brought on, in part, from increased immigration and lack of assimilation. Besides measuring the applicant’s knowledge of each country’s civics and government, they also probe how well they know the culture.

The Dutch want to ensure the prospective citizen really “feels Dutch”, and the Australians want to know if the applicant really “understands the Australian way of life and shared values…” It became very clear that these concerns were even more important to our country. America does not rely on any ethnic, religious, or cultural nationalism to define who we are–we are a melting pot.

Our nationalism is civic–it is based on our belief in and adherence to the ideas contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and celebration of our common heritage. It is fragile–each generation must learn and accept these shared civic ideas and principles–they must learn what it is to be an American. Many other countries can rely on their ethnic or cultural roots to define who they are. Each new generation of native Japanese, Norwegians, or Italians inherit these characteristics at birth. But foreigners moving to these countries, particularly if they don’t share the appearance or religion of the inhabitants, will find it difficult to become a true Japanese, Norwegian, or Italian. America is different–anyone can move here and rather quickly become an “American” and fully participate in the American dream.

That is why assimilation is so important (as many countries in Europe are finding out) and why it is important for each generation to learn our history and form of government, and appreciate the sacrifices and accomplishments of previous generations. As President Reagan said, our freedom “never more than one generation away from extinction.”

3) Our country HAS a rich history- from the American Revolution to our participation in World War II. How does your book capture this? Do you use time lines?

The book was never intended to be an in-depth study of American History. To do that properly would involve dozens of volumes. Instead, it presents a broad overview of what has shaped America. I presented the history in an easy-to-read timeline covering 100 pages, and filled with 194 illustrations and pictures. I think it is important to present this history sequentially so the reader can place events in the context of what else was happening at the time. There are other books that cover our history in a “On this day…” manner, but this does not give the reader the context of each event. The timeline lets you see that the famous “Marbury v. Madison” Supreme Court case took place at the same time that Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase, fought the Barbary Pirates, and sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition westward. And based on the various surveys and JayWalking type interviews, a large number of citizens lack even the basic understanding of when the Civil War was, what countries America fought in its wars, and who was President at any given time.

I included events from everyday American life as well–when baseball started, when The Wizard of Oz opened, and the O.J. Simpson trial. The last thing I added to the timeline was one of the most interesting–the actual voting results for all the Presidential elections, along with a brief description of the issues and drama of each election. Many Americans today think our present-day election problems are unique to our present political environment, and that these negative political ad campaigns are something new. This is far from the truth. Political parties and public negative campaigns showed up in the country’s second election in 1792, and haven’t stopped. Four elections have resulted in the winner receiving fewer popular votes than his opponent, and other elections were filled with drama from Andrew Jackson blaming his opponent John Q. Adams for his wife’s death, to the effect of third party candidates.

The book also includes other information about America that make up its heritage. There are short bios of each President, maps showing the progress of statehood, full text of the Declaration and Constitution, famous speeches and songs, information about the government, and lots of information about our culture.

4) I read Samuel Elliot Morrison, as well as the recent book by Tobin Buhk on True Crime in the Civil War. There are certainly different styles of writing of say David McCulloch as well as your style- what makes for a good interesting history book?

The American Challenge is different from other history books that focus on a single event, era, or person. Instead, it covers the entire spectrum of our history and culture and thus does not really rely on a story line or plot. It is more important that it establishes a simple, understandable framework of our history that can be used as a reference. Some of my favorite historical books focus on specific events, like The Candy Bomber about the Berlin Airlift, and Stephen Ambrose’s books about World War II. They are able to cover the historical details of these events while providing the personal perspective that makes the story believable and interesting. The most captivating history books are ones that are factual but read like fiction, and are such amazing stories that soon that old cliche starts running through the reader’s mind — “this is stranger than fiction.”

5) I believe that history is more than just a bunch of dates and facts and figures. My ancestors were involved in the history of this country- how do we get that point across?

I fully agree with your point. That is why the timeline is only part of the book, and why I included a large section of Americana and cultural information. It showcases the achievements of all the Americans over the centuries that helped formed this great country, whether they were writers, painters, athletes, or inventors. The section of famous speeches helps put their times in focus. The section on “Heroes” is probably most to your point and I discuss that more below.

6) Recent movies seem to paint a somewhat glamorous picture of history, yet at Valley Forge, there was suffering. How does a historian paint the pain, the mud, the gore, and sadly the death that occurred as well as the accomplishments procured?

You can never completely convey that pain and suffering to a reader sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire sipping their morning cup of coffee. Portraying this suffering requires a more personal account, often through the eyes of a participant. Recounting lists of the number of casualties or deaths lacks the impact of a story told by a soldier who depicts the deadly conditions of life in the trenches, seeing his own arm severed by a cannon ball, or having his best friend fall dead by his side.

It is a fine line a history writer needs to walk–you want your portrayal to be accurate, but the visceral impact of a graphic description of pain and death can overwhelm other messages. If you are portraying the invasion at Normandy on D-Day, any personal account of the horrors faced by those brave soldiers who jumped out of their landing crafts in the first wave can easily become a central message of how awful war is (which it is) and overwhelm the big picture message of how important this battle was in a war that was thrust upon America and became a fight to end the scourge of Nazism. The American Challenge focuses more on our challenges and our accomplishments. Our section on heroes, however, does highlight a number of individuals who experienced and overcame great adversity.

7) Every nation seems to have it’s heroes and we seem to look to our leaders for inspiration. Who have you focused on in your book?

My chapter on “Heroes” became my favorite section in the book. It starts with the accomplishments of the men that helped found the country who are also the most well-known to any student of American History–Franklin, Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and others. Next, I included the men and women whom I felt contributed the most, made personal sacrifices, or exhibited personal courage and initiative far beyond the average person.

My selection criteria was not a popularity contest and I am sure any history teacher would have a different list, and due to space limitations, the list is far smaller than it could be. I purposely did not use any kind of quota to help determine the mix–I didn’t go out of my way to ensure there was equal representation of women and people of every religion, ethnicity, or background. I included as many pictures as I could procure. When I finished, I was stunned by the diversity of the results. There are lots of women such as Clara Barton, blacks such as Booker T. Washington, Native Americans such as Sitting Bull, and Hispanics such as Cesar Chavez. This section is a testament to the diversity of America, and to the contributions of those of all genders and races.

“Unsung Heroes Who Changed History” highlights lesser-known individuals who, through personal initiative and courage, made enormous contributions to our country or the world. Some, like Haym Solomon and Robert Morris, kept the Revolution alive by financing the war. Without their help, the Revolution would have failed. Henry Knox, on his own initiative, trudged through the snow to bring back 60 cannon from Fort Ticonderoga that ended the British siege of Boston. Many heroes are “unnamed” — from the Tuskegee Airmen to the Navajo code talkers of World War II to everyday heroes like police and firefighters. My favorite unsung heroes are discussed in the section on the Berlin Airlift. Three relatively unknown men, through their convictions and actions, saved Germany and most likely the rest of Europe from Soviet domination after World War II.

I have also included what I feel are the most inspiring and influential speeches throughout our history. I selected speeches that were meaningful, inspiring, and spoken from true core convictions. They range from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech, to Reagan’s historic “Tear down this wall” challenge in 1987. Ironically, the last speech is French President Sarkozy’s speech to our Congress in 2007. It best sums up all that is great about America and reminds her what she means to the world.

In this country, anyone can be a hero and make a difference.

8) Who would really benefit from reading this book ?

It is a perfect reference book for all Americans, particularly voters and those whose history and civics knowledge is based only on a class back in high school. In one book, they have a complete history timeline, text from our Declaration, Constitution, and famous speeches, information about how their government works, and other facts about their country. Even the section on proper care of the American Flag is important as there are continual reports of incidents of improper care of the American Flag.

Students would benefit. They are inheriting this country and they must understand the sacrifices of those who went before them, as well as the structure of our government. I feel strongly that the right of voting comes with an implicit requirement of responsibility. To be an educated voter means you must understand our government and be informed on the issues or people on the ballot.

Another group to benefit would be all naturalized citizens, and those who are planning to become American citizens or want to understand our country better. There are other books designed just to help them pass the U.S. Citizenship test, but The American Challenge covers much more than that. Becoming truly “American” involves much more than simply answering a few questions. It also involves having a firm understanding of our heritage and our culture.

9) Why do we really need to give our current students a glimpse into our American Challenge?

The young men and women who are finishing high school and college are inheriting this country. They will be the ones who will eventually run this country, vote for those who do run it, and continue to contribute to the growth of America through their hard work and ingenuity. They must know our history so they can ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes — they should know about the accomplishments of all who went before them so they will know what is required of them and what is possible — they need to understand our form of government, how laws are passed, and why the separation of powers is important, so they can properly cast their votes and take action to prevent this country from descending into mob rule or bankruptcy.

If they have this knowledge, then the next time Jay Leno stops them in the street and asks them a question about America, they will astound him with the accuracy of their answers.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

I think your questions covered the main points of the book. What I haven’t discussed was the most important lesson I learned from writing the book.

I think it is understanding with clarity our exact form of government. America is not a “Democracy” — our founders knew full well the dangers and failures of true democracies. They had the wisdom to set up our country as a Federal Constitutional Republic. The key word here is “Constitutional”. Without the bedrock of the Constitution under the entire government, mob rule would ensue with a simple majority determining our laws. Being a “Constitutional Republic” means that laws cannot be passed and go into effect simply because a majority of citizens or representatives vote for it — it must also not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what laws are truly valid. The recent events highlight the importance of this distinction as debates raged over whether the Supreme Court should or even could overturn the health care bill even though a majority in Congress voted for it.

Thank you for your questions.

Robert C. Etheredge is a former Navy Officer, Eagle Scout, and graduate of the University of Virginia. During his time in the Navy, he traveled through Europe, and years later returned to sail through Europe again on a small sailing boat, crossing the Atlantic twice. Among many other factors, his experiences abroad were influential in his great appreciation for America. In 1999, Etheredge published a poetry anthology, Poetry for a Lifetime, put together by his father. Following the publishing of the anthology, Etheredge released The Camper’s Companion and The Military Companion, two additional specialized books featuring poems, songs, and useful information for campers, soldiers, and Marines.

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