Vic Henningsen


Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

“When they line up for a firing squad they form a circle.” So the late Democratic Congressman Mo Udall despaired when discussing his party’s disorganization some years ago. Today this seems to apply to both major parties, which are in a state of disarray not seen since the 1850's.

With their eighteen-hour film on Vietnam airing on PBS, filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns remind us that this was a war that never goes away – in part because it was never clear at the time how it came about in the first place.

I know I’m not the only history teacher who’s been wrestling with profound doubts about what we’ve done or, perhaps, what we haven’t. Given the erosion of civility, even of rationality, and the increasing divisiveness that characterize our national discourse, we can’t avoid wondering if our work has been so poor that we’ve contributed to today’s civic chaos.

Midsummer 1785, and the new nation was drowning in a sea of debt, disorganization, and political and social division.

If there’s anything angering liberals more than Donald Trump, it’s his loyal base of unquestioning supporters. “How can people be so blind?” they ask.

I’ve often wondered about the standards we expect political candidates to meet. Not the formal requirements of age, citizenship, or length of residence; but the intangibles – a kind of “litmus test” of qualities that candidates must pass before we entrust them with public office.

On an open summit not far from me is an inscription painstakingly carved in stone: Now I Am With You Always.

Despite calls for the president’s removal either by impeachment or invoking the 25th amendment, neither’s likely.

Richard Nixon has long been regarded as the Dracula of American politics: regularly re-appearing no matter how often his political obituary had been written. And, apparently, here he is again: this time thinly disguised as President Donald Trump, whose recent firing of FBI Director James Comey has been compared to the 1973 Watergate Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and in the process forced the resignations of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

When President Trump suggested that Andrew Jackson might have prevented the Civil War, critics quickly noted that Jackson died sixteen years before the war; calling this yet another example of Mr. Trump’s loose interpretation of American history. What’s more interesting, though, is why the president is so taken with Jackson.

At first Vermont and Mississippi don’t appear to have much in common, but a recent report notes that they’re the only two states who’ve never sent a woman to Congress. Released by South Burlington-based Change the Story last week, Vermont Women and Leadership is the fourth in a series of studies related to women’s economic status in the Green Mountain State.

When I was young, I attended one of those boarding schools that held daily chapel. I can’t say that exercise brought me any closer to God, but it did instill in me a lifelong love of singing hymns.

Earlier this month, the nation was jolted by a Tweet from President Trump, notable for a questionable historical reference. He wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

With a new democratic spirit sweeping the land, I thought it might be helpful to offer town moderators and selectboard members a little practical advice so New England won’t be left in the dust come Town Meeting Day.

All presidents seek to employ new media to enhance their power to connect directly with the public. Few were more successful than Franklin Roosevelt with radio and John Kennedy on television.

President Trump’s recent immigration restrictions may be an irrational and perhaps unconstitutional response to an imaginary threat, but they’re certainly consistent with our history. Lady Liberty may lift her lamp beside the golden door but too often that door’s been slammed shut.

At inaugurations history turns a page. Think of mobs overrunning the White House exuberantly honoring Andrew Jackson; of Franklin Roosevelt rallying Americans to fight “fear itself”; of celebrating our first black president.

And then there was 1921.

The late William McNeill, one of our greatest world historians, once told me that he only understood how hard it was to teach history when he realized his students no longer had any connection with the central historical event of his life – the Great Depression.

Pearl Harbor was one of those events history sets its watch by - a moment so unnerving that everyone old enough to understand what’s happening knows that reality has just been permanently - and violently - rearranged. John Kennedy’s assassination was such an event; as was 9/11. But history always tells what happened; rarely how it felt.

Nelson Mandela once observed that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill your enemy. That’s why the despairing, outraged anger we’ve seen following the Presidential election worries me, much more than the unexpected outcome. Yes, we’re honoring the peaceful transfer of power, but many of us are allowing anger to cloud our judgement.