Vic Henningsen


Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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

Traditional expectations of government are rooted in the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Progressives believed in the power of rational inquiry to identify solutions to problems in modern American society and in the power of government to solve those problems.

I come to the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination with distinctly mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it was my generation’s Pearl Harbor. Any of us old enough to understand it have never forgotten where we were and what we were doing when we got the news.

Beside my desk are two pine bookcases joined together, six feet tall and five feet wide. They were a gift from my wife when we moved into a small graduate student apartment more than thirty years ago.

Our study was a narrow hallway connecting kitchen to bedroom, where we worked back-to-back in a space so tight that we couldn’t move our chairs simultaneously. Whoever pushed back from work first pinned the other to the task.

Those bookcases followed me – followed us – through two children, two careers, three apartments, and four houses – all big enough for separate studies.

“The center cannot hold,” wrote the poet Yeats in 1919: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity...”

The poet’s words still ring true today, with one exception: it’s not clear there is a center. Today’s American politics is a contest of extremes with few shared values, few common assumptions; merely increasingly angry arguments about ideology. When there’s no one in the middle to broker a deal, it becomes impossible to build coalitions and find compromise.

On this day in 1938, when Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to avoid a general European war, most of the world hailed it as bringing “peace in our time.” Anti-war public opinion was strongly influenced by bitter memories of World War I and disillusionment with the flawed peace that followed.

I never thought I’d miss Richard Nixon but I’ve been feeling some nostalgia for the old guy – not for what he did, but for what he forced us to do. Forty years ago he summoned Americans to one of our more notable exercises of what the founders called “civic virtue.”

If American action in Syria is about preserving “credibility”, making sure the U.S. honors its commitments, we should ask: What credibility? Many question America’s faithfulness.

The other day I felt a familiar tension at a trail junction on the way down Mount Moosilauke. I’d walked 1.9 miles – just over half of the return trip. That’s an objective fact but, psychologically, it always feels, at least to me, that at that point the trailhead should be only half a mile away, not another 1.7.

Few remember African-American labor leader Asa Philip Randolph, but he set the stage for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.

On this day more than two centuries ago, on a Pacific inlet not far from today’s Bella Coola, British Columbia, members of the Heiltsuk tribe manned their war canoes to prevent a young Scotsman paddling to the open sea from proceeding any further.

“What do we mean by the American Revolution?” asked John Adams, “Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced.” Adams’s words indicate our fundamental problem with the American Revolution: because it began with Americans defining what they weren’t.

If you want to read the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, all you have to do is go to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website and a few clicks will get you there. For every television ad in every presidential campaign since 1952, accessing “The Living Room Candidate” site at the Museum of the Moving Image is child’s play.

In early 1943, polls showed that fewer than 25% of the American people remembered the Four Freedoms Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed two years earlier: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Today virtually all of us do, though we usually can't recall FDR's words. What we remember are the images of Arlington, Vermont artist Norman Rockwell: a speaker at Town Meeting; a diverse group of people at prayer; a family at the Thanksgiving table; a couple tucking their children into bed.

(Host) We've been celebrating the holidays by sampling some of the essays recorded earlier this year at the VPR Commentator Brunch. The theme was When Worlds Collide... and that reminded commentator Vic Henningsen that some encounters have consequences that reach far into the future.

(Henningsen) I'm Vic Henningsen and this is Close Encounters of a Classroom Kind.