Oklahoma, like many other conservative states, passed a law to restrict teaching about racism and other controversial subjects. John Thompson, a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, thinks that high school students should learn about and debate historical events. He wrote this post for the blog.

After Part I of Ken Burns’ The United States and the Holocaust was shown on PBS, I wrote a review calling for the documentary and its website to be taught in high school. As the three-part series progressed, I became more stunned by the information I had never been taught. Afterwards, conversing with neighbors and strangers, and ten lawyers, the virtually unanimous response I heard was a) The United States and the Holocaust must be taught in every Oklahoma high school, and b) because of HB 1775, educators won’t dare to do so.

I also tried to communicate with ten school systems and education institutions, but received no responses. In fairness, it is unlikely that districts would take a stand before studying the legal and political issues regarding the use of Burns’ work in the classroom.

Of course, I had known that Adolf Hitler patterned his crimes against humanity after America’s eugenics movement. But I hadn’t realized how much Hitler had studied its false claims that people of color were biologically inferior, as well as borrowed lessons from the genocide of Native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow. Similarly, I had read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and it seems unlikely that an Oklahoma teacher would be fired for violating HB 1775 by teaching about her the way it has normally been taught. But Burns tells the long story that has not been recognized. Even though the wording of HB 1775 doesn’t seem to ban The United States and the Holocaust from high school classrooms, it is widely assumed that teaching it would be too risky.

Burns tells how the United States State Department repeatedly tightened regulations designed to prevent Jews from escaping to the United States. The Frank family, like hundreds of thousands of Jews, was murdered after years of being excluded from the U.S.

A subsequent review by Diane Ravitch of Part II, explained how a million Jews were murdered by December, 1941 when the U.S. entered the war. She concluded, I believe correctly, that “This series should be shown to high school students in every school in the U.S.In my first review, I concentrated on why and how Oklahoma educators and supporters of public schools should unite in teaching Burns’ film, and his standards-driven lessons. Part III further convinced me that the stakes are too high to allow Burns’ work to be pushed out of high schools. We must find a way to take a stand. All I know for sure, however, is that it will require careful planning and conversations between teachers and administrators; patrons; and political and community leaders.

We must make it clear that Burns affirms that there is plenty that is great about our democracy, and we must also focus on the heroism of anti-Nazi volunteers and key governmental leaders. He appropriately praises the military and other Americans for winning World War II, and thus putting an end to the Holocaust. Burns explains the logistics and technological limitations that would have made it hard to bomb the railroads to the concentration camps. But he also discusses the extreme anti-Semitism and how, in 1938, 2/3rds of Americans wanted to keep German, Austrian, and “other political refugees” out of the U.S., thus undermining President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to rescue as many as possible.

This piece will focus on two narratives that Burns uses to illustrate why this complicated history must be taught. And then it summarizes his belief that today it is doubly important that students are taught uncomfortable truths about the genocide of six million Jews.

First, Burns reviews the U.S State Department’s history of racism and its opposition to admitting Jews and Southern European immigrants, as opposed to the Northern Europeans they welcomed. For instance, in1939, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize, led the infamous effort to block the St. Louis, a German ocean liner trying to transport 936 Jews seeking asylum to America.

In 1940, Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long “wrote that consular officers should “put every obstacle in the way [to] “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.” As it was later learned, Long tried to stop intelligence about mass murder from reaching the United States.

After the U.S. had been at war with Nazis for two years, and a grass roots effort by Americans putting their lives at risk when saving tens of thousands from genocide, the truth was clear. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. finally was able to prove to President Roosevelt that the State Department was lying, and Long had been hiding the facts and the plans for rescuing refugees through southeastern and southwestern Europe.

Long resigned and FDR created the Wartime Refugee Board (WRB). The hero of the rescues that the State Department had undermined, John Pehle, was named the WRB director. The WRB helped to save up to 200,000 Jews, but Pehle said their effort was “little and late.”

The second story was about the initiative General Dwight Eisenhower started in order to inform the world about what happened in the concentration camps. First, he required soldiers and German civilians to walk through the concentration camps and see the piles of bodies. He then asked General George Marshall to bring members of Congress and journalists to the newly liberated camps “so that they could convey the horrible truth about Nazi atrocities to the American public.” Within days, they began to bear witness to Nazi crimes in the camps.”

And that leads to the question that Burns’ website recommends, “Although the images and videos shown in the last clip are very challenging to watch, why do you think U.S. Army leaders said they needed to be shown to people in the United States and across the world?”

In the last five minutes, The United States and the Holocaust returns to the reason why Burns and his team started to make this film in 2015. This was before Charlottesville, the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the supermarket in Buffalo, and before the January 6th insurrection. But they saw a similarity to “fragility of civilized behavior” that had existed in Germany. For instance, in the late 1920’s, Berlin was perhaps “the most open and cosmopolitan city in Europe” but only four years later, the Nazis were in charge.

This propelled Burns to reveal the full range of Americans’ actions and inactions. His research showed how quickly societies can spin out of control. Burns concluded that we must learn from the past in order to better deal with today’s “fragility of democratic civilization all over the world, not just here.”

Today, supporters of HB 1775 seem to argue that discussing today’s conflicts in the context of the dark chapters of American history is politicizing classroom instruction. Burns, however, rejects the practice of keeping students in the dark about past and present threats to democracy. Cross-generational conversations about The United States and the Holocaust could be a significant step towards bringing America together.