The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Mission Accomplished

At the end of May, President Barack Obama told the graduating class at West Point that “we are winding down our war in Afghanistan,” having committed to withdraw most US troops by the end of the year, and all of them by 2016. Ending the United States’ longest war has been a lengthy and gradual process, but have American wars typically had neat or definitive endings?

In this episode, BackStory casts its gaze over prominent conflicts of the last three centuries, and explores what it takes to end a war — both in legal terms, and in the popular imagination. From military and diplomatic maneuvers, to courtroom battles and ongoing cultural conflict, the Guys and their guests explore whether wars ever really end.

Over There

April marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’s entry into World War I. So on this episode of BackStory, Brian, Joanne, and Ed discuss how this oft-forgotten war set the stage for the American century.

We’ll explore how Woodrow Wilson led a decidedly isolationist country into war. We’ll also discuss the repressive ways Wilson and his administration cracked down on anti-war sentiment.

Coming Home

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created thousands of new combat veterans. But what is it like for these soldiers once they return home? How were veterans of America’s earlier wars treated, and what kinds of challenges did they face? Are veterans only as popular as the wars they’ve fought in?

As Veterans Day approaches, we’re taking a look at the experiences of veterans throughout American history. On this episode, we’ll explore how the psychological impact of war was understood before PTSD was a diagnosis, take a look at the evolution of expectations for veterans’ wives and mothers, and probe the symbolic place of Confederate veterans after the Civil War.

The Great War

World War I was sometimes called “the war to end all wars.” But a hundred years after the fighting began, it’s become a war that’s often forgotten in American history, or viewed as a prelude to WWII. In this episode, we explore some of the ways the conflict affected Americans far beyond the battlefields of Europe — from debates about the meaning of free speech, to the fight over how the war would be remembered.


Rules of Engagement

This past week, a federal judge handed down lengthy prison terms to four former Blackwater security guards in the massacre of 14 unarmed men, women and children in Iraq in 2007 — a terrible reminder that not all is fair in war. Pope Francis meanwhile made headlines for labeling as “genocide” the mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. And in recent years, America’s targeted drone strikes against terror suspects has raised questions about what is and isn’t an appropriate means of waging war.

So what are the “rules of war,” and who gets to decide them? In this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter look at how past generations have answered those questions. They explore the role the Civil War played in defining modern warfare, and, earlier, the violent battle tactics of European colonizers versus American Indian ways of war. And with the Syrian government facing accusations that it used toxic chemicals in a bombing raid on its own citizens, the Guys consider what made the use of chemical weapons taboo in the first place.


The War to End All Wars

On November 11, 1918, Germany formally surrendered to the Allied Powers, about 19 months after the United States entered the conflict. On this episode, Brian and Nathan reflect on how, 100 years later, “the war to end all wars” is still with Americans.

Contagion [2016]

As the Zika virus spreads across the Americas, it’s worth looking at how the U.S. has responded to past epidemics. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys consider the impact of smallpox on New York City’s 19th century immigrant communities, and explore the rampant spread of diseases in the wake of the Civil War and the first World War.




Apocalypse Now & Then

December 21st, 2012 marks the end of the “Mayan Long Count” calendar, and has triggered another round of prophesies about the end of the world. So we figured we’d spend this particular period of end-times looking back on all the good times we had… worrying about end-times.

On this episode: moments when we thought the game was about to be all over. From Indian prophets to bunker builders, the History Guys try to figure out why apocalyptic visions gain traction when they do, and ask what they tell us about American hopes and fears through the centuries.

Let’s Make Up

After grueling talks, the United States and its U.N. allies have reached a historic deal with Iran on the future of its nuclear program, and Cuba and the U.S. reopened embassies in each other’s capitals. Some observers say these agreements are inching America closer to a full reconciliation with these longtime foes.

On this week’s show, we dig up buried hatchets and dust off a few of the country’s best and worst efforts at making amends, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War. How have Americans tried to restore ties and move beyond strain and strife? When does it work? And what are the limits of reconciliation?

1980s Environmentalism and How the Reagan-Era Shaped the Natural World

This week, environmentalism was in the spotlight, thanks to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Over the decades, environmentalism has adapted to new challenges, like increasing levels of greenhouse gases and a swinging pendulum when it comes to federal policy. But the 1980s exemplified a notable and often consequential shift in how people – from protestors to the president – approached environmental issues. So on this episode of BackStory, Ed and Brian dig into the 1980s and explore how actions in both federal policy and grassroots movements shaped environmentalism.