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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

History Unplugged Podcast Episodes
Harry Guggenheim: The Elon Musk of the Gilded Age
January 25, 2022 - 38 min
Harry Guggenheim was a man of impressive achievements and staggering wealth. While most commonly known for the creation of the famed Solomon Guggenheim Museum, Harry was also the co-founder of Newsday, dubbed “The Godfather of Flight” by Popular Science, chosen as the US ambassador to Cuba, and a major thoroughbred racehorse owner.

He even arguably had a greater impact on the development of aviation than the Wright Brothers.
Wilbur and Orville did invent the airplane, but they did everything they could to stall the growth of aviation by zealously protecting their patents in court. Later, Harry and others jumpstarted the industry by funding aeronautical schools, design competitions, reliability tours, and breakthroughs in technology

Today’s guest, Dirk Smillie, author of The Business of Tomorrow - The Visionary Life of Harry Guggenheim: From Aviation and Rocketry to the Creation of an Art Dynasty shows that it was the singular force of Harry Guggenheim that guided the family’s businesses into modernity. Part angel investor, part entrepreneur, part technologist, Harry launched businesses whose impact on 20th century America went far beyond the Guggenheims’ mines or museums.
Are Cities Humanity’s Greatest Invention or an Incubator of Disease, Crime, and Horrific Exploitation?
January 20, 2022 - 56 min
During the two hundred millennia of humanity’s existence, nothing has shaped us more profoundly than the city. From their very beginnings, cities created such a flourishing of human endeavor—new professions, new forms of art, worship and trade—that they kick-started civilization.
Guiding us through the centuries, is today’s guest Ben Wilson, author of Metropolis: A history of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention. We discuss the innovations nurtured by the energy of human beings together: civics in the agora of Athens, global trade in ninth-century Baghdad, finance in the coffeehouses of London, domestic comforts in the heart of Amsterdam, peacocking in Belle Époque Paris. In the modern age, the skyscrapers of New York City inspired utopian visions of community design, while the trees of twenty-first-century Seattle and Shanghai point to a sustainable future in the age of climate change.
Revolutionary Monsters: Why Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Others Turned Liberation into Tyranny
January 18, 2022 - 25 min
All sparked movements in the name of liberating their people from their oppressors—capitalists, foreign imperialists, or dictators in their own country. These revolutionaries rallied the masses in the name of freedom, only to become more tyrannical than those they replaced.

Much has been written about the anatomy of revolution from Edmund Burke to Crane Brinton Crane, Franz Fanon, and contemporary theorists of revolution found in the modern academy. Yet what is missing is a dissection of the revolutionary minds that destroyed the old for the creation of a more harmful new.

Today’s Guest, Donald Critchlow, author of Revolutionary Monsters Five Men Who Turned Liberation into Tyranny presents a collective biography of five modern day revolutionaries who came into power calling for the liberation of the people only to end up killing millions of people in the name of revolution: Lenin (Russia), Mao (China), Castro (Cuba), Mugabe (Zimbabwe), and Khomeini (Iran).

Revolutionary Monsters explores basic questions about the revolutionary personality, and examines how these revolutionaries came to envision themselves as prophets of a new age.
Robert E. Lee Was America’s Most Gallant, Decorated Traitor
January 13, 2022 - 54 min
Robert E. Lee was one of the most confounding figures in American history. From Lee’s betrayal of his nation to defend his home state and uphold the slave system he claimed to oppose, to his traitorous actions against the country he swore to serve as an Army officer, to the ways he benefited from inherited slaves and fought to defend the institution of slavery despite considering slavery immoral, it’s a major undertaking to understand him in all his complexity.

Today’s guest, Allen Guelzo, author of Robert E. Lee: A Life, describes the Virginian from his refined upbringing in Virginia high society, to his long career in the U.S. Army, his agonized decision to side with Virginia when it seceded from the Union, and his leadership during the Civil War. Overall, we explore the many complexities and unexpected paradoxes that existed within Robert E. Lee himself.
Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Contentious Path to Emancipation
January 11, 2022 - 54 min
In a little-noted eulogy delivered shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Douglass called the martyred president “emphatically the Black man’s president,” and the “first to show any respect for their rights as men.” To justify his description, Douglass pointed not just to Lincoln’s official acts and utterances, like the Emancipation Proclamation or the Second Inaugural Address, but also to the president’s own personal experiences with Black people. Referring to one of his White House visits, Douglass said: “In daring to invite a Negro to an audience at the White House, Mr. Lincoln was saying to the country: I am President of the Black people as well as the white, and I mean to respect their rights and feelings as men and as citizens.”

But Lincoln’s description as “the Black man’s president” rests on more than his relationship with Douglass or on his official words and deeds. Lincoln interacted with many other Black Americans during his presidency. His unfailing cordiality to them, his willingness to meet with them in the White House, to honor their requests, to invite them to consult on public policy, to treat them with respect whether they were kitchen servants or abolitionist leaders, to invite them to attend receptions, to sing and pray with them in their neighborhoods – all were manifestations of an egalitarian spirit noted by Frederick Douglass and other prominent African Americans like Sojourner Truth, who said: “I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln.”

To discuss this issue is today’s guest Michael Burlingame, author of the book The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Equality. We focus on Lincoln’s personal interchange with Black Americans over the course his career, whichreveals a side of the sixteenth president that, until now, has not been fully explored.
Henry Kissinger Used Cold Realpolitik to Create Order in the Middle East. Did it Work?
January 06, 2022 - 52 min
More than twenty years have elapsed since the United States last brokered a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. In that time, three presidents have tried and failed. Today’s guest, Martin Indyk—a former United States ambassador to Israel and special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2013—has experienced these political frustrations and disappointments firsthand.

To understand the arc of American diplomatic influence in the Middle East, Indyk returns to the origins of American-led peace efforts and to Henry Kissinger, the man who created the Middle East peace process. He is the author of the new book “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.” He discusses the unique challenges and barriers Kissinger and his successors have faced in their attempts to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Based on newly available documents from American and Israeli archives, extensive interviews with Kissinger, and Indyk’s own interactions with some of the main players, the author takes readers inside the pivotal negotiations and reveals how American diplomacy operates behind closed doors. He argues that understanding Kissinger’s design for Middle East peacemaking is key to comprehending how—and how not—to make peace.
Europe’s Babylon: 16th-Century Antwerp was a City of Wealth, Vice, Heresy, and Freedom
January 04, 2022 - 52 min
Before Amsterdam, there was a dazzling North Sea port at the hub of the known world: the city of Antwerp. For half the sixteenth century, it was the place for breaking rules – religious, sexual, intellectual. Known as Europe’s Babylon, the once-humble Belgian city had an outsized role in making the modern world.

In the Age of Exploration, Antwerp was sensational like nineteenth-century Paris or twentieth-century New York. It was somewhere anything could happen or at least be believed: killer bankers, a market in secrets and every kind of heresy.

And it was a place of change—a single man cornered all the money in the city and reinvented ideas of what money meant. Jews fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition needed Antwerp for their escape, thanks to the remarkable woman at the head of the grandest banking family in Europe. She set up an underground railroad for Jews so that they could flee persecution and find safe passage to friendlier lands like Poland or the Ottoman Empire.

Thomas More opened Utopia there, Erasmus puzzled over money and exchanges, William Tyndale sheltered there and smuggled out his Bible in English until he was killed. Pieter Bruegel painted the town as The Tower of Babel.

But when Antwerp rebelled with the Dutch against the Spanish and lost, all that glory was buried. The city that unsettled so many now became conformist. Mutinous troops burned the city records, trying to erase its true history.

To discuss the growth and decline of this city is today’s guest is Michael Pye, author of Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age.
Parthenon Podcast Roundtable: Who Would You Eliminate From History? (And No, You Can’t Choose Hitler)
January 01, 2022 - 51 min
Today is a group discussion in which the four guys that make up the Parthenon Podcast Network (Steve Guerra from Beyond the Big Screen, Richard Lim from This American President, James Early from Key Battles of American History, and Scott Rank from History Unplugged) discuss a beloved hypothetical that our listeners have separately asked each of us many times: if you could eliminate one person from our timeline, who would it be?

And to force us to think outside of the box, we've eliminated Hitler as a choice. That one is too obvious.

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WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy
December 30, 2021 - 40 min
From politics to fashion, their style still intrigues us. WASPs produced brilliant reformers—Eleanor, Theodore, and Franklin Roosevelt—and inspired Cold Warriors—Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and Joe Alsop. They embodied a chic and an allure that drove characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby mad with desire.

They were creatures of glamour, power, and privilege, living amid the splendor of great houses, flashing jewels, and glittering soirées. Envied and lampooned, they had something the rest of America craved.

Yet they were unhappy. Descended from families that created the United States, WASPs felt themselves stunted by a civilization that thwarted their higher aspirations at every turn. They were the original lost generation, adrift in the waters of the Gilded Age. Some were sent to lunatic asylums or languished in nervous debility. Others committed suicide.

Yet out of the neurotic ruins emerged a group of patriots devoted to public service and the renewal of society. In a new study of the WASP revolution in American life, today’s guest Michael Knox Beran brings the stories of Henry Adams and Henry Stimson, Learned Hand and Vida Scudder, John Jay Chapman and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to life. These characters were driven by a vision of human completeness, one that distinguishes them from the self-complacency of more recent power establishments narrowly founded on money and technical know-how.

WASPs shaped the America in which we live: so much so that it is not easy to understand our problems without a knowledge of their mistakes. They came to grief in Vietnam and through their own toxic blood pride, yet before they succumbed to the last temptation of arrogance, they struggled to fill a void in American life, one that many of us still feel.

For all their faults, they pointed—in an age of shrunken lives and diminished possibility—to the dream.
The Untold History of Earth: Hobbits Really Existed, Dinosaurs Had Feathers, and Yetis Roamed Our Planet
December 28, 2021 - 71 min
In the beginning, Earth was an inhospitably alien place―in constant chemical flux, covered with churning seas, crafting its landscape through incessant volcanic eruptions. Amid all this tumult and disaster, life began. The earliest living things were no more than membranes stretched across microscopic gaps in rocks, where boiling hot jets of mineral-rich water gushed out from cracks in the ocean floor.

Although these membranes were leaky, the environment within them became different from the raging maelstrom beyond. These havens of order slowly refined the generation of energy, using it to form membrane-bound bubbles that were mostly-faithful copies of their parents―a foamy lather of soap-bubble cells standing as tiny clenched fists, defiant against the lifeless world. Life on this planet has continued in much the same way for millennia, adapting to literally every conceivable setback that living organisms could encounter and thriving, from these humblest beginnings to the thrilling and unlikely story of ourselves.

Today guest, Henry Gee, author of A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, zips through the last 4.6 billion years to tell a tale of survival and persistence that illuminates the delicate balance within which life has always existed.

We discuss the following:

Dinosaurs In Flight. It’s 25 years since the discovery of the first feathered dinosaurs and Henry was (to quote Hamilton) In The Room Where It Happened, quite literally. Learn about Sinosauropteryx, how they came to be published and how it transformed our ideas of dinosaurs, birds, and flight.

Whether We Are We Really Doomed As someone who studies the Earth from its beginning, Henry believes that the current crisis of climate and extinction, although real, has been overplayed and that we can turn the tide. In the context of the Earth’s history, a rise of a degree or two amounts to no more than a hill of beans; and calls to ‘Save the Planet’ look like a case of colossal narcissistic hubris. One might as well say ‘Stop Plate Tectonics’, or even ‘Stop Plate Tectonics – NOW.’ Henry is one of the few scientists who believes there is still hope, and, perhaps, some cause for cautious optimism.

The Beowulf Effect. The Old English poem Beowulf is a vital source of information on history, language, story and belief from the darkest of the Dark Ages. Only one copy is known to exist (it’s in the British Library), and that was rescued from a fire that is known to have destroyed many other manuscripts. If Beowulf didn’t exist, how much would we know about that period? It’s a sobering thought that between 410 and 597, no scrap of writing survives from what is now England. This is an interval comparable in length between now… and the Napoleonic Wars. The same is true about fossils — what we know of the fossil record is an infinitesimal dot on an infinitesimal dot on what really happened. Almost everything that once existed on our planet has been lost. This means that anything new we find has the potential to change everything. Henry can talk about the latest discoveries on human evolution showing how the story of human evolution was much stranger than we could have imagined even twenty years ago. There was a time, not so long ago, when hobbits, yetis and giants really did walk the Earth, and some of them have left their genetic heritage in us.
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