Manufactured Destiny

Source Taken from Library of Congress

The First Thanksgiving (1621) is an oil painting by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It is a one of a collection of paintings titled ‘The Pageant of a Nation.’ Published in 1932, Pageant of a Nation is a collection presenting romanticized depictions of significant moments of American history. This painting represents what the artist would like its audience to view as the first Thanksgiving: a harmonious coming together of Indigenous Peoples and White Europeans.

Source Taken from Library of Congress

This image is also part of the collection by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. It is titled The Landing of William Pen (1682.) It depicts William Penn, founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, arriving on the shores of the New World to be greeted by its current inhabitants. Take note that the Native Peoples depicted in this painting are wearing traditional clothing of Great Plains tribes. Is Pennsylvania near the Great Plains?

Student Questions

  1. What details do you notice in these paintings and what is the story they tell? How are the white people conveyed? The Native people?
  2. What does this story tell us about the American national identity and self image?
  3. What ideas about our national identity do the paintings reinforce?
  4. Bonus question! What does the name for the collection, Pageantry of a Nation, resemble? Why might this be significant?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers

Students will be able to examine paintings critically, determining the accuracy of historical representation. Students will be able to identify symbols within the paintings that provide insight towards the American self identity at the time of these paintings. Think critically about how these values continue to be presented in American culture.

  1. The most notable thing about the first painting is the position of the characters within. The Native people are seated at the feet of the white settlers, who are providing them with food. The Native people are positioned at the same level as the dog and the child in the foreground. The food, setting, and clothing in both pictures are historically inaccurate, presenting European foods and structures as opposed to those that would have actually been there.
  2. These paintings are the ultimate representation of American Imperialism. The White people in the photos are ‘saving’ the Native peoples, who are positioned below them, implying that they are closer to the status of a dog than of the white individuals. The Natives are depicted as thankful for the kindness of these settlers. This romanticization of American settlers as ‘helping’ is the same propaganda used throughout history to justify the subjugation of non-white peoples.
  3. Americans saw themselves as heroes. They came to a savage land to rescue it. Instead they decimated its native population. By reimagining the impact of settlers, American Identity can remain one that is pure and beautiful. It can be imagined as a peaceful and joyous time, reinforcing the notions of American superiority.

In the Army Now: The Role of Women in the Services

Image Source

WWI-era Poster

Image Source

WWII-era Poster

Image Source

WWII-era Poster

Background: During WWI and WWII posters were made both by the US government and private advertising agencies commissioned by the government in support of the war effort. The role of women changed dramatically during the course of these two global conflicts as the needs of modern warfare dominated the industrial landscape and millions were sent off to fight in theaters around the world. Women began to fill roles traditionally held by men; first in factories and businesses and then in the services themselves in support roles.

Question 1: What stereotypes appear in these posters and which are being challenged?

Question 2: Who is the intended audience for these posters?

Question 3: Why were these posters made? What can we say about the needs of the war effort and their impact on the American Workforce?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers:

Learners will take their understanding of the time period and evaluate what is being expressed in these posters and photographs. The learner will explain through short answer responses on their perspective of what is happening in these images.

Response 1: In the first poster we see women being reduced to playing dress up and in a child-like manner exclaim that they want to be soldiers. The understanding being that it is ludicrous and unfeminine for a woman to be in the services, but she longs to contribute due to her patriotism. The real subtext here is that men should be enlisting in the war. That it is their duty as both Americans and as men to fight. In failing to do so their masculinity is being called into question. The next two images from WWII show how much has changed when it comes to women in the war effort. We see in the first image the perfect American war family; no longer is it the son’s duty to fight; but the daughter’s duty to enlist and do what she can. In the second image we see what a woman is expected to do; technical support work – using her knowledge to help the war effort – but not be in actual combat.

Response 2: The first poster’s expected audience is definitely for men who have yet to enlist. The overall tone of the poster is that men are needed to fight and if they fail to do so they are less masculine. It could be suggested that a secondary audience is patriotic women who could influence men they know to enlist. In the second poster the audience expands to men, women, and even older generations of parents. Older generations were needed to encourage and support their daughters in the war effort and that it would be a point of pride for a family to have their daughters join the WAC – Women’s Army Corp and other organizations. In the last image college educated women are the target audience. Their knowledge and expertise was needed as the war effort taxed the manpower of every sector of the economy and military organizations.

Response 3: Human resources during both conflicts were pushed to their limit. Modern warfare required millions of people to participate as soldiers, as laborers in factories and assembly plants, and to replace the millions of workers who enlisted. In WWI, especially in the beginning of the conflict, an isolationist America was averse to joining the European powers in their bloody conflicts, yet millions of troops were needed. In WWII human resources were taxed even more in line with the scale of the conflict. Women were needed to fill roles as there simply not enough men to do so. Practicalities of the war effort knocked down many stereotypes of women were considered capable of.

Rubber Atrocities

Background Information: Men of the Nsongo District (ABIR concession) with hands of two of their countrymen Lingomo and Bolenge murdered by rubber sentries of ABIR Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company in May 1904. The two European men are Mr. Stannard and Mr. Harris of the Congo Balolo Mission at Baringa. This image formed part of the Harris Lantern Slide Collection. Under King Leopold II the Congo Free State used mass forced labour to extract rubber from the jungle for the European market. As consumer demand grew King Leopold II’s private army – the Force Publique – used violent means to coerce the population into meeting quotas, including murder, mutilation, rape, village burning, starvation and hostage taking. Alice Seeley Harris and her husband Reverend John H. Harris were missionaries in the Congo Free State from the late 1890s.

Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections

Background Information: This 1904 photograph is by Alice Seeley Harris, the man’s name is Nsala. Here is part of her account (from the book “Don’t Call Me Lady: The Journey of Lady Alice Seeley Harris”): He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too.

And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed.

They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men, and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.

Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections


  1. What do you think was Alice Seeley Harris’ intention in taking these images? How do you think she gained access to take and share these photos?
  2. Imagine you were alive during this time. How might you respond to each of these images? Would your perspective change if you were Belgian?
  3. What do you think the posing of the subjects in the images shows us about the interactions between the photographer and the subjects?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers:

The learners will evaluate the photographs along with their understanding of the time and place they were taken. The learner will explain their perspective on the intentions of the photographer and their access to the subjects.

  1. Alice Seeley Harris was a missionary in the Belgian Congo. Her position as a missionary might have helped her gain access to take these photos. I believe her intention in taking these photographs was to show the inhumanity happening at that time. What was happening must have seemed very far away from Europe at that time, so her intention may have been to show that this evilness was occurring and was real.
  2. It might have been difficult at the time for someone to believe that these images were real, especially someone who was Belgian. They may not have wanted to face or accept the fact that the rubber industry was this horrible.
  3. It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which these photographs were taken. Alice Seeley Harris had to have been standing in front of these people. I wonder what she said to them in order for them to let her take their picture, especially the guards, and how they must have compartmentalized and dehumanized the Congolese people in order to do what they did. The second photograph is incredibly powerful, made even more so by the framing. Nsala’s devastation and emptiness is felt by the viewer.

One Step Away from Oblivion

Featured image from PICRYL

Image 1: Spy Plane Identifying Sites

See source from PICYRL.

Context: An Air Force RF-101 Voodoo captures images of Soviet personnel and six missile transporters loading onto ship transport at Casilda port in Cuba, in this Nov. 6, 1962. Fidel Castro of the then communist Cuban regime and the USSR wanted to instill a deterrent against American invasions since the ICBM’s of the Soviets did not compare in abundance or performance to that of the missile silos of the United States. Storing nuclear missiles in Cuba was carried out to protect Cuban interests. The spy planes also wouldn’t find out until later that the Cubans had over a hundred missiles already on site that the Americans knew nothing about.

Image 2: USS The Sullivans Deployed

See source from PICYRYL here.

Context: The U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans was one of many ships in the United States navy sent to “quarantine” the Cubans since a “blockade” was an act of war that president John F. Kennedy wanted to avoid. This was intended to prevent the USSR from coming to Cuba’s aid, and would eventually result in a tense stand off between both navies before both sides stood down. For the Cubans, actions such as this increased fears that the United States would try to invade the island and depose the Cuban government.

Image 3: Protesters of the Crisis

See source from PICRYL

Context: When JFK announced the existence of the missile sites and his response of quarantining Cuba, protests such as this erupted across the country. Those opposed to Kennedy thought this was a personal grudge against Castro after the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion and was sacrificing peace for war. While many of these protesters were unaware of the true extent of what was occurring between the US and the USSR in secret, they knew that if the situation escalated further a terrifying nuclear war would erupt between the two superpowers that would kill millions of Americans.

Image 4: Handling the Crisis

See source from JFK library.

Context: JFK met with the National Security Council Executive Committee (EXCOMM) and deliberated with them as to what course of action needed to be taken to handle the crisis. Though some, including his brother Robert Kennedy, advocated for an invasion of Cuba and the removal of Castro JFK decided to de-escalate the crisis instead of allowing for this crisis to spiral out of control. Ultimately, the Soviets removed the missile sites from Cuba (while the USA quietly negotiated to remove missile sites from Italy and Turkey) and nuclear war was averted.

Questions for Students

Question 1: What is revealed in the aerial photos of the missiles being loaded onto Cuba? What might this reflect about the state of Cuba at this time? How might this relate to the second image of USS The Sullivans.

Question 2: What are some themes found within posters and demonstrations of the anti-nuclear protesters? Why might protests such as this erupted across the country?

Question 3: What details are revealed in the picture featuring EXCOMM? What subtext might exist during these negotiations? Do you think that EXCOMM made the right decision when it came to handling the crisis? Could it have been handled better?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers

Response 1: The photo reveals that the Cubans are not necessarily ready to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. These are missiles that have to be transported and stored before they can be armed. However, what is revealed is that the Cubans clearly have loading sites from which to carry out this process of arming Cuba for war. The presence of a Soviet tanker suggests a clear alliance between this macro and micro power that is finally highlighted openly. This relates to the second photo of the USS The Sullivans in that the US is taking direct action to start isolating Cuba while seemingly preventing the situation from worsening. If we are aware with hindsight that there were far more missiles on the island than believed by the Americans at the time, we can see that both sides are interpreting this crisis in different ways. To the Americans, they are stopping Cuba from becoming a dangerous threat to stability. Furthermore, these protestors likely learned about the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion and saw this as a political gamble that was needlessly dangerous. To the Soviets, the Americans are threatening to invade a communist ally and spark World War III. It would only be in the next few hours when the full extent of the crisis was made evident.

Response 2: The posters have phrases such as “Be Careful” and “Peace of Perish” which highlights how these protestors recognize that if Cuba gets “hot” then the world basically ends in nuclear war where millions die across the world. They advocate for peace with rigid dogma because they believe that a war between the USA and the USSR cannot possibly end favorably. For those that did not align with the “hawk” attitude of the time that called for continued resistance to the communist Soviets and any supporters of them, this crisis was not something that could be allowed to happen. They could not fathom an outcome where only a few powerful people could determine if the world would end or not and would do anything they could to prevent this from happening. Shifting cultural attitudes were just starting to take effect and protests such as this were becoming more and more common.

Response 3: This picture featuring EXCOMM might not reveal the chaos and disorder experienced among these leaders. While one group advocated against nuclear war and the risk of World War III, the other wanted to avenge the failure of the “Bay of Pigs” and score some military gains against Castro. The photo suggests that the negotiations were calm and collected which seems unlikely given the fact that the crisis seemed to worsen with each hour before cooler heads finally prevailed. The debate that might have occurred here could have consisted on whether or not the US would demonstrate it’s military capabilities or not with this crisis being the chance to do so. It seems that the best options were taken when it came to not allowing for an invasion and instead just calling for the demilitarization of Cuba by removing the missile sites. I do think that this crisis couldn’t have been handled any better since any escalation, whether that be an invasion, air raids or strikes against the USSR would have resulted in a nuclear war that would have ended civilization as we know it. Any attempt to make this a pure military operation would have ended the world and killed millions, if not billions, of people.