This is an in-class activity designed to demonstrate the difficulty of answering the question with which historians struggle the most and which creates the greatest degree of controversy . . . the question “why?”
Students need to understand that when history is written, the “what happened” and the “when” are commonly agreed upon, but the “why” is not. This is because the former two are usually well documented facts, but the latter involves interpretation, and hence opinion. Any interpretation, however, should be supported with primary sources materials whenever possible.
- Explain why the “when” and “what happened” questions about history are easier to answer than the “why.”
- Identify how primary source documents can help answer the question, “why.”
- Explain how apparently conflicting primary source documents can fail to resolve the “why” question.
National Center for History in the Schools (http://nchs.ucla.edu/)
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Historical Thinking. Standard 3 (Distinguish between unsupported expressions of opinion and informed hypotheses grounded in historical evidence)
Historical Thinking. Standard 4 (Support interpretations with historical evidence in order to construct closely reasoned arguments, rather than facile opinions.
Historical Thinking, Standard 5 (Evaluate the implementation of a decision . . . )
Transcript of an oral interview with Clark Clifford, conducted April 13, 1971 (available on the Truman Library website).
Transcript of an oral interview with Matthew J. Connelly, conducted August 21, 1968 (available on the Truman Library website).
Copy of a public opinion poll taken in October, 1947 pertaining to the partition of Palestine (available in “Public Opinion, 1935-1948,” vol. 1, edited by George Gallup, New York, 1972).
Students will be told that on May 14, 1948, President Truman authorized de facto recognition by the United States for the new state of Israel. The question, “why did the President do that,” will be posed and answers will be solicited from the students.
The teacher will then point out that students have offered different answers, that the answers are really nothing more than opinions, and how do we know which answers—if any—are correct?
The teacher will then point out the obvious problem with a historian writing a history of this incident and relying on his/her opinion to answer the question, “why,” and then suggest that the only person who can really answer this question is President Truman. The teacher will explain that at the time—writing in his dairy—and later—writing his memoirs—Truman didn’t directly answer this question.
The teacher will then suggest that Truman may have shared the reason for his decision with those who worked closely with him at the time—such as Clark Clifford, Special Council to the President, and/or Matthew J Connelly, the President’s Appointment Secretary. The teacher will then pass out a portion of oral interviews with (1) Clark Clifford, conducted on April 13, 1971, and (2) Matthew J. Connelly, conducted on August 21, 1968. Upon reading the two interviews, students will discover that Connelly suggests political considerations were part of the decision-making process—since 1948 was an election year—while Clifford bluntly denies that same suggestion.
Finally, the teacher will inform students that in 1952, when talking about the recognition of Israel and why he made that decision, President Truman simply said that he was doing what the American people wanted him to do. The teacher will then ask the question, how did Truman know that this was what the American people wanted? After speculations from students, the teacher will produce the results of a public opinion poll take in October, 1947, which reveals that 65 percent of those polled favored a partition of Palestine, and thus the creation of Israel.
This will be a non-graded assignment simply designed to get students thinking about how history is written and to encourage them to be leery whenever an author attempts to answer the question “why” without offering a well-supported basis for his/her argument.