My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II

Renovating my U.S. history course this spring, I added audiovisual primary sources to many class periods that didn’t use them before. Here’s a complete annotated list of the film and audio clips I have presented this semester, should they be useful to anyone else.

In most cases, these clips (or excerpts from them) served as bases for class discussions. A few of these clips, however, were merely illustrative of points I made myself in a lecture.

Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and World War I

“Sky Scrapers of New York City, from the North River” (1903)

This Edison film is simple: It depicts the Manhattan waterfront from the perspective of a boat floating down the Hudson River. I played it before and at the beginning of class in order to convey some sense of the texture of American cities in the Gilded Age.

“A Trip Down Market Street before the Fire” (1906)

This film shows a teeming San Francisco street in the early 20th century from the perspective of a motion picture camera mounted on the front of a streetcar. The scene is chaotic and potentially frightening; pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles, and streetcars share the road without any traffic controls at all. For years, I have invited students to discuss this scene as a way to understand Progressive reformers’ desire for new structures of urban order and rationality.

“Why the Trusts and Bosses Oppose the Progressive Party” (1912)

Here, in his own voice, Theodore Roosevelt explains what Progressivism means to him—as a political movement that he believes he leads. The clip provides some insight into Roosevelt’s character as well as into the political era.

“The Third Liberty Loan” (1918)

Richard Augustus Purdy, a New York banker and dramatist known for his Shakespearean lectures and readings, delivers a speech as one of the “Four Minute Men” who whipped up public support for American involvement in the First World War.

Jazz Age, Great Depression, and World War II

“Billy Sunday Burns Up the Backsliding World” (ca. 1926)

This British Pathé newsreel gives a great sense of both the electrifying effect of a Billy Sunday sermon from the 1920s and also the ways spiritual, social, and economic issues intersected in the early fundamentalist imagination.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” (ca. 1930)

Annette Hanshaw’s version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign song, from the film Chasing Rainbows, recorded under the name Gay Ellis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat (1933)

A thirteen-minute explanation of the U.S. banking system and the initial steps Roosevelt’s new administration took to address the financial crisis. I played approximately the first 90 seconds in class.

“Twenty Years Ago” (1937)

This radio sermon by the infamous antisemite and fascist sympathizer Fr. Charles Coughlin is difficult to follow without detailed knowledge of its context, but it’s still very useful for capturing the mood of an important strain of American rhetoric in the years before U.S. entry to World War II.

Edward R. Murrow’s broadcast from Trafalgar Square (1940)

During the Battle of Britain, the CBS radio reporter brings Americans vivid news of the war they have not yet joined. The “ghosts shod with steel shoes” recording (the second file on the linked page) is a particularly famous moment from August 24, 1940.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech after the Pearl Harbor attack (1941)

I played about half of this famous address in order to place students in a moment of uncertainty and decision. Besides the known fact that the attack happened, I asked students, what was Roosevelt trying to convey to his audiences? What was his argument?

“Victory Is Our Business” (1942)

In this stirring corporate propaganda film, General Motors highlights its contributions to the U.S. war effort, with a special focus (in the portion I showed, starting at 4:21) on its workers in Dayton, Ohio—“a city at war.” This was a particularly good basis for discussing the ways the war itself related to postwar prosperity and social attitudes.

Cold War, Vietnam, and Conservative Resurgence

“Atomic Alert (Elementary Version)” (1951)

This disturbing educational filmstrip prepares American schoolchildren for a coming nuclear war, providing basic information about civil defense procedures and emergency drills. Today, students tend to be impressed by how survivable the film seems to think World War III would be. (I found this video more useful in class than the one it replaced, the famous “Duck and Cover” film.)

“Make Mine Freedom” (1948)

An educational cartoon produced at Harding College, a small religious institution in Arkansas. The president of the college, a former Churches of Christ missionary to China, turned his school into a national platform for anticommunist and free-market messaging. This film was funded by a set of private foundations including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which had been created by a president of General Motors. Among many interesting features of the film: It espouses racial tolerance as part of the American creed even though Harding was still a segregated college at the time, and it was directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

Note: Unfortunately, I had to cut this source from the relevant lesson this semester due to time constraints, so it will probably have to wait for a future course.

Presidential campaign advertisements of 1960

In class, I played a Richard Nixon advertisement (number 9 in this list) and then the better-known John F. Kennedy jingle advertisement (number 1). The contrast between the two spots proved instructive, as did the opportunity to examine the evolution of presidential campaign marketing.

“That Wasn’t Smart at All” (1964)

In this recorded conversation, Lyndon B. Johnson tells Sargent Shriver that he had opposed the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem the previous autumn. The Miller Center’s video version of the recording includes a helpful scrolling transcript.

“The Biggest Damn Mess I Ever Saw” (1964)

A few weeks before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Johnson describes his fears about America’s deepening involvement in the Vietnam War. When combined with the previous clip, this begins to produce a narrative about the nature of the U.S. commitment to the conflict.

“Peace, Little Girl” (the “Daisy Girl” ad) (1964)

Incredibly, this may be the first time I have actually played the most famous presidential campaign ad in American history for my students. The Library of Congress streaming version is of very high quality.

Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” (1964)

The televised version of an often-delivered message Reagan referred to simply as The Speech, this might correctly be considered one of the founding texts of postwar conservatism.

Note: I have not found the opportunity to play this video yet, but I plan to show a portion of it next week, in our penultimate class period, as part of the background of the Reagan presidency.

Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech (1979)

I played about three minutes (one tenth) of the speech, and students remarked on how very different Carter’s tone and content were from anything they’re accustomed to hearing from politicians today.

Students have responded very well to these audiovisual sources. I think they have helped generate interest in the course content during a pandemic semester when many students are still struggling to stay motivated and engaged, and I hope to keep using most of them in future versions of U.S. History II.