204: Teaching Historical Empathy (Truman & the Korean War)





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Teaching Historical Empathy:
  • Bad Examples:
    • binding the hands and feet of students to help them feel what it felt like to be transported like slaves
    • dividing class in halves and treating one half like they are privileged and other half like they are part of a persecuted underclass
    • place students in a position to empathize with a moment, idea or person in history without examining historical evidence
  • What It is Not
    • impossible to make students have the same emotions and thoughts as historical figures
    • not being the person; not an exercise of pure imagination
  • What It is
    • attempt to use historical evidence to make sense of the way people saw things and how those viewpoints influenced their actions
    • attempt to answer question – Why did an individual or group of people act in a certain way given a set of circumstances?
    • developing appreciation that the past is very different from the present
    • judging past actors in their own historically situated context and on its terms
    • listening to voice of the past without preconceptions – let people of the past begin and end their own sentences
    • stripping away the present and immersing students in the past on its own terms
    • examining multiple sources of evidence in an attempt to understand the past in its own terms
  • With whom to empathize?
    • Working through a “structured dilemma” that requires students to work through evidence can build empathy
      • example: key presidential decisions
        • Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
        • Jackson’s removal of the Easter tribes
        • Franklin Roosevelt and whether to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau
        • Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
        • Truman and Korean War decisions
  • Caveats
    • Do not let students use their imaginations to re-create historical decisions without letting them base their decisions on historical evidence available to actors at the time of the decision
Why the Korean War?
  • Conflicting Intents
    • US entered was as part of United Nations forces, did not declare war
    • Contain spread of Communism in Asia
    • Avoid World War III starting in Asia
  • Korean War & MacArthur:
    • MacArthur broke a stalemate with the successful attack of Inchon harbor on September 15, 1950
    • Recaptured Seoul Sept 28, 1950
    • As a result, US changed policy from containing Communism to the 38th parallel to it back to the Chinese border
    • Sept 2, 1950 – President Truman authorized MacArthur to cross the 38th parallel and take the battle back to the Chinese border
    • Tides of war turned against US
      • Nov 26, 1950 – 260,000 Chinese troops crossed the border and engaged UN and South Korean forces
      • Jan 1951 – UN forces pushed back across the 38th parallel with massive casualties
    • Nov 18, 1950 – US Security Council reaffirmed intent to prevent war from flaring into a global confrontation (anti-WW3 intent)
      • steeling itself for a possible other WW3 in Europe against Soviet Union
    • Apr 19, 1951 – MacArthur speech to Congress asking for a wider war
      • prior to this met with Chiang Kai-shek – to gather support of Chinese Nationalists
      • also make public comments about need to support Taiwan
      • Wanted to widen war by:
        • involving Chinese Nationalist troops to invade China
        • attacking Chinese industrial sites
    • Mar 1951 – tensions between MacArthur and Truman administration escalated when MacArthur conducted interviews in Tokyo that discussed the need to escalate the way and that criticized the Truman administration for limiting his ability to win the war
    • Apr 11, 1951 – Truman administration removed MacArthur from his position
    • May 1851 – MacArthur returned home to a victory parade
    • Apr 19, 1951 – MacArthur addressed joint session for Congress and continued to press for his policies
    • Korean War ended in stalemate, negotiation and frustration
    • Negotiated settlement reached in Eisenhower’s administration due to threat of use of nuclear weapons in Korea
Implementing the Lesson:
  • Pre-Launch activities:
    • Students read a reading on early events of Korean War
  • Launch events:
    • Student brainstorm list of events that might affect public support for a war
      • emphasize unpredictability of public opinion and need to manage pubic opinion when US is involved in military engagements
    • Students analyze public opinion polls during first 8 months of Korean War
    • Students discuss change of public opinion over time
    • Polling subtext is important –
      • how does sample size affect results?
      • how do questions affect the results?
    • Debrief reading on Korean War events:
      • focus on battlefield events and US domestic policies
      • establish context for Truman’s decisions
  • Investigation:
    • Students consult a timeline of Korean War events and create a T-chart for evidence for and against the removal of MacArthur
      • Work individually and in a pairs
      • Attempt to decide whether Truman should listen to MacArthur’s advice or fire him
    • Working in groups of 4, students consider the questions
      • If the US does not fight to win, will it be perceived as weak by China and the Soviet Union?
      • Could MacArthur’s suggestions expand the scope of the war and possibly escalate it to World War III?
      • Did MacArthur violate the Constitution with his actions and words by crossing the President acting as Commander and Chief?
      • Even though the President is the Commander and Chief, shouldn’t he listen to the advice of his generals?  Whose job is it to develop military policy?
    • Students divide themselves into 1 of 3 groups:
      • Truman and MacArthur should negotiate peace with North Korea
      • Fire MacArthur but follow his advice to escalate the war to all of Korea
      • Look past MacArthur’s actions and follow his advice
  • Halftime:
    • Students develop quick list of thoughts that occupy Truman’s thoughts in the winter of 1950-1951
  • Finishing Investigation:
    • Quick review of key historical content
    • Revisit driving question – Given events of 1951, what should Truman decide?
    • Examine reactions to President Truman’s decisions to fire MacArthur and start peace negotiations
    • Students write a press release as Truman’s press secretary
      • Explains decisions relating to Korean War and ties these to
        • causes of Korean War
        • events that altered the course of the war
        • General MacArthur’s demands and actions in the war
        • reasons for Truman’s decision
  • Student responses to lesson:
    • some see context within the current period
    • some struggle to shed current notions and examine decisions from the presents
    • some use cliches to formulate decisions
    • learn difficulties of making decisions as a policy maker who has to consider variables such as public opinion, political impacts / consequences, etc.
    • develop some empathy by considering multiple sources of historical evidence
Science Connections:
  • Students could consider various sources of scientific evidence that are used to inform policies.  Examples:
    • Should US invest in nuclear energy?
    • Should US de-incentivize fossil fuel energy sources and incentivize non-fossil fuel energy source as wind power and solar power?
    • Should US create policy that requires labeling of foods that include genetically modified crops?
    • Should public schools require proof of early childhood vaccines?
    • Should US limit the use of fossil fuels in an attempt to reduce fossil fuels?
  • Students can create T-charts that use scientific evidence in favor and against specific policies and then create an Analytic Memo for a policy maker that:
    • suggests a specific policy
    • provides scientific context of events / evidence that support the policy
    • discuss impacts of policy


Using analysis of various types of historical evidence to develop some sense of historical empathy can teach students how to use evidence to understand other people’s perspectives on their own terms.  Using “structured dilemmas” to build this sense of empathy can help students to better understand the challenges and variables that impact policy maker’s decisions.  It can also give students opportunities practice in skills that help them become better advisor and / or policy makers.



Note:  This is written for Science teachers.  For tips for history teachers, read the book or the summary of the book chapter in the WHAT? section of this article above.


Preparation Steps
  • Identify what concepts are the enduring understandings of your particular course
  • Research to determine if any of the enduring understandings are related to host of scientific evidence that has been / is currently being considered to make policy decisions
  • Research to find or create an annotated timeline that includes scientific evidence that supports and goes against specific policy decisions
  • Gather evidence of public opinion that supports or goes against policies that can be used during project launch.  Could take form of
    • public opinion polls
    • contradicting editorials or political cartoons
  • Design a project calendar with following phase:
    • launch
      • brainstorm what kinds of scientific evidence can sway decisions of policy makers and influence public opinion
      • initial investigations of public opinion pieces
      • introduce driving question – Should ____________ support the policy to ______________?  What scientific evidence supports this policy?
    • investigation phase
      • students study scientific evidence and develop a T-chart in favor and against specific policies
    • half time assessment
      • make a quick list of scientific evidence that must be considered to suggest a good policy
    • continue investigation
      • students in teams consider questions such as:
        • What does scientific evidence suggest as potential benefits of a specific policy?
        • What are the limitations of the scientific evidence used to support and contradict a specific policy?
        • How can scientific evidence be presented in a way that sways public opinion in favor of a specific policy?
    • end investigation
      • students use T-charts to make a specific policy recommendation
      • students create  an Analytic Memo for a policy maker that:
        • suggests a specific policy
        • provides scientific context of events / evidence that support the policy
        • discuss impacts of policy
Early Implementation Steps
  • Implement project calendar described above
  • Monitor students during individual investigation phase to make sure they are using scientific significance criteria to compile T-chart evidence
  • Monitor students while they debate which policy to support – make sure they supporting their recommendations with scientific evidence
  • Provide formative feedback on Analytic Memos that focuses on students’ use of scientific evidence to support policies
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Students analyze a current issue and submit / present policy recommendations to lobby a real policy maker or person who works for a real policy maker



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