Each episode on my history podcast How We Got Here I choose an item or topic in the news and delve into the history behind it. You can subscribe on iTunes or  via RSS. There’s also a Facebook Group.  I used to post the individual episodes here but that’s now happening at www.theworld.org/history. But if you’re hunting for the earliest episodes you’ll find them below:



Extraordinary scenes have unfolded in Iran over the past week as demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the results of the June 12th election.   On this week’s history podcast I turn to Shaul Bakhash, professor of Middle East history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and the author of The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. Bakhash was educated both in the U.S. and Iran. During the Islamic Revolution he was a reporter in Tehran.  He talks about the history of protest movements in Iran and the different kinds of governments it has experienced in the past century or so.

Thanks to all of you who sent in questions for this week’s podcast. I need to keep thinking about how best to do shows with listener input–this one was good in one sense–many of the questions were of a similar theme, what sort of government existed before the 1953 coup, do Iranians see the Supreme Leader as representative of the will of the people and how has that changed in recent times, what’s the post-Revolution structure and the balance of power between elected and unelected officials. But then there were questions that were just too large to tackle in one episode or too contemporary to answer without some serious on-the-ground reporting.   I’ll try to narrow the request a bit more next time. Anyway, enjoy the interview with Shaul Bakhash; he has a wise and measured tone and a lifetime of experience and scholarship to bring to bear on events in Iran.  I’m glad for once to have the opportunity to let him speak in full instead of  soundbites.



Africa’s longest-serving leader, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, died in a Spanish hospital earlier this week. I was immediately intrigued and thought it would be a good topic for this week’s history podcast. What does it take to rule a country like Gabon for more than four decades? Bongo is described as charismatic but also ruthless. He’s praised for Gabon’s stability even as he’s accused of vast corruption. Big questions remain about how the Gabonese president was able to amass his wealth and in fact French authorities had begun an investigation of his assets there. He’s also been accused of funding the campaigns of various French political figures including former French president Jacques Chirac. To find out more I turned to the political scientist James F. Barnes. He’s the author of Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy and co-editor of Culture, Politics and Ecology in the Gabonese Rainforest. Jim is a a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He says Gabon’s people respected Bongo but that his legacy is a country with a weak civil society and a big divide between rich and poor. What strikes Barnes most is what a skilled politician Bongo was, how well he navigated a variety of friendships and alliances with powerful people, especially in France. Barnes says the influence of the French in Gabon is extraordinary.

It’s the thing that stands out in the minds of people who spend any time there–the extent to which Gabon and France are historically inseparable. The interactions that create the situation that we’re now dealing with, post-Bongo, those situations are due largely to a structure of power and influence involving many Gabonese but also involving key French historical personalities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Gabonese in many occasions almost identify themselves as French.

EPISODE #18  June 5, 2009  CARS, CHINA, CZECHS


There were so many good history pieces on the “big” show this week (PRI’s The World) that I’m giving you a compilation. First Lisa Mullins interviews Giles Chapman on what happened to British Automaker British Leyland four decades ago, and lessons for GM which declared bankruptcy this week. Next a fantastic piece from The World’s Mary Kay Magistad about Chinese efforts to suppress the Tiananmen story.  Mary Kay has a real feel for the politics of historical memory and the implications of letting the story fester untold and she also conveys the ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the silence in China. Lisa interviews Mary Kay as well which frames the radio story really nicely. And finally a masterful radio story from The World’s Alex Gallafent who’s been venturing way off the beaten path in and around New York City lately. Here he takes us into the heart of the Czech immigrant experience in Manhattan with memories of Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side.

Episode #17 May 29, 2009  TIANANMEN SQUARE


Revisit the events of 20 years ago with James Miles who was the BBC’s China correspondent back then–he’s put together a documentary called The Lost Voices of Tiananmen Square. Archival tape brings back the intensity of the protests and the shock of the subsequent crackdown, and contemporary reporting puts it in historical perspective.

Episode #16  May 19, 2009  THE PHOTOGRAPHER


Something different on the podcast this week–


The World’s Clark Boyd tells us about a new graphic novel.  It’s the tale of Didier Lefèvre, a photojournalist who accompanies a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan in 1986.  The book is a mesmerizing combination of graphic novel, photojournalism and reported memoir that takes you back in time and deep inside the culture and landscape of a particular region of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.  As Clark and I discuss in the podcast, sometimes a graphic novel makes for a more powerful history lesson than any number of academic tomes. Here’s Clark’s slideshow too.

Episode #15  May 11, 2009  DAVID VINE ON DIEGO GARCIA


This week I speak with David Vine of American University about his book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia. j8885

It’s an amazing tale about how a U.S. base came to be located on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Turns out all the inhabitants were expelled to make way for the base and they’ve been fighting to go home ever since. They’re know as Chagossians.  Vine and other advocates are hoping the Obama Administration might take a fresh look at the issue.  I’ll have a story about the book and the U.S. government’s response to it on the radio show too.

Episode #14  May 04, 2009  THE HISTORY OF AIR POWER


NYU professor Marilyn Young talks about her book Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. The first bombs were dropped from hot air balloons in the 19th century. Bombing from planes began early in the 20th. Young takes us through a hundred years of air power and argues that it doesn’t work, at least not the way it’s supposed to.

Episode #13 April 24, 2009  THE DARFUR ARCHIVES


Mia Farrow discusses her new project collecting oral histories and traditional songs, dances, stories, traditions and artifacts for a future museum in Darfur. She spent four weeks in the camps in Chad in January and February filming refugees talking about and demonstrating the old ways.  Read more at Farrow’s blog www.miafarrow.org.

And here’s a story I did in 2007 about one of Farrow’s many trips to  Chad.

Episode #12 April 17, 2009  THE TELEGRAPH


Marco Werman interviews David Paull Nickles about his book Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy.

Episode #11 April 09, 2009  REMEMBERING RWANDA


This week marks the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. We take you to the memorial at Murambi and hear the story of one particular massacre and how it’s remembered.

Related link:

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice’s Address on the 15th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda

Episode #10 April 02, 2009  SOVIETS IN AFGHANISTAN


This week Svetlana Savranskaya of the National Security Archive lays out the parallels between the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. -led intervention there today.  Here’s the link to the Archive’s page on Afghanistan and the Soviet Withdrawal 20 Years Later.

Episode #9 March 27, 2009  GUATEMALA ARCHIVES


This week Clark Boyd takes us to Guatemala and the archives of the former National Police. The archives were discovered by chance in 2005 and the documents are being preserved for prosecutors and others searching for clues to countless human rights abuses from Guatemala’s civil war era.  In one case in particular the finds are yielding results.  Check out Clark’s television piece for Frontline/World too, and delve deeper into the saga via these links:

The National Security Archive

Guatemalan National Police Archive Project

Episode # 8 March 20, 2009 THE COLD WAR & THE MIDDLE EAST


Lisa Mullins of PRI’s The World interviews Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University about his new book Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East.  It’s interesting to hear him talk about the standoff between the U.S. and Iran given President Obama’s overtures towards Tehran.  For related material see Patrick Cox’s radio series on the history of the Middle East and my own series on the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Episode #7  March 12, 2009  SUDAN’S OMAR AL-BASHIR


The International Criminal Court in the Hague indicts President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. We speak with Ali Ali-Dinar of the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania about the man, his party, and what he represents.

Episode #6  March 5, 2009   HOW WARS END


President Obama makes a major speech about ending the war in Iraq. I use it as an excuse to return to the theme of how wars end. We hear two stories–one on how the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 didn’t wrap up the way many expected or hoped, the other on the American Civil War and the ways in which it ended and didn’t end in April 1865 at Appomattox. Much food for thought here.

Episode # 5  February 26, 2009   THE FERHADIJA MOSQUE


The history exploration continues–this time we visit a 16th century mosque in Bosnia. The Ferhadija in Banja Luka was blown up in 1993 and now it’s being lovingly restored. It was in the news again this week because a court in Banja Luka ordered Bosnian Serb authorities to pay millions of dollars in compensation for the destruction of mosques in the ethnic cleansing of the early 1990’s. Meet the impassioned architect who’s building the mosque anew and hear the stonemasons working on the minaret.

Episode #4   February 19, 2009   THE CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE


As the trial of a Khmer Rouge leader finally gets underway in Phnom Penh we ask anew what the Cambodian genocide of the 1970’s was all about. I speak with The World’s Mary Kay Magistad and anthropologist Susan Cook. And we remember Alison Des Forges, a historian, human rights activist and chronicler of the Rwandan genocide. She died a week ago in the plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y.

Episode #3   February 12, 2009  BRITAIN & AFGHANISTAN


This week, as U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke arrives in Kabul on his “listening” tour in his new job as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, we look back to the British experience in Afghanistan to see if there are any lessons to be gleaned. We hear from historians Robert Crews (Stanford) and Maya Jasanoff (Harvard) as well as Alex Thier, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Episode #2    February 5, 2009  THE KHYBER PASS


Insurgents blow up a bridge on the Khyber Pass, a key supply route for NATO forces bringing supplies into Afghanistan. I call historian Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, to find out more about the fabled Khyber Pass, both myth and reality.

Episode #1   January 29, 2009   US – IRAN  The 1953 Coup


As President Obama makes overtures to Iran, and President Ahmedinejad responds, we dig into the archives for a piece I did in 2004 as part of a documentary series on the history of US-Iranian relations.  It has some priceless audio from the BBC archives in it, including an old interview with Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA agent who helped orchestrate the coup.

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