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Why have we failed to teach America's kids about the horrors of communism?

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Sept. 22, 2012: Russian Communist Party supporters hold a portrait of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at a gathering in Moscow to protest increasing prices for communal services. (AP)

“What do you think of this?” So began a phone call from Todd Starnes of FoxNews Radio. Starnes called me for a comment on a shocking story: A band at a high school near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania performed a halftime show titled, “St. Petersburg 1917,” a musical commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution, replete with hammers and sickles, military uniforms, and red flags.

“No way,” I responded. “Are you sure this wasn’t a joke, a parody?”

It wasn’t. And parents of the students aren’t laughing.

The superintendent of the school genuinely pleaded innocence. “It’s a representation of the time period in history, called ‘St. Petersburg 1917,’” she said. “I am truly sorry that somebody took the performance in that manner. I am.” She continued: “If anything is being celebrated it’s the music…. I’m just very sorry that it wasn’t looked at as just a history lesson.”

Well, as a history lesson, I give it a giant, red “F.”

To be fair to the superintendent, she sincerely doesn’t seem to understand what’s so bad about this incident, and why it’s in bad taste. In fact, therein is the basic problem: We have failed to teach the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution specifically and of communism generally.

Those horrors include over 100 million corpses generated by communist governments, starting with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917—that is, “St. Petersburg 1917.” For perspective, 100 million is twice the combined deaths of World War I and II, the two deadliest conflicts in history. Even then, 100 million dead, which is the estimate provided by the seminal Harvard University Press work, "The Black of Book of Communism," is a conservative figure. The latest research claims that Mao Tse-Tung was responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million in China, and Joseph Stalin alone may well have killed 60 million in the USSR.

We now have an entire generation of Americans born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and USSR. They didn’t live through the mass repression and carnage that was Soviet communism. They need to learn about it, just as my generation learned the evils of Nazism.



And yet, far too many American are ignorant of this catastrophe, especially younger Americans. I know. I’ve been observing it carefully for years. I could give a thousand examples, but here are just a few:

One former student of mine, John, told me about his first assignment as a teaching assistant in a high-school history class. He offered to cover some of the lectures on the 1930s Soviet Union. His supervising teacher agreed. So, John methodically covered the famine in the Ukraine, Stalin’s purges, the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

John was pleased at how the students were electrified, hands in the air, many questions—clearly learning these hideous things for the first time. Yet, he also noticed the dirty looks from his supervisor. Later, the teacher testily reprimanded him: “Look, John, I want you to ease up on the Red-baiting and commie-bashing. Besides, these students are going to get a decidedly different view on communism from me.” She promised to teach “a softer side of communism.”

Another student of mine, Sean, told me of the elite Christian private school he attended, where the newly hired teacher, fresh out of a major university, told the students he was a “Christian communist,” and that anyone who is a Christian should be a communist.

Another student told me of a teacher who “convinced the entire class” that Marxism was a “wonderful” but “misunderstood” idea that simply had not been tried correctly. “He absolutely brainwashed us,” she told me bitterly.

These are merely three anecdotal examples.

What’s true for high schools is even worse at the university level. 

I lecture around the country, sponsored by groups like the Young America’s Foundation and Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I’m often requested to give a talk titled, “Why Communism is Bad.” When I read passages directly from the "Communist Manifesto," or when I cite authoritative sources on the maimed and dead, the students are aghast, eyes wide open. Rarely are their professors in attendance.

Those same professors, incidentally, write the textbooks used by high schools. Several years ago, I did a comprehensive, two-year study on “World History” and “Civics” texts. The study looked at roughly 20 texts used in public schools. Their treatment of communism is scandalous.

The greatest abuse is the sins of omission. I could not find a single text that listed figures on the dead under communist governments. These omissions were not repeated for historical abuses like the Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, or the internment of Japanese Americans. “Right-wing” dictators like Cuba’s Batista and Chile’s Pinochet were treated far more harshly than Fidel Castro, who generated many more victims and was still in power.

I could go on and on.

In short, we now have an entire generation of Americans born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and USSR. They didn’t live through the mass repression and carnage that was Soviet communism. They need to learn about it, just as my generation learned the evils of Nazism.

Unfortunately, they are not. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised when they merrily march to the triumphal sounds of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include, "The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor" (Mercury Ink (July 17, 2012). He is a biographer of Ronald Reagan whose books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism."