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History Unplugged Podcast
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History Unplugged Podcast

Author: Scott Rank, PhD

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For history lovers who listen to podcasts, History Unplugged is the most comprehensive show of its kind. It's the only show that dedicates episodes to both interviewing experts and answering questions from its audience. First, it features a call-in show where you can ask our resident historian (Scott Rank, PhD) absolutely anything (What was it like to be a Turkish sultan with four wives and twelve concubines? If you were sent back in time, how would you kill Hitler?). Second, it features long-form interviews with best-selling authors who have written about everything. Topics include gruff World War II generals who flew with airmen on bombing raids, a war horse who gained the rank of sergeant, and presidents who gave their best speeches while drunk.
452 Episodes
One of the greatest unsung heroes of the twentieth century is Gene "Jacques" Bullard, a World War One fighter pilot, boxer, spy, and overall adventurer. He was the first American-born black fighter pilot in history- and he flew for France. Bullard grew up in Georgia and ran away from home after a lynch mob forced his father to flee and leave his family. He ran away from home and lived with gypsies, then hopped on German freighter to Scotland. He then continued his sojourn as a pro boxer, then as a drummer and assistant nightclub manager in Paris during the Jazz Age. Bullard took advantage of all the opportunities in Europe that would be denied to a black man back in America. He married a white socialite in Paris, opened a successful nightclub, and joined the French Foreign Legion. After being wounded, he joined the French Air Corps during WWI and shot down two German planes. Prior to World War Two he worked a spy for French Intelligence. He rejoined the Foreign Legion in WWII but was wounded and transported on a hospital ship to New York City.Bullard spent the rest of his life as part of the French expatriate community in New York and was a fixture of the city’s multicultural life.Today’s guest is Jon Hagadorn, host of the podcast “1001 Heroes, Legends, Histories & Mysteries.” He shares the fascinating life of a man whose story is worth remembering.
In August of 1831, a 16-year-old from Connecticut named Sam Colt boarded a ship of missionaries bound for a round-trip voyage to Calcutta. Restless and rambunctious, with a particular fondness for blowing things up—he’d been expelled from Amherst Academy not long before for repeatedly firing a cannon from the top of a hill to the horror of frightened townspeople—Colt had long been a source of distress for his family, who hoped that this time at sea might prepare him for a stable career in a respectable trade. Instead, it would become the setting for an idea that would change the course of American history. Today's guest is Jim Rasenberger, author of "Revolver: Sam Colt and The Six-Shooter That Changed America. " We explore the life of the inventor who introduced repeating firearms to the world. With Colt’s revolver (allegedly dreamed up during that long stint at sea), one could for the first time shoot multiple bullets from a gun without reloading—a revolutionary mechanism that would help spark the American Industrial Revolution and speed the settlement of the West.
In the mid-1930s, just as the United States was embarking on a policy of neutrality, Nazi Germany embarked on a program of espionage against the unwary nation. Hitler’s attempts to interfere in American affairs by spreading anti-Semitic propaganda, stealing military technology, and mapping US defenses. Today’s guest is Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, author of the book “The Nazi Spy Ring in America.” Using recently declassified material, he shows how Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Abwehr, was able to steal top secret US technology such as a prototype codebreaking machine and data about the latest fighter planes. Enlisting the services of German-American fascists and anti-Semites, they resorted to ruthless methods to achieve their goals, including murdering the wife and daughter of an American industrialist. When the spy ring was busted in 1938 by FBI agent Leon Turrou, the ensuing trial caused a national sensation and played a significant role in shifting public opinion against Germany, awakening many Americans to the looming Nazi threat. This story provides essential insight into the role of espionage in shaping American perceptions of Germany in the years leading up to US entry into World War II and sheds light on a now-forgotten but significant episode in the history of international relations.
This episode is a preview of the new season of Wondery's "The Sneak."World Champion surfer Jack Murphy pulled off the biggest jewel heist in American history. He became infamous as his face was plastered across the front pages of every newspaper in the country.After a massive manhunt, Jack was eventually caught. He was sent to prison, but somehow talked his way out of jail, and headed home to the beautiful beaches of Southern Florida - a free man.But this was only the start of his misadventures on the wrong side of the law. Jack was later arrested for the murder of two women, who were directly related to his other crimes.From Wondery and USA Today, comes a new season of The Sneak: Murders at Whiskey Creek - a new true crime show unlike any you have ever heard. With exclusive interviews with the victims and perpetrators, The Sneak reveals secrets that have been kept for decades. You’re about to hear a preview of The Sneak: Murders at Whiskey Creek. While you're listening, subscribe to The Sneak: Murders at Whiskey Creek today on Apple Podcasts. Or binge all 9 episodes on the Wondery App with a free trial of Wondery Plus.
Many great Mesoamerican civilizations existed before and long after the arrival of Christopher Columbus: The Incans, Mayas, and Aztecs. But there was one civilization in North America you likely never have heard of that could have been more advanced as any of them, a reached a level of China or Mesopotamian civilization.The Mississippian Culture of North America built a number of settlements in the centuries before Columbus arrived in the new world. The largest settlement, Cahokia, may have had up to 50,000 residents in 1200 A.D. This made it larger than contemporary London and Paris. The entire city was planned and built on a grid that matched with celestial events. In the center of the city was a mound made up of 22 million cubic feet of earth, making it nearly as impressive as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Native cultures north of Mesoamerica (in the modern-day US) on the cusp of becoming an advanced civilization? Many of the ingredients were there, and perhaps a little more mixing would have done it.
When Kristin L. Hoganson arrived in Champaign, Illinois, after teaching at Harvard, studying at Yale, and living in the D.C. metro area with various stints overseas, she expected to find her new home, well, isolated. Even provincial. After all, she had landed in the American heartland, a place where the nation's identity exists in its pristine form. Or so we have been taught to believe. Struck by the gap between reputation and reality, she determined to get to the bottom of history and myth. The deeper she dug into the making of the modern heartland, the wider her story became as she realized that she'd uncovered an unheralded crossroads of people, commerce, and ideas. But the really interesting thing, Hoganson found, was that over the course of American history, even as the region's connections with the rest of the planet became increasingly dense and intricate, the idea of the rural Midwest as a steadfast heartland became a stronger and more stubbornly immovable myth. I’m speaking to Hoganson today, who is author of the book The Heartland: An American History. She tracks both the backstory of this region and the evolution of the idea of an unalloyed heart at the center of the land.
Soon after atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, MGM set out to make a movie studio chief Louis B. Mayer called “the most important story” he would ever film: a big budget dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the invention and use of the revolutionary new weapon.Over at Paramount, Hal B. Wallis was ramping up his own film version. His screenwriter: the novelist Ayn Rand, who saw in physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer the model for a character she was sketching for Atlas Shrugged.Today’s guest is Greg Mitchell’s, author of “The Beginning or the End,” and we discuss the first efforts of American media and culture to process the Atomic Age. A movie that began as a cautionary tale inspired by atomic scientists aiming to warn the world against a nuclear arms race would be drained of all impact due to revisions and retakes ordered by President Truman and the military—for reasons of propaganda, politics, and petty human vanity (this was Hollywood, after all).
The cherished idea of United States as a unified country has been long believed. But today’s guest Colin Woodard argues that this is an invented tradition. He has argued for the existence of 11 separate stateless nations within the United States, where rival cultures explain the history, identity, and voting behaviors of the United States. At least 5 explanations for American ideology have existed, from Manifest Destiny to Frederick Douglas's civic nationalism. However, there is a vision of American that can bring us all together. In his new book “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood,” he examines how the myth of our national unity was created and fought over by five men—George Bancroft, William Gilmore Simms, Frederick Douglass, Woodrow Wilson, and Frederick Jackson Turner—and how it continues to affect us today.If we’ve never been one America, but several, then where did the narrative of United States nationhood come from? Who came up with it, when, and why? How did it come to be accepted and at what point did it succeed in concealing the fragmented reality? In the 19th and early 20th century, a small group of individuals—historians, political leaders, and novelists—fashioned a history that attempted to erase the fundamental differences and profound tensions between the nation’s regional cultures. These men were creating the idea of an American nation instead of a union of disparate states—but their rosy vision was immediately contested by another set of intellectuals who claimed that if we are a nation at all, it is an ethno-state belonging to the allegedly superior Anglo-Saxon race. This concept eventually morphed into white supremacy and ethno-nationalism in people like Woodrow Wilson.The fight continues today but there are narratives that could unite all of us and that's what we'll discuss today.
Before there were Navy SEALs, before there were Green Berets, there were the 40 Thieves: the elite Scout Sniper Platoon of the Sixth Marine Regiment during World War II. Behind enemy lines on the island of Saipan—where firing a gun could mean instant discovery and death—the 40 Thieves killed in silence during the grueling battle for Saipan, the "D-Day" of the Pacific. Now Joseph Tachovsky—today's guest and whose father Frank was the commanding officer of the 40 Thieves, also called "Tachovsky's Terrors"—joins with award-winning author Cynthia Kraack to transport readers back to the brutal Battle of Saipan. World War 2 Marines were the poorest equipped branch of the services at that time, and they were notorious thieves. To improve their odds for victory against the Japanese, they found it necessary to improve their supply chains through “Marine Methods,” stealing. Being the elite of the Sixth Regiment, the Scout-Sniper Platoon excelled at the craft—earning them the nickname of the “40 Thieves” from their envious peers. Upon returning from a 1943 trip to the Pacific theater, Eleanor Roosevelt observed, “The Marines I have met around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marines.”
The U.S. Constitution never established a presidential cabinet—the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea. So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government?On November 26, 1791, George Washington convened his department secretaries—Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph—for the first cabinet meeting. Why did he wait two and a half years into his presidency to call his cabinet? Because the U.S. Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Washington was on his own.Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges—and finding congressional help lacking—Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. In the early days, the cabinet served at the president’s pleasure. Washington tinkered with its structure throughout his administration, at times calling regular meetings, at other times preferring written advice and individual discussions.Todays guest, Lindsay M. Chervinsky, author of the book The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, reveals the far-reaching consequences of Washington’s choice. The tensions in the cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson heightened partisanship and contributed to the development of the first party system. And as Washington faced an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, he came to treat the cabinet as a private advisory body to summon as needed, greatly expanding the role of the president and the executive branch.
James Monroe, America’s fifth president and the last chief executive of the Founding Father generation, lived a life defined by revolutions. From the battlefields of the War for Independence, to his ambassadorship in Paris in the days of the guillotine, to his own role in the creation of Congress's partisan divide, he was a man who embodied the restless spirit of the age. He was never one to back down from a fight, whether it be with Alexander Hamilton, with whom he nearly engaged in a duel (prevented, ironically, by Aaron Burr), or George Washington, his hero turned political opponent. Today’s guest, Tim McGrath, author of James Monroe: A life, discusses the epic sweep of Monroe’s life: his near-death wounding at Trenton and a brutal winter at Valley Forge; his pivotal negotiations with France over the Louisiana Purchase; his deep, complex friendships with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his valiant leadership when the British ransacked the nation’s capital and burned down the Executive Mansion; and Monroe’s lifelong struggle to reckon with his own complicity in slavery. Elected the fifth president of the United States in 1816, this fiercest of partisans sought to bridge divisions and sow unity, calming turbulent political seas and inheriting Washington's mantle of placing country above party. Over his two terms, Monroe transformed the nation, strengthening American power both at home and abroad.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, when human flight was still considered an impossibility, Germany's Count von Zeppelin vied with the Wright Brothers to build the world's first successful flying machine. As the Wrights labored to invent the airplane, Zeppelin fathered the wondrous airship, sparking a bitter rivalry between the two types of aircraft and their innovators that would last for decades in the quest to control one of humanity's most inspiring achievements. And it was the airship--not the airplane--that would lead the way. In the glittery 1920s, the count's brilliant protégé, Hugo Eckener, achieved undreamt-of feats of daring and skill, including the extraordinary round-the-world voyage of the Graf Zeppelin. What Charles Lindbergh almost died doing--crossing the Atlantic in 1927--Eckener effortlessly accomplished three years before the Spirit of St. Louis even took off.I'm talking to Alexander Rose, author of the new book “Empires of the Sky,” which gets into this story. Even as the Nazis sought to exploit Zeppelins for their own nefarious purposes, Eckener built his masterwork, the behemoth Hindenburg--a marvel of design and engineering. Eckener met his match in Juan Trippe, the ruthlessly ambitious king of Pan American Airways, who believed his fleet of next-generation planes would vanquish Eckener's coming airship armada. It was a fight only one man--and one technology--could win. Countering each other's moves on the global chessboard, each seeking to wrest the advantage from his rival, the two men's struggle for mastery of the air was not only the clash of technologies, but of business, diplomacy, politics, personalities, and their vastly different dreams of the future.
In the middle of World War II, Nazi military intelligence discovered a seemingly easy way to win the war for Adolf Hitler. The three heads of the Allied forces—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin—were planning to meet in Iran in October 1943. Under Hitler's personal direction, the Nazis launched “Operation Long Jump,” an intricate plan to track the Allied leaders in Tehran and assassinate all three men at the same time. “I suppose it would make a pretty good haul if they could get all three of us,” Roosevelt later said. The plan failed, but what if it had succeeded?Perhaps some good could have come out of it, namely a less brutal Soviet premier who killed millions. But many frightening scenarios also emerge, such as an American-Soviet pact against Europe, or a Cold War that goes hot in the 1950s. In the infinite alternate timelines that include a successful assassination of theBig Three, most of them are bad.
In the summer of 1843, James Strang, a charismatic young lawyer and avowed atheist, vanished from a rural town in New York. Months later he reappeared on the Midwestern frontier and converted to a burgeoning religious movement known as Mormonism. In the wake of the murder of the sect’s leader, Joseph Smith, Strang unveiled a letter purportedly from the prophet naming him successor, and persuaded hundreds of fellow converts to follow him to an island in Lake Michigan, where he declared himself a divine king. From this stronghold he controlled a fourth of the state of Michigan, establishing a pirate colony where he practiced plural marriage and perpetrated thefts, corruption, and frauds of all kinds. Eventually, having run afoul of powerful enemies, including the American president, Strang was assassinated, an event that was frontpage news across the country. Today’s guest is Miles Harvey, author of “The King of Confidence.” Centering his narrative on this charlatan’s turbulent twelve years in power, Strang’s story gets into a crucial period of antebellum history and an account of one of the country’s boldest con men and the boisterous era that allowed him to thrive.
Before World War II, Herbert Cukurs was a famous figure in his small Latvian city, the “Charles Lindbergh of his country.” But by 1945, he was the Butcher of Latvia, a man who murdered some thirty thousand Latvian Jews. Somehow, he dodged the Nuremberg trials, fleeing to South America after war’s end. By 1965, as a statute of limitations on all Nazi war crimes threatened to expire, Germany sought to welcome previous concentration camp commanders, pogrom leaders, and executioners, as citizens. The global pursuit of Nazi criminals escalated to beat the looming deadline, and Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency, joined the cause. Yaakov Meidad, the brilliant Mossad agent who had kidnapped Adolf Eichmann three years earlier, led the mission to assassinate Cukurs in a desperate bid to block the amnesty. In a thrilling undercover operation unrivaled by even the most ambitious spy novels, Meidad traveled to Brazil in an elaborate disguise, befriended Cukurs and earned his trust, while negotiations over the Nazi pardon neared a boiling point. Today’s guest, Stephan Talty, is author of The Good Assassin, which uncovers this little-known chapter of Holocaust history and the undercover operation that brought Cukurs to justice.
“Paratroopers are about the most peculiar breed of human beings I have ever witnessed. They treat their service as if it were some kind of cult, plastering their emblem on almost everything they own, making themselves up to look like insane fanatics with haircuts to ungentlemanly lengths, worshiping their units almost as if they were a God, and making weird animal noises like a band of savages... [but] generally speaking, the United States Paratroopers I’ve come in contact with are the most professional soldiers and the finest men I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”This unattributed quote sums up the unique role that paratroopers have played in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. With the invention of the airplane, military strategists imaged troops clinging to the wings of Wright Bros. flyers and landing in enemy trenches. Such plans never came to fruition, but technical advances made it possible to drops thousands of soldiers with reasonable safety and accuracy. During WW2, Nazi Germany's paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) had incredible success in Norway and the Netherlands and even rescued Benito Mussolini in a commando mission. Over 22,000 of them were dropped on Crete. Allied paratroopers famously landed in France on the eve of D-Day, making Operation Overlord a possibility.In this episode, we look at the origins of paratrooping, its function in war, and how it was part of the evolution of military strategy in the 20 century, in which different combat arms were integrated to achieve complementary effects.
In 1967, a retired army major and self-made millionaire named Paddy Roy Bates cemented his family's place in history when he inaugurated himself ruler of the Principality of Sealand, a tiny dominion of the high seas. And so began the peculiar story of the world's most stubborn micronation on a World War II anti-aircraft gun platform off the British coast.Today’s guest, Dylan Taylor-Lehman tells us the story of Sealand, a raucous tale of how a rogue adventurer seized the disused Maunsell Sea Fort from pirate radio broadcasters, settled his eccentric family on it, and defended their tiny kingdom from UK government officials and armed mercenaries for half a century. There were battles and schemes as Roy and his crew engaged with diplomats, entertained purveyors of pirate radio and TV, and even thwarted an attempted coup that saw the Prince Regent taken hostage. Incredibly, more than fifty years later, the self-proclaimed independent nation still stands--replete with its own constitution, national flag and anthem, currency, and passports.But Sealand is more than a quirky story. It hearkens back to the conquistadors who wanted to carve out their own sovereign nations and looks to the future of libertarian billionaires who want to build their own floating micronation of their own.
One of the most misconstrued events in history is the Galileo affair. It is commonly understood as a black-and-white morality play of science vs. religion. Galileo proves the Sun is the center of the solar system but the reactionary medieval Catholic Church is scandalized by somebody questioning their geocentric model. They imprison and torture the “heretic.” Other scientists are afraid to speak up against this oppressive regime.The real story is much more complicated. There were churchmen on both sides of the geocentric/heliocentric debate. Galileo did not conclusively prove the heliocentric model (that didn’t come until long after his death). And much of the reason that the Catholic Church ordered his house imprisonment (not torture) was that Galileo slyly made fun of the pope in one of his writings.Today’s guest is astrophysicist Mario Livio, author of the book “Galileo and the Science Deniers.” We get into the trial, the immediate aftermath, and the legacy that the trial has today. Livio began researching the life, ideas, and actions of Galileo; his life is filled with lessons relevant for today—whether with respect to trusting the advice given by scientists in relation to COVID-19 or any other matter of public importance.
During the brutal winter of 1775-1776, an untested Boston bookseller named Henry Knox commandeered an oxen train hauling sixty tons of cannons and other artillery from Fort Ticonderoga near the Canadian border. He and his men journeyed some three hundred miles south and east over frozen, often-treacherous terrain to supply George Washington for his attack of British troops occupying Boston. The result was the British surrender of Boston and the first major victory for the Colonial Army. William Hazelgrove, author of “Henry Knox’s Noble Train,” joins us today to discuss one of the great stories of the American Revolution, still little known by comparison with the more famous battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. At this time, the ragtag American rebels were in a desperate situation. Washington's army was withering away from desertion and expiring enlistments. Typhoid fever, typhus, and dysentery were taking a terrible toll. There was little hope of dislodging British General Howe and his 20,000 British troops in Boston--until Henry Knox arrived with his supply convoy of heavy armaments. Firing down on the city from the surrounding Dorchester Heights, these weapons created a decisive turning point. An act of near desperation fueled by courage, daring, and sheer tenacity led to a tremendous victory for the cause of independence.
On the eve of the 1948 election, America was a fractured country. Racism was rampant, foreign relations were fraught, and political parties were more divided than ever. Americans were certain that President Harry S. Truman’s political career was over. “The ballots haven’t been counted,” noted political columnist Fred Othman, “but there seems to be no further need for holding up an affectional farewell to Harry Truman.” Truman’s own staff did not believe he could win. Nor did his wife, Bess. The only man in the world confident that Truman would win was Mr. Truman himself. And win he did.How did he do it? A confluence of factors that resemble those of today. According to A.J. Baime, today's guest and author of Dewey Defeats Truman, 1948 was a fight for the soul of a nation. We discuss some of most action-packed six months in American history, as Truman not only triumphs, but oversees watershed events—the passing of the Marshall plan, the acknowledgment of Israel as a new state, the careful attention to the origins of the Cold War, and the first desegregation of the military. Not only did Truman win the election, but he also succeeded in guiding his country forward at a critical time with high stakes and haunting parallels to the modern day.
Comments (64)

Craig Prestininzi

Love your show, but man, that is some real name butchering at the intro!

Jul 23rd

Sativa Harvey

listening July 2020 and this is almost insane to listen to.. during the ages of the Black Plague 60% of societies were killed within a month yet they still continued on with everyday life. being someone living in the 2020 covid-19 pandemic; our numbers are nowhere even close to those of the Black Plague. We have not lost anywhere close to 60% of any population. And here we are on lockdown with restrictions, and our economy and Society basically in the midst of a unnecessary collapse. absolutely destroyed and in despair about how things are in the world today. Why would somebody want to be in this world knowing what the truth is

Jul 14th
Reply (3)


Counter factual? Did I hear that right?

Jun 20th

Craig Prestininzi

It is a shame that he was not appreciated in his lifetime and to continue his projects that have made Bavaria one of my favorite places on earth.

Jun 19th

Aaron Britton

The Korean War gets far too little coverage in movies, games, documentaries etc...

Jun 2nd

Craig Prestininzi

I wrote my final research thesis for my history minor regarding this, illustrating how the South almost transformed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy during the Civil War using the Hunley as an example of how developed manufacturing developed in the South - always found the Hunley fascinating!

May 5th


that beginning omg

Apr 11th


Definitely gotta listen to anything where Dan shares his knowledge.

Apr 8th
Reply (1)


Super interesting episode! (But of course, EVERY episode of this podcast is interesting!) --It was especially fascinating since we now live here in Florida & our home is literally a couple miles off of Tamiami! Because I drive on T. Trail every day; learning about the ecological loss it caused makes this interview personal. This episode has wet my appetite for learning more about the history of this great state of Florida. 🧐🌅

Mar 29th


you forgot #7......makin' babies!

Mar 24th

Aaron Britton

Really interesting episode.

Mar 23rd

J Coker

great summary. God Bless Reagan, Thatcher and the Pope for destroying the evil empire

Mar 7th

Craig Prestininzi

like the new intro!

Feb 13th

Craig Prestininzi

What the hell was that Spanish Ticketmaster commercial to lead off?! lol

Feb 12th

Aaron Britton

Great historical show. Quite informative in a variety of subjects.

Dec 29th

Craig Prestininzi

Great show and thank you for no mental maps.

Nov 26th
Reply (1)

Charles Matthew Miller

Awesome! I'll be listening!

Sep 14th

Kayl matthew

your over thinking the ending. they're paying homage to bram stokers Dracula. the book kicks off when dracula finds a look-alike (or reincarnation) of his dead wife

Aug 29th
Reply (1)

Ivan Petrov

This is the most boring narration of the history of very interesting events of WW2.

Aug 26th

Kayl matthew

glad they covered the nuclear fallout. not alot of people no about that

Aug 20th
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