The Last Best Hope?

History Podcasts

Professor Adam Smith from Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute explores the America of today through the lens of the past. Is America -- as Abraham Lincoln once claimed – the last best hope of Earth? And why have so many people believed it was? Blending a documentary style with interviews with top scholars and public figures, Adam looks at America from the outside in to find out what makes it the place it is. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


United Kingdom


Professor Adam Smith from Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute explores the America of today through the lens of the past. Is America -- as Abraham Lincoln once claimed – the last best hope of Earth? And why have so many people believed it was? Blending a documentary style with interviews with top scholars and public figures, Adam looks at America from the outside in to find out what makes it the place it is. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.






The House Divided Episode

The speech that triggered the Civil War? In a speech in the State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln warned that a "house divided against itself cannot stand" and that the nation, like a house divided, could not remain "half slave and half free" but would have to become all one thing or all the other. The crisis had arrived; the choice was between complete freedom and complete slavery. Why did Lincoln say this, and what were the consequences? Adam travels to...


The Second Amendment Episode

Why is gun control so hard to accomplish in American politics, despite the number of mass shootings now averaging one a week? Adam talks to Saul Cornell, the leading historian of the Second Amendment, about how the Constitution shapes the politics and culture of guns in the United States. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


The Black Ships Episode

In the 1853, the closed society of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate was suddenly confronted by the naval reach of the “last best hope of earth” – Commodore Perry’s naval expedition to “open up” Japan to American trade. The Americans were, of course, as alien to the Japanese as the Japanese were, to the Americans. Adam talks to historians Brian Rouleau and Robert Hellyer about how each side saw the other, and what happened next. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


The Gettysburg Episode

Why is Gettysburg the Civil War battle that everyone remembers? How did it come to be seen as the “turning point” of the war? Adam goes to the battlefield to find out. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


The Polarisation Episode

It is conventional to say that the US is more polarised now than ever before – at least since the Civil War. But intense partisanship has been a feature of American politics since the Revolution. So what is different about polarisation today? And if there is a “cold civil war” in America at the moment, how will it end? Adam talks about this with the political scientist James Morone, one of the shrewdest observers of America’s ever-divided soul. Hosted on Acast. See for...


The Propaganda Episode

Is 'fake news' new? Or have we always lived in a world of 'alternative facts'? Adam talks to John Maxwell Hamilton, who has written a book arguing that government propaganda started not in the age of social media or Donald Trump but with American entry into the First World War in 1917. Also joining Adam at the British Library's Breaking the News exhibition are curator Tamara Tubb and Professor Jo Fox from the University of London and one of the world's leading historians of...


The Cotton Famine Episode

In Manchester on new year’s eve 1862, thousands turned out for a public meeting to congratulate President Abraham Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. What motivated these people to come along on a wet Wednesday night to listen to fiery speeches about a foreign war? Especially since the most obvious impact of the American Civil War on Lancashire was that the supply of raw cotton was cut off – the so-called ‘cotton famine’ – causing huge economic distress in the textile mill...


The Book of Mormon Episode

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is simultaneously the most American and the most 'un-American' of projects. Out of the intense religious revival of the 'burned-over district' of New York in the 1820s, "Mormonism" made the astonishing claim that the Risen Christ had literally walked on American soil. They were thus the first truly homegrown American religious movement even as they were reviled for being an alien threat to the Republic. In this episode, Adam talks to Laurie...


The Free World Episode

Has the Russian invasion of Ukraine restored America's role as the leader of the 'free world'? What are the challenges for US diplomats and politicians in trying to advance American interests while also speaking about universal values like democracy? In this episode, Adam explores these issues with Ambassador Philip T. Reeker, who served as the chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in London. Reeker was present when the Berlin Wall came down, and his career -- mostly in Europe -- has spanned...


The Memorialising Covid Episode

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the deaths of over one million Americans to date. How have people memorialised their dead through grassroots memorials and how do we memorialise something that has affected different groups of people in vastly unequal ways? Should there be a national COVID memorial in the US and what form would it take? In this episode, RAI Fellow Dr Alice Kelly speaks to Professor Marianne Hirsch and Professor James Young about the challenges of a national memorial, the idea...


The Dust Bowl Episode

The Dust Bowl: the ecological disaster within the larger disaster of the Great Depression. It’s a story that generations of Americans have come to know through John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange's unforgettable photos of migrant families struggling on the road to make a living in Depression-torn California. In this episode, Adam talks to two prize-winning historians, Linda Gordon, author of a biography of Dorothea Lange, and Sarah Phillips, an expert on...


The Battle Hymn of the Republic Episode

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is one of the most recognisable songs in the world. Easy to sing, and to march to, its words are stirring and optimistic, and filled with vivid images: trumpets that never call retreat, watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, trampling of the grapes of wrath, loosing of the fateful lightning of the terrible swift sword, burnished rows of steel, lilies in whose beauty Christ was born across the sea. It contains the frisson of redemptive violence, too: as he...


The Nixon's the One Episode

Was Richard Nixon responsible for the rightward turn of the Republican Party, or was he in fact the “the last liberal Republican”? John R. Price, who worked on social policy in Nixon’s White House, has written a book making the case that Nixon has been misunderstood, pointing to plans to reform welfare to introduce something like a universal basic income and expand health insurance. Rick Perlstein, author of four prize-winning books on the rise of the Right is unconvinced. So, was Nixon the...


The Billy Graham Episode

Billy Graham, with his film star good looks and his baritone voice, seemed to be everywhere in postwar America – the confidante of presidents, and the closest the nation came to having a national pastor. At a time when we often think of religion as in decline in the West, Billy Graham embodied a self-confident, even glamorous Christian faith. He sold Jesus as other people sold vacuum cleaners. And for him, a Christian faith fed the wells of his boundless patriotism and anti-communism. So who...


The 1776 Episode

How did the Declaration of Independence come to be the signature document of the American nation? What was its role in forging Americans’ conception of themselves as somehow exceptional – the last best hope of earth? Adam talks to Professor Patrick Griffin to find out how a manifesto signed by rebellious colonists --most of them doing so several weeks after July 4 -- somehow became a pseudo-sacred text. Hosted on Acast. See for more information.


The State's Rights Episode

Since the founding of the United States, Americans have been arguing about the correct balance of power between the federal government and the governments of the individual states. Many today still invoke the idea of 'states' rights' as they claim that state governments should retain exclusive power over numerous aspects of public policy, from gun control, to same-sex marriage, to healthcare. The call for 'states' rights' has also infiltrated the bitter debate over abortion and reproductive...


The Government is the Solution Episode

From the 1980s until quite recently, the mood music of American politics was to “roll back” the public programmes created during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Now, taxes and spending are rising and the New Deal – maybe in the guise of the “Green New Deal” – is cool again. Maybe government is seen, once again, as the solution to our problems rather than the problem itself. And yet polls show that faith in government remains low while vicious polarisation stymies any 1930s-style attempt to...


The Robert E. Lee Episode

The American Civil War did not end ambiguously – it ended in complete military defeat for the South. And yet for a century and a half, it is the losers – the men who took up arms against the United States to defend the cause of human enslavement – were honoured as American heroes. None more so than Robert E. Lee. Now the immense statue of Lee that stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond has been removed. Why now? And why was it there so long? Adam talks to Ty Seidule, Emeritus Professor of...


The 9/11 Episode

The shocking attacks of September 11, 2001, were one of those "wake up" moments for the US, raising troubling questions about the nation's place in the world, how it could defend itself and what kind of a country it wanted to be. Looking back with Adam at how 9/11 changed America are Prof Nazita Lajevardi (Michigan State and Oxford), an expert in the experiences of the Muslim American community, and Prof Peter Feaver (Duke), who worked on the national security council staff in the Bush White...


The Homecoming Episode

At the close of the First World War, the U.S. Government gave the American people a choice unlike that of any other nation: to leave their dead loved ones where they fell, or repatriate them to the US for burial at home. Of the 116 000 dead, over 45 000 families made the choice to bring their dead home. In this episode, RAI Fellow Dr. Alice Kelly speaks to Dr. Lisa Budreau, Kevin Fitzpatrick and Professor Steven Trout about how and why the Americans did this. What impact did this homecoming...