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Historians Against the War: Con

This article appeared on frontpagemag.com earlier this month. Afterwards, HNN contacted Historians Against the War for a response. David Montgomery agreed to write one. Click here to read his article.

When the study of history became a profession, historians defended 'that noble dream' - objectivity, balance, and evenhandedness - in their scholarship. They never imagined that dream would pass into history itself, but it has. In recent years, the profession that prided itself on impartiality and avoiding "present-mindedness" has increasingly dedicated itself -- and subordinated its scholarship -- to partisan political battles from the most recent election to the latest war. The newest example of this, a group called Historians Against the War, already claims over two thousand members. While created to attack "the current empire-building and war-making activities of the United States government," they're best at attacking their status as scholars.

Historians Against the War was formally founded at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), although planning for this meeting had been going on for weeks. Professors and graduate students in history departments across America distributed organizing e-mails promoting the event, well-publicizing it in advance. The drive to establish Historians Against the War was primarily led by a professor well-known for his radicalism, Van Gosse of Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Franklin and Marshall College. This cheerleader for the Latin American far-left, former political activist for the Ralph Nader-led Green Party, and director of the leftist Peace Action's Peace Voter Fund would be joined at the founding meeting by approximately one hundred other historians from forty different colleges, many with similar activist credentials.

At their first meeting, Historians Against the War debated getting the American Historical Association itself to formally declare it and its membership against a war on Iraq. Although the proposal would in the end be rejected, this was only for logistical reasons - the meeting where they could raise the resolution normally attracted only a small number of historians, and they realized that they would not be allowed to ram through the motion on such short notice. Instead, they used the AHA's business meeting to read a somewhat alarmist statement, which cried out against a yet-to-materialize "undermining of constitutional government in the U.S." and "the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad." The AHA entered this statement in their minutes.

At the business meeting, Historians Against the War also distributed their primary organizing tool, a petition containing the above statement. It proved quite popular at the AHA conference, where 667 signed; by late January 2003, they had over a thousand signatures. The organizers wasted on time drafting press releases to the media. By the end of April, just over twenty-two hundred professors and graduate students had signed up.

While the majority of those twenty-two hundred did nothing more than sign the petition and receive Historians Against the War's organizing e-mails, many signers went on to further anti-war activism at their own colleges and universities. By April 2003, Historians Against the War had organized anti-war 'teach-ins' at forty different schools, often supplementing already existing protest groups. These meetings made no attempt to feature pro-war speakers or offer arguments in favor of Operation Iraqi Freedom; the slightest pretense of neutrality was rejected. Often, this stacking of the ideological deck was done with full departmental sponsorship. Of course, by presenting only one side of an issue under the guise of history, historians abandon their commitment to examine all viewpoints and deny their students the opportunity to evaluate the arguments for themselves. In addition to on-campus activism, Historians Against the War marched publicly in several of 2003's prominent anti-war protests - a contingent of sixty marched in the February 15th protest in New York, and smaller contingents were present at protests in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

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I can hear the cries from these leftist historians now - "We have freedom of speech in this country! The right to dissent is an essential feature of democracy! By organizing Historians Against the War, we're exercising our freedom of association!" All quite true. There's nothing illegal or unconstitutional about Historians Against the War. However, just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should be done. The constitutional right of Historians Against the War to publicly dissent as an organized body only undermines their own legitimacy as historians; by lending their status as historians to their stance on current events, Historians Against the War are being nothing but self-destructive.

Consider the debate Historians Against the War held on its founding day; on whether to press the American Historical Association to take a stance against a potential war in Iraq. Not bringing a motion forward was the right decision, but the rationale for it was completely wrong. They knew a formal vote on an anti-war resolution on such short notice was against the by-laws, but no one realized that attempting to force a political stance on a professional association risked undermining that professional association' s authority and ability to regulate its profession. Practically every professional historian belongs to the AHA; like the American Dental Association, the National Realtors Association, and a host of other professional regulatory bodies, the AHA is the parent organization of an entire occupation, and therefore deals only with issues pertaining to that occupation. And despite the claims of the Historians Against the War, a public position on Operation Iraqi Freedom in January of 2003 had absolutely no relevance to the historical profession or even to history. Getting a historical association to pronounce on current events is like getting a group of chiropractors to discuss medieval history.

Why were the actions of the Historians Against the War so unhistorical, and therefore not relevant to the business of the American Historical Association? For starters, the war on Iraq had not yet begun, and therefore the collected historians were passing judgment not on the past, but the future. But even now, in June of 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom isn't proper historical subject matter. Historians analyze the past, not the present, because the source material historians painstakingly pore over in the course of their research simply isn't available for present or recently-past events. Operation Iraqi Freedom is still too close to the present for historians to deal with. Many of the relevant documents are still being discovered or analyzed by intelligence; few are currently available to historians. In a generation or two, the events of 2003 will make for some fascinating theses and books from academic presses, but today, all the commentary on Operation Iraqi Freedom isn't history, but op-ed. The careful methodology and training historians ideally bring to their academic work simply can't be applied yet.

That doesn't mean historians can't write editorials or comment on America's current foreign policy - but when they do so, they're not being historians, and shouldn't identify themselves as such. Despite their scholarly credentials, they've got no more claim to an informed stance on the war in Iraq than anyone who follows current events. A 'Historians Against the War' group therefore has as much relevancy as a 'Gardeners Against the War' or a 'Computer Repair Technicians Against the War.' However, try telling that to Historians Against the War. Like many academics, they suffer from a curious egotism that gardeners and repairmen do not - the belief that their hard work in one narrow area, reflected in the Ph.D., gives them a natural brilliance in all other areas. Here, a medievalist presents himself as an expert on U.S. foreign policy; there, a scholar of the Middle East suddenly knows all about the constitutional ramifications of the Patriot Act. None of them realize that they are preaching only to their ideological soulmates, and just how much their overextension of authority lowers them in the eyes of the broader public.

If Historians Against the War flamed out after Operation Iraqi Freedom's successful conclusion, like much of the Left did, we'd have less to be concerned with; we could write the whole ugly episode off as one more in a long series of abuses, ugly but typical. But a few determined radicals want to pump life into the organization's corpse, and do much more serious damage to the historical profession. They partially won the day at the Organization of American Historians' April 4th annual meeting. They first tried to get the body, which represents all historians specializing in American history, to pass a straight anti-war resolution; when this was rebuffed, they proposed another resolution, largely innocuous but with a barbed preamble:

"In view of the threat to free speech in the current climate, the OAH executive board affirms the centrality of dissent in American history and the necessity of open debate over important issues of public policy, including U.S. foreign policy, for maintaining the health of this democracy."

While the body of the resolution is both unobjectionable and obvious, take a look at that first clause. In effect, the radicals were asking the Organization of American Historians to accept as a given that free speech is currently under some sort of threat! It seems the paranoid school of historical interpretation is alive and well, because, to the Organization of American Historians' shame, the motion passed. At the meeting, there was much gnashing of teeth over the Bush administration's actions - one prominent member of Historians Against the War, Blanche Wiesen Cook, took the opportunity to denounce the President as 'brainless' and recommended his impeachment. But the political extremism of individual historians is nothing compared to the institutional abuse of power. On a contentious political issue still unfolding, not yet the domain of historians, the Organization of American Historians decided to pronounce using their authority as historians. Nothing good for the profession can come of this.

Further attempts to subvert the humanities were outlined in Historians Against the War first official organizational meeting, held May 31st in New York City. Although attended by only twenty, these few were bold enough to hammer out a leftist agenda for the entire group. They declared themselves "a network of historians who are opposed to the current empire-building and war-making activities of the United States government at home and abroad;" instead, they stood for "global justice." They then agreed to use their academic positions to influence public opinion, and set out five practical aims:

1) "to work at both the K-12 and the college/university levels" to develop curricula and other resources. This is a politicized nightmare waiting to happen. Responsible historians know it's impossible to teach history on events happening just months ago; and developing curricula on past events (say, Vietnam or the first Gulf War) with a predefined political purpose in mind is 'presentism,' one of the foremost sins of historical scholarship and an invitation to corrupted, partisan work.

2) to further target professional association meetings, "where Historians Against the War will raise issues about Iraq, empire, etc., as well as about repression." This includes future attempts to persuade professional associations to take political stances. Another disaster in the making - those groups adopting Historians Against the War's stance will also bring home skepticism about the objectivity of their own scholarship.

3) to research and investigate potential U.S. war crimes in Iraq, as well as "resistance to the American Empire." Here we see something extremely contentious and debatable - that America is an empire - offered up as a given, as a point to begin. With such an introduction, there's hardly any point in doing the research - no matter what's found, with such radical premises we already know how the conclusion's going to read. It's the Queen of Hearts school of writing history - sentence first, verdict later.

4) to engage in more public outreach. The Historians Against War vowed to use their positions for political purposes by producing op-ed pieces, 'educating' media editorial boards, and placing "anti-imperialist, historical analysis before the public." Do they really expect the public to take them seriously, when they're only offering up one pre-selected, quite narrow point of view?

5) to engage in international work - primarily by bringing in anti-American historians from abroad to join them on the steering committee and in their work.

Believe it or not, it could be worst - the Historians Against the War debated getting involved directly in politics by supporting candidates and other 'electoral work', only to reject this approach because they feared they'd violate non-profit organization tax laws.

Some historians and interviewers have mildly questioned Historians Against the War's legitimacy, only to be glibly rebuffed by Van Gosse, the lead organizer. He claimed that today's leftist historians "are critical intellectuals providing a vital democratic function," but this desire to engage in militant editorializing conflicts with the obligations historians have to their profession. While it's possible to both write history and comment on current events, the Historians Against the War attempt to present their political commentary as history, and transfer their reputations as history professors to their political activism. The two are separate, often conflicting roles, and should not be mixed. And as far Van Gosse's claim that Historians Against the War is "not a partisan thing," the calling of the President 'brainless' and the debate over 'electoral work' proves his statement wrong.

If this is how historians choose to conduct themselves, there's absolutely no reason why anyone should trust anything they write. Partisanship has conquered scholarship. But this sort of professional suicide has been going on in the humanities for decades, to the point where humanities professors have lost the respect of the vast majority of the population. Despite the far left's support, most people view the tenured radical with suspicion at best, and often with open contempt; political extremists, lashing out at all professional restraints, have managed to drag the whole profession down. This is a shame - many professors do excellent work in their own fields, where they have earned their authority, but every politically-motivated plagiarist and bias-Laden lecturer places them and their jobs deeper in disrepute. Not that the comfortably tenured care; their protected positions ensure they will always have jobs, even as their political abuses drive down enrollments and jeopardize their graduate students' prospects. Through the institution of tenure, they have a protected base for their political agitation and unprofessional behaviour, and they know it.

The roles of historian and political activist do not mix easily. As much as today's flock of leftist academics praise 'personal involvement' with one's subject, having strong political views about one's research inevitably leads to loaded preconceptions; the conclusion takes shape before the research is complete, according to the personal desires of the writer. It's far too easy to be seduced into a conclusion supporting your own ideology; even those attempting to remain staunchly objective, unlike the Historians Against the War, can inadvertently act with ideological blinders. Those sharing passions for history and politics have to constantly fight to keep the two spheres separate. When I was a graduate student studying Russian history, I focused on the medieval period, rather than the Soviet, because I had very strong political views on the Soviet Union; when I wrote about politics, I used a pseudonym, to keep my political writing separate from my history. But I could still feel my politics creeping into my writing, my discussions in class - I constantly had to watch myself, to ensure my own papers were driven by the source material rather than personal convictions. To openly incorporate one's activism into one's history, like the Historians Against the War do, is to cease to do history. It makes one's history nothing more than a subset of one's activism. We should be giving tenure to historians, not activists masquerading as historians. Historians like Van Gosse, who declare themselves "public intellectuals," should do the honorable and honest thing and choose between the two.

Broader civil society needs to reform the professorate and correct these abuses. Although I'm not optimistic, perhaps this will be done with the cooperation of the profession, persuaded that politicization is not in their best interests. If not, federal and state governments might have to step in, tying public funding to professional behavior. With or without the professors' cooperation, something has to be done - before the disregard for professionalism in Historians Against the War becomes generalized, and before we have to rebuild higher education in this country from scratch.

This article was first published by frontpagemag.com and is reprinted with permission.