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Historians Against the War: Pro

Earlier this month frontpagemag.com published an article by Greg Yardley criticizing Historians Against the War. This is Mr. Montgomery's response to that article.

At the time the American Historical Association held its annual convention in January 2003 a worldwide outpouring of protests and demonstrations sought to dissuade the government of the United States from launching a war against Iraq. Historians from more than 40 universities, colleges, and secondary schools, who were attending the convention, gathered at an open, informal and well-publicized evening meeting to discuss ways in which they as individuals might add their voices to this historic mobilization for peace. Discussion at the meeting soon made it evident that the participants, while sharing a desire to restrain our government from unleashing a bloody war, held many different political views and advocated a variety of courses of action. After an extensive debate, the participants agreed that, whatever the immediate future might hold, the advocates of unilateral use of the military might of the United States to reshape political and economic life around the world would be in the ascendancy for a long time to come. Concurring in the need for an organization of their own through which historians could join the efforts of other Americans from all walks of life, and of men and women throughout the world who were struggling to preserve their own lives and liberties against a pending armed assault on Iraq, and against its probable sequel of an expanding series of wars in that region and elsewhere, the assembled individuals decided to organize a new national network named Historians Against the War.

After considerable debate the assembled historians agreed not to present a resolution against the pending war to the business meeting of the AHA. Although the small attendance customary at such meetings made it quite likely such a motion would pass, that prospect also made it likely that debate on the issue at the business meeting and afterwards would turn on the propriety of the professional society's taking such a stand and the circumstances under which it was adopted. Historians Against the War were determined to focus future discussion among historians and the citizenry in general on the pending war and its consequences, not on controversies over the proper role of the AHA.

Consequently, the founders of the HAW decided simply to inform the business meeting of their deliberations and concerns, to participate in public discussions around the country, and to arrange a large and well-publicized meeting at the forthcoming April convention of the Organization of American Historians (where again and for the same reason no effort was made to put the organization on record concerning the war, despite abundant time to do so). Most important, they drafted a concise petition to circulate at and after the AHA convention, as a way for individuals to express their views and to establish a nation-wide network of historians with many different political beliefs and specialties who agreed with this statement:

We historians call for a halt to the march towards war against Iraq. We are deeply concerned about the needless destruction of human life, the undermining of constitutional government in the U.S., the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and the obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.

Nothing that has happened since January has diminished the validity or importance of this statement, except that our government launched its attack in defiance of world opinion. Secretary Rumsfeld's "shock and awe" assault did oust Saddam Hussein's regime, but the bloodshed continues, reminding many historians of the three-year war needed to suppress the Philippine independence movement, after Manila crowds had welcomed America's victory over the Spanish empire. Immigrants, and especially Moslem immigrants in the U.S. have lost constitutional guarantees of due process. Huge popular mobilizations have blocked the enactment of new security laws modeled on the USPATRIOT Act in Hong Kong and Kenya, but the act remains law in our country.

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Historians and other academics who oppose the military unilateralism hailed by some administration spokespeople as "assuming our imperial responsibilities," find themselves repeatedly denounced in the columns and book advertisements of Front Page and kindred well-financed campus papers as a "Fifth Column" and "the enemy within," while columnist Greg Yardley proclaims: "Broader civil society needs to reform the professorate and correct these abuses." Not only is that "reform" currently backed by well endowed foundations, but it reminds us all too vividly of the World War I purge of pacifists, socialists, and Germans in general from textbooks and the academy, and of the silencing of dissenters during the 1940s and 1950s by the dominant "revisionists" of the age, who insisted on the patriotic duty of historians and historical societies to celebrate the American political tradition, redeem the reputation of business leaders, and recognize the merits of war..

Historians have long engaged in political debates and served in public office. Indeed it is the right and the responsibility of knowledgeable people to do so: historians as well as nurses, lawyers, carpenters, service workers, and military personnel. Moreover, it is far from surprising that current events have very often framed the questions historians have asked of the past. In our own time many of the best analysts of earlier epochs have been political activists (as have some of the worst).

Historians Against the War not only upholds the right and responsibility of historians to participate publicly in policy debates, it also encourages the exchange of knowledge and ideas within its own ranks. It was, for example, of critical importance that historians of the Middle East and other parts of Asia, of Europe, and of Latin America took part together with Americanists in shaping the HAW petition and strategy for its use.

The honorable standards of the historical profession do not demand silence, intellectual conformity, or avoidance of current controversies. They do require three attributes in all our research, teaching, and writing: honest and rigorous adherence to documentary evidence, a keen sensitivity to the distinctive structures and dynamics of societies and historical epochs that have differed from our own, and open exchange of ideas, within and between our various historical specialties. All these canons of serious scholarship are put in jeopardy by war and by wartime calls to "reform the professorate." In times of war civil liberties are quickly lost. Decades of struggle have always been needed to win them back again. That is why both HAW and the OAH took this occasion to reassert their defense of open debate within the historical profession and in society as a whole.