With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Poll: Has 9-11 Changed the Way You Look at History?


9/11 has not changed my view of American history, nor has it changed my view of what I need to do as a teacher and scholar of my nation's history. Which is to think, teach, and write based on what I unearth in the documents or in the substantive reading I do, and to lay it all out as fairly as I can, leaving room for others' arguments, interpretations, and questions.

There have been, and probably always will be, other peoples and/or nations determined to assail American society and undermine it, destroy it if possible. 9/11 only said that there are some others we were not sufficiently aware were so fanatical in their aims, and so capable of outwitting and outworking our supposedly technology-smart intelligence agencies, which have proved to be complacent no less than rather incompetent. And we need to respond accordingly, whether that means blasting the potential destroyers out of their hideouts and/or tracking them down through intelligence gathering before they can strike again.

We also need to study a lot more, a very lot more, about peoples we know far too little about and spend too little time trying to understand.

But none of this means we should surrender our critical views of our society. I do not intend to be any less critical--or supportive--of the U.S. than I think the occasion(s) merit. And certainly I do not intend to drop my objections to Attorney General John Ashcroft's frightful view of civil liberties and the rights of women, or President George Bush's devotion to tax cuts for the wealthy--to mention easy issues.

In short, let us not compound the tragedy of 9/11 by allowing it to stampede us into surrendering our critical faculties....and I use the latter word literally and figuratively in all its meanings.

Arnold A. Offner
Cornelia Hugel Professor of History
Lafayette College


Only a naif about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism could find his/her weltanschaaung changed by 9/11...oh, wait, come to think of it, that describes most of the folks in my field.

Timothy Furnish
Ph.D., Islamic History


I was intrigued to watch the poll as results came in throughout the day. In the morning a strong majority said, yes, their view of history was changed. As the day wore on, that began to change, so that a majority said, no. Although I do not know for sure why that happened, I would like to propose a theory. As the day wore on, HNN subscribers from Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones logged on: people from further west and further away geographically from the events of Sept. 11th.

I wonder if the respondents on the east coast who answered yes, my views of history changed, were responding in philosophic terms, such as"we need to be less critical in our historical interpretations", as the quote setting up the survey would have it, or were in fact responding more in terms of empathy. That is, those closest to the events of Sept. 11th understand better emotionally what it was like to, say, be a Londoner during the Blitz, or indeed have a more real empathy with anyone who experienced war or violence or crisis. I think that would be a legitimate response and I think that there is a difference between empathy that is primarily cognitive in foundation and that which is rooted in an emotional / physical experience that is parallel or has parallels with the experience of the historical actors.

Stuart D. Hobbs
Education Services Division
Ohio Historical Society


If anything my conviction that we must teach accurate U.S. History from a global perspective has grown stronger. Events like 911 do not happen in a vacuum. Like other mature countries we must address our weakness as well as strengths, our victories as well as defeats, our irresponsible actions as well as our responsible behavior. It is only when we move beyond national adolescence, always blaming others and never assuming responsibility, that we will truly become a mature and respected world leader. The rest of the world knows our history, it's a shame Americans don't.

Alec Paul Thompson
A.P. U.S. History Instructor
Concord High School, Concord, CA


Why should one's view of history be changed as a result of 9/11? An odd question. Why should that one criminal act possess an impact greater than Sherman's march to the sea or Napoleon's retreat from Moscow or the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii. Is it because it is viewed as a violation of our 'sacred' nation? Truly it is a horrible criminal act....but no worse than the genocide/famine now taking place in Africa. The future will be shaped by our response to this act and unfortunately, I do not see any wisdom in what we have done nor in what we are planning e.g., taking the offensive in Iraq. Once, there was honor in defending your borders, your family, your tribe but there is no honor when aggression is used to subjugate others to your will or to obtain control over what they have...oil. There is no honor when the principles that were established over 200 years ago are rescinded in the name of fear and in the acquisition of concentrated corrupt power. Honor no longer matters. My view of history is the same, my view of the future has changed....we, as a Republic, will not survive.



The statement was sincere, I'm sure; but how is the republic supposed to remain strong if one does not point out its weaknesses? To my mind, the very strength of America has always rested its ability to absorb internal criticism and dissent; its weakest moments have come when dissent has been discouraged or worse, repressed. I will agree that one should keep the positives of the country in mind as well as its less flattering aspects, but to slant one's historical inquiry, consciously, one way or the other is to engage in propaganda, not history, and strikes me as blatant intellectual dishonesty.

Jeffrey Haus


I live in Mexico, having"voted with my feet" some twenty years ago. However, the call to emphasize the"strengths" of a government that has done away with due process and inaugurated a situation of martial law (at least in relation to foreigners) strikes me as the usual self-serving crap pumped out by US academics. I think my friend, an Oxford prof of American Studies who may not want to be fingered by the US police, hit it on the nail in his comments about 11 Sept (he was living in the US at the time):

"After Sept 11, they all cried 'The world has changed forever!' Not true: the world has not changed since the Napoleonic Wars, but America has changed all right, for the very worst imaginable. Americans don't know how to lose with dignity: that is, learn from the experience of losing. They can't take it. It's embarrassing."

John Mraz
Universidad Autónoma de Puebla


The notion implicit in comment of the quoted historian is that one can either present history that celebrates one's nation or history that denigrates it. I think such a dichotomy is bad history and, dare I say it, fundamentally stupid. I think there is a third way that recognizes the existence of good and evil. That sees paradox, irony, and tragedy. A simplistic, dualism needs to be replaced with mature thinking. That there is a third way is perhaps not recognized by some historians. But just because the United States has been attacked does not mean that slavery is good and reform bad. We should write history that recognizes good and bad. Esp. recognizing the latter is an exercise in the freedom of thought and speech that is the greatest strength of our open society and should not easily be given up.

Sept. 11 has not change my view of history. This is not the same thing as saying that the events of Sept. 11 were not tragic, frightening, and wicked. It is to say that from my study of history I am familiar with the holocaust, atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Verdun, the American Indian Wars, slavery, the Thirty Years War: a whole range of violence, carnage and wickedness throughout human history. The events of Sept. 11 are just one more chapter in that tale.

Perhaps the new social history (and I am a strong supporter of social and cultural history) has so predominated the profession that historians do not know any military history and the attendant violence and tragedy of war. But if social historians have never heard of the Somme, I would think they would be familiar with the exploitation of the poor and the violent suppression of unions in the history of industrial nations. Evil has happened before Sept. 11th.

Indeed, most American historians, including the one quoted, no doubt are familiar with all the episodes to which I have alluded. I think the problem is traditional American optimism. Even the critical historians are Whigs at heart: by exposing weaknesses and wickedness in America they believe they will make it a better place and banish weakness and wickedness. While my sympathies are all with the reformers, I believe that people everywhere are mixtures of good and evil, and because of that tragic events will occur. There will be other events like Sept. 11th: in this country and in other countries. Even worse events will occur. And good, true, and beautiful things will also occur, here and in other places. I hope there will continue to be historians to study them all.

Stuart D. Hobbs
Education Services Division
Ohio Historical Society


I’m in total shock that our president and congress are now publicly advocating the intention of making covert pre-emptive strikes against countries in open [and proud/jingoistic] violation of international law.

Perhaps James Joyce was right when he wrote that history is a nightmare from which we need to awaken.

Currently our politicians are using their personal “interpretations of the past” to justify first strike wars against their personal political, economic, religious, and/or ideological opponents.

The use of revisionist, patriotic history to glorify our past while ignoring the “blowback” consequences of our previous covert actions [Central America, Chile, and Afghanistan quickly come to mind] is frightening.

Rather than continue to allow our current president to seal the FOIA documents with regard to the presidency of Ronald Reagan [using executive privilege], US and world historians should be leading a major movement to educate the public based on accurate, documented evidence of our recent past.

Professor Jack Brigham

Bakersfield College


I'm not sure what your poll will really measure. In the context of the introductory quotation about September 11, teachers who answer in the affirmative will be saying that they personally will be accentuating the positive more than they used to. In my case, I've probably been more"positive" (meaning, in my view, balanced) than many, perhaps most, in the profession for a number of years. So, no, I won't be changing my teaching very much. But, yes, I think many in the profession should.

I think they should because I think many of them (us) see their primary or exclusive role as offering" correctives" to popular viewpoints and don't realize that this is at best only part of the historian's job. A historian is supposed to consider all sides before coming to a reasoned conclusion--or so I was taught, and so I have tried to practice. A historian who just likes to offer" correctives"--positive or negative--runs the risk of being seen (rightly, in some cases) as nothing more than a common scold. And will be taken no more seriously than a common scold.

Put another way: we're supposed to be more like judges than lawyers. Special pleading, even in the name of" correcting the record" or in pursuit of some higher truth, is still special pleading. To add another phrase from the courtroom: seeking"the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" has real relevance to history as it should be practiced--today or any day.

Luther Spoehr


I recently read an excerpt in Easily Led by Oliver Thomson (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999) which just makes me happy that I live in modern society where politics are honest.

Page 107:
"Meanwhile, Caesar had arranged for his political accomplice, Clodius, back in Rome, to organize a campaign of terrorism and uncertainty which would make the episodes of the successful general in Gaul even more appealing to a population rendered insecure and uncertain".

I guess that just goes to show that one should never believe everything that's written in newspa . . . I mean, on papyrus scrolls!

Bud Wood


If there is anyway to trivialize what happened on September 11, 2001, it is certainly to give in to the impulse to filter every subsequent experience through the terrorist attacks as a prism. That is a mistake because the incidents simply did not affect everything in America.

We didn't learn anything new on September 11, 2001 either. All of the information we needed was hiding in plain sight. We just didn't want to know. Our arrogance wouldn't let us believe that people from"backward" nations could harm us...what, with two oceans to protect us from them. The Japanese and the Soviets took their best shots and came up short.

Even our response to the event. We've sent the military on a wild goose chance looking for a single individual who was in the middle of a 25-year-old civil war, into which we have inter-posed ourselves...again. This time to depose the government that we left in place there when it served our purpose. We are in the process of helping decide how and by whom Afghanistan should be ruled. That is precisely why Iran hates us now.

We are waging a"War on Terrorism" but people we capture are not"prisoners of war" because that would mean we would have to afford them rights which we do not want to extend. So we have manufactured a new term --"illegal combatant." How is it that we should be determining what is"legal" in someone elses country? We don't tolerate that in ours.

We had moral high ground after we were attacked last year. Terrorists killed thousands of innocent people. Then, in retaliation, we prosecute a"war" using weapons such as cluster bombs -- a weapon which is far more effective at killing civilians, mainly children, than it is a neutralizing a band of guerrilla fighters. And now we are openly planning to topple yet another regional head of state. I don't like Saddam Hussein anymore than the next guy, but if we do that, not only will we have become our enemy, we will have become our own worst enemy. There would be no real way to convince the Muslim world that our so-called"War on Terrorism" is not, in fact, a"War on Islam."

We need to focus on the failures of our republic, because our ability to openly discuss them, work through them and be an example of how to move forward from them IS the great strength of our republic. If you don't take anything away from September 11, 2001, take that.

Peter M. Williams


I vote No -- there are still, indeed new problems that historians need to explore . That is part of the process of making the country strong.

Frank Costigliola
Prof of History


The article itself struck me as on the whole excellent, important, and worthy of wide dissemination.

Martha Bentley Hall


- a closer or more thoughtful examination of the record of historical output would not support any particular ideological view of historical analysis constructed as generally monolithic and tending toward X rather than Y - if any patterns can be discerned they are multivariant and dialectical - to the extent that we can ever speak as a"we" - there are moments of collective experience or recognition, which are often reflected in the questions asked by historians, where we find our ideals and perceptions of reality coming closer to each other or veering off in different directions. Critical reflection on where, who and what we have been has very little to do with any simpleton's dualistic notion of a weak versus a strong America.



I believe historians should continue to describe what has been (and is) happening with scrutiny. That goes beyond tallying plus and minus points. Historians (both regional--US, Latin America, etc--and global or world) should work at finding words to make the present world accessible to students. The globe is the context for other histories. And, I believe, has been for sometime.

Mary Clark


I answered"no" because 9/11 in the light of my experience during WW II was not that
epochal an event. During February 1945 I witnessed the Battle of Manila during which at
least 100,000 civilians, 16,000 Japanese and 2500 Americans were killed. That was in a
country that was still under U. S. sovereignty.

James J. Halsema
Glenmoore, Pennsylvania 19343 USA


I think that part of the problem is that in responding to jingoistic or whitewashed history that emphasizes the United States' good points, many historians have tended to overcompensate by dwelling primarily on America's problems, past and present. Postmodernist relativism reinforces such behavior because it posits multiple, conflicting, socially-constructed"truths," and thus relieves believers from any obligation to tell"the truth." One might say that relativism is the last refuge of the intellectual scoundrel. I believe that historians ought to strive for objectivity,"noble dream" though it be, and take a balanced approach to researching, writing and teaching history. We need to take account of all relevant evidence, not merely that which fits into some preconceived ideology. We need to present to our students, readers, and colleagues the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the end, I think we may say of America what Winston Churchill said of democracy: it is a lousy form of government, but it's better than all the other alternatives.

Hans P. Vought


The question is not whether 9/11 has changed our thoughts on history, but how has it. I would suggest that, perhaps, the changes are more subtle than one would expect. While my own personal methodology will not change as I view historical writing, the scope of connections and interest will be altered. What I mean by this is, I will no longer allow myself to observe changes in America as limited to merely an American point of view. Instead, I must see them as they are connected to the larger world. This is rightly so. We are no longer living in the disconnected realm of isolated America; indeed we are a country connected to the globe and its linked problems. One would think that this is a lesson we all would have learned well by observing past 20th century events (i.e. the major wars, region conflicts, and our country's roles in all), but I personally feel this is not the case. The destruction of the financial heart of one of our major cities, covered in stunning real-time coverage, and the attack on the rock of the military establishment in Washington D.C., have brought this point home dramatically. We are a country linked to the larger world, what we do, how we act, what policies we adopt, and even how we live day-to-day, are all observed and acted upon by others. It is imperative that we understand not just our own activities, but how they relate to the world at-large.

Bill Clay


My greatest fear post-9/11 is not of another terrorist attack but of the loss of basic constitutional rights which are under assault today. I think it is more important than ever that historians keep in the public eye the occasions in the past when the government has trampled the rights of its citizens!

Frankie L. Winchester
American University
Washington College of Law and Department of History


I have always assumed that humans were imperfect, and capable of both great evil and great good. Human institutions are thus subject to the same range
of possibility. While the events of 9-11 brought great me great sorrow, they didn't surprise me. Being a free society is an exercise in risk taking.

Joan R. Gundersen
Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty
Chatham College


I have always thought America's strengths should be emphasized.

Suzanne G. Bowles
Assistant Professor of History
William Paterson University


Now more than ever historians should use intelligence guided by sagacity. Our so-called leadership is stupid and empty of vision, especially the leaders of our executive branch. We should hang paper everywhere that says so. Only the “truth” shall get us shed of them. Of course, truth is a funny thing; it sometimes comes back and bites one. Eh?

José Alfredo Bach

San Marcos, TX


I have not changed my mind about history, but I do believe that Sept. 11, 2001 served as an extraordinary reminder of the importance of history. For several days, if not weeks and months, news media were scrambling to talk to anyone who could provide some insight into why the event occurred. The standing question of the day,"Why do those people hate us?" revealed the lack of knowledge about the past among the American people in general and the absence of a comprehensive--as opposed to an ideologically rigid--historical perspective in the Bush White House. Unfortunately, I see little change in the latter.

John Little


I have been stunned at the way so many Americans -- particularly young Americans -- have bought into a relativist view of competing social and political value systems:"Oh, they have their way of doing things, and we have ours," they say."And ours isn't so great. Look at slavery, and how we treated the Indians, and how mean we were to the Japanese in WWII," etc. Never mind the fact that we fought our nation's bloodiest conflict in order to get rid of slavery, or the fact that the social and political development of our country ever since then has been a steady (and often uphill) struggle against human nature to make sure everybody has the opportunity to realize the dreams of our founders, using the framework they so brilliantly devised. The Framers knew they weren't setting up a perfect country; but they managed to set up a system within which ordinary human beings could work toward that perfection.

Compared to the anti-democratic, anti-liberal (and frequently even barbaric) nature of the systems struggling against us, there should be no contest. American values, and the American system, are eminently worth fighting for -- not just for our own sakes, but because they are the hope of the rest of the world.

And yet people who have been educated in the past 30 years or so have no idea of this. Why? Because when they are taught anything at all about our system, they are either taught of its sins and failures (ignoring the redemption and success that so often follow), or they are taught alternative versions of history. For instance, one of my children was in a lower-division U.S. history overview class in college. ALL of the reading was autobiographical stuff written by marginalized peoples --Native Americans, former slaves, subjugated women. And all of that is absolutely fine. Those are part of the story. But the course had NOTHING in it about the basics of mainstream history -- the writing of the constitution and its subsequent development, the Civil War, Reconstruction, etc. The disaffected, alternative view wasn't an additional view; it was the ONLY view.

What sort of citizen is that sort of education likely to produce? One who is ill-equipped to answer those who despise America.

This isn't about patriotism. It's about the question of whether this is a system worth being an apologist for. It most certainly is.

Brad Warthen
editorial page editor
The State
Columbia, SC


The assumption that we as history instructors and authors have done a better job addressing this nation's weaknesses than strengths is flawed. Beginning in the 1960s scholars began to counterbalance the celebration-style of Dexter Perkins, Richard Hofstadter, et al. The American Pageant approach to American history had its value but it failed in that the whole fabric of the American past did not emerge. Good history presents the past with warts and all. This includes the accomplishments and problems. Anything less is not presenting history, rather, it is mythologizing the past. With the like of John Ashcroft ready to forget lessons about habeus corpus it is imperative that our craft not resume the nationalist history that emerged after World War II.

Thomas Zoumaras
Associate Professor of History
Division of Social Science
Truman State University


I voted"no" because I have felt for many years that an anti-American agenda was dominating the teaching of U.S. history for some time, and all my research has been devoted to figuring out when the image of the essentially evil America was disseminated. At first I thought it was Nazi or Soviet propaganda, but now I feel that there is a trail leading back to the descendants or sympathizers of Southern Bourbons going at the Puritan northeast.

Obviously, an historian should not be a dewy-eyed uncritical patriot, but neither should one ignore the contested character of all our policy decisions, right or wrong. We are an unfinished experiment in a new kind of society, unprecedented in its demands on citizens for informed and righteous decisions.

Clare Spark, Independent Scholar


I haven't changed my view of history since September 11 since I always have taken a more middle of the road approach to history, which may be one reason why I am an archivist and not a teacher. I see the U. S. as a work in progress. We have ideals that we have written into our Constitution. We often fail to live up to them, but we are much closer to attaining these ideals than when we started. We also are far in advance of other nations and other civilizations in creating a society of freedom and equality of opportunity for people to be all they can be. True, there is much we can learn from other countries, but there is much they can learn from us as well.

I think we should teach about our weaknesses, but show how we have progressed since then. For example, we can teach about slavery, but also show how some African-Americans began to escape it and develop free black communities even during the Colonial Period. We can then note how changing attitudes led to the decline of slavery, first in the North and then in the West until the Civil War finally finished it. While the postwar era brought an American system of apartheid, especially in the South, we can also see a gradual change as African-Americans began to participate more fully in the economic and political life of the community. This leads into the Civil Rights movement and the changes it has brought.

Likewise, women had few options in the Colonial Period. Now, women head up corporations and can be found in any profession. My wife heads the Psychology Department at a local college. This would have been unheard of a century ago, and it certainly did not happen overnight. Historians should talk about this.

One thing I talked about many years ago when I was a graduate assistant was the changing role of children. Years ago, most children left school and went to work at an early age. Now, they at least finish high school and many go on to college or other educational opportunities to give them the tools to attain more satisfying careers. Again, a major change from a century ago.

There are lots of things that historians can say about how we have changed, mostly for the better. Even our failures can be considered a learning experience. The Executive Director at an organization I work for recently told us that we should even celebrate failure because we can learn from it--we learn what not to do--whereas we may not always learn from success, which may be due as much to luck as to anything we did.

Let us hope that future teachers will teach a balanced view of history.

John Zwicky, PhD
Pediatric History Center
American Academy of Pediatrics