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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

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Thursday, January 8, 2004

The AHA is meeting this week in Washington D.C. On Thursday night Senator Robert Byrd was given the first Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service"in recognition of the senator's lifelong and passionate commitment to the discipline of history." About 1,000 turned out for the event, which was broadcast live on C-Span.

HNN's Ralph Luker had suggested historians protest Byrd's award in light of his long ago membership in the KKK and his recent use of the N-word in a television interview. But Byrd was given an enthusiastic reception. He won a hearty round of applause when he denounced schools which lump history in with social studies, but may have lost points with some when he noted that one of his two favorite history books is David Muzzey's hoary history of the United States, which Byrd said he read back in 1927. Students of African-American history with memories that stretch back to the sixties may recall that Muzzey's book, which once ruled the textbook market, was singled out then as a racist text for its depiction of blacks as"piccaninnies." (Byrd's other favorite history book is Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [Note: Originally the title was rendered incorrectly, as noted by a reader below.]

If Byrd startled the audience with his repeated praise of Muzzey, he won them back when he bemoaned the ignorance of students about history, complaining that many can't even place the Civil War in the right century. He said many Senate pages never heard of Nathan Hale. (Again he invoked Muzzey:"They aren't studying Muzzey." Maybe Byrd studied Muzzey too well?)

When he said many officials in Washington didn't seem much better informed about American history, but they shall remain nameless, the audience murmurred approvingly.

At precisely 8 p.m. Byrd stopped speaking, right on schedule.

Following his appearance a panel headed by Charles Maier addressed the subject of war and democracy. Most members of the audience drifted away once it became clear the speakers were determined to stick to their specialties, meaning that the Iraq war wouldn't be discussed, which even Maier seemed to find a mite odd, though he showered the speakers with praise.

More later. Now it's time to sleep.

Friday January 9, 2004

Friday was the day of panels. Because the conference this year is devoted to themes involving war and peace, an agenda set long before the Iraq war, the panels had a decidedly relevant tone, though none expressly addressed the questions raised by the war. Christopher Vaughan, who gave a presentation about the Spanish-American War, noted in an interview with HNN afterward a similarity between that war and the war on terrorism which he had alluded to in his talk. In both wars the grounds for war shifted, leaving Americans perplexed about purposes. The Spanish-American War began as a war to liberate Cuba, but ended with the occupation of the Philippines. The war against terrorism began in Afghanistan with an attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda and then was extended to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. (More detailed comparisons will be forthcoming in a piece Vaughan agreed to write for HNN.)

Other historians noted how war reshaped American society. At a panel about the Red Scare, Landon Storrs observed that World War II dramatically increased the number of women in the work force. When conservatives began a campaign to root out alleged communists on the federal payroll women were disproportionately targeted, in part because they presumably held more left-wing views than their male counterparts apparently, but also because they were women: some men resented the sharp increase of women workers. One married woman was maligned because she "used her maiden name and didn't want to be blamed for her husband's mistakes." Other women in the workforce were suspected of lesbianism. Those who were married were said in some cases to have gotten their jobs because of the influence of their husbands.

At the Film and History panel Deborah Carmichael examined a strange movie from the 1930s featuring a president facing the twin threats of war and depression (hint, hint), who solves matters by becoming a dictator. No, it wasn't a slap at FDR. The movie implies that dictatorship was what was needed. By assuming vast powers the president puts the army of the unemployed back to work and liberates oppressed peoples abroad. Rather than be frightened of the kingly assumption of power, viewers are encouraged to think that the president was merely replicating the actions Lincoln took at a similarly difficult period

Lincoln came up again in the evening in James McPherson's address as outgoing president of the AHA. Most of McPherson's talk concerned the dramatic twists and turns in the course of the Civil War that led the conflict to extend over four painful years, quite contrary to the expectations of combatants and leaders on both sides at the outset, including Lincoln. But McPherson began by making a direct reference to Iraq: For at least two centuries Americans have found that it is easier to start a war than to end it. They forgot this lesson in Vietnam and then forgot it again in Iraq.

Some 600 historians listened to the talk. McPherson read his remarks, but succeeded in striking a lively stage personality, to the relief, no doubt, of the audience. The same could not be said for many other speakers during the day, who seemed never to have considered the welfare of the audience as they droned on and on in a monotone voice, apparently determined not to make any concession to their listeners' comfort. That most audience members apparently managed to remain attentive is probably true, but what must these professors' undergraduates think when confronted with such performances in the classroom? One can only imagine that they cannot be terribly impressed. Solutions abound. Sociologist James Loewen (author of Lies My Teacher Told Me), bemoaning the reading of papers, told HNN that the New England Sociological Society had banned the practice and suggested that the AHA consider following suit, an idea that some members of both the AHA and the OAH have been considering endorsing. Another conference goer suggested that graduate students be required to take a class to learn how to teach; not a bad idea.

No single session in the morning or afternoon dominated the conference, but the Civil War panel notably attracted a large crowd numbering perhaps 100. Whatever they may remember of the panel's lectures, one fact is likely to remain firmly planted in their minds: the number of copies of Jim McPherson's Civil War opus, Crossroads of Freedom, that have been printed and sold: between 650,000 and 700,000. The news was revealed by panelist Drew Gilpin Faust, who also informed the audience that there have been so many books published about the Civil War that if you had read one every day since the conflict ended 139 years ago there would still be some left over.

The least attended panel may well have been #47, Education and Colonialism in the Twentieth Century, which featured four panelists and four audience members. Why had so few turned out? HNN asked the panel members. Riad Nasser, who delivered a talk about the image of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks, conjectured that people didn't want to hear that Israel, the region's only putative democracy, mistreated its Palestinian citizens. Other members indicated that a less inflammatory reason might be to blame. Their talks were about places people didn't really care about: colonialism in Morocco and Mozambique.

Quick Observations: HNN peaked inside the rooms of about a dozen panels. In almost everyone of them there were only a few women each and almost no minorities. In honesty, the panels didn't look very much like America. Indeed, they reminded this reporter of the sea of faces one usually associates with conventions held by Republicans: white and male.

Best Conversation Overheard in Passing:

Historian A: "You have department meetings every month?"
Historian B: "Yes."
Historian A (incredulously): "And people come to them?"

Most Exciting Events Coming Up: The AHA's Saturday afternoon business meeting. Normally a quiet affair, this year the meeting will feature two controversial subjects. Historians Against the War (HAW), who assembled today at a meeting attended by about forty people, will ask the AHA to go on record in favor of a resolution affirming the rights of free speech and open access to records. And Yale graduate students will (reportedly) ask the AHA to denounce ... Yale. More later as developments warrant, as they say on TV.

Best Line of the Day: Matthew Pinsker, whose book about Lincoln's summer White House was recently published, recalled in a conversation with HNN being asked by a reporter if he thinks Lincoln was gay. (His book includes details about one Capt. David Derickson, who was rumored to have slept in the same bed with Lincoln at the summer White House over a period of months at a low point during the war.) "The question is whether Lincoln's gay because he slept with this guy. The answer is I'm no Ken Starr and there's no blue dress in this case."

And on that note, to bed. Oh, one last thing. Two people thoiught that Thursday's report about Sen. Byrd in this space didn't give the senator enough credit. He knows, we were assured, that Muzzey is out of date.

Saturday/Sunday January 10-11, 2004

The conference ended on a wet note. Literally. A broken pipe flooded the ground floor of the Marriott, blocking access to the south entrance, forcing historians crossing the street from the Omni Shoreham (where most of today's events took place) to walk several blocks in the freezing cold to an alternative entrance. Brrrrr. It was 20 degrees. (The day before it had been 10.) Click here to see a picture of the flood.


The association made news on Saturday when the Business Meeting approved a resolution condemning Yale University's handling of labor relations. The resolution was approved at a stormy session pitting Yale graduate students against leaders of Yale's history department. Click here for details.

Earlier the AHA approved another resolution, this one sponsored by Historians Against the War (HAW):

In view of current efforts to restrict free speech in the name of national security, the American Historical Association affirms the sanctity of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the decisive importance of unfettered discussion to the pursuit of historical knowledge, he necessity for open debate of United States foreign policy and other public issues in order t safeguard the health of democracy and of our profession, and the need for open access to government records and archives.

The resolution passed unanimously. Click here for more details.

General AHA News

Earlier at the Business Meeting Executive Director Arnita Jones revealed that some 5,300 members had attended the conference, one of the largest turn-outs ever. She told HNN this was definitely one of the more successful meetings. The organization is in the black. Membership is up. And the AHA even secured a new stellar URL address: historians.org (the new site is still under development but features a cleaner interface); readers wishing to search the full archives of the AHA may want to click on the old URL: www.theaha.org).

Outgoing president Jim McPherson handed the gavel over to Yale historian Jonathan Spence, who, in line with a somewhat quirky AHA tradition, promptly declared the meeting over. Mr. Spence teaches Chinese history at Yale. Only two other AHA presidents in the last half century have been drawn from the ranks of scholars in Chinese studies: John Fairbank (1968) and Frederic E. Wakeman Jr. (1992). Mr. Spence, who bears a striking resemblance to Sean Connery (down to the twinkling eyes and raspy voice), told HNN that he plans to focus his presidency on the preservation of archives and artifacts. He said this is a subject with which he has been concerned for years owing to the destruction of invaluable artifacts during the Chinese revolution. The subject, he said, is of especially relevant concern now in light of the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan and the sacking of the Iraq national museum and library.


A panel devoted to biography attracted a larger crowd than any other over the weekend featuring top-selling authors Joseph Ellis, Robert Remini, John Lukacs, and Annette-Gordon Reed. It was Ellis's first prominent appearance at a major history convention since the scandal broke involving the made-up stories about his resume. He was received warmly.

Ellis, speaking in defense of biography, disagreed with another historian who has said that "biographers are always looking for love in all the wrong places." He denied that he had fallen in love with Thomas Jefferson and noted that a Virginian, objecting to Ellis's criticisms of Jefferson, had declared, "I was a mere pigeon squatting on the statue of Mr. Jefferson." If anything, Ellis said, ever since Freud biographers have tended to be overly critical of their subjects. As one wry author put it, famous men may have their disciples, but it is usually Judas who writes their biography. Readers expect biographers to be critical. "People read biographies nowadays," said Ellis, "for the same reason they attend stock car races." The crowd loved this observation and roared with approval at his description of Washington [editor: not Jefferson, as originally reported here; correction 3-22-04] as "the deadest white male in American history."

Annette Gordon-Reed, noting that she is a lawyer by training, said that in her profession it would never occur to anybody to think that just because you spend a lot of time with someone you are in love with them. But she admitted that a friend of hers has told her she needs to find another man besides Jefferson. The author of a widely-hailed book on the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed is now working on individual biographies of both Jefferson and Hemings.

Robert Remini, the Jackson biographer who has also turned out works on John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, said that only recently had he realized that he's never written history, just biographies. Even his newest project, a history of the Congress, is really a "series of biographies." He said he finds it easy to write. It's the rewriting that's hard. "I was trained by Jesuits and you were rewarded if you did good and punished if you did bad. I decided that I had to write nine pages a day. And if I did I got a martini. If not, I didn't. Now I take a martini whether I've written or not" (laughter).

Remini, who by now had the crowd in stitches, said there's one chief advantage of biographies. "For one thing there's a beginning and an end. He dies."

He noted that when he told the people back at the Hermitage in Nashville, the site of Andrew Jackson's kingly estate, that he was writing a book about Henry Clay one of them nearly fainted. "The general may shoot you," she warned. Jackson of course hated Clay.

Most panels attracted older crowds, but one had a distinctively younger demographic: a round table on imperialism sponsored by Radical History that happened to feature one of the oldest members of the AHA, Staughton Lynd. Unsurprisingly, the session had the feel of a political event. One historian, observing that activists have to find funds for the many projects that are needed to promote the education of Americans about foreign policy, joked that George Soros has plenty of money: "God knows how much he'll shovel in. We might want to get some."

A historian who was sent over to Afghanistan to help teach soldiers, related that he had conducted a secret poll of his students in advance of the Iraq war to find out what they thought. Ninety-two percent of the students, he reported, opposed war. (He said he polled between 80 and 100 soldiers.)

Despite the obvious interest of historians in the subjects discussed at many panels, the Washington Post'sBob Thompson, who attended several, observed in an article published Sunday morning that little that the historians said was useful to ordinary citizens despite the obviously relevant topic of the conference, war and peace. He panned the panel on war and democracy which opened the conference, noting that it failed to hold the attention even of the members who were present. To put it harshly, he wrote, "If they can't even hold the attention of their colleagues on such an innately compelling subject, how can they expect ordinary humans to absorb what they have to say?" Later in his story he noted that the History News Network, the History News Service and other organizations are attempting to draw a larger audience for public history, the subject of a panel at a Saturday morning session. But he seemed unconvinced, the subhead over his story summing up his views: " American Historians Talk About War, but Is Anyone Listening?"

Perhaps he should have waited before writing his piece. Sunday morning featured several panels which directly addressed issues of concern to voters. At the panel devoted to Restriction of Civil Liberties in Hot and Cold War America Max Paul Friedman talked about the failed attempts during World War II to seek out and find Nazi sympathizers in Latin America. Of 4,000 Germans who were deported from Latin American countries--often illegally after being kidnapped by federal agents--only a tiny number proved to be Nazis and some turned out to be Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Comparing what happened in the 1940s with what is happening now to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, he concluded that a policy which is arbitrary and ineffective can harm national security rather than helping it. The World War II effort, he observed, hurt the United States by deeply alienating Latin American countries FDR had only recently been courting under the Good Neighbor policy.

At another Sunday morning session devoted to The American Empire: Past, Present and Future, historians crowded into a large room to hear four speakers discuss one of the issues of utmost concern to anybody interested in foreign affairs (which should be everybody). Andrew Bacevich, in a brilliantly-argued address (whether you agreed with him or not), contended that America has become a deeply militarized society and that it is unlikely to change even if President Bush loses re-election. He noted that one of the unspoken assumptions of our post-Cold War age is that America is not only the world's sole remaining super power--but that it should remain so. Several factors conspired to turn America militaristic, he said, among them Ronald Reagan's easy election victories in 1980 and 1984 as a military hawk, which proved that citizens are eager to vote for politicians who campaign for a strong America. Another factor was the birth of the new evangelical movement, which has identified the military , which formerly was associated with violence and whoring soldiers, as the repository of traditional values. In 1992 he argued Bill Clinton had an opportunity to shift the debate about the military by raising questions about the purpose of a Pentagon budget that is greater than all the rest of the world's military budgets combined. But Clinton sidestepped the issue because it probably would have cost him votes and possibly the White House.

Paul Schroeder followed up with a riveting lecture about the importance of the international state system. Mary Renda, in an equally suggestive address, traced the history of American imperialism to Jefferson's decision to place an embargo on food shipped to Haiti at the request of France at the time of the Haitian revolution. As Timothy Pickering, former secretary of state under John Adams complained, Jefferson had sided with an empire against the oppressed colonists--and why? because the colonists in this case were black.

Whether one agreed or disagreed with these historians' positions, it would be hard to argue that their talks weren't directly relevant to issues faced by the voters.

The only question was why these panels, some of the most interesting of the session, were sequestered to the last hours of the conference when most historians were preparing to catch flights home. Alan Brinkley, who chaired another fascinating Sunday morning conference, said he felt he had been the victim of a bait and switch. He'd been told the panel he headed--The Constitution, the Supreme Court and the New Deal--which featured historians William Leuchtenburg Laura Kalman and G. Edward White, would be a major part of the program. He said he never imagined they would schedule the panel for 8:30 on Sunday morning.

To end on a more positive note: At the Breakfast Meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians, Columbia's Alice Kessler-Harris, who is considered one of the finest women historians in the United States, electrified the audience with a thoughtful address about the place of women in the profession. Historians who heard the address made a point of telling HNN that in their opinion it ranked with the finest presidential addresses delivered at the AHA.