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Reporter's Notebook: The 2003 Annual Meeting of the OAH


  • ATTENDANCE More than 2,400 historians attended the 2003 annual meeting of the OAH held in Memphis. Executive Director Lee Formwalt told HNN that this was a near record. He noted that only 1800 had pre-registered. Attendance was expected to be down because of the war and the fear of terrorism. Formwalt said that the high attendance put the organization safely in the black.
  • BYRD GRANTS Some 500 high school teachers attended with the help of funds obtained through the Robert Byrd history grants.
  • HOTEL SPACE So many people attended the convention that hotel space was scarce even though the organization set aside the usual block of rooms (about 900). Some members complained that they had to stay in flea-bag hotels.
  • PANEL CANCELED At the last minute one of the most anticipated panels--"Antebellum Political History"--was canceled after Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., indicated that he could not attend because of a family illness. The panel was to include Eric Foner, Sean Wilentz, and Harry Watson. It will be rescheduled for next year.
  • TERRORISM Mr. Formwalt told HNN that on a conference call several weeks ago the executive members of the board of the OAH decided that in light of the possibility of terrorism the organization should prepare for the emergency evacuation of convention goers. Reacting swiftly, OAH staffers worked overtime to draw up lists of ways members could be safely sent home. An emergency plan is now in place in the event of an attack during a future convention.
  • ANTIWAR On Friday night a group of about 50 historians gathered at the behest of Jim Livingston, a leader of Historians Against the War. After a robust debate the group approved a resolution in favor of dissent during wartime. The resolution subsequently received the backing of the OAH Executive Committee. On Sunday morning the business committee approved the resolution unanimously.
  • IRAQ PANEL Several weeks ago, at the suggestion of David Montgomery and Joanne Meyerowitz, the OAH added a panel to discuss issues arising from the war in Iraq. The panel attracted more people than any other and was televised live by C-Span. (See below.)
  • FONER CRITICIZES HNN At the Iraq panel Eric Foner, past president of the OAH, criticized HNN. Mr. Foner said: "Today also, statements about history that in normal times might be considered uncontroversial are regularly labeled treasonous. If you don't believe me, just click into History News Network which regularly publishes scurrilous, if not libelous, attacks on historians including myself, often with no basis in fact whatsoever, and that's their freedom of speech, but I hope nobody here takes that stuff seriously." Mr. Foner afterwards explained to HNN that he was upset with the personal criticism Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz have leveled. He said he does not want to infringe on anybody's freedom of speech, but mentioned that the attacks have led some individuals to harass him.


It was a history convention, but the topic on everyone's mind was the current war in Iraq. It was inescapable. It was what people talked about when they met in small groups. It was what they talked about at the panel on the state of research on Vietnam. It was what they talked about at the panel on anti-Americanism. With bombs dropping on Baghdad war was the subject it was impossible not to talk about.

A session on Bellesiles was expected to draw a crowd. Only a dozen people showed up. The crowd was at the panel on Iraq, which was scheduled to take place at the same time. (OAH Executive Director Lee Formwalt assured me afterward that the timing was coincidental. He said he had not even realized until I mentioned it that the two panels overlapped.) When I asked Jon Wiener, co-host of the Bellesiles panel, what had taken place, he laughed. There hadn't been any fireworks.

Iraq had put the Bellesiles mess in perspective.

Most people seemed opposed to the war. Indeed, as Jules Tygiel observed at the Iraq session, OAH members seemed virtually unanimous in their opposition to the war. No one on the Iraq panel defended the war. No one in the audience did either when they had the chance to speak. It was striking and people noted it. The polls say that some 70 percent of the American people support the war. But here at the annual meeting of one of the country's two leading history associations no one seemed to. Had supporters of the war been cowed into silence, Tygiel wondered? He hoped not but that may have been the case. At a buffet later I encountered two liberal historians--one at Stanford, the other at Michigan--who supported the war. Maybe many others did, too, though it was apparent there was no silent majority in favor of the war. The majority was loud and it opposed the war.

At the Vietnam panel Robert Brigham of Vassar stuck to the topic listed in the OAH program. He was the only member of the panel who did; everyone else linked the discussion of Vietnam to the war in Iraq. Afterward he explained that he was always the kind of kid who followed instructions. He sounded almost apologetic.

Marilyn Young presided over the Vietnam panel. "This war is not Vietnam because Iraq is not Vietnam," she said. But she also subsequently said, "If Vietnam was Korea in slow motion, the current war is Vietnam on crack cocaine."

Christopher Appy, also on the Vietnam panel, pointed out that Vietnam seemed to be on a lot of people's minds. Parallels with Vietnam seemed inescapable. There was the anti-war movement. A developing credibility gap. Right-wingers saying the military was not being allowed to fight the war all-out. Talk of a quagmire. Concern with the media's role. Concern with guerillas (renamed death squads). Concern with winning the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis. Even some of the soldiers seemed disillusioned as in Vietnam. Appy quoted one soldier as saying, "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy. I am starting to hate these people."

"War time," said Appy, "is like a hot house for historical analogies. Sometimes it's desperate and inconsistent, but it is at least an opening." By this he meant that one unintended consequence of war--this war, at any rate--was that it was acting like a truth serum on official Washington. To defend Iraq, administration apologists were admitting truths about past wars they previously had failed to acknowledge. James Baker, in a defense of Iraq as a preemptive war, said in an interview that Grenada and Panama were preemptive. "He might as well have said that we've had many unilateral invasive wars." Then there was Rumsfeld. To demonstrate that this is the "most precise war" in history, he had noted the contrast with the first Gulf War in which there had been lots of collateral damage, an admission the Pentagon had not made at the time the war was fought.

Then Appy went after the people who talk about supporting our troops. Troops are demoralized not by criticism on the home front, but by the gap between official rhetoric and what they experience first hand on the battlefield. It is the government that has not supported our troops, he insisted, noting that Washington did not recognize post-traumatic stress disorder for a decade after Vietnam. And even now Washington has barely come to grips with the Gulf War Syndrome, a dozen years after that war ended.

George Bush was a favorite target at the convention. When the mikes didn't work at the Iraq panel someone shouted,"Bush turned them off." The quip went over well. Bush may be popular around the country, but he wasn't here. Appy said that Bush was making other recent presidents look good. Marilyn Young noted that when McKinley was deciding whether to go to war he got down on his knees and asked God what to do; Bush gets up in the morning and just asks himself. Berndt Ostendorf (University of Munich) confessed, "I did not believe I would live to an age where Kissinger looks good. But he is a multilateralist." Blanche Wiesen Cook said, "They stole the election and now what do we have ... a putsch?" In four days I never heard a single comment in favor of President Bush.

Alan Brinkley at the Iraq panel noted his opposition to the war but asserted that at least the Bush administration's policy is coherent. The Left, he noted, does not have a coherent policy to deal with the world now that containment is obsolete as a result of the end of the Cold War. This claim aroused the audience. One member noted that coherence is not necessarily a positive quality. Hitler, after all, had a coherent policy.

Whether President Bush is responsible for the rising tide of anti-Americanism was a matter of dispute, as was demonstrated at the panel devoted to the subject. An absent Andrei Markovits argued in a paper read by Gunter Bischof that the split between Europe and America is structural (echoing arguments advanced by Robert Kagan, who contends that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus). Not true insisted Berndt Ostendorf. Polls show that Europeans and Americans share many of the same values; more Europeans, for instance, say they are comfortable with Americans than with the French. On only two issues do Europeans and Americans significantly diverge: on Israel and religion. Americans are far more religious than Europeans and some are so religious as to appear incomprehensible to Europeans. He noted that fundamentalist Christians embrace theories of Armageddon and even know where it will take place:"thirty-five miles southwest of Haifa," as their most popular books predict. Europeans, he did not need to add, find this sort of thing bizarre. About Kagan, Ostendorf provided fascinating insights. It seems that Kagan comes from the same school of illiberal thought as Alan Bloom, a Strauss protégé and Paul Wolfowitz., a Bloom protégé.

On Friday night, April 4, a group of about fifty historians attended a meeting sponsored by Historians Against the War. After little more than an hour of debate the group settled on the passage of a resolution in support of dissent during wartime. On Saturday the OAH Executive Board recommended that the organization appropve the resolution. On Sunday morning as people were preparing to leave, the business committee, acting on behalf of the organization, unanimously approved a slightly amended version of the resolution:

In view of the threat to free speech in the current climate, the Organization of American Historians affirms the centrality of dissent in American history, the sanctity of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and the necessity for open debate of public policy issues, including United States foreign policy, in order to maintain the health of this democracy.

It wasn't exactly an anti-war resolution, but it grew out of the concerns of the anti-war movement.

The differences among the participants at the convention, profound as they often were, appeared less striking than the similarities. In 1969 at the annual meeting of the AHA people opposed to the war in Vietnam walked out when the leaders of the organization refused to support an anti-war resolution. At this convention the antiwar people were in charge. If anyone had been tempted to walk out, it would have been the pro-war crowd.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your father's OAH.

As if to prove that Ira Berlin, the outgoing president, began his speech on Saturday night by paying homage to a trio of radical historians who recently have died: Herbert Aptheker, Howard Fast, and Christopher Hill. Aptheker has been accused of shilling for the communist party. Fast championed Marxist interpretations of history. Hill has apparently been implicated as a Soviet mole. Yet not one person appears to have protested.

Conservatives will say that radicals have taken over the OAH. But it's not true. If the radicals had had their druthers, the organization would have passed a strong antiwar resolution. But no such resolution was even formally proposed. Why not? The reason is telling. The radicals could not agree among themselves on the use of such a resolution. While some plainly believed it would be helpful and one European historian pleaded for one so that Europeans would know that American opinion in support of the war is not unanimous, others argued that it would be undemocratic for the small number of members who turn out for the annual business meeting to speak on behalf of the 8900 members of the organization about a subject of such great sensitivity and controversy.

Were the war to go on these underlying divisions might surface and disturb the serenity of the OAH. But as the members packed to go home it was not the group's divisions that anybody was likely to remember. It was the near-unanimity.

No one may remember this convention all that clearly years from now because of that near-unanimity of opinion. But it is worth noting.