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.

An Interview with Carolyn Eisenberg About the War, Activism, and Teaching

Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra University, is the author of Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949. She is on the Steering Committee of Historians Against the War (HAW). This interview was conducted by email.

How did Historians Against the War come about?

Historians Against the War (HAW) was formed in 2003. Its initial purpose was to mobilize historians across the country to oppose a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Once the United States went into Iraq, it was quickly evident that the war there would continue for a long time, creating the need for an ongoing organization. If anything the necessity for historians to speak out against the policies of the Bush Administration seems more urgent now. While the occupation of Iraq remains the central focus of the organization, we are also deeply concerned about the assault on civil liberties and the prospect of a widening war in the Middle East.

Can you describe how you initially got involved?

I joined Historians Against the War in the post-invasion period. I was already engaged in peace activities in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and at my University. However, I felt there were some very particular ways in which historians working together could make a distinctive contribution. With this in mind I agreed to serve on the Steering Committee.

How does your work on the occupation of Germany after World War II and the origins of the Cold War put the current occupation of Iraq in perspective?

My work on the occupation of Germany has influenced my thinking about Iraq in countless ways. Perhaps, the most important was an early realization that the American project was going to fail. When I wrote my book on the American occupation of Germany, I was very critical of many aspects of U.S. policy. But by comparison to Iraq, the managers of the American enterprise in Germany now look like humanitarian wizards. For one thing, they did plan for the “nuts-and-bolts” of running a country. When I started researching my topic, I found thousands of pages in the National Archives covering all sorts of details about things like policing, transportation, managing the electrical system, health requirements. I didn’t give these much attention since this seemed ordinary and obvious. If you’re going to plant your army in the middle of a country and stay, then you have some minimum responsibility for the welfare of the people who live there. As was quickly evident, the Bush team was did not think that way about Iraq.

Another difference is while the American occupiers in Germany were pro-capitalist and intent on reviving and reintegrating the economy of Germany with that of Europe, they were building a system. If they were going to accomplish their mission, they couldn’t just pillage the place and infuriate the inhabitants. One policy that you never see discussed is that General Clay put a moratorium on foreign investment. Although many US companies objected to this policy, his point was that if foreign corporations took advantage of Germany, while it was flat on its back and started buying up property that it would ultimate earn so much resentment and resistance that it would defeat the American agenda. By contrast, the Bush folks have behaved like petty thieves, holding up a grocery store. Whether it’s the disappearance of money from the Iraq escrow fund or the profiteering of companies like Halliburton, the desire for a quick buck has undermined the whole project.

So on the one hand, there were these deficits in the U.S, approach. On the other hand, there were significant obstacles within Iraq to the American agenda. I’m referring here to the lack of a social basis within the society. This was more of a problem in Germany than is usually acknowledged. If Germany had not been partitioned, the Americans would have had a more difficult time empowering indigenous leaders to implement their program. But here was Iraq with a very different history and without the social structure or political experience to support the fantasies of Dick Cheney.

And it was not just Dick Cheney. One of many misfortunes of this recent period is that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice considered herself an expert on Germany. During the years of the first Bush Administration, she and colleague Philip Zelikow had participated in the reunification of Germany. Afterwards the two wrote a book on the German problem, taking it back to 1945. It was a very inadequate historical account of the occupation period, but based on that little bit of knowledge, Rice assented to the plans of the neo-conservatives.  Rice had absurd ideas about how Iraq in the Middle East would be like West Germany in Western Europe. If you look at her speeches before the invasion of Iraq, you can see how she was imagining George Bush as the next Harry Truman

Many have commented on Rice’s inadequacies as National Security Advisor, how she failed to insure that the President received appropriate advice from disparate agencies. That’s partly because Rice herself was a great enthusiast for re-making the Middle East.

In a paper you presented at the AHA conference in 2004, you emphasized that U.S. imperialism and militarism grew out of specific circumstances at the end of World War II. You also argued that U.S. officials sought to both enhance the power of the state and establish a framework for international capitalism. How can an examination of the development of U.S. militarism help inform our understanding of current US military actions?

My remarks at the AHA were a response to those critics of American foreign policy who say “it’s all about oil.” Obviously officials’ interest in who controls Middle East oil was an important element. But I think we need to acknowledge that the desire for military primacy has been a central feature of U.S. foreign policy since Europe was split in the late 1940’s. The ability of a handful of people to launch a successful attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon represented a significant challenge to that supremacy. As a consequence, there was a tremendous impetus within the Bush Administration to demonstrate American power. It was not enough to conquer Afghanistan. To “shock and awe” the world you need a more impressive target. For a host of reasons, Iraq was the place. That Bush would try to attack this country was a foregone conclusion by September 12, 2001.

Much of your work lately has focused on U.S. foreign policy under the Nixon Administration. Are there any similarities between US foreign policy during the Vietnam War and the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq?

If you had a year we could discuss this properly, so let me make some simple points. Having created an oversized military over many decades, the temptation of all Administrations has been to use or threaten to use military power to shape internal developments in other countries. In Vietnam and Iraq, this became a full-fledged project with the predictable result that the inhabitants have rebelled and when the United States fights back, the insurgency grows. I think we’re seeing this now with the so-called “surge.”

In Iraq as in Vietnam, the defeat of the U.S. is inevitable –something that was/is widely recognized in both cases. And yet the fight continues, consuming the lives of our own soldiers and the people of Iraq. And nobody seems able to stop it. We saw that in the Nixon era, when 20,000 American and one million plus Asians died in a doomed effort. And of course we’re seeing that now. Behind closed doors, House members and Senators are telling each other that the Iraq war is a hideous fiasco. But when it came time to vote on war funding, many capitulated. So once again we’re killing people for nothing. It is all unfolding every day, before our eyes.

Are there any significant differences?

Yes, it is more difficult for the United States to leave Iraq. The Vietnam War was in many ways a symbolic struggle, involving the U.S. capacity to control events in the Third World. However, as an actual place Vietnam had less intrinsic importance. Iraq is major country, strategically located in a region that is vitally important to the whole industrial world. The Bush war and its associated policies have added immensely to the instability of the entire region. The problem now is that from the standpoint of traditional American interests, there are no good options. Staying is a problem for all the reasons that are apparent on a daily basis, but leaving will be damaging as well. Whenever it happens, this will be the most serious defeat in American history.

What kind of antiwar activities have members of HAW been engaged in?

As you know Historians Against the War played a key role in promoting antiwar resolution through the American Historical Association.  We have also produced a range of educational materials, provided support for antiwar veterans, participated in United for Peace and Justice demonstrations, encouraged on-campus Teach-Ins and Forums, and encouraged members to participate in legislative work.

Students and young people have historically played an important role in anti-war movements. What are your thoughts on student participation in the current anti-war effort? Has HAW worked or interacted with any student or youth antiwar groups?

It is clearly desirable to expand the number of students who engage in anti-war activity. Many individuals within our network have reached out to student groups on their campuses. That said, I do not think that faculty should be involved in organizing students. I think it is very important that initiative and direction come from the students themselves. As faculty members we can play an important role in keeping the intellectual issues surrounding the war alive on our campuses and providing interested students with relevant information about antiwar events.

Some critics say that by taking a position on current political issues and engaging in anti-war activism members of HAW undermine their legitimacy as historians. How do you respond to this charge?

It is a nonsensical charge. As historians we’re always involved in the task of interpreting the past and elaborating connections between past and present. Do we have an obligation to do this in an intellectually honest, thoughtful way? Of course, we do. Should we be open to alternative perspectives and new information that challenges pre-existing ideas? That goes without saying. But as people, who are fortunate enough to be paid to think deeply about the human experience as it has evolved over time, of course we will form ideas about the contemporary crisis and its significance.

I think there is a substantive issue beneath this charge, which is more complicated. If we as teachers have strong opinions about highly contested issues, does that impair our ability to help students reach their own conclusions and evaluate different points of view? That’s a challenge for every teacher -- from every place on the political spectrum -- conservative as well as liberal. I personally think this is our responsibility, which is too often neglected by people of all outlooks.

Once upon a time I was a student at the University of Chicago, where I had many professors (although certainly not all) who purveyed extremely conservative interpretations as gospel truth. I think this probably had a bad effect on fellow alumni like Paul Wolfowitz. In any case, this was a good example of how not to teach.

What kind of role do you think historians can and should play in the anti-war movement?

There are many valuable things for historians to do right now, and if most of those who feel very deeply on this issue would swing into action, I think it would make great deal of difference. This year Historians Against the War tried to stimulate Teach-ins around the country at the time of the midterm elections. While we were somewhat successful in this, and also uncovered many events that were already scheduled, the big news was how little was happening at colleges and public schools. At a moment of enormous crisis for our country and the world, the vast majority of educational institutions had literally nothing going on.

I’m not necessarily speaking here of specifically anti-war events. My own view is that often the best events are ones which present a range of opinions. But here is a place where faculty can really make a difference and I don’t think that’s happening, or not enough.

You asked earlier about the role of students in the antiwar movement. As teachers, I don’t think it is appropriate to tell students how they should behave in the political sphere. But as educators, I think we do need to address the extent to which young people are disconnected from public issues and to develop programs which will stimulate them to think and become more engaged.

Another area, where some historians are contributing is in working with members of Congress. This is a vitally important work task right now. Only Congress can stop the war and while many hopes are pinned to the 2008 presidential elections, if Congress does not become more proactive no new President, whether Republican or Democrat will make a difference.

It would be great if more historians helped with this effort, although often academics don’t think of themselves as people who can work with Congress. In reality historians have the knowledge, as well as the verbal and written skills to make a significant impact in their Congressional district and state. If even a fraction of the people who voted for the AHA resolution would lend a hand to peace organizations that are doing this work, it would make an important difference.

I’m just mentioning some of the areas that I’m especially focused on. However, there are all sorts of useful projects for historians to participate in if they wish to be active. Historians Against War is really a vehicle for people to be active in many different ways. And our Steering Committee has members with diverse experience and ideas, and who also have many other life commitments. But I think what we all have in common is a conviction that it is now vitally important to use our particular skills to change the direction of our country.