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OAH Annual Meeting: What Historians Against the War Want

Friday night, April 4, at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), Memphis, Tennessee, downtown Marriott.

After a feisty debate, a group of some fifty historians decided to try to persuade the executive board of the OAH to adopt the following resolution in support of free speech:

In view of the threat to free speech in the current climate, the OAH executive board affirms the centrality of dissent in American history and the necessity of open debate over important issues of public policy, including U.S. foreign policy, for maintaining the health of this democracy.

The resolution was approved by the group shortly after 7pm at a meeting arranged by Historians Against the War (HAW), an organization formed in January at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Several of the historians present initially pressed for more radical action, hoping to persuade the OAH executive committee to pass a resolution opposing the war. But this approach failed to win the support of even Sixties radical Straughton Lynd, who said it was difficult to know at this stage in the conflict--when it was unclear whether this war would end quickly as in 1991 or drag on as in Vietnam, or end in Lebanese chaos--what approach would be best."I am sorry to be an agnostic on that question," he said,"but I wanted to say how much it means to me to know that there are historians against the war within this organization." In 1969 Lynd walked out of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association when Harvard historian and AHA president John Fairbanks refused to support a resolution opposing the Vietnam War.

Jesse Lemisch, another Sixties radical, said he was gratified that the leadership of the OAH had passed out of the hands of the royal court, but averred that this"greening of the OAH" had not resulted in more vigorous action against the war. He said that Ira Berlin, the president of the OAH, told him that the war had not even come up at any of the meetings of the executive board. Another historian quickly added,"But it's only Friday." The annual meeting goes through Sunday.

The most combative member of the group was Blanche Wiesen Cook, the biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, who noted that at the 1969 meeting Eugene Genovese had said,"We should put them down now and put them down hard and put them down forever." Earlier in the meeting she predicted that the"occupation will be disgusting" and charged that"every bomb that falls on these open cities is a war crime." Later, she observed that"we had an impeachment of a president because he used his cock. Now we should impeach a president for being brainless." She referred to this as"the organ approach to history," which got a long laugh.

Cook suggested that the group try to persuade Berlin to denounce"the mindless misuse of history" by the Bush administration during his scheduled Saturday night address, when he would be guaranteed a large audience."I don't like the idea of crawling to Ira to do this," Lemisch objected. Cook responded,"We don't have to crawl."

Alan Dawley (College of New Jersey) pressed the group to focus on the"alarming threat" to free speech. This approach elicited a favorable response from most participants. Sandi Cooper (College of Staten Island) said that at CUNY administrators had fired an Egyptian translator merely because he had worked with the radical lawyer recently indicted by the federal government. Cook complained that people seem to be intimidated by the Bush administration, citing as evidence the refusal of the New York Times to publish Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s latest op ed, in which he claimed that the invasion of Iraq is"our day of infamy." It was eventually published by the LA Times. Jon Wiener (UC Irvine) recalled that just last week a community college in Irvine decreed that professors could not talk about the war in their classrooms unless the subject was part of their syllabus.

Others shared concerns about the media. Alida Black (George Washington University) expressed consternation at the media for passing along bogus analogies and misinforming the public. Singling out the Washington Post, she said that the Cuban analogy the paper has repeatedly invoked was preposterous."Kennedy and Khrushchev," she said,"wanted peace. Bush wanted war."

Cook, noting that many of the most vociferous antiwar activists are old--Robert Byrd, Schlesinger, Zinn, Lynd--cracked,"You have to be eighty in this country to take a stand." Somebody else then cried out,"Never trust anybody under 80," which drew laughs.

After the group approved the resolution, Jim Livingston (College of New Jersey), who helped arrange the meeting, suggested"we organize a politburo" at which point he was cut-off by someone who asked,"Can't we use a different word?" A murmur of assent went through the crowd. Instead of appointing a politburo, they would establish a"steering committee."

Lynd and Lemisch agreed to serve as honorary cochairmen. The other members include: Livingston, Cook, Wiener, Black, Dawley, Ben Alpers (University of Oklahoma) and Gretchen Eick (Friends University).