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


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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  • 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.

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More Comments:

Thomas Gunn - 4/16/2003

04-16-03 ~1240

[What do you think could be done to counter the slide into irrelevancy?]

The OAH like the UN is making *itself* superfluous.

The solution to the inexorable slide into irrelevancy is much too simple for either to grasp. Truth!. Like scientists, historians must accept the facts for what they are not what they wish they were.

Hey Ralph! Notice I didn't even mention Michael.

tom gunn

Suetonius - 4/13/2003

Prof. Hamby,

What do you think could be done to counter the slide into irrelevancy?

lit teacher - 4/13/2003

Mr. Luker
Of course, you are right (though MLA this year was noticeably less idiotic than it has been in the past). I realize that the signature (which was meant to describe my lack of real experience in you all's field) implied something I didn't mean. Of course, I can be more open because I'm at a junior college, where we still teach comp and we still teach survey courses and where people don't care about your politics if you are willing to keep grading those freshmen papers. My friends from grad school have much easier loads but much less amiable surroundings. It's just that our discipline has so retreated from any relation to the public--or the real world or sometimes even the words on the page--that there are no c-spans to give us voice. (well, there is always Said as an example of what we do - or don't do.)

Josh Greenland - 4/11/2003

What occurred in the Bellesiles chatroom? Are there any discussion highpoints that you could pass along to us?

Don Williams - 4/9/2003

My apologies for not showing up, Mr Luker. I was walking along the Mississippi riverbank toward the Convention Center when I stumbled across a group of lowlifes passing around a bottle of Tennessee whisky and placing bets on a rooster fight. While it may be social snobbery, I'm afraid I opted for the tonier soiree.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/9/2003

Geez, Don. The amateur muses weren't with us, so we couldn't figure out what to do! Seriously, it was just a chat room session. No court of inquiry was convened, so no "findings" were intended.

Don Williams - 4/9/2003

I may have missed the media announcements but I have not yet heard a strong roar of support for Bellesiles emanating from the OAH Annual meeting -- what happened?

Did anyone bother matching Bellesiles' claims in Arming America against the primary sources?

Is OAH's Journal of American History going to defend it's past
promulgation of Bellesiles' scholarship, is it going to issue a revision, or is it going to continue to duck the issue?

Anders Lewis - 4/8/2003

I am a member of the OAH and the militants do not speak for me. Alonzo Hamby is right - what an embarrasement! I always thought that historians would strive for objectivity on all matters of historical importance but I see no evidence of it. Evidently, the OAH "leaders" made no attempt to grapple with the depraved and tyrannical nature of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The world and, thankfully, American foreign policy is leaving them behind.

Alonzo L. Hamby - 4/8/2003

I did not attend the session on the Iraq war, knowing that it was bound to be a de facto antiwar rally. I did catch snatches of it on C-Span. It was an embarrassment to our profession, not because of the dominant opinion on the war, but because of the irresponsibility and hysteria of many of the remarks. There were a number of good, informative, and genuinely useful professional sessions at the meeting. It is a shame that it likely will be remembered for this ad hoc event, dominated by a group of aging leftists, who as Alan Brinkly correctly observed have stopped thinking coherently. Sentiment is no substitute for reasoned thought, all the more so when the sentiment is directed against the overthrow of one of the world's most oppressive and Nazi-like regimes.
It is at best speculative whether this event and random conversations in corridors and exhibition areas indicate the majority sentiment of the profession. If so, its decline into irrelevance continues apace.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/8/2003

Do you really think that such a session at an MLA convention would have been much different?

Lit teacher - 4/8/2003

I'm not sure if the C-span airing was a good idea. The lack of disagreement has clearly turned these arguments soft and mushy. This was especially clear when this discussion was followed by much more open panels on C-span. By the third panel, a clearly politically charged one at UCLA, we found people who stated positions and then opened themselves up to an audience they wanted to convince but were willing to argue with. The vague narcissism of the historians looked silly. Given that the average couch potato was also flipping back and forth to interviews with soldiers on Saturday and then, as a typical c-span junkie, would watch Bernard Lewis for three hours the next day, the historians seemed remarkably shallow. When one of them apologized for the fact that they would have to be at a meeting at 8 the next morning to let their voices be heard - as if there was any controversy - and C-span had replayed the Booknotes with Michael Kelly just before this program, this watcher looked for a sense of perspective but found none. These historians really think they are "radical" and "revolutionary." A man died because he thought that the history of the war from the soldier's point of view needed to be told; it made the strutting of this conference hard to bear. They appeared to have neither the honesty and energy of Kelly nor the willingness to stand up and take questions from people who didn't agree like Bennett nor the ability to give us as listeners a wider perspective as Lewis did, calling upon a breadth that comes from a lifetime's passionate scholarship (the life at one time that I thought a historian would live). These three did very different things - but all of them did what I thought scholars did; they sought out a world different from theirs, they studied, they tried to apply analysis in an objective way. Kelly was a witness, Bennett a debater, and Lewis gave context. Each tried to learn - and in different ways to teach (whether in a newspaper column, in a partisan but open debate, or in a life devoted to learning about another culture). I'm not sure what these American historians do do. Narcisssism must get in the way of really studying history (few facts, historical parallels, etc. appeared in the discussion; there were ad hominem attacks - but don't we teach freshmen in rhetoric to avoid those). How can they make history exciting if they are unwilling to deal with real facts. (No wonder they avoided the Bellesiles discussion. Iarq is more important. But the use of facts to support ideology, with little respet for facts themselves, is likely to happen in as claustrophobic a discipline as this appears to be. And I sure as hell wouldn't be wanting to come up for tenure in departments that these historians run if I thought differently than they did. The cushy life of the "tenured radical" - a good percentage paid for by the taxpayers they patronize - accounts for the softness of their view. They don't have to prove anything. And they don't. They talk to one another - and letting c-span in just lets those of us in other disciplines and with other world views see how stagnant the water is.

Tacitus - 4/7/2003

Let us have a moment of silence here for the dear dead departed....

BASRA, Iraq (April 7) - Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of the most brutal members of President Saddam Hussein's inner circle, was apparently killed by an airstrike on his house in Basra, British officials said Monday. He had been dubbed ''Chemical Ali'' by opponents for ordering a 1988 poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds.

Maj. Andrew Jackson of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment told The Associated Press that his superiors had reported the death of the man who was Saddam's first cousin, entrusted with defending southern Iraq against invading coalition forces.

Al-Majid apparently was killed on Saturday when two coalition aircraft used laser-guided munitions to attack his house in Basra. Jackson said a body that was thought to be his was found along with that of his bodyguard and the head of Iraqi intelligence services in Basra.

''We have some strong indications that he was killed in the raid,'' said British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon. ''I cannot yet absolutely confirm the fact that he (al-Majid) is dead, but that would certainly my best judgment of the situation.''

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, at a daily briefing in Qatar, said he did not have any confirmed reports on whether al-Majid was dead.

Brooks said the coalition had seen evidence of Iraqi leaders in their homes recently and ''we believe that Ali Hassan al-Majid - 'Chemical Ali'' - may have been in a home.

''Where we have the opportunity, we may direct an attack against that,'' he said.

Jackson said the apparent discovery of al-Majid's body was one of the reasons the British decided to move infantry into Basra, because they hoped that resistance in the southern Iraqi city might crumble with the top leadership gone.

''The regime is finished. It is over, and liberation is here,'' said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces in the Gulf. ''The leadership is now gone in southern Iraq.''

Believed to be in his fifties, al-Majid led a 1988 campaign against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq in which whole villages were wiped out. An estimated 100,000 Kurds, mostly civilians, were killed.

Al-Majid also has been linked to the bloody crackdown on Shiites in southern Iraq after their uprising following the 1991 Gulf War. Prior to that, he served as governor of Kuwait during Iraq's seven-month occupation of its neighbor in 1990-1991 - an invasion that led to the Gulf War.

Human rights groups had called for al-Majid's arrest on war crimes charges when he toured Arab capitals last January seeking to rally support against mounting U.S. pressure on Saddam's regime.

''Al-Majid is Saddam Hussein's hatchet man,'' Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch in New York, said at the time. ''He has been involved in some of Iraq's worst crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.''

Hazem al-Youssefi, Cairo representative of the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, described al-Majid as a standout in a regime of criminals.

Al-Majid was a warrant officer and motorcycle messenger in the army before Saddam's Baath party led a coup in 1968. He was promoted to general and served as defense minister from 1991-95, as well as a regional party leader.

In 1988, as the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was winding down, he commanded a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. Later, he boasted about the attacks, including the March 16, 1988, poison gas strike on the village of Halabja, where an estimated 5,000 people died.

During April 1991 peace talks in Baghdad, the Kurdish delegation leader, Jalal Talabani, told al-Majid that more than 200,000 Kurds lost their lives in the Iraqi campaign. Al-Majid replied that the figure was exaggerated and the dead were not more than 100,000, according to Arab press reports.

After Iraq's 1991 Shiite Muslim uprising was crushed, Iraqi opposition groups released a video they said had been smuggled out of southern Iraq. In the video, which was shown on several Arab TV networks, al-Majid was seen executing captured rebels with pistol shots to the head and kicking others in the face as they sat on the ground.

He was no less brutal with his own family.

His nephew and Saddam's son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, was in charge for many years of Iraq's clandestine weapons programs before defecting in 1995 to Jordan with his brother, Saddam Kamel, who was married to Saddam's other daughter.

Both brothers were lured back to Iraq in February 1996 and killed on their uncle's orders, together with several other family members.

Syria and Lebanon ignored international calls to arrest al-Majid when he visited in January. He dropped scheduled stops in Jordan and Egypt - both U.S. allies. Egypt refused to receive him and the Jordanian government denied a visit was ever planned.

AP-NY-04-07-03 1426EDT

mark safranski - 4/7/2003

If some right-wing yahoo is clogging Professor Foner's email box with unwanted flames or calling his house and asking if he has Prince Albert in a can, then he's got a point. If, and I'm fairly certain this is the cause of his distress, he is taking umbrage at his sacrosanct opinions being subjected to rough and tumble criticism on HNN or even mockery - that's really just too bad. An eminent historian should be able to handle the stress of public debate over an internet website.

Anyone in a university setting should expect that their views will be subjected to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. HNN's editors should be in no way intimidated by Foner's scolding or his demand to express himself here sheltered from competing viewpoints. Other professors, like Nicolas De Genova, who make statements during wartime fitting the legal definition of treason ought not to be surprised when the public reacts with disdain and outrage.

HNN is not Dr. Foner's private echo chamber.


Orson Olson - 4/7/2003

Brinkley is quite right; which is why I'm only a reluctant war supporter. "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."

So what are the alternatives in the War on Terror? The Heartland of Islam could be abandoned; nominal democracies in Turkey an Indonesia supported, and others with a Madrassas problem could be reformed.

But who will be bold enough to suggest a Pakistani-American Peace Corps to organize and fund useful training and civics as an alternative to Koran memorizations?

We need leadership, but that may only come after the bold thinking has begun; even Paul Berman has come out in faver of Iraqi Liberation.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/7/2003

Foner has a point about HNN. While much of what you post is interesting, a few of the postings have been all venom and no documentation. I realize that you wish to provoke debate, but provocation without facts is just name calling.

As an example, David Horowitz's March 10th attack on the peace movement argued that its rapid growth was related to its communist connections. He does show a link between a communist organization and an organization in the peace movement; yet he made no effort to show how that connection did (or even could) lead to fast growth across the nation.

As best as I can tell, Horowitz hates both; he found a connection; and then he equated all of one with all of the other.

Regardless of perspective, what grade would you and the other HNN editors give that logic in a class?

I think HNN has a responsibility to declare what does matter when its editors chooses an essay, since it isn't always the quality of evidence or the reasoning.