Did the OAH Stack the Panel Devoted to the War in Iraq?


Mr. Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and is a senior adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

THE WEEKEND OF APRIL 5, the Organization of American Historians (OAH)--the leading association of professors of American history--held its annual meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. The best-attended event, televised live by C-SPAN, was a panel discussion entitled "Historians Reflect on the War in Iraq." Before a packed audience of OAH members, five historians presented five takes on why it was necessary to oppose the war. Not one audience member begged to differ--at a time when polls showed 70 percent of the American people backing the war.

The panel began on a fairly reasonable note. Alan Brinkley, the new provost of Columbia University, said that, while he opposed the war, he also thought the opposition had failed to formulate a coherent alternative to the "extremely dangerous view of American foreign policy" coming from the likes of Robert Kagan (whom he repeatedly called Robert Kaplan). Referring to Kagan's best-selling book Of Paradise and Power, Brinkley noted that neoconservatives argue from a "set of intellectual beliefs" espoused by "intelligent men and women." The antiwar side, he suggested, needs an equally powerful vision--something equivalent, say, to George Kennan's containment doctrine. The audience wasn't buying it. Brinkley was criticized for suggesting that the anti-Communist doctrine of containment had ever been a viable strategy.

After Brinkley's rather tepid presentation, things deteriorated. Peter Hahn of Ohio State University noted that it would be up to historians to "assemble the narrative" and interpret the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq. Scholars, he said, assess the truth by means of "hardheaded and rational thought." He predicted the outcome of the war would be "muddled," with no clear victory and no clear defeat.

Speaking next, Marilyn B. Young of New York University offered a fiery, well-received indictment of the war. Her voice dripping with sarcasm, Young condemned the "cabal who run the country" and chastised Bush for thinking that he knows evil. When McKinley was deciding whether to go to war with Spain, Young said, he got down on his knees and asked God what to do; when Bush gets up in the morning, she said, he just "asks himself."

The war in Iraq, Young continued, was "Vietnam on crack cocaine." Americans naively thought the Iraqi population would wave flags and welcome us; instead, the Iraqis found us blasting away at them with tank fire and bombs. Thousands were killed in a few short days. The United States was a nation of murderers, Young told the group, and it demonized the enemy by falsely charging it with indifference to human life.

Young did not pause to contemplate the nature of the Saddam Hussein regime, or comment on its well-documented attitude toward human life. Americans were losing "the hearts and minds of the populace," just as in Vietnam, Young insisted. America's bombing campaign was nothing but "terror." Young confessed, "I am starting to hate this country"--as if she hadn't been attacking the United States in exactly these terms for over thirty years.

In Young's eyes, the embedded press corps was functioning as a propaganda arm of the administration; after all, one journalist who had previously opposed the war admitted that, after traveling with the troops, he wanted them to win. The only responsible reporters, Young said, were the "unilaterals" who went to the war zone on their own, and who "raise doubts about the United States as a force for liberation."

America's plan, the distinguished diplomatic historian explained, was to run Iraq through an alliance of generals and defense contractors "who want to control what Iraq looks like." The enemy was really the American "mechanical monster," which burns and tortures and never fights fair. Iraq, she concluded, was "an illegal war in defiance of international public opinion and the United Nations." Bush's fundamentalist Christian faith kept him calm while he waged an indefensible war; predicting the future, the historian asserted that the results of Bush's policy would be "biblically terrible."

Next, Kevin Gaines, a professor of African-American history at the University of Michigan, addressed the "racist" character of the war. With many African Americans fighting alongside whites, he warned, blacks were being made into "militaristic citizens," just like whites. Gaines condemned Secretary of State Colin Powell for working within a political party "hostile to civil rights" and supportive of the "suppression of the black vote as an electoral strategy."

Moreover, Gaines argued, an integrated army (a goal of civil rights activists during World War II) legitimized the militarization of America, as the army created "monsters" who sought "retribution against the citizens of the world." He also deplored the "egregious violation of civil liberties, as the United States works to destroy human rights at home and abroad." Americans, he concluded, should "learn from the French."

The final speaker was Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. Foner centered his comments on the historian's task of showing how current events fall into historic patterns. Thus, new restrictions on civil liberties echo those imposed during the First World War. He himself, Foner told the assembled historians, had been labeled a "traitor professor" for opposing the war. But he was proud, he said, to take his place among dissenters of the past, such as Mark Twain and Martin Luther King Jr.

The antiwar movement did not desire the death of American soldiers, Foner said, differentiating himself from his Columbia colleague Nicholas De Genova, and ignoring evidence that much of the movement advocates precisely that. He stressed the necessity to reject the celebratory view of an America that keeps getting better. And he noted that he, too, had been attacked for hating America merely because he'd likened the Bush policy towards Iraq to Japan's policy of preemptive war at Pearl Harbor.

To Foner, it was obvious that to criticize the war was patriotic, while to criticize the dissenters was repressive. America's civil liberties, he warned, were neither self-enforcing nor self-correcting. We were "living through another moment in which freedom of speech is seen as an inconvenience and at worst unpatriotic." Those who sought to speak their mind, he suggested, had been thoroughly intimidated. If free speech were suppressed, we might win the war and lose our soul. Foner's presentation was bested only when, speaking from the floor, the mother of women's history, Gerda Lerner, remarked that the atmosphere in America today reminded her of her youth in Nazi-controlled Austria and McCarthyite America.

In all this, ironies abounded. The professors complaining about the suppression of dissent had chosen to take part in an entirely one-sided panel--a panel carried live on C-SPAN into thousands of homes. Clearly, neither their freedom of association nor their freedom of speech had been impaired.

The organizers of the panel could have approached historians like Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby, who has written that the antiwar movement's "sentiment is directed against the overthrow of one of the world's most oppressive and Nazi-like regimes," or Yale University's John L. Gaddis, who has spoken at teach-ins on his campus in support of the war. They did not. They apparently preferred to instruct the public that historians--who know the real truth--are against George W. Bush and his war to liberate the people of Iraq. In the process, they also confirmed how far removed from America and its traditions they and their colleagues are.

This article was first published by the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tim Matthewson - 6/3/2007

I don't read the Weekly Standard, which (I am told by those who do read it) has gone over to the NeoCon view of the world, that is, to militarism. From their point of view, the US is obviously the best country in the world (I agree with that too but wait for what follows), as proven by our victory in the Cold War (good!), so it is therefor justifiably for the US to conquer all recalcitrant nations, and impose American style democracy, capitalism and Christianity on them. Wow! Now hold on.
Unfortunately, Radosh and Gaddis have been drinking the cool aid brewed at places like the Hudson Institute and the Weekly Standard, two well funded conservative fonts of the doctrine of perpetual war for perpetual peace. Gaddis published a book which endorsed Dubya's doctrine of preemptive interventions, a basic ingredient of the NeoCon's heady drink, which has been supplemented by advocacy of limitless and unwarranted surveillance, torture for enemy combatants and abolition of such sacred doctrines of habeas corpus.
Neither can I endorse the highly emotional view of the anti-war advocates.
But it looks like the reign of President Bush and his right wing allies has, at this writing, in 2007, run its course. The 2006 midterm elections gave the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress, and it looks like the presidential campaign of '08 will return results more conducive to traditional American foreign policy and institutions, thus returning congress to its proper role, of oversight of the executive branch of governement, following 6-8 years of Republicans in congress serving as a rubber stamp for the like of VP Dick "Last Legs" Cheney.
As a result, Ronald Radosh, who in an earlier incarnation as a liberal commentator, might want to reconsider his view of both Bush and antiwar advocates.

Did the OAH Stack the Panel Devoted to the War in Iraq?
By Ronald Radosh

Mr. Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and is a senior adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Roxman - 6/23/2003

Although anecdotal evidence may not prove a case, I would hope that Mr. Catsam would acknowledge that there's enough anecdotal evidence here to merit more study. I suspect a little digging would confirm the thesis put forward by Hagedorn, Suetonius, et al.

Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003

How cavalier, KC got screwed by a department dynamic. Translated, expressing your political views could deny your fair access to employment you are otherwise qualified for.

Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003

You are naive Derek. I had a professor from a university contact my advisor for views I expressed on this website. The historical community is more like a close knit social club than an anonymous workplace.

Dave Thomas - 5/25/2003

Mr. Catsam,

I am a doctoral candidate at a top ten American history campus. Let me assure you I feel no freedom whatsoever to express my views each time I walk by the department chairs door that is covered with anti-Bush articles and caricatures. I am going to openly disagree with the publicly obvious viewpoint of the Dean of the department and expect equal and fair treatment? If the Dean was equal and fair he wouldn't publicly state his political views in the workplace every single day which is what his door postings do. Personal opinions on the war are not history. I think the whole OAH debate was poorly based. Are we political scientists or historians?

Tacitus - 4/27/2003

Below is a story just out, reportedly based on new material found by those "embeded" journalists who went through the rubble in Baghdad. The OHA looks like a modern version of an "America First" rally. Maybe they should be given a Charles Lindburgh Award for their rhetoric. If this story holds true, and more evidence corroborates, I wonder how many of these same people will have collective amnesia about the whole affair in the years ahead? Even better, maybe a few will shoot their pens off and create a new crank literature in an attempt to justify themselves. It's sort of like having the John Birchers in high academic places, to use an analogy.

LONDON - Two newspapers reported that they found documents in the bombed out headquarters of Iraq's intelligence service that appear to show that Saddam Hussein's regime met with an al-Qaida envoy in 1998 and sought to arrange a meeting with Osama bin Laden.

Papers found by reporters working for the Toronto Star and Britain's Sunday Telegraph appear to show that purpose of the meeting was to establish a relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaida based on their mutual hatred of the United States and Saudi Arabia, the newspapers reported in their Sunday editions.

The 1998 meeting went so well that it was extended by a week and ended with arrangements being discussed for bin Laden to visit Baghdad, said the newspapers, which had reporters working together with Iraqi translators on the story.

Journalists found the documents in the rubble of one of the rooms of the intelligence headquarters, the papers said.

Bin Laden's name appears three times in the handwritten file, with each reference clumsily concealed with white-out correction fluid and then blackened with ink, the Toronto Star wrote.

The Toronto Star recounted how a translator named Amir scraped off the white correction fluid to reveal bin Laden's name.

``It says bin Laden! It says bin Laden,'' the Toronto Star quoted Amir as exclaiming.

One of the pages, dated Feb. 19, was marked ``top secret and urgent'' and referred to plans for the trip from Sudan of the unnamed envoy, who is described in the file as a trusted confidant of bin Laden's, the Sunday Telegraph said.

The document, signed, ``MDA,'' which the Telegraph said is a code name believed to belong to the director of one of the Iraqi intelligence sections, said the Iraqis sought to pay for the envoy's costs while in Iraq ``to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden.''

The message to bin Laden ``would relate to the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him,'' the Telegraph quoted the document as saying.

The other documents confirm that the envoy traveled from Khartoum in Sudan to Baghdad in March 1998 and that he stayed at the al-Mansour Melia hotel, it said.

The documents do not mention whether any meeting took place between bin Laden and Iraqi officials, the Telegraph said.

Separately, The Sunday Times reported that its own journalists had found documents in the Iraqi foreign ministry that indicate that France gave Saddam Hussein's regime regular reports on its dealings with American officials.

The newspaper said the documents reveal that Paris shared with Baghdad the contents of private trans-Atlantic meetings and diplomatic traffic from Washington.

One document, dated Sept. 25, 2001, from Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri to Saddam's palace, was based on a briefing from the French ambassador in Baghdad and covered talks between presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush.

04/26/03 22:26 EDT

David Salmanson - 4/25/2003

As I've mentioned before elsewhere, party affiliation is not a particularly useful way of looking at politics in a department, particularly for state schools where funding is dependent on the legislature. In California, almost the whole UC system went Democratic during the Reagan governorship because of his budgetary attacks on the system. Likewise, party affiliation doesn't tell you how people vote or what they believe. My mom was (and remains) a registered Republican and voted for Gus Hall in 1984. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence but you get the idea. I think Derek brings up a good point about how hiring works and where the jobs are. If you leaf through the back of the AHA newsletter there are a lot more jobs at religiously affiliated institutions, small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and South, etc.. The fact that these folks don't go to OAH or ASA isn't surprising. They are at SHEAR, SHAFER, WHA, AHA-PCB etc. etc.. As a graduate student at U of Michigan, we were told to spend some time (but not too much mind you) beefing up our teaching credentials since a) most of the jobs were at smaller schools with heavy teaching loads and b) nobody was gonna believe we were interested in teaching because we came from a major program. Since most departments are interested in putting butts in the seats to get more (or keep) teaching lines, their single biggest concern isn't politics, its will this person get the job done. Even in big name departments, the biggest splits are not political its the "teachers" vs. the "publishers." And I think I'm beginning to agree with Derek about anonymous contributions. If you are so worried about your colleagues that you think they will google search you to find something incriminating to keep you from getting tenure, than you need to a) move to a different institution or b) get out of college level teaching because you'll have a nervous breakdown before the whole tenure review process is over or c) work in a department that is so disfunctional tenure would only make you miserable anyway.

Derek Catsam - 4/25/2003

Yes, because four historians who happen to fulfill your criteria does not a broad statement about academia make. I know many times that many who left academia for a range of reasons, including a good friend on the left who felt that his views were not being taken seriously by a rather centrist history department not inclined to support sloganeering in lieu of scholarship. This is the problem with anecdotal evidence -- anyone can come up with a handful of examples to make their case, but in fact those examples don't prove anything about academia. I stand by my earlier comments and in fact augment them -- there are a lot more conservative, reliogiously affiliated history departments out there than there are Ivy League, Big Ten, and Pac Ten "liberal" schools. Not counting those departments is either the height of elitist arrogance or else it is selective use of evidence, Mr. Olson's vast sample notwithstanding.

Orson Olson - 4/25/2003

I know of four non-leftist history profs who have shuffled off to friendlier climes after having been rejected by their leftwing "peers."

That's sufficient example for my name to be a pseudonym; are to still going to contradict me, Mr. Derek Catsam?

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/24/2003

I left off the previous post that political affiliation can be independently ascertained in many states by comparing publicly-accessible voter registration records from primaries with published names and addresses of faculty. I assume this is the method used, otherwise the numbers wouldn't be seemingly all-inclusive, which they appear to be. I'm sure the author would be glad to respond to this question about his methology.

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/24/2003

I left off the previous post that political affiliation can be independently ascertained in many states by comparing publicly-accessible voter registration records from primaries with published names and addresses of faculty. I assume this is the method used, otherwise the numbers wouldn't be seemingly all-inclusive, which they appear to be. I'm sure the author would be glad to respond to this question about his methology.

Derek Catsam - 4/24/2003

How was my grad school comment ad hominem? I said that "unless you" had failed out of grad school, you seemed to be doing ok as a conservative in the academy. Don't accuse me of ad hominems I did not make. My point was simply that if you are either a grad student or a professor, then academia cannot be quite as inhospitable as you are making it out to be. Are we a bit hypersensitive?
Oh, I see. I cannot name schools that contradict your argument. So what you are saying is that history departments are liberal except where they are not, and that Brown is somehow more representative than Liberty when both are in fact outliers. The overwhelming majority of history departments are neither Ivy League nor fundamentalist christian, but you want it both ways. You want to be able to whine about the liberalism of history departments, but then when presented with departments that don't fit your argument, you want to claim that those departments don't count. You see, despite what the postmodernists want to believe, you look at the evidence and then can develop your theories or arguments. You don't develop the argument and then fit selectively that data which fits, Mr. Bellisles, er, Hagedorn. Sophistry indeed.

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/24/2003

You are drifting into sophistry by comparing Bob Jones and Liberty to Cornell and Brown. Come now, you are probably better aware than I where those departments fit in the constellation of history departments. And they were so easy for you to come up with because they are so few in number.

And the personal attack about failing grad school is the second by my count. Your arguments should be able to stand on their own without resort to ad hominem attack.

I will depart our little colloquey for now.

Derek Catsam - 4/24/2003

Very convenient -- you bring up race, I criticize your use of race, I am accused of using the race card. You compared being conservative in academia in 2003 to being black in the 1950s, and I am the one who is somehow off base here? Goodness. Perspective would be welcome here, my oh-so beleaguered conservative colleague (by the way, are you failing grad school, or do you have a job? If no to the former or yes to the latter it would seem that you are hoisted on your own petard, but no matter).
Meanwhile, I am not certain where you get this vote tally -- did every member of the Brown history department really tell their political affiliation? I doubt it. But yeah, I'd say that 9 colleges and universities out of the 3500 institutions of higher learning in the US is not especially representative, it is, in sum, anecdotal. Do Brown and Cornell really represent the nature of history departments in the US any more than, I don't know, Liberty or Bob Jones or Brigham Young or Bethany Lutheran, all of which demand that professors adhere to a party line? Selective sampling data is a pretty sure sign of sloppy argumentation.

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/23/2003

I'll ignore your refererence to my "loathsome moral compass". That is not any style of academic discourse I want to be associated with. Your use of the "race card" might work well on campus, but its power fades quite quickly once one leaves that surreal environment. But, a personal attack and the "race card" are easier than facing some very inconvenient facts, such as party affilliation of History faculty members: Brown - 17 Left, 0 Right; Cornell - 29 Left, 0 Right; San Diego State - 19 Left, 4 Right; Stanford - 22 Left, 2 Right; UCLA - 53 Left, 3 Right; UC San Diego - 26 Left, 1 Right; UC Santa Barbara - 28 Left, 1 Right; Colorado at Boulder - 28 Left, 1 Right. (Left of course being Democrat, Green, etc and Right being Republican, Libertarian, etc.) Interesting "anecdotes"!

Derek Catsam - 4/23/2003

Fine. I don't have tenure either. But then it seems to me patently unfair for you to criticize those who aren't quite so gutless for what they have or have not written when you cannot be put under the same scrutiny, as you did for example, with Ralph Luker. And it seems that enough people on the list have the courage of their convictions to attach their names to controversial posts, many of whom are academics.
KC got screwed by a particularly bad department dynamic. I am not certain that stands as representative of the whole profession, just as the cases of plagiarism we've seen to not represent the entire profession.

Suetonius - 4/23/2003

Mr. Catsam,

It is entirely possible that the interviewing committee will have done a minimum of research on-line to see what the candidate has published or commented on publically. This has happened to a number of people I know, who were confronted (I meant that in the non-antagonistic way) with their comments to online sites and asked to comment when it related to the material they were expected to be knowledgable about.

As for Johnson, one of his opponents _did_ circulate comments he had posted to an online forum to the rest of the department as part of the bid to sink his candidacy.

No way I'm putting my name on any post or contributing to any listserv until I get tenure.

Derek Catsam - 4/23/2003

You mean Massachusetts, the state with a Republican Governor? Nice example.
The American Enterprise data is very selective, hardly representative of all campuses, and if you are saying being a comnservative on an American university campus is akin to being black at an American college campus in the 1950s, you have a woefully loathsome sense of a moral compass. Of course where is the outcry against conservative business schools? If you don't like or can't compete in the marketplace of ideas, don't then whine about it and pretend that Ronald Radosh is akin to, say, John Hope Franklin or James Meredith.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/23/2003

"If you can't write, can't teach and can't think, you're not going to get a job no matter how you adhere to the party line."

If I win the Lotto, I'm going to buy you a plane ticket to UC Santa Cruz.

Suetonius - 4/22/2003

Mr. Catsam is right to think that I was painting with too-broad a brush, but that was not my intention.

Let me state that those historians +at my university+ who felt themselves among the decidedly minority position in favor of the war were advised by senior historians at the same university to keep quiet lest they jeopardize their chances for tenure +at that university or elsewhere in the major research universities given the fields that they studied+

The KC Johnson example is an even better example, for it shows that you need not be a conservative to run afoul of those who would try to silence dissent on campus.

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/22/2003

Of course, there are "token" conservatives in the humanities, just as there were "token" blacks and women in the academy in the 1950's. I don't know how those lonely folks survived in that elite population then, and I don't know how conservatives make it today. But something is very wrong when you look at the numbers. See The American Enterprise, Sept 2002, "The Shame of America's One-party Campuses." If these numbers represented a racial, ethnic or gender minority, it would be prima facia discrimination and an affirmative action plan would be put in place. The average History Department of 2003 may "look like America", but it votes like Massachusetts (or perhaps Sweden).

Derek Catsam - 4/22/2003

Steve, and we both know that when you go to a campus to visit for an interview, they won't know your views on the war, some in the department will likely agree with you, and if you don't get the job, it'll likely have to do with a lot more than your politics.
(Steve -- this is not, of course aimed at you or your post. It's a more general comment about this strand) I find it funny how conservatives who always love to preach personal responsibility all become victims when it's convenient. The academy is not out to get you and if you do good work, you'll get a job. If you can't write, can't teach and can't think, you're not going to get a job no matter how you adhere to the party line.

Stephen Tootle - 4/22/2003

I supported the war publicly. It remains to be seen whether or not I get a job (a real one, with tenure and health insurance).

Derek Catsam - 4/22/2003

Actually, KC Johnson is not a conservative. Bad example.

Furthermore, most of us in academia were advised long ago to stay apolitical, left or right, to gain tenure, promotion, a job, etc. You say "those historians who hold conservative views were told" . . . Oh, really? All of them? Funny, that did not stop two of my friends finishing their PhDs in Ohio from supporting the war publicly. And you might have noticed a post or two (using my own name) right here in the pretty public forum of HNN writing in support of the war. The problem with anecdotes is that there are always countervailing ones.

Suetonius - 4/22/2003

I can attest to Mr. Hagedorn's suggestion that those historians who hold more conservative views (or even liberal ones but supported the war) were cautioned by elder faculty members who also held those views to stay discretely silent if they wanted to be sure of getting tenure.

As we saw with Mr. Johnson at Brooklyn, it can be damaging to your career to question even once the PC crowd.

Is that an anecdote that will suffice, Mr. Catsam?

Derek Catsam - 4/22/2003

It seems bizarre, to say the least, to claim that there are no conservative historians when one is writing to a post FROM RON RADOSH. As for the alleged consequences Mr. Hagedorn sees for conservative graduate students, how about some evidence beyond the anecdotal? I know plenty of conservative historians, many more middle of the road ones, and a large number of responsible liberals who still manage to be fair and equitable in their treatment of ideas and above all students. Sure, there are lefty crackpots, just as there are lots of righty crackpots in our business schools. Doesn't mean one cannot be a liberal and a business student.

Thomas Hagedorn - 4/22/2003

Apparently Radosh was troubled by the same absence of debate that I witnessed while viewing the panel on the internet. I wrote comments in HNN under the 4/8 article re: Foner's complaints about HNN's lack of editorial oversight (censorship). The dias should have included an empty chair, reserved for some brave pro-Iraq war proponent. Foner, tenured and highly-respected, has showed incredible courage to speak out against the war. Think of the consequences! (Actually, I am still working on that one, perhaps someone could help?) On the other hand, the prospective occupant of the empty chair, might want to consider the impact on: (a) dissertation, (b) obtaining tenure-track job, (c) publication prospects, (d) obtaining tenure, (e) promotion. Where are the conservatives in history, anyway? I posit that they are simply not there. If they were, they would not be so silent, even given the serious consequences. How does their absence affect the quality of debate and critical analysis in history? I submit it has a decidedly negative impact in the search for historic knowledge.