9-11: Insights Offered by the OAH's Journal of American History

News Abroad

The latest issue of the Journal of American History, which is published by the Organization of American Historians, is wholly concerned with 9-11. This edition is so extraordinary and timely, we decided to feature brief selections from various essays.

The 9-11 Attack Should Be Placed in Context

Joanne Meyerowitz:

As the U.S. government attempted to win the Cold War and to protect American oil interests, its responses to Arab and Iranian nationalism and its support for Israel contributed to the deterioration of American standing in much of the region. The Iranian revolution of 1979 now appears as a neglected turning point or perhaps a harbinger of post-Cold War American and world history. That revolution made manifest a new stage in the modern politicization of Islam. The hostage crisis that ensued demonstrated the depth of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, promoted the decline of the Cold War mentality among foreign policy makers, and brought international terrorism into American public culture in unprecedented ways.

The Current War Began Some 30 Years Ago

Melani McAlister:

The issue of Middle East terrorism entered U.S. public life in a profound way in September 1972, when Palestinian guerillas broke into the Israeli compound at the Olympic Games in Munich. There, they killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team and took nine hostage. ... There were tense negotiations throughout the day, but in the end the plan to capture the attackers went terribly wrong, and the Palestinians killed all of their hostages.

The Current War Against Terrorism Is Not Unprecedented

Melani McAlister:

Insisting repeatedly that Americans should not look to previous military conflicts for models, administration officials failed to mention the existence of one quite relevant historical precedent: the previous"war against terror" launched by the Reagan administration in 1981, just after the U.S. hostages held in Iran had been released. That"war" was also a call for a broad and sustained commitment, one modeled in opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Moreover, it had its own precedents in yet another 'war on terror'--one waged by Israel in the 1970s.

Entebee Marked the Beginning of Military Responses to Terrorism

Melani McAlister:

When the eleven athletes [at the Munich Games] were killed, there were calls for Israel to negotiate. Four years later, when scores of people were taken hostage [at Entebee], but no one killed (until the rescue raid), the enthusiasm for military response had increased considerably. Some of the responses suggested not only enthusiasm, but an appropriation [by Americans] of the Israeli success as a shared victory.

We Have Paid a High Price for Failing to Acknowledge the Previous War on Terrorism

Melani McAlister:

A public acknowledgment that there had been a debate, not only about how to respond to terrorism but about the nature of Middle East politics and the terms of U.S. world power, might have opened up the possibility for an expanded political discussion--about the military and diplomatic options available and about the possible long-term effects of U.S. actions.

If, after September 11, such a discussion seemed impossible for most people to imagine, that boundary of thought was forged in part by our narratives of the past. With the memory/forgetting of captivity and rescue behind us, it became time for Americans to win the thirty years' war--by pretending it had just begun.

History Has Shaped the Way Americans Responded to 9-11

Michael H. Hunt:

Americans bring to the September 11 crisis a deeply rooted nationalist faith that is universal in its application, ahistorical in its thinking, and reductive in its view of other cultures. The talk from the White House, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon draws from a familiar nationalist repertoire that reduces complex situations to easily grasped terms familiar from other times of tension and fear. The result is the ethnocentric invocation of a great conspiracy, an axis of evil, a monolith of terror. This is the language of the crusader. Posed against this official American position with broad popular appeal is something more amorphous but demonstrably powerful--a set of values that has come to the fore in Muslim countries, that is preoccupied above all with domestic renovation, and that is in the main opposed to the United States for what it does politically and militarily to sustain a bankrupt old order and obstruct efforts to create something better.

Samuel Huntington's Thesis Is Wrong

Michael Hunt:

[Samuel Huntington's]" clash" interpretation has flaws that are troubling but also familiar in American foreign policy thinking. Huntington's notion of civilization is monolithic, static, and essentialist--much like the Cold War-era view of the Communist enemy. ... Huntington is heir to one of the most ethnocentric and aggressive notions in American history. Like nineteenth-century advocates of Manifest Destiny faced by the perceived barbarism of Native Americans, Latin Americans, the Spanish, and the Chinese, he posits U.S. civilizational superiority and on that basis calls for a kind of moral rearmament to promote and defend Western values.

We Should Beware of Appeals to Go to War to Save Women from Oppression

Emily S. Rosenberg:

Striving to save women and children from the grasp of barbaric, premodern men, and then to uplift them, is a familiar theme to historians, though it seems that generations of Americans have repetitively advanced it as fresh and unique testimony to their own special enlightenment.
In 1898 William Randolph Hearst and other expansionists urged Americans to rescue Cuban women from Spanish brutes, and popular iconography often represented the island of Cuba as a damsel in distress. During World War I, with the Wilson administration's blessing, Hollywood portrayed Germans ravaging women and tossing children out of windows. The idea that both victimized women and brutal men assumed "improper" gender roles constituted an ever present theme of imperial enterprises during the early-twentieth-century military occupations of the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti by the United States. Going into battle to preserve civilization and to bring the blessings of modernity, in short, often foregrounded the rescue of women and children from a social order that oppressed them.
Symbolically rendering a country as a vulnerable woman or a child without proper or effective protectors reinforces the paternalistic nationalism of the rescuer-nation and dramatizes its moral mission.
A historical analysis of how war mobilization efforts have deployed gender messages that reinforce masculinity while accentuating the dependence of women and children does not deny the real suffering and oppression of women in places where American soldiers have fought, such as Afghanistan.
But in a world where there is much brutality, it seems worth asking why the equality and well-being of women become highly visible on foreign policy agendas in particular times and places and invisible in others.

U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan Predated the Intervention of the Soviet Union's Invasion

The conventional wisdom is that the CIA intervened in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet invasion. This is not true.

John Prados:

The CIA operation of the 1980s began as a spoiling operation. In April 1978, during the Carter administration, Afghan Communists overthrew a left-leaning but moderate dictatorship that had itself resulted from a coup against the Afghan monarch. Not satisfied with the slow progress in turning the nation toward socialism, the factions of the Communist party then began to fight each other. Meanwhile, within weeks of the so-called April revolution, Muslim fundamentalists and tribal groupings with no love for the Communists began a resistance movement. The CIA program sought to augment that resistance.
While some sources claim the American effort began very early, more concrete evidence of U.S. feelers to the Muslim guerrillas emerges only from early 1979, about the time of the kidnapping and murder of the American ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs. President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council (NSC) considered options for a CIA operation in March and April, and the president approved a proposal forwarded by Zbigniew Brzezinski that July. A decision to expand the project followed a meeting of the NSC Special Coordinating Committee on December 17, 1979. Thus the inception of the CIA project in Afghanistan preceded the Soviet intervention, with three motorized and airborne divisions and other units, that came on December 25, 1979.

The U.S. Is Disliked for Very Real Reasons. One Reason Is ...

Nur Bilge Criss:

... the United States needs to overcome its history of violating the sovereignty of other nations. This requires asserting power without pretensions to hegemony. Historically, world systems never took graciously to hegemons, be it under universal empires, a universal church, a seafaring empire over which "the sun never set," parvenus such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, or ideologues such as Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin. International coalitions or overextension always curbed the ambitions of those with hegemonic aspirations. By 1993 George F. Kennan, the architect of containment policy, renounced the U.S. role in the Cold War, stating, "I should make it clear that I'm wholly and emphatically rejecting any and all messianic concepts of America's role in the world, rejecting that is, an image of ourselves as teachers and redeemers to the rest of humanity, rejecting the unique and superior virtue on our part, the prattle about Manifest Destiny or the American Century."20 It is perhaps the messianic attitude more than anything that Kennan is rejecting, for that, too, feeds anti-Americanism. Projecting an image of omnipotence usually results in higher expectations than even the United States is capable of delivering, and, ironically, it results in others' asking why the mighty power cannot, for example, deliver justice on the Palestinian issue.

Been There Before: Nation-Building in Afghanistan

Today Afghanistan looks to the United States for help in becoming a modern country. This is a road we have been down before. As Nick Cullather explains in an extraordinarily depressing article, beginning in 1946 the United States poured tens of millions of dollars into a giant dam project built by Idaho's Morrison Knudsen that promised to transform Afghan agriculture. By the time the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA) development came to an end in 1979, the country's farmers, for whom the money was expended, were worse off than they were at the project's beginning. Redevelopment, it turned out, was more complicated than anyone imagined.

Nick Cullather:

The goals and effects of the project were never viewed outside the distorting mirror of modernization theory. Pastoralists produced the country's primary export and most of its foreign exchange revenue, and yet HAVA's plan to convert them into wheat farmers was never seriously questioned. The outcomes that were hoped for—tax earnings, political stability, creation of a middle class, resolution of the Pushtunistan issue, credibility, and legitimacy—were seen as concomitants of eventual developmental success rather than as goals to be pursued directly. Precautionary moves were easily brushed aside by the same assurance that time and effort would bring improvement. Belief in development imposes, according to Gilbert Rist, a "social constraint" on the expression of shared doubts.

If illusions doomed the project, they also created and sustained it. HAVA's evolutionary advantage was an ability to take on the protective coloration of a succession of modernizing myths. The disastrous effects of dam building were visible in 1949 and only became more obvious as the project grew. But, camouflaged by dreams of Pashtun ascendancy and American influence, HAVA was as resilient as modernization theory itself, able to survive repeated debunkings while shedding the blame and the memory of failure. Proponents of a fresh nation-building venture in Afghanistan, unaware of the results of the last one, have resurrected its imaginings. Supporters justify development aid to the new Pashtun-led government in Kabul as a form of international social control. It will provide a buffer against terrorism and "prevent future Osama bin Ladens from arising." The centerpiece of the modernization effort, a writer for the New York Times suggests, should be "dams to provide water for irrigation."

Anti-Americanism: Why So Many Arabs Distrust America

Why do they hate us? At the beginning of the 20th century the United States was viewed positively by most Arabs, according to the essay authored by Ussama Makdisi. But as the century progressed the United States came to be reviled in the same way the European imperial powers once had been, beginning with American endorsement of the Balfour Declaration (1917), which promised Jews a home in Arab-dominated Palestine. The developing anger toward America was expressed by Egypt's Nasser in 1958:

America, brothers, revolted on 4 July. . . . it engaged in a revolution in order to get rid of British colonialism and in order to raise the living standards across the United States. America revolted and won and proclaimed the very same principles that are today proclaimed by your brothers in Iraq.

But in proclaiming its anger today, America refuses to see the reality of the situation in the Middle East and forgets also its own history and its own revolution and its own logic and the principles invoked by Wilson. They fought colonialism as we fight colonialism. . . . How do they deny us our right to improve our condition just as they did theirs? I don't understand, brothers, why they do not respect the will of the peoples of the Arab East? . . . We all call for positive neutrality. All the peoples of the Arab Middle East are set on non-alignment. Why should these peoples not have their way? And why is their will not respected?

Ussama Makdisi:

The merest familiarity with modern history, then, would indicate that widespread Arab opposition to America is a sign of the times. It is based, not on long-standing hatred of "American" values, but on more recent anger at American policies in the region, especially toward Israel. Anti-Americanism is therefore not civilizationally rooted, even if it is at times expressed in civilizational terms. Nor does it stem primarily from Islamic philosophy or exegesis, even if it is sometimes expressed (especially at present) in Islamist idiom. A deep political gulf certainly now separates Arab peoples from the United States. However, a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that recognizes the equality and the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians will go a long way toward healing the very modern rupture in American and Arab relations. But before that can happen, there must be an acknowledgment of both Jewish and Arab histories rather than a consistent subordination of one to the other. What is most important at this juncture is a realization by both Americans and Arabs of the interactive process, the dialectical relationship, that has shaped Arab attitudes toward the United States and vice versa. This essay has attempted to historicize the evolution of Arab attitudes toward the United States, and it is written in the belief that similar attempts must be made to help explain the United States and American society to the Arab world. To do so in any meaningful way, however, requires that both Arabs and Americans move away from narratives of innocence and purity—whether of religions or of nations.



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Iam Rathional - 8/25/2005

As for this statement "The lesson Americans need to learn about Islamic whining against the U.S. is that it lacks any basis whatever", if you were a true student of history instead of learning only bits and parts of it you would know that in 1953 the United States along with Britain planned and carried out a coup against the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in order to return the Shah back to power. The reason behind the coup was that Mr. Mossadegh had nationalized Iran's oil industry. Because of oil profits they crushed a democratic nation (which would have in time influenced other countries in the region, being that Iran has always been and continues to be a major player in the region) and brought back the monarchy which contrary to your statements was very brutal to anyone who defied it (do some research, SAVAK). This caused the revolution in the late 70's. As far as the hostage crises that followed (based on what information I have read), Iran demanded the return of the Shah which was in the U.S. (out of fear of another coup to reinstate the Shah, as done in the 1950's) and the U.S. refused (probably out of loyalty to him) which caused the embasy hostage crises. Also in the beginning of the 80's Iraq attacked Iran (Sadaam thought Iran weak due to the recent revolution) which ended up to be an 8 year war killing over a million people. During the war the U.S. (along with other countries) supplied Iraq with arms, intelligence, and chemical weapons which was used during the war and on the Kurds years later. Go back and do some more reading then come back and whine about a people you claim are whining... What this world needs is much more ethical policies and PEACE.

Steven Kolins - 1/4/2003

>In this connection, note that the Shah tolerated the peaceful Bahai, of whom the current Islamic government murdered more than 100,000. Significantly the world center of Bahai today is in Jerusalem.

Just as a matter of facts....

The Baha'is as a religious minority of some size suffered under the Shah as well - just not normally as painfully as more recently. On the other hand the current government did not murder 100,000 Baha'is. Roughly that many remain in the country where a couple times that many fled. I beleive roughly 10 people have been put to death by the government though there have been many times that number of persecutions of one kind or another.

Also the world center of the Baha'i Faith is NOT in Jerusalem. It is in Haifa.

Alec Lloyd - 9/12/2002

How many elected Arab legislators are there in Israel?

12. That would be twelve more than all of the Arab states combined.

Tell me more about Israel "marginalizing" Arabs.

don kates - 9/11/2002

It is unfortunate that so many people find their ignorance about things no impediment to holding and expressing opinions on them.
It is unnecessary for me to address whether the U.S. should overthrow Middle Eastern governments it set up because there are none. Ev in NM just ASSERTS that there are w/o naming any. The closest he could come to naming one is that when England and France tried to take back the Suez Canal by force Pres.Eisenhower squashed them. Perhaps he is confusing us w/ them, for Eng. did set up Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., and France did set up Syria and Lebanon. All of that occurred long before the U.S. has any part in the Middle East.
Which brings me back to the whining of Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden that we are somehow responsible for the situation of Islam. Only solipsism suggests to them that we have some duity to overthrow governments which they themselves lack either the gumption or the support to overthrow.
As to Israel, Ev is again utterly misinformed: Muslims in Israel not only have total freedom of religion, they get to vote and there are Muslim legislators in the Israeli legislature. The issue in Israel is whether this tiny country's population should be exterminated and its government replaced by another brutal, corrupt dictatorship that suppresses freedom or relgion. Incidentally EV, over 10% of the Israeli populace consist in 400,000+ Jewish refugees whose property was confiscated, after which the Jews left alive were expelled in 1948-51 from various Islamic nations where they had lived for 2,000+ years. If the so-called Palestinians want to live under Islamic dictatorship why do they not move to any of the other nations that have 98% of the Middle East land?

Ev in NM - 9/11/2002


I don't agree with some points raised by Mr. Kates. Indeed, I do agree that the U.S. playing World Cop may not be the best way to deal with certain regimes, but Mr. Kates, the U.S. actually PUT some of those regimes in power. So if we're not supposed to be running around taking regimes OUT of power, why is it okay to put regimes INTO power?

Regarding Israel--indeed, in terms of government systems, Israel calls itself a democratic nation which is definitely not what other Middle Eastern governments are. Nonetheless, it seems a bit troubling that a country that calls itself a democracy spends so much time, effort, and money on ensuring that a segment of its population does not participate in that democracy. Which is not to suggest that Palestinian policies have not contributed to the situation as it exists. But Israeli policies are not above further examination and reproach, either.

The point is, as a country, the U.S. is tied to other countries through economics, politics, social contexts, whatever. You may dismiss complaints and rumblings from the Middle East as "Islamic whining," but the fact remains that 19 of those "whiners" conducted a terrorist attack on the U.S. and I think it behooves us to try to understand what the issues behind the "whining" are. Like it or not, we are part of a global system and we are tied to the Middle East through past decisions, politics, and oil. So if a bunch of "whiners" have the gumption and are pissed off enough to fly a bunch of planes into American buildings, then maybe, just maybe, we should think about what's underneath that "whining."

At any rate, thanks, all.

Howard Scott Pearlman - 9/11/2002


May The Children of Our World live to one day
see our Earth at peace.


" The Psalm Of Nations "

It is much too late to endeavor

They said it could never be done

Then we turned and peaced things together

And from the many, we made one.

Howard Scott Pearlman

Copyright ©2002 Howard Scott Pearlman


don kates - 9/11/2002

Solipsism is a universal fault. It was exhibited earlier this year by Americans whining about the price of gas and the policies of the oil-producing nations -- as if those nations had some duty to make policy so as to keep American gas prices low. On the contrary, the duty of those nations is to adopt policies that best serve their peoples.
By the same token, there is not the slightest justification for the endless Islamic whining about how the U.S. has supported tyrannical governments in the Middle East. The U.S. has dealt w/ the existing regimes there because it is not our business to run around the world overturning governments of which we do not ap-
prove. Neither is it possible for us to impose better governments by force. If the whiners do not have the gumption -- or the sup-
port! -- to overthrow those government themselves, then they de-
serve exactly what they get.
The lesson Americans need to learn about Islamic whining against the U.S. is that it lacks any basis whatever. The U.S. did all it needed to (indeed, it went beyond duty) in 1956 when Eisenhower effectively stomped on the Anglo-French attempt to take over the Suez Canal from Nasser by force.
Islamic whining is particularly noxious because it is always intermixed with denunciation of our righteous support of the only decent, democratic nation in the Middle East, Israel, which the Islamic whiners want to replace w/ another brutal dictatorship like those that already exist in every other nation in the region.
Since Islamic whiners always whine about our support for the Shah and all his government's faults, let us note that the government that replaced the Shah's is infinitely worse in every respect -- unless you value barbaric superstition and religious persecution. In this connection, note that the Shah tolerated the peaceful Bahai, of whom the current Islamic government murdered more than 100,000. Significantly the world center of Bahai today is in Jerusalem.