Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians





Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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Daily Reports

  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • Day 3
  • Day 4
  • Day 1

    Thursday March 31, 2005

    The biggest news of the 2005 convention is what happened before the convention took place. It was the decision to move from San Francisco to San Jose on account of the hotel labor boycott. Whatever the charms of San Jose, there were not many members, even those who fully supported the decision to honor the boycott, who did not regret the switch. As one historian confessed as he was catching a plane from Connecticut to head west, quite a few of those who had signed up for the OAH this year did so in the expectation that they would be able to enjoy San Francisco. Now they were stuck in San Jose.

    Or were they?

    Some 1500 people pre-registered for the convention--about the usual number. But only 500 booked hotel rooms through the OAH. What happened to the Missing 1000? Did they decide to skip the proceedings this year now that it had moved south? Lee Formwalt, executive director of the OAH, told HNN he doesn't know what happened to them. He calls it the mystery of the convention. But if anecdotal evidence is worth anything--and thus far that's all we have--people simply decided to stick with their original plans and spend their time this week in San Francisco (staying at one of the hotels where the workers are encouraging visitors to boycott? Perhaps.) Whether some may make the drive down to San Jose to attend a panel or two is unknown. One professor compromised. After spending several days in San Francisco, he headed south to San Jose, or as he put it,"I've been here [in the Bay area] since Sunday and now I had to schlep down here [to San Jose]."

    Despite the absence of people a shortage of rooms developed weeks ago at the Marriott and the Hilton, the hotels adjacent to the convention. One upset member, recounting her misadventures, summed up her experience: "What frustration."

    This reporter had his own interesting experience. Last month, as soon as the switch to San Jose was announced, I booked a room at the Marriott. I was given the standard rate and told that if the OAH was able to negotiate a lower rate I would be notified and given a discount. As the weeks elapsed and I heard nothing I concluded that the OAH in fact had not been able to negotiate a lower rate. Oh well. At least I had a great room. Or so I thought. The day before the convention I received a call on my cell phone. It was the Marriott telling me that the OAH had moved me to the Doubletree, which is located three and a half miles away. I was told that the OAH had moved me to help fill the block of rooms they had booked at the Doubletree. I did not particularly like the idea of the OAH committing me to an act of involuntary patriotism, but the Marriott assured me there was nothing that could be done about it.

    Actually, I found out today that the Marriott misled me. The OAH had not moved me to the Doubletree even though the organization was indeed stuck with a bunch of rooms that hadn't been rented. The Marriott had simply been overbooked and had needed to palm me off on another hotel. The OAH wasn't involved.

    But the OAH does have a Doubletree problem. It is on the hook for all those empty rooms. To help offset the economic loss officials arranged to locate Thursday night's receptions at the Doubletree. So after the panels ended at 5:30 in the afternoon shuttle buses began transporting members by the hundreds over to the Doubletree for the 6:30 evening receptions (and free food!). An hour later--yes, this was kind of crazy--those same buses took people back to the convention for tonight's Plenary session featuring John Dower. It was irrational on the surface to arrange things like this, but if you knew what was really going on it made perfect sense, like in a Joseph Heller novel. Unfortunately, in the process many people simply ignored the schedule and either arrived late for the Plenary session or skipped it altogether. (We counted seventy-four present at the Plenary at 8:30; the room was large enough to accommodate hundreds.)

    Getting from the outlying hotels to the convention where most of the meetings are being held is easy, thanks to the shuttle service. The buses arrive every ten minutes, though one driver on his first run today got lost and ended up giving his small group of passengers a tour of the airport. Considering that the OAH only had a month or so to make the arrangements the few inconveniences members encountered hardly seemed remarkable.

    And there was, as always, the chance to see friends and attend interesting panels (though many of the panels seemed sparsely attended--like Sunday sessions often are).

    The Panels

    Three or four panels touched on topics in the news. At the panel on textbook publishing (which a wit at another session said is a misnomer; it should be called textbook manufacturing), a community college teacher, Rosemary Brogan, noted that textbooks remain vitally important because the students arrive so unprepared; they "come with nothing. The Civil War, the Revolution--it's all mixed up." She admitted however that she was surprised by a study published in the current Journal of American History by Daniel J. Cohen, which reveals that nearly 50 percent of community college teachers use only textbooks and no other materials in U.S. survey courses. Brogan noted that the books need to be student friendly. She said she couldn't get her students to read the old textbooks by scholars like Richard Current and Frank Freidel--"I couldn't get my son to read them."

    Meanwhile across the convention at another panel meeting simultaneously teachers were discussing the "success and challenges in addressing state history standards." Judging by the statements made by both panel and audience members the successes were less impressive than the failures. In Ohio teachers are still using textbooks that are twenty years old. There and in other states teachers with no background in history are teaching history (an old story, of course). And virtually everywhere, it would seem, teachers are being crippled by overly rigid requirements that force them to teach to the standards and nothing else. At any moment a supervisor might walk in and demand to know which standard they were teaching to. Listening to all this one member of the audience, who said she teaches in a district with socially disadvantaged kids, confessed that she's just happy when she is able to get through a class without students either throwing things at her or cursing.

    At a panel reinvented in the last few weeks UCLA's James Gelvin outlined an astonishingly fresh analysis of the American responsibility for Islamists and extremists in the Middle East like Saddam and Osama bin Laden. No, America wasn't responsible for them because we gave them aid at one time or another, as Michael Moore and others claim. The responsibility goes deeper. During World War II American leaders began to demand that Middle Eastern countries modernize. Where the British and the French had freely bolstered the power of the tribal leaders, we preferred to help create a new class of middle managers who could make a clean break with the backward past that was hobbling growth.

    Borrowing models of development embraced during the Great Depression--like the TVA--we encouraged Middle East leaders to establish vast state projects like the Aswan Dam in Egypt. These changes put in place over time led to the birth of the secular tyrannical states which we later came to lament. Of course these states proved no better than their predecessors but oil money for a time kept them afloat. When the oil revenues tanked in the late 70s these countries then turned to the West for help and now were encouraged to shed the big government approach to problems that had previously been embraced by the West. To win needed development loans from the IMF these countries were now encouraged to reduce their welfare burdens (as even Iran under the mullahs was forced to do to obtain a loan in the early 1990s). This in turn led these states to leave welfare up to the Islamic organizations that often became involved in terrorism. So Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are wrong when they argue that something has gone wrong with Islam. The Middle East actually went wrong by following approaches backed by the West.

    In the afternoon there was a panel on the history of intelligence, which was especially timely given this week's report on the intelligence failures of the CIA and other agencies in the run-up to the Iraq war. One overriding theme to which all of the panel members gave their assent was the difficulty of getting good useful intelligence. The University of Virginia's Timothy Naftali complained that Americans simply expect too much of intelligence, in part a result of several books by former CIA chief Allen Dulles in the 1960s which oversold the usefulness of intelligence. Naftali, who served on the staff of the 9-11 commission, argued that Americans have to disabuse themselves of the notion, shared by novelists like Tom Clancy, that we should expect to know what our enemies are plotting. No one likes to be surprised by a bad turn in events, he acknowledged. But not every surprise is a failure of intelligence.

    Quick Takes

    • Best Quote of the Day: "A country that invents, cooks and eats Minute Rice might not be the best equipped to deal with the 21st century world."--Robert Rook (Fort Hays State University, Kansas)
    • Number of buses required to transport members from outlying hotels to the convention center every 10 minutes: 5
    • Number of Friday afternoon panels scheduled: none (an innovation intended to allow members to attend off-site events)
    • Number of off-site events in San Francisco which were retained after the convention was switched to San Jose: 2 (the visits to Chinese and the GLBT historical societies).
    • Time of this year's presidential address: 4:30 in the afternoon on Saturday. Why? Because the OAH found that many members often missed the speeches when they were delivered Friday or Saturday night.

    Day 2

    Friday April 1, 2005

    First, a quick note on the weather. For the second day in a row it was gorgeous here. One New Yorker observed that he had been wholly unprepared for the warm weather. Back home, he said, they have been celebrating because the temps apparently have been hovering in the 40s. Today in San Jose it was warm enough to go swimming and at high noon was downright hot.

    More people were in attendance today but there still seemed to be a lack of energy at the convention, no doubt because things are so spread out that one never gets a feeling of being part of a large group of people devoted to the study of the same subject. Where one expects to find crowds, say, around the OAH registration desk, one finds instead just a few people milling about. Only one person manned a table nearby, a retired fellow from southern CA who heads the Great War Society, which studies all aspects of WW I--and he's not even a historian.

    Historians seem finally to have discovered cell phones. All day they kept going off at inappropriate times, which provided the quick witted with golden opportunities. One speaker when interrupted by the foul ringing of a phone quickly blurted out that when this happens to his wife in class she goes over to the student to listen in. (Laughter) Over at the session on labor history phones went off several times, prompting the speaker to declare that labor historians are apparently in demand, which was actually at odds with the thrust of his paper, which argued that labor historians have to conceal their identities (like Superman?) because no one wants to hire them. So they sneak in as urban historians or social historians but only on rare rare occasions admit that what they really do (or want to do) is labor history. Several said they actively discourage graduate students from writing about labor history. It's a career killer.

    Several sessions were especially lively. A large crowd jammed into a relatively small room to hear speakers discuss the impact of nationalism on the writing of history. Ian Tyrrell, speaking with a thick and pleasing accent--he's from the University of New South Wales--noted that we are passing through a particularly nationalistic period similar to the1950s when writers like Alan Nevins, one of the founders of American Heritage magazine, pandered to Americans' self-satisfaction and feeling of triumphalism. Nevins's recent counterpart, Tyrrell suggested, was the late Stephen Ambrose. But neither Nevins nor Ambrose has had much of a lasting impact, unlike the Beards, Mary and Charles, who have. Why? The Beards, say what you will about their crudely class-based books, embraced critical thinking and once that genie got out of the bottle there was no way to put it back in again. "We can't go back again," Tyrrell observed. "Critical history had arrived." Of course the public prefers patriotic history, he conceded. That's something which we simply have to accept.

    A smaller group turned out to hear about the state of access to national security records. Chief revelation? The member of a State Department advisory panel suggested that the old rule requiring the release of documents after 30 years may possibly be reduced to 15. "But of course this is April 1st," she hastily and laughingly added, tamping down the brief murmur of excitement that greeted her announcement. It was an April Fool's joke.

    Evidence of historians' liberal bias -- David Horowitz, listen up! -- occasionally appeared. But it was most palpable perhaps, and not surprisingly, at the labor history roundtable, where one bold historian proudly announced: "I teach a course on American capitalism. I'm against it."

    At a roundtable which explored "gender, sexuality and the politics of the McCarthy era," historians spoke from common assumptions about the evils of McCarthyism and the overblown fear of reds that gripped the country in the 1950s. One scholar in attendance, noting that homosexuals were the scapegoats of McCarthyites, recalled that in the summer of 1950 Congress conducted a study to determine if homosexuals posed a threat to national security. Investigators could not find a single instance in America where a homosexual had betrayed American secrets. Of course this finding did not stop rightwingers from proceeding to hound homosexuals from government employment. So why did the rightwing claim that homosexuals threatened national security if it wasn't true? It was for political reasons. It was an easy sell to their base. Another historian observed that not even liberals leaped to the defense of the homosexuals. No one then wanted to be accused of being soft, which an association with queer people might have suggested--hence the support given to the cause known as Virile Liberalism. By the 1950s patriotism had come to be defined by one's sexuality.

    And then there was the evening plenary session on Vietnam, easily the most well-attended event of the convention thus far, with several hundred people. If anybody here thought Vietnam was a noble cause they kept their silence.

    Francis FitzGerald -- Frankie she kept being called -- harped on all the aspects of Vietnam that we have forgotten. We have forgotten we went into the war without major allies. We have forgotten that between one and three million Vietnamese were killed in the war. We have forgotten how ugly the war was. "The elephant in the room is Iraq," she admitted. Though there are obvious differences, she was struck, she said, by one similarity. If the insurgents are going to be beaten it will have to be Iraqis who beat them.

    Duong Van Mai Elliott, who came next, began on a humorous note. "I am allowed to speak for 12 minutes. When I read my speech it came to 30 minutes. So I am going to summarize my talk and speak very fast -- so listen carefully." (Laughter) Echoing FitzGerald, she said that the Vietnamese too are forgetting about the war. Sixty percent of the people were either not born or young at the time the war ended. And most of the rest of the population, save for the widows and vets, are more eager to take part in the bustling market economy than to dwell on the past.

    David Maraniss began by noting that he was incredibly honored to appear on a panel with two of his heroes -- FitzGerald and Daniel Ellsberg. He then proceeded to compare Iraq and Vietnam (he wrote a book about Vietnam that appeared last fall; he started it after 9-11 and was writing it when we invaded Iraq). Several themes seemed to dominate the narratives of both wars. In both it was hard to determine who was a friend and who was a foe. Both wars featured Texas presidents and domestic disputes about the limits of dissent. Vietnam had a domino theory, Iraq a reverse domino theory.

    Of course there were differences, the chief difference being the draft. In 1965 young men talked all the time about the risk of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. "I am a visiting professor at Princeton this semester and I don't think I have heard one of my students talk about Iraq even once." Like Elliott, he observed that the Vietnamese have also forgotten the war. When he visited the north it was almost impossible to locate the 12 foot long granite monument that marked the campaign that toppled Saigon. No road led to the monument. No one seemed to care about it.

    Finally, there was Daniel Ellsberg, who received a warm rousing round of applause at both the beginning and the end of his appearance. Some at the end even gave him a standing ovation. For much of his talk he related the findings of moderator Fredrik Logevall, the author of Choosing War. He said that Logevall taught him that it simply wasn't true that only a lone George Ball warned LBJ against escalating the war in Vietnam. A whole slew of officials gave him stern warnings. The list included Hubert Humphrey, the Senate's three leading foreign policy experts (Richard Russell, William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield), the Bundys, Clark Clifford, and eventually Robert McNamara, who was promptly fired when he told LBJ the war was lost. "So," concluded Ellsberg, "the notion that the president had no alternative to go ahead was false." He was given plenty of notice in advance and along the way that war would end in catastrophe and should be avoided.

    So why did LBJ go any way? It was probably because the joint chiefs pressed him to escalate and he didn't want to risk a break with them. A break would lead to the undermining of public support and the end of the Great Society. Of course, the Great Society came to an end anyway and it was because of the war.

    Returning to Iraq at the end of his talk, Ellsberg commented on the way the Bush administration sold the war. "They are as good as Goebbels" -- at which the audience gasped.

    And now to sleep.

    Day 3

    Saturday April 2, 2005

    First, some news. The OAH nominating committee announced today that Princeton's Nell Irvin Painter has agreed to stand for election as the next president-elect of the organization.

    Religion and History

    One of the most memorable aspects of this year's history convention is that it has taken place in the same building and at the same time as a three-day meeting of a large bible fellowship study group. As the historians have scurried to meetings to discuss the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, sexuality and politics in the era of McCarthy, queer theory, and other subjects, the bible readers have been hurrying to meetings about morality, Christian fellowship, and the meaning of various passages in the Old Testament. Differences between the two groups have been striking. Male and female bible readers have been studying in separate groups; historians of course have been meeting in mixed groups. The bible readers have generally appeared more dressed up--like they were going to church; the historians looked like students or teachers going to class. Looking at the pictures below, it's not hard to tell the historians from the bible reader.

    The bible readers favored name tags that emphasized first names printed in a font large enough to be read by someone at a distance; the historians wore tags that identified people by their full names and institutional affiliations printed in a (relatively) small font.

    Interesting, but what does it mean? At a morning panel on religion Yale's Jon Butler suggested that the differences between the groups are real and profound and unappreciated generally by historians. Thus, he argued, historians have underestimated the mass appeal of authority in religious communities in our democratic culture, and the coercive insistence of the Christian right that the Pledge of Allegiance include a blunt reference to God. The historians' general indifference to religious communities like the bible readers is one reason historians were so caught off guard, he suggested, by the rise of the religious right. To historians of the 20th century religion has been like a kind of jack in the box that just mysteriously popped up from time to time and scared us.

    So profound are the differences between historians and religious folk that religious students even seem to come to college knowing a different history than other students. They come with fixed ideas learned in church about the alleged Christian identity of the Founding Fathers, the importance of Christianity to American success, and the vital role of morality in America's uniquely triumphal story. If we historians are to understand America, Butler implored his congregation of scholars, we need to understand religious communities--like the people the OAH members have been rubbing shoulders with the past few days.

    In a way Butler touched on one of the key themes that seemed to run through many of the conference sessions: the many ways in which our different histories have led different communities to reach different conclusions about patriotism and democracy. The University of Hawaii's Jon Kamakawiwo'ole Osorio, poignantly using a guitar to sing a Hawaiian song his mother sang to him as a child, talked about the different ways in which he and his parents thought about the government of the United States. They, shaped by the Pearl Harbor attack, felt a strong patriotic affinity for the United States. He, shaped by Vietnam, felt a deep suspicion of the United States. He even wondered if his people might not be better off without the United States. Didn't America's presence on the islands make them a target which they otherwise would not be?

    Singing was in this year. Outgoing OAH president James Horton sang a song his father taught him as a child, "The House I Live In." The theme of the song Horton explained in his presidential address was that in America even minorities can share in the promise of our ideals. He recalled that David Walker, the great 19th century black abolitionist, told slaveholders that to be true to American ideals they should free their slaves and he told slaves that to be true to America's ideals they should resist slavery. Of course few slaveholders were inspired to follow Walker's advice as their history didn't teach them the definition of patriotism that history taught Walker.

    San Jose Triumphalism

    While the leaders of the OAH gamely tried to put the best face possible on the convention--and who could blame them for trying; as Jim Horton noted, the OAH staff managed to put together in six weeks a convention that normally requires two years to organize--there were continuing signs that the organization had paid a steep price for its ideals. While nearly 1900 people registered for the convention (some 1500 of whom had pre-registered), people continued to note the absence of crowds.

    Over at the Exhibit Hall publishers had been hopeful on Friday when respectable-sized crowds (below) turned up to roam the floor.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Then came Saturday. And the place was mostly empty. Oxford University Press rep. Brian Hughes lamented, "It's been dead." Random House rep. Josh Black noted pointedly, "This is not how these shows usually go." The University of Illinois rep, Danielle Willberg, confessed that I was the third person in two hours to stop by for a visit. Only NARA's rep was a little upbeat. "It's not been that bad," Maureen MacDonald said. "There have been worse." And besides, "we get paid whether people come or not."

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The publishers did their best to attract a crowd. One company even offered teachers of the US survey course a chance to win an IPOD.

     

     

     

    While the publishers were disappointed, the Coalition for History was ecstatic. A petition the coalition circulated to protest the Bush administration's decision to zero out the budget of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission attracted the support of some 500 signatures and more every hour were being added.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    What the switch to San Jose will eventually cost the OAH is still unknown. At today's Business Meeting officials said that they are hopeful both the Hilton in San Francisco and the Doubletree in San Jose will agree not to penalize the organization for failing to fill the rooms that had been reserved. The theory is that both hotels will want OAH's business in the future. Still the OAH will probably end the year 2005 in the red to the tune of at least $100,000 even if the hotels cooperate. Half is due to the cost of renting the San Jose convention hall among other things related to the switch, the other half is due to a variety of unexpected expenses and slower ad sales.

    Good News/Bad News

    One striking bit of good news was that despite the diminished size of the crowds at the convention some 400 people turned up for the Awards Ceremony and Presidential Address. Officials took this as a sign that the decision to move the traditional evening event to the afternoon--it began at 4:30--was a wise one. And unlike some other years the event ended on time, just shy of an hour and a half. (Winners of the awards were encouraged to rush to the stage to keep the event on schedule; this was said to be vital so that people could leave at six to watch a ball game on TV.)

    The bad news is where the event was held. It was in a dingy hall so barren of amenities that it made this reporter long for the glitzy hotel ballrooms that are usually used. How fortunate we would have been had we had just one garish chandelier!

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     


    What's My Line

    Remember the old TV show "What's My Line"? If this man on the left had appeared as a guest he would have said, "My name is Sy Sternberg. I'm not a historian. But I love history. Who am I?" Can you guess? Ok, give it up. He's the chairman of the New York Life Insurance Company. And as chairman he has helped raise millions of dollars from New York Life for three PBS TV shows, including the recent production, "Slavery and the Making of America," which featured Jim Horton. Today he received the OAH's first Friend of History award. At the ceremony he made some news. New York Life has agreed to finance the making of a new series on the history of the Supreme Court. As Sternberg casually put it, this might cost New York Life, "five, six, seven million dollars." Why make a documentary about the Court? If we are going to be debating the Court, as we apparently will be in the coming years, he said, Americans will at least need to know some facts. And as is obvious now, "90 percent of Americans don't know anything" about U.S. history.

    Also receiving an award as a Friend of History was the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. But nobody needs to be told who Gilder Lehrman are.

     

     

     

     

    Day 4

    Sunday April 3, 2005

    After packing their bags members headed off to attend some 30 Sunday panels--or went straight to the airport. The morning papers were filled with news about the death of the Pope, which occurred the day before just as the Business Meeting was getting under way. But while the rest of the country was discussing the Pope's legacy, historians were talking about race, class, and all manner of other subjects--but not the Pope. This was inevitable of course given that the schedule was set months ago before the Pope had taken a turn for the worse. And anyway historians are not usually inclined to use a scholarly conference to comment on an event that has just taken place. That's what HNN is for. But the gap between what the world and historians were discussing was so large as to be striking--and a little bit strange. Strange because it felt somehow wrong not to be talking about the Pope's death.

    The fact is the outside world did not intrude much on this convention. The Iraq War barely registered--to the great consternation of a radical historian who at Friday's evening Vietnam session fairly shouted his disgust at the alleged indifference to the war. A meeting had been held that evening for radical historians. Only twenty or so had showed up. And no grand gathering of antiwar historians had taken place (unlike what happened at the AHA in January). At the OAH Business Meeting every resolution passed unanimously and none dealt with large social issues. One raised the rates charged to certain classes of OAH contributors. Another urged Congress to "provide funding for the National Historical Publications and Record Commission in fiscal year 2006 and request the appropriation of $8 million for the grants program and $2 million for staffing"--a worthy resolution to be sure and one which many historians feel passionate about. But all the same it lacked the fire of last year's debates about the war, freedom of dissent, graduate student unions and other matters that came before the members. It is ironic that the outside world seemed in the end to have so little effect on the convention because it was issues external to the history profession which landed the convention in San Jose.

    The day was strange in another way. Today was the first day that this reporter happened to hear members speaking passionately about the panels they were attending. This is too subjective a judgment to merit much reflection. A dozen variables could account for this. Perhaps I had simply missed the earlier expressions of passion. Or perhaps the programs today, which included many dealing with race, especially inspired powerful emotional responses. But I suspected that what may have happened was that the gloom of the switch to San Jose, which had hung like a foreboding dark cloud over the convention for days, had finally and mysteriously lifted.

    The Flag

    One session made news today. At the panel devoted to the Smithsonian's restoration of the giant War of 1812 American flag the presenters unveiled the design of the new space in which the flag will be displayed. You will need to catch your breath. The space, an exhibit as large as a house, the culmination of an $18 million project, will feature video and sound to create an atmosphere resembling the moment captured by Francis Scott Key in his poem about the successful defense of Fort McHenry. Six years in the making, and another two years or so away from completion, the exhibit was designed to give visitors the experience akin to a trip to the Lincoln Memorial. Harvard's Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the commenter, expressed reservations about the concept of the exhibit as a memorial, arguing that the exhibit should provide historical context and not simply a grand emotional experience. She worried that the exhibit, which will actually recreate the sounds of bombs bursting in air, will reinforce the prevailing tendency to define American patriotism militaristically. The Smithsonian employees insisted however that they have no intention of Disneyfying history and intend to include a long passageway as people exit that features controversial uses of the flag. The pictures will range from the arrest of Abbie Hoffman for wearing a flag in 1968 to the Ku Klux Klan parading with flags during their infamous march on Washington in 1925.

    While liberals may worry about a militaristic interpretation of the flag, conservatives may be upset with the museum's decision to ditch the old "glamour flag" that formerly hung in the central foyer of the Museum of American History in favor of the flag as it actually is: torn, tattered and fragile (like history, the museum employees said). This isn't your father's heroic, blowing in the wind flag. This flag shows its vulnerabilities. Listening to the presentation I couldn't help but wonder how Rush Limbaugh will respond. Will he love it for the spirit of battlefield American nationalism which is evoked in the space, or will he hate it and denounce it because the flag will now appear, like so many revisionist accounts of American history written since the 1960s, in a form that seems both flawed and unheroic.

     

    What Was Most Memorable

    As we packed up to leave so did the bible readers. Two things struck me. One, we had come to San Jose under duress. They had come to San Jose by choice. Surely that spells out one very large difference between the groups. Two, they seemed to be held together by much stronger bonds than we were. Several times today I came upon groups of bible readers seated in small, intimate groups as these pictures attest. Naturally, one would expect bible readers to find themselves more closely connected than historians who have been brought together by a shared interest in an intellectual subject, even if most of the members of the OAH happen to share a liberal agenda. But there is a political implication that is worth drawing attention to. Increasingly the religious right is organizing to oppose political initiatives of secular, mostly liberal people like historians. As Ruth Rosen perspicaciously pointed out at a dinner I attended last night, they are organizing while secularists are not. To leaders of the right this is a powerful advantage. It means that when issues come up like the Schiavo case they can instantly activate a network of like-minded people. The other side cannot--or cannot as easily. Secularists used to have networks like those now proliferating on the right. They were called unions. But the unions have become weak and nothing has yet taken their place in the firmament of progressive politics.

    It so happened, as Ellen Dubois mentioned in an email today, that there were many more bible readers than historians in attendance this weekend. I am not sure the historians felt outnumbered. But if they did the feeling was an apt metaphor for what is happening in America.

     

     

    The next convention will take place in 2006 in Washington DC. See you then.



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    Frederick W. Jordan - 4/5/2005

    The “Reporter’s Notebook” cited Ruth Rosen’s “perspicacious” observation that the “bible readers” are organizing while the secularists are not. Leaving aside the questionable assumption that all “historians” are “secularists,” I find this comment ironic. The “Notebook” also mentioned the Coalition for History’s success in garnering 400 signatures on a petition to protest budget cuts for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and updated its readers on the OAH decision to move a large convention from one city to another so as to demonstrate its support for a labor strike. While I support both endeavors, the point I’d like to make is that both certainly are a form of organizing. Perhaps the members of the history profession, both believers and secularists alike, have at least some common ground, and aren’t so lacking in efforts to organize after all.


    HNN - 4/5/2005

    The bible readers group is known as the Bible Fellowship. This was a regional meeting that takes place every three years and is non-denominational.


    John Austin Matzko - 4/4/2005

    As a long-time OAH member as well as a 30-year veteran of the Bob Jones University history faculty, I was especially interested in the “bible readers”--whoever they might have been--at the San Jose convention site. (Indifference to their religious affiliation is an unfortunately typical indication of the secularist perspective.) I read Rick’s sprightly convention notes with interest (and copied some of them to my students), but the OAH sessions themselves were of little attraction to me except in so far as they demonstrated how ideologically rigid the profession has become. I’m sure I would have felt more at home with the “bible readers.”


    Ralph E. Luker - 4/4/2005

    Thanks a lot, Rick, for these reports. They don't replace being there, but it's terrific to have these daily reports from someone who _is_ there.


    Tony Luke - 4/3/2005

    Rick,

    Thanks for your informative "notebook" coverage of events like this. Your commentary and observations are always fascinating and interesting.


    Judy Wubnig - 4/3/2005

    I think that Nasser was imitating the Soviet Union by the massive, 'glorious' engineering feet of building the Aswan Dam. Did he get aid from the Soviet Union for it? He did get some aid from the World Bank, I believe. Nasser imitated the Communists.

    Many scientists argued against building it. Interfering with the flow of the Nile, which has made Egypt so fertile for at least 5000 years, was like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Without the regular flow, delta land absorbed salty war and also lost the fertile soil brought down by the Nile. The nutrients from the Nile were important to sea life in the Mediterranean; as a consquence, the amount of fish in the Mediterranean has declined badly.


    Judy Wubnig - 4/3/2005

    What are the dates when the various people mentioned advised LBJ against the war? He himself said that since the war had been the policy of President John F. Kennedy, that he felt obliged to continue that policy.

    Hubert Humphrey supported the war in Vietnam.

    Robert McNamara was the head of the Ford Motor Company when the Edsel was produced - a disaster. I think he was kicked upstairs by being made Secretary of Defense, where he was also a disaster. Militarily, in fact, the war was being won by the U.S. and South Vietnam - cf. the Tet Offensive - when Congress refused to give South Vietnam any more military aid.

    An interesting view of the war is in a book by James Stockdale and his wife, IN LOVE AND WAR. (He was the senior ranking officer in the North Vietnamese prison where American POWs were held.)


    Judy Wubnig - 4/3/2005

    I think that Nasser was imitating the Soviet Union by the massive, 'glorious' engineering feet of building the Aswan Dam. Did he get aid from the Soviet Union for it? He did get some aid from the World Bank, I believe. Nasser imitated the Communists.

    Many scientists argued against building it. Interfering with the flow of the Nile, which has made Egypt so fertile for at least 5000 years, was like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Without the regular flow, delta land absorbed salty war and also lost the fertile soil brought down by the Nile. The nutrients from the Nile were important to sea life in the Mediterranean; as a consquence, the amount of fish in the Mediterranean has declined badly.


    Judy Wubnig - 4/3/2005

    Senator Joe McCarthy was probably himself homosexual. His boys were his aides Cohn and Schine.

    Did he really attack homosexuals in government? I thought he attacked Communists in government.


    Gregory Dehler - 4/3/2005

    I personally think Nevins has withstood the test of time quite well. His works are certainly still worth reading. For example, can you study the Grant adminstration without reading his biography of Hamilton Fish? I think the same holds true for his books on the Civil War, Grover Cleveland, Rockefeller, etc. On the other hand, I don't think Beard has done as well as Nevins. Forrest McDonald showed that Beard offered too much conjecture for fact in Economic Intpretation of the Constitution. Subsequent historians, such as Gordon Wood, have proven that Beard's explanation excluded the importance of ideas. I think the left finds Beard tantalizing because he speaks to their worldview -- even though his main force in history (economic self aggrandizement)is really only one of several factors.


    Grant W Jones - 4/3/2005

    Your "writers like Allen Nevins." How ungracious.

    His CV is impressive, although, perhaps not enough these days to get a job at a second tier college. In Nevin's case a little respect is in order, "triumphalism" (whatever the hell that smear-term means) or not.

    http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/anevinsbibliography.htm

    Or does Nevins' patriotism make him an object of contempt in today's academy, unlike the Beards and other "progressives?" Just don't call it bias and a refusal to evaluate a scholar's work with the rose color glasses off.

    You might try rereading James McPherson's "What's Wrong With History?"

    http://www.princeton.edu/~paw/archive_old/PAW96-97/08-0122/0122feat.html

    Was Nevins' pro-Union view also "triumpalism?" Or are academic historians just disappointed with who won the Cold War?

    McPherson, "Nevins went public with his contempt for the "entrenched pedantry" of "Professor Dryasdust," as he characterized academics who wrote unreadable monographs.
    Going ahead on their own, Nevins and his remaining friends in the profession founded the Society of American Historians, which eventually established the Parkman Prize and Nevins Prize to reward books and dissertations that possessed literary excellence."

    Too bad Nevins has not had an impact, Prof. Dryasdust, if the shoe fits...

    You may return to your regular schedule of attacking McCarthy (how original and courageous) while ignoring the existence of the Venona Papers. Can't imagine to whom the panelists were pandering to.

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