Letter to the OAH

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH)Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Mr. Miller sent the following letter to the OAH.

The lighting of candles Friday night was a wonderful idea, for little children especially. people are trying so hard to cope with our national trauma. We, as historians, can help by integrating our country's history as never before. for the situation is grave indeed, particularly should we experience more terroristic attacks. Surely you would agree.

Scholarship as usual will not help us here. we must help this country's spirit. But, are we going to do it? For, if there is any lesson from history, this is it--every country, every society has a breaking point, just like a person. But historians had better beware of something else too. If we don't back away from the negativism in so much historical writing since the Vietnam Era and begin to offer more balanced views of America's past (in the classroom too!), there are many historians who will be looking for work. Calls for academic freedom, while valid, will not save them either.

A lesson from history on this also--do you know of any profession, including the one of history, that can survive without at least a modicum of support from the public? If some readers of this op-ed piece have the inclination to ignore my warning here, or are trying to belittle it, let me provide the evidence for a public revolt in the making against historians (both instances from the 1990s). The proposed National History Standards (admirable though they may have been in some respects) did (let's face it) unduely disparage traditional ways of viewing the American past. What was the result--a vociferous opposition to the adoption of those standards in and out of Congress.

Surely all historians remember as well what may have been an even greater uprising by the public, veterans in particular, to the proposed Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian."Heads did roll on that," it could be said, at least through resignations.

Don't misunderstand me--I readily admit the United States has committed some serious wrongs (such as slavery, segregation, wholesale takeovers of Indian land, and an inferior status for women for many years). But, and this is what I am driving at--this generation of historians grew up with the Vietnam War and the unrest of those times. It is my contention, and I know at least intuitively that I am right on this, so many (too many) of those historians let their opposition to that divisive war warp their whole view of America's past. The results, so far as many books and articles are concerned, which have been published in the last 30 years, have amounted to litanies regarding one injustice after another. To my way of thinking though, many of those works come close to being nothing more than jeremiads, not sound histories.

Let me pose two more questions--is there anything wrong with accounts of success stories (achievements) in American life? Or, is there anything wrong with having heroes--people to emulate?

Let me relate one of the greatest success stories of modern times. It involves America's oil industry (which I have studied in-depth for 21 years now). That is an industry, by the way, which has led the world in the production of crude (to this day the United States retains the all-time leadership in oil production) with Russia in second place. The American oil industry, in fact, dating from the Drake well of 1859, began the Oil Age, which I might add, has transformed the world and has made the United States, as Max Lerner aptly put it, a" civilization on wheels." For a true American hero, a giant of a man, see my sketch of wildcatter Michael L. Benedum on American National Biography Online at www.anb.org (2001). Benedum and his partner of 50 years--Joseph C. Trees--found more oil worldwide than any other oil operators in history. To this day too, and beginning with the prodigious deliveries of oil from Mexico's Golden Lane in the early twentieth century, petroleum geologists from the United States have led the way in finding oil and gas around the globe.

But let me give you one very specific example of what not only this country, but other freedom-loving countries around the globe, owe to the American oil industry. The Allies in World War II used 7 billion barrels of crude, 6 billion barrels of which came from U S. oil fields. Now, make no mistake about this, without that oil from America, World War II could never have been won (for it was a highly mechanized war).

In closing, let it be said--historians (not all, of course, but many) have very comfortable livings. What makes that possible? In the main it derives from the support of the public, which includes the faith (hopefully it is justified) in higher education--namely, that young people will be enriched, not just by getting a good job upon graduation, but in mind too. Now, if historians erode this support, where do they think the money will come for their salaries, or I must add, the students for their classrooms? need I mention here as well--the public in one way or another ultimately pays the bills!

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More Comments:

keith miller - 10/2/2001

Three cheers for Mr. Vought! Would like to shake his hand, if I could. Having said as much though, I have no desire to alienate my critics. Instead, I am asking--can't we, as historians, in spite of our differences, strive to do what I am calling for--the writing of better histories? For, as I want to add, has anyone ever read a perfect history on anything or anyone?

Keith Miller - 10/1/2001

Assuming, which seems to be the case, that in writing "Letter to the OAH" I am a Right-Winger will not work. None of you know anything about my personal life, or voting record for that matter, so how can you make such an assumption? But, I will tell you--I voted for Eugene McCarthy in the presidential election of 1976. Does that sound like something a Right-Winger would do? Dismissing my arguments out of hand then is misguided. For. I adhere to no ideology (of the Left, Center, or Right); all ideologies are delusory. Let me assert instead--I have a philosophy (and a highly ethical one at that), but not an ideology. There is a difference; see a dictionary, if need be, for clarification. So, I would suggest a re-reading of my essay for the sense of it, not just a "knee-jerk" reaction. Please consider something else--I am trying to help this country's historical profession, not the reverse. Don't I deserve a hearing, or at least the benefit of the doubt?

Hans P. Vought - 9/30/2001

Keith Miller has written a reasonable plea for a balanced presentation of U.S. history - one that presents the good as well as the bad and the ugly. How interesting that the responses so far have scoffed at the idea, dismissing it as a right-wing whitewash! Such responses seem merely to prove Miller's point about overly negative historians who came of age in the Vietnam Age.
Once upon a time, professional historians thought that it was their duty to present an unbiased, objective account of the past. While all of us surely recognize that objectivity is humanly impossible, it should remain our goal to present a balanced account that comes as close to the truth as human frailty will permit. I realize that such an opinion is not fashionable, as postmodernists deny that there is any such thing as truth. However, these same scholars presume to pass moral judgment on the United States' foreign and domestic policy, which is logically inconsistent. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then postmodern relativism is the last refuge of the intellectual scoundrel!

SharC - 9/29/2001

Amen...I totally agree with your reaction to the letter to OAH by Keith Miller. I, too, was fed what I describe as "rose-colored history" by my history teachers in high school: Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Andrew Jackson was the champion of democracy, Washington never told a lie, McCarthy provided an essential anti-communist service, etc.

As an instructor in U.S. history today, I am determined that my students get as much of the full picture as possible, including the warts as well as the roses. We do a total disservice to students if we try to gloss over the mistakes that the U.S. has done throughout its history. We need to provide balance, allow them to explore all sides to the issues and then permit them to arrive at informed opinions. If they have heroes, it is because they picked them out, not because I [or their textbook] jammed such down their throats.

One of the scariest new old-ideas that I see emerging is what I call the "America, love-it-or-leave-it, syndrome" that this country lived with during the Vietnam morass. No...never again shall we stifle opposition...if there is ever a time in which we all must strive for tolerance and full awareness of the implications of a war against a virtually unknown enemy, it is NOW!

Sorry, Mr. Miller, as an historian, I firmly believe that we must be ever more vigilant is presenting all sides without the gloss of super-patriotism.

Peace to ALL!

Larry Nederlof - 9/27/2001

Dear Editor,

Your motto is: "Because the past is the present and the future, too". I wonder if that puts any restrictions on learning from the
past to make the future better? I am you asking this, because reading the curious letter of Keith Miller, I see history repeating
itself, and in this case bad history on top of that.

It would seem that Keith Miller proposes to 'integrate' our country's history 'as never before', because the situation is grave
indeed. He then says: "Surely you would agree?"
Well, surely I don't!

If you read through his letter it is clear that Keith Miller wants to change the American History into one he likes better, mainly
because he seems to be of the opinion that our American youth is not up to the truth. He fortifies his argument with innocent
remarks like: "Historians better beware" "..have the inclination to ignore my warning here, or are trying to belittle it..."
"Now if historians erode this support, where do they think the money will come from for their salaries...", "there are many
historians who will be looking for work.." and a few more uplifting remarks like that.

Keith Miller reminds me of, and acts exactly like, the 'reformers' we had in our school system in Holland (where I was born) many
years ago. These 'reformers' changed the history so that it fit better, and as these reformers were the Nazi occupiers, they
changed the start of history to the year 1500 so that we could concentrate on the German civilization and not have to bother about
Egyptians, Greeks or Romans what whatever other impure races might populate their world. Now Keith Miller does not want to go that
far, but he specifically wants the 'negative' element out of it, or else!

Apart from the fact that I believe that we do not have to be ashamed of anything we have done, of course we did bad things too, but
it used to be so, that that is where you learn from. We are a great country, certainly not lily-white, but then, who is?

It is clear that Keith Miller has a bit of this old 'uebermensch' mentality. He writes a whole paragraph about the great American
oil exploits and the fact that petroleum geologists from the United States have led the way in finding oils and gas around the
globe. He conveniently forgets to mention that Rockefeller all that time was competing with Henri Deterding of the Royal Dutch
Shell (some writers called it the battle of the Titans) and that the 'global' oil exploration was a constant competition between US,
Dutch and English oil companies who did not give each other much more than an inch at a time.

Now Keith's stance by itself would not bother me all that much. But just last week a San Diego radio Station (KJOY) thought the
time was ripe to re-play a (1974) record with an oration of a Canadian 'US-o-phile" called "the Story". This 'Story' could be
Keith's battle song. It brings out all that is bad in Keith's point of view and is tailor-made to pep-up American morale. It also
happens to be a completely false piece of prose. You can safely call it 'criminally' so! It would seem that there is a dangerous
tendency here. You can read and download the text of this 'song' from: http://www.tysknews.com/Depts/Our_Culture/americans_story.htm

When I brought this rather unfortunate timing to the attention of the talk show host, Dave Mason, I was told that this record made
it to #23 on the top parade in 1974, and that he had already received an amazing large number of positive reactions this time
around. He then rambled on to warn me, that though he was willing to discuss this matter on his radio show, I should realize that
if I would profess a deviating view, people might think me to be un-American! (A bit like a veiled threat!)

As an historian, I have learned that it is impossible to like all history, and I particularly dislike those parts of it where my
Dutch forefathers did wrong, or where those of my new country were not altogether perfect. But change it? NOT.

I sincerely hope that we will be able to closely work with the many other countries in this world to try and make things better
together. People like Keith Miller or this Dave Mason both seem to cater to a dangerous (and I hope 'fringe') crowd. I feel we
don't need saviours like that!

Larry Nederlof

Evelyn A. Schlatter - 9/27/2001

I was born during the Vietnam War (ooops! My generation is showing!). So I guess I might be off the hook for teaching and professing the "gloom and doom" of American historians who came of age before and during the war, though I suppose I do so anyway.

Actually, I'm uncertain what Mr. Miller's ultimate point is. Are we as historians supposed to quit teaching the dark underbelly of American history (which is no better or worse than any other human culture anywhere in the world) in general or just in the wake of a horrific attack on our country? If the former, I disagree. I think that does a disservice to students and non-historians. If we only teach the "success" stories, then how are said students and non-historians to critcally analyze things like American foreign and domestic policy? If all we hear is "success" and "greatness," are we not subject to an arrogance that gives us no insight into the plights of those who have come under the boot heel of American policies and the ideologies and stereotypes about others said policies inculcate? I also disagree with teaching a sanitized version of American history during and after this tense, awful time.

I think that we as historians owe it to non-historians and students to discuss American foreign policy and how it has affected places like the Middle East and perceptions toward us. I think we owe it to non-historians and students to discuss things like the backlash against Arab Americans/Arabs in America and to place it in context of, say, the internment camps in which we as a country forced Japanese Americans/Japanese people in America after Pearl Harbor. We need to understand the dark side of "patriotism." In discussions like these, perhaps we as Americans can come to understand that yes, we have done good things and developed great technology and social systems, but we have also perpetrated and condoned things that have directly or indirectly oppressed and harmed non-Americans or Americans who, say, aren't white. Our job is to learn from our mistakes and in so doing develop new and better ways to interact with each other and with other cultures and countries.

I love my country. I greatly appreciate the opportunities that I have been given here and the great personal freedoms I have as an American. But I also understand that if I weren't white, my experiences would be vastly different. I understand that my middle-class background also provides certain privileges. It is in recognizing the bad and not-so-good with the good and great that we as a nation can set an even better example for other countries without, I hope, the arrogance that has contributed to anti-American thoughts and actions. I would like us as historians and as Americans all to ensure that it's the good things about this country that will set the standards of views about us in the years to come. But we can't do that without looking in the mirror.


Evelyn A. Schlatter, Ph.D.
University of New Mexico Press
Albuquerque New Mexico

Warren Leming - 9/26/2001

This article reveals the self serving, capitulationist, Right Wing, servile academic at his finest. Here at last we have the direct link between academia and tenured statist servitude in the person of someone who has "studied the oil industry" and found it good, and whats better: American.
This saddest of commentarys could only have come from a tower deep within the Groves of Abject Scholarship. And don't criticise the good old USA, historians.. since if that line gets pursued.. where are the salarys to come from. We know that the govt. now finances a whole series of academic projects.. among them work for the CIA, NSA, and ASA.
Lets not foul up the tenured track to pathetic jingoism. Three Cheers though.. for this patriot: it may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but they are tenured losers. Keep that in mind.
Warren Leming

norman markowitz - 9/25/2001

The U.S. contribution to WWII as what Roosevelt called the "arsenal of democracy"(one might also say the factory of democracy) was both essential and enormous. But the role of the Soviet Union, which took on over 4/5s of European Axis forces on the ground between 1941 and D Day, and continued to take on a majority of those forces until VJ day was at least as essential and enormous, and cost over 20 million lives. Without both contributions, we would be living in a fascist dominated world. When historians criticize U.S. companies, government policies, etc., they are doing what Americans have always done, unless one believes that "America" is synonymous with John D. Rockefeller, and a political ideology that the crooked old Chicago Mayor, Big Bill Thompson, called "100 percent Americanism" William Lloyd Garrison was "badmouthing" that ideology of America when he condemned slavery, Eugene V. Debs and Gus Hall when they condemned capitalism as a system, and Robert La Follette when he condemned the Standard Oil company. The issue is not that oil and the U.S. oil industry aren't important, but that a foreign policy that proclaims regimes like "Saudi" Arabia, and the Gulf states "friendly nations," "moderate Arab states," and part of the free world, none of which they are now nor have they ever been, solely to protect oil interests(unless anyone really believes they are those things) risks the loss of oil along with credibility. One might also remember that the Reagan administration, in its cold war revival, not only armed and funded the Afghan Contras and hailed the forebears of the present Taliban as freedom fighters, but gingerly dropped Carter administration energy conservation and alternative energy policies for an all out emphasis on providing economic incentives for oil production. Thanks to those policies the U.S. is now more dependent on foreign oil than it was in l980.
Norman Markowitz
Rutgers University
Department of History