AHA Anti-War Resolution ... Was it enough or too much?

Historians in the News

[Mr. Richman is a PhD student at the University of PA.]

The American Historical Association (AHA) is the most prominent professional organization for American historians. Its annual meeting, held recently in Atlanta, featured abstruse panels and presentations with titles such as "Disciplined Bodies and the Production of Space, Place, and Race: Atlanta's Latino Day Laborers at the Cusp of the Twenty-First Century" and "The Desire for Modernity: Masculinity, Mexican Migration, and the Dynamics of U.S. National Belonging." If academic work like this bears no relationship to concrete political realities, a group called Historians Against the War (HAW) injected some activism into the conference. Formed several months after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, HAW opposes "the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq." HAW proposed a resolution against the Iraq war, which passed after an hour of debate. The resolution enumerated the measures taken by the administration which are inimical to historians or historically-minded people, such as "condemning as 'revisionism' the search for truth about pre-war intelligence" and "re-classifying previously unclassified government documents." With the passage of the statement, the AHA effectively endorsed its conclusions: that members of the AHA should ". . . take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and . . . do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion." The success of the resolution means that the AHA is, for the first time in its 123 year history, taking an anti-war stance. In 1969, a previous resolution, supported by some of the same historians as the 2007 one, was defeated.

Why should activists care about the internal proceedings of the AHA, the professional association of a discipline increasingly removed from the public sphere and relevant political engagement -- as demonstrated by the paper titles reproduced above? The HAW resolution is useful to examine because it begs several important questions. What is the relationship between politics and academia? Is the rosy perspective for the possibilities of political organization within the academy, recently detailed by Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell in "Leveraging the Academy: Suggestions for Radical Grad Students and Radicals Considering Grad School," justified? How should activists conceptualize expedient action to build truly mass movements, such as the anti-war movement? What will it take to fight and win a world without war and oppression, and what is the relationship of students and academics to this struggle?

The HAW resolution politicized the generally anodyne business meeting at the AHA. In what was reportedly a packed room, debate proceeded for an hour on the question.1 In keeping with public opinion in the country, not one historian who spoke -- even against the resolution -- did so from a pro-war perspective. The objections to the resolution, based on reporting from the meeting, came from two places: those who felt the wording vague and potentially misleading -- that historians should "do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion" could be misinterpreted as support for escalation; and those who argued that historians should only "use our political influence in those areas that directly have to do with scholarship, with our lives as professional historians," as Stanford professor James Sheehan stated from the floor. To my mind the first objection is unfounded. As 70% of the country knows, according to a recent poll, Bush's escalation of the war with a troop surge will be far from "a speedy conclusion" to the Iraq war.

The second objection, which draws lines between professional and political, is the more interesting question for consideration. As the rantings and ravings of David Horowitz on this subject suggest, the intersection of academia and politics is a contentious one. A rough typology of the many minds on this issue include 1) those who think academia and politics should never mix, 2) those who see academic work as a political avenue in itself, and 3) the minority who acknowledge that, while intellectual production in the academic sphere can yield useful information for activists, fundamental social change will not, ultimately, come from academics....

To return to my initial point, the Historians Against the War resolution at the American Historical Association represents the tensions within academia and the larger struggle for social change. While denigrated by academics of the first and second categories outlined above -- those who think academics should never engage politically and those who consider academic work itself to have discrete political value which should be uncorrupted by activism (such as Genovese, who resisted radical historians' attempts to introduce political resolutions into the AHA in the 1960s and '70s) -- forming groups such as HAW within the historical profession and introducing anti-war resolutions in the AHA is progressive. But academics must recognize the limitations of such a strategy, and what it will actually take to end the war in Iraq. In this instance, a comparison with the Vietnam war is useful. The US was forced to withdrawal from Vietnam for three key reasons: the military defeat suffered by the US at the hands of the NLF, the massive revolt of soldiers -- "workers in uniform" -- in Vietnam, and an increasingly militant anti-war movement at home which raised the political cost to the US ruling class to unacceptably high levels. Today, our task is the third: to build a grassroots anti-war movement of workers and students, independent of the Democratic party, capable of providing support to soldiers' resistance and demanding "troops out now." Graduate students and academics can play a role in building this movement, and, as intellectuals, can use their time and training to write applicable history and theory. But we must maintain no illusions that our classrooms and campuses, and journals and academic presses are somehow themselves political means and ends. If we are to build a better world after capitalism -- one without poverty and wars -- intellectuals and students can play an important part, but the roots of this struggle ultimately lie with forces outside elite academic institutions.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lorraine Paul - 1/31/2007

Not in the world we live in today!

Jonathan Dresner - 1/31/2007

As I said in comments at the original site of this article:

There was another argument offered at the meeting -- I know, because I offered it -- which was that, in spite of the apparent uniformity of speakers at the meeting against the war, that this group was not sufficiently representative of either the full membership or the broader historical community, both of which contain pro-war and much more complicated perspectives, and that by taking the position we were, as an organization, alienating significant portions of our current and potential membership without accomplishing anything.

It's not flashy, but the strength of the profession is diluted when its premier umbrella organization is percieved as broadly partisan rather than sharply focused on issues of scholarship, professionalism and the integrity of historical sources and discourses. That's more than enough, I think, for a professional organization.