History scholars fight present war
Philadelphia Inquirer - April 10, 2003
Growing numbers of professors cite patterns of the past to rally
public opinion against the conflict.
By James M. O'Neill
Inquirer Staff Writer
Growing numbers of American historians are so worried that the Bush
administration is ignoring the lessons of the 20th century, and even
the last 2,000 years, that they are signing petitions, marching
against the war in Iraq, and holding teach-ins across the country.
The Bush administration is "ignoring the established pattern of what
destroys great empires - the eventual reliance on military power
over economic and cultural dominance," said Van Gosse, one of the
activist historians and a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
"This happened to the Romans, to the British."
Those who view historians as irrelevantly stuck in the musty past
might be doing a double-take these days.
These academics have mobilized into a national organization called
Historians Against the War. They wrote a petition decrying the
recent "egregious curtailment" of civil liberties, and organized
teach-ins on college campuses across the country this week.
"Our job is to better understand the past, and what's the point of
doing that if you're not going to link it to the present?" said Lee
Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American
Historians and a professor at Indiana University. "We can provide a
deeper understanding of how we got to the present situation."
That logically leads historians to the next step - sharing their
conclusions, in an activist way, with the public. "The idea that we
just sit in an ivory tower is myth," Formwalt said.
Last night, a teach-in at Temple University sponsored by Historians
Against the War included lectures on presidential leadership in
wartime, the mass media's coverage of the war, the history of modern
Iraq, and "colonialism discredited."
Similar teach-ins sponsored by the group were held at Rutgers,
Rowan, Pennsylvania State University, and Franklin & Marshall this
Gosse, who helped organize the Franklin & Marshall teach-in, said
"there's a hubris in the administration that they can control
Gosse said Vietnam still hangs heavy over American foreign policy.
He said the Bush administration might believe the current conflict
reverses the "Vietnam syndrome," but it really reinforces it,
because the United States is showing it will act only against a
less-than-challenging adversary, using overwhelming force, and
"bullying the public through a cowed and craven mass media."
Gosse said he had received e-mails and calls from non-academics
outraged that historians would take a public position on a current
Gosse has no patience for such criticism. He said that unlike
conservative historians of the 1950s and early 1960s, who saw the
norm as supporting and even advising the government, today's liberal
historians "are critical intellectuals providing a vital democratic
function. It's not a partisan thing."
The more aggressive use of history to question current American
foreign policy, a "new left revisionist" look at events, developed
in the late 1950s, headed by University of Wisconsin professor
William Appleman Williams and his book The Tragedy of American
"He engaged scholars by arguing that if we feel what we do has
value, we should carry that beyond the classroom," said David
Applebaum, a history professor at Rowan who organized a teach-in
there. "Balance is not what historians are after," Applebaum said.
"We're after an authentic and verifiable understanding of events."
The focus on dissent as a central element in American history
strikes a chord with Temple professor Ralph Young, who helped
organize last night's teach-in and who teaches on dissent in
Last semester, after his class ended, students lingered afterward,
continuing the discussion for an hour - and on a Friday afternoon.
Every Friday since, Young has held an open-ended teach-in. The group
continued this semester, and now as many as 70 students attend. Many
develop their own presentations, on everything from the background
of top Bush advisers to the role of the United Nations.
"Because we dig into the past, we're constantly dealing with the
root causes of things," said Young, explaining historians' relevance
to debates about current geopolitical events.
"When you understand how things happen, you don't have a knee-jerk
reaction to events," he said. "We're not just spouting our opinions
- it's an argument based on facts. We examine the past and
Young called it myth to think that historians are only interested in
the "cold facts of the past. We're concerned with how everything is
connected. History is concerned with the future."