The Ivory Tower on Display · 10 January 2005

By Rick Shenkman--History News Network--01/11/05

Clouds moved in. It rained a little. But there was no sign of snow (not downtown anyway).

One of the disadvantages of meeting in a place like Seattle, no matter what the weather, is that it is remote from major media centers, meaning that there will be less coverage of the convention this year than last, when the AHA was in Washington, D.C. Still, the New York Times sent Alex Star, formerly of Lingua Franca, now at the NYT Magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education sent two reporters. And L'Express sent French journalist Phillipe Coste. L'Express? What on earth for, you may be wondering. We wondered too. Was it because he wanted to find out what historians think of Our Oldest Enemy : A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, the new book by John Miller and Mark Molesky? It turned out that Coste was here only because his wife is employed by a publisher doing business at the convention. Finding himself here, he decide to get credentials and attend a few panels. He said he went to an anti-war meeting held by Historians Against the War and an afternoon panel about American hubris. He thought about attending the panel on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11, but decided he'd probably heard all the arguments that can be made about the film.

All three panels proved to be interesting, we discovered. Hours later a Harvard professor was still talking about the presentation at the hubris lecture by Hofstra's Carolyn Eisenberg. She started off by saying that the AHA's program committee had "expressed the concern that we would be too present minded. So now I want to do just what they feared." And she did. The title of the session was: "Hubris and the Irrationality Principle in the Foreign Policy of Recent Presidents: From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush." First she got to work on Nixon and Kissinger, calling them "the boys from Columbine" because they seemed to hate everybody--they hated other Republicans, they hated Defense Secretary Laird, they hated Democrats and of course they hated the press. Then she went at the Bush people, quoting a high official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told her confidentially, "You don't begin to understand how crazy Don Rumsfeld is."

The closet analogy to what is happening in Iraq right now she said is what happened in Vietnam. In both wars high officials pursued a policy which couldn't possibly work. Vietnamization? It was stupid. How could you get the North Vietnamese to bargain in good faith as you drew down troop levels? LBJ hadn't raised troop levels because he was dumb. He did it because the South Vietnamese army wouldn't fight. Iraqification, she said, shows the same stupidity. Once again we are placing our faith in a force that is less committed to victory than its enemies.

Anticipating the criticism that her language might be a tad harsh, she said sharp language is needed to describe what's happening now and what happened in Vietnam, chiding diplomatic historians for using "professor-speak."

Why did the Vietnam war go on and on? Why did the United States invade Iraq and make a mess? She said it is important to go beyond the obvious observations ... that Nixon was crazy, that Bush is in over his head, that Nixon and Bush both benefited from the imperial presidency. She said that presidents don't go to war by themselves and cannot do as they please, even in foreign policy. So what is the common factor behind both Vietnam and Iraq that enabled irrational policies? She said that to find out we need to look at the role of "unbridled nationalism and racism" in American society that has allowed Americans to wage war on the Indians and drop the bomb on Japanese in Nagasaki. "You can say why did Bush go to war--because he was stupid, didn't read newspapers, was ideologically driven--but what kind of country do we have that led to such an irrational war?"

At the end of her talk the audience, seemingly in agreement, gave her a rousing round of applause.

At the meeting of HAW--Historians Against the War (where Carol Eisenberg also appeared on the panel), the discussion focused on the options the organization should pursue to help bring about an end to the war in Iraq. One option under consideration is to hold a three-day national conference of historians against the war (the unspoken assumption was that the war will continue; the conference is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2005). Possible topics for panels might include: "historical perspective on the war and Bush's foreign policy," "past examples of resistance to war," and "attacks on freedom of speech, civil liberties, and academics." One historian in the audience rose to say that he appears to have lost his contract at a university in northern Washington State because he participated in an anti-war rally. Another historian said a friend had been heavily pressured for speaking out against the war and probably only kept her job because she had received tenure just a month before. Both were urged to contact HAW member David Montgomery, the chairman of a committee at the Organization of American Historians that is compiling a list of historians whose civil liberties have been compromised. About forty people attended the HAW meeting.

At the session on Michael Moore panel members seemed in agreement with the general observations of his 9-11 film, but uncomfortable with the way he scored his points. One historian said it is incumbent on scholars to point out the ways in which Moore distorted the historical record. But another, passionately asking "where's the beef," said he can't think of a single fact Moore got wrong.

Steve Mintz observed that one of "the most stunning developments in film" is that without documentaries the audience for film would have declined over the last few years. "Documentary is no longer spelled D-U-L-L." And historians need to account for the change. Several factors are apparent, he noted: the desire for the authenticity documentaries provide. The birth of reality TV. And perhaps most importantly, the willingness of documentarians to reveal taboo secrets. Until Moore showed the pictures of wounded Iraqi soldiers, most Americans had not seen them. Nor had they seen the compelling scene in the Congress when black representatives rose to object to the election of President Bush in 2000 and not one senator joined in, dooming the effort to review the result.

Each of these three meetings drew impressive audiences, as did a morning panel on shock and awe, "Destruction from the Air in Warfare of the Twentieth Century." The panel that may have drawn the largest audience of the day was "Atlantic History: A Critical Reassessment." The panel that seemed to draw a disappointingly small crowd, seemingly smaller than it actually was because the meeting was held in one of the large ballrooms, was the presidential session on "Stolen Public Records."

Rick Shenkman is the editor of History News Network.