The Magazine

Rewriting the Present

The historians are already wrong about the war in Iraq.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE WEEKEND OF APRIL 5, the Organization of American Historians (OAH)--the leading association of professors of American history--held its annual meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. The best-attended event, televised live by C-SPAN, was a panel discussion entitled "Historians Reflect on the War in Iraq." Before a packed audience of OAH members, five historians presented five takes on why it was necessary to oppose the war. Not one audience member begged to differ--at a time when polls showed 70 percent of the American people backing the war.

The panel began on a fairly reasonable note. Alan Brinkley, the new provost of Columbia University, said that, while he opposed the war, he also thought the opposition had failed to formulate a coherent alternative to the "extremely dangerous view of American foreign policy" coming from the likes of Robert Kagan (whom he repeatedly called Robert Kaplan). Referring to Kagan's best-selling book "Of Paradise and Power," Brinkley noted that neoconservatives argue from a "set of intellectual beliefs" espoused by "intelligent men and women." The antiwar side, he suggested, needs an equally powerful vision--something equivalent, say, to George Kennan's containment doctrine. The audience wasn't buying it. Brinkley was criticized for suggesting that the anti-Communist doctrine of containment had ever been a viable strategy.

After Brinkley's rather tepid presentation, things deteriorated. Peter Hahn of Ohio State University noted that it would be up to historians to "assemble the narrative" and interpret the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq. Scholars, he said, assess the truth by means of "hardheaded and rational thought." He predicted the outcome of the war would be "muddled," with no clear victory and no clear defeat.

Speaking next, Marilyn B. Young of New York University offered a fiery, well-received indictment of the war. Her voice dripping with sarcasm, Young condemned the "cabal who run the country" and chastised Bush for thinking that he knows evil. When McKinley was deciding whether to go to war with Spain, Young said, he got down on his knees and asked God what to do; when Bush gets up in the morning, she said, he just "asks himself."

The war in Iraq, Young continued, was "Vietnam on crack cocaine." Americans naively thought the Iraqi population would wave flags and welcome us; instead, the Iraqis found us blasting away at them with tank fire and bombs. Thousands were killed in a few short days. The United States was a nation of murderers, Young told the group, and it demonized the enemy by falsely charging it with indifference to human life.

Young did not pause to contemplate the nature of the Saddam Hussein regime, or comment on its well-documented attitude toward human life. Americans were losing "the hearts and minds of the populace," just as in Vietnam, Young insisted. America's bombing campaign was nothing but "terror." Young confessed, "I am starting to hate this country"--as if she hadn't been attacking the United States in exactly these terms for over thirty years.

In Young's eyes, the embedded press corps was functioning as a propaganda arm of the administration; after all, one journalist who had previously opposed the war admitted that, after traveling with the troops, he wanted them to win. The only responsible reporters, Young said, were the "unilaterals" who went to the war zone on their own, and who "raise doubts about the United States as a force for liberation."

America's plan, the distinguished diplomatic historian explained, was to run Iraq through an alliance of generals and defense contractors "who want to control what Iraq looks like." The enemy was really the American "mechanical monster," which burns and tortures and never fights fair. Iraq, she concluded, was "an illegal war in defiance of international public opinion and the United Nations." Bush's fundamentalist Christian faith kept him calm while he waged an indefensible war; predicting the future, the historian asserted that the results of Bush's policy would be "biblically terrible."

Next, Kevin Gaines, a professor of African-American history at the University of Michigan, addressed the "racist" character of the war. With many African Americans fighting alongside whites, he warned, blacks were being made into "militaristic citizens," just like whites. Gaines condemned Secretary of State Colin Powell for working within a political party "hostile to civil rights" and supportive of the "suppression of the black vote as an electoral strategy."

Moreover, Gaines argued, an integrated army (a goal of civil rights activists during World War II) legitimized the militarization of America, as the army created "monsters" who sought "retribution against the citizens of the world." He also deplored the "egregious violation of civil liberties, as the United States works to destroy human rights at home and abroad." Americans, he concluded, should "learn from the French."

The final speaker was Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. Foner centered his comments on the historian's task of showing how current events fall into historic patterns. Thus, new restrictions on civil liberties echo those imposed during the First World War. He himself, Foner told the assembled historians, had been labeled a "traitor professor" for opposing the war. But he was proud, he said, to take his place among dissenters of the past, such as Mark Twain and Martin Luther King Jr.

The antiwar movement did not desire the death of American soldiers, Foner said, differentiating himself from his Columbia colleague Nicholas De Genova, and ignoring evidence that much of the movement advocates precisely that. He stressed the necessity to reject the celebratory view of an America that keeps getting better. And he noted that he, too, had been attacked for hating America merely because he'd likened the Bush policy towards Iraq to Japan's policy of preemptive war at Pearl Harbor.

To Foner, it was obvious that to criticize the war was patriotic, while to criticize the dissenters was repressive. America's civil liberties, he warned, were neither self-enforcing nor self-correcting. We were "living through another moment in which freedom of speech is seen as an inconvenience and at worst unpatriotic." Those who sought to speak their mind, he suggested, had been thoroughly intimidated. If free speech were suppressed, we might win the war and lose our soul. Foner's presentation was bested only when, speaking from the floor, the mother of women's history, Gerda Lerner, remarked that the atmosphere in America today reminded her of her youth in Nazi-controlled Austria and McCarthyite America.

In all this, ironies abounded. The professors complaining about the suppression of dissent had chosen to take part in an entirely one-sided panel--a panel carried live on C-SPAN into thousands of homes. Clearly, neither their freedom of association nor their freedom of speech had been impaired.

The organizers of the panel could have approached historians like Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby, who has written that the antiwar movement's "sentiment is directed against the overthrow of one of the world's most oppressive and Nazi-like regimes," or Yale University's John L. Gaddis, who has spoken at teach-ins on his campus in support of the war. They did not. They apparently preferred to instruct the public that historians--who know the real truth--are against George W. Bush and his war to liberate the people of Iraq. In the process, they also confirmed how far removed from America and its traditions they and their colleagues are.

Ronald Radosh is professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York and senior adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.