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
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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.