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Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003
History scholars fight present war
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 week.

Gosse, who helped organize the Franklin & Marshall teach-in, said "there's a hubris in the administration that they can control events."

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 event.

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 Diplomacy.

"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 American history.

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 interpret."

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."

Contact staff writer James M. O'Neill at 610-313-8012 or joneill@phillynews.com.