The Organization of American Historians: Faithfully Reflecting Academic Standards

Published: 1993-07-01

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As one might expect, the recent annual conference of the Organization of American Historians – the foremost association of scholars devoted to US history – and the OAH's scholarly Journal of American History, faithfully reflect the prevailing standards and ideological slant of America's historical "establishment."

At the 1993 OAH Annual Meeting, held April 15-18 in Anaheim, California, the specialized sessions devoted to particular historical issues included the following:

  • "Links in the Chain: Musical Culture of the Labor and Black Freedom Movements"
  • "Urban Black Communities in the Twentieth Century: Race, Class and Economic Change"
  • "The African-American Context for Cowboy and Western Music"
  • "Woman's Work and Gender Identity"
  • "Woman's Culture and Women's Biography"
  • "Malcolm X and Historical Memory"
  • "Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy in Modern America"
  • "Recent Research in Slave Women's History"
  • "Recruiting Minorities into the Historical Profession"
  • "The Development of a Chinese American Consciousness"
  • "African American Intellectuals and the Discourse of American Culture"
  • "The Legacies of W.E.B. Du Bois"
  • "The Problem of American Conservatism"
  • "Religion and Identity in the Old South: Gender and Race"
  • "Race, Class and the Law in the South"
  • "Race, Labor and 'Social Equality' in the Jim Crow South"
  • "Race, Gender and Violence: The Case of Celia, A Slave"
  • "Work-in-Progress Roundtable on Gay and Lesbian history"
  • "Work-in-Progress Roundtable on American Indian History"
  • "African-Americans and Public Rituals in New York City"
  • "On Common Ground: The Historical Archaeology of African America"
  • "Ethnicity and Class in Los Angeles"
  • "Los Angeles One Year Later: Race and Politics in L.A."
  • "The Culture of Violence in the American Revolution"
  • "Celebration: Songs of American Diversity"
  • "Twenty-Five Years After King's Assassination: Perspectives on Black Movement Leadership"

On Friday evening, the 16th, OAH President Lawrence W. Levine, a specialist of African-American history at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered a rousing Presidential Address to the conference attendees. In this keynote speech (which I attended), Levine mockingly rejected what he called the "Eurocentric" interpretation of history, and staunchly defended the current trend toward an ever more "inclusive" treatment of the past. He dismissed as wrong-headed and prejudiced the critics of this trend, specifically mentioning by name the warnings of previous OAH presidents C. Vann Woodward and Eugene Genovese.

While most historians present expressed their approval of Levine's message with an enthusiastic standing ovation, not everyone was thrilled. The next day, during a symposium on "Writing Contemporary Presidential Biography" (which I also attended), Stephen Ambrose of the University of New Orleans joked that this is one of the few sessions at this year's OAH conference not devoted to class, gender, race or ethnicity. Contrary to what seems to be the currently prevailing wisdom, he went on, it [is] still worthwhile and appropriate to deal with history made by "dead white males" – including former American presidents.

Ambrose also noted with regret that, although this OAH conference is taking place on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, not a single session is devoted to him or his legacy. But perhaps that is just as well, Ambrose went on, because more attention would likely be devoted to Sally Hemmings than to the Declaration of Independence. The historian also noted that not a single session at this year's conference dealt with the world-historical events of 50 years ago, including, for example, the first meeting at Teheran of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

Like the OAH Annual Meeting, The Journal of American History, the OAH's quarterly scholarly periodical, similarly reflects the prevailing outlook and standards of historians of United States history.

Lawrence Levine

Lawrence Levine, President of the Organization of American Historians, 1992-1993, and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

On the front cover of the March 1993 issue (which is more than 500-pages thick), is a photograph of "Chicano students protesting during the March 1968 high school walkouts in East Los Angeles." The photo highlights a lengthy feature article inside by Edward Escobar, "The Dialectics of Repression: The Los Angeles Police Department and the Chicano Movement, 1968-1971."

Accompanying this polemical piece are five photographs that show demonstrating Mexican-Americans, and alleged police repression against Chicanos. "... Thus, while the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] may have curbed militant Chicano activism," Escobar happily concludes his essay, "the response to the department's tactics gave rise to a new consciousness that has the potential to empower the Chicano community."

In this same issue of the OAH Journal is a laudatory review of Herbert Aptheker's Anti-Racism in U.S. History. For many years Aptheker was the chief theoretician of the Communist Party, USA, and this new book continues to faithfully reflect his Marxist-Leninist interpretation of history. In the opinion of reviewer Herbert Shapiro of the University of Cincinnati, Aptheker's book

... breaks fresh ground in comprehensively and systematically exploring a theme that has hitherto been ignored or received fragmentary attention. It is certainly to be hoped that Aptheker's work stimulates others to further consideration of this vital aspect of the struggle for democracy in American history.

Finally, this same issue of The Journal of American History includes a laudatory review of a comic book. While such a work would normally not merit attention in this quarterly, this is no ordinary cartoonist's work. It's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, Parts I and II, a Holocaust "oral history account" by Art Spiegelman that has received gushing praise from countless American newspapers and magazines.

In his Journal of American History review, Joshua Brown of Hunter College (CUNY), writes: "Maus is a significant contribution to the field of history, not in spite of the medium chosen by its author, but because of it." In Brown's opinion, cartoonist Spiegelman's depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs "subvert the stereotypes of racism constructed by the Nazis"!

Besides its implicitly contemptuous portrayal of non-Jewish humanity, this utterly subjective and impressionistic work is littered with historical falsehood and distortion. For example, a Maus character arriving at Auschwitz solemnly informs the reader:

And we came here to the concentration camp Auschwitz, and we knew that from here we will not come out anymore. We knew the stories that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944 .... We knew everything. And here we were.... So it was.

Among the numerous Jews who did, in fact, "come out" of Auschwitz were – to name just a prominent few – Elie Wiesel (and his father), Anne Frank (who died of typhus later in Bergen-Belsen camp), and Otto Frank (her father).

Moreover, Maus, Part I, begins with a quotation attributed to Hitler: "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human." The quote is, in fact, spurious. But hey, who's checking? Certainly not the reviewer or OAR Journal editors.

As this review shows (once again), the normal standards of historical evidence and criticism are simply tossed aside when it comes to the secular pseudo-religion of our era.

In light of such "scholarship," any OAR criticism of the IHR is not only ludicrous, but serves to underscore a clear double standard.

In the field of history – no less than with clothing styles and musical tastes – the more fashionable anything is, the more quickly it is destined to become unfashionable. Ten years from now – if not sooner – historians will look back on the OAR of 1993 with a mixture of amusement, irritation and disgust.

Organization of American Historians Censors the IHR

On October 31, 1992, the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians (OAR) formally condemned the Institute for Historical Review and resolved to exclude "advertisements or announcements" from the IHR in the OAH Newsletter.

For some years now, the Institute has been a member of the OAR, the leading organization of scholars devoted to American history. In 1991, the IHR submitted a short notice for publication in the "calls for papers" section of the OAH Newsletter. Appearing in the November 1991 issue, the notice informed readers that the IHR's Journal of Historical Review welcomed contributions on topics such as FDR's campaign to get the US into war, and the background to the Pearl Harbor attack.

This small notice upset some OAH Newsletter readers, and touched off a debate among historians around the country. Letters protesting the notice appeared in the May 1992 OAH Newsletter, including a particularly vicious one by Jordan Schwarz, who asserted that the IHR is a "Nazi" or "pro-Nazi" organization with a "mission of hate."

A letter by Journal editor Mark Weber responding to these false allegations was rejected. Not a single word in defense of the IHR and its work been has so far been permitted to appear in the pages of the OAH Newsletter.

Then, on October 31, the OAR Executive Board resolved to prohibit any future notice or advertisement by the IHR. A minority of Board members argued against the decision, saying that it violated the OAH's stated support for the principle of freedom of speech and inquiry. The Board has five officers, including President Lawrence W. Levine of the University of California, Berkeley. A formal statement of the OAH Board's October decision appeared in the February 1993 OAH Newsletter.

In the same issue also appeared a full-page article, "Revisionism and the Holocaust," which reported on a heated panel discussion at a Holocaust conference in April 1992 at Millersville University (Pennsylvania). David Oshinsky of Rutgers University, one of the principal speakers at the meeting of about 150 persons, argued that advertisements and notices by associations such as the IHR and the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) should be rejected out of hand by academic and student publications. Revisionist statements are "irresponsible" and "intentionally hurtful and fallacious" in content, he said. By providing a forum for a "cadre of distortionists . .. you open up the path to a kind of legitimacy." The panel's other main speaker, Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, disagreed, saying that the principle of free speech should be upheld even in this case. Throughout this OAH Newsletter article, revisionist views were repeatedly and simplistically referred to as "denying the Holocaust. "

In a letter dated February 24, the IHR responded to the OAR Board's October decision. Not until May 7, however, was the IHR informed that "the OAR has decided not to publish" the letter.

The full text of the IHR's February 24 letter follows:

OAH Newsletter
Organization of American Historians
112 North Bryan Street
Bloomington, IN 47408

The October 31 decision by the OAR Executive Board to exclude "advertisements or announcements" from the Institute for Historical Review is "political correctness" at its hypocritical worst.

According to the Board's formal statement (published in the February OAH Newsletter), the ostensible basis for this decision is that an advertisement or notice from the IHR would not be "consonant with the purposes of the Organization." However, no explanation is given of precisely how an IHR advertisement is not "consonant" with the OAR's purposes.

That any IHR advertisement or notice is prohibited beforehand – regardless of content – is particularly disturbing. This decision presumably forbids an IHR advertisement for our edition of Arthur Ponsonby's classic study of First World War propaganda, Falsehood in Wartime, or for our edition of collected writings by the eminent American historian and sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes, or even for one of the many books we distribute that are published by prominent "mainstream" publishers.

It is ironic indeed that an advertisement by International Publishers appears in the very issue of the OAH Newsletter that informs readers of the decision to forbid any advertisement from the IHR. Operating for years as the publishing arm of the Communist Party USA, this Marxist-Leninist enterprise has offered, among other writings, works by Stalin and Mao Zedong. Presumably this OAH Newsletter ad offering the Collected Works of Marx and Engels, along with other "Marxist Classics," is "consonant with the purposes" of the OAH.

Perhaps the most remarkable sentence of the OAH statement is this: "We [members of the OAH Executive Board] all abhor, on both moral and scholarly grounds, the substantive arguments of the Institute for Historical Review."

Since when has the OAH been pronouncing on the moral validity of arguments? Is this a unique pronouncement, or – to be fair and consistent – can we look forward to similar OAH declarations on the moral fitness of arguments by other organizations, publishers or even individual scholars? And precisely what is the Board's "moral" yardstick?

Nowhere is it given.

As for "scholarly grounds": anyone who rejects arguments on this basis should be willing and able to support his/her view with logic and evidence.

Precisely which of the IHR's "substantive arguments" did the OAH Executive Board find so abhorrent? All of them? Some of them? Not a single one is specifically mentioned. How about the IHR's often-repeated "arguments" in favor of international peace and understanding? Or the IHR's staunch support for freedom of speech and expression?

"We all reject their claims to be taken seriously as historians," the OAH Executive Board statement goes on. Just who are "they"? Did the OAH Executive Board evaluate each and every Journal contributor or IHR Editorial Advisory Committee member to determine if he or she is a "serious" historian? And on what basis?

By any reasonable standard, at least some IHR Journal contributors and IHR Committee members are serious and qualified historians.

As for myself, I hold a Master's degree in European history from Indiana University (Bloomington) [where the OAH offices are located]. On March 22, 1988, Toronto District Court Judge Ron Thomas ruled on my qualifications as a historian. After carefully considering arguments for and against recognizing me as a credible historian, he decided to permit me to testify (for five days, as it turned out) as a qualified specialist of wartime Germany's "final solution" policy and the Holocaust issue.

While OAH Executive Board members take care to explicitly affirm "the importance of defending free speech," they have flunked a practical test of their support for this principle. We urge the QAH Executive Board to courageously re-consider a decision that, I am convinced, will one day be regarded with shame and embarrassment.


Mark Weber
Editor, The Journal of Historical Review
Institute for Historical Review
Newport Beach, Calif.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Mark Weber
Title: The Organization of American Historians: Faithfully Reflecting Academic Standards
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (July/August 1993), pp. 20-24
Published: 1993-07-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 23, 2012, 6 p.m.
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