From the Timelines column of the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
Forty Years On: Looking Back at the 1969 Annual Meeting
Carl Mirra, February 2010
Writing in 1970, then AHA president R. R. Palmer stated that the Association is “in a time of crisis,” which had started a year ago at “the most turbulent business meeting in our whole history.” He continued, “historians are forever talking about revolutions, crises, and turning points. Let us recognize one in our midst.”1 Historian David Donald likewise declared in the New York Times Book Review that the AHA “experienced an attempted revolution” during the 1969 annual meeting.2
The Radical Historians’ Caucus, and separate efforts from the then newly formed Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession (CCWHP), helped to bring long overdue changes to the organization at the contentious 1969 meeting. The radicals confronted what they called an “old boys network,” or an AHA leadership comprised almost entirely of white males from prestigious universities. When the radicals attempted to elect left historian Staughton Lynd to the AHA presidency, it marked the first time in the AHA’s history that there were two candidates for that position. Moreover, the aftermath of the meeting led to reforms in council membership, increased participation from historians outside of a handful of elite institutions, and led to a dramatic expansion of the number of women, so-called minorities and school teachers on committees. The battle at the 1969 meeting was part of the broader shift away from an American culture of conformity in general, and the consensus historiography that dominated the field in particular.
The Radical Historians’ Caucus, animated by the fervor of the times, had ambitious and far-reaching goals. They promoted a counter-constitution to the Association’s existing one, the development of a special fund for historians who had been discriminated against, and attempted to get the Association to pass a resolution against the Vietnam War. Each of these aims sparked a series of dramatic encounters.
The initial confrontation occurred the first evening during the business meeting on December 28, 1969, attended by more than 2,000. Howard Zinn tried to insert the radicals’ antiwar resolution earlier on the agenda, but his motion was defeated. Election of officers soon followed and the radicals presented Staughton Lynd for president against Yale’s R.R. Palmer.3 Palmer easily defeated Lynd for the presidency. “I am impressed by the fact that you got some 400 votes for the presidency,” Palmer later told Lynd, “the causes of discontent are…perfectly understandable and legitimate.” Radicals lost their bid for presidency and their counter-constitution was never heard, but they set the table for several forthcoming “legitimate” changes.4
Fears of total defeat nevertheless beset the radicals late that first evening as the meeting neared adjournment. If the anti-Vietnam War resolution was not heard before the meeting ended, it would never be considered. At this point, Howard Zinn grabbed a microphone and proposed postponing the remainder of the meeting, so that the radicals’ resolution could be heard the following evening. A debacle unfolded as Harvard historian (and AHA president in 1968) John Fairbank literally wrestled the microphone from Zinn’s hands.[Editor's Note: See the exchange between Fairbank and Zinn, and others in the pages of the June 1970 issue of the AHA Newsletter.] The radicals’ managed to get the meeting postponed in spite of the melee.
The next evening was less sensational, yet hardly more sedate. The Conference on Peace Research in History presented its own antiwar resolution that called the Vietnam War immoral and urged the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But thinking it was too mild, the radicals not only demanded withdrawal of American forces, but also condemned the war as imperialist, denounced the government’s repression of the Black Panthers, and demanded the release of political prisoners such as the Chicago Eight. The more temperate resolution was voted on first and defeated 611-642. Shortly thereafter, the radicals’ resolution was defeated by a wider margin of 493-833.5 The radicals complained that if the milder resolution had been presented after the radical one, it likely would have passed as many radicals who wanted to go on record in defense of the Black Panthers might have settled for the softer resolution.
Whether or not the voting sequence affected the passage of an antiwar resolution, the radical caucus was roundly defeated on all fronts. However, the radical caucus set in motion “a rebellion that led the AHA to a more far-reaching reform” than in any previous period in its history, the noted historian Alfred F. Young argued.6 A casual glance at the current AHA leadership, divisions, and committees demonstrates the participation of school teachers, public historians, community college professors, women and minorities. In 1969, this broad range was not present. But, to what degree was the chaotic 1969 meeting responsible for this change?
At the 1970 meeting the AHA Council unveiled its plan for a wide, “independent” review of the Association. Palmer conceded that the Council needed to be expanded, as the radicals demanded. The radicals had pushed a resolution at the 1969 business meeting to expand the council to 50 members, including untenured professors, graduate students, elementary and/or secondary school teachers as well as members from the general public. Instead, Palmer and the Council settled on adding four elected members to the council. In addition, a Committee on the Rights of Historians was formed during the 1970 meeting without opposition. In 1971, AHA president Joseph Strayer followed Palmer and established a review board, chaired by Hanna Gray, to assess the organization. Its final report acknowledged that, “The proposal for a review board grew out of what many saw to be the critical issues faced by the association in the late 1960s.” The panel recognized that the Council needed to become “more representative of the membership as a whole” and that the organization “shall be open to any person interested in history.”7
If indeed the radicals instigated a spirit of reform, it was in evidence at the 2007 AHA annual meeting. A group calling itself Historians against the War, whose steering committee included several former radical caucus members, presented a resolution against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Barbara Weinstein, the AHA’s president for 2007, had served as a member of Radical History Review’s editorial collective. Her inaugural column in the January 2007 issue of Perspectives complained of “governmental restraint on the free movement of scholars,” while noting that “repressive regimes” in Latin America during the 1970s were “helped into power by the United States.” The atmosphere at the 2007 meeting was a far cry from that of the meeting in 1969: the antiwar resolution passed overwhelmingly at the business meeting and again by mail ballot of the entire membership. It was the first time in the organization’s history that it went on record against a U.S. war.
Whether or not one agrees with these changes or the passage of an antiwar resolution, historians should be aware of how the organization’s past history contributed to its current state. To accomplish this basic task requires historians to look to the 1969 meeting as at least one considerable signpost on the road to change.
Carl Mirra is associate professor of social studies at Adelphi University in New York. He is the author of Soldiers and Citizens: An Oral History of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the Battlefield to the Pentagon (Palgrave, 2008).
3. Paul Ward, “Report of the Executive Secretary for the Year 1969,” in Program of the Eighty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1969) 9. “Minutes of the Annual Business Meeting December 28-29, 1969,” AHA Newsletter, v. 7, n. 3.
4. Ronald Radosh, “The Bare-Knuckled Historians,” The Nation, February 2, 1970. Staughton Lynd, “Letter to the Movement: Challenging the Historians,” Liberation (February 1970), 41-42. R. R. Palmer, Letter to Staughton Lynd, 23 January 1970. State Historical Society of Wisconsin Archives, Staughton Lynd Papers, 1940–1997, Box 13, Folder 9.
5. “Resolution on the War and Repression,” Newsletter of the Radical Historians Caucus, n. 2 (Spring 1970), 11.Voting figures in Lynd, “Letter to the Movement: Challenging the Historians,” Liberation (February 1970), p. 42.
6. Alfred F. Young, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution,’” in The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement, eds. Robert Hoffman and Peter Albert (Charlottesville: United States Historical Society/University Press of Virginia), 432-433.
7. Untitled proposed resolution on the composition of the AHA (December 1969) in Lynd Papers, SHSW, Box 13, Folder 8. “The AHA Review Board: Final Report,” available at www.historians.org/pubs/archives/73Reform_Resolution.htm.