Publication Date

September 1, 1995

Perspectives Section



Public History

Most of us are probably familiar with the television commercial that appears after major professional sporting triumphs, whether Super Bowl or figure skating: "Now that you have been named Most Valuable Player, what are you going to do next?" The reply: "I'm going to Disney World!" After I took office as president of the New England Historical Association (NEHA), no microphone was stuck in my face and no one asked that question. Had it been posed, I would have had to answer: "Well, I'm not going to Disney World!”

This is particularly so because of the brouhaha that erupted over Disney's attempt to build a history theme park in northern Virginia. That controversy marked a year that seemed to be unusually full of matters vital to historians and the public. Add to the Disney venture, the attack on the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the fracas over the atomic bomb exhibit at the Smithsonian, and the debate over National History Standards, and we find historians struggling over "ownership" of history in the public domain. Such matters of national import do not include the many local battles over history that play out throughout the country on a perennial basis. As an article entitled "Who Owns History?" in the January 20, 1995, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “One reason historians are embroiled in public controversy is that the public interest in history is rising. Local historical societies and museums are proliferating. Forty-seven million people visited the National Park Service’s historic sites in 1993 alone. ‘The History Channel,’ a 24-hour cable service, is … on the air.”

What is the role of the professional historian—academic and public—in such matters? Why are we are caught in the vortex of the cultural wars that rage in America today? In my April 29, 1995, presidential address before the NEHA, I reviewed the recent controversies in history and offered my assessment of some of the strategies that historians have used to enlighten their legislators and the public about the importance of history and historians. I also shared my views about what historians might do in the future to educate their fellow citizens. This article is adapted from my presidential address.

When Newt Gingrich, a historian prominent less for his scholarship than for his politics, points out that Lynne Cheney, former head of the NEH, has "written powerful articles about the destructive impact of the left wing effort to rewrite American history," those familiar with his views are not surprised. However, we might well be surprised by attacks on historians by the so called liberal media. It was the Speaker's appointment of Christina Jeffrey as House historian that led to a "Reality Check Report" offered on CBS during Dan Rather's news one evening at the end of March. You might remember that Jeffrey was the assistant professor at Kennesaw State College in Marietta, Georgia, who in 1986 recommended against federal funding for an 8th and 9th grade Holocaust curriculum because "it gives no evidence of balance or objectivity. The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and is not presented, nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan."1

Dan Rather introduced the segment by remarking to viewers, "Chances are you've never given much thought to how many historians are on your payroll—the U.S. government payroll. Maybe you didn't know there were any until the recent flap when Newt Gingrich hired a friend of his and then was forced quickly to fire her. So, how many historians does it take to tell the government side of things at your expense?" Correspondent Eric Engburg then proceeded to tell the millions watching that after four months of investigation he uncovered a little known bureaucracy inside federal agencies. Obviously seeking the investigative reporter's tabloid "inside story," he proclaimed, "Results: 762 full-time professional historians in the agencies, larger than the entire Yale faculty. The pay averages $48,200, so the taxpayer tab is $37 million, not counting benefits and program costs." (Clearly, it is we historians who have created the nation's enormous deficit and not the economic policies of the past two decades!) Engburg continued, "Much of the historians' work is, shall we say, arcane." He then went on to offer an account of studies such as the "ever-popular History of Federal Tax Administration in Montana" and told the story of the federal historian who wrote a study of why a Pentagon project failed. According to Engburg, the historian "turned it in to the brass, only to be told later that it was so secret, even though he wrote it, he couldn't read it."2 Needless to say, after this emphasis on the bizarre, the petty, and the esoteric, the historical profession must have been blemished, if not savaged, in the eyes of the American public.

While some of this criticism may be deserved in both the public and academic realms as a consequence of overspecialization, inaccessible writing, and an unwillingness to link academic and public audiences, overall it's a bad rap on the profession. Ray Smock, the first historian of the House of Representatives whom Gingrich dismissed to replace with his former Kennesaw State colleague, pointed to the irony of the CBS broadcast by noting that commentators such as Dan Rather and Connie Chung often consult for background material the very same historians that were the butt of criticism. The need for the history of government institutions is no less critical to understanding the past, possibly more so, than the need to know the history of corporations. Historians, as keepers of the past, can and should play an important role in both the public and private sectors, and their work should be encouraged, not ridiculed.

The historians who took on Disney, while refusing to don Mickey Mouse ears in the name of reaching a broad public, acted in a civically responsible and appropriate manner. Their efforts were vital to bringing about the newspaper headline that trumpeted "Disney Loses 3rd Battle of Bull Run." If nothing else, the anti-Disney Protect Historic America coalition demonstrated that historians—well organized, in league with other interest groups such as preservationists, and with well-known figures, testifying before Congress—can make a difference. However, can we make history "interesting" without bells and whistles and other public attractions that the Disney people employ? This is the challenge academic historians face.

Those of us who have benefitted from NEH support or who have attended NEH sponsored programs know that the National Endowment for the Humanities has often helped to bring history to the public and to make it less "boring." The NEH, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), have, however, come under attack not, as one newspaper editorialized, "because they are costly, but because they have long been the target of ideologues who perceive them as outlets for liberal thought. Government, the ideologues also say, has no business helping art or broadcasting." The editorial rightly continued, "In fact, government support for the arts is as old as the birth of democracy in Greece and may be found in all democratic countries today, whether ruled by conservatives or liberals."3

Inspired by Irene Q. Brown, president of the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, I wrote to my state's congressional delegation about the importance of the NEH to our discipline. Since its inception, it has encouraged the highest level of scholarship—and the bringing of this scholarship to public as well as academic audiences. It supports the preservation of important historical collections; it funds historical exhibits; and it promotes cutting-edge scholarship through its fellowship program. Its importance to the American public cannot be overestimated.

I received an assortment of responses thanking me for my support. Our congressional representatives are responding; someone is clearly counting your letters and mine. The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History has been cranking out NEH bulletins and updates at an amazing rate. My state's humanities council has spearheaded a campaign in support of the endowment. We know, however, that while all of this activity has had some positive effect, the battle is far from over. It appears from all accounts, according to a report by the Connecticut Humanities Council, that "severe budget cuts are in the offing, that support for NEA and NEH reauthorization, particularly in the House, remains problematic, and that many legislators inclined to support reauthorization are demanding significant restructuring as a condition for their votes." The message for us is: "Keep those visits to congresspeople, cards, and letters coming!"

Sometimes the outcry of scholars pales in comparison to the explosion of sentiment on the part of the public. Such an explosion decimated the projected Smithsonian exhibit on the last months of the war in the Pacific—including the use of the atomic bomb—and its aftermath. The Smithsonian had planned to show the Enola Gay along with a text dealing with the complexities surrounding the decision to drop the bomb. I never realized how subversive a teacher I was until the public controversy over the exhibit developed. I find debate over the decision to drop the bomb to be an exciting flash point for students. Last semester I used the reader Taking Sides in an American history survey class. While it may sometimes oversimplify issues and place history in polarities, it more often allows an instructor to move on to nuances and complexities. One chapter asks the question, “Was it necessary to drop the atomic bomb to end World War II?” and includes a selection from McGeorge Bundy, who argues that President Truman wisely dropped the atomic bomb to end the war as quickly as possible. The chapter also, however, features the viewpoint of Martin Sherwin who contends that American policymakers ruled out all other options, preferring the drop “over alternative options such as modification of unconditional surrender, the continuation of a naval blockade and conventional air bombardment, or the awaiting of a Russian declaration of war against Japan and its invasion of Manchuria.”4

About a month after my fall class ended, I received in the mail a clipping from the New Haven Register from a student who wrote that she “always enjoyed the articles, pictures, tapes and stories that [I] shared in class. Hope you find this interesting,” she told me. I am uncertain whether the clip was sent with approval or disapproval of its message, but I was pleased that the student had been engaged by a history course. The article was by Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck and began, “Distorting history while those who lived it are still alive is infuriating.” (I would ask whether it’s less infuriating to “distort” after people have died.) Beck continued, “Just ask the veterans who fought the desperate, deadly battles of World War II. Many of them are angry and sick at heart over recent efforts to slant the truth about the atomic bombs, the invasion of Japan that the bombs made unnecessary, and the estimated number of casualties they prevented. In particular, they are offended by the revisionist history in a planned exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. And they object to the Clinton administration’s yielding to Japanese protests and withdrawing a proposed stamp to commemorate the bombs’ hastening the war’s end.” Her comments are followed by quotes from letters sent to her by angry veterans.

The veterans and others in the public won this 50th anniversary battle over the war. Their feelings are understandable; their memory requires that their sacrifice had to have meaning. It is definitely necessary to keep the A bomb decision within the context of 1945, but historians cannot shrink from exploring the complexities of the situation by probing old sources with new conceptualizations and investigating new sources that may shed light on the issue. I never thought it was quite as simple as ex-President Harry S. Truman claimed when he visited a seminar I participated in during my senior year in college. He said, "The atom bomb was no 'great decision.' It was used in the war, and for your information, there were more people killed by fire bombs in Tokyo than the dropping of the atom bombs accounted for. It was merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness. The dropping of the bombs stopped the war, saved millions of lives."5

Many veterans of World War II today agree with Truman, and after a great deal of public pressure, the Smithsonian announced that it would scale down its exhibit to show only the fuselage of the Enola Gay accompanied with a plaque and perhaps a film of the airplane's crew. It would not include, as originally intended, photos of the destruction of the city, relics of civilian casualties, or a text questioning the necessity to drop the bombs. I. Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian secretary, apologized, "We made a basic error in attempting to couple a historical treatment of the use of atomic weapons with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war." William Detweiler, national commander of the American Legion, lauded the Smithsonian's decision and pointed out, "The winners, just as they were 50 years ago, are the American people." However, Robert Musit, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, offered a counterpoint, "The atomic bombs not only ended World War II, they opened the dangers of the nuclear age. For a respected institution to give in to organized right wing congressional and veterans' pressure looks too much like McCarthyism." "You pay your money and you take your choice" as the old expression goes. American University in Washington, D.C., announced that it would mount an exhibit that would include much of the material intended for the original Smithsonian display. Which exhibit will gain greater attention from the public and make a greater impact? Who owns history? Professional academic historians or those gatekeepers of the national memory who distrust the academy and its emphasis on grays rather than black and white?

If, in the opinion of some, the academics and the museum people can't get it right on a simple exhibit, what about teaching history in the schools? We know that the conflict surrounding the National History Standards cuts to the core of the question. Lynne Cheney, a founding mother in the effort to develop national standards and particularly subject area standards, as opposed to more general ones, in social studies, found wanting—to understate—those developed by Gary Nash's National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. What went wrong? Cheney invoked an anonymous member of the National Council for History Standards, which oversaw their drafting. That individual claimed that the 1992 presidential election unleashed the forces of political correctness. Those "'pursuing the revisionist agenda' no longer bothered to conceal their 'great hatred for traditional history.' Various political groups such as African American organizations and Native American groups also complained about what they saw as omissions and distortions. As a result …'nobody dared to cut the inclusive part' and what got left out was traditional history." A chart accompanying Cheney's complaint listed the number of times certain historical subjects were cited in the National Standards for U.S. History. The scorecard: Paul Revere: 0; Seneca Falls: 9; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: 1; American Federation of Labor: 9; J. P. Morgan: 0; Harriet Tubman: 6; Ulysses S. Grant: 1; McCarthy or McCarthyism: 19; Edison: 0; the Wright Brothers: 0; the Ku Klux Klan: 17. Moreover, according to Cheney, who cited another anonymous source from the National Council, the standards for world history allegedly saw the American Historical Association aggressive in its opposition to "privileging the West." Clearly, our children in grades 5 through 12 were in danger of going beyond the "traditional"; equally clearly, the National Standards have been put on the defensive to the extent that a fact sheet answering each charge point by point quickly had to be issued. It is unfortunate that the standards people had to respond to such questions as, "Is it true, as charged, that the standards 'revel' in a politicized history that emphasizes the 'grim and gloomy'?" Part of the response to that question was a question itself, followed by a declaration regarding the preservation of democracy: "But is it even true that inclusion of such grim developments in the nation's history as McCarthyism and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan put too much emphasis on failings in our nation's history? Absolutely not. These episodes demonstrate to students the strength of the democratic system to protect itself, as long as concerned and vigilant citizens use the power of its institutions to turn back such assaults."6

Such concern and vigilance may be useful to historians as we consider our public duties. The contentiousness over historical memory reflects the importance of history—and historians. We must teach and write well enough—and for a broad enough audience—to counter the all-too-often-shared view of Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, that academic history is boring. Our talents should be brought to the public not simply in academic tomes but in historical fiction, op ed pieces, film, radio, and videotape. We must advocate for history in public places and support advocacy groups such as the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History and its state counterparts. We should not shy away from meeting with state and national officials who make the appropriations and laws that affect our profession. We must go out to the hustings and share our expert learning with historical societies, libraries, museums, and schools throughout our states. Above all, as historians we must be inclusive rather than exclusive. We must not have "our" scholarship and "their" remembered history, but a remembered history that includes the complexity we consider.

— is professor of history and director of the Center for Oral History at the University of Connecticut.


1. Transcript, “Inside Congress,” C-SPAN, January 3, 1995; Hartford Courant, January 10, 1995.

2. E mail relay, March 27, 1995, from; originally transmitted by Tom Costa, Dept. of History and Philosophy, Clinch Valley College.

3. “The Hallmark of a Civilized Society,” Hartford Courant, December 24, 1994.

4. Larry Madaras and James M. SoRelle, eds., Taking Sides, 5th ed. (1993). For a discussion of the debate over the dropping of the atomic bomb, see Karen J. Winkler, “Fifty Years Later, the Debate over Hiroshima,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 1995.

5. Harry S. Truman, Truman Speaks (1960), p. 67.

6. Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994; National History Standards Project, “Fact Sheet on National Standards for United States History,” November 1, 1994, and “Fact Sheet on National Standards for World History,” November 16, 1994; Thomas P. Weinland, “The ‘Standards Wars’: Civil and Otherwise!” Yankee Post (newsletter of the Connecticut Council of Social Studies), December 1994; Gary B. Nash, “The History Children Should Study,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 1995.

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