Publication Date

June 1, 1970

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

An Open Letter to Howard Zinn

Dear Howard,

Since I have so greatly admired your altruism and moral courage, I naturally would not have joined in our briefly-famous Struggle for the Mike on December 28 without having a point, in fact, two points:

  1. Chairmen are entitled to recognize members of an assembly regardless of who has lined up at a mike. Speaking is a privilege more than a right. If a right, it would have to be pro-rated, and you had already spoken more than your pro-rated share.
  2. Your resolution showed a lack of discrimination. The vast majority of the assembly would, I am sure, have voted anti-Vietnam War if given a chance in an ad hoc meeting separate from AHA official business. They voted you down because they did not believe the Vietnam War had affected their rights, opportunities, and procedures as historians, and because they opposed “politicization” of our professional association, that is, getting AHA officially to take a position on a public policy issue of concern to us all as citizens but not of concern primarily to us as historians. The AHA exists for professional purposes only.

This distinction lies at the heart of the pluralism that gives the AHA its legal freedom from interference, intimidation, or coercion by the government or other political forces. “Politicization” is no joke. It can cut both ways. If we today could use AHA to support a worthy non­professional cause, others tomorrow could manipulate it for an evil cause. In other words, academic freedom has a distinct institutional basis that we should not act to destroy.

All this amounts to saying that the only freedom we can count on is freedom under law. This makes possible great demonstrations and many other forms of expressing dissent. It also requires that one recognize parliamentary rules and the agreed-upon limits to the usefulness of professional associations. Having got results in the public scene by using your legal rights, you of all people should recognize that our structure of legal distinctions is worth preserving.

—John K. Fairbank
Harvard University

Professor Zinn replys [sic]:

Dear John:

I would not call it a “Struggle for the Mike.” It was more like the Spanish-American War. Granted that the Mike was Cuba, helpless before both of us, and that I (Spain) might be said to have violated its privacy and independence by occupying its space first. We would have to add that you (Uncle Sam or Uncle John) came upon the scene with the air of affection for all (you wandered up the aisle, came up to me at the mike, put your hand on my shoulder, fondled the mike with love, whispered a few professional nothings in my ear) and then pulled the mike out of my hand with the genial ferocity of Teddy Roosevelt, thus violating both me and the Mike.

If I had done that to you, it would have been ascribed by some to typical radical hooliganism; the other way around, one could only call it Manifest Destiny.

Your unilateral decision that I had spoken more than my “pro-rated share” was not exactly the kind of obeisance to the rule of law which you profess; that rule of law says that the chairman decides whom to recognize; he can always ignore someone at the mike and recognize anyone standing up at his seat, or at some other mike, if he thinks there has been an inequitable distribution of speaking-time. For the Radical Opposition to try hard to get the floor by appearing as often as possible at one of several unoccupied mikes, when the chairman of the meeting—the man with the most parliamentary power—is of the Establishment, does not seem unreasonable.

But that’s not really important. I bring it up only because I assume that a bit of historical retrospection may sharpen our present sensibilities. It is your second point that deserves serious discussion. Let’s forget Spain now and discuss Vietnam.

You say that an anti-Vietnam War resolution would have passed easily if presented at an ad hoc meeting separate from A.H.A. official business. But neither you nor anyone else speaking for the Establishment position (Stuart Hughes, Eugene Genovese, or others) proposed such a meeting to convene then and there. Instead, you proposed to adjourn the meeting, period. (When the official meeting did end, you will note that the mikes were immediately cut off, so that even an announcement of an ad hoc meeting of radical historians could not be made to the departing assemblage.) In other words, none of you demonstrated any enthusiasm for taking any action on the Vietnam War, officially or ad hoc.

Personally, I don’t much care what is the form of the meeting that passes such a resolution; I assume we are the same bodies, minds, spirits, whatever parliamentary rigmarole we go through to give our action another kind of official imprint. (I have the image of the sanitation worker at the beach, asked to save a drowning man, replying: “My business is garbage. But I’ll be happy to go to the locker and put on my life-saver’s uniform. Otherwise, it might spoil my professional “reputation.”) But you do care very much that we don’t take action on Vietnam as historians, and that requires comment.

You say that the A.H.A. should not “officially” take a position on the war because the war affects us as citizens but not as historians. Let us assume the war does not affect us “as historians”; let us say that the taking of our students to war does not affect us as teachers of history; let us say that the momentous historical fact of the war will not affect the content of our historical studies. It only affects us “as citizens.” Well, when do you assemble with other citizens to speak out on the crucial issues of our time? You spend almost all the days of the year in assemblies with other people as historians of the United States, as members of the Harvard faculty, as members of the History Department of the University, as members of the Association for Asian Studies, as teacher and students of History 291, etc.—and in none of these can you express your concerns as a citizen. Are we limited to prayers at night and other rare moments away from professional activities?

What can democracy possibly mean if not that people assembled whenever and wherever they can, for whatever reason, may express their preferences on the important issues of the day? If they may not, democracy is a fraud, because it means that the political leaders have effectively isolated the citizenry by taking up their time in various jobs, while the leaders make the policies, and the citizens, in 99 per cent of their life, remain silent, reserving moments of expression to biennial gestures in the voting booth, comments to friends over lunch, and mutterings to oneself from time to time. If all Americans, in all the thousands of assemblies that take place through the year, insist on keeping out of politics because neither war nor racial persecution nor poisonous vapors coming in through the library window, affect them as historians, chiropodists, clerks, or carpenters—then “pluralist” democracy is a facade for oligarchical rule.

It’s no wonder that the war goes on, because all those concerned for the sanctity of their “profession” have surrendered their rights as citizens to speak out wherever they are, whatever they are doing, on matters of life and death. If you were at a meeting of historians in Germany in 1936 would you take the same position in the midst of the killing of Jews? If you were at a meeting of historians in Mississippi in the midst of the lynching of blacks, would you also insist you could not speak “as historians”? If you want to invoke prudence and profit, that is one thing. But there is no moral principle in a position that allocates a small portion of our spare time for moral indignation and the largest part of our lives for immoral silence.

You worry about “politicization” of the A.H.A. and argue that refraining from political stances will protect the A.H.A.’s freedom. We can also argue for universal virginity as a way of preventing venereal disease. But this is worse, because our political virginity is a fiction. Our silence in the face of war, racism, and other social evils is not freedom for us; it is freedom for the political leaders of the country to have their way and count on our inaction. Silence is a political decision. They have given us books, degrees, good jobs to play with, and the bargain is: don’t inter­fere with what we’re doing to the world. And not just to the world. To us, to our sons, to our students. We can separate ourselves in theory as historians and citizens. But that is a one-way separation which has no return: when the world blows up, we cannot claim exemption as histo­rians, not even if it happens during an A.H.A. convention.

You say that avoiding “politicization” protects our “academic freedom,” gives us “legal freedom from interference, intimidation, or coercion by the government or other political forces.” But to stay out of politics “as historians” is to protect our freedom to stay apolitical in most of our working hours. If we give up our fight to take political stands on crucial matters, there is no need by the government to bother us, because we are then already interfered with, intimidated, coerced. But, you might say, we are not interfered with in the stacks or intimidated at our professional meetings, or coerced through our professional journals. Then, we have purchased our freedom to remain professionals at the cost of our freedom as citizens.

To have the A.H.A. support a good cause today means that “others tomorrow could manipulate it for an evil cause.” But to refrain from supporting a good cause today does not at all prevent anyone tomorrow from manipulating the A.H.A. for an evil cause. Evil does not operate by legal precedent, but by power. And to refrain is already to be manipulated for an evil cause; while evils by political leaders usually involve action, those of citizens are usually the result of passivity.

To discuss your proposition that “the only freedom we can count on is freedom under law” requires much more space than we have here for adequate discussion. I would say only that such a proposition is destructive of freedom; when we assume that the law is the great protector of our freedom we have already surrendered moral principle to whatever power happens to be enthroned. The law may help freedom; it may hurt it. To give the law blanket endorsement is to be ahistorical. Under law, in modern times, caste systems have been maintained, wealth has been monopolized, wars have been fought. And when people begin to protest, outside those limited mechanisms of dissent carefully assigned by the law itself to protesters, the cry for “law and order” is always raised by those more afraid of the dissenters’ threat to their own petty privileges than of the perniciousness protected by law.

John, I assume we are still friends, despite the Spanish-American War. It is the future that counts.

—Howard Zinn
Boston University

* * * * *

On the question of whether the AHA should take a stand on political issues of the day my answer would be the same as that of the majority of the convention which rejected such a stand for reasons of principle. Here, however, I want to leave these general arguments aside and address myself only to one point in the argument which Mr. Waskow made for the minority position. He attacked the “whole bureaucratic-‘rational’ assumption of the split in roles between citizen and scholar.” But this split, which might be better called a distinction, is deeply rooted in societal necessities.

It is an inherent tragedy of political action that the actor must act before all the evidence is in, and that, whenever he takes a stand, he can never add all the qualifications which the missing pieces of evidence and other uncertainties would logically require, because otherwise his appeal would become ineffective. As historians, we are familiar with these constraints on politically active men and their roles in the past, but they apply of course to our own position as well. As scholars, on the other hand, we are obliged either to wait for reasonably complete evidence or to hedge our statements with reservations. This is not to say that “morals and information” must be kept apart; of course, we must use our professionally acquired information in order to apply our moral standards to the facts; only, when we draw conclusions the limitations which we must respect in our role as scholars are narrower than those which apply to our role as politically active citizens.

The minority resolution offers a good illustration. It speaks e.g. of the Administration’s “betrayal of civil rights and its aid to counterinsurgent police forces in the great cities. The political assassination of the Black Panther Party is the most blatant example.” In my opinion, it would be illegitimate even in a political statement to gloss over the uncertainties as lightheartedly as is done in this and other passages in the resolution. But in any event, do we know enough about domestic insurgency and the resulting societal need for counterinsurgency, and about the Black Panther issue especially, to form a scholarly judgment? We may suspect that in the Black Panther case the police are more wrong than right—I do—but suspicion is not knowledge, and if we could sustain our suspicion it would be hard to deny that there is another side to the matter—that in the vendetta that seems to exist between the security forces and the Panthers, the latter are not always the lambs and the police the wolves; and if such a simplification is out of line with the facts, then as scholars we are obliged to show that other side. Of course, it is always possible to fill out the gaps and resolve the conflicts in the available evidence by accepting everything one party says and disregarding all counterindications; but that is not what we practice in historical research. If in regard to the Jacobins, or to Andrew Jackson’s presidency, or to the origins of the American revolution or to those of World War I the information were as incomplete, contradictory and difficult to summarize by way of a balance as it is at the present moment in regard to those domestic issues of the day, would we feel justified to make a neat, clear-cut, unqualified evaluation as historians? And given the better information, the reduction of uncertainties, the greater possibilities of choosing between conflicting information and of reconciling those conflicts, which are results of pro­longed research about those events of the past—do we even now feel that unrestrained, unqualified approval or condemnation is in order for us as historians? I am quite sure that most members of the minority, as well as those of the majority, would answer these questions in the negative.

We, as historians or social scientists, are not alone in having to play different roles and to obey different rules pertaining to those roles. No good teacher talks to a student holding different political views from himself as he would to a political adversary. If police officers are to be blamed for invading the civil rights of Black Panthers, it is not because they hold unfavorable private opinions of the Panthers and express them to friends or in political meetings, but because in their role as law enforcers they were too much influenced by these opinions. What is the objection that many of us raise against Judge Hoffman’s conduct of the Chicago trial? Not that he considered the accused undesirable individuals, which was clearly his privilege, but that he permitted his judicial objectivity to be spoiled by this view. As scholars, we are indeed in a position similar to that of a judge, and we should abide by the rules which this position requires.

To do so is a moral obligation, incumbent on anyone who accepts such a position. It may well be a strain on many of us to have to live up to the requirements of different roles, but moral indifference is not implied in either role. Rather, we apply the same moral standards and merely recognize that these standards require different postures dependent on the role we have to fill at any given time. This makes us no “split” or schizophrenic personalities; it merely means that we, as human beings, must develop an integrating force in our own minds by considering why society needs such functional differentiation and that, therefore, our responsibilities to society can best be discharged by accepting the resulting restrictions.

—Carl Landauer
Berkeley, Calif.

* * * * *

I am the anonymous “woman member” who appears briefly in the minutes of the December business meeting making some unintelligible point on behalf of members who are “reluctant to be . . . polarized.” Perhaps it was inevitable that my words should have been garbled and my name lost, for my argument with the radicals is not dramatic, but is, rather, a demurrer.

Mr. Waskow, the radical spokesman, believes membership in the American Historical Association to be divided between “radical and conservative historians.” Certainly we have many radical historians; perhaps we have as many conservative historians. But there is also a group, I firmly believe, that would vigorously repudiate both adjectives. This group of historians seeks an abstract truth in the past, not justification for radical or conservative interpretations of human nature.

Although like all mortals they have their prejudices, they strive to operate professionally without reference to predetermined philosophical patterns and without attempting to prove a case. If they are honest they will be faithful to the truth even if the record they uncover gives comfort to those who are their political adversaries in today’s world. They will report truths that might be better forgotten, and they will never distort the record into something it might be better for today’s citizen to believe.

It may well be argued that if everyone wrote and studied history for its own sake, ignoring the potential political and propaganda uses of such material, that disastrous consequences for our own age would follow. But we know that everyone does not live in an ivory tower; relatively few people want to. Still, I would hope that most professional historians spend at least some of their time there. Civilization cannot survive without activists, but it has found it useful to preserve a sanctuary for contemplatives as well.

Mr. Waskow argues that the AHA is a political organization, that it should recognize itself as such “and then adopt a decent politics support­ing the professions goals of truth and reason.” Apparently he views the AHA as political because doing nothing is, in fact, conservative action. In this sense, of course, everything is political, but surely we can agree that non-action is a negative kind of conservatism. As for the argument that we move from this position to one of positive support for politics of “truth and reason,” that presupposes one knows what truth and reason are. Radicals and conservatives may know, but some of us are less sure of ourselves. If suspending judgment is conservative “action” then, I believe, such activity must be tolerated by anyone valuing intellectual freedom. If, as the radicals contend, remaining apolitical means that the AHA declines to defend itself against creation of an environment potentially destructive of its free functioning, then, I say, some other group must defend it. It would be self-defeating for the AHA to become political in order to preserve its non-involvement with politics.

Let me conclude with a concrete observation. Mr. Waskow would have the AHA go on record in support of immediate withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam. He denies that the adoption of such a resolution would invite resignations from members who personally oppose immediate withdrawal. Let radicals test their attitudes on a hypo­thetical case: Suppose the AHA should, by an overwhelming majority, adopt a resolution calling on the President to escalate the war in Vietnam beginning with an H-bomb attack on Peking. Would Mr. Waskow hesitate before writing a flamboyant letter of resignation from the AHA? If he is sincere in his radical convictions, I don’t see how he could.

Similarly, those who believe sincerely that the long run good of man­kind is better served by, say, a holding action or a gradual withdrawal in Vietnam would be much embarrassed should the AHA go on record favoring immediate withdrawal. If they are conscientious they will disassociate themselves from such action by resigning from the Association. And this would be unfortunate. If the ivory tower hoists a Viet Cong flag even those occupants who spend ninety-nine percent of their waking hours studying agricultural practices in fourth century Abyssinia may feel bound in conscience to evacuate it in respect to their twentieth cen­tury opinions, which they have formed on the basis of no real expertise and about which they may feel none too confident.

Mr. Waskow suggests that if a great majority of the AHA accepted radical attitudes, a purge of the minority would be equivalent to the “punishment of plagiarism.” I take emphatic exception to that view. If my hypothetical agricultural historian is, in his capacity as citizen, ignorant and emotional and if his judgment on current politics is so perverted that I question his sanity, he still has the right to remain undisturbed in his fellowship with members of the historical profession, seeking ancient truths according to his lights—so long as he does not fudge, his footnotes.

I want to protect the ivory tower; I want to keep current politics out of the AHA. As American citizens, members of the Association may join and form countless organizations devoted to political action or partizan intellectual activity (political parties, churches, workshops, and cau­cuses). There is no need to secularize, to politicize, the AHA itself in order to meet the needs of society or of historians who are also activists. Let the uncommitted ignore the world if they choose; they won’t do it much harm.

—Linda Grant De Pauw
George Washington University

* * * * *


I attended the Business Meetings on December 28–29 and have just read the Minutes and the comment of Dr. Arthur Waskow. I tried to speak at the meetings but was never able to obtain a microphone.

In 1953–54 the then Executive Secretary for the Association stood against the threat of political suppression from the right (“Joe McCarthyites” and the Carroll Reece Committee). Happily for historical scholarship, this suppression did not take place.

What each of us do as men and as citizens each of us must decide. In the 1970’s may we, as historians in the Association, hope to avoid suppression or repression from the right or left in order that we may freely pursue our objective—critical learning in history.

—Boyd C. Shafer
Macalester College

At the request of the Editor, Professor Shafer prepared the following note on an attempt to harass the Association.

An Attempt at Political Repression of the Association

A Personal Recollection

The American Historical Association was once accused of being a subversive organization. This is a brief account of an attack upon it during the heyday of “Joe McCarthyism.”

In the fall of 1953 the undersigned became Executive Secretary of the Association and Managing Editor of the Review. He was immediately faced with a “rightist” congressional investigation of the Association and the Review. The documents of that investigation are not at hand as they became part of the American Historical Association’s archives in Washington. I write from memory, the memory of an agonizing period of the Association’s history (and my own life).

The new Secretary needed to learn his tasks and to work not less than seventy to eighty hours a week to fulfill the Association’s purpose, “the promotion of historical study in America.” Sometime during that fall an investigator (an Austrian emigre of the 1930’s), from the Carroll Reece House of Representatives Committee to investigate foundations (and learned societies), appeared at the office. After polite questions he asked for full information about the Association and the Review and then added that the Committee could subpoena this information if it were not made available. This was at the time of the height of the “McCarthyite” scare.

The Secretary and Editor agreed to give whatever information he could because he had no alternative and because by tradition and by policy the AHA records, except for those actually in use, are open to anyone. He consulted two stalwarts of the Association and the profession, Guy Stanton Ford and Solon Justice Buck; but being unversed in Association affairs, he did not make the investigation as much a matter of Council and Association concern as he now knows he should have. He wanted to protect the well-founded good name of the Association from slander and to avoid unfavorable publicity at a time when many people, including members of the academic profession, were “running scared.” On the other hand, he did not keep the investigation a secret in any way.

For the Carroll Reece Committee, the investigator demanded the right (and used it) to see all the AHA and AHR papers back to the beginning, and they were available, insofar as they had been preserved, in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress (as they now are). The investigator also demanded for the period at least back to 1920 all member­ship lists, all information on grants to the Association and from the Association, all names of prize winners, all titles of all publications of the Association and copies if available, the names of all officers (elected and appointive), and much more. Within the limits of the staff’s capacity, he obtained what he asked for or demanded.

The AHA and AHR staff totaled five people. All of us went to work collecting information, the Executive Secretary taking much time that he should have given to learning how to promote historical study, and all the staff, especially Miss Catherine Seybold and Miss Patty Washington, taking much time they should have had for their arduous and demanding regular work. The investigator came to see the Executive Secretary and Editor several times. He told the latter once that the historians’ trouble was that they were empiricists when they should be idealists. He pointed to three members of the Association who were allegedly Communists and asked me if we checked. (The only criteria for membership we had, and I hope we will ever have, were interest in history and the payment of dues, then, incidentally, $5.00.) He asked the Executive Secretary about differences of opinion revealed in correspondence (of about 1940) between two leading older members of the Association and why one earlier (in the 1930s) official of the AHA had a difference of opinion with the SSRC. His other questions and comments at this distance are not worth reporting or I do not remember them. But the AHA then was alleged to be a “subversive” educational association that received money from foundations, and it was implied that we had subverted American teachers. Once, during the in­vestigation, the Association was called the “second most subversive” academic organization in America.

The chief basis of this accusation, I recall, was a statement in Volume 16 (published 1934of the study of the Commission on Social Studies, a study begun about 1927 and concluded about 1934. This Commission, composed of such men as Charles Beard, Guy Stanton Ford, August Krey, and other equally well-known scholars and men of social con­science, had, with foundation help, established and carried out a col­laborative study to improve the teaching of social studies in the schools.

Among the scholars who wrote the volumes were the then young Howard Beale and Merle Curti. Volume 16, Conclusions, was the final report of the Commission and did not carry a specific author’s name. It contained a sentence under a caption, “Conditioning Factors,” and not under the quite separate heading, “Recommendations,” that the investi­gator and apparently some members of the Reece Committee believed subversive. Written probably in 1933 in the depth of the Depression, the sentence said (the volume is not before me) that the age of individualism was over and an age of collectivism was beginning. The damaging word was, of course, “collectivism.”

Who wrote the sentence I could not determine but guessed (I still don’t know) that it might have been Charles Beard. Knowing something of his omnivorous reading habits and of his facility in recall, I asked myself what he could have been reading at the time. I searched in the Library of Congress for a number of days going through meticulously, for example, the then well-known big two volumes, Recent Social Trends, with no luck. I then remembered that 1932 had been an election year and started going through speeches. I found that Herbert Hoover had written (spoken) a somewhat similar sentence, the gist of which was: the age of individualism was over (or was the word “dead”?) and an age of cooperation was beginning. Not only had he used the sentence in a speech in 1932 (see the speeches edited by Ray Lyman Wilbur), but he approvingly repeated it from his little volume, American Individualism, of 1922.

When the Reece Committee held its hearings during the first months of 1934, the Executive Secretary was required to prepare a report, swear to its accuracy on pain of imprisonment or fine, and given the “opportunity” to appear before the Committee. That report (which I do not have before me but a copy of which is in the AHA archives) denied the allegations, pointed to the source of the offending statement, and declared our belief in and desire for free scholarship.

Fortunately for the academic world, members of the Reece Committee could not agree among themselves and Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio vigorously defended scholarship and attacked repression. Fortunately, too, “McCarthyism” was beginning to decline as the Senator was coming under attack. Just as rebuttal witnesses were beginning to appear before the Reece Committee, the Committee members so vigorously disagreed that public hearings were discontinued. The Committee in a sense became an object of ridicule, though it had earlier and tragically instilled fear. Unfortunately, the rebuttal statements (as that of the Executive Secretary) which the Committee had agreed to publish were never published, but only the accusing allegations. The excuse was “lack of funds.”

What would have happened if the Committee had broadcast its hearings and its allegations to the American people as it planned to do cannot, of course, be known, but the effect on historical scholarship could have been disastrous. What gives the undersigned satisfaction is that in spite of heavy (virulent may be a better word) attack we, the Association and Review, never compromised, never altered policy, always stood (though I admit being fearful at times) for freedom of scholarship. We never rejected an application for membership, never inquired about a member’s political views or the views of a recipient of a prize, and we always went through the same scholarly procedures for articles and for reviews the Review had always followed.

History teaches few if any lessons. It seems to me now, of course, that I should have given this “rightist” attempt at repression the widest publicity at the time so that I would not find it desirable to write a note about it now. I continue to believe that the Association should always resist to the utmost any attempt from the right, the center, or the left to use it for political repression or suppression, as we resisted a rightist attempt in 1953-1954. I continue also to believe that we, in our Association and Review, have one paramount duty: the promotion of critical inquiry and learning in history.

—Boyd C. Shafer
Executive Secretary and Managing Editor