Publication Date

February 1, 1970

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Editor’s Note: The events which marked the Association’s recent business meeting, December 28 and 29, 1969, reflected very real and deep divisions among the members of the Association as to the nature and responsibilities of the pro­fession. These differences went far beyond the practical and political ques­tions on which votes were taken, and touched fundamental issues as to the nature of history and society.

Hence, a first order of business should be to ask what is it about the practice of history that has produced our divided consciousness.

The editor of the Newsletter hopes that in the coming months the pro­fession will confront such fundamental questions in a scholarly and de­tached manner. To this end, the Newsletter invites informal argument from all members of the Association on these matters of vital concern to them. These communications will be carried under the heading of Professional Comment. The first such appears directly beneath and discusses the events of December 28–29 from a perspective critical of the conduct of the Association.

The unprecedented business meeting of the American Historical Association, held on December 28–29, 1969 should provoke a serious reevaluation of the AHA and the profession, and of both the radical impulse and the con­servative defense, by radical and conservative historians alike.1 I hope these comments may contribute to such a process on all sides, as well as trying to make clear what transpired during the two sessions of December 28 and 29 for the benefit of historians who were not present in Washington.

The radical impulse made its first impact on the Convention in the “What is Radical History?” panel. Of that session I now feel thoroughly self-critical. Our fault was that we were not radical enough. It was, and as radicals we should have known it would be, impossible to have an intelli­gent discussion in a hall of 1,000 people—even by discarding the traditional “paper” format in favor of brief statements by a panel, followed by discussion from the floor. Perhaps we should have arranged for small discussion groups to debate within themselves the issue of radical history before pro­ceeding to a general discussion. Each group could then have chosen its own spokesman and issues for the latter session.

It was our failure too for projecting an image of being concerned to “purge” the profession with a proposed counter-Constitution containing an ethical code and the means for enforcing it. The ethical code was a model, a goal, a proposal for a true “profession”—but it assumed and did not state that it could be enforced only when a great majority of the profession had come to believe in it. (This is in fact what the profession does now—and does not regard as a “purge”—when, for instance, it punishes plagiarism.) Many readers seem to have thought we suggested enacting ethics by bare majority and then expelling everyone who disagreed with them. We should have made our outlook clear. We recognized our failure too late when we gathered in the Radical Caucus. The decision to drop the counter-Constitu­tion in favor of specific resolutions did not undo the harm done by our lack of clarity.

Most of the other failures at the Convention were not ours. Look first at the issue of procedural democracy. We wanted open debate on the substantive issues. But the present AHA Council first tried to stretch out debate over its own Constitutional proposals to use up time; then tried to adjourn the business meeting before any new business could be taken up; then tried to rule a resolution on Vietnam and political repression out of order; then tried to close debate on the Vietnam resolution before it had begun; then tried to refer the resolution to mail ballot instead of, rather than in addition to, voting on it; then after the vote came, adjourned the business meeting rather than allow other proposals to come before it.

All the while, the Council projected its own undemocratic intentions into paranoia about the radicals. One Council member expressed fear that we would wait until they had left the meeting and then vote to reconsider the Constitutional amendments. It was a tactic we had not bothered to consider, and laughed at when he spoke. Another Council member warned against the “old radical tactic of waiting until everyone leaves” at the same time we were trying to propose a recess until the next evening, precisely so that a fuller body could examine our proposals. Still another physically tore the microphone from Howard Zinn’s hands to win recognition from President C. Vann Woodward; won it, of course, despite Zinn’s protests; then denounced some other fantasied anti-democratic tactic the left might use!

And what were those proposals for which we never got a hearing? (1) A Constitutional amendment expanding the AHA Council to 50, with 10 seats reserved for non-tenured faculty, 10 for students, 10 for elementary and secondary school teachers of history and social studies, 10 for non-professionals interested in history and so for the kind of “eminent scholars” who now make up the entire Council. (2) A Constitutional amendment to create a Special Fund using one-third of the Association’s income for help to women, Black, radical, and other historians now discriminated against; for projects in history-writing by “outsiders” like steel-workers, secretaries, and welfare mothers; and for projects in democratic as against autocratic teaching-learning. (3) A mandate to make the next Convention available to students without money for hotels, to subsidize travel, to break up huge sessions into small dialogue groups and other democratizing proposals. All were kept off the floor.

But during this debate-avoiding process we failed, too: again, we were not radical enough. We let the body laugh to scorn a hired Parliamentarian, without insisting that responsibility for biased rulings lay not on him but on the Chair and the Council. It was a conservative member of the Council who pointed out to us (privately) that an unforeseen advantage for established authority was a scorned Parliamentarian who made an excellent whipping boy, and thereby accidentally diverted animosity from the Chair.

Finally, the clear central substantive issue of the Convention and of the debate between radicals and conservatives: what is a profession? Does it have a “politics,” and should it? Conservatives argued that adopting a Vietnam resolution would “politicize” the Association, and invoked the spectre of a “purge” of those who disagreed about the war. Radicals argued that the AHA is political; that it supports, assists, and helps legitimate the American government; that it must first admit to being political and then adopt a decent politics supporting the profession’s goals of truth and reason. (Unfortunately, at Convention time radicals had not yet read the resolution passed in 1968 putting the AHA on record for the Fullbright-scholar program not on professional grounds but “in the interest of the United States’ role of leadership in the world.” If we had had the quote at our fingertips, we could have shown that even on their own terms the conservatives were being disingenuous).2

In any case, we must now pursue our thought and work on the crucial issue of the relation between politics and profession. One historian described a great urge among young members of the profession to “reunite their lives,” bringing politics and scholarship together. He is right; the urge is an over­whelmingly important effort of human beings to rebuild themselves; to reconnect body and mind, morals and information; to do that precisely in resistance to a dehumanizing social system. Thus the urge is no mere idiosyncratic hang-up: it is the.most political of events, and the radical his­torians, like other newly radical intellectuals, are questioning the whole bureaucratic-“rational’ assumption of the split in roles between citizen and scholar.

It was this split that the conservatives fought to preserve. Few of them argued against the text of the radical resolution on the war and repression which described the war as an attack on the Vietnamese people in an attempt to extend the modern American Empire, connected it with traditional Amer­ican racism, accused the justice Department of being the “domestic Pen­tagon” in a campaign of repression of widespread political opposition to the war and racism, warned of damage already done to the historical profession and more threatened, and called for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, an immediate end to harassment of the Black Panther Party, and release of all political prisoners. Even fewer argued against the text of the liberal anti-war resolution which called for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and a reexamination by historians of the whole intellectual basis of American foreign policy. The conservatives’ opposition to these resolutions was couched not on the obvious issue of whether the war was good or bad, but on the deeper and indeed the more important one: were people to become whole as citizenly scholars, scholarly citizens, or remain divided? Could a professional association admit that a “political” event was deeply corrupting the practice of the profession, and then take a citizen-professional, i.e. a human position? But, of course, the conservatives did not couch the issue thus, and our own last and most unfortunate failure was that we never clearly got that issue on the table. Perhaps because we did not, the conservatives won that vote.3

But they did not win the future of the profession. Young historians watched cultural heroes demythologize themselves: watched Eugene Genovese say the AHA must “put these so-called radicals down, put them down hard, and put them down once and for all.” Watched John K. Fairbank grab the mike away from a radical and then denounce “undemocratic tactics.” Watched Stuart Hughes boast of having last been in Washington in 1965 to protest the war-but not as a professional. Watched C. Vann Woodward rule that the Vietnam resolution, with its full paragraph about the damage the war is doing to the profession, had nothing to do with the integrity of the profession or the practice of history in the United States. Watched David Potter urgently ask how to prevent a “radical trick” that no one had thought of trying, or wanted to try once he had suggested it.

Many of the men and women who watched all this happen will no longer accept being “watchers,” whether of a conservative cadre of the AHA Council members or of a radical cadre of insurgents. For it was not only conservative hypocrisy, banality, and paranoia that was being watched. Young historians also watched the leaders of the radical caucus respond to the difficulties of swift floor maneuver against the oligarchic “conservative party” by becoming oligarchic themselves. As a result, many radicals began to reject not only the Council’s leadership but the whole notion of using parliamentary insurgency to reform the AHA-a process which may neces­sarily reduce most of those present to “watchers.” They will insist on remak­ing rather than watching-remaking history-the-social-process, remaking history-the-profession, and remaking themselves. They are convinced that the AHA is not an arena in which any of those remakings can be done: only “watching” can happen there, both in the business meeting and in gigantic formal sessions.

Many such historians met on the last day of the convention to decide what to do as a consequence of the question of whether the AHA still provided a useful arena for scholarly debate. They agreed to form a Radical History Caucus of the New University Conference. In that way they can join both politically and intellectually with other academics for most of the year trying to create a new social analysis across disciplinary lines, and new political action across departmental lines; but can nevertheless preserve their identity as historians for those moments when it is important. The dual identity is not an artifact. It stems in part from the academic double hiring system in which a university is the immediate employer, hiring many kinds of academics, but in which separate national “job markets” of historians, sociologists, etc. also govern their employment. It stems also, in part, from the deeper historical contradiction between the unity of the intellectual analysis of society, on the one hand, and the specialization of effective intellect, on the other.

The Radical History Caucus of NUC will, in participatory-democratic fashion, have a number of focal points. One, in Chicago, is the office of NUC (Room 403A, 622 West Diversey Parkway). Another is a group of historians in Boston who will help prepare for serious meetings of historians during and alongside the next AHA Convention. Their efforts will center much more on creating a parallel “convention” embodying dozens of small workshops of 15 to 40 people than on reforming the AHA itself. These workshops may deal with particular research projects, with the relationship of politics and professionalism, with the nature of the present job market and a demo­cratic alternative, with radical teaching, etc. Effective action in remaking the profession, society, and individual historians themselves will flow from these workshops. It might flow back into the regular AHA Convention, but if so in a much more participatory-democratic way. Finally, arrangements will be made to have equivalent presences at the Organization of American Historians Convention in Los Angeles, and the Southern Historical Association Convention in Louisville.4



  1. The meeting itself was attended by some 2,000 members, while in previous years at­tendance rarely reached 2oo. The losing candidate for the presidency received far more votes than any previous successful candidate. []
  2. Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1968 (vol. I), p. 69. []
  3. Even so, the liberal anti-war resolution probably would have won if it had come to the floor after the radical resolution, rather than before and as a substitute for it. A few radicals, but more than 20, voted against the liberal resolution so that the radical one could be reached. The liberal resolution failed 611–647. The radical resolution failed 493–822. On the previous night, the radical candidate for President achieved 396 votes, the conservative 1040. Radical feeling grew throughout the Convention. []
  4. Persons interested in contacting the Boston group with ideas for workshops should contact Marica Scott, 51 Park Drive, Apt. #21, Boston, Mass. 02215. Persons who are interested in helping to organize for the OAH meeting in Los Angeles, April 15–18, should write to Richard Robertson, University of California at Irvine, 508 Verano Place, Irvine, California 92644. For the Southern meeting contact Thomas Gardner, Box 62, Newcomb Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. []

Arthur I. Waskow is resident fellow at the  Institute for Policy Studies.