Members of the American Historical Association -- who in an earlier generation engaged in warfare among themselves over what stand to take on Vietnam -- have overwhelmingly voted to condemn the war in Iraq and to seek its "speedy conclusion."
The vote -- announced Monday -- ends a highly unusual process in which the anti-war resolution was considered. It was first passed by members who attended the association's business meeting during the annual convention in January, in Atlanta. But in a move unprecedented in recent history, the AHA's governing council decided that the measure had such "intrinsic importance" that it should be considered by all members. So an online discussion was sponsored in February and voting concluded last week.
Members voted 1,550 (76 percent) to 498 (24 percent) for the resolution. Those voting represented about 15 percent of the group's membership -- far more than the approximately 100 who were at the business meeting in January. The debate over the resolution has been controversial not so much because historians are backing the war, but because some of them believe that it is not in the best interests of the association to take a stand on this issue.
The measure itself -- the Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession -- relates the war in Iraq to key issues of importance to scholars. For instance, it notes that there have been cases of foreign scholars being excluded from the United States because of heightened security measures, and that authorities have reclassified previously unclassified documents. Other parts of the resolution are more related to broad moral criticisms of the war, saying that historians object to "using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society."
The resolution concludes by urging all members of the group to "take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession" and to "do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion."
A group called Historians Against the War campaigned for the resolution, saying it was important for scholars to take a moral stance. A joint letter released by a number of supporters of the resolution said that it was designed to encourage "conscientious scholarship." The letter added that "we prefer not to be remembered by posterity as 'good Americans' who accepted grievous wrongs, but rather as citizen-scholars who took a public stand to oppose the misdeeds of the powerful when they directly assaulted the ethical standards of our profession."
David R. Applebaum, a professor of history at Rowan University and one of the organizers of the effort, said via e-mail Monday that he was "elated" by the outcome of the vote. "It will help us translate thought into action," he said. "In the long run, I think it will encourage young people to enter a vibrant, vital and engaged profession that has an important part to play in the building of a more democratic society."
One of those who spoke against the resolution in Atlanta was James Sheehan, a past president of the association, a professor at Stanford University, and a critic of the war. In Atlanta, he advocated that historians -- as individuals -- do whatever they could against the war. In an interview Monday, he said that the association did the right thing by having a broader vote on the resolution and that he was disappointed, but not surprised by the outcome.
He said that there are two problems with the resolution. First, he said, "it seems to me that people join the AHA with certain expectations, and the fact that the association will take political positions is not one of them. In a way, you are violating the conditions of membership, and I suspect a few people will leave."
Second, he said it was important for the association to take political stands on issues "narrowly concerned with the interests of scholars in general and historians in particular." So he said it was important for the AHA to speak out as it does against visa denials to foreign scholars or restrictions on access to presidential records. "But by taking more general stands, we weaken our moral authority and we become identified with partisan positions," he said. "There is only a certain amount of moral capital that we have."