Our history

Historical Notes on Historians Against the War

Jim O’Brien

In what follows, I’ve tried to identify more or less distinct periods, while acknowledging overlaps. J.O., May 2017

RESISTING THE RUSH TO WAR, January-April 2003.

Amid the Bush administration’s drumroll for war, leading up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, HAW was formed at the AHA convention in Chicago, January 2-5, with Van Gosse and Andor Skotnes as the initial co-chairs. Its purpose was to oppose the impending invasion. The following petition was generated:

We historians call for a halt to the march towards war against Iraq. We are deeply concerned about the needless destruction of human life, the undermining of constitutional government in the U.S., the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and the obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.

Following the AHA, where 667 historians signed, the petition was widely circulated and drew more than 2,100 signatures by the time of the invasion. As signatures were received, they were recorded on a website created and managed (to this day) by Marc Becker.

From the start, HAW saw itself as part of a broader movement. It played an active role in the broad national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice, formed in October 2002. When millions around the world marched on February 15, 2003, to protest the Bush administration’s plans for an invasion, a HAW contingent took part in the New York City march, with a wide banner.

HAW’s origins were also linked with the Radical History Review, which for many years shared a literature table with HAW at history conventions. The founding organizers of HAW also sought to reach out to antiwar activists in other academic fields, although no formal relations emerged.

AFTERMATH OF THE IRAQ INVASION, 2003-2005

The key event in early 2003 was a meeting of about 20 people at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on May 31, at which it was decided to extend HAW’s existence. Andor and Van were asked to continue as co-chairs, and nine other people (including Rusti Eisenberg and Marc Becker) agreed to join a steering committee, with the idea that other SC members would be recruited to represent different regions of the country and different HAW activities. A decision on changing the name from Historians Against the War was postponed.

In the wake of the New York meeting, a new petition was announced on September 21, demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq and the restoration of civil liberties at home. It was worded as follows:

As historians, teachers, and scholars, we oppose the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq. We deplore the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history involved in the administration’s conduct of a war that violates international law, intensifies attacks on civil liberties, and reaches toward domination of the Middle East and its resources. Believing that both the Iraqi people and the American people have the right to determine their own political and economic futures (with appropriate outside assistance), we call for the restoration of cherished freedoms in the United States and for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

This petition drew more than 2,600 signatures over the next several years, as the defining statement for HAW. Everyone who signed the petition was automatically considered a member of HAW. Marc Becker constructed a database with names, affiliations, and contact information.

Besides circulating the petition, activities from autumn 2003 through the spring of 2005 included:

  • Creating a website (historiansagainstwar.org) including “teaching resources”;
  • Setting up a loosely coordinated speaker’s bureau with HAW members volunteering to speak on areas of their expertise. (Since users contacted speakers directly rather than though HAW, we don’t know how extensively the list was used.)
  • Holding a forum at the January 2004 AHA convention in Washington, with Staughton Lynd, Rusti Eisenberg, and Irene Gendzier as the speakers;
  • Holding a “Town Hall” forum in New York at the time of the August 2004 Republican National Convention, with speakers Andrew Bacevich, Ellen Schrecker, Renate Bridenthal, and Tom Bender debating the extent to which the Bush administration had “broken with the mainstream American past”;
  • Publishing several pamphlets, including one that followed the Abu Ghraib revelations in Iraq, called Torture American Style, published on newsprint in the fall of 2004. It was edited by Margaret Power and distributed with the help of other UFPJ member groups;

GREATER NATIONAL PRESENCE, 2005-2007

At some point during 2005, planning began for HAW’s first national conference. At the same time, HAW began taking a more active role in the AHA. Highlights of this period included the following:

  • A HAW resolution on academic freedom was passed by the AHA business meeting during the January 2006 AHA convention in Philadelphia. It focused especially on model legislation proposed by David Horowitz and then being introduced in various states.
  • HAW’s first national conference, with the theme “Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq,” took place at the University of Texas, Austin, February 17-19, 2006, hosted by Robert Jensen of the UT journalism school. About 250 people took part in the conference, and more than a thousand additional persons attended the Friday evening keynote session featuring Howard Zinn.
  • The Steering Committee, meeting in New York in July 2006 at the time of armed conflict in Lebanon, made the following statement:

The Steering Committee of Historians Against the War deplores the role of the U.S. government in widening the circle of violence in the Middle East. We condemn the Bush Administration’s senseless quest for military solutions to the region’s problems exemplified by the invasion of Iraq, diplomatic and material aid for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and threats of military action against Iran. We call upon Congress and the Bush Administration to support an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon/Israel/Gaza, turn away from militarism, and embrace genuine international efforts aimed at resolving underlying political conflicts.

  • Beginning at the July meeting, HAW made a major effort to encourage campus teach-ins during the fall semester. The initial focus was on mid-October, but then the call was extended to Election Day in early November. HAW’s work on the teach-ins included lining up a list of several dozen knowledgeable speakers who were willing to waive honoraria. More than 40 events were held at different campuses.
  • Prior to the January 2007 AHA convention in Atlanta, HAW gathered signatures for a resolution calling for an end to the Iraq War. It was passed handily by the business meeting and then submitted by the AHA Executive Council to a membership referendum. When the vote was announced in mid-March, the resolution had passed by a margin of 3 to 1. This was the first time the AHA had taken a stand in opposing a current US war.
  • HAW, with its banner, had a contingent of possibly 30 to 40 people in a large antiwar march in Washington, DC in late January 2007.

RESHUFFLING, 2007-2009

In the spring of 2007, and again in the fall, we tried to replicate the success we’d had in the fall of 2006 with stimulating campus teach-ins, but with much less response. One major exception was an ambitious and well-attended teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, in September, with HAW as a co-sponsor and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of the HAW Steering Committee as the principal organizer. During the rest of this two-year period, high points were as follows:

  • HAW’s second national conference took place at Georgia State University in Atlanta, with Georgia State historian/activist Ian Fletcher as the local organizer. The theme was “War and Its Discontents: Understanding Iraq and the U.S. Empire.” It was co-sponsored by the Peace History Society, though HAW was the main sponsor. About 150 people came for the conference, plus another 200 or so for the Friday evening plenary (Naomi Klein and Bill Fletcher, Jr. as the speakers). Presenters included people from 46 different colleges and universities. Whereas income from the Austin conference had exceeded expenses by more than $5,000, the Atlanta conference ended something over $2,000 in the red.
  • HAW sponsored a very well-attended forum at the January 2009 AHA convention in New York, with “The Bush-Cheney Legacy” as the theme. Speakers were Alice Kessler-Harris, David Montgomery, Vijay Prashad, Ellen Schrecker, and Barbara Weinstein.
  • In the late fall of 2008 the Steering Committee broadened HAW’s primarily Iraq focus by passing two resolutions, one calling for US withdrawal from Afghanistan and one condemning US support for the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
  • After considerable discussion in March-April 2009, the Steering Committee adopted a much longer mission statement to replace the September 2003 version. The new statement was submitted to a ratification vote in which everyone on the HAW email list was eligible to vote. The vote was 196 in favor and 14 opposed, so the new statement was adopted.

As historically minded activists, scholars, students, and teachers, we stand opposed to wars of aggression, military occupations of foreign lands, and imperial efforts by the United States and other powerful nations to dominate the internal life of other countries.

In particular, we continue to demand a speedy end to US military involvement in Iraq, and we insist on the withdrawal, not the expansion, of US and NATO military forces in Afghanistan. We also call for a sharp reduction of US military bases overseas, and an end to US financial and military support of regimes that repress their people, or that occupy the territories of other peoples. We favor as well a drastic redirection of national resources away from military spending and toward urgently needed domestic programs.

We deplore the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history, the repeated violation of international law, and the attack on civil liberties domestically that have accompanied US policies of war and militarism—policies that became especially belligerent in the aftermath of September 11.

We fear that the current, rapidly escalating crisis of global capitalism, which is creating suffering worldwide, will lead to escalating wars abroad and intensifying repression at home. We support solutions to this crisis that seek to enrich the lives and increase the power of people globally, and protect their fundamental human rights. We are unalterably opposed to any attempts to solve the crisis at their expense.

We are aware that, in the words of the late historian William Appleman Williams, “empire as a way of life” has long characterized the United States and is not easily changed. However, we are mindful as well that the current conjunction of international and domestic crises offers an opportunity to alter longstanding destructive patterns. As historians, we believe that we can and must make a contribution to the broad, international movements for peace, democracy, and environmental and social justice. In pursuing our objectives, we look toward building and joining alliances with a wide variety of intellectual and activist groups that share our concerns.

  • The new statement also raised the issue of what would constitute membership in HAW. The policy adopted was that membership would be based on “substantial agreement” with the new statement and on an expressed desire to be a member. All those who voted Yes in the ratification vote were automatically enrolled as members. (The practical difference between membership and simply being on the email list was that only members could vote for candidates for the Steering Committee, though in recent years nobody had kept membership records and the most recent Steering Committee election was open to everyone on the email list.)

HAW AS A (MOSTLY PASSIVE) RESOURCE, 2009-2012

In the three years after the adoption of the new mission statement, not much happened. I.e., just as HAW’s scope became broader, we did less, at least by way of coordinated activities. Following are some notes on this period.

  • HAW Notes – Starting in 2009, we sent messages to our email list that contained occasional announcements plus “Links to recent articles of interest.”
  • Our other main means of communication with our email list was that Rusti Eisenberg sent periodic updates about Congressional legislation bearing on issues of war and peace.
  • After Howard Zinn died in January 2010, HAW and the Labor and Working Class History Association co-sponsored a session at the April convention of the Organization of American Historians in Washington, DC, with Staughton Lynd as the main speaker.
  • In January 2011, due mainly to the initiative of Marty Halpern, the Steering Committee drafted a response to President Obama’s State of the Union message and distributed it to antiwar websites.
  • After much discussion, the 2011 HAW summer meeting was scheduled for a location outside New York City for the first time. It was scheduled for Chicago, but never happened because of people backing out.
  • Luke Stewart, a grad student in Ontario and a HAW Steering Committee member, organized a January 2012 conference in Toronto called “Looking Back, Moving Forward: War Resisters in North America.” SC members Staughton Lynd and Carl Mirra were among the speakers.
  • The summer SC meeting made a comeback in 2012, with a well-attended get-together in conference room at Columbia University arranged by Jeri Fogel. The main step taken was to approve a proposal by Matt Bokovoy for a spring 2013 conference at Towson University in Baltimore, with Akim Reinhhart as the local host. The theme “The New Faces of War” was suggested and approved. (More about the conference itself in the next section.)

THE BALTIMORE CONFERENCE, April 2013

  • The “New Faces of War” conference at Towson University is worth a discussion by itself. It involved a major buy-in from the Steering Committee. Seven SC members were part of the planning committee, which held around two dozen conference calls between July 2012 and April 2013. An additional six SC members took an active part in the conference. The conference was able to tap into the Baltimore activist community and also draw in a number of national antiwar organizations with headquarters in Washington, DC nearby. A successful fundraising appeal to the HAW email list brought in several thousand dollars in donations before the conference, enabling us to make the conference free to residents of “the greater Baltimore area.”
  • For the most part it was a feel-good conference, with professors, graduate students, and a great variety of non-campus activists mingling amiably. We were thanked by a wide variety of participants. At the same time, it was not an occasion for building HAW itself. After the conference, we sent an email to all those who participated who were not already on the HAW email list, telling them how to get on the list if they wanted; hardly anyone did. It may be that the best way to think of the conference is as a service provided by HAW to the broader antiwar movement.

SHIFTED FOCUS, 2013-2017

At the 2013 summer SC meeting, again at Columbia University but with a lower attendance, there was little support for building on the experience and good will created in Baltimore by planning a similar conference in the near future. No major initiatives came out of the meeting. Although HAW Notes emailings continued, as did legislative alerts from Rusti Eisenberg, most organizing-type activity since 2013 has concerned Palestine/Israel rather than US wars. Highlights have included:

  • After inviting input from people on the HAW email list, the Steering Committee voted in the spring of 2014 to endorse the BDS movement; a working group was set up, including some SC members and some non-members.
  • In the summer of 2014, HAW members initiated a historians’ letter to President Obama and Congress criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza. Around 1,500 scholars, in the US and elsewhere, signed the petition, which was worded as follows:

We deplore the ongoing attacks against civilians in Gaza and in Israel. We also recognize the disproportionate harm that the Israeli military, which the United States has armed and supported for decades, is inflicting on the population of Gaza.

We are profoundly disturbed that Israeli forces are killing and wounding so many Palestinian children. Desperate conditions in Gaza resulting from Israeli policies have made effective evacuation of war zones virtually impossible. We regard as unacceptable the failure of United States elected officials to hold Israel accountable for such acts.

As we watch the death toll mount and observe the terror of the trapped inhabitants in Gaza, we call upon you to demand a cease-fire, the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and a permanent end to the blockade so that its people to can resume some semblance of normal life. We urge you to suspend US military aid to Israel, until there is assurance that this aid will no longer be used for the commission of war crimes.

As historians, we recognize this as a moment of acute moral crisis in which it is vitally important that United States policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict change direction.

  • Two activities were planned for the January 2015 AHA convention in New York: (1) a roundtable entitled “What Is the Responsibility of Historians Regarding the Israel/Palestine Conflict?” with speakers Joel; Beinin, Leena Dallasheh, Linda Gordon, and Barbara Weinstein; (2) two resolutions were circulated calling on the AHA to speak out on Israeli violations of Palestinian academic freedom. The roundtable went well, the resolutions less so. Because they were submitted after the agenda deadline for the AHA’s annual business meeting, the resolution could only have been added to the agenda by a special vote. By a vote of 144 to 51, the business meeting decided not to consider the resolutions
  • In the fall of 2015, with an earlier start, signatures were gathered in a timely manner for another revolution on academic freedom for Palestinians. It was defeated by 111-51 at the AHA business meeting during the 2016 convention in Atlanta.
  • In a change of strategy, during the fall of 2016, signatures were gathered for two resolutions addressed, not to the AHA business meeting but to the Executive Council. One asked the Council to undertake an investigation of competing claims regarding academic freedom for Palestinians; the other asked the Council to make a statement on the right of academics to speak out on current issues, with specific reference to public attacks on pro-Palestinian scholars. The Council rejected the first request; in regard to the second, it issued a statement on academic freedom regarding controversial issues, but removed the specific reference to Israel/Palestine.

REJUVENATION, 2017-?

In the new political atmosphere following the November 2016 elections, a mid-January meeting was held in New York, attended by all SC members who could make it (Marc Becker [via skype], Rusti Eisenberg, Jeri Fogel, Jim O’Brien, Margaret Power, and Van Gosse) plus Andor Skotnes and Barbara Weinstein. Most attendees expressed support for a much-broadened focus for HAW and a new statement setting forth an intent to resist the incoming Trump administration on many fronts.

Following the meeting, there was much discussion within the SC of a draft statement, to be sent to the HAW-Info list for feedback and then potentially adopted as HAW policy. The following statement emerged from this process and was adopted:

Historians Against the War was formed in January 2003 to oppose the Bush Administration’s drive for a pre-emptive, illegal invasion of Iraq. We participated actively in the antiwar movement of the Bush years, and we continued to challenge U.S. foreign policy and extended support for Palestinian human rights in the Obama era. Now, with the ascent of an extreme rightwing administration contemptuous of constitutional norms, we have a new mission: to stand up for peace and diplomacy internationally, and democracy and human rights at home. Our work, as historians against war and for peace and democracy, will have two focuses. First, we see our campuses as key sites for both repression and resistance. We will fight for the right to education, free speech and academic freedom for all members of campus communities, and for the human and civil rights of our students, especially the undocumented, Muslims, people of color, women and LGBTQ people. Second, we will join the organized resistance to Donald Trump’s regime by mobilizing historians, teachers, and historically-minded activists to challenge the permanent campaign of “fake news” and phony history that has driven the right’s ascent. We will defend the discipline of history against attempts to reduce it to simple affirmations of “American greatness,” and document how prior eras of reaction and repression were successfully combatted. We recognize that the Trump/Pence Administration is a threat not only to the people of the United States, but to the people of the world, and we will stand against a new nuclear arms race, more imperial interventions, and collaboration with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

  • The first Steering Committee election since 2012 was held in late April / early May. Everyone on the HAW email list was eligible to vote, and close to 100 people did so. The current Steering Committee is the result.