On January 3, 2003 in Chicago, at the 117th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, nearly 100 history professors from more than 40 U.S. colleges and universities convened to form a new national network, Historians Against the War (HAW). The leader of this initiative was Van Gosse, professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
HAW’s founding statement called for “a halt to the march towards war against Iraq,” so as to avoid “the needless destruction of human life” that such an invasion—which was allegedly being promoted on the strength of fabricated intelligence—would entail. Further, the statement condemned the Bush administration’s “undermining of constitutional government in the U.S.,” its “egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad,” and its “obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.” By contrast, HAW elected not to pass judgment on the practices of Saddam Hussein‘s government in Iraq.
From its inception, HAW defined itself as a group of “radical scholars and intellectuals … deeply concerned about growing repression [by the U.S. government] and, in particular, its impact on critical thought and expression.” Further, HAW claimed membership in the Alliance of Radical Academic and Intellectual Organizations, a coalition “organized around radical principles [recognizing] that social and economic inequalities are built into the structure of capitalist society” and, as such, prevent the creation of a “just and humane” culture.
Within three weeks after HAW’s formation, more than 1,000 historians from 250 institutions in 47 states had endorsed the organization’s founding statement. By late April 2003, HAW had organized anti-war “teach-ins” at forty different schools, and the number of signatories had grown to more than 2,200.
Also in April 2003, HAW appointed a “steering committee”—thusly named when the organization’s members decided that Professor James Livingston’s original suggestion of “politburo” might cause some public-relations problems. Noteworthy members of this committee included Van Gosse and Marc Becker.
In the spring of 2003, HAW circulated a petition defending the “academic freedom” of Columbia University anthropology professor Nicholas De Genova, who had recently: (a) expressed his desire for “a world where the U.S. would have no place”; (b) stated that “the only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military”; and (c) said, “I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus”—a reference to a deadly 1993 ambush of U.S. forces by an al Qaeda warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia.
At a May 31, 2003 organizational meeting in New York City, HAW enumerated five major objectives which it intended to pursue:
“work at both the K-12 and the college/university levels” to develop curricula and other resources;
persuade professional associations to take political stances on “issues about Iraq, empire, etc., as well as about repression”;
research and investigate potential U.S. war crimes in Iraq, as well as “resistance to the American Empire”;
engage in public outreach by producing op-ed pieces, “educating” media editorial boards, and placing “anti-imperialist, historical analysis before the public”; and
In a major statement issued on September 21, 2003, HAW deplored “the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq.” Moreover, the organization condemned “the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history involved in the [Bush] 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.”
As an organizational member of the United For Peace & Justice anti-war coalition, HAW deployed contingents of its members to march publicly in a number of prominent peace demonstrations throughout 2003. When the After Downing Street anti-war coalition was formed in 2005, HAW became a member of that as well.
In March 2004, HAW asked the executive board of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) “to investigate reports of repressive measures having an impact on historians’ teaching, research, employment, and freedom of expression.” OAH agreed to form a committee—headed by the Marxist labor historian David Montgomery—to look into these matters.
Keynote speaker Howard Zinn stated that left-wing historians had an occupational duty to “take our history” in a direction where a distinctly Marxist focus on the “clash of classes” was a central theme.
The conference’s other keynote speaker, University of Michigan women’s studies professor Andrea Smith, singled out for opprobrium feminists who supported the U.S.-led overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Smith asserted that the real threat to women came not from governments like the Taliban but from concepts like the nation state.
Kenneth Long, Saint Joseph College political science professor and self-described socialist, stated that his “History of Modern Wars” course was devised with “the conscious goal of helping students see the ugly realities of American military aggressions over the past sixty some years.” “Specifically,” said Long, “my goal was to design and teach a course that would help students learn that there have been no good American wars, that the country has never come at all close to living up to the values it professes, and, thus, that there is really little new about the current American aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
For instance, Long informed his students that American-led wars were “immoral and worthy of resistance”; that President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration had “worked very hard to provoke a Japanese attack”; that the U.S. was a would-be ally of the Nazis during World War II; and that American “society at the time was very eugenicist and virulently racist.” Following a “radical critique” of American wars from World War II to the War on Terror, Long ended by contending that the “United States had not demonstrated, or even made a systematic attempt to demonstrate with evidence, any reason to conclude that al Qaeda was in fact responsible for, or participatory in, the September 11 attacks.”
Margaret Power, a co-chair of HAW and an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, dismissed as “absurd” the notion that historians can “stay removed from the political currents that swirl around us…” Political activism, Power explained, was a job requirement: “As people who have the time and opportunity to study and learn, we also have the responsibility and the ability to speak out.” Warming to that theme, Power claimed that historians theretofore had been “far too silent.”
In January 2009—while Israel was engaged in “Operation Cast Lead,” a defensive military operation targeting Hamas and other terrorists in Gaza—HAW issued a statement condemning “the collective punishment levied by the Israeli government against the civilian population of Gaza”; “the use of U.S.-supplied weaponry for the mass killing of civilians and the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure”; “the U.S. government’s misleadingly one-sided view of the origins of the current conflict”; “the nearly four decades-long Israeli occupation of Gaza”; and “the tightening Israeli blockade of Gaza that precipitated Hamas’s December 19 abrogation of the truce.”
In April 2009, HAW reaffirmed that it was “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.” Further, the organization demanded “a speedy end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq”; “the withdrawal … of U.S. and NATO military forces in Afghanistan”; “a sharp reduction of U.S. military bases overseas”; “an end to U.S. financial and military support of regimes that repress their people, or that occupy the territories of other peoples”; and “a drastic redirection of national resources away from military spending and toward urgently needed domestic programs.” In addition, HAW warned 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.”
On July 31, 2014, while Israel was involved in a major military operation designed to degrade the terrorism infrastructure of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, HAW created and began circulating a petition deploring the Jewish state’s “ongoing attacks against civilians in Gaza.” The petition further condemned “the disproportionate harm that the Israeli military, which the United States has armed and supported for decades, is inflicting on the population of Gaza”; the “killing and wounding [of] so many Palestinian children” by “Israeli forces”; and the “desperate conditions in Gaza resulting from Israeli policies” and “war crimes.” As historian Ron Radosh pointed out at the time: “The actions of Hamas, which has fired more than three thousand rockets into Israel, [and] cynically use civilians as human shields as they launch [those rockets] from mosques, hospitals, UN schools and … heavily populated civilian areas, [are] not even mentioned once in the historians’ petition.”
This HAW petition was initially signed by more than 200 American historians. Within three weeks that number had swelled to over 1,000. Among the noteworthy signatories were Bettina Aptheker, Joel Beinin, Matthew Evangelista, Van Gosse, David Halperin, Rashid Khalidi, Vinay Lal, Jerry Lembcke, and Jesse Lemisch.
HAW has developed a nationwide speakers’ bureau consisting of dozens of professors who are prepared to disseminate the group’s anti-America message via lectures, teach-ins, and special curricula for students at all levels of the educational hierarchy. Among the members of this bureau are Dana Cloud, Lawrence Davidson, Peter Kirstein, Vinay Lal, Jesse Lemisch, Mark LeVine, David Montgomery, and Julio Pino. The late Howard Zinn also participated. To view a complete list of bureau members, click here.
HAW’s website provides links to a number of likeminded organizations, including: After Downing Street (later called WarIsACrime.org), Al Jazeera, Alternet, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Code Pink, Common Dreams, International ANSWER, Iraq Occupation Watch, MoveOn.org, Not In Our Name, Peace Action, The Nation, United For Peace & Justice, Veterans For Peace, Voices in the Wilderness, the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom, and World Can’t Wait.