A non-profit entity founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) describes itself as “the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history.” Its 9,300-plus members in the U.S. and abroad include college and university professors, students, archivists, pre-collegiate teachers, and others. The organization’s mission is to promote “excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history,” and to encourage “wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.” OAH’s work is supported primarily through the contributions of its members, income from an annual conference each spring, and the support of Indiana University, which houses its executive and editorial offices.
The OAH has a long history of condemning American engagements in war while supporting radical causes. In 1969, the organization supported a resolution calling not only for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, but also for an end to the “repression” of the Black Panther Party. In 2003, OAH members formed a subgroup, Historians Against the War, which condemned what it called “the current empire-building and war-making activities of the United States government at home and abroad,” and which worked closely with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a pro-Castro organization.
In September 2003, James Horton (who was then the incoming OAH President) and Eric Foner (the Marxist historian who served as OAH President from 1993-94) signed a petition crafted by Historians Against the War which read, in part: “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 …”
In April 2004 the Executive Committee of the OAH, whose membership includes the Communist apologist and Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, accepted for consideration an HAW resolution that called on historians “to research and investigate potential U.S. war crimes in Iraq,” as well as to “[resist] the American Empire.” HAW proposed the creation of a specific OAH committee to investigate what it deemed threats to freedom of expression. At the 2004 OAH convention in Boston, the Executive Board chaired by Hall adopted the proposal.
In March 2004 the OAH Executive Board decided to establish a committee — to be headed by its former President, the Marxist labor historian David Montgomery — in response to an HAW request for OAH “to investigate reports of repressive measures having an impact on historians’ teaching, research, employment, and freedom of expression.” The request listed eight examples of repression, including “restrictions of research and surveillance of library use under the USA PATRIOT Act”; “reports of teachers … reprimanded or confronted with suspension … for allowing students … to express opposition to the occupation of Iraq”; “flagging and rejection of grants in areas deemed politically sensitive”; “demeaning treatment of foreign-born historians and students by the [INS] and the State Department”; “restriction of historians’ access to government records”; “systematic denunciation of historians who have criticized government policy”; “hostile government scrutiny of foreign language and area studies programs”; and “refusals to employ faculty members allegedly on the basis of their views on foreign policy.” OAH’s decision to form this committee was announced by the well-known Sixties radical Jesse Lemisch at an OAH-sponsored event honoring the Marxist historian Howard Zinn.
OAH sponsors or co-sponsors twenty major scholarly awards and prizes each year, and provides prominent guest speakers to the public through its Distinguished Lectureship Program. It also produces three quarterly publications: the OAH Newsletter, the OAH Magazine of History, and the Journal of American History. The organization recently co-founded an Internet-accessible “History Cooperative” that gives researchers access to scholarship in a growing list of history journals throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Notable former presidents of OAH include John Hope Franklin (1974-75) and Mary Frances Berry (1990-91).