The President's Preface 2008

by Gabrielle M. Spiegel

There was a time I am told—back in the “good old days”—when being president of the AHA was largely an honorific role. Presidents, to be sure, presided over the meetings of the Council and showed up, text in hand, for their presidential addresses at the annual meeting, but beyond this level of relatively minimal supervision of the Association, little was asked of them. These days, the widening scope of the AHA’s activities, both in terms of the tasks performed on behalf of its own membership, as well as the wide range of advocacy it undertakes on behalf of historians everywhere in the world, means that there is a steady stream of issues requiring active participation on the part of the President, the Council, and elected Officers. The AHA itself has significantly extended its outreach, and today comprises some 18,000 individual and institutional members drawn from the ranks of history teachers in universities, two and four year colleges and secondary schools as well as scholars working in historical societies, government and independent institutions. Simultaneously, the Association has moved into new areas of leadership and advocacy for the discipline by establishing and monitoring professional standards, encouraging its members to use the latest technologies to disseminate their work and developing relationships with the international historical community. Indeed, one of the more surprising aspects of holding office in the AHA has been a growing recognition of the enormous range and importance of its advocacy on behalf of historians and history at every level of the profession and in every corner of the globe.

During my year as president this latter function involved us in protests against the violent raid on the offices the St. Petersburg human rights organization, “Memorial,” on December 4, 2008, during which police confiscated 11 hard drives of documentary material from the archive, dedicated to testimonials about the experiences of those sent to the Gulag. Because of widespread protest by organizations such as the American Historical Association, I am happy to report that as of this writing the disks have been returned to the archive. We also participated in a similar protest this summer against the creation by the Russian government of a “Commission to Counteract Attempts at Falsifying History to Damage the Interests of Russia” as well as a law pending in the Duma to make it a crime, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment to “misrepresent the Nuremberg Trial or that of national trials or tribunals based on the Nuremberg Trial aimed at the total or partial rehabilitation of Nazism and Nazi criminals, or accusations of any actions undertaken by the states-members of the anti-Hitler coalition as being criminal, as well as positive approval or denial of Nazi crimes against world peace.” As in an earlier case involving requests to endorse the European Union’s criminalization of Holocaust denial, the AHA has always stood for the principle that it can never be in the public interest to forbid study of or publication about any historical topic, or to forbid the publication of particular historical theses. Any limitation on freedom of research or expression, however well intentioned, violates a fundamental principle of scholarship: that the researcher must be able to investigate any aspect of the past and to report without fear what the evidence reveals. Freedom of inquiry enables some writers to put forward untenable or otherwise questionable arguments, but it also enables others to rebut them, and it is in that realm of free public debate that historians can and must work.

Nor have we restricted our protests to the activities of foreign governments. The AHA, acting together with the National Coalition for History (housed at AHA headquarters), has long advocated the repeal of George W. Bush’s Presidential Executive Order 13233 which gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely, thus contravening the earlier Presidential Records Act, according to which presidential records are supposed to be released to historians and the public 12 years after the end of a presidential administration. It was a source of great satisfaction that President Barack Obama, on the very first day of his presidency, repealed Bush’s Executive Order 13233, a goal on which the NCH and the AHA had worked tirelessly for many years.

These public activities of the AHA, together with the ongoing tasks entailed in any large professional organization, are enabled and made effective by the extraordinary talent and efficiency of the AHA’s executive director and staff. But one of the biggest surprises, for me anyway, was to realize that all of this activity is supported by an extremely modest endowment, indeed one shockingly small for an institution as old and venerable as the AHA, some of which, in addition, is restricted in its use to support the prizes awarded at the annual meeting. Thus the largest portion of time during my presidential year was devoted to developing a capital campaign that, if successful, would allow the AHA, together with its affiliates currently housed at 400 A Street—the National History Center prime among them—to move into desperately needed larger quarters and to augment an endowment badly hit, as was the case with all educational institutions, by the economic collapse of last year.

To that end, one of my primary concerns on first becoming president was to establish a new Finance committee that included members with expertise on investment strategies as well as elected officers of the Association and would better determine the health of our investments and the strategies needed to ensure that we would earn a reasonable rate of return on a rather small but critical endowment. Both of those goals have now been accomplished and thanks to the generous advice and ongoing participation of Charles Booth and Thomas Rugh, we have succeeded in moving the AHA’s funds to TIAA-CREF and established a mechanism for oversight of their professional management.

Along those lines, we have also begun the preliminary work required to ascertain whether or not it would be feasible to launch a capital campaign to raise funds for the AHA and the National History Center, with the principal goals of allowing us to purchase new headquarters to house those institutions and to augment the endowment of programs. This is not the first time that such a campaign has been considered; one of the larger efforts proposed by the AHA, with its unerring historical instincts, arose in 1928 and ours was timed no less adroitly. We commissioned a feasibility report, now concluded with predictably mixed results and are in the process of forming a task force to try to frame the exact terms of such a campaign, should improvements in the economy and the identification of potential donors make success likely. Since one of the great problems in all professional organizations is the constant rotation of officers who can participate in such an effort, both Wm. Roger Louis, head of the National History Center, and I have agreed to stay on for five years to see the campaign through should it, in fact, be deemed feasible. Sheldon Hackney has generously agreed to serve as the chair of the campaign and is working with us to steer it through the initial planning stages.

The activities outlined above account for only a tiny fraction of the AHA’s tasks, the largest of course being its publication of the American Historical Review, Perspectives on History, pamphlets, and other publications, together with the annual meeting, held in January 2009 in New York and, somewhat to our surprise, with the highest number of attendance within living memory. Continuing efforts on the implementation of the recommendations of the Working Group on the Future of the AHA chaired by William Chafe, along with those of the Teaching, Professional and Research Divisions and the newly enlarged Graduate and Early Career Committee is in process along with the work of the large number of committees and prize committees, which draw on the talents and expertise of a large number of historians in the profession at all levels. Without their participation, and without the tireless work of the AHA staff, the status of history and the working conditions of historians would be, I am convinced, considerably impoverished.

The one final task to which I am devoting my time as immediate past president, is to co-chair, along with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the current President, the search for a new executive director to succeed Arnita Jones when she retires at the end of the August, 2010. She will be sorely missed but we hope to be able to recruit a new Executive Director of comparable skill and commitment to the well-being of the AHA.

Gabrielle Spiegel (Johns Hopkins University) was president of the AHA for 2008.