A Revolutionary Proposal

Wm. Roger Louis, March 2001

With lots of prestige and very little power, the president of the AHA is rather like the governor of Texas. The limited scope for presidential initiative is especially apparent in the two most important functions of the AHA, the publication of the American Historical Review and the convening of the annual meeting. It is entirely right that the president should have no influence at all on the AHR. On the program for the annual meeting, the president might help out but in the past has rarely been asked. In my view, it is a mistake not to enlist both the president-elect and the president to help provide a challenging list of speakers and discussions. The president is in a unique position to lend support in making sure that as many fields as possible are represented, that all members of the AHA feel that the program is balanced and comprehensive, and that it includes ample opportunity for younger members of our profession while not neglecting senior historians.

I mention the AHR in connection with the program because one of the complaints I hear most frequently about both is that they neglect traditional economic, military, and political (more specifically diplomatic) history. I believe both these criticisms to be ill-founded, indeed untrue. In the case of the AHR, one has only to turn to the table of contents of last year's issues to find proof to the contrary. The economic theme suffuses the recent debates on slavery and the slave trade, and there was an article by Steven Topik on bonds and bankers in Mexico before World War I as well as one by David Engerman on Soviet economic development. In political history, Matt Connelly dealt with the struggle for Algerian independence, and Andrew Rotter wrote on "Orientalism" and U.S. diplomatic history. It is true that military history in the strict sense of battlefield narrative or naval engagement was not represented during the last year, but in recent years very few articles on military history have been submitted for publication. The AHR has scheduled for possible publication a forum on World War II in national histories since 1945, and a review essay on the Vietnamese wars.

I do not want to pursue the issue at length here, but I believe myself that the AHR is flourishing as never before. Under the current editor, Michael Grossberg, the film section now appears in each issue rather than as a yearly installment, and regular features now include debates on controversial issues, such as the recent forum on "The New British History in Atlantic Perspective." The AHR is now produced electronically as well as in its traditional format. Color plates frequently appear. I know from my own experience that editorial standards are among the highest in our profession. Above all, it is the editor's initiative in commissioning articles that has raised the intellectual quality of the journal. No doubt there is still room for improvement—especially in expanding the scope of the review section—but we are all in Grossberg's debt for his having refashioned the AHR into a journal that is an aesthetic pleasure as well as one that stirs the imagination on topics of research as well as on argument and interpretation. In my own judgment, the AHR is slowly altering our consciousness of how we perceive history.

The annual meeting program is more problematical, in part because of the turnover of the Program Committee. Each year, a new committee starts virtually afresh. But I believe the accusations of neglecting economic, military, and political history to be as untrue for the recent program in Boston as for last year's issues of the AHR. Some of the topics in the 2001 program were colonial fascisms in international history, China and the Cold War, "What Can Economic Historians Tell Us about Native American History?" Middle East labor history, the military mind and military history, the narratives of World War II, and "War, Science, and the State in the Twentieth Century." One session about which I heard especially favorable comments was John Dower's "Postwar Japan and the Cultures of Defeat." In mentioning such subjects, some historians will probably think that the pendulum has swung back too far, but there appears to be a rhythm in fashionable and unfashionable subjects. It is of course the responsibility of the Program Committee to achieve an overall balance of topics while making every effort to ensure fair representation of gender and ethnic diversity and those underrepresented in the historical profession including public historians and those holding adjunct positions. Last year's Program Committee certainly upheld standards and managed to help draw well over 5,000 historians to Boston—the greatest number in the recent history of the AHA. I detected not only satisfaction with the program but even occasional intellectual effervescence, as, for example, in the session on "Meaning and Time: The Problem of Historical Narrative."

In recent years the annual meeting program has given more scope to problems of teaching and has increasingly provided vital opportunities for younger historians to take part. By presenting papers at the annual meeting, graduate students and others participate for the first time in historical debate beyond their own colleges and universities, and, among other things, learn how to present a closely argued paper within 20 minutes or so. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have witnessed a decline in the number of senior historians represented on the program.

During my tenure as president, I want to encourage the wholehearted participation of our leading historians in the general affairs of the AHA and specifically on the 2002 program. With the permission of the cochairs of the Program Committee, I have already written to the presidents of all of the affiliated societies urging them to recruit the prominent historians in their respective fields not merely to chair a session or to offer a concluding comment, but to present a paper. In my view, one of the reasons historians attend the annual meeting is to be able to listen to those who have distinguished themselves in their fields of study. I hope that "Conversations with Past Presidents" will be included as a regular feature in future programs. None of that will be at the expense of offering graduate students and younger historians an opportunity to appear on the program, nor will it impede the search to include the unorthodox and the dissenting. Historians go to the annual meeting to discover new talent, to test new trends, and to debate controversial ideas. Very emphatically, most of them do not decide to attend the yearly convention merely to hear the great and the good. But it is true that we have seen a decline in the participation of senior historians and this is a phenomenon that must be confronted.

The theme of the 2002 program is "Frontiers." The cochairs are Philippa Levine of the University of Southern California and Paul Ropp of Clark University. I know in conversation with them that they are aiming at an imaginative and robust program, developing the idea of frontiers in intellectual and social as well as political and economic history and embracing historical themes at all times and all places. As a prelude I can already reveal the participants in the plenary session, "Frontiers and Empires." They include James Piscatori of Oxford University on the Middle East, Toyin Falola of the University of Texas at Austin on Africa, Marilyn Young of New York University on Asia, and Richard White of Stanford University on North America. This is an exceedingly good omen for the 2002 program. I want to extend on behalf of the general membership of the AHA best wishes to the members of the Program Committee in the quest for a memorable annual meeting in San Francisco.

Points of detail sometimes have symbolic overtones. A few years ago, former Presidents Joseph Miller and Robert Darnton faced a wave of discontent on the part of some affiliated societies because they believed they were treated as second-class associates of the AHA. Their listings in the program appeared in smaller typeface and thus carried the stigma of inferiority. The affiliates now stand in full glory with exactly the same font as regular sessions of the AHA. But the program in its present form gives the impression of the tail wagging the dog. The sessions of the affiliated societies appear at the beginning of the program, and those of the AHA somewhere toward the middle. I propose that the AHA further embrace the equal status of the affiliates and integrate the two parts of the program so that all sessions appear in chronological order. This would help to prevent such overlaps as occurred in this year's program with virtually all the sessions on India scheduled at the same time. It appears, however, that this is a revolutionary proposal, and not merely because of the equality of the affiliates. I have already been told that it simply can't be done—for the interesting reason that it violates the way the program has been published in the past. But revolutions are made in part by persistence, and by next January we hope to have a program that reads from beginning to end in chronological sequence. And by then we'll be able to announce the winners of the Gutenberg-e competition, which this year is in diplomatic and military history.  

—Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is president of the AHA.