Memory  /  Argument

What AHA President James Sweet Got Wrong—And Right

Attacking presentism as a mindset of younger scholars doesn’t solve any of the historical profession's problems.

Just after Christmas, the chief of staff of the United States Army stood before a national meeting of historians to tell them America’s military weakness was their fault.

You people, the general declared, have been writing bad textbooks. Few of you, he added, study military history at all anymore.

Because of what you teach—or don’t teach—in high school, America’s voters are complacent. Because of you, Congress has been underspending on national defense.

This claim went over about as well as you’d expect.

A former president of the American Historical Association icily replied a couple of days later that if the general would just get right-wing activists, parents, and legislators to stop censoring their work, his members would be happy to write honest textbooks.

It was 1939, four months after the Nazis invaded Poland.[1]

History Is Political

More than eighty years later, the only surprising thing about General George C. Marshall’s attack—or Charles A. Beard’s rebuttal—is that anyone ever equated being a historian with writing high school textbooks. In every other respect, the story is familiar.

History is political because human experience is political. Historians have power, or at least we want them to. We require that secondary-school and university students study history because we hope it will shape their behavior as citizens. The work of historians, therefore, is always likely to be controversial.

The real question is how historians should exercise their power.

A Professional Controversy

This summer, the current president of the American Historical Association wrote a 1,600-word essay for the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives on History. It ran under the headline “Is History History?”

He probably expected entire dozens of readers to see his essay. Perspectives is not exactly Us Weekly. Instead, James H. Sweet found himself under intense criticism from many of his colleagues on social media—especially on Twitter.

Within days, Sweet felt compelled to add an apology to the web version of the article. But responses from other historians in Perspectives kept the controversy simmering throughout September and October.

Then The Atlantic reported on it.

In “The New History Wars,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who has an MA in history, portrayed James Sweet as a victim of younger academics’ political correctness. Much of Frum’s story was measured in tone. But at the end, he added a joke about Soviet censorship to characterize “much of academia” today, intimating that contemporary historical scholarship is being taken over by ideologues.