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The Academy, The War And The Historians By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 15, 2002

THIS PAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT, along with a few thousand others, I was privileged to attend the annual Francis Boyer Award Dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, to hear Norman Podhoretz give the recipient’s annual speech. Podhoretz chose to speak about the intellectuals, the culture and the war on terrorism. He reminded us, looking back to the early days of the war in Vietnam, that the American intervention was in fact not only popular and supported by most of the populace, but that even the American media and its news reporters strongly backed the War. It was only later when an active minority, composed largely of both the literary community and the new student rebels began to oppose the intervention, that the tide turned and the minority was able to effectively change the American mindset, so that the Johnson administration was put on the defensive. So successful was their campaign, Podhoretz argued, that even Richard M. Nixon was forced to pretend that he had a method of extricating the United States from the conflict should he be elected President. Podhoretz also reminded us that even when the Vietnamese Communists suffered a major defeat, such as that which occurred after their Tet offensive, it was inaccurately reported. Walter Cronkite proclaimed on the CBS Evening News that Hanoi had scored a major victory and that the United States had lost and that perhaps it was time for the US to consider leaving Vietnam. From that moment on, it was clear that it was the cultural war over Vietnam that really had been lost.

Now, Podhoretz argued, the chance still exists that the viewpoint of a minority of anti-Americans among the intellectual elite such as Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Eric Foner and other culprits he cited could interfere with the Bush administration’s effort to wage a long and necessary war one he termed World War IV against terrorism and the countries which give the terrorist infrastructure economic, political and military support. The tide could turn, he warned, once it becomes apparent that success requires real commitment and struggle, and might, as in Vietnam, result in significant American losses. That is why it is so important that those of us in favor of waging a war against terrorism never lose sight of the need to prepare the ground for the public to accept its necessary responsibility by continuing to argue in favor of the war, and to never cease in fighting against those among the intelligentsia who will continue to cast aspersions against it.

The same day he spoke, The Institute for American Values, a communitarian think tank in New York, released an important open letter to America from a group of 60 academics and public policy officials, in support of the war against terrorism. Titled “What We’re Fighting For,” the statement marks an important departure in the onslaught of anti-American and anti-war sentiment among the elites. Most significant is that the signatories include a coalition of individuals from both the conservative, neo-conservative, communitarian and left-liberal communities. They include former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now at Syracuse University; Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University; Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, James Q. Wilson of UCLA, and Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University. Etzioni told Fox News that the nation had to be reminded why we were at war because the signers sensed a weakening of resolve. Other signers also include Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University Law School, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Walzer of Princeton University and Dissent magazine, and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The statement is indeed an important development, although as Podhoretz argued, it is unnecessarily defensive, and might have been stronger. Reading through the long and sometimes convoluted arguments that go on and on, one detects almost too much of an attempt to cover every base, and to let its obviously intellectual audience for whom the statement is clearly intended have every argument possible so that they will not feel uneasy to actually be defending military action. Nevertheless, it is a positive statement, particularly when its authors write, “if the danger to innocent life is real and certain, and especially if the aggressor is motivated by implacable hostility if the end he seeks is not your willingness to negotiate or comply, but rather your destruction then a resort to proportionate force is morally justified.” The authors acknowledge that some of the signers of the letter oppose “certain U.S. and western policies,” but they emphasize that our radical Islamic enemies oppose the “foundational principle of the modern world, religious tolerance… as well as those fundamental human rights” that are part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and which they argue “must be the basis of any civilization oriented to human flourishing, justice, and peace.” Most importantly, the signatories understand that those who attacked our nation on September 11 “constitute a clear and present danger to all people of good will everywhere in the world,” and that they are guilty of “naked aggression against innocent human life, a world-threatening evil that clearly requires the use of force to remove it.”

One must wonder, of course, why American intellectuals would have to go to such great lengths to spell out the reasons why our country has to be at war. The reasons, at least for ordinary citizens, are quite clear. The problem is that this is not the case with many American intellectuals. Once again, it seems that American historians are among those who are the most obtuse. Case in point is the current issue of the Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians. The February issue features an article by Alan Singer called, “Now is the Time to Teach Democracy.” It features the following sentence, which the Newsletter’s editors have highlighted in super size text which they put in a center box alongside the article: “The events of September 11 do not compare in magnitude with a number of actions taken by the United States since the end of World War II including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the systematic destruction of Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.”

This nonsense comes, mind you, from an individual who dares to call himself a historian, and who even worse, now educates future teachers at Hofstra University in New York. In the past weeks, much evidence has been gathered to show how, in fact, lives have been saved and terror abated in Afghanistan because of the destruction of the Taliban. But Professor Singer dares to claim that our country is continually engaging in “systematic destruction” of the world’s innocents. One is again reminded of George Orwell’s famous remark, made after reading a particularly fatuous remark from a 1940s-era pacifist in Britain, that such garbage must have been said by an intellectual, since no ordinary person could believe it.

Indeed Professor Singer begins his article by informing us that while he was meeting with student teachers on September 11, he found one of them sobbing, as she feared her husband had died, since he worked on a top floor of one of the Trade Center towers. He then continues to say how “distressed” he was to read a commentary a few weeks later by Diane Ravitch, who, writing in a teacher’s journal, said “we must not teach children to tolerate whose who hijack commercial jetliners and kill innocent victims.” To the average reader, Ravitch’s words appear to be good common sense, ones that in fact should not have had to be spelled out in an education journal in the first place.

So what upsets Professor Singer? Nothing less than his fear that Ravitch’s words are “an ad hominem attack…to silence people who are protesting against the bombing of Afghanistan.” Since to most readers, Ravitch has said nothing of the sort, Singer’s condemnation appears as nothing but bizarre. What really upsets him is that the clear-minded Ravitch knows that there is absolutely no equation at all between the terrorist attack of September 11 and the wars of defense fought by the United States.

Moreover, Diane Ravitch understands that what is called multiculturalism in the academy is a dangerous and divisive ideology, one that encourages people to think of themselves as part of a group to which they belong, rather than as one among other individuals. It is an ideology that leads to the very kind of “cultural relativism” that leads those who adhere to its tenets to excuse and seek to “understand” the views of Islamofascist radicals, whom they are then hesitant to condemn. Professor Singer is aghast at her views. Noting that he stands with those who “challenge racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and gender-bias,”

assuring us he stands with the gods of political correctness Singer then goes on to compare Ravitch, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden as one of a kind all supposedly people who believe “there is a universal truth that has been granted only to us.”

Professor Singer is furious that Ravitch is fed up with those who argue we must “try to understand why others in the world hate America.” Professor Singer, to the contrary, is proud that he stands with those who indeed “see their task as one of explanation.” And he proceeds to let us know quoting an old Rand Institute publication no less how the Islamic world feels itself under siege and sees itself as victims of the West. Singer a man obviously unfamiliar with the writings of Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, Victor Davis Hanson and others prefers to insure that his own students learn the difference “between Islam…and the actions of one organized group or a few individuals.” Moreover, he wants to assure that his students learn “why many people in other countries believe they have been injured by the United States and its allies.” It is the old radical refrain the US is to blame; our actions are responsible for their attacks, and only addressing the underlying cause of America’s role can stop terror which after all, is only a response to the bad we do. Students, he says, need to read reports from the other nations and get “multiple perspectives.” To think they may otherwise respond as Americans and unite with their fellow citizens to repel aggression.

Professor Singer ends with the old canard dug up from Vietnam days. He is “proud to stand with Abraham Lincoln,” he tells us, who “in 1847 risked his political career by defying a President who misled the American people in order to launch an imperialist adventure.” Notice the language the Mexican War was an “imperialist adventure.” The US, it seems, was “imperialist” back in the 19th Century, although most historians date America’s imperial role to 1898 and the turn of the Century. And, of course, he is proud to stand with Rep. Jeannette Rankin who voted against US entry into World War I, with Senator Wayne Morse who opposed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and to keep things up to date with Rep. Barbara Lee, who cast the only dissenting vote in Congress against US military intervention to stop terrorism.

As a radical, Singer says the US government has to end what he calls “gross international inequalities,” which he believes, of course, are “maintained by United States military power.” If that is the case, then any use of that very military power by its very nature works to bolster the imperialist system, and by not addressing the so-called “root causes” of terrorism, actually insures that terrorism will continue. His ending is a virtual replay of Noam Chomsky a left-wing screed about how the US system “consigns millions” to “refugee camps, battered cities and desiccated villages and fields of the Middle East,” producing scores of young people who have “very little to lose.” The root cause of terrorism, therefore, is the United States. We are the guilty, and obviously, are receiving our just desserts.

Alan Singer’s article is in itself nothing new. It is hardly distinguished; it reads almost as a parody of the left-wing worldview. What is significant, however, is that it is featured in a newsletter sent to virtually all historians of American history teaching in our nation’s universities. Obviously, his sentiments are shared by the OAH’s editors, who feel that Singer’s views are representative of many of their own organization’s membership. And so they are. And that is why we must heed Norman Podhoretz’s admonition as he closed his Boyer speech. We must, he told us, not relent in making the case for waging the war against terrorism. Just as neo-conservatives in the ‘70s and ‘80s laid the groundwork for the Reagan administration’s successful conclusion of the war against Communism by undermining the arguments of those who sought “understanding” with the Soviet Union, so too must we carry on the intellectual war against those who, in the name of social justice, would weaken our resolve. The Alan Singer article is, unfortunately, proof that once again, Norman Podhoretz is correct.

Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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