There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
Olin Hall- 3rd Floor
Ben Barnes (l) and John Connally (c) meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, 1980. Barnes has recently repeated claims previously made to historian H.W. Brands (and published in Brands’s biography of Ronald Reagan) that this meeting was part of Connally’s effort to delay the release of American hostages held by Iran to secure Reagan’s election.
Peter Baker recently reported in the New York Times that Ben Barnes, a Texas politician and protegé of the former Texas governor John Connally, has chosen to speak out about a mission to the Middle East he and Connally took in 1980. According to Barnes, the purpose of meetings with a number of Middle East leaders was to encourage those leaders to convey to the Iranian government that it would be in their interest to delay the release of American hostages, a move damaging to the reelection effort of Jimmy Carter, and negotiate the release of the hostages with Ronald Reagan, whom Connally supported. Congressional investigations of the hostage crisis did not address Connally’s trip.
Baker also reported that Barnes’s claims were mentioned in H.W. Brands’s biography of Ronald Reagan, and that Brands was one of four individuals Barnes identified as having previously heard the story.
Professor Brands agreed to answer some questions from HNN about Barnes’s claims by email today, and how this “revelation” has been hiding in plain sight.
HNN: How did you come to speak with Barnes about Governor Connally’s trip to the Middle East?
While researching my book about Reagan, I asked Ben Barnes, whom I had known, if he had had any dealings with Reagan. In the conversation he mentioned his trip with John Connally to the Middle East in the summer of 1980. He told me that his trip with his old friend and mentor turned out to have a purpose beyond making Connally look like secretary of state material. Connally conveyed to governments and influential people in the Middle East that it would “not be helpful” - Barnes’s characterization - to the Reagan campaign if the hostages were released before the election. I asked Barnes if that message came to Connally from William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager at that time; Barnes said he didn’t know and didn’t ask.
I followed up in some Connally papers at the LBJ Library to corroborate the journey. It checked out. There I also discovered a memo of a phone call from Nancy Reagan at the Reagan ranch to Connally on the trip. So Reagan was aware of the trip.
HNN: Did it make any waves when you wrote about Barnes’s account in your biography of Reagan?
Very little. I was surprised.
HNN: The idea that the release of the hostages was manipulated to harm Carter’s reelection bid is part of the lore surrounding the 1980 election, so it seems odd that a revelation like this would pass by unremarked. Is this a case of people’s responses being governed by their preexisting assumptions, or is it a case where the implications about American power and political tricks are too disturbing to discuss? Why is there a collective shrug, aside from the passage of 43 years?
The principals categorically denied any such thing. Watergate elevated the standard of evidence in such case to the “smoking gun.” At the time there was no smoking gun.
HNN: Some critics, notably the media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, have questioned the veracity of Barnes’s account and the chain of events – specifically stating that Carter ultimately negotiated the release of the hostages, which was completed moments after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, and that Connally’s lack of experience made him unlikely to be successful in such secret dealing. Do you think Barnes is credible about Connally’s intentions, and if so, should we think of Connally as an opportunist or a well-connected operator?
I find it very difficult to believe that Connally was free-lancing. William Casey was too canny to allow that. Furthermore, Casey seems to have had a second-track of backdoor communications with Iran, including a September meeting in Madrid with people who presented themselves as go-betweens. In 1980 this seemed outlandish. But after the Iran-contra scandal broke, it seemed entirely plausible. By then Casey was dead, and he had covered his tracks well.
I have known Ben Barnes for thirty years. And I find it very difficult to believe he was making this up.
HNN: Finally, how much should this cause us to rethink the 1980 election? Could this trip have changed the course of American history?
No, and here’s why. By the summer of 1980, the hostages had lost their value to their captors. They were looking for a way to release them. But the last thing they wanted to do was help Carter get reelected. Carter was the reason the hostages were seized; the kidnappers thought Carter was planning to reinstall the shah (as Eisenhower had done in 1953). In effect, Connally and Casey were telling the Iranians not to do something the Iranians had no intention of doing. And far from the hostage release reflecting the Iranians’ fear of Reagan, as the Reagan side spun things, the timing reflected their hatred for Carter and their preference for Reagan.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian, writer and activist based in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, 2017) and an organizer of The Civil War Documentary, “a forthcoming documentary made by a team of historians looking at the racial, class, gender, sexual, & cultural history of the war that remade millions of American lives and a new world” (follow it on Twitter). She is also the co-editor, with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams, of After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America (Haymarket, 2022).
Dr. Merritt recently joined HNN editor Michan Connor by chat to discuss After Life, public engagement by historians, the role of history in making a humane society, and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
HNN: We’re discussing the 2022 volume After Life which you edited with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams. It’s March 14 today, which is approximately three years to the day when the COVID pandemic started to get real for most Americans. It’s when many of us started to realize that this virus was becoming a public health crisis, and it’s also when, in hindsight, it became political, in terms of the distribution of risk, disruption and loss. I wanted to start with the way that you and your co-editor Rhae Lynn Barnes describe the inspiration for After Life coming from the work produced by the WPA Federal Writers project, which sent such an eclectic group of novelists, journalists and scholars to describe the state of America under the depression. In reading, I certainly saw some parallels, particularly in the way that many of the essays in After Life situate the experience of the pandemic in place, and the way that American places reflect so much of the divergence in risk and loss during the pandemic.
Can you talk a bit about how this framework came about, and how you and your collaborators saw it as a way to make sense of America under COVID?
Keri Leigh Merritt: As my co-editors and I were picking possible contributors to the book, we decided to ask some of our favorite writers and then give them carte blanche to write about whatever they wanted. So many historians and legal scholars have to write in a very formulaic way most of the time, so we gave them complete freedom to be as creative as they desired. We have Bancroft prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Guggenheim award winners – amazing, passionate writers. But we also very much paid attention to diversity in this book, and not just from a cultural perspective but from a geographic perspective as well (thanks for noticing!). We didn’t want it to just be big coastal elite cities with writers from all Ivy League schools. We thought this topic deserved to be told by a diverse array of people from different backgrounds, living in different parts of the country. That would be the only way this could be a truly “American” story.
HNN: That’s absolutely true, and I was struck by that departure from the “formula” of historiographical writing. I think it’s the case, too, that what many of the WPA writers explored was the history of places before the Depression, as well as their roots in those places, to make the Depression legible; some of the essays that you gathered weren’t necessarily about COVID, but about how experience in place in some way paved the way for COVID. Robert Tsai, to give one example, wrote really compellingly about a hometown that he left, but his memories touched on the ways that the town sorted “winners” and “losers”—without hitting the reader over the head, he lets them make a connection about how a very unequal mass death event could be normalized. Was that kind of writing an original goal or a fortunate surprise?
To put it a different way, did you find the project changing when your authors actually were as creative as they desired?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Robert’s was one of my favorite essays! He beautifully describes the end stages of deindustrialization, as well as deaths of despair, in almost lyrical prose. And yes, that type of intensely personal essay was a fortunate surprise. When I say we gave contributors complete freedom, I mean it. What we got back was incredibly interesting. Some pieces are pretty historical (e.g. Martha Hodes and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall)—comparing the current period to eras from the past—but most of these are extremely personal, soul-baring essays (e.g. Robin D.G. Kelley and Yohuru Williams). Many of them are histories of the writer’s family, little micro-histories. Because our collective goal was to end on a note of optimism, instead of despair, it was fascinating to see how people went back to their own histories to shore up some kind of hope to survive this ordeal; to continue on.
HNN: Your answer takes me to a next question, which relates to the politics of After Life. And, as you noted, there are historical arguments like Hall’s (connecting the white supremacist terrorism of the 1873 Colfax Massacre to the ways in which deaths go unmarked) or Tera Hunter’s (on the “afterlife” of racialized ideas about contagion and the exploited labor needed to sustain a society in the midst of epidemics) that are explicitly about the broader political through-lines from past to present, and some that are much more about family and micro-histories. I want to come back to the second group later, but I’d want to note that After Life is a book that makes its commitments pretty clear: we can’t understand how this pandemic affected America without understanding systemic inequality (racism especially). Peniel Joseph wrote in his essay that the convergence of the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder in 2020 was a clarifying moment for Black Americans (and their allies) to demand change in the deficient relationship of the state to their lives. And now, by the standards set by new legislation, After Life would be taken out of school libraries in many states. How do you see the role of historical understanding in these real-life struggles?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Well, I think historical understanding certainly provides insight into what’s going on writ large. Meaning that all the issues we tackle in the book: COVID, the rise of Donald Trump, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, etc., are all intertwined in the sense that the US government is not adequately rising to its basic obligations, as one of the richest nations in the history of the world, to provide fundamental human and civil rights to its citizens. There’s a direct correlation between elite control of our political system and the fact that our government continues to place profits before people, whether in health care, poverty programs, infrastructure, gun control, or even education.
To maintain their wealth, and thus, their power, the elite must continue to divide poor and working-class people – people with similar economic needs – by stoking the flames of racism, xenophobia, prejudice, and hate. They use the most punitive (so-called) “justice” system in the world to incarcerate the largest percentage of people in the world. They’ve denied basic universal healthcare to people during the deadliest time in our nation’s history, even under Democratic leadership. They are banning books and imposing censorship and firing librarians and educators. They are allowing mass shootings – mass murder – to occur multiple times a day. They’re expanding military-armed police forces, who brutalize and kill our loved ones with near impunity. They’ve closed hospitals during a pandemic, while building even more prisons.
We must deal with these issues in a revolutionary way, and soon. If we don’t, I fear what the future holds for America. Censorship and book banning have been recurrent themes throughout American history – but if history teaches us anything, we’ve got to fight this NOW, before they take things to the next level. However, I want to emphasize again that I think knowledge and education are only part of the solution to our current problems. I think there are deeper emotional and psychological wounds that we must address, too – but that is a whole different book!
HNN: I think it’s maybe a bit of a silly question to ask you, then (but I will anyway), where you stand on the recent controversy about “presentism” raised by the remarks of the former AHA president (and a recent New Yorker article)? I found Stephen Berry’s phrasing in “Confederates Take the Capitol”—”Historians aren’t antiquarians; we’re not interested in old things because they are old. We exist to tell you when the engine of time throws a rod”—to be pretty evocative!
Keri Leigh Merritt: While a divide between what I call the “moral relativists” and “activist historians” has always existed within the profession, activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved in popular history and public scholarship in intense fashion. They are working to change the world, from Prison Reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They’re speaking to an American public who desperately and increasingly want to hear what they have to say.
Most activist historians, I would assume, believe there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we’ve been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all and stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths that are timeless.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t think James Sweet’s AHA comments have anything to do with presentism. Instead, they have everything to do with old white men losing their monopolistic power over the profession. The last part of this is just simple professional jealousy. The moral relativists don’t like the fact that some younger scholars have been able to reach a broad public audience, primarily through social media. The moral relativists cannot stand the fact that some activist historians have also figured out how to monetize their work. To me, it’s all about democratizing knowledge. We are historians – the AHA is an organization for historians, not college professors – and our job is to educate the American people about history. To do this effectively, we must meet people where they are, and that increasingly means a tweet or TikTok video, not a book. Change is coming. And as always, the people in power don’t like change.
HNN: Thanks for that discussion – I think the question of meeting people where they are is increasingly urgent, and a project like After Life is a great example of that. It’s noteworthy, too, of course, that the historians interviewed in that New Yorker piece were drawn from some pretty elite positions inside academe, which, as we know, is not where the people called historians are likely to be! And despite the attention given to student activists at the Ivies or Oberlin or wherever, it’s not, as you say, where the people who want to hear what historians can tell them are, either.
HNN: That leads me to a last big question, and a return to talk about that category of essays in the book about the personal, the familial, and the emotional. There’s another big professional (or at least professorial) norm that this book pushes back against, which is detachment. Readers are going to find scholars talking about their own confusion, fear, grief, or shame. You referred earlier to ending the volume on a tone of hope, but some of these stories, including your own, are painful and harrowing. What’s the path to hope?
Keri Leigh Merritt: I think what’s so comforting about the personal stories is that we fully recognize that other human beings have gone through similar types of losses and have still been able to survive, even thrive. Stories – narratives – are so incredibly powerful. It’s in this way that we find strength and hope from our forefathers and foremothers. The extreme painfulness of some these stories (including mine!) also shows just how much we can endure, and I think there is some comfort in realizing that no matter how bad things get, we are not alone in our suffering.
Every living being suffers. We are one of many – and that makes us feel a sense of connection to others.
One of the main things I worry about is the isolation of people during the pandemic, continuing through today. Even the most introverted people are social creatures, who need companionship, love, human touch. The pandemic changed all of those things, irreparably. But until we actually have government or mainstream media acknowledge the immense loss this county has endured, we will never be able to emotionally and psychologically deal with our collective grief.
Back to your question, though: When I give book talks I am often asked by people how I hold on to hope, especially now as it seems the Black Lives Matter momentum has died down some. I say I find hope in two things right now. The first is the labor movement, all of the amazing pockets of labor power across the country where workers are really fighting back against huge, incredibly rich, powerful corporations. And they’re often winning! The other place I find hope is in the incredible young people of this country. They’re the ones literally putting their lives on the line to fight for both human and climate justice. Young white people today are more involved in civil rights protests than they have ever been at any other time in American history.
Finally, I remind people that civil rights movements take a very long time, often decades. There are years that are filled with passionate protests, and there are years that are calmer, meant for reflection and care-taking and grassroots organizing. We may be in a calm period right now, but we should use this time to take care of ourselves – really work on self-care as we try to heal from the ravages of COVID and the last three years. We must get ourselves reestablished and reacquainted with our communities, and start building things from the ground up. We have to stop focusing on ourselves, getting lost in our own heads, in our own egos, turning our attention inwards; instead, we must focus on the external world and what we can do for people around us – what we can do to help others. I believe this is the basis of how hope is created and sustained.
HNN: That upsurge in labor organizing, as well as the activism of youth, is a cause for some optimism. And, while I can’t do justice to the individual stories in this collection, I think Mary Dudziak’s meditation on grief and remembrance clarifying political priorities, and Rhae Lynn Barnes’s story – which rethinks the open road in that context of isolation and even suspicion of our fellow people—deserve some note on that theme. I think that HNN’s readers will draw something important from this book.
I think it’s particularly important, too, in light of the fact that the Biden administration intends to end the COVID emergency in May. The contraction of Medicaid is going to relegate too many people to being uninsured. It’s going to be the end of free testing kits, and more “you’re on your own” policy. We’re going to need to be on our own together, right?
Keri Leigh Merritt: Unfortunately, yes. In one of the richest countries in the world, we are still left alone in this “DIY pandemic,” as we call it in the book. As Yohuru Williams and I write in the conclusion, “Our call to action in these borrowed years—in this after life—is quite clear: the path forward is one of uplift and radical hope. Stop being paralyzed by fear and anxiety; start being motivated by hope and passion. Stop feeling all alone within the current crisis; start connecting and organizing. Stop allowing other people and events to dictate a reaction; start being the action itself. Stop resisting; start creating. We have been given the incredible gift of life; we have survived one of the deadliest pandemics in history, and in so doing, we have realized the vast importance of every single moment we have on this earth. We have been given an after life. Use that after life to create the present you desire, and the future of your American dreams.”
Bayard Rustin’s intake mugshot, Lewisburg Penitentiary, 1945. Rustin was incarcerated for resistance to the military draft prior to American entry into the second World War.
War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance by Daniel Akst (Melville House, 2022)
Nuclear war moved closer to the realm of possibility in 2019, when the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It became even more conceivable last month, when Russia stopped participating in the New START treaty, which called for Russia and the U.S. to reduce their nuclear arsenals and verify that they were honoring their commitments.
No doubt Max Kampelman would have been alarmed. An American lawyer and diplomat who died in 2013, Kampelman negotiated the first-ever nuclear arms reduction treaties between the two superpowers, in 1987 and 1991. He was also an ex-pacifist who had gone to prison during World War II for refusing to be drafted. There, he volunteered as a guinea pig in a grueling academic study of the effects of starvation.
Kampelman is one of the constellation of pacifists, anarchists, and other war resisters who we meet in Daniel Akst’s fascinating new book, War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2022). The subtitle suggests one of the difficulties of writing such a book. The war against fascism was certainly one of the most justifiable and enduringly popular wars of all time, yet the people Akst is concerned with opposed it.
They were not admirers of Hitler and his allies; rather, they feared that the highly mechanized, technocratic warfare that was developing in the mid-20th century would turn their own country into something nearly as vile as Nazi Germany (“the adoption of Hitlerism in the name of democracy,” as the Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas said). And they made their resistance count for something: opposing the bombing of civilian targets in occupied Europe, pleading for the admission of Jewish refugees by the foot-dragging Roosevelt administration, demanding an end to internment of Japanese-Americans, documenting abuses in mental hospitals to which some were assigned, and campaigning against Jim Crow in the federal prisons that many of them found themselves in.
These pacifists were not famous at the time. While Americans knew generally that some conscientious objectors, or COs, were refusing to serve, very few were aware of the far-reaching political ferment that was going on in prisons, in CO camps established in rural parts of the country, and in the pages of pacifist newspapers and pamphlets that circulated during the war. Some would become well-known much later, however, including future civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, war resister David Dellinger, and their mentor, A.J. Muste, executive director of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOE) and apostle of nonviolence. Better known, marginally, were the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and the radical journalist and political theorist Dwight Macdonald.
Afterward, their influence grew, thanks in part to the tactics and arguments they developed during the war, and in part to the nuclear arms race, which confirmed their warnings about the nature and direction of modern warfare. Many former COs moved directly into the campaigns against nuclear armaments. They helped formulate the strategy of nonviolent resistance that underpinned the Civil Rights Movement and the mass demonstrations and draft resistance that galvanized the campaigns against the Vietnam War. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 as an offshoot of the FOE and a product of Rustin and Muste’s conviction that ending racial segregation would be the next great struggle after the war ended. The abuse that Rustin and the anarchist poet Robert Duncan withstood owing to their homosexuality draws a through-line from wartime pacifism to the later gay rights movement. The tactics of direct action, civil disobedience, and media-savvy public protest that pacifists developed during World War II would help all of these movements, not to mention environmentalism and AIDS activism, achieve their greatest successes.
Akst’s story begins even before the U.S. entered the war, when the “Union Eight”—Dellinger and seven other students at Union Theological Seminary—refused to register for the draft. They would serve nine months in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, and would be in and out of prison and in trouble with the authorities for the remainder of the war. COs staged work stoppages, slowdowns, and out-and-out strikes both in federal prisons and in the rural Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps where many were sent to work on irrigation projects and the like—until they became incorrigible, that is.
Nor was resistance always strictly peaceful. COs were not paid for their work as internees. At one CPS camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, COs responded by launching a campaign of vandalism and sabotage that included clogging toilets, hiding lightbulbs and silverware, and scrawling obscenities. On leave in a local town, one group of “conchies” disabled their vehicle, got drunk at local bars, and got into a fight with a soldier. Some pacifist leaders urged COs to cooperate, at least tacitly, once they were in the camps, but in many cases found this impossible. But in federal prisons, especially, pacifists showed solidarity with other prisoners—notably African Americans—and struggled to maintain their activism behind bars.
Akst’s protagonists were complex, difficult individuals who quarreled with each other and with friends and family who wanted to keep them out of trouble. As such, their lives did not follow a strict pattern. But Akst has the gift for weaving together the stories of a group of highly distinctive activists—Dellinger, Rustin, and many less famous names—into a lucid narrative while digging deep into their personalities and beliefs.
He pinpoints some similarities: Many of his protagonists had a conversion experience of one or another sort (Muste had multiple conversions during his long life). Many were Quakers or liberal Protestants with intellectual roots that stretched back to 19th century Abolitionism. Many were inveterate dissidents, never ready to declare victory and settle down. Above all, they were seekers; for Macdonald, Akst writes, the war was “a way station on a lifelong ideological pilgrimage,” and this could apply to nearly everyone Akst re-introduces in his book.
If anything brought them all together, it was an emerging philosophy or worldview that Day called “personalism,” and which Akst characterizes as “a way of navigating between … the corpses of capitalism and communism” at a time when the Depression had discredited the one and Stalin’s tyranny had destroyed any confidence in the other. More deeply, it was a way of reconciling the “sacredness and inviolability of the individual” and the need for collective action against injustice and the death cult of war.
In their own way, each of the activists who emerged from the war—even if they no longer adhered to pacifism—believed that “each of us, driven by love, had the power to change the world simply by changing ourselves.” It was a “mushy and idealistic” notion, Akst observes, but his subjects could be quite hardheaded and sensible when it came to organizing, and it had great moral force in the decades after the war, for Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others.
In purely practical terms, the lessons the World War II resisters carried away from the war represented a break from the top-down organizing of the Old Left that is still playing itself out, Akst notes. They were “wary of authority, often including their own, and longed for direct democracy and communitarian social arrangements,” and “cherished the specific humanity of each and every person.” The result was a preference for non-hierarchical, anarchist-inspired organizing that can be traced in the movement against corporate globalization, the Occupy movement, and the Movement for Black Lives.
These inclinations have created their own problems in the years since the war. The New Left that evolved out of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements never managed to win over the increasingly rigid mainstream of the American labor movement. It had trouble, generally, sinking deeper roots into working and oppressed communities looking for immediate political solutions to their problems. And it largely failed to establish institutions of resistance that could endure without being coopted by the State.
Akst grounds his protagonists’ accomplishments as well as their failings in their individual personalities; when your activism is a part of a lifelong intellectual pilgrimage, staying pinned down to one philosophy or strategy is difficult. Nevertheless, “to a great extent Dellinger and his fellow pacifists did conquer the future,” Akst writes, and on a host of issues—racism, militarism, authoritarianism, and the looming threat of the Bomb—they broke through where others were often afraid to make a fuss. Channeling their principles into a more enduring resistance is the necessary work of their successors.
Students in Brasilia take the ENEM, the national high school exam of Brazil. Former President Jair Bolsonaro had attemtped to revise the exam to promote a benign view of the country’s periof of military dictatorship.
On January 12, 2023, the Department of Education in Florida labeled a draft Advanced Placement course on African American Studies “woke indoctrination” and rejected it for including readings from, among others, historians Robin D.G. Kelly and Nell Irvin Painter. The Department’s decision fit within the broader political vision of the governor (and former history teacher) Ron DeSantis, as well as a nation-wide pattern of attempts to restrict the teaching of gender and race in United States history. Florida’s policies were quickly linked to similar ones in backsliding democracies in Europe, such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Data from the Network of Concerned Historians for 2020–2023 suggest a correlation between attempts to censor history education and the global backsliding of democracy, with India, Brazil and the Philippines being among the most grave examples.
Since 2014, when Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India, Hindutva (or radical Hindu nationalism) has again become a cornerstone of internal politics, exemplified through a surge in mob violence, discrimination against non-Hindu people, and a broad set of laws aimed at history education. Most frequently, these laws have targeted history textbooks. In March 2019, it was announced that chapters related to caste conflict would be scrapped from the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) history textbooks for class IX (the first year of high school). In July 2021 more than one hundred historians expressed concern over further changes to the NCERT history textbooks, and a year later acclaimed historian Irfan Habib criticized the textbooks for downscaling Muslim and Mughal history. Also in July 2021, the University Grants Commission released a new undergraduate history curriculum for centrally funded public universities that was widely criticized for its pro-Hindu bias, its downplaying of contributions to Indian history by Muslim and secular politicians, and the overrepresentation of Vedic and Hindu religious literature.
In addition to legislation, right-wing Hindutva groups exerted pressure on textbook publishers. In February 2020, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) demanded the immediate withdrawal of a class XI World History textbook in Goa, because it allegedly depicted the 17th century ruler Shivaji I, often depicted as an important proto-nationalist Hindu leader, too critically. The HJS had previously demanded a ban on a book containing alleged derogatory remarks about Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar (1883–1966), and requested action be taken against the book’s author and publisher.
Attempts to censor history education in India chiefly concern the inclusion of the contributions of people who do not fit an ethnocentric nationalist narrative of the past that serves as a foundational element of the government’s political ideology. In that sense, these examples mirror most closely to what is happening in the United States.
Similarly, in Brazil former President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly attacked the way slavery was taught, for example by supporting the far-right thesis that, since Portuguese colonizers barely entered the interior of Africa, Africans themselves should bear the most blame for the enslavement and trading of African people. Additionally, the Escola Sem Partido [loosely, “school without politics”] movement has claimed to protect children against indoctrination in schools while targeting courses on Black history and culture and proposing laws that would, among other things, institute a complaint line for parents who felt that their children were being subjected to “Cultural Marxism,” encourage children to film their teachers, and reduce the time spent on teaching Black and Native Brazilian history and culture.
Moreover, in the run-up to the National High School Exam (ENEM) on 21 November 2021, Bolsonaro was criticized for asking Education Minister Milton Ribeiro to change wording to refer to the 1964 military coup as the “Revolution.” The term aligned with the far-right revisionist history of the 1964–1985 military dictatorship. Since 2018, Bolsonaro had repeatedly criticized ENEM, leading to the disappearance of at least one question about the 1964 coup from the 2020 exam. His criticism was part of a pattern of interference and intimidation, which included attempts by the director of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research, the agency responsible for ENEM, reportedly demanding the exclusion of more than twenty exam questions, many of which dealt with Brazil’s recent history. In November 2021 Bolsonaro stated that ENEM would start “looking more like the government,” and that it would no longer have “absurd questions as in past exams” and would instead “start history from scratch.”
In Brazil, censorship practices regarding history education have been concerned with both remote and recent history. The latter has been the focus of attempts to rewrite history in the Philippines, which have focused on the 1965–1986 rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, which was characterized by widespread human rights violations and corruption, especially during the period of martial law (1972–1986). In the lead-up to the May 9, 2022 presidential elections, campaigners for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. proclaimed that the Marcos administration had brought glory and wealth, and that no human rights violations had taken place under martial law. Already on January 10, he had promised the revision of history textbooks.
Upon his election as President, Marcos Jr. appointed Sara Duterte as Minister of Education, increasing concerns that they would lead a campaign to rewrite history textbooks. During his presidency, Sara Duterte’s father Rodrigo Duterte had expressed admiration for the Marcos regime, referring to those years as the “golden age” of Philippine history and calling on the public to “move on” rather than dwelling on the particulars of dictatorial rule. In July 2022, public historian Ambeth Ocampo of the Ateneo de Manila University, who had been a fierce critic of the younger Marcos’s attempts at historical revisionism, was harassed online. A month later, the official Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF; Commission on Filipino Languages) tagged five books critical of the martial law period as “subversive” and their authors as “Communists,” and banned them (though the order was rescinded after a strong pushback by the literary and academic community).
In Responsible History, professor emeritus of Human Rights, Ethics and History Antoon De Baets has pointed out the intimate correlation between democracy and the freedom of historical research and teaching. The plausibility of this connection can be most clearly seen in its violations, as the four cases above forcefully demonstrate. More broadly, between 2020 and 2023, censorship of history education took place in at least fourteen countries. Of these, twelve have seen a decline in their democratic status at some point during that period. This is not only the case with the censorship of history education, but also finds its expression, for example, in state-led attempts to censor commemorative practices. The interference of states in research, teaching and commemoration of history is an important warning sign for its pending abuse, and for the erosion of democracy in general.
However, and more hopefully, state censorship can be met with resistance. In the United States, PEN America is at the forefront of opposing censorial practices, such as those in Florida. In Brazil, the National Association of Historians (ANPUH) protested repeatedly against Bolsonaro’s attacks. In India, historians like Habib and the Haryana opposition leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda have criticized, in the words of the latter, the “politicization” of education and the “saffronization” of history. And in the Philippines, more than 1700 scholars and educators signed a manifesto calling for the defense of historical truth and academic freedom, pledging to “combat all attempts at historical revisionism,” and vowing to protect historical, educational and cultural institutions and “preserve books, documents, records, artifacts, archives and other source materials pertaining to the martial law period.” Their efforts should motivate us all to continue to step up and protect history from abuse by politicians.
The Nixon Foundation held a 50th Anniversary commemoration for the Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973 to end American involvement in the Vietnam War, and organized a panel emphasizing Nixon’s “grand strategy” in reaching the agreement. One might question the strategy implemented by Nixon—it led to the disintegration of Cambodia, a war torn Laos, North Vietnamese troops below the DMZ in South Vietnam after the 1972 Easter Offensive—all hallmarks of a failed policy. While the panel consisted of acclaimed historians such as Pierre Asselin, no one on the panel suggested “grand strategy” ended the war. Scholarship by Nixon historians Jeffrey Kimball and Carolyn Eisenberg, moreover, shows that Nixon made major concessions to China and the Soviet Union in several failed attempts to end the war.
The Nixon Foundation’s marketing of the Paris Peace Accords as the result of “grand strategy,” made me curious about how they treat the war in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. A joint production of the Nixon Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration, the Vietnam exhibit is one of the first exhibits visitors to the library go through. Other scholars have criticized the exhibit for placing Nixon above the culture wars of the era, but I found Nixon’s voice was nowhere to be found.
At the front of the gallery, a sign invites visitors to come to their own conclusions about Nixon’s life and career. Was Nixon a “warmonger,” the sign asks. The gallery then proceeds into the turmoil of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, with Nixon above the fray, and continues into the war he inherited. The exhibit is heavy on American P.O.W.s, giving the impression that Nixon fought the war to win their release. While there are several placards and photographs, there are significant gaps in the presentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.
To begin with, there is no mention of Nixon’s Madman Strategy. Nixon’s idea that using threats of nuclear force to scare the communist world into ending the Vietnam War. Think this concept is false? Nixon engineered a secret nuclear alert, Operation Giant Lance, to intimidate the Soviet Union into convincing the North Vietnamese to end the war. It failed and is not in the exhibit.
Also absent are the famous Nixon Tapes.
This impacts the presentation of Operation Menu, the secret bombing of Cambodia; significant sources regarding the results of this operation are missing. Perhaps most noteworthy is Nixon’s admission that the bombing led to the collapse of Cambodia. As Nixon states in a taped conversation,
Before we did Cambodia—this is not known to anybody—I had ordered, and we’d carried out, a series of strikes called the Menu strikes—nobody knows it—on Cambodia, on the sanctuaries, with B-52s. They were called the Menu strikes, well, because—[Kissinger attempts to interject] they were called the Breakfast strikes, and then I said, “All right, we’re going to”—so I said, “All right, that’s what—that’s what I don’t imagine the bastards out there called them.” I said, “Henry, the hell with that. A menu just isn’t breakfast; let’s have lunch and dinner, too.” So we took Breakfast, Lunch, and then we bombed the hell out of those sanctuaries. Nobody ever knew it and they didn’t say a goddamn word.
Kissinger replies, “It led to the collapse of Cambodia because it pushed the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia.”
Could Nixon have brought the P.O.W.s home earlier? In one cynical tape, Nixon orders Kissinger to offer a false peace proposal for “cosmetic” purposes to deter the efforts of P.O.W. wives.
While Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler supposedly said the tapes are like the Bible, and can be used to support any theory, the idea that Nixon’s timetable for ending the war was driven by political concerns is supported by archival records and the tapes. Fearful that another Tet Offensive would occur in 1972, and knowing that the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front Offensive forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to shelve his plans to run for reelection in 1968, Nixon kept the war going throughout 1972 to ensure his own reelection.
Did Nixon believe South Vietnam would survive? Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger offered a “decent interval”—a two year break between the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the collapse of South Vietnam– to the Soviets and Chinese. While the concept of the decent interval has been controversial, visitors deserve to hear this tape, from August 3, 1972, where Nixon and Kissinger discuss the timing of ending the war and the likelihood of South Vietnam’s survival:
Nixon: Let’s be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thieu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean? Because I have a feeling we would not be doing, like I feel about the Israeli, I feel that in the long run we’re probably not doing them an in—uh … a disfavor due to the fact that I feel that the North Vietnamese are so badly hurt that the South Vietnamese are probably gonna do fairly well.
Nixon: Also due to the fact—because I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway. I’m just being perfectly candid—I—
Kissinger: In the pull-out area—
Nixon: [unclear] There’s got to be—if we can get certain guarantees so that they aren’t … as you know, looking at the foreign policy process, though, I mean, you’ve got to be—we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important.
Nixon: It’s terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.
Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink—we ourselves—I think, there is going to be—even the Chinese won’t like that. I mean they’ll pay verbal—verbally, they’ll like it—
Nixon: But it’ll worry them.
Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won’t help us all that much because our opponents will say we should’ve done it three years ago.
Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January 74 no one will give a damn.
Broadly, the history of the war is contested and divided into two schools. The first, sometimes called the revisionist school, tends to argue that the Vietnam War was a just cause improperly executed by the United States’ political leadership. The second and most dominant, the orthodox school, argues the war itself was an immoral mistake. Regardless of the school, the Nixon Library’s and Nixon Foundation’s claim that the Paris Peace Accords resulted from Nixon’s grand strategy does not fit into the historiography and distorts the history of the war. The exhibit itself needs to include crucial archival sources, the latest scholarly debates, and most importantly, crucial Nixon tapes as evidence.