January 6, 2009, 04:45 PM ET
The State of History and the History of State
There was a lot of buzz at AHA about Roger Louis’s resignation from the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee. His action apparently got the attention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The New York meeting of the American Historical Association turned out to be even larger than anticipated. Nearly 6,000 registered, drawn at least in part by the incredibly reasonable hotel rates offered to attendees, although neither the hallways nor the book exhibit seemed particularly crowded. Perhaps others played hooky as I did — my wife and I found time to attend August: Osage County and a wonderful Jacobean drama production, Women Beware Women.
The annual meeting program was attractive though, and the sessions I sat in on were well attended. The business meeting of the Association witnessed the periodic drama of the intersection of politics and associational business — in this case the call for a boycott of the planned 2010 meeting of the association in (San Diego) California, a state that seems committed to public political incorrectness. So far as I could tell, a Solomonic solution was arrived at, one that will both preserve the pride of the complainants and not cost the AHA too much hard cash. But I think it a reasonable guess that most of the conferees were blissfully unaware of the controversy.
What people were talking about (apart from Obama, the recession, and Gaza) was jobs. As I noted in my last post, one of the most important functions of the AHA annual meeting is the provision of a site for job interviews. History departments, like all liberal-arts departments, are worried about the impact of the recession on hiring of new faculty, the lifeblood of any department. The number of jobs earlier listed with the AHA was down about 15 percent, but insiders were speculating that the number of actual new jobs available will be down by nearly 40 percent. It is hard to tell right now what will happen, but it is clear that departments were either canceling job searches or warning job candidates that searches were subject to review by administrators before formal offers could be made. The odds are that there will be significantly fewer tenure-track jobs available than there have been in a long time, and yet the production of new History Ph.D.‘s has held pretty steady. This surely means a substantial increase in contingent faculty in the short term. And given the restructuring we are likely to see in higher education, the losses in regular faculty may turn out to be permanent, or at least long-term.
There was also a good deal of buzz about the controversy generated by the resignation of the AHA delegate, Roger Louis (the former president of the AHA and a distinguished historian of the British empire), as chairman of the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee, whose main function is to offer advice to the Secretary of State and the Historian’s Office concerning the ongoing publication of the Department’s formal historical record, Foreign Relations of the United States. Congress has long required the department to provide a reliable documentary account of U.S. foreign policy, and FRUS (as the series is known) has been what historians and the general public (as well as the Congress) have used to understand the recent history of our foreign policy. The Historian’s Office is mandated to produce the volumes within 30 years of the events described. This has always been a difficult task for a number of reasons, not the least of them the need to declassify the documents to be printed.
Prof. Louis resigned on December 10 to draw attention to the fragile state of the Historian’s Office in recent years, and to request that the Secretary of State review its leadership and management. Louis and his colleagues on the advisory committee have noted publicly that under the current historian, Marc Susser, 15 historians or compilers (in a staff of 35 or so) have left over the past three years. Given that it takes years to train a member of the staff, this level of attrition is clearly inconsistent with both the timely publication and the maintenance of editorial quality of the series. Professor Louis felt strongly that the Historian’s Office was being poorly managed, and feared that without changes in management FRUS would not get back on track.
Resignation seems old-fashioned in Washington these days. It is certainly out of style. But in this case it appears to have worked, since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summoned Louis and his colleagues to a meeting on the issue. She has now appointed a strong committee to review the matter and to report to her before the end of her term. For all historians (and others) who care about the timeliness and integrity of FRUS, this is an occasion for dancing in the streets. It’s good to know that the secretary cares about the history record. Bravo for her!
And that was the week in history.