AHA Condemns Executive Order Restricting Entry to the United States

The American Historical Association strongly condemns the executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on January 27 purportedly “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Historians look first to evidence: deaths from terrorism in the United States in the last fifteen years have come at the hands of native-born citizens and people from countries other than the seven singled out for exclusion in the order. Attention to evidence raises the question as to whether the order actually speaks to the dangers of foreign terrorism.

It is more clear that the order will have a significant and detrimental impact on thousands of innocent people, whether inhabitants of refugee camps across the world who have waited months or even years for interviews scheduled in the coming month (now canceled), travelers en route to the United States with valid visas or other documentation, or other categories of residents of the United States, including many of our students and colleagues.

The AHA urges the policy community to learn from our nation’s history. Formulating or analyzing policy by historical analogy admittedly can be dangerous; context matters. But the past does provide warnings, especially given advantages of hindsight. What we have seen before can help us understand possible implications of the executive order. The most striking example of American refusal to admit refugees was during the 1930s, when Jews and others fled Nazi Germany. A combination of hostility toward a particular religious group combined with suspicions of disloyalty and potential subversion by supposed radicals anxious to undermine our democracy contributed to exclusionist administrative procedures that slammed shut the doors on millions of refugees. Many were subsequently systematically murdered as part of the German “final solution to the Jewish question.” Ironically, President Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Conversely, when refugees have found their way to our shores, the United States has benefited from their talents and energy. Our own discipline has been enriched by individuals fleeing their homelands. The distinguished historian of Germany Hajo Holborn arrived in 1934 from Germany. Gerda Lerner, a major force in the rise of women’s history, fled Austria in 1939. Civil War historian Gabor Boritt found refuge in the United States after participating in the 1956 uprising in Hungary. More recently, immigration scholar Maria Cristina Garcia fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba with her parents in 1961. The list is long and could be replicated in nearly every discipline.

We have good reason to fear that the executive order will harm historians and historical research both in the United States and abroad. The AHA represents teachers and researchers who study and teach history throughout the world. Essential to that endeavor are interactions with foreign colleagues and access to archives and conferences overseas. The executive order threatens global scholarly networks our members have built up over decades. It establishes a religious test for scholars, favoring Christians over Muslims from the affected countries; and it jeopardizes both travel and the exchange of ideas upon which all scholarship ultimately depends. It directly threatens individuals currently studying history in our universities and colleges, as well as our ability to attract international students in the future. It also raises the possibility that other countries may retaliate by imposing similar restrictions on American teachers and students. By banning these nations’ best and brightest from attending American universities, the executive order is likely to increase anti-Americanism among their next generation of leaders, with fearsome consequences for our future national security.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like many of his colleagues before and since, did think historically in ways that should inform consideration of President Trump’s executive order. In a 1989 dissent (Skinner v. Railway Executives Association), Justice Marshall observed: “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in time of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. The World War II Relocation–camp cases and the Red Scare and McCarthy-era internal subversion cases are only the most extreme reminders that when we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it.”

This post has been updated to list the following affiliated societies’ endorsement of the above statement:

Alcohol and Drugs History Society
American Academy of Research Historians of Medieval Spain
American Association for State and Local History
American Jewish Historical Society
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Legal History
American Society of Church History
Association for Computers and the Humanities
Association for Israel Studies
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians
Business History Conference
Central European History Society
Chinese Historians in the United States
Committee on LGBT History
Conference on Asian History
Conference on Latin American History
Coordinating Council for Women in History
Disability History Association
Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction
French Colonial Historical Society
Historical Society for Twentieth Century China
History of Science Society
Hungarian Studies Association
Immigration and Ethnic History Society
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History
Labor and Working Class History Association
MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization
National Coalition of Independent Scholars
National Council on Public History
New England Historical Association
North American Conference on British Studies
Organization of American Historians
Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association
Rocky Mountain Council of Latin American Studies
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
Social Science History Association
Social Welfare History Group
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History
Society for French Historical Studies
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Society for Italian Historical Studies
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing
Society for the History of Children and Youth
Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)
Society for Military History
Southern Historical Association
Southern Jewish Historical Society
Toynbee Prize Foundation
Urban History Association
Western Association of Women Historians
Western History Association
World History Association

Back to Top

Leave a Reply


* Required field

  1. Shelby Chandler

    The American HistoricAL Association would bode well in staying out of politics. Our sacred duty is to accurately and impartially record history despite personal opinion, not to involve ourselves in the politics of the moment.

    1. Jennifer Stinson

      I respectfully disagree. To speak of impartiality with respect to historical analysis is overly simplistic, as anyone who teaches or seriously practices historical methodology knows. Second, if one does insist upon accuracy, what exactly is inaccurate about this post? Third, I have no “sacred” duty. Such an assertion conflates religious duty with professional responsibility in a way that has no bearing on this discussion, and which presumes to the reader to hold a religious perspective on one’s actions.

  2. Beverly Wilson Palmer

    Thank you for presenting this strong argument against President Trump’s recent order to prevent immigrants from entering our country.

  3. Joe Mangas

    While you are correct that refugees from those 7 countries haven’t committed any acts of terrorism in the U.S., they have caused acts of terrorism, as well as numerous crimes against citizens of Europe. Why does President Trump have to wait until they commit violence here before taking action? You were selective in your use of the word “terrorism”. You chose not to use the word “crimes”. Why? Because you can’t be certain that refugees from those nations haven’t committed crimes in the U.S. Rape isn’t considered terrorism, but it’s a crime. Could those crimes have been prevented, if we knew for certain, who those individuals were? These 7 nations were selected because they have weak national governments with whom to get cooperation from in order to vet who is coming into our nation. You fear retaliation from other nations, but that retaliation would be unfounded, as the U.S. would cooperate with any nation in terms of protecting their security. Since you’re historians, wait until the dust settles, the hysteria subsides, and then analyze the effectiveness and consequences of the actions President Trump has taken. Less than a week is not enough time to gain historical perspective.

    1. Jurgen Buchenau

      Citizens from ANY nation, including the United States, are capable of committing terrorist acts. We have had acts of terrorism in the United States, most of them committed by U.S. citizens. Short of banning immigrants and travel from ALL countries, it is not ethical to single out the nationals of seven countries, especially seeing that Saudi Arabia–the country of origin of 11 out of the 13 perpetrators of 9/11–is not on the list. As someone whose country of origin committed unspeakable crimes in the name of keeping the nation safe, I’m proud to support the AHA in this statement.

  4. Susan Bradbury

    I think that the AHL should stick with museum business and stay out of politics. Read carefully the executive order issued last Friday and you will see that it is NOT a ban on Muslims, but a vetting procedure that should have been done long ago.

  5. Kathy Boone

    Thank you for speaking out. It’s time for historical societies and museums to use the historical perspective to show Americans what’s really happening here.

    Reminiscent of anti-Chinese sentiment during the California Gold Rust, anti-Irish during the late 1800s, and anti-Japanese during WWII, Trump’s administration is targeting people who, in their view, won’t assimilate into American society.

    Unfortunately, this type of behavior is threaded through American history. I had mistakenly thought Americans had learned from the past to be a better people.

  6. Tom Poulton

    This is very disappointing. The membership were not consulted. Our leadership can intuitively discern that we wanted this?

    SHCY ought not to meddle in politics. We ought to try hard to do a very good job doing history.

  7. Tommy Tinga

    It would be interesting to have a survey conducted among AHA members as to whether the organizational statement should be changed to support President Trump’s EO and the policy change behind it. That 109 people of the hundreds of thousands of travelers in the first day of enforecement were actually delayed from a few hours to a day bespeaks some of the overblown if not disingenious complaints in the AHA statement

    1. Cynthia Orchard

      Thank you AHA – your statement is spot on. Tommy Tinga – the 109 figure is a blatant lie. About 90,000 people would have been affected, and for much longer than a few hours, if the ban had not been successfully challenged. For example, refugees cleared for entry to the US after a 2 year vetting process would have been prevented entry. People from the designated countries who have serious medical conditions would have been prevented entry to the US for life-saving medical treatment. And detaining young children at airports separately from their families, even for a few hours, is NOT ok. See, for example:

    1. Skip Klauber

      Talk about hypocrisy. During the years of the Obama Admin the United States engaged in a de facto policy of denying Syrian Christians & Yazidis refugee status. The official numbers of the U.S. State Department would make any contrary position absurd. And where were all these brave and courageous historians? They were sitting on their butts and not giving a damn.

  8. David B. Miller

    Inside baseball. A perfect example of the sort of process that many average Americans have come to intensely dislike and which gave us Trump. A professional association of historians, without consulting the membership, takes a political position it fears might cause disagreement within the society. Then, after publishing the decision, it announces the decision to the membership and tries to explain it. A perfect example of what used to be called “guided democracy”. We will rightly be ignored.

    1. Nathan Hoepner

      Focusing on the actual statement, the AHA is absolutely correct. The Trump executive order is nothing more than policy based on anger and fear in defiance of fact, and that by itself is enough reason to oppose it. That it is blatantly discriminatory is another. That it clearly violates the principles we’ve always claimed to uphold is another. That it is counterproductive and simply unwise policy merely adds more.
      It is emphatically not the duty of historians, nor historical educators, to make the “average American” happy or go along with what that imaginary person might want. It could, perhaps, be our duty to open the eyes to of the direct descendants of past waves of refugees and migrants to the (at least) irony of their being so eager to slam shut the same door that let their ancestors in. People rarely learn from historians who strive to keep everyone happy.

  9. Guy Nasuti

    I find it difficult to fathom that the VP of the Society of Military History (which has also approved the AHA position against President Trump’s Executive Order)is a federal employee, in essence affixing not only his name, but his personal political feelings to this letter, or whatever form the above has taken. I am sure he is not the only government worker who has done so either. It is one thing to have a personal opinion on political matters, but as historians, are we not supposed to be a bit more biased in our judgments, or does that come only in the writing of history? But even more to the point, as a federal employee is it a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you, even if you may not agree with the current administration? I don’t recall a written condemnation over President Obama’s use of drones, or involvement in the Syrian conflict, or in his deal with Iran by AHA or any of the other several historical associations that are now against this one particular Executive Order. This entire “condemnation” smacks of political hypocrisy with a blatant lean towards the globalist agenda and is absolutely ridiculous.