Barry's Blog # 63: Intersection of Myth and History: The U.S. and World War Two

Intersection of Myth and History: The U.S. and World War Two


I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.  – George H.W. Bush


In this time of renewed militarism, demonization of enemies and surveillance of private citizens it is important to keep in mind both the willingness of politicians to distort the truth as well as our uniquely American, innocent capacity to believe their lies. Myth is what holds it all together.


In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt was determined to enter the war in Europe. Why? Perhaps he had a combination of motives, including altruistically protecting the “liberal democracies” of Great Brittan and France (actually, they were still colonial powers) from German aggression. Perhaps, since the New Deal had been only marginally effective in putting Americans back to work, he reasoned that only military mobilization could pull the country out of the Great Depression.


However, since 80% of Americans were opposed to entering the war, Roosevelt needed to resort to subterfuge. On September 27, 1940 Germany made a colossal mistake (second only to its decision to attack the USSR) when it signed a mutual defense treaty with Japan and Italy, promising to defend each other if any one of them was attacked by an outside party.


Roosevelt quickly saw his opportunity. Within two weeks, he set into motion a series of major policies designed to provoke Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor. The notion that he would do such a thing has remained a hugely contentious point of debate among historians, but historian Robert Stinnett (, argues:


The latter question was answered in the affirmative on October 30, 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed into law…the National Defense Authorization Act…the Act reverses the findings of nine previous Pearl Harbor investigations and finds that both (Navy and Army commanders) Kimmel and Short were denied crucial military intelligence that tracked the Japanese forces toward Hawaii and obtained by the Roosevelt Administration in the weeks before the attack.


Events quickly fell into alignment. The U.S. declared war on Japan, triggering the mutual defense treaty and forcing Germany to declare war on the U.S. Roosevelt now had his European war, and in a scenario eerily similar to the 9-11 story, he had nearly unanimous public support overnight. In this sense, the story of Pearl Harbor is less about Japan and more about Adolf Hitler.


Americans, once again, were told that they had been attacked for no reason. “Remember Pearl Harbor” became the war cry of American armies and the excuse for the racist campaign of imprisoning all Japanese-Americans on the west coast (not, surprisingly, in Hawaii itself, where the military had determined that Japanese-American workers were too vital to the economy to be lost) in internment camps for the duration of the war.


But this was a mythic motif as old as the nation, indeed older. Pearl Harbor became the latest and greatest in a long line of iconic events in which innocent Americans are told that they were attacked without provocation by “the Other” (Indians, slaves, Barbary Pirates, Mexicans, Spanish, Cubans, Germans, North Koreans, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Lebanese, Grenadans and, eventually, Muslims).


History and myth intersect throughout the story of America. And if we look at history in the same way that we look at myth, we discover something very interesting – motive becomes less important than results. An example would be the story of Oedipus. To the ancient Greeks as well as to Freud, who based his entire psychology upon this story, and to Oedipus himself (in Sophocles’ version), it didn’t matter that Oedipus was unaware that he had killed his father and was marrying his mother. It simply mattered, since he did do those things, that he was guilty.


In this perspective, it matters little if FDR’s motives (provoking the human disaster at Pearl Harbor for the greater good of defeating Hitler) were primarily altruistic. This is what matters: by gearing up to massively standardized, subsidized, centralized, corporate-based production, the U.S. finished the war as the greatest economic engine in world history.


The U.S. achieved the additional benefit of solidifying for generations to come the mythic image of the nation that always comes to the aid of friends around the world to defend freedom. World War Two became “the good war,” its participants became “the greatest generation,” and in a period when Americans had been questioning capitalism itself,

the mythic image of America as the savior of the world – the myth of American innocence – was re-invigorated.


However, the need to maintain and extend its economic influence required a perpetual military-industrial complex. This in turn required the deliberate fabrication of the Cold War, a half-century of anti-communist paranoia, trillions of dollars wasted, millions of deaths and the destruction of democracy in at least thirty countries.


And, having dominated the world economy partially through extending its military to every part of the world (even today the U.S. has military bases in some 160 countries), America had to find a new “other” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The new other is Muslim terrorism.


Remember the Alamo. Remember the Maine. Remember the Lusitania. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin. Remember the World Trade Center. What we will be told to remember next? As poet Wendell Berry writes,


When they want you to buy something
 they will call you.

When they want you
 to die for profit they will let you know.


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