Andrew J. Bacevich has a review in The American Conservative of Richard Drake’s Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism: Charles Beard: Punished for Seeking Peace. The review sent me looking for the book and happily it is accessible on scribd.
One detail about WW2 that has often bemused me is the story of the unprovoked attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. The point that puzzles me is that the U.S. had just cut off 80% of Japan’s oil supply so was obviously faced with a situation of complete capitulation or war with the U.S. The “unprovoked” part of the story has tended to strike me as somewhat overstated. And then, when I try to get an overall picture of the whole shebang, I have sometimes wondered if in a few centuries history books will present World War 2 as a titanic conflict among imperial powers for dominance.
Here are some of Bacevich’s review comments that led me to beginning to read Drake’s book:
Beard’s offense was to have committed heresy, not once but twice over. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he opposed U.S. intervention in the European war that had begun in September 1939. And when that conflict ended in 1945 he had the temerity to question the heroic “Good War” narrative that was even then already forming.
Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true. From the very moment of its inception, however, Beard believed otherwise and said so in the bluntest terms possible.
Revisionists disagreed among themselves about many things, but on one point all concurred: on matters related to war, the official story is merely a cover, propaganda concocted for domestic consumption. The purpose of that story is to conceal truth and manipulate popular opinion.
While professing a commitment to peace, he also put the squeeze on Japan, confronting that nation with a choice of submission or war. When the Japanese opted for the latter, his administration was neither surprised nor disappointed.
Today the Good War narrative survives fully intact. For politicians and pundits eager to explain why it is incumbent upon the United States to lead or to come to the aid of those yearning to be free, it offers an ever-ready reference point. Casting World War II as a perpetually relevant story of good versus evil relieves Americans of any obligation to consider how the international order may have changed since Hitler inspired Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin to forge their unlikely ménage à trois.
In that sense, the persistence of the Good War narrative robs Americans of any capacity to think realistically about their nation’s role in the existing world.
History is written by the victors so today one can easily never come to an awareness of the depth of the arguments in against getting involved in a war with Germany. At best they might hear of those protesters as “pacifists” or “isolationists” — certainly as idealistic and naive. But that was not the case when one takes the time to look, or at least not generally the case. Just as today so then there were observers who saw the interests of big business elites driving policy, the interests of maintaining and expanding empires, and the way propaganda for public consumption about fighting for democracy, for the four freedoms, etc, was all smokescreen to hide the real interests of the former two.
Some interesting excerpts from Drake’s book….
Here is a narrative I recall well being taught in senior high school history class:
The American people, Luce observed, now stood face-to-face with a historical opportunity to become the leading nation on earth. Objectively they could be said to occupy this position of primacy already, but thus far had failed to rise to the challenge of exercising their power: “In the field of national policy, the fundamental trouble with America has been, and is, that whereas their nation became in the twentieth Century the most powerful and vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact.” The failure of Americans to play their proper part as the leader of the free world had had disastrous consequences for all mankind. To atone for our negligence, we would have “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence . . . .
The FDR administration had spoken nonsense:
The coming and the conclusion of the First World War contained the fundamental lessons needed to understand the current conflict. For the Committee, Beard distilled the essence of the lessons that he had learned from studying the documents found in the archives of Russia, Germany, and Austria: “I have spent many weary months studying these documents, and I will say, gentlemen of the committee, that these documents do not show that the European conflict was, in the aims of the great powers, a war for democracy, or for the defense of the United States, or had anything to do with protecting the interests of the United States.” The FDR administration had spoken nonsense in claiming that by fighting for democracy Britain was waging America’s battle. Britain then and now had its own imperialist agenda.
Only people who did not know anything about history or how civilizations work could believe such fatuities.
If, as the president had said, the British were fighting a war for democracy, we should be fighting it, not “buying peace with gold.”?? He did not think, however, that the war had anything to do with democracy, any more than the last war did.
Beard had a message for the American leadership class, whose deadly combination of pride, arrogance, and ignorance would prevent them from receiving it, but he felt obliged to try. The United States lacked the knowledge and the power to transform the cultures of Europe and Asia. We did not know what we were dealing with in these places, and we lacked the patience to learn. That was why we wanted everyone to look like us. It would make the world a happier and more harmonious place if the American way became the way for all peoples. He concluded, no matter what you hear from Washington, we cannot “provide democracy, a bill of rights, and economic security for everybody, everywhere in the world.” Only people who did not know anything about history or how civilizations work could believe such fatuities.
The tragic flaw in American foreign policy
The tragic flaw in American foreign policy, he lamented, lay in the country’s delusions about itself, “as if America were God” and charged with putting the world in order. He wondered v/here such a stupid and ignorant presumption originated. The United States had been a sensible country once, prone in the natural scheme of human fallibility to mistakes and crimes, but not pathologically disturbed to the point of megalomania, with all its weird insecurities and constant need for reassurance about its special place in the world. “We have broken utterly with the American principle of minding our own business and letting other people attend to theirs,” he rued. Washington and Lincoln would be horrified by our global foreign policy today: “This is the most monstrous and unparalleled revolution that has ever occurred in our history.” The cult of “the American Century” and “God’s chosen people” did not become a nation fitted to lead the world in anything worth doing. Indeed, with such flimsy ideas in their heads, the Americans seemed to him every bit as much a menace to mankind as Germany, Russia, and Japan.
Hitler best understood as a product of World War I
Hitler was best understood as a product of World War I rather than as a cause of World War II, which had many causes, not least the Western foreign policies that “were directed by the desire to protect the financial interests of a wealthy and effete minority.”
The trouble began when . . . .
So long as the Japanese cooperated with the British and American empires in the Pacific, our relations with them had been as collegial as any association of robber barons can be. The trouble began when, calculating that their cut was too small, it occurred to them that they could do better on their own.
I shall have to revise all previous ideas on this catastrophe
Beard had shocked Smith with a comment about Pearl Harbor “He made the astounding statement to me that he had seen a Navy message indicating that the Navy Department knew the location of the Japanese carrier fleet on the day before Pearl Harbour.” Smith averred that Beard probably had received this intelligence from Admiral Husband Kimmel himself and then added, “If this statement of Dr. Beard is correct, I shall have to revise all previous ideas on this catastrophe. I have never heard in all my career in the War Department any fact anywhere so sensational as this.”
The rule of history discovered by Beard
FDR’s provocative acts against Japan led directly to America’s involvement in the war. . . . .
The rule of history discovered by Beard could be formulated as follows: “When a nation evades its domestic problems by escape into foreign adventure, it puts off the day of internal reckoning ” . . . .
FDR had begun to emphasize foreign affairs as a way of covering up the failure of the New Deal to restore the economic health of the nation: “for that purpose he entangled himself in world power politics as a diversion of public mind.”
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