For 65 years the story of Pearl Harbor has been told over and over to remind us how much the enemies of freedom hate us, how fragile our freedoms are, how true it is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Today this icon of American political culture has its 65th birthday. I suggest that we give it a gold watch, mumble a few words about its “long service to the nation,” and send it off into the sunset of retirement.
Because the Pearl Harbor story has served the nation badly. It has served mainly to justify all sorts of wars, invasions, and usurpations done in the name of “national security,” which have only left us less secure and left some of us -- and many more of our victims -- dead, maimed, or permanently debilitated.
Pearl Harbor has been used to persuade too many Americans that every time the U.S. gets involved in a conflict with another nation, it’s the final battle between good and evil. After all, anyone who opposes our pure innocent policies must be the embodiment of absolute evil, dead set on destroying us, right?
It’s always the same old “bolt out of the blue” story: There are always “evildoers” out there ready to pounce upon us and obliterate us. If we let down our guard even a bit, all the dominos will fall. Now it’s “the terrorists” who lurk in every airport and seaport, ready and able at a moment’s notice to obliterate us if we show the slightest sign of weakness or make the smallest mistake.
Even the Baker-Hamilton ISG Report, which we’re told is the most “realistic” path to peace, paints the same dire picture of falling dominos:
A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. … Iraq is a major test of, and strain on, U.S. military, diplomatic, and financial capacities. Perceived failure there could diminish America’s credibility and influence in a region that is the center of the Islamic world and vital to the world’s energy supply.
And that, it goes without saying, could erode the foundations of our American way of life. Ultimately, Bush and Baker agree: We must still be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to prevent another Pearl Harbor.
Of course it was a Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, who gave us that warning. The Republicans did not create the fear that the words “Pearl Harbor” evoke. They merely imitate the Dems, using the words and the fear to legitimate their policies when they are in power.
The arch-liberal Franklin D. Roosevelt first taught Americans to accept this kind of fear-ridden story as if it were perfectly normal objective truth. He spun a bewitching tale (which he may have believed quite sincerely) about the world becoming one big peaceful neighborhood, unified by a globe-spanning regime of “free trade,” corporate capitalism, and liberal democracy. In his story, no nation would have the weaponry to overpower another -- except the United States. If any nation dared to threaten the idyllic world of liberal capitalism, the U.S. (perhaps aided by its junior partner, England) would use as many bombs as necessary to persuade it to change its mind.
The world-system that FDR envisioned would keep the U.S. “number one” economically, politically, and militarily. So his plan was sure to provoke opposition, as he knew. That’s why he warned Americans, long before December 7, 1941, to prepare a “total defense.” Aggressors might strike anywhere, he clearly implied. But in his story these aggressors were not merely demanding their share of wealth and power. They were evil criminals, bent on wrecking the peace of the global neighborhood. The only language they would understand was overwhelming force.
FDR was one of the greatest political storytellers in U.S. history. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, virtually all Americans took it as proof that FDR’s story was the one and only true story about world affairs. After Roosevelt’s death, his Democratic successors used the same story to legitimate their cold war against communism. Even the tiniest crack in the wall of containment would let the mighty “red tide” coming pouring through, wiping out our whole American way of life, they insisted. And the Republicans agreed. The only question was who could build that wall higher and stronger.
It is still the only question, for the foreign policy elite. There is a clear line stretching from FDR and Pearl Harbor to Bush, Baker, and beyond. The mainstream media now offer us a choice between two responses to the catastrophe in Iraq -- Bush’s or Baker’s -- as if there were no other possible alternatives. Bush is in a state of denial, as even the White House’s erstwhile court historian, Bob Woodward, admits. Baker, on the other hand, is supposedly the “realist.”
When did Jim Baker become a “realist,” anyway? Genuine “realists” must be deeply offended when they hear that -- once they stop laughing. A real “realist” assumes hat international relations is not a morality tale of good guys versus bad guys, that every nation (including the U.S.) is naturally out to enhance its power and wealth, that there will always be more than one superpower. Those are all premises that James Baker would deny just as vehemently as FDR denied them. Baker is merely the latest in a long bipartisan line of advocates for FDR’s utopian vision of a world united by the benevolent might of one sole red-white-and-blue superpower.
Across the board, from liberals to neocons, the elite still agree that we must mount a “total defense” against “evildoers” who might at any moment spring a reprise of 12/7/41, or 9/11/01, or something even worse. The only thing Bush, Baker, and the rest of the elite quarrel about is how best to prevent disaster. So the Pearl Harbor story still looms large over our national life, cementing us ever more firmly in our continuing state of national insecurity, our continuing fear of evil monsters out to destroy us.
As long as that insecurity holds America in its grip, we will make our foreign policy based on fictional images and the emotions they evoke. We won’t be able to think through our problems in a reasonable way and arrive at realistic constructive solutions. One way to ease the grip of insecurity is to recognize that Pearl Harbor was a unique one-time event, the product of unique historical circumstances that will never return. After 65 years, it’s time to retire the image of Pearl Harbor and bid it a not-so-fond farewell.
Come to think of it, James Baker is way past 65. If his unrealistic “new approach” -- which is sure to perpetuate the same old death and disaster in Iraq and the same old insecurity in America -- is the best he can do for us, it’s time for him to retire, too.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea" and "Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin." Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.