Paranoia and Insecurity: A Lesson from WWII

“On a morning in December 1941, a small nation which the United States had sought to contain and squeeze into submission through economic and diplomatic pressure, attacked with crippling force a naval base belonging to one of the largest nations of the world. Japan’s aerial attack on Pearl Harbor shook the United States and its sense of security.”[1] In the movie 1941, director Steven Spielberg created a comical portrayal of a population driven to protect their coastline from Japanese attack. In Spielberg’s outlandish film the insecurity caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor fed paranoia and panic and resulted in chaos. The movie was a comical spoof on the real paranoia that existed during the World War II, a paranoia which allowed a nation to justify its own attack on liberty.

On February 23, 1942, a Japanese sub entered the coastal waters near Santa Barbara, California and launched a bombardment on an oil field in Ellwood. Just days before the attack, President Roosevelt had created Executive Order 9066 which authorized the creation of policies that would lead to the internment of U.S. citizens. Coupled with propaganda films portraying the enemy as barbarians and animalistic, the events of late 1941 and early 1942 created an insecurity within the population that seemed to justify the civil rights violations that would follow.

Terror is an effective tool in a war and can have a much greater effect on a population than that of physical attack. An enemy will try to strike fear into the hearts and minds of its opponent with the hope that terror will weaken it. Modern technology made it possible for fear to be rapidly spread through media, and media played a vital role in spreading propaganda messages during World War II. The U.S. government worked hard to control propaganda, both the enemy’s and its own, but public fear was used as a tool to garner support as well. Justifiable actions of a nation at war, actions which deliberately heightened public fear and restricted civil liberty, seem less justifiable when the war ends but the insecurity remains. After World War II ended, the fear generated by the physical attacks on the nation diminished, but the fear created by the pervasive use of propaganda during the war remained imbedded in the public psyche. History seems to indicate that nations can quickly recover from the physical challenges of war, but the psychological challenges which are often heightened by the use of politically motivated propaganda take much longer to repair. Long after the physical attack becomes just a memory, paranoia and insecurity can linger continuing to justify the restriction of liberty.

End Notes:

[1] Jessie A. Hagen, “U.S. Insecurity in the Twentieth Century: How the Pursuit of National Defense Ingrained a State of National Insecurity,” American Military University, 2014.

Additional Reading:

Conley, Cornlius W. “The Great Japanese Balloon Offensive.” Air University Review XIX, no. 2 (February 1968): 68–83. http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1968/jan-feb/conley.html.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Executive Order 9066 – Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas,” February 19, 1942. Papers of Franklin Roosevelt. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=61698.

———. “Fireside Chat, December 9, 1941,” December 9, 1941. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=16056.

———. “Fireside Chat, February 23, 1942,” February 23, 1942. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=16224.

“Civil Rights.” PBS: The War. Last modified 2007. http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_civil_rights_japanese_american.htm.

“George Takei Describes His Experience in a Japanese Internment Camp.” io9. http://io9.com/george-takei-describes-his-experience-in-a-japanese-int-1533358984.

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