Tag Archives: Cold War

Power and Chaos

Prior to the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, three great powers balanced the Western World: Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Far East and the Americas were still peripheral, with only the United States disrupting the colonial empire system in any fundamental way during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the three great empires faced ever-growing challenges as nationalistic zeal spread worldwide. In response to the chaos created by the both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the great powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia chose to form an alliance that they hoped would prevent a repeat of the decades of war. They also redoubled their efforts to contain and control their own territories. The great threat to political stability came from two entities: empire seekers and nationalistic zealots. Control and contain both, and it was believed that chaos could be avoided. Yet as well conceived as the Concert of Europe was for the age, there was an inherent flaw in the concert system. The very nature of forming alliances to prevent imperial expansion or nationalistic revolution also entangled the great nations, and would, in the early twentieth century, lead them into another great international conflict. Fear became the demon; fear of what would happen if a nation chose not to honor the treaties and pacts.

The twentieth century saw the rupture of empires and the colonial system that had made the empires great. While the rupture was often bloody and chaotic, there remained a level of control because as the great empires of the past declined, two even greater empires replaced them. Historians and political scientists argue over whether these two great nations ever became empires in the true sense, or if they were only empires of influence during the second half of the twentieth century. They do, however, agree that the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War suppressed a great deal of the chaos that might have erupted as colonial shackles were lifted and fledgling states emerged as independent nations. As fifty years of Cold War ended, and ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly, the world faced a daunting task of answering the ultimate question. What would come next?

One political scientist suggested an answer to the question. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[1] Unlike the independence movements that plagued international stability in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century, the twenty-first century has seen a greater surge of culturally driven conflicts, some contained to rhetorical mudslinging, and some violent, bloody, and devastating to the peoples who get in the way of power seeking individuals who achieve dominance through the spread of chaos. The rise in cultural conflict has grown during the last decade and it threatens both stable and week nations alike. It is not limited to the traditionally war-torn regions of the world, and it will take cooperation to counter it. Like the great nations that faced the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of today must find a way to combat this growing crisis; a way that recognizes that the chaos is the goal of the enemy and not simply a byproduct.



Further Reading

Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).


End Notes

[1] Gideon Rose,  ed. The Clash at 20, E-book (Foreign Affairs, 2013), Foreignaffairs.com.


Ending One War – Beginning Another

Seventy years ago, the United States unleashed a new weapon with the aim of ending the Pacific theater of World War II. President Truman addressed the nation, “With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces… It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”[1] This new weapon was horrifying in its destructive capability and the United States hoped that destruction on such a momentous scale would finally bring Japan to its knees. Many historians and scholars of military strategy argue that bombing campaigns, even ones as devastating as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are less effective than their architects anticipate.[2] In the case of the surrender of Japan, it is argued that the Soviet entrance into the Pacific War had a greater impact on the Japanese decision then the U.S. bombs.[3] It has also been argued that the United States chose to use its new weapon with the clear intention of ending the war before the Soviet Union made its decision to enter the Pacific War public. The Japanese did not surrender until after the Soviet declaration of war on August 9, a date that they had chosen to coincide with their military movements on the continent, but also a date that coincided with the second U.S. bombing of a Japanese city.

Whether Japan surrendered due to the bombs or due to the threat of Soviet involvement, “Stalin managed to join the war in the nick of time,” and thwarted the efforts of the United States to reduce Soviet influence in the region.[4] Ending World War II was the primary objective of both the United States and Soviet Union, but it was not the sole objective of the two nations. It has been argued that this maneuvering, both by Truman and Stalin, was the first action of the Cold War. As one war ended, another was emerging from the shadows. While the United States believed itself to have a clear and comfortable head start in the nuclear race, Soviet espionage had already undermined the U.S. lead. It would take only a few short years before the realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the nightmares of the worldwide community.



[1] Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima,” August 6, 1945. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=12169.

[2] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

[3] Yuki Tanaka, and Marilyn B. Young, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New York: The New Press, 2009), 111.

[4] Ibid.

The Good Old Days

Memory is a tricky thing that tends to filter events by removing the negative aspects from our recollection. When current events are not to our liking, we look to the past and remark on how much better the past was in comparison to the present. While it is also true the positive aspects of an event or period of time can be filtered leaving us with only a bleak recollection of the time, it is more often the case with collective memory that we glorify rather than demonize the past. History, the record and study of that record, helps remove the myth that memory creates.

For many who came to maturity during the 1980s, the decade has come to represent a better time, or in other words, The Good Old Days. The decade is viewed as one where U.S. power and culture was strong and celebrated. The music and clothing were distinctive and memorable. Soft Power was used in conjunction with traditional methods of political power, and the influence of the United States was felt worldwide. The notion that the Cold War was won by forceful rhetoric and the exportation of McDonalds and MTV has resonated with those who now view the 1980s as the glorious decade of U.S. supremacy. While few will argue against the notion that the United States reached a superpower zenith as the twentieth century neared its end, historians will be quick to note that there was more to the decade than glory and power. There was fear – fear of nuclear destruction, fear of pandemic spread of disease, and fear of an ever increasing drug use in mainstream society. However in a decade where politicians could harness the media, or at least greatly influence the script, and where social media was yet unborn, it was easy for the general public to hear the strong rhetoric and believe the message. Imbedded in the rhetoric was the notion that war was the answer to all the ills that plagued the nation. Whether an ideological war with an evil enemy, a hot war often conducted in secrecy, or a war on drugs that often impinged on civil rights but had a moral justification, war was the solution. War was also the solution to a lagging economy. Investment into the machines of war burdened the nation with debt, but it also put people to work and made a select group wealthy in the process. War and power went hand in hand, and those who viewed power as the ultimate evidence of success sought to encourage and perpetuate the notion that only through the constant demonstration of strength could the fears of a nation be quelled. Decades later their efforts have caused many to look back in longing for a better time – a time of strength.

Memory is a tricky thing. Few in the public participated directly in the world changing events of their youth, and fewer still have found a need to crack open the history books to learn more about period of time in which they lived. Historians seek to delve beyond collective memory and search for the data that reveals a greater image of the people and events of a period of time. For those who seek to understand the history rather than the myth of the 1980s, The Good Old Days were days of rhetoric and war, a nation recovering from an economic recession, and a time when money equaled political power. So, in a way, those days are not so dissimilar to the present.



Further Reading

Chollet, Derek, and James Goldgeier. America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11; The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Leffler, Melvyn P., and Jeffrey W. Legro, eds. In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Saull, Richard. The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics. London: Pluto Press, 2007.


Big Talk or Quiet Diplomacy

In June of 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and demanded that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” When just a few years later the wall was breached and then torn down by the people, many in the United States credited Reagan with a victory. While the specific role of the United States in the collapse of the Soviet Union is a hotly debated topic, what is clear to historians is that Reagan’s rhetoric was not the cause of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. However, his dedicated efforts to work diplomatically with Gorbachev, even to the point of becoming friends, can be viewed as integral to the end of the Cold War. Normalization of relations was not something that either leader took lightly, especially after the near disaster that was only narrowly avoided during the Able Archer exercises in 1983.

While some historians will argue that Reagan did not dramatically change his policy after learning of the near disaster, others believe that he became more open to diplomatic discourse in a desire to avoid nuclear war. In either case, the notion that Reagan’s big talk was key to a campaign of intimidation that directly led to the end of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate end of the Soviet Union is on the whole founded on myth rather than reality. Unfortunately, it is a myth that became firmly rooted in a generation who now view diplomacy as being weak and shouting as being effective. Big talk may have a place in foreign policy, but it is not the key to success that so many believe it to be. Quiet diplomacy on the other hand, while seldom making the news, has a more lasting impact current affairs.


Further Reading

Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.

Hutchings, Robert L. American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Diplomacy in Europe, 1989-1992. Washington, DC: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Sanitizing the History of War

The study of history can be a wonderful method of instilling patriotism and civic pride into a nation. During the early years of the Cold War, the study of history was viewed as a vital way to instill the notion that the home nation was virtuous and grand, but opposition to a sanitized version of history was growing even as ultra-patriotism became a propaganda tool. Certainly, the sanitization of the history of war did not begin during the Cold War, but during that half century, the sanitized version of history was considered patriotic, and history critical of the homeland was seen by many  as being subversive. Therefore, the shock was profound when footage of war was televised for all to see during the Vietnam War. A generation reared on stories of the noble victories which had defeated tyranny, slavery, totalitarian abuse, and genocide found themselves faced with the horror of war, most for the very first time. Furthermore, war was not noble as they had been told. It was not a clear cut battle between good and evil. It was ambiguous, uncertain, and many times utterly irrational.

The sanitization of history had stripped from collective memory the realities of war. The brutality, the savagery, the rape, and the hunger; all the devastating human suffering had become overshadowed by glorified patriotism. It became easy to believe that the modern rules of war were long rooted in history and only a villainess enemy would commit atrocities against prisoners and civilians. In a sanitized history, it was easy to forget the human suffering of the American Revolution and that such human suffering was generally accepted as part of war.[1] School children had been taught of noble men, of dedicated soldiers who faced frost bite and starvation as they pressed for liberty, and of rag-tagged colonists who changed the world. While it might have been acceptable to sanitize history for the very young, it was problematic to continue with a sanitized version of history for older students. In fact, it led to disillusionment and civil unrest. It also led to backlash against those who tried to rectify the problem and expose the gritty nature of U.S. history.

In 1757, the writings of Maurice de Saxe were published. In his Reveries on the Art of War, he revolutionarily suggested changes to the formation of a modern army. The modern army as we think of it today had not yet been created. Saxe’s writings and the writings of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini would change the way nations formed and utilized armies, however change was a slow process and not universal. When World War II came to a close, the leaders of the great warring nations desired for a universal set of rules that would govern modern war. Yet, they failed to fully comprehend the difficulty of enforcing such rules. Modern war was not to include the savagery and brutality of previous wars, and while bombing citizens was still being debated as an effective means of ending a war more quickly, citizens were otherwise seen as unacceptable targets in war. Rape of civilians was certainly no longer considered an effective war tactic or even a spoil of war. Part of the early appeal of nuclear weapons was that war by technology seemed more humane, at least for the nation in possession of the technology. It was not just history that was being sanitized, but warfare as well.

Unfortunately while the Cold War dominated the news, bloody, violent, ugly war continued in many parts of the world. War had not been sanitized, human suffering had not been eradicated, and the great powers could do little but suppress the violence of war. Peacekeeping efforts managed to suppress multi-national escalation, but seldom suppressed the human suffering historically associated with war. What was often suppressed was the news coverage the realities of war. When stories emerged of horrendous human rights violations during regional or civil wars, it became easy to condemn the perpetrators as savages, ungoverned by the modern rules of war.

Had the history of war not been so sanitized for the general populace of nations like the United States, these realities of war would have been less shocking. War is and has always been horrifying. Terror has always been a part of war. Sadly, for the children reared on the sanitized history and the patriotic rhetoric used during the Cold War, children who are now adults, war became disassociated from terror and horror. War was too often seen as a solution to regional conflict rather than part of the problem.




[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), 41.

Further Reading

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 2010.

Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Baron de. The Art of War. Translated by G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Saxe, Maurice de. Reveries on the Art of War. Translated by Gen Thomas R. Phillips. Dover Ed. Dover Publications, 2007.

Sword Rattling and Stability

Current world events have again highlighted historic tendencies, in particular the tendency of great nations to deflect attention from their own unpopular policies by bringing attention to the unpopular policies of others. Often times this action can lead to a great deal of sword rattling and a call for intervention or peacekeeping efforts. During the Cold War the United Nations was hobbled by competing spheres of interest and was prevented from taking action in areas dominated by the superpowers, particularly in the ‘backyards’ of the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Cold War has ended, the international community still finds itself constrained when conflict erupts in a powerful nation’s backyard. As current events focus attention on Russia and Ukraine, it is interesting to look back at a time when the United States placed regional stability over a nation’s sovereignty.

On June 20, 1954, the United Nations held an emergency Security Council meeting to consider an appeal made by the Guatemalan government claiming that Guatemala had received hostile treatment from exterior sources and was under threat of invasion. The Soviet Union supported an investigation, France and Great Britain believed the United Nation had authority to investigate and were supportive of an investigation, but the United States was set against any UN involvement. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., stated, “Stay out of this hemisphere and do not try to start your plans and conspiracies over here.”[1] While his words were directed to the Soviet Union, his message was received by all.

In her article “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” Jenny Pearce wrote the following statement.

“The United States’ historic lack of interest in what it dismissively referred to as its ‘backyard’, and its concern with stability first and foremost, meant that the exclusionary dynamic of the years of post-Second World War growth in Central America, at both the political and the economic level, was deemed of little importance.”[2]

Pearce was correct in her assessment that “stability” was “first and foremost” in U.S. consideration. Nationalist reform, economic growth, and political ethics were of little concern to the United States during the Cold War, at least in its ‘backyard’. Stability meant keeping the status quo, and the United States was willing to work with dictators if said dictators kept any and all vestiges of communism out of the region, or in other words, remained friendly to the United States.

The Guatemalan request made to the UN Security Council was handed off to the Organization of American States (OAS) where it received little to no actual investigation but rather generated a counter accusation that Guatemala was a regional security risk because it had permitted a communist party to formally establish. Within just a few days of the UN emergency meeting, President Arbenz of Guatemala resigned due, in large part, to the invasionary force that had crossed the border in to Guatemala; a force supplied, trained, and supported by the CIA.

In the sixty-one years since the crisis in Guatemala much has changed in the world. However when it comes to the backyard of a powerful nation, the international community is still resistant to challenge regional hegemony. Stability in a region, albeit a stability by force, often speaks louder than any sword rattling or resultant calls for intervention.





[1] Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 171.

[2] Jenny Pearce, “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” International Affairs 74, no. 3 (July 1998): 593. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2624971 (accessed September 15, 2013).

History: A Team Sport

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky, political commentator and social activist, made the following statement, “When the US invades… kills a couple hundred thousand people, destroys country… – that’s stabilization. If someone resists that attack – that’s destabilization.”[1] This statement, although controversial in nature does highlight a problem so often encountered during the general study of history – history from the perspective of the strong and victorious, or in the post-Cold War age, history from the perspective of one’s favorite team.

Traditionally history was recorded by the victor. The objectives of the victor were portrayed as strong and virtuous and the defeated were portrayed as weak and morally inferior. Over the centuries the advancement of technology allowed for a greater record of history to be kept. In addition to formal books recording the history of famous men and battles, newspapers and personal journals acted as the repositories of historical data. These documents were simply waiting to be mined for the valuable information that would then be included in some historical tome. In the modern world, it seems that everything is being recorded, even if not all things are noteworthy or have any likelihood of making their way into a historical study. Yet even with the plethora of data now available to historians, history is still being written by the strong and powerful, whether it be nations or people. Scholars may work to mitigate the efforts of propagandists and publicists, but the general perception of current events is being colored by sensational hype, and recent history is being distorted often by a sense of patriotism or loyalty. The notion that the history making people or events must be categorized either as good or bad, and that the public must then draw up sides, like for some global team sporting event, perpetuates the problems of creating a valid comprehensive record of history. During the decades of the Cold War, people found it rather easy to choose sides, unless of course they lived one of the many newly decolonized nations. These people often found themselves courted and coerced by the superpowers, with their hopes for stability threatened by the opposing teams whose real aims had little to do with stability and had much more to do with simply beating the other side. The Cold War was unique in scale and scope but the tendency for people to choose sides was not. People desire belonging to a group and desire to victory over defeat. Most importantly, people desire justification and acceptance for their choices and actions. Even those who end up on the loosing team wish to be remembered as having been justified in their fight, even if their justification was misguided or their motivation was less than noble.

History is not always kind, and compressive history is seldom a record of winners and losers. Sometimes the most memorable players were not on the winning team and often the winning team was less than honorable in their actions, even if their intent was virtuous. Fans of history can become entrenched in feelings of loyalty and struggle to embrace opposing views, particularly when opposing views criticize their team. Historians are tasked with the challenge of avoiding anachronistic tendencies and personal bias, knowing fully well that even as they attempt to provide a balanced study of history, their audience may have already chosen their favorite team and will not be budged.

[1] Chomsky: “US Invades, Destroys Country – That’s Stabilization. Someone Resists – Destabilization’, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-QFDX7mLqM&feature=youtube_gdata_player.


When Buying Foreign Was in the U.S. National Interest

Historian Stephanie M. Amerian recently published an excellent article about the Marshall Plan and the U.S. government’s promotion of “buying European” in the years following the end of World War II.[1] It was of vital national interest for the citizens of the United States to spend money on European goods, to travel to European destinations, and to support the members of the European community of nations. If the U.S. didn’t spend its currency in Europe and on European manufactured goods, then a devastated Europe would not be able to purchase U.S. raw materials and finished goods.

Protectionism and isolationism had not been successful economic or political policies during Thomas Jefferson’s day when, as president, he supported an embargo as the means to pressure Great Britain. Nor had such policies been successful in combating the effects of recession, great or small, in the years between the Jefferson administration and WWII. The United States, while large and possessing a high level of self-sufficiency, was dependent on an international flow of trade as much as any other nation by the mid-twentieth century. Whether it was importing luxury items from distant lands or exporting raw materials to European manufacturing hubs, the United States had a history of benefiting from international trade and in defending the notion of free markets.

War had brutally destroyed infrastructure, manufacturing capability, and all but obliterated the purchasing power of the European nations. Consequently, U.S. manufactured goods and raw materials lost a huge portion of the international market due to the war. The United States, as a nation relatively undamaged due to the destruction of war, had the opportunity to lend a hand. Many politicians felt that in doing so, the United States could rebuild Europe following the U.S. model of capitalism and democracy. Economic support for Europe was seen as vital in preventing a third war from developing. Additionally, the United States was convinced that Soviet influence and expansion needed to be halted at Europe’s borders. Unfortunately, as the U.S. public became more aware of the Soviet threat, their support moved from lending a hand to supporting military buildup. Simply put, investment in military muscle could protect the United States and its friends but did not require knowledge of economic theory. Buying foreign might have made sense to the economist, but exporting the United States in all its various forms made sense to the common U.S. citizen.



[1] Stephanie M. Amerian, “‘Buying European’: The Marshall Plan and American Department Stores,” Diplomatic History 39, no. 1 (January 2015): 45, (accessed March 14, 2015), http://dh.oxfordjournals.org/content/39/1/45.


Further Reading

Belmonte, Laura A. Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Boyce, Robert. The Great Interwar Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization. Reprint edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Hoganson, Kristin L. Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Mariano, Marco. “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies (Routledge) 9, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 35–45.

“Embargo of 1807.” Thomas Jerfferson’s Monticello. http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/embargo-1807.


Going to War: Power and Prosperity

The United States presents a fascinating study of the various reasons a nation chooses, or feels forced to go to war. In the early days of the nation, war with foreign powers was seen as too entangling to enter into lightly. Attempts to circumvent armed retaliation for foreign oppression resulted in embargoes which hurt the U.S. more than it did those at whom the embargoes were aimed. Military retaliations seldom achieved the sought after goals, although they did establish the clear message that the young nation would not tolerate foreign oppression. International conflict was costly regardless of the strategy, but by the late 1800s a new reality was emerging within the power brokers of the nation. War, while costly in men and machine, could also provide an economic boost to a nation struggling with recession. This reality would become even more pronounced in the 1900s as the machine began to dominate warfare and a race to beat others in the field of war technology intensified. War had become a profitable business even as the world became terrified of the horrible human destruction modern war created. By the mid-1900s, war technology began to threaten the very existence of mankind even while the development of the technology made many powerful and wealthy.

Interestingly, in the early decades of the 1900s men like Woodrow Wilson were well aware of how devastating war could be on the humanity. Having been born in Virginia in the decade prior to the Civil War, Wilson’s earliest memories would have been of war, deprivation, and human suffering. He would have spent his youth seeing war veterans and hearing their stories. He went to school where he studied history and politics, subjects that would have exposed him to the many wars fought over power and possession. He earned a doctorate and would be the first U.S. president to have a PhD. The study of history and politics would have influenced his aversion to going to war, but his belief that the United States could influence others in a positive way would justify his support of intervention and eventually international war. Like many other intellectuals and politicians, his desire to spread the ideologies of democracy and capitalism, in other words, to help others become more like his beloved nation, blinded him to the fact that others might not wish to emulate the United States. As president, he was well on the way to becoming remembered for his military interventions and suppression of revolution before World War I thrust him into the role of international mediator.

Having come to age during the years when the United States attempted to heal from the wounds of war, and having seen firsthand the difficulties created in a society when harsh, punitive treatment was dealt to the defeated, it is not surprising that Wilson would wish to avoid repeating such mistakes when negotiating peace in Europe. It is also not surprising that Wilson would want to find a way to avoid future war. In the end, war is costly and a desire to recoup one’s own expenses at the further detriment of the defeated is hard to suppress. Furthermore, notions of international cooperation can, for many, seem to weaken a nation rather than propel it to greatness. Peace is virtuous, but war promotes power and economic vitality, especially if the war never touches the homeland.

For Further Reading

Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Myth, Folklore, History, and Nationalistic Pride

Recently the story of “Butch” O’Hare was recounted to a captivated audience.[1] As the tale of bravery came to an end and people reached to wipe their eyes, the thought came to my mind of the important role myth, folklore, and history play in creating nationalistic pride. Two hundred years ago, concerned with the changes technology and urbanization were having on society, two German brothers began to collect folktales. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, like other romantics, believed that folktales “were essential for reinvigorating national literatures and saving these literatures from sterile intellectualism.”[2]In 1968, during the height of the revisionist movement, historian Thomas Baily wrote that if the pursuit of history were to “shatter all myths, our social structure would suffer a traumatic shock.” He went on to state, “Historical myths and legends are needful in establishing national identity and stimulating patriotic pride.” [3] During times of societal change and strife, the importance of mythology is heightened and people cling to the stories that make them feel good. Historical precision and factualism is of less importance and can be seen as unpatriotic. During the height of the Cold War, the importance of folklore became an issue of national security. In a heated debate over federal money being used to support the study of folklore, one historian wrote that attempts to stifle the study of folklore could “cripple the efforts of the free world to combat the communist states, who [knew] well how to reach the hidden millions with the shrewd manipulation of folklore, legend, and myth.”[4]

Clearly removing folklore and mythology from the study of history is dangerous to the social structure and unity of a nation. However, the reverse could also hold true. Removing ugly historical facts and social realities from the study of history could be just as dangerous. In a world where technology is creating new communities which ignore national borders and bring together people who were once separated by geography, the promotion of national myth rather than national reality can undermine the success of international efforts to tackle world problems. While not all patriotic, historical reminiscing would be detrimental to international cooperation, jingoistic versions of a nation’s history which clearly whitewash a nation’s less than noble past can harm the nation’s credibility and fuel the fires of hatred that seldom cease to exist in the world. Furthermore, the patriotic rhetoric and reminiscence of national grandeur and exceptionalism often “alienates” a nation’s friends.[5] Myth, folklore, and history can engender nationalistic pride, but it can also become the tool used by a nation’s enemies to rally support for terrorism, even homegrown terrorism. People do not like to be lied to and learning that the noble stories of a nation’s past are not always entirely factual leads to disillusionment. Therefore, a balance must be found wherein the myths, folklore, and history of a nation are all embraced and nationalistic pride is derived from that balance.


[1] Scott Simon, “He Gave His Life For The Nation And His Name To An Airport,” NPR.org, (May 24, 2014),  http://www.npr.org/2014/05/24/315259241/butch-ohare-the-heroic-namesake-of-chicagos-airport.

[2] Elliott Oring, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986), 5.

[3] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers of American History,” The Journal of American History 55, no. 1 (1968): 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894248.

[4] Richard M. Dorson, “Folklore and the National Defense Education Act,” The Journal of American Folklore 75, no. 296 (April 1962): 164, (accessed July 24, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/538177.

[5] Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiv.