Tag Archives: Propaganda

History: More than a Story

Broad based or narrow focused, history is not merely a collection of data, rather it is a story. At times, the story may seem dull, at other times captivating. The study of history can introduce us to the challenges and triumphs of the past. It can help us see patterns in the ‘action and reaction’ cycle of human relations.  It can help us learn from the past events which have paved the way for present actions. However, it can only teach us if we are willing to learn. Simply hearing the story is not enough. Regardless of how enthralling, action-packed, or awe-inspiring, history is not simply a story to be heard. It is a story to be understood.

Whether we look at the rise of Hitler, the arms race of the Cold War, or the growth of empire through colonialization, history can teach us about how groups of humans react when they feel threatened by other groups of humans. During the inter-war period in Germany, the people felt sorely abused by the rest of Europe. They sought a change and a savior from the economic oppression they felt was unjust. During the Cold War, citizens on both sides sought powerful military might as a means of protection from a threat often ideological more than physical. They didn’t simply want a powerful government, they wanted an all-powerful government that could protect them from phantoms as well as from armies. In both of these historical stories, if we take the time study them rather than simply hear them, we can learn that people are willing to give up basic human and civil rights in order to feel protected from outside threats. Additionally, if we go beyond the simple narrative often taught in history primers, we can see cases where people were easily persuaded to put aside their moral compass in order to achieve group affiliation and protection. While the story of Hitler and his atrocious reign of power might more easily provide examples of how people can become swayed by nationalism and nativism, the story of the Cold War also provides examples. Foreign relations, the relations between nations rather than individuals, often times reflect the very nature of human relations. Just as human and civil rights were often trampled upon in both the United States and the Soviet Union by their own respective citizenry, national sovereignty and the right to self-determination were often trampled upon by the superpowers as they spread their economic, political, and military influence. The notion that ‘might makes right’ was not constrained.

The notion of ‘might makes right’ is clearly depicted in the colonization period leading up to the twentieth century. Peoples who seemed to be less civilized in comparison to the social and political norms of Europe were to be suppressed and subjugated, or eradicated if they would not accept their place in the more ‘civilized’ society. Moral qualms were assuaged by dehumanizing those who did not fit the norm and who did not hold the power. This was not the first time the process of dehumanizing the ‘other’ for social or political gain occurred in history, but it did normalize it as culturally acceptable. Even as slavery lost support, colonial conquest and rule, including the westward expansion of the United States, reinforced the idea that certain peoples were more valuable than others. The mighty western nations viewed their culture to be better than the rest, and believed that forced assimilation was right and justified.

To the victor goes the spoils and also the chance to write the story, but history is more than just one person or nation’s account. It is a compilation of stories from many different perspectives. Like the heroic sagas of old, history can inspire and teach lessons to the listeners, but the study of history can do more. It can dispel notions that any one group of people is more perfect or more sinful than the others. It highlights the shared humanity of man; a humanity that is full of valor and full of vice.

American Way of Life and Education during the Cold War

Society is locked in a battle of interpretations when it comes to the Cold War. Was it a war against the sinister spread of communism that threatened the moral fiber and the political existence of the United States, or was it a battle between two economic powers determined to gain world hegemony? Even among historians, the debate rages. Regardless of the underlying goals that fueled the Cold War, one thing remains clear – it was a war both the United States and the Soviet Union were committed to winning. Part of the strategy employed by both powers was the use of education as a means of instilling a common ideology. While the United States would point fingers at the Soviet Union and accuse it of indoctrination rather than education, a real effort to promote an American Way of Life was embarked upon at home. It was also exported in much the same manner as the Soviet exportation of communism.

Unlike with communism, the United States did not have a concise definition that it could promote, but during the decades of the Cold War, an ideology emerged even though it was never capsulized in one definitive form. Movies and television idolized an American Way of Life that often romanticized an ideal version of the United States and its history. Books were written promoting a celebrated notion of Americanism; some warning about the pervasive threats against the United States, and other attempting to define what was un-American and what wasn’t. The American image was molded and promoted at home and abroad.

World War I had highlighted a need for a more educated populace, but the post-World War II era took education into a new realm with the U.S. educational system undergoing a transformation during the Cold War. The study of science and technology increased, and universities often found endless government funding for research and development particularly in areas that were argued as essential for national defense. While higher education benefited from an influx of funds, it was not just the research labs which saw change. In public elementary and secondary schools nationwide, the youth learned civics lessons even as they learned to Duck and Cover. However what may have been the most dramatic change came in the form of racial integration. For a nation proclaiming a dedication to equality and promoting democracy worldwide, segregation, especially the segregation of school children, was a political nightmare. The Supreme Court and the State Department worried that segregation jeopardized national interests and foreign policy. A nation determined to promote and export an American Way of Life needed to eradicate segregation from its narrative, and Brown vs. Board of Education was key to changing that narrative. The United States hoped to put to rest international criticism against a way of life which had supported segregation. A national policy of desegregation, accompanied by film images of the forced desegregation of elementary schools, went far in achieving that goal. In an ideological battle between superpowers, perception was a vital component of strategy. A change in national policy, particularly with regard to education, helped improve the perception that the principle of equality was fundamental to an American Way of Life.

 

 

Further Reading

Dudziak, Mary L. “Brown as a Cold War Case.” The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 32–42.

Dudziak, Mary L. “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative.” Stanford Law Review 41, no. 1 (1988): 61–120.

Isaac, Joel. “The Human Sciences in Cold War America.” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): 725–746.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Merelman, Richard M. “Symbols as Substance in National Civics Standards.” PS: Political Science and Politics 29, no. 1 (1996): 53–57.

Reuben, Julie A. “Beyond Politics: Community Civics and the Redefinition of Citizenship in the Progressive Era.” History of Education Quarterly 37, no. 4 (1997): 399–420.

Solomon, Eric. “Cold War U.” American Literary History 11, no. 4 (1999): 721–735.

Solomon, Eric. “Cold War U.” American Literary History 11, no. 4 (1999): 721–735.

Rumors and Rhetoric

In 1783 at the army camp located in Newburgh, New York rumors of revolt were quelled when General George Washington addressed his men. The rhetoric, which had grown from frustration with Congress over back pay, was effectively countered when Washington spoke, “…let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained…”[1] Scholars have argued over whether the crisis in Newburgh was one of rhetoric only, or if an actual conspiracy existed which threatened the stability and future of the United States.[2] Regardless, the Newburgh Affair highlights how political rhetoric can lead to crisis, and how calm leadership rather than dramatic action can be the solution.

Conspiracy theorists and politically motivated historians have inferred that orchestrated nationalist machinations were the cause of the rumors and implied threats that swirled around Newburgh in the fall and winter of 1782-83. Others argue that frustration at the lack of pay, and the worry of a post-conflict future, organically inspired the rhetoric Washington felt needed addressed on March 15, 1783. Pamphlets, newspapers, public meetings, and personal correspondence were the main vehicles for the spreading of news and the airing of grievances prior to the technological age. The years leading up to the outbreak of war proved that these were effective tools in rousing public opinion in order to force change. It stood to reason then that these same tools would be used when Congress ground to a standstill on the issue of military pay and veteran benefits.

Even in the days before technology transformed the ways in which the world communicated, rumors once started were difficult to suppress. Enflamed rhetoric was even harder to manage for often it was printed and preserved for posterity. Fortunately for the young republic, General Washington was a man who had learned that brash language and rash actions were counter-productive to stability and prosperity. While he understood the frustration[3] of his men, he also understood that a liberty so newly achieved could not withstand civil discord.[4] A nation built from the fire of revolution would have to learn how to handle and even embrace civil discord.; however, Washington was wise in objecting to discord created by “insidious design” and spread by rumor and extreme rhetoric.

 

Endnotes

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 499.

[2] Edward C. Skeen, and Richard H. Kohn, “The Newburgh Conspiracy Reconsidered,” The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1974): 273–298.

[3] Mary Stockwell, “Newburgh Address,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-address/.

[4] Washington, 500.

Historiography: How the Story is Written

In the modern world of minute-by-minute news coverage, it is easy to assume that history is being recorded both comprehensively and accurately. One may even think that the role of the historian is passé and all that is needed for the modern world is the analyst who will try to make sense out of current events. Even in a world where the events of the day are documented, and where social media can turn our most mundane activities into a historical sketch that we can share with all of our cyber friends, the role of the historian is crucial. It may even be more crucial than ever before because of the sheer volume of data that must now be shifted through in order to create a comprehensive, yet pertinent, story.

Accuracy in historical record has always been important to historians, but it has not been nearly as important as the story. In the days in which history was borrowed from others in order to bolster a rising nation’s image, accuracy was often less important than fostering the image that a new empire was ancient and eternal in origin. A good example of this is found with the Roman Empire, which having risen in power desired an historical record that would magnify its greatness rather than highlight its youth. Throughout history, political entities as well as powerful individuals have sought to bolster their images by creating histories that connect them to other prestigious historical events, periods, and reigns. By likening themselves to others who were dynamic, successful, dominant, and strong, they create an image of grandeur that is only partially based on the events of their own time and of their own making.

As technology and the availability of the written record evolved over the centuries, it became harder to use the history of others as a means in which one’s own history could be created. Even before the printing press, some historians began comparing their own region’s historical journey with that of their neighbors. In some cases, as with the historian Tacitus, the neighbor was heralded for its purity and simplicity in contrast to the corruption at home. In other cases, the neighbor was villainized in an attempt to deflect attention away from unpopular home-state policy. In either situation, the history of others was borrowed, no longer as a means to explain where a political state had come from, but rather to explain how the home-state compared to others. This trend created an interesting phenomenon in the writing of history. No longer was it simply good enough to extoll the greatness of one’s own past, but now it was acceptable, and even expected to criticize the neighbor as a means of exhausting oneself. By making the neighbor seem less noble or even villainous, the historian could create an even more illustrious history of the home-state.

In the not so distant past, historians were at the whim and will of powerful men who could finance the historical pursuit of the scholar. Modern technology has changed this to some extent. Scholarly history may still be contingent on research grants made possible by powerful institutions and individuals, but technology has made everyone who uses the internet a historian, or at least a historical participant. No longer is it only the famous, powerful, or well-connected who get recorded. Some individuals may only be contributors of data, whereas others may add more significantly to the record of daily events. In this world of high speed technology and vast data collection, history is being recorded more thoroughly than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that the record is any more accurate. Often, history is being recorded in very inaccurate ways and by people with little to no understanding of the ramifications this has on both the people of today as well as the historians of tomorrow. In the race to beat the ‘other guys’ to the best story, accuracy, once again, is secondary to the story being told.

Modern historians bound by ethical parameters of historical accuracy, try to share a story that is comprehensive, and as unbiased as possible. They are taught to question sources and present a full picture of an event, a person, or a period of time. In some cases, they are even taught to use good writing skills in order to make the story enjoyable to read. They are taught to recognize that history is not always pleasant, but it can always be of value, if even to only a few. At times, history can be a story of valor, bravery, and patriotic glory. At other times, history can be just the opposite. The modern historian may write a tale that makes some readers uncomfortable, but the job of the historian is to write a comprehensive and pertinent story rather than the myths and propaganda so many others are determined to write.

Liberty: A Cost of War

During war, even a war fought in far flung lands, the civilian public is not guaranteed the comforts of peacetime. Rationing of food and clothing can be expected as a nation directs its energy and material goods toward the war effort. Additionally, one can expect taxation to increase as the nation’s war debt mounts. However, when one’s liberty becomes a cost of war, the nation faces a crisis that is much more difficult to overcome with patriotic slogans. Fear, spread through propaganda campaigns and doom-inspiring rhetoric, becomes the tool that convinces a nation that the loss of constitutionally protected liberty is price worth paying for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the cost of war was hugely felt in the form of taxation. Colonial Americans were opposed to the new taxes despite the fact that they helped pay for the military support the colonists benefited from each time a frontier war erupted. Their argument, in simple terms, was that if they were to be taxed like regular English subjects, then they should have all the rights and privileges afforded to regular English subjects. Particularly, they should have the right to political representation. When their demands for equality were not heeded, the colonists decided that rebellion was the solution. War weariness and the costs of war played a large role in the final outcome. Endless war was not a good national policy, and even the powerful British Empire had a difficult time arguing against that truth.

During the American Revolution, the colonists who supported rebellion and sought independence were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their cause, but that dedication was challenged when the new nation found itself sacrificing economic prosperity due to the Embargo Act of 1807. In an ill-conceived attempt to force France and Great Britain into dealing with the United States with greater respect, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed an embargo that resulted in great hardship for the New England merchants. Fortunately, the War of 1812 concluded just as the anger in New England was reaching a boiling point, and President James Madison was not faced with the daunting task of suppressing a homeland rebellion.

When homeland rebellion did finally erupt years later as the national argument concerning the issue of slavery boiled over, President Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate suspending certain constitutionally guaranteed rights in an effort to settle the conflict more quickly. His justification was that those who were trying to separate from the union and those who were a direct threat to the union were not necessarily protected by the constitution. He was not alone in his evaluation that during war certain liberties might need to be curtailed. The remnants of Congress agreed, and passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863.

Economic hardship and the forfeiture of liberty seemed justifiable when the nation was at war; especially if the forfeiture of liberty was directed at those who seemed set on disrupting the nation’s ability to fight the war. It should not come to a surprise that when the nation went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, those who seemed too closely tied to the enemy would find themselves stripped of their constitutionally protected liberty. It mattered little that their ties were familial in nature as opposed to political. The nation had to be protected in order for the United States to prevail. In the end, the war only last a few short years. The rights and liberty of the interned were restored, everyone went on their merry way, and the nation flourished as it helped rebuild the free world. Or so the propagandists proclaimed.

Yet another enemy lurked and another war loomed. Constitutionally protected rights were no longer sacred in the face of an enemy. A nation at war, even a cold one, had to protect itself from enemy sympathizers and subversives. If this meant spying on its own citizens, then that is what the nation would do. When the truth of this violation became publicly known after the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, Congress acted to halt such a travesty, but it was questionable even at the time whether the actions of Congress would hold up during the ongoing Cold War.

War, it seemed, would always be a justification for a temporary loss of freedom and liberty, but as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, war shifted away from the traditional conflicts that often erupted between two political enemies. Instead, war became a conflict with phantoms and ideologies. First there was the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror, both eradicating the protections guaranteed in the constitution, and both without any end in sight. The cost of these wars continues to be great and it seems that rather than causing economic hardship and the sacrifice of personal comfort, these wars demand a greater price – liberty.

History: More Than Just Cramming for a Test

History is a required subject in schools throughout the United States, but is history simply a subject to be covered, crammed, tested, and forgotten? How much do we really know and understood about our own history? Historian Tony Williams asked, “do we really understand the difference between Jamestown and Plymouth? Or between the Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence?”[1] Do we remember more about our elementary Thanksgiving pageants than we do about the actual people and events that shaped our nation and the world in which we live?

Recently, I saw a meme popup on the internet that counseled the readers to not believe revisionist historians, and inferred that they lie in order to strip away the moral fiber of the nation. Clearly, the intent of the statement was to cause distrust in accounts of history that challenge particular points of view, and to breed distrust of academic sources of history as opposed to sensationalized, patriotic versions of history that tend to leave out the controversial bits. Sadly, too many people avoid academic histories because they distrust the historian’s motivation or because they think scholarly history is boring. Contrary to what many believe, scholarly history is not monolithic in nature, and most historians are not set on convincing the public that the celebrated historical characters are all villainous. Rather, academic historians work hard to replace fiction with fact, and separate myth from history. Historian Carol Berkin wrote, “They write about what interests them… [and] firmly reject collective agendas no matter what group suggests them and no matter what pressing problems those agendas might promise to resolve.”[2] The result is that rather than only providing a timeline of the events and peoples of the past, historians have provided greater access to and understanding of the real people and of their lives beyond the grand events of their day. Instead of data to be memorized the night before a test and then quickly forgotten, scholarly history provides a journey back in time, introducing the reader to a diverse world that is much more fascinating than might have ever been discovered in the days when cramming for the test was all that seemed to matter.

 

Endnotes

[1] Tony Williams, America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events That Shaped a Nation’s Character (Lanham, MD; Williamsburg, VA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), ix.

[2] Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), viii.

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.

 

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.

 

 

Endnotes

[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.