The Pearl Harbor Myth

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado and a writer for the History News Service.

Just a week after the terrorist attack on the United States, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice insisted that"this isn't Pearl Harbor." Despite her disclaimer, millions have used the story of Dec. 7, 1941, to interpret the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

The story of a nation aroused to fight on until the enemy is utterly vanquished has become our shared myth. But its appeal is as dangerous as it is irresistible. Clinging to it now promises only an endless cycle of conflict.

Myth appeals to us because it lifts us out of history. That's why myth is dangerous: though it may hold kernels of historical truth, it denies the reality of history. It gives us a satisfying eternal sameness: Sept. 11 = Dec. 7. With this false equation, the complex history of United States - Muslim relations may be too easily forgotten, just as the history of United States - Japanese relations was too often forgotten.

According to the myth, America was asleep on Dec. 7, 1941, as the Japanese launched their sunrise attack on the U.S. fleet. The nation lay tucked between clean white sheets early on the Lord's day, the same as it ever was: naive and innocent, isolated from the world.

That myth obscures much of the decades-long struggle leading up to World War II. From the 1890s, the United States claimed a right to keep an"open door" for its products and merchants throughout east Asia and the Pacific. Japan resisted. It saw nothing wrong in wanting to dominate its own region economically, just as the United States dominated Latin America. If that history is ignored, the Japanese would seem to have no possible rational motive for their attack. Their desire to destroy the U.S. Navy came, like their airplanes, out of the blue.

In the same way, the Pearl Harbor myth now masks the reality of the Sept. 11 attackers. It makes them seem to be wholly irrational, with no possible motive. In fact, the murderers were, like us, products of a specific history that led up to their deed. That history can never excuse or justify murder. Neither can that history be erased by retelling myths.

Myth is also dangerous because it merges realities. The Pearl Harbor myth largely erased the differences between Japan and the other World War II foe, Germany. The two came to be seen as a single irrational, totalitarian force bent on world domination. The war became a simple tale of good against evil.

This German-Japanese foe was widely depicted as the devil incarnate. Once German and Japanese actions were transformed into acts of Satan, we had no reason to ask about the historical causes or motives of those actions. In myth and folklore, the devil does evil because it is his nature; he can do nothing else. Today, the Pearl Harbor myth encourages us to view some Muslims as agents of the devil, doing evil for evil's sake, as if their own history and the world's history had nothing to do with it.

Of course, Muslims have their own myths. Some depict an Islam creatively struggling to adapt to a globalizing world dominated by Western money and culture. Others tell of Islam defending itself, trying to repel the devil in the form of secular Western values. In the fog of myth, it can be impossible even to hear, much less to appreciate, the other side's motives. So neither side is likely to consider measures that might ease the conflict.

The attackers of Sept. 11 and their supporters are something new on the stage of history. They committed an absolutely evil act. But they are not fascists, Nazis or devils. As long as the Pearl Harbor myth shapes our response to them, though, we will see them as those mythic demons of the past.

Then our policies will be responses to images of fantasy, not to a real historical situation. We will not be able to grapple creatively with a challenging new reality. There will be no hope of new approaches that might mitigate the evil and the threat it brings. There will be only the images of old devils to fight and conquer. And every fight will spawn a new round of enemies.

The Pearl Harbor myth tells of a final and complete victory over the enemy. In an era of terrorist threat, clinging to such a myth may perpetuate the historical conflict that spawned the problem in the first place, insuring that there will be no final victory. It helps make the words of Vice President Cheney a self-fulfilling prophecy:"There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, `There, it's all over with'."

Unending war is not what we are supposed to celebrate on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ron Paget - 11/3/2008

Yes, the events before the Pearl Harbor attack are either forgotten or ignored. Many shallow stories do not examine the time line of US Japanese relationships.

The US anticipated Japanese aggression many years before Pearl Harbor. On the Philippine island of Corregidor, the US built from 1922 to 1932 an extensive tunnel system under Malinta Hill. It cost approximately $5,000,000 in 1920’s dollars. This was a major commitment in time and money for a “fortress” in the Far East.

Peter W Palmer - 12/9/2004

Good article. It seems that the two oceans surrounding the U.S. still insulate its citizens from the rest of the world. We only see the world through our perspective and fail to consider or empathize with other cultures. We forget about the oil embargo we instituted on Japan which directly lead to Japan's attack. Japan was resisting our influence in their sphere, just as many Muslims object to our meddling in their affairs. Our history of supporting tyrants, such as the Royal House of Saud, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in the 80's,etc just to keep the price of oil down and grab most of the wealth in the Middle East might tend to make enemies. In almost every conflict both sides have valid points and detractions. Until we can be honest with ourselves and look at the situation objectively, peace and security will remain unattainable.

Yel Brayton - 10/21/2002

Dr. John C. Savagian - 12/12/2001

Let's not forget that Pearl Harbor fits neatly into one of America's most defining myths, of a peaceful people who, only after being attacked, rise up to destroy the enemy. Is it a unique American trait that we remember our most significant defeats rather than victories? Are we unique in using such myths to ignore the historical events leading up to those tragedies? From the Alamo to Custer to the U.S.S. Maine, Pearl Harbor, and more recently, and pathetically, the Gulf of Tokin "incident," Americans remember these events, and use them to rationalize wars of conquest, extermination, and yes, defense. No wonder the presidential seal portrays an eagle with arrows in one set of talons and olive branches in the other.