Controversy continues over WWII Hawaii conference

Historians in the News

Penelope Blake, a history professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, IL, appeared on Fox News’s Hannityon November 11 to discuss her outrage over a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored workshop on the Pacific War she attended in July.  She came away from the workshop, hosted by the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, disgusted by what she called an “extremist, agenda-driven, revisionist conference,” and wrote a letter to her congressman, Illinois Republican Donald Manzullo, and NEH chairman Jim Leach in late October calling for a comprehensive review of NEH policy.  She subsequently released the letter to the conservative blog Powerline, which called for an investigation on November 1.

Geoffrey White, director of the conference, entitled “History and Commemoration: Legacies of the Pacific War,” and chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Hawaii, disputes Ms. Blake’s characterization of the conference, noting that neither she nor Fox News contacted him prior to her appearance on Hannity.  He said via email that forty-one of forty-two participant evaluations of the conference were “good to outstanding.”  Dr. Blake’s evaluation was “severely negative,” although according to White, Dr. Blake submitted a mostly positive one-paragraph summary of accomplishments at the end of the conference, a form requested from all participants.  “I am puzzled as to why she chose not to begin her criticisms with us and instead jumped to a national campaign to target NEH and the program sponsors.”

Chairman Leach acknowledged in his response to Dr. Blake’s letter that four other evaluations expressed “similar concerns about several of the presentations,” including one who believed that a presenter didn’t back up his claims, but “each of these critics indicated that they were pleased overall” with the workshop.

Dr. Blake requested that passage of the NEH operating budget be delayed until the NEH “reviews all… conference and workshop proposals and supporting materials to eliminate any overt political agenda… [and that] any group or institution requesting a grant from the NEH should be required to submit its entire schedule of presenters and a complete list of the literature which will be discussed….”  Leach noted that the NEH already requires a “complete agenda” from workshop applicants, including a list of readings. The East-West Center’s program was reviewed by a panel of four professors, who gave their unanimous consent to the program.

Dr. Blake’s letter alleges that the conference conveyed no less than eleven anti-American messages:

  1. The U.S. military and its veterans constitute an… oppressive force which has… [insisted] on a pristine collective memory of the war.

  2. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor should be seen from the perspective of Japan being a victim of western [sic] oppression,

  3. War memorials… are symbols of military aggression and brutality…

  4. The U.S. military has repeated committed rapes and other violent crimes throughout its past through the present day.

  5. Those misguided members of the WWII generation on islands like Guam and Saipan who feel gratitude to the Americans for saving them… are blinded by propaganda…

  6. It was “the practice” of the U.S. military in WWII to desecrate and disrespect the bodies of dead Japanese.

  7. Conservatives… have had an undue and corrupt influence on how WWII is remembered.

  8. Conservatives are reactionary nationalists… who are incapable of critical thinking.

  9. Even members of the NEH review board are not immune to “reactionary” pro-military views.

  10. Veterans’ memories of their own experiences in the war are suspect…

  11. War memorials like the Arizona Memorial should be recast as “peace memorials,” sensitive to all viewers from all countries, especially the many visitors from Japan.

You can read Blake’s letter in full at Powerline.

One of the scholars singled out by Blake, Lisa Yoneyama, professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, disputes Dr. Blake’s characterization of her remarks.  
“[Yoneyama],” wrote Blake, “said that American ‘imperial expansion’ forced Japan’s hand:  ‘For the Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western Imperialism” (Yoneyama 335-336).”  This quote was adapted from a chapter Dr. Yoneyama wrote on the 1994 Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian for Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s), and was on the pre-conference reading list.  Yoneyama said via email that the “quote [is] from a media report on of the earliest versions of the script.  The quote expressed one of the conservative views on World War II prevailing in Japan.  I disagree with such a view.”

In the first draft of the plan for the Smithsonian exhibit, one phrase indicated that the United States fought the war in the Pacific in a way that was fundamentally different from the way it waged war against Germany and Italy. The draft stated that the Americans had fought the war against the Japanese as “a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.”  This phrase appeared in the script as an ironic summary of Japanese officials’ gross justification for atrocities committed during the war, including a civilian massacre in Nanjing, the abuse against POWs, and the biological experiments on living human beings… Yet critics continued to cite it out of context and to condemn the museum staff for suggesting that the United States was the victimizer and Japan the victim.

Dr. Yoneyama also disputes Dr. Blake’s account of a “tense exchange” between the two.  “Dr. Blake asked about the Japanese influences in the cancellation [of the Enola Gay exhibit].  I deferred to Daniel Martinez, historian for the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial… He was familiar with the most recent comprehensive investigation done on the Smithsonian exhibit cancellation.”  She also pointed out that her presentation was not centered around the Smithsonian exhibit, but on “global ‘culture wars’” and the “[battle] over historical memories.”’

If nothing else, the controversy over the conference illustrates the fraught terrain over which historians must negotiate historical memory. “World War II was in many ways the least controversial American war of the last century.” said Mark Selden, senior research associate at Cornell University. “With all our divisions within our own fractured policy, the victories of World War II seem to defy the most powerful nation in the world.”

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Tom Billings - 11/21/2010

It would be difficult to accept Blake's criticism, if I had not seen similar attitudes myself in history professionals.

"The global culture wars" are something that a large part of the professional historians community seems to make their living off of, for the last 40 years. It is notable that such wars would not exist without the doctrines of multiculturalism emphasizing the claims of every agrarian culture, at the expense of the growing world-wide industrial culture. Whether it is the claims of a Japan whose culture was still strongly influenced by the majority of its population down on the farm as late as 1940, or the claims of majority agrarian Afghans, today, makes little difference, apparently. It is the struggle to control the past, in order to undercut groups in the present, the highly productive networks of industrial society around the world, that has stood out as a pattern.

Dr. Blake was bringing out the conference as a single instance of this, from what I saw in the full letter she sent PowerLine. Dr. Yoneyama, frankly, seems to do her best to obscure it, in the quotes from this article at least. If these artificial "global culture wars" were not something historical community denizens fed off of, there would not be such baldly biased conferences.

Since industrial society feeds 5.8 billion of the 6.8 billion people on this planet, the attempts to restrict the growth of its productive networks has always seemed mad, to me. To build a "narrative" that obscures real assaults on those networks, (the IJA's attempts at a East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere being among them), while smearing policies and strategies that defended those networks using generalizations of specific acts to raise them to the level of policy, is intellectually dishonest.

The Rape of Nanjing was an act of policy set at the level of a General who was an Imperial Prince, and had been a member of the Imperial General Staff, and an Imperial Councilor. No such policy by the US Armed Forces has ever been countenanced. That is only one of the points Blake alluded to.

It really is past time that historians admit that participants in industrial society simply will not pay for the anti-industrial screeds of a multiculturalism based in the Baran-Wallerstein thesis and dependency theory. If you want a reason that history departments are closing, this is the biggest elephant in the living room.

Whenever historians who are proponents of industrial society make their views as dominant as dependency theory has today, we will see history departments blossom once more, as students come to learn what they can that will help them find their way in an industrial world.


Tom Billings