According to Bush World War II Began with the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Say What?

Fact & Fiction

Ms. Taylor teaches Canadian history at the First Nations University of Canada.

I have been following the debates in the HNN newsletter, in the American and Canadian media, and among Canadian citizens about President Bush, the war in Iraq, and the Second World War with great interest.

On June the 3rd, 2004 the Globe and Mail reported that in a televised commencement speech to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Bush said that " 'like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless attack on the United States,' ... in an apparent reference to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941." A White House press release gave the text of Bush's speech in which he was to say "Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless, surprise attack on the United States. We will not forget that treachery, and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy."

As a Canadian historian I had a good belly laugh over this interpretation of history by Bush, so throughout the week I have been telling my friends and relatives on the Canadian prairies that I had read reports that Bush had claimed that the Second World War began with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. All of them reacted either with disgust or uproarious laughter. Several said they knew he was "ignorant about history," but they wondered what is wrong with his speech writers.

The idea of the Second World War beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor is, of course, ironic in light of Bush's current campaign to get more allies to support him in Iraq. If he cannot even give us credit for two years of doing battle during the Second World War before the Americans entered, how on earth does he think we would decide to support him in his current war?

Like Queen Victoria, my 92 year old mother, who is as bright as a new penny, was "not amused" by all of this. She lost two dear friends from Alberta who were in British air crews during the Battle of Britain. She is so angry at Bush that yesterday she spoke up at a political meeting in a small town in Alberta for the first time in her life when the local Conservative candidate made a positive reference to Bush. A friend, who was sitting beside my mother, urged her to speak up so she interrupted the Conservative candidate and said "Did you know that Bush says the Second World War began with Pearl Harbor?" A man who was sitting behind her angrily agreed with her. She then added "and the Americans did not come in during the First World War until 1917!" Again the man behind her agreed forcefully. The Conservative candidate meekly acquiesced and wisely changed the subject. My mother remembers how angry her mother was when her aunt, who had moved to the states, bragged in a Christmas card in 1917 about how well "our American boys are doing" in the war. My grandmother had immigrated to the Canadian prairies to homestead from England and she knew how many men from Britain, Canada, and the allied countries had died by the time the Americans entered the conflict.

In other words, my mother does not have to be a historian to know that many Canadians, Brits, and their allies had died before the Americans entered both of the World Wars. Let's face it Bush has a real knack for making enemies of people in Canada and other countries, such as my mother, who thought during both World Wars that the Americans were johnny-come-latelies. Needless to say, she will not change her mind no matter how much flowery rhetoric she hears from Bush.

Personally, I can hardly wait to read further reports of any comments Bush makes about history. Reading his interpretations of history is as good as reading 1066 and All That.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I would argue for Sarajevo in 1914 and treating Hitler's War as a restarting, on a larger, more diabolical, and more premeditated scale, of the "Great War", the underlying issues of which were left unresolved by Versailles, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the League of Nations minus the U.S..

In case, I am all for sending the C-average History major currently occupying the White House back to school. Once Abu Ghraib is vacated, it might make a good spot for the Dubya Library, with plenty of room nearby to hold classes on international diplomacy, international law, English elocution, and remedial American history.

douglas w jacobson - 7/20/2007

By far the vast majority of casualties in WW2 were those of (in order) USSR, Poland, Germany. Together they account for more than 50 million casulaties, compared with approx 250,000 American casulaties. The American effort during the second half of the war was indeed crucial to the outcome. But, the war began in Poland more than two years before Pearl harbor and almost four years before the first engagement by Americans.
Douglas W jacobson

ace sorensen - 9/16/2004

Of course Bush knew that World War II started before that. The point of his speech was NOT to give a history lecture, which should be OBVIOUS to even the slowest people. Of course any idiot knows the war was started before that. Any idiot would also know that he was drawing a parallel to a reason WHY the United States got involved, in order to make a case for the current war. It's not that hard to grab a sentence out of context and make a biggoted attack on someone. Why not try and make an intelligent attack next time, and find a real issue instead of just semantics?

William Leroy Nichols - 7/28/2004

For America, the Second World War did begin with the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is not to shortchange the valor of the sailors in the undeclared war in the North Atlantic, but for the vast majority of Americans at the time that phase of warfare simply was not important except as something that might be used to keep us away from a real war with Germany. The statement does not exclude the fact that other nations were already involved, and for any pretense that it does, it seems to me to smell of snobbery and disdain for the current president more than it does of anything else. In as much as Bush was addressing the graduates of the Air Force Academy, perhaps it might be understandable to think he was referring to the American involvement.

It is correct in saying that the attitude of so many other nations should give us Americans pause to wonder, but what a good many of us wonder is what is wrong with the moral fiber of those nations and their apparent blindness to the threat to western civilization posed by the Caliphate in the making. Not since the second siege of Vienna has Islam posed such a potential problem to the west, and much like then, most of the west wants to turn a blind eye.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/14/2004

US is always U$ - fighting a war(never defensive one) without declaration.

William Marina - 6/28/2004

Pardon my late comment since we just returned from a month in Europe.
However badly phrased by Bush, the American formal declaration of war against Japan was a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We can let the question of American provocation go for now.
But the US had already been at war with German U-boats in the N. Atlantic since 1940. This was a real war, although undeclared.
William Appleman Williams, the great radical historian, mentioned to me that his graduating class at the Naval Academy was told by the instructors, disregard what Roosevelt is saying about staying out of the war, we are already in it. Most of you will be going into old destroyers fighting against submarines in an effort to escort convoys to England.
William Marina

Greg Robinson - 6/27/2004

Sarajevo, 1914 is a good choice for the beginning of what I tell my high school history students is a 40 year war with an intermission from 1918 to 1937. President Bush should have said, "Like our involvement in World War II which began with the attack on Pearl Harbor, our involvement with the War on Terror began with the attack on 9/11. But let us not forget that the Canadians, bless their hearts, had been fighting in World War II for several years before we joined. Let's make that perfectly clear."

Dennis Johnson - 6/24/2004

I agree with you that it is silly to say WWII began in Dec. 7, 1941. The fascists were marching into other nations much earlier.

However, the only two independent Sub-Saharan African nations were against the fascists. To the Ethiopians, the war began in 1935 when Benito Mussolini sent Italian troops to invade on October 3, 1935. Emperor Haile Selassie escaped to London and became a symbol in the fight against the Axis.

Liberia was an ally aided the allies against fascism by providing the vast majority of rubber for the tires on jeeps and planes.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/18/2004

... and my neighbor argues that 2 + 2 = 5.

I thought you had a bit higher IQ than admired by you
Bush to realize that I lost any desire to continue any discussion with such perpetual lier and
falsificator as you are when I wished you "a good lie".

Bill Heuisler - 6/18/2004

Mr. Shcherban,
A friendly, hi, right back to you.
Examine your conscience: here you are crowing about a misinformed lie that hurts the US war effort. Don't talk about my persona, talk about my evidence. Read the Borger Cheney interview (6/17 Capital Report) and its references to my documented evidence. Stop your misplaced gloating. Hamilton and Thompson who ran the 9/11 commission disagree with you and with the "no connection with Al Qaeda and Iraq". In fact they both say they don't understand where the NYT et al got their headlines.

But we know, don't we? The Left is trying to lose this war the way they lost the war in Vietnam - by lying about US motivations and trying to destroy our morale. How bad does it have to get before the two-faced Left sides with the greatest Democracy the World has ever known? Now you folks are defending a murderous tyrant in order to weaken the US. You all must be so proud of yourselves.
Bill Heuisler

Roundy Round Head - 6/18/2004

This is all pretty rich, coming from a `teacher of Canadian history' at the famed First Nations University (although apparently, not a regular staff member at even this slight institution).

It is the field of Canadian history that has systematically undermined in order to force Canadian pupils to forget about their history, the contributions they've made to this continent, to the World War efforts and so on, in favour of a history which emphasizes European `genocide' of the preceding (not `original') societies that existed here (nothing about our so-called `First Nations' probably displaced those who were here BEFORE them)…

As to the relevance of Bush's statement to the present conflict: the U.S. was kept out of World War I and (especially) II by the same kind of braying `peaceniks' who demanded that Saddam Hussein should have been maintained in power indefinitely. As revealed by a 1939 letter that `prominent intellectuals' sent to the president, FDR, the argument that `only the Iraqis should overthrow their dictator' had a shocking resonance to my of those `who know better' than the rest of us, even back then…

What is disgusting is that the anti-Iraqi war party have revived the reactionary, anti-Semitic tropes which animated the anti-European war side, almost 70 years ago.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/18/2004

Far from everything that's anti-Sionist is anti-Semitic too and has anything to do with the WWII genocide of Jews.

Val Jobson - 6/17/2004

It irks quite a bit, and will do so until next year when the Flames take it back. Still, these were the most exciting playoffs for many years, particularly in Calgary, and the fans are grateful to the Flames for the great ride.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/17/2004

Val --
President Bush's remarks could have been more clear,I agree. But itjust seemstomethat we can give the guy a break -- even if we do not like him,this does not seem substantial enough to worry about. I buy his general point linking Pearl Harbor with 9-11 at least as a metaphor, even if his delivery was, well, Bushian.
As for Lord Stanley's Cup, I do think that is a great tradition. And I am glad Canada will get to glimpse that chalice. But it must irk our friends to the north a little bit that it will be residing primarily in Tampa for the next year!

Val Jobson - 6/17/2004

Mr. Catsam; The timing of the remark was unfortunate, since it was made shortly before D-Day; one of the D-Day ceremonies Bush attended was an international one with I think 17 countries taking part. If Bush had made this remark to the ferociously proud French resistance fighter who led part of the ceremony, he would have been French-fried.

As for Lord Stanley's Cup, it will be spending much time in Canada, since each team member gets to take it home, and I believe 15 of the Tampa Bay Lightning are Canadians.
If you want to win the Stanley Cup, or Olumpic Gold in hockey, go to the Canadians!

Georgina M. Taylor - 6/17/2004

My comments about President Bush and Canadians certainly provoked comments. I was more amused than insulted by Bill Heuisler’s assertion that I am a “snotty Canadian historian wannabe, who can't read English” since I wrote a dissertation that was judged to be outstanding by the examining committee, I have a respectable publication record, and I have taught history at a university level since 1988. Nevertheless I appreciate Val Jobson’s comments about Heuisler’s remarks.
I agree with Adam Moshe that “many of the posts on this article tend to focus on the semantics of the comment: Was it a World War? Did the sentence technically convey reality by calling it "our"?” These comments were likely stimulated by the question the editor of the newsletter posed “According to Bush World War II began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Say What?” The comments that focused on semantics were well worth reading. Thank you in particular to Bev Severance for her remarks and to Val Jobson for mentioning Paynes’ article in a previous newsletter. I had read Paynes’ article before I wrote my article and thought he made many good points. Jonathan Dresner made a valuable contribution to the discussion when he said that “a war that involves four of five continents qualifies as a World War,” as did the Second World War prior to December of 1941. Britian, Canada, and other countries around the world in the British Empire declared war on Germany when it invade Poland in September of 1939. I would suggest that this made the conflicts in Europe and Asia a world war.
Adam Moshe, who moved the discussion beyond semantics, clearly understood the main point of my article when he observed that he took away a different message from my article, a message that too often President Bush has shown “disdain for the opinions of other countries, international organizations, and anything that is not American.” Moshe could see that Bush’s comment about the Second World War, which I quoted in my article, is not important in itself, but it “represents a much larger problem” with Bush, “his obvious contempt for the world and how that contempt does not help the United States.”
Moshe makes another good point when he said that “it is hard to disagree that the disdain is there among the people of various countries.” The articles in the web sites that Moshe included attest to this. All three are worth reading at length. Briefly, CBS NEWS reported that “a majority of people in Canada, Mexico and five European countries have an unfavorable view of the role that President Bush plays in world affairs, Associated Press polls found. Only in the United States did a majority of those questioned, 57 percent, have a positive view of President Bush’s role.” THE GUARDIAN, which reported on the same poll said that, “three-fourths of those in Spain and more than 80 percent in France and Germany had a negative view of Mr. Bush's role in world affairs.” The BBC reported that “a survey of 11 countries [Australia, Canada, Brazil, France, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the USA] - for the television programme What The World Thinks of America, to be aired this week in the UK - revealed that 57% of the sample had a very unfavourable, or fairly unfavorable attitude towards the American President. The figure rose to 60% when discounting the views of the American respondents.”
As an outsider, it seems to me that Moshe is right when he says Bush’s “low standing in the world should be enough to give Americans pause.” The negative opinion people from other countries, such the countries listed above, have of Bush has practical results for Americans. These practical results include the millions of dollars Americans have spent and in the lives they have lost, in part, because Bush rushed into the war in Iraq even though he could not rally many countries to support his war in Iraq by sending large numbers of troops.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/17/2004

Bill and company --
It's fairly clear that the President is not the most gifted orator, whether with written speech or the extemporaneous kind, in the world. It is also clear that a literal parsing of this sentence does indicate what his critics say -- from a purely grammatical perspective the implication is that he thinks the war began with Pearl Harbor. But seriously, so what? I think it is pretty clear that I am not an admirer of this president. I will not be voting for him, and I did my part singing at a Kerry fundraiser in DC this past weekend. But this seems like an irredeemably silly little exercise. Any of us, if analyzed enough, say dumb things all the time, or things we do not expect to have torn down and taken literally. It seems that Bush's critics, me included, should have bigger fish to fry. It also seems that his supporters should just say "he's not our most intellectually gifted president,and he says dumb things periodically. But we think he is right, and here is why . . ."
My experience with Canadian academics has been fine. (By the way -- if they want a glimpse at the Stanley Cup, tell 'em Florida is great in the winter. And tothink,most Americans place that bauble fourth on our list of desirable pro team sport trophies.) See, Bill-- hit 'em where it hurts.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/17/2004


The friendly 'hi' from the Left along with congratulations on the conclusion of 9/11 commission(I guess dominated by Lefties, too)
about the absense of any reliable evidence on the alleged by Bush-Cheney 9/11
-Iraq links, your persona was so fiercely promoting.

Have a good lie.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/17/2004

Have I tired of the apologets of Pan-Amerikana or what?
Oh my, oh my...
Have a good life riding your high American horse.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/16/2004

Er, there's about a billion Chinese that would say either 1931 or 1937 would be the start. See Oscar above.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/16/2004

I want to add a short remark here about the actual
underground meaning of the some American WWII historians
contention with the conclusion of the great majority of
world historians(including American ones) about the start
of the WWII.
Their real goal is to diminish the importance of the
other allies' efforts versus the US efforts in achieving
the victory. The big chunk of that goal is of the ideological type(as, in big measure, ignoring the role
of Soviet Russia), the rest is sort of the nationalistic

Arnold Shcherban - 6/16/2004

.. And without European War, US-Japan War would not qualify for the WW either. Therefore, following your own logic, WWII began with Germany attacking Poland.
As we come to contradiction this way, the only logical conclusion is to consider, as it chronologically was,
Germany-Poland war as the Start of the War that with US and Japan "coming on board" was later dubbed as the WWII.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/16/2004

My 9th grade history teacher stated that it really began in 1931, with the Japanese invasion of Manchria.

She had a point.

chris l pettit - 6/15/2004

I had forgotten that commercial...

Does the US qualify as a dentist? We do seem do do a lot of "extractions"...

David Lion Salmanson - 6/15/2004

Multiple Choice question from my 11th grade world history final:

World War II began in:

a 1937
b. 1939
c. 1941
d. depends on who you ask

and people say cultural relativism is strictly a leftist notion, sigh.

E. Simon - 6/15/2004

Are straightforward and subtle synonyms? I hardly think that I'm the one reading too much into this...

I agree with your second sentence and hardly see how it affects the "alternative" translation.

Ben H. Severance - 6/15/2004

What if the U.S. did not recommend Trident? Would it still be a sugarless gum?

Ben H. Severance - 6/15/2004

You give Bush and his staff writers too much credit for grammatical efficiency. I think most people infer from the quote that Bush was thinking of Pearl Harbor as the event that brought the U.S. into the ongoing conflict that was later dubbed WWII. Your analysis of Bush's quote is too subtle and overlooks the fact that Bush does not have a subtle mind.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/15/2004

I seem to notice that many of the posts on this article tend to focus on the Semantics of the comment: Was it a World War? Did the sentence technically convey reality by calling it "our"? With all respect to such debate, and I do not mean to suggest it is at all unimportant, I took away a different message from the article and that is how Bush's comments, like almost everything else he says, are received outside of the United States. I tend to agree with some conservatives that if Clinton said similar things, the international community would not mind so much. Of course, domestically, if Clinton did the same things as Bush, he would have been removed a long time ago but that was not my point.

My point is that Bush has shown total disdain for the opinions of other countries, international organizations, and anything that is not American. Some conservatives seem to have mixed feelings, not caring what anyone else things, but at the same time berating everyone else for not loving us. Bush's WWII comment is nothing by itself, but represents a much larger problem with that man, and that is his obvious contempt for the world and how that contempt does not help the United States. Much of the international community does not like Bush, even if some of their leaders feel compelled to support him on certain issues. We may all disagree whether this matters or not, but it is hard to disagree that the disdain is there among the people of various countries.


Aside from the fact that I disagree with most of his policies, his low standing in the world should be enough to give many Americans pause when they go to the voting booth in November. Whether it will play any role in peoples decisions is open to debate.

Val Jobson - 6/15/2004

You're welcome.

Bill Heuisler - 6/15/2004

Mr. Jobson,
Ms Taylor's petty little diatribe was an 'ad hominem' argument. But without any scholarly training there's no way I could possibly recognize how some snotty Canadian historian wannabe, who can't read English, tried to make fun of an American President, is there?

You must think she has a point. If I remarked about how that makes you look, it might be considered ad hominem - if I only knew what that meant. And those rarified internal quotation marks you added were a devastating touch of pedantic panache. It's just thrilling to communicate with the upper class.
Bill Heuisler

E. Simon - 6/15/2004

The first clause not only describes the second clause, it is dependent on it. The second clause is the main clause. Since the main clause refers to "our" conflict, it can be inferred that other, dependent clauses reflect a similar perspective. It seems that Bush's description reflects this perspective when opening the sentence.

Of course he could have phrased it thus: "As in the Second World War, our role in the current conflict began with..."

More complex and less reminiscent of his straightforward style, but I like how the first version leaves people second-guessing whether his thoughts were wrong or merely his speech. The reactions are entertaining, to say the least.

chris l pettit - 6/14/2004

Why am I not surprised to see all the pseudo-fascist ultra-nationalists trying to make an argument that a world war can't possibly start until the US gets involved. Once again, you fail to realise that history is fluid and everchanging, not a series of independent points. The comments above regarding the events in China in 1937 and the carry over effect of the first World War are absolutely accurate. The idiocy involved in attempting to portray WWII as a) a separate conflict, and b) not starting until the "surprise" attack at Pearl Harbour is breathtaking. Do you have any inkling of knowledge regarding US policy in the East before that period? How about the lend-lease projects (among other acts) geared to basically join with the British war effort? Bush's comments, while they may be correctly construed to mean the US involvement in WWII did not begin until after Pearl Harbor (a claim that may be technically accurate if you want to define entry as a declaration of war, but one that is highly dubious in any other respect other than that narrow definition), most likely portray the ignorance of history or jingoistic revision of history too often found in government circles and the public today. Events do not exist in vacuums gentlemen...they are a series of causes and effects. I am once again glad that the venerable Dr. Dresner attempts to put a logical spin on the situation.

By the way...by your arguments, a world war could only result from every nation in the world becoming involved...it seems silly to say that it only happened when the US became involved...I am pretty sure that there were African and South American nations that were not involved...they are part of the world. How arrogant and bigoted your claims are...


Jonathan Dresner - 6/14/2004

Well, there was the European war starting in 1939, and the Sino-Japanese war (second phase) starting in 1937, and before you claim again that US entry united these conflicts let me remind you that Japan, Germany and Italy were allies, and that Asia, Europe, North America (Canada, mostly) and Africa were involved in the war before US entry.

I think a war that involves four of the five continents qualifies as a World War.

Tom Ellis - 6/14/2004

If you wish to go to such lengths to nit-pick about the president's comments, then why not consider that we call it "World" War II. While the U.S. isolated itself from the ongoing conflict, it was not truly a WORLD war.

For that matter, we could go into more detail, and call for the I and II designations to be removed, since it was the unresolved issues from WWI that led to WWII.

Tom Ellis - 6/14/2004

With the whole US and THEM mentality displayed in her piece ("If he cannot even give us credit..."), one would be led to believe that Georgina Taylor herself fought in both world wars.

The fact remains that, until December 7, 1941, the U.S. wasn't in the war. Ms. Taylor would do well to note that, as with France and Germany in today's conflict, the U.S. had ample reason to stay out of the ongoing war prior to Pearl Harbor. Her attempt to paint the U.S. as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies belies her view that, though the U.S. took heavy casualties, it somehow wasn't enough.

Until the ruthless attack on the United States in Pearl Harbor, was WWII truly a "World" War?

Val Jobson - 6/14/2004

Mr. Simon; the quote is "Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless, surprise attack on the United States."

The word "our" refers to the present conflict in Iraq. In the above statement Bush is not stating that "our" Second World War began with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but that "the" Second World War began with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

E. Simon - 6/14/2004

Am I missing something? The quote does say "our" conflict.

It seems that the historian goes to great lengths to justify her syntactical oversight.

Val Jobson - 6/14/2004

Ms. Taylor; there is some discussion of this matter in comments to last week's topic "So President Bush Thinks This is WW II and He's FDR?" by Phillip Payne.

Mr. Heuisler; if you have any academic or scholarly training you should know how to argue about an issue without casting personal insults at the person with whom you are arguing. If not, ask a scholar to explain what an 'ad hominem' argument is and how to avoid using it.

Bill Heuisler - 6/14/2004

Ms. Taylor,
Hope you enjoyed your belly laugh. I'm enjoying mine.
One good tool for a historian is the ability to read the language of your subject. President Bush said, "Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless, surprise attack on the United States."

Surely you understood, "our present conflict" meant the US involvement. So, in trying to make our President look foolish, you've made a fool of yourself. We all know you and your mother understood what was meant. You should also understand that being transparently clever is a sign of the unsophisticated. Or, maybe there are lesser standards for scholars in Canada.
Bill Heuisler

John H. Lederer - 6/14/2004

With all due respect for our friends to the north and their location in the Americas, and the Australians with their own continent, without the US there was a European War, not a World War.

Thus, in to the nit picker, WWII began with Pearl harbor. Interestingly, Churchill seemed to share Bush's opinion

gerald r reynolds - 6/14/2004

As a historian, you should know that at the time, the Amercian people considered the whole European war and the Japanese aggression in the Pacific as not belonging to the US. Isolationism was a key tenet to most Americans. FDR, a better strategic thinker than the majority of Americans, had already begun the process of arming America but for the majority of Americans, Pearl Harbor was the start of the War.

September 11 fulfills the same role in America though for many, it did not bring the same clarifying perspective Pearl Harbor did. Bush has begun the process of preparing America for what looks like a long conflict with Afghanistan and Iraq as two early fronts. The irony here is just as America ignored the German and Japanese aggressive dictatorships, even as they were slaughtering folks by the thousands, Europe now ignores its own danger, both from without and from within by the Islamic jihadists.
And for your mom, let her consider what would have occurred if the Johnny-come-latelies had never arrived...