The Other Amen Corners
December 11, 2001
after Pearl Harbor, we are at war again, and comparisons with 1941 are
inevitable. Some people think the country aint what it used to be. And
theyre right: it aint. But there are interesting parallels.
Writing in The Weekly Standard,
David Brooks notes that America in 1941 was far more upbeat than today:
Everybody had a patriotic duty, it seems, to be optimistic. Being happy was
a sign of success. It wasnt yet cool be thoughtfully gloomy or
alienated. This spirit was reflected in the American press, which was much
more eager for war then than now.
Brooks supports this portrait of 1941 with
many citations from the press of that time. Unfortunately, he overlooks a crucial
fact: many of those patriots who boosted war were driven by
Brooks quotes disproportionately from two
magazines: The Nation and Life. The
Nation was hardly a mainstream publication: it was the leading pro-Soviet
magazine of its day. Even before Pearl Harbor, it had called for U.S. intervention
into World War II on the Soviet side. No wonder it rejoiced when the United States
was pulled into the war. As one of its writers exulted, Here is the time
when a man can be what an American means, can fight for what America has
always meant an audacious, adventurous seeking for a decent earth.
But Brooks fails to mention that Joseph Stalin
had a substantial amen corner in this country, and especially in the
press. It was hardly pure patriotism that made such people pro-war; when Stalin
turned openly anti-American after the war, they became anti-American too.
Life magazine was the creature
of Henry Luce, a globalist who had his own reasons for supporting war. Born in
China, the son of Protestant missionaries, Luce deeply loved China and hated its
Japanese conquerors. He hoped America would rescue China and establish a benign
hegemony over the whole world.
Another foreign country had its partisans
here: Great Britain. Many Americans, especially people of English stock in the East,
wanted the United States to save the mother country from Germany.
But this too was a minority sentiment. Before Pearl Harbor, most Americans
strongly opposed going to war, especially if it meant sacrificing their sons to
foreign interests. Arthur Schlesinger (again in The Nation)
argued that the Republican Party must, in Brookss words, jettison
its heartland isolationism and embrace the East Coast establishments
As Brooks notes, The belligerent
voices were on the left; the doves were on the far right, and Pearl Harbor delivered
a crushing blow to those isolationists. Well, it was hardly the far
right. It was indeed the heartland of the United States. At
least 80 per cent of the country had been isolationists, if
thats what you call wanting to spare your sons lives. The shock of
Pearl Harbor changed everything in a flash.
Since World War I, American enthusiasts for
war have featured amen corners for several foreign countries:
Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and, today, Israel. All these groups have agitated
for war and, through the press and other media, deluged the public with
propaganda. Britain even produced movies designed to influence American opinion
its way; Winston Churchill himself helped write the script for That
Hamilton Woman, starring Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson and Vivien Leigh
as his mistress. It portrayed Nelsons heroism against Napoleon, in implied
analogy to Britains struggle against Hitler.
So the relation between America in 1941 and
America in 2001 is a little more complicated, the contrast less stark, than Brooks
would have us believe. In fact The Weekly Standard illustrates the
point. Just as the earlier pro-war press wanted America to fight the enemies of
Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, the Standard wants America to
fight the enemies of Israel. It wont settle for defeating Osama bin Laden
and his Taliban allies; it insists that America must also make war on Iraq and
other countries opposed to Israel.
So when we hear patriotic-sounding voices
calling for war, we ought to ask who really wants war, who stands to benefit from
it, and why. Time and again the most genuinely patriotic people derided by
the elites as heartland isolationists have had the real
interests of America at heart.