Americans aren’t much for history these days. History is for Europeans–for Germans, with their thickets of theory, and the French, who are forever going on about their revolution. Who needs any of it? At millennium’s end, when a glance back makes for good entertainment, we turn to such eminent authorities as Peter Jennings (The Century), Tom Brokaw (The Greatest Generation) and Harry Evans (The American Century). Now there’s a lineup of heavy hitters: two television news anchors and a Briton who has kindly come to help Americans cheapen their books, magazines and newspapers. They know how we like our history: trials, tribulations, a triumphant ending and plenty of pictures.
It amounts to a pathology, this refusal to look squarely at where we have been and what we’ve done. We like to think that living without history is somehow part of the American character. It has to do with our frontier heritage, we tell ourselves, or absorption in a dynamic present and a promising future. The attitude is an excellent example of the problem.
Yet repudiating the worth of the past has nothing to do with character. In my view, we can name the day the seed of this national neurosis was planted. It was April 30, 1898, when Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay. At that moment, the United States committed itself to empire abroad at the expense of self-knowledge. Were ours a more honest nation, we would study that event with a microscope, for it is the key to what we have become–our character, if one can speak of such a thing. Manila and the war that followed against the Filipinos began our American Century. And we have never since found the courage to examine the century we named after ourselves.
Earlier this year, the FBI was forced to acknowledge its years of cooperation with the six Latin American dictatorships that organized Operation Condor in the seventies. Condor was a secret agreement to join forces in exterminating political dissidents. When Paraguayans opened five tons of Condor archives–“archives of terror,” they named them–they found a trove of evidence detailing Washington’s encouragement and support. Asked to comment, a State Department official brushed the matter aside as “ancient history.”
It can take your breath away, except that there is another way forward. But it will have to stand upon authentic accounts of the past, which implies a new understanding of history’s place in American life. We can’t go on treating it as trivial entertainment at best. Knowing the past is essential if we are to repair our severed connections to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of the world. Before you dismiss this as so much wishful thinking, consider the two books under review. Embracing Defeat and Tokyo Underworld take very different approaches to the same befogged subject, the American occupation of Japan. But they share one important feature: They both argue that it’s time to put away the airbrushes and look at ourselves as we have been.
Nobody talks about our seven-year occupation of Japan anymore–not on this side of the Pacific anyway. That’s more ancient history, obscured to the point of invisibility–which is a reliable sign that this was a crucial episode in America’s postwar history. Washington began sanitizing accounts of American conduct as soon as the Germans and Japanese surrendered. But it was in Japan that America made its cold war template. For one thing, responsibility in Germany was divided, while occupied Japan was an American enterprise in all but name. There was another factor at work here, as John Dower makes bluntly clear in Embracing Defeat. “For the victors,” he writes, “occupying defeated Germany had none of the exoticism of what took place in Japan: the total control over a pagan, ‘Oriental’ society by white men who were unequivocally engaged in a Christian mission. The occupation of Japan was the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as ‘the white man’s burden.'”