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The Other Amen Corners

December 11, 2001

Sixty years after Pearl Harbor, we are at war again, and comparisons with 1941 are inevitable. Some people think the country ain’t what it used to be. And they’re right: it ain’t. 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 wasn’t 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 foreign sympathies.

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.[Breaker quote: 
Who wanted war in 1941? Arthur Schlesinger (again in The Nation) argued that the Republican Party must, in Brooks’s words, “jettison its heartland isolationism and embrace the East Coast establishment’s internationalism.”

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 that’s 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 Nelson’s heroism against Napoleon, in implied analogy to Britain’s 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 won’t 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.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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