How Americans Have Been Misled about World War II
Whereas historians obsessively trace every event’s causal lineage further and further into the past, nonhistorians tend toward the opposite extreme: they assume in effect that the world began immediately before the event they have in mind. I call this unfortunate tendency “truncating the antecedents.” Among the general public, it has given rise to mistaken interpretations of historical causation in cases too numerous to mention, and mistakes of this sort continue to occur frequently, in part because politicians and other conniving parties have an interest in propagating them.
I was recently struck by this tendency while reading comments at a group blog associated with the History News Network. A commentator there had mentioned that the blame for World War II is not as cut and dried as Americans typically assume it to be, and hence some revisionism is long overdue. In response, another discussant, whose previous contributions to the blog show that he is an intelligent man, expressed bafflement: “Yes, obviously some revisionism regarding the ‘great allied leaders’ of WWII is called for. But an attempt to be revisionist about the justness of a war where U.S. territory is attacked by one opponent and war is declared on the U.S. by the other opponent is sort of like justifying the War on Iraq on the basis of mythical WMD.”
Like Americans in general, this man takes the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the German declaration of war on December 11, 1941, as dispositive evidence that Japan and Germany started the war that ensued between these nations and the United States, and therefore he concludes that they should be held responsible for it. In a later post, he persists in this interpretation by saying: “Nation X attacks Nation Y. One or the other is right. Either Nation Y is a victim or the attack was a ‘justified pre-emptive attack.’ Yes, the response may be disproportionate, etc., but those really aren’t reasons to declare Nation Y ‘wrong.’ Or the two ‘equally wrong.’” This view represents a classic case of truncating the antecedents.
Many people are misled by formalities. They assume, for example, that the United States went to war against Germany and Japan only after its declarations of war against these nations in December 1941. In truth, the United States had been at war for a long time before making these declarations.
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