This month marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Over the next few years that means we will be seeing and reading a great deal about various battles and campaigns. Most of us probably won’t notice because World War II is already such a vivid presence in our popular culture. The flood of books, movies, television shows, and video games about World War II is endless and apparently unstoppable.
Part of the reason we find that conflict so gripping is that it was of truly epic scope. It involved dozens of countries and left more than 70 million dead. The main wartime leaders are endlessly fascinating. Results of World War II decisively reshaped global politics. All of this makes our obsession easy to understand.
There is another reason, though, why Americans never tire of stories about World War II. They make us feel virtuous. Our role in World War II was to destroy brutal regimes and liberate nations. That is what we like to think the United States does in the world. When we celebrate World War II, we celebrate ourselves: our unselfishness, our dedication to the cause of freedom, and our essential goodness.
Many of America's other attempts to remake the world, however, have ended badly. Those are wars and interventions we prefer to forget. In countries from Guatemala to Iran to the Democratic Republic of Congo, American interventions have resulted in the death of democracies and the rise of murderous regimes. Many were plainly motivated by our lust for resources. They served the interests of American corporations while throwing entire regions into bloody upheaval.
Few Americans have any idea that these episodes ever happened. They are little documented. American textbooks barely mention them.
This makes a kind of sense. We all enjoy being reminded of how righteous we are. Since that story is available to Americans, in the form of World War II, we grab it and won't let go. Nations, like individuals, nurture positive memories and forget or blot out those that don't show us as we imagine ourselves to be.
No one would argue that episodes like our destruction of Chilean democracy in 1973 should be given the same historical weight as World War II. Nonetheless, the imbalance is excessive. To understand the world and ourselves more clearly, we could use a bit less World War II and a bit more reflection on our other foreign adventures.
One of the worst effects of World War II on the United States was its introduction of two myths that have misshapen our foreign policy ever since. They are instantly recognizable by simple code: "Munich" and "Pearl Harbor." We have fully misunderstood the lessons of those two episodes.
At Munich in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain reached an accord with Hitler and famously proclaimed he had achieved "peace in our time," but later it turned out Hitler was lying and had no interest in peace. This produced a deep fear of what was called "appeasement." To this day, many in Washington consider all diplomacy a form of appeasement. In a sense they are correct, because at root, appeasement is just another name for diplomacy. Without appeasement, we would be at constant war.
When Stalin blockaded access roads to West Berlin in 1948, he was acting in flagrant violation of his own treaty commitments. Americans had every legal right to send tanks to the first barrier and blow it up. Instead of using that right, we appeased Stalin. We supplied West Berlin by air for a year, until he gave up and reopened the roads. Appeasement not only avoided a possible war, but in the end produced the desired result.
The true lesson of Munich is narrow: Chamberlain was foolish to trust Hitler in 1938. Yet we have taken it as a generalized warning against the perils of diplomacy. That reinforces the American instinct to deal with troublemakers by force.
The legacy of Pearl Harbor is just as pernicious. It has come to stand for the possibility that even when we think we are at peace, foreigners are actually plotting to attack us by surprise. This produces a siege mentality and a permanent sense of insecurity. It leads us to see enemies everywhere. Combined with the Munich syndrome, it has distorted our view of the world and our place in it.
Reflections like these will probably be no more than droplets in the ocean of World War II nostalgia in which we are to be bathed even more fully than usual over the next few years. If World War II was the "good war," Americans are good people who do only good to others. The more turbulent and baffling the world becomes, the more we will reach back to that comforting clarity.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.