We are often told by self-proclaimed intellectuals that America has no national memory. In fact, we have quite a national memory, which is the reason both the History Channel and David McCullough are growth industries. Just this week we commemorate the 67th anniversary of the "day of infamy," the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the number who recall the attack is dwindling, we still commemorate it, although clearly with less passion than in earlier decades. We generally watch the story of the Japanese attack on our Sony TV's, before going for a drive in our Toyotas.
Our national memory is of enormous value. Many today don't appreciate that the willingness of the American people to endure 40 years of Cold War, and to fight in Korea and Vietnam, was based heavily on a wish to avoid the mistakes that led to World War II - unpreparedness, living the illusion that the enemy wanted peace, and displaying weakness rather than strength. Our allies should be thankful that America remembered those lessons, and acted on what it had learned.
In his farewell address, upon leaving the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower uttered a few sentences about the potential dangers of an industrial-military complex, and the political left has lovingly embraced those words for years. But Eisenhower said something else far more important. He said this:
"Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."
He was reflecting, of course, on the lesson of Pearl Harbor.
In more recent years, America remembered the legacy of slavery and discrimination, and acted on that as well, culminating in the election of Barack Obama. Other nations lecture us on our presumed anti-intellectualism, but we've done a reasonably good job of learning from the past. We can match our record against that of the nations of Western Europe, and come out well ahead. As we watch some of them refuse to commit to combat in Afghanistan, or figure out new ways to trade with Iran, it's obvious that their memories are conveniently short.
But there is danger, great danger, in the way we're now handling our national memory. If we don't get it right, it cannot serve as a guide to the future. Look at what too many Americans are being taught, by some college professors and by some journalists who never studied history or studied it selectively:
- "Bush lied, thousands died."
- The Israel lobby has always controlled American policy in the Mideast.
- The United States was defeated militarily in Vietnam.
- Korea was a useless stalemate.
- If you call a Marxist a Marxist, it's McCarthyism. If you criticize a Marxist, you're suppressing his free speech.
- Ronald Reagan was an idiot who never read anything other than the Reader's Digest.
- The Soviet Union was a weak nation, yet we spent hundreds of billions to defend against it. It was never a threat.
- The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of genocide, and were militarily unnecessary.
- The U.S. provoked Japan into World War II.
- We are a racist nation, and always will be.
- Wall Street has always been run by warmongers.
Every one of those statements is false, or largely false. What they have in common is a core contempt for the United States, its history, and its leaders. At one time, some of the views on this list were reserved for a radical fringe. Today, virtually all of them have entered the mainstream.
Just before his death in 1964, Douglas MacArthur worried that, one day, Americans would be unwilling to defend their country. That day has clearly not yet come, as we see by the bravery of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, increasingly, those troops are drawn from narrow segments of American society. The Ivy League did not exactly embrace American defense, even in the tense days after September 11, 2001.
If we are to have a good future, we must have an accurate past. No one is suggesting that our history be sugar-coated. The unpleasant must be taught along with the great, the story of slavery along with the story of America's remarkable contributions. But there is a pendulum in teaching and journalism, and that pendulum has swung much too far to the inaccurate. We've got to push it back. If we don't, the minds of our young will be poisoned, MacArthur's grim prophesy will undoubtedly come true, and we will be remembered as the generation that failed.