Last week I spoke at a high school. As I often do, I told them I'd perform a magic trick. I only know one, but I know it will almost always work with no skill required. I scribbled on a piece of paper and folded it up. I asked someone to name a war that was justified. They of course said "World War II" and I opened up the paper, which read "World War II." Magic!
I could do a second part with equal reliability. I ask "Why?" They say "the Holocaust."
I could do a third part, as well. I ask "What does Evian mean?" They say "No idea" or "bottled water."
Of the great many times I've done this, only once that I recall did someone say something other than "World War II." And only once did someone know what Evian meant. Otherwise it has never failed. You can try this at home and be a magician without learning any sleight of hand.
But even once we discuss what Evian means, it's difficult to behave as if we've understood it. Evian was, of course, the location of the biggest, most famous of the conferences at which the nations of the world decided not to accept Jews from Germany. This is not somehow secret knowledge. This is history that has been out in the open from the day it occurred, massively covered by the major world media at the time, discussed in endless papers and books since the time.
When I ask why the nations of the world refused the Jews, the blank stares continue. I have to actually explain that they refused to accept them for openly racist, anti-Semitic reasons expressed without shame or embarrassment. My listeners have no idea what public popular attitudes were in their own or any other country less than a century ago. They've not heard that the United States had (and still has!) racist, eugenicist immigration policies. If they knew this basic historical context, then the justification used for the decision at Evian would be obvious. As it is, I am obliged to actually point out that the completely impossible did not happen, that the U.S. government did not promote World War II with posters reading "Uncle Sam Wants You to Save the Jews!"
That didn't happen because the majority of people in the United States, and the majority of its elected officials, decidedly did not want to allow more Jewish immigrants. It would have been bad propaganda. Explaining this and having it understood are two very different things. A simple statement is no match for decades of movies and cartoons and video games and history text books. So, last week, a student followed up by asking me "Well, what if they had made posters like that?" In other words, what if the myths were real, then would the war have been justified? Then would it have made sense to kill in the war several times the number of people killed in the camps and to justify it by the exclaiming "the Holocaust"?
But myths can't be made real in that way. If the U.S. government had wanted to save the Jews and the millions of non-Jewish victims of the camps, it wouldn't have needed war. It would have only needed to say "Yes, we'll take them." Hitler's response to Evian was, "I'll put them on luxury cruise ships and send them anywhere, but nobody will take them." The response of the U.S. and U.K. governments to appeals from peace activists to negotiate a rescue was consistently "We have no interest in that and cannot be bothered; we have a war to fight." Attaching a just cause that had no need of a war to a war cannot make a war just. Some other non-mythical argument could make a war just, but each of those can always be rejected given enough hours to work through each of them.
Justifying the biggest public enterprise of the United States with its use three-quarters of a century ago is a tricky business, not just because of so many unpopular uses of it since, but also because of the lack of concrete actions to memorialize. Has nobody ever noticed that there's no holiday to commemorate the date on which the United States decided to rescue the Jews? It's hard to glorify things that didn't happen. This is part of why Pearl Harbor is so incredibly important. With the saving-the Jews myths alone it simply would not be the case that you could rehabilitate a blood-soaked warmonger like George HW Bush by saying the world "World War II." A World War II without Pearl Harbor myths could not possibly outweigh Central American death squads, killing thousands of people in an attack on Panama, manufacturing a war on Iraq with grotesque lies and then bombing principally civilians and retreating troops and installing bases that would generate 911, ginning up new excuses for a permanent military after the Soviet collapse, sending the vultures to exploit Russia, and of course the October Surprise and the possible role in killing Kennedy, not to mention the fact that during World War II Bush's father was doing profitable business with the Nazis. What gives the phrase "World War II" the power to erase all such horrors is a concoction of overlapping and interlocking myths in which the keystone is the Pearl Harbor Lie of Innocence.
The combination is difficult to make sense of. If being innocently attacked by the Japanese justifies the war, and rescuing the Jews justifies the war (even though neither of these things actually occurred), should Yemenis try to rescue Afghans if attacked by the United States and Saudi Arabia? And would they be wrong to try to rescue Afghans if not attacked by the United States and Saudi Arabia? Would the mythical rescuing of the Jews have been wrong without the mythical surprise attack by the Japanese? Would fighting the Japanese have been wrong without the mythical rescuing of the Jews? In any case, despite not being dependent on logic, faith in the Good War is dependent on each of its major myths. So, knocking down the Pearl Harbor one is helpful.
Winston Churchill's fervent hope for years before the U.S. entry into the war was that Japan would attack the United States. This would permit the United States (not legally, but politically) to fully enter World War II in Europe, as its president wanted to do, as opposed to merely providing weaponry and assisting in the targeting of submarines as it had been doing. On December 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drew up a declaration of war on both Japan and Germany, but decided it wouldn't work and went with Japan alone. Germany quickly declared war on the United States, possibly in hopes that Japan would declare war on the Soviet Union.
Getting into the war was not a new idea in the Roosevelt White House. FDR had tried lying to the U.S. public about U.S. ships including the Greer and the Kerny, which had been helping British planes track German submarines, but which Roosevelt pretended had been innocently attacked. Roosevelt also lied that he had in his possession a secret Nazi map planning the conquest of South America, as well as a secret Nazi plan for replacing all religions with Nazism. The map was of the quality of Karl Rove's "proof" that Iraq was buying uranium in Niger.
And yet, the people of the United States didn't buy the idea of going into another war until Pearl Harbor, by which point Roosevelt had already instituted the draft, activated the National Guard, created a huge Navy in two oceans, traded old destroyers to England in exchange for the lease of its bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and -- just 11 days before the "unexpected" attack, and five days before FDR expected it -- he had secretly ordered the creation (by Henry Field) of a list of every Japanese and Japanese-American person in the United States.
On April 28, 1941, Churchill wrote a secret directive to his war cabinet:
"It may be taken as almost certain that the entry of Japan into the war would be followed by the immediate entry of the United States on our side."