Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Life in an American Fourth-Grade: Did Americans Think That Asians “All Looked Alike”?

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By Barry Rubin

First, I have to report a really great exchange in class. Two students, my son and a boy who studied hitherto in Great Britain, responded to the endless romanticizing of Native Americans by pointing out that many tribes were very warlike. The teacher responded: We don't really have evidence of that. So much for actual history. Native Americans: good, innocent, children of nature living in a utopian society. American settlers: evil, warlike, and just plain mean. Welcome to the taxpayer-funded indoctrination into hating America.

But mainly this article is an addendum to my previous dispatch from the classroom front about the teaching of Japanese internment during World War Two in my son’s fourth-grade class (see here). The kids were informed that also interned were Koreans and Chinese because the Americans couldn’t tell the difference between them. This is nonsense, of course, for Americans in 1941-1942 were easily able to do so.

Saying this is not to deny discrimination in immigration and other ways against Chinese, especially in California, in earlier years. If put side by side to the treatment suffered by every wave of immigrants starting with the Irish, however, it was quite comparable in many ways. I'm not, however, writing about that but rather on the situation by the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a wider problem here, an element of World War Two largely forgotten today, that gives us a key for understanding how America's story is distorted. In the United States at that time, there was tremendous sympathy for the Chinese before and during the war, and also for the Filipinos once the Japanese attacked. There are many articles and films of that period which express admiration and respect for these two groups. (Korea was pretty much unknown.)

Americans were well informed about the sufferings of the Chinese at the hands of Japan and there was much indignation about it. In fact, this is a major element now largely overlooked. It was because of what we would call today human rights concerns that the United States put up economic embargos on Japan, especially for oil and petroleum products.

Indeed, a major reason for the attack on Pearl Harbor was this U.S. pressure on Tokyo. Just as the United States was nominally neutral but supported the United Kingdom against Nazi Germany, it also supported China against imperial Japan. This was noble behavior on the part of the United States. We should remember that estimates of Chinese war deaths, overwhelmingly civilian, were twenty million.

Once the war began, the United States worked hard to help and supply the Chinese Nationalist forces--many American airmen died taking supplies "over the hump" from Burma to China, and also came to work with the Communists as well. The Chinese Communist revolution after the war and the long hostility helped push these facts into oblivion.

Why is this important today? Because typically Political Correctness and the anti-Americanism so prevalent, in its urge to indict America as racist, ignores the fact that the United States was usually on the side of one “non-white” or Third World group against another. U.S. interventions in Latin America, for example, were almost always due to being asked for help by one faction against another.

While at times the United States intervened on behalf of dictatorships (Guatemala, 1953, being a prime example), it almost equally often (at least except for the brief high Cold War combat against Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s and early 1970s when Washington felt the dangerous situation necessitated backing anyone who was anti-Communist) was on the side of democratic forces. If Fidel Castro had ruled as a liberal democrat he would have had an excellent relationship with the United States.

Today American children are being taught in all too many classrooms that their country was always racist and imperialist. Even if you accept the basic framework of contemporary historical views this simply isn’t true. The United States was not “against” Asian people in 1941, for example. It supported one group of Asians against another and it was on the right side.

I remember growing up on films and books about heroic pre-World War Two Chinese peasants trying to eke out a living against flood and famine or bravely battling the Japanese (as with those who saved the American airmen from the Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo) and films about brave Filipino partisans fighting side by side with American forces against great odds. There was never any distinction made on the basis of race or to portray these people as inferior. For that matter, compared to what went on in other countries (even among warring Europeans) materials about the Japanese enemy were pretty mild stuff despite Pearl Harbor.

It should equally be noted that today, and for the past half-century, the United States has not opposed or fought against “Arabs” or “Muslims” but supported one group against another. During the period between the 1950s and 1990s, those treated as enemies were radical, anti-American, and usually aligned with the USSR. Since then, they have been usually radical Islamists who want to install dictatorships even worse than the existing ones.

The United States has very little to apologize for in its history, especially compared to pretty much any other country on the face of the earth. Are we ever going to see the day when it is fashionable to be proud of America again, a pride that can easily be based on the facts?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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