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'Forgetting' Colors How We Understand History

In 2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush argued that an occupation could work because history provided an example in a non-Christian, non-white, non-Western country: the United States' occupation of Japan during World War II.

He cited the work of historian John Dower, the pre-eminent scholar of postwar Japan, who promptly published an op-ed to protest a misuse of history. His work, he said, should have led President Bush to the opposite conclusion.

In a new collection of previously published essays, including that op-ed, John Dower argues that remembering inevitably involves neglecting and forgetting, which can lead to such misuses. In Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, Dower also reflects on the role and work of historians, and how the political climate affects how history is presented.

Interview Highlights

On how countries pick and choose from history

"I think it's absolutely true the Japanese often sanitize the history. They also remember it in many, many ways that doesn't get coverage in the U.S. press. But we tend to talk about historical amnesia, the Japanese sanitization, and of course we do the same things ourselves.

"And it gets particularly interesting when we get into public education in publicly funded places here [in the U.S.]. What happened in 1994-'95 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was that they wanted to do an exhibition, and did do one, on the Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb. And then it became very controversial because to talk about the atomic bombs is more than just a heroic story of the end of World War II; it's also a tragedy.

"And it didn't work out. And the upshot of that was that there was big fallout in the Smithsonian, and we're never going to see, that I can imagine, in these public places, major exhibits on some of our other conflicts: the Korean War, certainly the Vietnam War. We can't have them because there will be controversy, and the politicians and the very patriotic lobbies will get very upset if anything that violates the standard narrative is introduced.

"And I was very sad because we're a democracy. People who go to museums of this nature go there to learn things. They can handle complexity. They can handle the mix of the tragic and the heroic and all of this, but the politics doesn't permit that anymore."

On how politicians use history to make points

"We [historians] all know what we focus on. It means we're not focusing on other things. We tend to look at the past through the eyes of the present, which is perfectly appropriate. People always say let history be the judge, or time will tell, but they don't really mean it. Let history be the judge means let people of a later time look at this past event with what we know since then, with the perspective we had, the new documents that may have come up, and give us a revised version of that.

"When the Enola Gay came up, Congress passed a resolution, which said basically we cannot revise this kind of history, and we cannot do anything that in any way is critical of the behavior of America's heroic soldiers and sailors. ...

"But ... as time passes, we do see things differently. We do ask different questions, and they're very important. And I think by not asking those questions, it affects our present-day response to current crises."

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