Broad Appeal: How Pearl Harbor and September 11 Helped Locate the Essence Of American National Identity

Eras Journal -Thoraval, Y.:Broad Appeal: How Pearl Harbor and September 11 Helped Locate the Essence of American National Identity

Broad Appeal: How Pearl Harbor and September 11 helped locate the essence of American national identity

Yannick Thoraval

(University of Melbourne)

“Today, thank God, one hundred and thirty million Americans, in forty-eight states, have forgotten points of the compass in our national unity.”

– President Franklin DelanoRoosevelt , January 6, 1941[1]

“During these last few months I’ve been humbled and privileged to see the true character of this country in a time of testing.”

– President George W. Bush,Jan 29, 2002[2]

The passages above are excerpts from State of the Union Addresses delivered by two American presidents at unique points of crisis in their nation’s history. In 1941, President Roosevelt addressed the American people after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor underlined the vulnerability of the home front and challenged Americans to awaken from their isolationist dream. Sixty years later, America was again attacked at home in a tragedy that played out on television and computer screens across the nation, instantly engraving September 11 on the collective American psyche.

The rarity of outside aggression on American soil underlines the relative luxury of the American historical experience. As the only two direct attacks against American soil since the beginning of twentieth century, these two events stoked the fires of patriotism in the United States and tested the strength of American national unity. If adversity does indeed reveal character, then these two events can help to illuminate the essence of American national identity in the latter half of the twentieth century.

One could simply compare both speeches to identify similarities in the structure and character of American nationalist rhetoric since the Second World War. However, deeper analysis reveals that a more profound sense of ideological cohesion exists in the substance of both speeches. Both speeches saw the promotion of a distinctly American understanding of freedom; both speeches tethered the American public to its ideal through implications of an American moral responsibility to defend it; both speeches outlined social and economic values designed to reflect a sense of fundamental equality like that enshrined by the Declaration of Independence; both speeches celebrated individualism, and finally, both speeches were sympathetic to the particular religious atmosphere of the United States and demonstrated sensitivity to America’s deep-seeded religious heritage. Acting in unprecedented moments of crisis in American history, with the country under direct attack, Presidents Roosevelt and G.W. Bush inadvertently shared a brief unity of national vision that, needless to say, betrays important differences in their political beliefs. The import of their shared vision is highlighted by the fact that both leaders represent opposing points on the political spectrum. The social and political values that enabled Roosevelt ‘s New Deal are fundamentally at odds with Bush’s Republican agenda and speak to an ideological gap between the two leaders that could only have been filled by a national crisis. The political disparity between the leaders therefore suggests that the substance of their State of the Union Addresses articulated a national consensus on American values, and projected the essential character of the American self-image outward to soothe a wounded nation.

In a State of the Union Address, the President of the United States does not present an independent or personal opinion. Rather, he absorbs the disparate components of a national discussion and collates them to present a unified, coherent platform on the relevant issues that has broad public appeal. This task is doubly important during a state of national crisis.

Similarities between the Roosevelt and Bush speeches are particularly revealing when one compares them to State of the Union Addresses delivered by other presidents at other moments of crisis in American history. At the beginning of the Great Depression, for example, Herbert Hoover made calls for American self-reliance and instructed those better off to “assist” their less-fortunate neighbors.[3] However, unlike Roosevelt and Bush, Hoover did not elevate his notions of cooperation to a philosophical, ideological or religious plane. For him, the impending crisis in 1930 seemed a strictly economic one and, as such, did not present the nation with serious ontological questions. The rhetoric of cooperation would become more essential once the country faced a living enemy.

Richard Nixon’s address to the nation concerning the war in Vietnam in November of 1969 was similarly devoid of high rhetoric and moral imperatives. One might have expected the President to attempt to overcome the polarity of public opinion about Vietnam by emphasizing that shared sacrifice would benefit the nation through the securing of freedom itself. Nixon, however, steered away from this line of argument, nor did he mention God. Still plagued by the Vietnam War a year later, Nixon made no calls for individual sacrifice towards the nation’s interests during his State of the Union Address of 1970. Aside from making a few vague allusions to what he described as America’s “spiritual idealism”, religious invocations and the high rhetoric of freedom and democracy were notably absent from Nixon’s address.[4]

Moments of crisis in the country’s history that did not involve a direct physical threat have not stimulated self-effacing questions in American nationalist rhetoric like those prompted by the direct attacks that America suffered in 1941 and 2001. The unity of insight resultant from these attacks helps locate the essence of American nationalist identity. Thus, the question under consideration can be stated as, what values were perceived as inherently threatened by these attacks on the United States? Or, if one prefers to frame the question self-reflexively: what did it mean to be American during these times of national crisis?[5]

I contend that three main tenets of American nationalist ideology emerged in the official government response to Pearl Harbor and September 11. First, a notion of moral responsibility buttressed the tenet of freedom that is central to American nationalist ideology. I will explain how freedom was expressed as a distinctly American idea and outline the linkage between freedom and the trans-historical American self-image. Second, the structure of American social cohesion was colored by the import of American individualism. I will demonstrate that both Presidents Roosevelt and Bush attempted to sew the American social fabric in the wake of both attacks by emphasizing similar social and cultural values. Third, the climate of national crisis inspired appeals to God that registered America’s unique religious heritage. This paper will demonstrate how these two unprecedented national crises located freedom, social cohesion, and God as central to American nationalist ideology in the second half of the twentieth century.

What I propose in this paper, then, is a form of comparative history, a method that rightfully raises concerns about the legitimacy of comparing events separated by time and historical context. Comparative histories, it is often argued, are particularly vulnerable to oversimplification and the drawing of superficial conclusions. This criticism is frequently leveled against historians who have overlooked important contextual differences in the events they compare, differences that can problematize and, in some cases, invalidate the basis of comparison.[6]

Indeed, one finds that consideration of contextual differences is particularly important for anyone attempting a comparative evaluation of Pearl Harbor and September 11. Some of the key dissimilarities deserve to be noted here. Pearl Harbor was a sophisticated and strategic assault on a military installation. September 11 was an attack that was ostensibly aimed at symbolic and civilian targets. Pearl Harbor was an act of war declared by a sovereign nation within the context of an expanding international conflict. September 11 was an act perpetrated by a collection of individuals who, despite their religious convictions, were not representatives of a nation state.[7] These differences between Pearl Harbor and September 11 are also punctuated by six decades of cultural, political and economic development that separate their location on the American historical landscape.

In consideration of these factors, then, it is fair to suggest that the differences between these two events outweigh their similarities. It would therefore be careless scholarship to attempt a comparison between the two events without also considering how these differences might influence the basis of comparison.[8]

However, these contextual factors do not critically influence my thesis because the matrix of similarity that I propose between the two events is revealed not by comparing the events themselves, but by evaluating the reactions they stimulated from the official body politic. The connection to which I draw attention here is the fact that both events triggered a similar political response to American nationalism in crisis. These responses were consistent in important ways, despite the different historical and political contexts of the events themselves. In fact, the differences between the attacks on Pearl Harbor and September 11 serve to highlight the significance of the similarities in the political response they drew. Political reactions delivered in the wake of both attacks reveal persistent values that permeate the character of American national identity.

The presentation of America as a bastion of freedom is to recall the country’s most cherished symbol of liberty and invoke the original spirit of the nation as it was founded in the Declaration of Independence. The “inherent and unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” protected therein, express convictions that have been enthusiastically preserved by Americans since 1776. The document provides a basis for the culture of freedom that has impressed itself on American nationalist ideology since its completion. To speak of freedom, then, is to strike at the core of the American national self-image.

It should therefore come as no surprise to find that Roosevelt and Bush both used the rhetoric of freedom in their State of the Union Addresses. Arguably, an attack on national sovereignty would have drawn a similar response from any nation. However, the concept and design of freedom in both speeches emerged as distinctly American ideas. In both speeches, the experienced breach in American national security was presented as tantamount to an attack on freedom itself. “So long as nations harbor terrorists,” forecasted Bush, “freedom is at risk.”[9] Bush further challenged the United States to assume responsibility for the preservation of freedom itself. Freedom was presented as fundamentally at risk unless under the purview of American protection.

Similarly, Roosevelt spoke of a “Justice of morality that must and will win in the end.”[10] In both cases, an assumption of moral responsibility buttressed the central tenet of freedom in American nationalist ideology. Attacking America was presented as an act that assumed global significance because Americans have historically considered themselves the vanguard of freedom.

Accordingly, one finds that framing conflict within a moral imperative has typically authorized American aggression abroad. Even a cursory glance at twentieth-century American foreign policy corroborates this self-perception. Of many possible cases, the Vietnam War provides an interesting example of this self-image because that conflict also serves to remind Americans of their shortcomings in this role. Still, the preservation of freedom, which itself implies the protection of American-style democracy, persists as the dominant aspect of American nationalist ideology.

A particular notion of equality has also colored American nationalist discourse. In both speeches, the social, political and economic fabric of the nation was presented as fundamentally unified under the rubric of freedom. Towards ensuring freedom, citizens were encouraged to disregard the domestic conflicts and internal differences that were thought to fracture national unity, and find their place in support of a more universal goal: the defense of freedom. As a gesture to this principle of equality, both Roosevelt and Bush resolved to disregard partisanship and pledge their leadership in support of and commitment to the highest form of American idealism, the fight for freedom. As Roosevelt intoned in January of 1941:

First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense. Second, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute peoples, everywhere, who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our Hemisphere. By this support, we express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail; and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own nation. Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.[11]

Through his effective use of repetition, Roosevelt established that political partisanship was separate from the interests of the nation. The passage also presented nationhood as something that involved a sense of belonging and responsibility that operated above the political sphere. Americans, regardless of their political convictions, were united by their central belief that the preservation of freedom was at the core of their nationalist self-image. Echoing the same sentiment sixty years later, George W. Bush stated, “we must act, first and foremost, not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.”[12]

Both politicians were also compelled to help Americans look beyond the esoteric rhetoric of an ‘imagined community’ and recognize their place within a real and tangible society. To help identify Americans, both presidents proposed social and economic ideals that defined American social cohesion by emphasizing their interconnectedness and sense of social and fiscal responsibility. In 1941, Roosevelt advocated old-age pensions and an increase in employment insurance. He also called for the expansion of adequate medical coverage and pointed to the need for job creation. [13] Importantly, these ideas were not presented in committed forms of drafted policy, but were offered as ideals meant to define American social cohesion in a time of national crisis. To confirm the persistence of these values, one discovers that President Bush, a dedicated economic Republican, outlined precisely the same ideas in his speech. In January of 2002, just a few short months after September 11 had noticeably destabilized the social and economic foundations of the country, Bush extended his support to “unemployment benefits and direct assistance for health care coverage.” He also advocated reforms to old age and pension plans to increase financial security for the aged and infirm.[14]

If these proposed social programs seem curiously out of step with a more traditional Republican agenda as concerned with limiting government programs, it is perhaps because the benefits of these reforms operated on two levels for both leaders. On the first and most obvious tier, promises of social and economic reforms directed at the disenfranchised were meant to stimulate the domestic economy that lagged in the aftermath of both attacks. On the second and more subtle level, the call for social and economic reforms aimed to promote a sense of American unity by demonstrating that social and fiscal responsibilities are shared in the nation state.

However, despite the utility of promoting social unity through endorsements of social and economic participation, both presidents were careful to avoid brushing against the ‘dreaded’ rhetoric of communist ideology. While Presidents Roosevelt and Bush both spoke of “unity” and the “nation”, they deliberately avoided terms like “collective”, “group”, or “common will”, conscious of the Marxist and perceived un-American connotations invoked by these terms.

Both presidents distanced themselves from these political trappings by emphasizing unity through the rhetoric of individualism. The heroic individual has played a significant role in the construction of American cultural identity and is central to the notion of upward mobility that has come to define the myth of the ‘American Dream’. The heroic, self-made American has been expressed in many ways and is typified by the popularity of various twentieth-century iconographies, often in the form of sporting figures, film stars, successful entrepreneurs, and others who have worked their way ‘up’ from the relative obscurity of the average and common place and into the valued arena of the public sphere. In his State of the Union Address, George W. Bush framed American unity in terms of this notion of the American heroic individual. Typical of Bush’s sentimental style, he told the following story:

A few days before Christmas, an airline flight attendant spotted a passenger lighting a match. The crew and passengers quickly subdued the man, who had been trained by al Qaeda and was armed with explosives. The people on that plane were alert and, as a result, likely saved nearly 200 lives. And tonight we welcome and thank flight attendants Hermis Moutardier and Christina Jones.[15]

The story functioned as a parable that celebrated heroic individualism in terms of its potential value to the nation. As presented by Bush, the security of the country depended on just the kind of personal accountability that was demonstrated by the individuals in his story. As Bush stated, “the security of the nation will continue to depend on the eyes and ears of alert citizens.” He went so far as to call for “every American to commit at least two years – 4000 hours over the rest of your lifetime -to the service of your neighbors and your nation.”[16] In the United States, then, it is not a collective will that is emphasized, but the will and actions of individuals within society.

Roosevelt also called for this sense of personal accountability towards ensuring the security of the nation:

We must all prepare to make the sacrifices that the emergency – almost as serious as war itself-demands…a free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups…The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of Government to save Government…I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call.[17]

Thus, both Roosevelt and Bush asked individuals to demonstrate a sense of unity through acts of individual courage or self-sacrifice.

The ubiquitous presence of God is equally important in registering the character of American nationalism. God is central to the resonance of both speeches and underlines the unique religious quality of American nationalist rhetoric. The notion of God is particularly relevant to America ‘s national history for two reasons.

First, as invoked in the context of nationalist discourse, God has been traditionally associated with the concept of American manifest destiny. Historically, God had been invoked to justify the righteousness of continental expansion in the United States. This notion of moral certainty gained potency, especially in light of the difficulties faced during Westward expansion during the nineteenth century. In the campaign against Mexican insurgency, in particular, the idea of manifest destiny came to express the more general idea of expanding the boundaries of freedom.[18]

Second, and more importantly, the public expression of God is inextricably linked to the history of escape from religious persecution that is central to the founding experiences of the American nation state. Perhaps the most well known group avoiding religious persecution came from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. This popular history has become part of historical memory in the United States, as the monument erected to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock explicitly demonstrates. Implicitly, however, the monument simultaneously commemorates the cultural impression of religious exile that is part of the American historical experience. These include the stories of the less celebrated, but equally relevant Puritans and religious refugees who arrived by the thousands in the decades following 1620; among them, Huguenots, Quakers, and Catholics. Each group sought a society where they could worship in their own way without being persecuted for their beliefs. Overt religious spectacles are therefore part of the American experience.

Accordingly, one finds that religious motives have often underpinned historic events in the United States and have, in some cases, helped to shape defining chapters in the country’s history. The abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and prohibition are all examples of movements that were, by some degree, enacted by religious motivations. We need only recall the commanding phrase “In God We Trust”, that is printed on the national currency to remind ourselves that God permeates all levels of official existence in the United States . For many Americans, God is a resource through which to identify and confirm their participation in nationhood. This idea is reinforced by the performative ritual of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at certain national ceremonies which, not incidentally, concludes the process of naturalization:

I plege allegiance to the Flag,

Of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands;

One Nation under God, indivisible,

With Liberty and Justice for all.[19]

Indeed, we find that God has played a central role in defining the essence of American nationalism. In his closing remarks in January 1941, Roosevelt said: “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God.” [20]

Roosevelt tapped God as a spiritual resource to fortify America’s moral authority.

With characteristic religious fervor, Bush also invoked God in January of 2002. Nearing the end of his speech, Bush leaned into the podium slightly and observed: “And many have discovered again that even in tragedy – especially in tragedy – God is near…Thank you all. May God bless.” [21]

In both State of the Union Addresses, God found a prominent place in American nationalist discourse. As a benevolent overseer and implicit guarantor of American moral certainty, God inherently sanctioned American foreign policy in the wake of both attacks. The invocation of God in both speeches offered the ultimate benediction for the various forms of American aggression that followed.

If both speeches employed an almost non-denominational notion of God to express the greatness of the American nation from without, it was the American people who were called upon to demonstrate their unity from within. Pearl Harbor and September 11 put nationalism on the defensive. Both events punctured an existing atmosphere of invincibility. For many Americans, the attacks prompted questions about their national identity, about the essence of their values. What principles were inherently threatened by the attacks? And further, what did it mean to be American in these times of national crisis?

In response to the brewing atmosphere of national self-evaluation, Presidents Roosevelt and Bush articulated persistent themes of American nationalist ideology to fortify the American people’s sense of unity. From their speeches, it was confirmed that freedom was the central tenet of American nationalist discourse. The language of freedom used by both leaders implicitly endorsed American-style democracy by reflecting principles established in founding documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, documents upon which the culture of freedom has been constructed and defended in the United States . The term ‘freedom’ in America rouses the nation’s historical memory. In both speeches, its historical connotations were expected to implicitly congeal American national unity. On a more exacting level, the structure of American national unity was bolstered by the import of individualism, a hallmark of American cultural identity. Paradoxically, it was the pervasive, trans-historical image of the self-reliant individual who was summoned to represent the instrument of American social cohesion by emphasizing the utility of individual acts of bravery, courage, or self-sacrifice in the interests of the nation. Finally, in both speeches, it was found that God provided a kind of supranational moral ballast, steadying the course of American national development at home and abroad.

If America’s current foreign policy is taken as an indicator, the country’s role on the global stage will almost certainly expand. It will remain to be seen whether the American public’s history of confidence in their country’s moral authority can be sustained through the morally ambiguous objectives of the US ‘War on Terror’. The messiness of the country’s present occupation of Iraq, coupled with rumors of future unilateral action elsewhere, may yet generate a public re-evaluation of American notions of justice at home. If this happens, the character of American nationalist discourse may also need reviewing.

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[1] Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, The American Presidency Project, Department of Political Science, University of California. [Online] . Back

[2] Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 29, 2002, George W. Bush, The American Presidency Project, Department of Political Science, University of California. [Online] . Back

[3] Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, December 2, 1930, Herbert Hoover, The American Presidency Project, Department of Political Science, University of California.[Online] . Back

[4] Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, January 22, 1970, Richard Nixon, The American Presidency Project, Department of Political Science, University of California.[Online] . Back

[5] The rhetorical value of presenting national interests as under attack is well established. La patrie en danger was a phrase often employed to rally the French from 1792-93 at the height of the revolution and the height of the onslaught of the monarchist powers against France. German nationalism during the interwar period also serves to demonstrate the extent to which the rhetorical form has been manipulated. However, owing perhaps to the rarity of direct aggression against the United States, surprisingly little has been written about this kind of reactive nationalism in the United States. Back

[6] The limits of comparative history are well explored. Marc Bloch, himself, advised historians to adopt what he described as a “flexible” approach in their cross-examination of historical documents to avoid forcing similarities in their interpretation of different texts. See Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Vintage Books, New York, 1953, especially pp. 62-65. Comparison can also lessen the perception of distinctiveness of individual historical events. By comparing separate events, the historian risks diluting the sanctity of individual histories that were considered inimitable before the comparison was attempted. Many of these methodological concerns were addressed in Charles. S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity, Harvard University Press, 1988. For a discussion of the comparative method, see also George Fredrickson, “Comparative History”, in M Kammen (ed), The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1980. However, most of the literature in comparative history deals with issues of cross-national comparative history and not temporal comparisons as I propose to do in this paper. For one of the few cross-temporal analysis of political rhetoric, see Joseph S. Meisel, “Words By the Numbers: A Quantitative Analysis And Comparison of the Oratorical Careers of William Ewart Gladstone and Winston Spencer Churchill”, Historical Research [Great Britain], Vol. 73, No.182, 2000, pp. 262-295. Back

[7] Some have suggested that the September 11 bombers acted in the name of Islam. The assertion, however, is problematic when one considers that the majority of the Islamic world condemned the attacks. For a scholarly treatment of political Islam, see Gilles Kepel,Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, IB Travis, London, 2002, particularly pp. 299-323. Back

[8] And yet, as a testament to the sensationalism in much of the American media, the cultural fallout of the terrorist attacks saw news reports that frequently dug up political commentators who were eager to draw superficial parallels between September 11 and Pearl Harbor. As Elaine Tyler May suggests, Kenneth Burke’s notion of “frames of acceptance” may help to explain why Americans used Pearl Harbor as an historical reference point to help them make sense of 9/11. See Elaine Tyler May, “Echoes of the Cold War: The Aftermath of September 11 at Home”, in Mary L. Dudziak (ed), September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment?, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, pp. 35-52. See also, Kenneth Burke,Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, pp.132-33. Back

[9] Bush, State of the Union. Back

[10]Roosevelt, State of the Union Back

[11] Roosevelt, State of the Union.Back

[12] Bush, State of the Union.Back

[13] Roosevelt, State of the Union.Back

[14] Bush, State of the Union.Back

[15] Bush,State of teh Union.Back

[16] Bush,State of the Union.Back

[17] Roosevelt, State of Union.Back

[18] Considering the twentieth-century history of American foreign policy, and the religious undertones that have informed the country’s skewed diplomacy (particularly in the Middle East – an imbalance epitomized by the current occupation of Iraq),it can be argued that the religious connotations of American manifest destiny inform the country’s foreign policy today, albeit in slightly subtler forms. Back

[19] Interestingly, the line “under God”, was added to the pledge in 1954 by the presidential authority of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was hoped the addition would boost a sense of national unity that lagged while the country suffered in the grip of McCarthyism. Back

[20] Roosevelt , State of the Union.Back

[21] Bush, State of the Union.Back