Blogs > Cliopatria > Misplaced Pride

Sep 1, 2005 4:41 pm

Misplaced Pride

I almost called this post"Hairball History" because Paul Harvey said he was" choking on something for weeks" and finally coughed it up. Tom Paxton said that some people you don't satirize, you just quote:

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill said that the American people…he said, the American people, he said, and this is a direct quote, “We didn’t come this far because we are made of sugar candy.”

That was his response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. That we didn’t come this far because we are made of sugar candy.

And that reminder was taken seriously. And we proceeded to develop and deliver the bomb, even though roughly 150,000 men, women and children perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With a single blow, World War II was over.

Following New York, Sept. 11, Winston Churchill was not here to remind us that we didn’t come this far because we’re made of sugar candy.

So, following the New York disaster, we mustered our humanity.

We gave old pals a pass, even though men and money from Saudi Arabia were largely responsible for the devastation of New York and Pennsylvania and our Pentagon.

We called Saudi Arabians our partners against terrorism and we sent men with rifles into Afghanistan and Iraq, and we kept our best weapons in our silos.

Even now we’re standing there dying, daring to do nothing decisive, because we’ve declared ourselves to be better than our terrorist enemies -- more moral, more civilized.

Our image is at stake, we insist.

But we didn’t come this far because we’re made of sugar candy.

Once upon a time, we elbowed our way onto and into this continent by giving small pox infected blankets to native Americans.

Yes, that was biological warfare!

And we used every other weapon we could get our hands on to grab this land from whomever. And we grew prosperous.

And, yes, we greased the skids with the sweat of slaves.

And so it goes with most nation states, which, feeling guilty about their savage pasts, eventually civilize themselves out of business and wind up invaded, and ultimately dominated by the lean, hungry and up and coming who are not made of sugar candy. [via FAIR via Avedon Carol]

Now, it's going to be easy to beat on Harvey, metaphorically, for his positions, and I think he deserves everything he's likely to get and more. What's striking to me as an historian about this bit of triumphalism -- aside from the gross oversimplifications and misstatements -- is how closely it tracks the critical historiography of imperialism as applied to the US, but with the conservative (and neo-conservative, I think) twist of cultural decadence at the end. That's where left and right diverge: the leftist argument would cite imperial overstretch (a material condition) rather than decadence (a cultural condition) as the root of our current troubles. And, of course, the moral valence of the narrative: the aggressive inhumanity Harvey so deeply admires that he can't contain himself is considered our deepest and most radical flaw by ... well, by lots of people, but apparently not enough to keep Harvey from being one of the top paid people in radio.

Where's the middle ground? I'm proud of the fact that the US entered (we weren't terribly enthusiastic about opposing fascism on the face of it) and won WWII, though I don't approve of all the decisions made in the process. I'm proud of the fact that the US hasn't used nuclear weapons in anger since Nagasaki, nor entered a third total war, though I also think that we've held the trigger too tightly at times and grossly overstocked and sloppily handled our nuclear weapons. I'm even kind of proud of the fact that our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have to be justified not just as matters of national security but also as extensions of rights and freedoms.

Paul Harvey is wrong: our nuclear weapons would not have accomplished what he thinks they would have accomplished. Paul Harvey is wrong: as grand as our economic and social development has been, there is no pride in the unnecessary and illegal abuse this nation has inflicted through its growth. Paul Harvey is wrong: cultural vigor is not measured simply by resort to violence, but by creative and effective solutions to problems. Paul Harvey is wrong: our restraint is not a sign of moral superiority, but of a calculated long-term approach to values and international systems that should, if it works, save more lives and cost less than the alternatives he endorses.

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Michael Charles Benson - 7/6/2005

As I understand it, blankets aren't even a good way to transport smallpox. Apparently the virus tends to die before the blankets reach their targets. It's curious how popular the blankets are in American mythology.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/4/2005

Thanks, Sharon. One thing that I've noticed, with writers like Niall Ferguson and some of the other Western Civ partisans (many of them neo-Conservatives) is a conflation of British and American imperium; there's even been some explicit discussion of "Anglosphere" (which really doesn't mean what it says) as a historical conglomerate. Both overlook (as Churchill does here) the degree to which force and the need for control over others play a role in the policy of any great power.

Sharon Howard - 7/4/2005

Thanks to eb and Amazon, let's have something worth quoting. Remember, this is in the context of Churchill's visit to north America after the US entry into the war, to negotiate, to drum up support. Moreover, it's a speech to the Canadian Parliament (although I think I read that it was broadcast on US radio stations too).

"I should like to point out to you that we have not at any time asked for any mitigation in the fury or malice of the enemy. The peoples of the British Empire may love peace. They do not seek the lands or wealth of any country, but they are a tough and hardy lot. We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.

"Look at the Londoners, the Cockneys; look at what they have stood up to. Grim and gay with their cry 'We can take it', and their wartime mood of 'What is good enough for anybody is good enough for us'. We have not asked that the rules of the game should be modified. We shall never descend to the German and Japanese level, but if anybody likes to play rough we can play rough too. Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind; let them reap the whirlwind. Neither the length of the struggle nor any form of severity which it may assume shall make us weary or shall make us quit..."

A familiar theme. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Americans south of the Canadian border. As far as I can tell, the speech does not even mention the US.

(It's in the book Never give in: the best of Winston Churchill's speeches.)

Sharon Howard - 7/4/2005

Apart from anything else, Harvey is quite clearly misquoting and probably misrepresenting what Churchill said.

"We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

Who is "we"? Not the Americans, according to more serious commenters online than Harvey. One writer thinks it's the British Empire. The CBC site which has part of the broadcast (but not the sugar candy part, sadly), notes it was "on the toughness of our soldiers". But I can't find an online transcript or fuller clip of the speech to check it out.

William L Ramsey - 7/4/2005

The "single blow" thing aside, I find the quote remarkable for its historical honesty. Most advocates of U.S. Manifest Destiny (let's face it, that is the civil religion at work here) simply ignore or alter the "savage past" or blame it on those who were foolish enough to resist the obvious benefits of Christianity and progress. Harvey, however, owns it all and seems to glory in it. I have no doubt that he speaks for millions of Americans. Heavens-to-Betsy . . .

Ralph E. Luker - 7/4/2005

The small pox 'n blankets bit is particularly interesting. Churchill got attention for it because the instance he cited is a false one -- that is, the United States Army did not give the Mandan smallpox infected blankets to cause the smallpox epidemic of 1837. The only instance that is generally conceded is one from the colonial period under a British command. So, it's all the more astonishing to see "muddlebrow" citing it as justification for our continuing not to act like "sugar candy."
It also occurs to me that the whole scenerio of delivering smallpox infected blanets to an enemy is dubious at best. How do you deliver them without self-infecting and what "enemy" accepts such gifts?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/4/2005

Maybe not, but we're going to encounter this devil-take-the-hindmost machismo pseudo-patriotism in our newspapers, in our students, in our pitiful excuse for leadership. We can reject and repudiate and correct it now, or we can spend the next couple of decades picking the splinters out of our national psyche.

More to the point, it really is interesting the way in which the critiques of the left have become perverse badges of honor, integral to the self-image of the right. Surely, nobody on the right would have spoken proudly of smallpox blankets if Ward Churchill and others hadn't made such a stink about them?

It is interesting to see how distorted historical narratives distort policy: describing our victory over Japan as a result of "a single blow" instead of the culmination of a four year strategic and psychological campaign that cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars and immense creativity and organization leads Harvey to suggest that a simple, brute force solution could "also" solve the Iraq problem.

We can talk about why a "muddle-brow" like Harvey is the most powerful man in radio another time, and if anyone who knows more about, say, Father Coughlin, wants to step in, that's fine, too.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/4/2005

I'm unclear why Paul Harvey is quoted here at such length. It isn't that he lacks exposure, in either sense of the word. He certainly represents a sort of muddle-brow perspective on things, but it's unlikely that any of us holds to it and unlikely that any of the readers of Cliopatria holds to it.