Emotions and the Course of History -- World War II vs. 9/11

Dale Schlundt, May 21 2013

Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintingsNorman Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings

That humans are emotional beings is an aspect we all can agree on, since most of us are aware of our feelings on a daily basis. However, do we realize how driven we are by such? While discussing World War II with my students, with the highly significant role that propaganda had on the masses and the similarities of Pearl Harbor with 9/11, emotions are without a doubt, at the forefront of my lecture. The conclusion that I try to instill in my students, is that for better or worse, history proves that our actions are a direct result of our emotions at the time.

I asked my students to imagine the movie, Titanic. Immediately one pictures the love story between Leo and Kate. The passion between the two portrayed in the movies is undeniably strong and moving. For all of us softies, we are heartbroken as we watch Leo sinking to the bottom, with Kate looking on in complete loss. Now, I ask my students to play along with me for just a moment. I ask them to imagine the movie, without music. For some reason the emotion, the sentiment that we felt, is perhaps not gone, but significantly dwindled. Why? The movie's plot, characters, and story have not changed. What has changed? Not a thing, except our own emotions, how we felt at the end. It is difficult to imagine, is it not? Showing how invested we are in the music, which enhances our feelings about the actual events taking place in the film.

Emotions and World War II

We see this in history as well. Prior to and during the Second World War. The lack of support for becoming involved in the conflict was substantial. What did we need? More specifically, what did FDR need to rally support for becoming involved? What was needed was for the nation to become, for lack of a better term, emotional. The answer came through the attack on Pearl Harbor. The threat was always there, as both Japan and Germany's aggression was not a secret. Yet what was lacking was for the circumstances to become personal -- for the American public to want revenge.

In class I compare 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, as they produced similar responses both in terms of the public opinion as well as the government. Prior to 9/11 the masses had not truly considered Osama Bin Laden dangerous -- perhaps many did not even know he existed. Yet, as we watched the terrible tragedy take place on our televisions, President Bush was quickly criticized for simply sitting in that classroom, taking a moment to absorb the news of the attack. Why did he not move faster, was the question? Perhaps this outcry was initially for the president to take a defensive response, to prevent further casualties. Regardless, the feeling, more importantly the emotion, soon transitioned into a public response for retribution.

Of course, as an individual, my support for the military response to both Pearl Harbor as well as the World Trade Towers would be and was in line with the rest of the public. However, as a historian, my goal is not to promote any one “correct" action, but to point out the catalysts in society that trigger these changing contexts. Without a doubt, emotion is at the top of my list. As my mentors and past professors have taught me, I try to teach my students the same.

This being that regardless of what discipline or professions they pursue, throughout life one needs to be consistently critical. Not in the negative sense that we initially think of when that word is heard, but critical in terms of having a full understanding of any situation, before making a judgment. Going as far as to use myself in an example, saying that "despite their trust in me, just because I say it doesn't mean it is necessarily correct or perhaps the entire story."

An anti-Japanese propaganda poster from World War IIAn anti-Japanese propaganda poster from World War II

Propaganda during WWII lends itself well to my argument that emotion drives decisions of the masses. Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms are still very moving to me. That being said, we cannot overlook the parts of history that are difficult to discuss. Simply by doing a Google search for support of the war effort, one can find posters of a Japanese soldier holding a knife with blood dripping off of it. In almost every picture the Japanese soldier has fangs instead of teeth and the majority of these images give us some sense of insecurity, even on the domestic front. The idea behind this propaganda was not to entice individuals to use their logic, but to stir their emotions. To say to themselves, "is my family safe? Will these Japanese soldiers be lurking around the corner in the future if we do not act now?"

To a large extent this propaganda was both very useful and ultimately effective. Yet, much in the same manner that I put the question to my class, I will include it here. Did we differentiate these Japanese soldiers in the pictures from other Asian-Americans? Were we as a nation mindful of the effects they would have on the Asian-American community? The Japanese internment camps answer that question.

9/11 and the American emotional response

On a positive note, we do not see that kind of crude war propaganda today when referring to Al-Qaida and the Taliban. A clear measurement that we have grown as a nation rooted in human freedoms. Although, it could also be argued that Muslim Americans have seen increased discrimination since 2001 among U.S society. Coming back to emotion, how many individuals have, without sufficient cause, changed their perspective when they see someone of Middle Eastern decent walking down the street? Muslims Americans who are productive and law abiding members of their communities have seen the American view unjustifiably change.

Despite the ethical argument here, emotions once again prove to be a fundamental part of our being. Yet, to a large extent we have drastically improved as both a nation in terms of Civil Rights in the 21st century. Perhaps, that is why being critical is so vital in any culture. To prevent the mistakes of our past, which are so easily made during a period of high stress, both on a personal level as well on a national scale.

Of course, emotions have tremendously positive impacts on our lives. Next time you're at a “chick flick" with your significant other and they lean over to give you a kiss, consider the argument in this piece. I would suggest you are the same person you were before you went into the movie. Yet, for some reason the motivation to show those feelings dramatically increases during that specific moment. What has changed? The variable is this "romantic propaganda" if you will. The film, this "influence", although not concrete is none the less comparably strong in its effect. I end my lecture with a final statement. Regardless of good or bad, emotions without a doubt, dictate actions.

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