The worst trap any historian can fall into is judging events with his own standards and his own knowledge of events without taking the time to put him or herself into the event at it’s time. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, so it’s easy to look at an event after a period of time and say, “They did it wrong,” or “If only they had done this instead.” But that ignores basic human nature and more importantly it judges without being in the position of the events in question.
In many ways, the better way to judge history is in the manner of jury. Have the facts presented as they were known. Allow no speculation and allow no evidence into the debate that would not have been available at the time. Determine from that information if we would not have done the same things for the same reasons. And usually with the same results.
Of course if we were omniscient things would have been different, but we are not.
In my senior year at Ogden High School, I wrote for my creative writing class (how apropos is that now?) a paper detailing what I had come to believe – that the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a sham. That Roosevelt had known it was coming and allowed it to happen because he wanted the nation rallied to war. Looking at the event through MY eyes in 1981 it was obvious that the US had to have been able to see that something was coming. Q.E.D., I reasoned, the coming of the attack was known and allowed to proceed for political reasons (recall that all reasoning for war is political).
It was years before I learned that judging history with objectiveness is harder than one thinks. It is virtually impossible to unknow what I know, and simultaneously remember that the participants in the events did NOT know what I know. Interestingly enough, when put into scenarios in which my own knowledge was limited, I found that I tended to make the same decisions – for the same reasons – as those in history. But as I said, while I recognize that today, it was many, many years before I realized what was happening and how it was effecting my judgment of history.
Clearly on the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States knew that conflict with Japan was imminent. But knowing that a conflict is brewing and knowing how it will unfold in advance are two very different things. In point of fact, the lessons of history, repeated over and again, were that despite the warnings and in the face of the direct evidence, men and nations would ignore what might have been clear and continue to see things as they wished them to be as opposed to what they really were. Robert Massie’s wonderful book, Dreadnought, walks the modern reader through a decade long slide into World War that reminds us that people will always see what they want to see at the time, they will always interpret events through their own beliefs, politics and prejudices, not the cold hard facts of history after the fact.
But when one takes the time to try and place oneself not in the role of historian or Judge, but in the place of those who were there at that moment, sometimes it can become clearer why things were done the way they were done. Many times in my life I have made errors in judgment and in actions. Invariable I am later asked, “Would you do that again?” The answer is almost always “No.” But I often wonder if that is really the case. I believed that I made the right judgment and took the right action based on the facts and evidence before me at that time, not later.
Maybe the real lesson of history is to keep in mind that there is always something that is unknown to those involved at the time.
On December 7, 1941, nearly three thousand Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hundred of Millions of dollars of military equipment was damaged, including two ships that were never returned to service.
Today, in the quiet warm waters of Pearl Harbor, the wreck of USS Arizona still rests, slowly seeping oil like tears shed for the loss of over a thousand men, most still aboard her wreck. She represents the beginning of the Pacific war. directly ahead of her, face to face, sits USS Missouri. Another battleship aboard which the instrument of Surrender of the Empire of Japan was signed. Beginning and ending together in the same place ask us the same question:
What have we learned?