Every five years I need to complete 15 credit hours from a Washington state collegiate level courses in order to renew my Washington state teacher's license. In the past I did this via Seattle Central Community College since it seemed to be the cheapest way to gain the credits via correspondence courses. This time around I took two American history courses, HIST 136 Discovery to 1865 (Reconstruction) and HIST 137 1865 to Present, as well as a humanities course, HUM 105 Intercultural Communication, which was mostly reading and reporting about different minority groups in America.
The history classes in particular were quite comprehensive. Even though these are low level history courses there was significant amount of reading and 12 2-4 page assignments for each section, a midterm, a final, and a 8-14 research paper on a topic approved by the instructor. I choose the course because I am interested in history and have not formally studied it since high school. I have to admit that the most challenging and intellectually rewarding component were the research papers. The first paper I wrote was an exploration of the secular enlightenment influences on the American Constitution via Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. For the second section I showed how the "Hiroshima Revisionists" are being challenged by historians in their conclusions about how and why atomic bombs were used on Japan at the end of the Pacific War in WWII.
The last research paper, in particular, drove home the issue that historians can control the narrative that can effect how certain events are judged in posterity. The most useful books were Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism and Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (I would still like to have a closer reading of Downfall). These books show how the narrative that drooping the bombs were unnecessary and that the Japanese were ready to surrender without the bombs gained massive currency in the 1990s supported by the likes of Gore Vidal and marred the projected 1995 museum commemoration of the Enola Gay exhibition in Washington, D.C., which had to be cancelled because of the biased exhibition text. It suggested that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were racially and politically motivated-that it wouldn't have been dropped on the Germans and that Truman wanted to send Stalin a message about the postwar world order.
This narrative ignores many issues. For example, it fails to take into account the brutal fighting that has come under closer scrutiny with HBO's production of The Pacific. This includes the vicious fighting on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan. The causalities among combatants was high and the misery of these protracted battles where the Japanese frequently led suicide charges (not to mention the kamikaze planes attacking ships), did fake surrenders in order to inflict casualties, and often fought to the last man or committed suicide rather than be captured. Their propaganda was so effective that many locals threw themselves off cliffs to avoid being taken prisoner by the savage Americans. It also discounts the rabid militarists that still wanted to force America to invade the homeland in order to inflict enough causalities to broker a better surrender AFTER both bombs were dropped AND after the Russians entered the war-it was at this point that Hirohito stepped up and called the stalemate and surrendered.
It also allowed the Japanese to promote the narrative that they were victims of American aggression without taking into account the Rape of Nanjing, the Bataan Death March, Unit 731's grisly human experimentation, the abuse of native peoples in colonized territories, Pearl Harbor, the use of slave labor, comfort women, and a host of other atrocities and belligerent actions. I think these issues are still a sore point among the former occupied colonies of China and Korea and are often criticized since they are often left out of Japanese history textbooks.
On an unrelated level I saw how this played out ina personal history. There has been a controversy about the legacy of Gandhi. It seems that he was very controlling about how he was portrayed in the media and went to great pains to make sure that the narrative of the great holy man who fought ceaselessly to free India was upheld after his death. The truth seems much more complicated. But this is the image that most of us have of what seems to be a much more flawed and complicated historical figure. But it seems beside the point if the narrative has been accepted into culture. I guess it would take a significant amount of time and many examples of debunking the accepted narrative to change the overall cultural view of a particular event or personage. And this underlies the importance of historians in creating a truthful narrative about history.