James V. Wertsch: "National Memory for Hiroshima: Russia versus the U.S. Presentation at Sakharov Center, Moscow." February 21, 2019

Video in Russian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLIjazyGFb4&fbclid=IwAR11d-dJKu78WQAYM-5Gz6Aj_IVXrvTXJ-aXM129hsP6CFq82_9EBDsi0yM


James V. Wertsch, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, USA


Abstract: National communities can differ sharply over their memory of an event.  Studies of the “new unconscious” in cognitive science emphasize the human tendency to make automatic, fast, unambiguous, and overly confident decisions about events, a tendency that contrasts with the slower, conscious reflective processes involved in historical scholarship. In the case of national memory, I argue that “narrative templates” shape fast thinking.  American national memory, for example, often relies on a “city on a hill” narrative template that has been invoked repeatedly for centuries.  The legitimacy and accuracy of this schematic story may be questioned, but its impact on American political discourse is evident across centuries and political orientation.  Similarly, I argue that an “expulsion of alien enemies” narrative template shapes certain aspects of Russian national memory. The goal is not only to recognize, but to manage the fast thinking that guides national memory.  A first step is to appreciate the power of narrative templates and recognize that historical scholarship can provide a partial antidote.


Key words: new unconscious, fast thinking, narrative templates, city-on-a-hill, expulsion-of-alien-enemies/


In the 1970s I lived in Moscow for several periods as I studied psychology, linguistics, and philosophy.  It was a fascinating time for an American to be there.  The Cold War rhetoric that was part of official life was completely unlike the warm reception I received from colleagues in their homes.  Compared to most other places in the world at the time, Moscow was, ironically, a place where it was possible to be popular not despite, but because I was an American. 


On my visits to Moscow I had countless discussions with individuals who became lifelong friends.  We often discovered that our thinking was very similar on many issues and hence were surprised when we stumbled across a topic where our views stood in stark opposition.  One occasion where this occurred was a conversation I had with my friend “Vitya” in 1976.  It went as follows:


Vitya:      Jim, one thing I still don’t get is why the U.S. used atomic bombs in Japan in 1945.


Jim:          Well, Truman knew that the bombs would shock Japan into surrender, shorten the war, and reduce the number of people who would die. 


Vitya:       (With a pause and look of disbelief) But you don't really believe that, do you?  Everyone knows that the Japanese understood they were defeated, and when Stalin launched an attack against their forces in Manchuria, it became completely clear that they would surrender.  Come on, Jim, Truman dropped the bomb to threaten Stalin and stop any further Soviet advance in Europe.    


Jim:          But that’s not what happened, Vitya!  It’s not true.  Truman dropped the bombs to force Japan to surrender.  He just wanted to end the war, and the way he did it saved the lives of maybe a million U.S. troops.  I’ve spoken with veterans who were on their way to invade Japan, guys who were scared to death, and they told me they broke down crying for joy when Truman dropped the bomb because it ended the war with Japan.




Prior to this discussion, I had never encountered Vitya’s version of these events.  I had no reason to question the truth of my own account and had no idea that an alternative even existed.  But Vitya was equally certain about what he said, and the result was that he and I found ourselves at what can be called a “mnemonic standoff.”  We both were convinced that our version of events in 1945 was true, and neither of us seemed capable of changing our mind in the face of countervailing evidence. And as I have learned over the years, Vitya and I represented the broader Russian and American communities on this issue.


It turns out that in addition to being part of Russian national memory, Truman’s decision has been the object of historical scholarship in the West and elsewhere.  In his 1965 volume Atomic Diplomacy, for example, Gar Alperovitz suggested that part of the reason for using atomic bombs was to warn Stalin against postwar expansion in Europe or Asia.  Alperovitz’s claims are part of a larger discussion that began almost immediately after 1945.  In 1950, Admiral William D. Leahy, a senior United States military officer during World War II, stated, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.  The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”


This is a debate that continues today.  In 2013, the British scholar Ward Wilson published an article in Foreign Policy titled “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan . . . Stalin Did.”  There he posed the provocative question, “Have 70 years of nuclear policy been based on a lie?” and went on to provide a detailed account of the timing of events in August 1945 that makes it more difficult to attribute the Japanese surrender to the American use of atomic bombs.  For example, he reported that the Japanese leadership had already decided to surrender a day before knowing about the Hiroshima bombing.  Others dispute the importance of this finding, but it is part of the public record.   


In spite of such counterarguments, the standard American account of events of August 1945 has remained largely unchanged.  It continues to be that Truman’s basic plan was to force Japan to surrender and that it worked.  Why has it resisted revision?  There are several reasons for this.  For starters, we assume that our accounts are based on truth.  When discussing opinions or attitudes, we often can agree to disagree, but when talking about the past, we end up saying things like, “I am not telling you my opinion; I am just telling you the truth of what really happened!”  On hearing this from someone else, we are likely to explain it away by saying that they—never ourselves!—don't know any better because they did not have access to accurate information in school or the media.  Or we might say that they are brainwashed—which usually means the conversation is over.   


When I ask American students why they believe their account of Hiroshima even in the face of historical scholarship and the conflicting view of their counterparts in Russia, they often say that it simply reflects what they were taught in U.S. schools.  But this just begs further questions.  For example, where does the account taught in schools come from?  Why have virtually all schools and history textbooks in the U.S. continued to ignore alternative accounts of the past?  The fact that they have suggests that something deeper and more general underlies differences between Russian and American accounts.  A related question is why we remain so committed to our account in the U.S. in the face of counterarguments and conflicting evidence.  Why the tenacity of our views?  Are we just uneducated?  Brainwashed?  


Answering such questions requires an account of national narratives that extends beyond what is often considered.  In this account, narratives are cultural tools or cognitive instruments that fundamentally shape our understanding of the past. It is almost as if they do some of the speaking when we talk about the past.  We do not independently create these tools; instead they are “off-the-shelf” technology provided by the cultural, institutional, and historical setting in which we live.  This, then, raises questions about what national narratives are, where they come from, and how they have their impact on our account of the past.    


When discussing these issues, we often turn to the use of national narratives in political discourse.  In the U.S. a prime example would be Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address to the nation. There, he harnessed the narrative of the “shining city upon a hill” to craft his message of optimism for his American audience. This narrative was so central to the speech that it could almost be called Reagan’s co-author, and in this regard he followed a practice widely employed by others. Figures ranging from John Kennedy to George W. Bush to Barack Obama have all invoked the city on a hill story to draw their audience into a discussion about America. This is not the only national narrative that America has, but the fact that this diverse array of speakers all turned to it reveals just how central it is in the nation’s political culture. 


Reagan knew that his audience would resonate with his speech, but what accounts for this resonance? I propose that the answer is to be found in understanding national narratives as habits of thought. These habits are general and flexible, indeed protean, but at the same time, they are sufficiently well-formed to bind one national community together and set it off from others.  In the particular case at hand, the city on a hill narrative derives from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to the Puritans, but it is not knowledge of that fact that is crucial for understanding its import. Instead, it is schematic knowledge and habits that assign meaning to events in accordance with a city on a hill “narrative template.”


This narrative template offers a schematic story line about escape from oppression and a quest for freedom, and it posits a putatively universal aspiration for humankind which makes America a beacon for others to follow. Being socialized into the American national community involves mastering this narrative template through countless encounters with specific stories in school, the media, political speeches, and everyday conversation.


Recent research in cognitive science on the “new unconscious” provides some useful insights into how this occurs. This research concerns the myriad decisions we make quickly and outside of conscious awareness in everyday life. In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, these are decisions made in the “blink” of an eye. Or as psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, they involve “fast thinking,” a form of mental processing that is unconscious, biased, and confident in its conclusions. Many researchers now assert the bulk of our thinking occurs at this level.


From this perspective, many of our decisions are made so quickly that we do not even know we have made them. Upon meeting individuals for the first time, for example, we typically form an immediate impression of them without any conscious reflection. It is almost as if our body has made a judgment before our mind ever kicks in. Evolutionary psychologists see this as reflecting the emergence of thinking over thousands of years that stemmed from the need to make rapid decisions about friend or foe. In the distant past, many life-saving decisions about whether to run or to fight a threatening animal or human being had to be made in the blink of an eye, and delay could be deadly.


Most of the time intuitive leaps of fast thinking yield decisions that are good enough to get by in everyday life, but on some occasions, they lead to decisions that are dead wrong. Numerous studies in cognitive psychology, for example, have shown how poor we can be at tasks of logical deduction because we follow fast thinking rather than employ logical tools, even when they are ready at hand. The processes of fast thinking that we routinely employ contrast with what Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” which involves rational, effortful reflection and relies on logic, objective evidence, and considering alternative explanations. In addition, slow thinking can “supervise” fast thinking to help it avoid drawing incorrect conclusions. But research suggests that slow thinking is “lazy” and that such supervision is the exception rather than the rule in everyday life.


Returning to fast thinking, it tends to rely on selective information that confirms an existing view—something known as “confirmation bias.” Rather than making the effort to consider alternative evidence and hypotheses, our attention is unconsciously drawn to information consistent with our views, and it downplays, or simply overlooks contradictory evidence.  Fast thinking also tends to be confident about its conclusions—indeed, over-confident, and this can be problematic, given how biased the evidence often is that supports them.


American mental habits based on the city on a hill narrative template display all the characteristics of fast thinking. When listening to a speech like Reagan’s, a U.S. audience makes instant judgments based on shared habits just in order to follow it, judgments that listeners have no inkling they had made. Such decisions are rendered with great confidence, and they also bring emotional commitment with them.  Reagan knew that he could rely on these narrative habits to guide his American audience to the view he wanted to share with it.


It is worth noting that these are habits that could not be assumed in the case of Chinese, Russian, or even French or English audiences, whose reactions to the speech would likely have been quite different. Even if they knew more than Americans about Winthrop and the Puritans, it is unlikely that they would be moved by Reagan’s words in the way that Americans would. In fact, people in other national communities can have strong negative reactions to claims that America is a city on a hill and instead see such claims as unwarranted assertions about exceptionalism, if not excuses for aggressive American intervention in the affairs of other countries.


Narrative habits are likely to remain unnoticed until one national community comes into contact or conflict with another. Just as many Americans who travel abroad for the first time say they weren’t aware of how American they were until they met people from other countries, we often aren’t aware of the power of a national narrative until it runs up against another.  My encounter with Vitya is a case in point.  Rather than being the product of rational reflection based on objective evidence and the consideration of alternative accounts, my unconscious reliance on the city on a hill narrative template meant I immediately and confidently inferred that things didn’t happen as he said simply because they couldn’t have: an American president would never have sacrificed over 100,000 Japanese just in order to make a point to Stalin. That would be too inconsistent with what it means to be a beacon of light for others.


So, what can we take away from all of this—that is, if we want to end up with something more than pessimism? First, we need to appreciate what we are up against, which means appreciating the extent to which we are all creatures of the unconscious fast thinking that guides habits of thought based on narrative templates. Extensive evidence suggests that we make most of our decisions in this regard in the blink of an eye and with great confidence, relying more on confirmation than information.


At the same time, however, we need to remember that we are capable of reflective thought and judgment and that slow thinking can provide an antidote to the tendencies of fast thinking. Can insights from cognitive science help alleviate the dangers of fast thinking about national narratives? There is some reason for optimism in this regard, but this should be tempered with what we know about the history of inquiry into the human mind and will. In the Phaedrus, Plato mapped out a vision some 2500 years ago that bears some similarities with the struggle between fast and slow thinking. In his allegory about the “charioteer of the human soul,” the charioteer drives a pair of horses, one noble and the other “quite the opposite in breed and character,” with the first horse as a stand-in for rational thought and the second for the soul’s irrational passions. There is much more to say about Plato’s allegory and today’s cognitive science, but the point is that we have been struggling for centuries with differences such as that between fast and slow thinking, and there is little reason to assume the issue will be easy to resolve today.


In the end, the best—perhaps the only way to address the drawbacks of national narrative habits will require a coordinated effort based on several tools. First, it will require an appreciation of the power of fast thinking and of the limits of rational reflection as an antidote.  It is worth noting that the difference between fast and slow thinking bears some similarity with a distinction between memory and history that has been drawn since Maurice Halbwachs’s early writings on collective memory. In contrast to memory, the aspirations of scholars of history include a desire to provide a rational, objective account of the past and to consider alternative explanations no matter how uncomfortable their findings may be for members of one nation or another.  This historical scholarship can make an important contribution.  


But such efforts, however, well intentioned, often founder without the help of another tool, namely, a sense of humility.  A call for humility amounts to an invitation for us to, at least occasionally, be open to the insight of Pogo, a famous American cartoon character who once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” It calls on us to recognize that we are inescapably in a world of multiple, competing stories of what nations are.  These stories are important for unifying national communities and for pursuing worthwhile goals, but they also can encourage dangerous conflict between national communities. The best way to approach this may be to infuse a bit of humility into our otherwise all-too-confident conclusions about why we — and others — think and act as we all do.


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