The Beginning of Victory Culture
On December 7, 1941, in a surprise, “unprovoked and dastardly attack” the Japanese bombed Hawaiian military base Pearl Harbor. The Japanese destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft, and 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded. On December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave an empowering yet somber speech. Beyond the famous line that Pearl Harbor was “a date which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt provoked ideas of patriotism, nationalism and remembering America's past to project America's future. He offered the American people one promise in the face of “this premeditated invasion.” He offered that “[Americans] will win through to absolute victory,” and to “inevitable triumph.” This spirit of triumph that Roosevelt conjured was continued by the media and popular culture.
Popular Big Band musician Sammy Kaye wrote the song “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor” urged his audience to:
Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor
As we did the Alamo.
We will always remember how they died for Liberty.
Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor
And go on to victory
Paralleling the Alamo with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kaye was able tie the present to America’s exceptional, unique frontier past. Articles from magazines like Life also used the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor” as a battle cry. Victory was non-negotiable in American culture; triumphalism barreled throughout pop culture and especially the Western genre. Everyone from the President to musicians were invoking the romanticized, mythical West, for most Americans the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was no different then dastardly Indians attacking a stagecoach.
Victory culture, as it has come to be known, is the idea that it is the birthright of Americans to triumph over an inferior enemy. Mid twentieth century popular American history presented a sweeping epic, in which Americans were continuously the underdog fighting for liberty and spreading freedom from sea to shining sea and wars were fought for the betterment of mankind. In journalist Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture, he states “The American war story was especially effective as a builder of national consciousness because it seemed so natural, so innocent, so nearly childlike and was so little contradicted by the realities of invasion or defeat...it deflected attention from the racial horror story most central to the country’s development.” Victory culture embedded itself in the foundation of American nation-building in the post World War II era, and became the basis for American identity and nationalism. In the World War II era, Americans seen their projected triumph over the Japanese and Germans in pop culture, and instead of Americans fighting the Axis, they were fighting (and defeating) Indians. Victory culture is most evident in the 1950s Western film, television and comic book genre, where the aspect of victory culture that illuminated the “us” versus “them” narrative developed. Native Americans were further transformed into the faceless villains or the pronoun inept sidekicks and became part of the larger pop culture machine that was craving for American exceptionalism and triumphalism. By examining Western genre mediums in which victory culture is evident, victory culture, while the essence of American identity, was a problematic at best.