Fear of War: Through the Eyes of Veterans
“I remember distinctly how I heard about World War II start. I was home, and it was on a Sunday… the radio all of a sudden broke into the program I was listening to, and I couldn't believe at first what I was hearing, that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands.”
This is how Jim Hayes, a former Navy veteran who lives at a retirement home in Vancouver, Washington, recalls the war’s beginnings and the fear that followed.
Americans today are scared of another Pearl Harbor and of a World War III. They fear North Korea, the continued complicated relations with Russia, and the recurrent threat of terrorist attacks. The fear of another attack or war today is not unlike the apprehension and fright Americans felt during WWII and the Cold War, several Clark County veterans said.
Recent news stories describe how scared Americans are of another violent conflict on American soil. Dozens of articles about North Korea’s seven missile tests and the possibility of an attack on the U.S. have been published in recent months.
“People again are thinking about the unthinkable: an attack of which there is no warning, for which there is no defense, and from which there is no escape,” reporter Rick Hampson wrote in May in a USA Today article.
Another USA Today article highlights some tweets immediately following the Syrian bombing that President Trump green lit in April. They all described the fear of this bombing starting WWIII.
Mere decades ago, a similar threat of violence lingered on American minds. Ed Tomlin, a post Korean War veteran, was just a boy when Pearl Harbor happened. This surprise attack on American soil on December 7, 1941 lead to Americans fearing another attack by the Japanese and taking some drastic steps against fellow Americans of Japanese ancestry.
At the time, Tomlin lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He remembers seeing Japanese balloon bombs, part of a campaign in which Japan would send balloons filled with helium and hydrogen across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast to land and explode.
“We watched the sky as we walked home from school. We could see the planes go up and shoot down the balloon bombs,” said Tomlin, who now also lives in a retirement home in Vancouver, Washington.
Tomlin remembers hearing the story of the only civilian casualties in the continental U.S. during WWII. A minister, his wife, and five children were all traveling for a family picnic. They pulled off to the side of the road to take a break and the mom and kids went walking in the forest nearby.
They found the balloon bomb and went to show it to their father, the minister. But the bomb blew up and killed the wife and children. Tomlin vividly remembers this story reaching the news in his hometown, and how he would never touch anything remotely suspicious in any forest because of the tragedy.
Though the Japanese balloon bombs were largely ineffective — few reached the U.S. and only a single one was lethal — the bombs and the fear of violence by the Japanese made people living on the West Coast afraid. Hayes, the other veteran, recounts putting up curtains throughout his Vancouver, Wash. house to hide from Japanese war planes (though Japanese planes never actually attacked civilians on the American mainland).
“You had to have those dang curtains put over all the windows to not let the light shine out, and if you did, some nut would come to your door and bang on it, saying we could see a light in there,” said Hayes.
Beyond the threat of warfare, Americans feared Japanese spies. Though this fear was based on wartime hysteria and prejudice — no person of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. was ever convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the war — it had tragic consequences. In February of 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that forced nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into interment camps. As a result, Japanese-Americans lost their homes and properties, their jobs, and couldn’t continue their education.
“I was going to Clark College in 1941, and we had one Japanese at Clark, his name was Kazuo Kato. Shortly thereafter, [we wondered], where is Kazuo? Well, he must have been picked up with his family and moved into an internment camp,” said Hayes.
Some Americans’ fear of Muslims today is similar to the fear of Japanese-Americans. Just as former President Roosevelt issued an executive order targeting Americans of Japanese descent, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in January targeting Muslims. Though it does not aim to imprison Muslims Americans, Trump’s order temporarily bans immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
And just as President Roosevelt claimed he was imprisoning Japanese-Americans to protect other American citizens, President Trump also claims he’s acting in the name of national security. Several courts, however, have blocked Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban.
Trump’s executive order has also led to a number of large protests across the country in recent months. Similar protests happened in the past against the war, in particular the Vietnam War.
Keith Morrison, a National Guard veteran now residing in Gresham Oregon, was in the military when the Oregon governor heard rumors about a large protest set to take place during the annual American Legion Convention, a celebration of veterans in Portland. The state held a concert in a rural area near Portland to divert some of the protesters from the convention.
“Our National Guard unit was activated to protect the reservoirs on Mount Tabor… [Hearing about the possible protest] was an indicator of the type of thing that went on, people doing whatever to let others know they didn’t approve of the war,” said Morrison.
But even if Americans don’t approve of war or of the discrimination that comes with the fear of war and violence, it’s likely they will have to deal with that fear for many years to come. Joseph Cavalli, a professor of history at Clark College, said war or its threat are always present throughout human history.
“When I was in high school, the big fear was…thermo-nuclear warfare, and it was a nuclear winter that would put an end to life on earth,” said Cavalli. “It was a big deal.”
Today, whether it’s Russia trying to recapture its greatness and sphere of influence, North Korea testing its missiles, or another 9/11 being planned in the heart of America by the Islamic State, a conflict or attack is bound to happen sooner or later.
“There will be another war, there’s always wars,” said Cavalli. “War is a constant companion of man; peace is a luxury.”
One thing that may help avoid unnecessary conflict or hysteria based on fear is the level of Americans’ participation in the media and the public sphere today, Cavalli said.
“People are more engaged today than they were during the Cold War,” he said. “They know what’s going on.”