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Interview with Hélène Harter, historian


On the occasion of the publication of the book Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 (Tallandier), meeting with Hélène Harter, professor of contemporary history at Rennes II University. A specialist in North America, she talks about her profession as a historian, her research and, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the place and importance of this event in the history of the United States. .


"The differences between France and America fascinated me"

What brought you to history, and in particular that of North America?

I owe it to my fifth grade teacher, who made us work on the 1980 presidential election (the one that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House). In particular, we compared the French system and the American system, and that made me want to know more about it later.

Didn't you have any connection to North America, through family, for example?

No, this was my first contact. It was from then that I got really interested in history, and that of the United States in particular. The differences between France and America fascinated me and I wanted to know more. Then, at university, I had the chance in Paris 1 to take André Kaspi's undergraduate course. I hesitated about my MA specialty between urban history and the history of the United States. I finally married the two, with a subject of urban history of the United States!

What was the theme of your master's thesis?

I studied public works in Boston between 1876 and 1883, in the context of the Industrial Revolution and the modernization of municipal government. My year of DEA allowed me to clarify my problem. I was thus able to fully enter my subject from the first year of my thesis.

What did your thesis ultimately focus on?

I initially thought I would limit myself to public works, but I quickly realized the central role played by salaried public works engineers in cities in the modernization of American cities. This led me to devote my thesis to them [Editor's note: American municipal engineers (1810-1910)] by conducting a study at the crossroads of social history, political history, technical history of course, and at the same time the history of international relations. The circulation of ideas in the transatlantic space was very interesting to study in this era of the globalization of technical knowledge and professional sociability.

"The British world is not the American world, and vice versa"

Do you think, as we can sometimes hear when preparing for CAPES [Editor's note: about the theme "The British World, 1815-1931"], that at this point the United States is still part of the "British world"?

This would be the case if we were dealing with the 18th century, but from 1783 it was difficult to make it a central subject. We are more in the interrelationship, whether at the level of the American continent, with the second American war of independence in 1812-1815, or at the world level since we are from the last quarter of the 19th century in the presence of two countries in competition, which are intended to be the great world power. The British world is not the American world, and vice versa. There is even an extremely strong desire for differentiation on the part of the Americans.

How do you remember the work on your thesis and the relationship between student and research director, in this case André Kaspi?

That of a moment of great intellectual freedom. In thesis, we are in a dialogue with the thesis director. We appropriate our object, we make discoveries that make our subject evolve, and then we end up producing knowledge ourselves. It is a very enriching intellectual experience.

You taught high school at the same time, right?

Yes, for six years, where I was largely TZR [holder in the replacement zone] in Val-de-Marne. The constraint of three or four years to write a thesis that is imposed today did not exist; which allowed me to run a full teaching service in secondary school and my thesis simultaneously. It was demanding in terms of schedules but I really enjoyed the experience of teaching in middle and high school.

After your thesis, you were elected lecturer ...

Yes, in 2000, in Paris 1, in the wake of my defense.

And for HDR, you changed the subject though.

In fact, I originally wanted to work on the transformations of American cities after 1945… and arrived on September 11th. I was very struck by the way in which the media related September 11 and the American attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As I wanted to know more, I found to my surprise that there was no had work on the impact of war on American cities. My new research topic was found.

"The war had a strong impact on American society"

What conclusions did you draw from it?

What especially interested me was to discover that, contrary to popular belief in France, the war had a strong impact on American society, in particular on the integration of minorities and on political developments at the local level. . The war effort led to massive population migrations which disrupted cities and forced them to turn to the federal state, which is not their natural interlocutor. The process begins with the Great Depression, thanks to the New Deal, but the war accelerates the process and includes programs that were to be temporary in the long term. One need only think of the debates raised by the intervention of the federal state during the passage of Hurricane Katrina. While constitutionally it is not intended to be an urban actor, the populations felt that the federal state had not done enough. It’s a legacy from the 1930s and 1940s.

What is your current research focusing on?

In particular, I continue to work on the impact of World War II on American society, and in particular on the relationship between the federal state, the federated states and the cities and between the civil and military actors. This is part of a larger reflection on war as a major player in social and political change in the United States and as a building block of American identity.

How do Americans relate to World War II?

Overall, it is a war that is viewed in a positive light, compared to the wars that followed (Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq). It is seen as a "good war", a fight for just ideals. Overall, there is a consensus on the issue between historians and public opinion, although recent historiography shows that things are more complicated.

"Popular culture holds an important place in the construction of the vision of the World War"

Is the war in the Pacific viewed differently? This is what Spielberg seems to have noticed when he worked on The Pacific.

In fact, until recently there was a lot more work on the European war, and especially a lot more films. Popular culture plays an important role in shaping the vision for World War II, and its emphasis so far has been much more on Europe than on the Pacific.

How is this history taught in American schools?

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It varies greatly from state to state and even from school district to school district as there is no uniformity of the school system in the United States. It all depends on whether the institution emphasizes history or not. Very often this is an optional subject. The historical culture of a student leaving high school varies greatly from one school to another.

"Going beyond the sole American gaze leads to interesting conclusions"

Can you tell us about the book you are publishing on Pearl Harbor [Editor's note: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, Tallandier]?

The idea of ​​the collection is to approach the landmark battles of history through the crossed eyes of the two protagonists; in my case relying on both American and Japanese sources. Going beyond the American gaze alone leads to some interesting conclusions. Just think that for the Japanese the attack did not take place on December 7th, but on December 8th! Studying the Japanese attack also forces us to overstep Hawaii since it is only one of the simultaneous operations carried out by the Japanese in the Pacific.

For the origins of the conflict between the United States and Japan, you go back to the 19th century.

It was important to understand the subject. There is indeed a generational effect, especially among the Japanese. In the early 1940s, political and military leaders belonged to the generation that lived through the American-Japanese tensions that followed the First World War. The crisis of 1941 was not only cyclical. It is not explained only by the tensions caused by the desire of the Japanese to access the natural resources of the region and to form a sphere of co-prosperity. It is the result of an accumulation of rivalries and resentments. The islands of Hawaii have also been a focal point for relations between Japan and the United States since the end of the 19th century.e century.

Are Japanese operations in China linked to this rivalry with the Americans?

No, they are part of the desire for Japanese expansion. They are, however, one of the main sources of disputes with the Americans who wish to uphold China's territorial integrity. One of the purposes of the economic war that the Americans waged against the Japanese in the fall of 1941 was to force the Japanese to withdraw from China.

"There was no deliberate will of Franklin Roosevelt to provoke an attack on his fleet"

How to explain the incredible gear that leads strictly to Pearl Harbor? The Japanese plan, the regrouped American fleet, etc.

These questions feed the demonstrations of supporters of conspiracy theories. This is not my approach. Americans are taken by surprise. Franklin Roosevelt's deliberate intention was not to provoke an attack on his fleet. The Americans in fact underestimate the Japanese forces and it is the sum of their mistakes, which taken separately of no consequence, that ends in disaster. As for the Japanese, they logically attack where the American forces seem the most threatening for the continuation of their operations. Pearl Harbor is often seen only as an American defeat. It is also, often forgotten, a Japanese victory; a victory that was made possible by a daring and perfectly executed plan.

Was Yamamoto's plan to strike hard, then be in an advantageous position to hold on to the conquests that followed the attack? But he was aware that in the long term, Japan could not hold out ...

Admiral Yamamoto wanted to inflict as much damage as possible on the American fleet so that it could expand into Asia and have impregnable positions, once the Americans had reconstituted their forces. Japanese officials, led by Yamamoto, were well aware of the imbalance between American and Japanese forces and believed that hitting hard at the start of the conflict would save time. They also knew that if the war dragged on, they would lose it. Many of them have completed their studies or diplomatic trips to the United States. They knew American society well, unlike their rivals, who knew little about, for example, Japanese naval doctrines. Ultimately, it was the economic differential that gave the Americans the advantage.

How is the Pearl Harbor event viewed today, on both the American and Japanese sides?

For Americans, this remains a traumatic event that is associated with Japanese treachery (the famous "infamy day" of Franklin Roosevelt). In Japan, on the other hand, the legitimacy of this attack is not questioned.

And more broadly, for The Pacific War?

The fact that a company reflects on its history, especially after a defeat, is a real issue. In Japan, much remains to be done. Part of the Japanese population, and in particular intellectuals, continues to consider the acts of the Japanese military during the Second World War to be legitimate. This is not without creating tensions with neighboring countries.

« Torah, Torah, Torah (Richard Fleischer, 1970), the most interesting film ”

What do you think of American films on Pearl Harbor?

Michael Bay's movie (Pearl Harbor, 2001) is a spectacular film, not a historical film. The events of December 1941 mostly serve as the backdrop to a love story. In my opinion, the most interesting film is Torah, Torah, Torah (Richard Fleischer, 1970), notably through his view of the event through Japanese and American eyes.

History for all being a website, we are interested in the vision of web historians. Is it an asset, a danger,…?

The Internet has greatly facilitated the historian's work, in particular by providing access to previously inaccessible sources. It’s a great tool, especially for Masters students. In a few years, the attitude of the students has changed. They now have a more critical and aloof approach to the Internet. For the general public, it is quite another thing: you are sometimes struck to hear people say that "it is true" since they found the information on the internet. A bit like what we said before for television ... There are different uses of the net depending on the audience anyway. Overall, it’s still a very positive thing. I am thinking in particular of the digital archive campaigns.

You have written several books that could be described as "general public", such as the one in the collection Ideas Received (America, 2001). How do you approach popularization, and what do you think of the role that the historian can have in society, and not only in the transmission of knowledge?

Popularization seems to me essential to allow as many people as possible to access the latest historical advances and to go against preconceived ideas. It is therefore better that it be done by specialists in the subject; which is often the case elsewhere. The historian is a transmitter of knowledge and the objects on which he works also sometimes make him an actor in social debates. Then it's all about personality and personal commitment.

Thank you.

Hélène Harter is professor of contemporary history at Rennes II University. She just published Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 (Tallandier), and is the author of America at War: Cities of WWII (Galaade Éditions, 2006, preface by André Kaspi), American civilization (with André Kaspi, François Durpaire and Adrien Lherm, PUF, Collection Quadrige, new edition 2006) and America (Le Cavalier Bleu, collection Ideas received, 2001).


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