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OPINION: Are we Headed Toward a “Tanaka Memorial” Curriculum?

Today’s curricula and statements by politicians, by presenting facts to fit a political narrative, bear more than a passing resemblance to the nearly century old Tanaka Memorial – a politically-motivated forgery designed to gin up opposition to 1900s Imperial Japan.

One of the most notable examples of fake history being taught can be found in The 1619 Project, which claims that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. Nikole Hannah-Jones, one of the project’s leading authors, stated: “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The 1619 Project is being used in classrooms in spite of the initiative’s criticism by historians as being fundamentally inaccurate. Northwestern University historian Leslie Harris wrote in response: “Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies.” In spite of its controversial conclusions, many American students are learning about the country’s history using this material. The twisting of historical facts to conform to a conclusion is less the role of a teacher and more that of a spin doctor.

The causes of the Revolutionary War are hardly the only topics affected by the retelling of history by woke-ified standard bearers. According to an equally ahistorical factoid, law enforcement apparently began its existence as catchers of runaway slaves. But, in fact, the police and policing as we know it today did not exist until the 19th century in which Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police Force in London.

The notion that “a black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison,” stated by the current president on the 2020 campaign trail, stands out as another example. An African-American inventor, Lewis Howard Latimer, developed a carbon filament that was an improvement over existing technology. A variety of inventors from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy had developed incandescent light bulbs and/or held patents in the 19th century, such as Alessandro Volta, Humphrey Davy, Joseph Swan, William E. Sawyer and Albon Man. While it is important to recognize Latimer’s technological contributions, to negate others’ development of the incandescent light bulb as Biden did is yet another example of politically-motivated distortion.

The U.S. hasn’t been subjected to such ahistorical, ludicrous politically motivated propaganda since The Tanaka Memorial, an infamous piece of political forgery designed to provoke opposition to the presence and expansion of early 20th century Imperial Japan.

Frank Capra’s World War II era propaganda series Why We Fight presents The Tanaka Memorial as a supposedly genuine document detailing Japan’s plan to dominate the world. The alleged plot states: “In order to conquer the world, we must first conquer China.” Published in 1927, Americans may have found it credible because Japan had indeed conquered Manchuria in 1931 and invaded the rest of China in 1937. It appeared plausible enough during the war – however, following the defeat of Japan and the end of the Pacific Theater of World War II, no Japanese-language “original” had ever been found. It was a forgery.

To this day, its origins are contested. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, or Stalin’s Soviet Union have been mentioned as possible suspects. 

Two of the three aforementioned contemporary claims – police as slave patrols and Edison’s lack of invention of the light bulb – served the political purpose of polarization and the retelling of history utilizing DiAngelo-Kendist principles. Making statements about the past without the necessary historical basis only serves to confuse minds both young and old. This approach contributes to a loss of knowledge, context, and undercuts critical thinking skills. Then again, many of these trends, along with distance learning and other COVID precautions, are more than likely to be responsible for a historic drop in test scores across the board nationwide. 

The success of leaders such as Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and school board candidates in states such as Texas and Florida has been attributed to their focus on resolving recent challenges with public education. Will the false narratives about history perpetuate or will they be decisively discredited as was The Tanaka Memorial? It’s ultimately up to America’s parents, teachers, and its voters.

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