Teaching the History of U.S. Foreign Relations During the Invasion of Iraq – Joseph Michael Henning – Japan 2002-03

At Japan’s Tohoku University in 2002-2003, I taught courses on the history of U.S. foreign relations to upper-level undergraduate and graduate students. During the break between the fall and spring semesters in March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. I initially had planned to address the 9/11 attacks and U.S. responses to them in the spring semester’s final weeks. I realized, however, that the invasion demanded our attention much sooner.

When the spring semester began, my Japanese faculty associate organized a dinner with my students at a nearby restaurant. While we were waiting to be seated, a television above the bar played a news clip of public remarks by President George W. Bush defending the war. Just when I realized that the students had turned their heads to me to see my reaction to his comments, a waiter interrupted to direct us to our private room. As soon as we sat down, one student quietly asked what I thought of the invasion. As I described my doubts and opposition, everyone listened. I realized that the students had wondered whether I was there, in a position funded by the U.S. government, to serve primarily as a spokesperson and advocate for its policies.

Although our dinner conversation quickly moved to less weighty topics, I devoted part of my next class meeting to a brief summary of the history and goals of the Fulbright Program. I explained to the students that the government was not paying me to extol U.S. foreign policy but rather to help them identify and understand its historical roots. That discussion continued with an overview of the wide spectrum of U.S. public opinion on the war. In later conversations inside and outside the classroom, we also explored the Japanese government’s support of the war along with the significant opposition to it among the Japanese public.

Once we encountered the latter when we opened our classroom windows to enjoy the pleasant spring weather: the sounds of a student anti-war rally were audible from across the campus. Protest chants, led by a student with a megaphone, drifted in through the open windows. This prompted us to discuss the rights of free speech and assembly, which led us to recall the American origins of Japan’s 1947 constitution under the post-World War II occupation. This constitution also renounces war as a sovereign right. The Japanese government’s proposal to send troops from its Self-Defense Forces to Iraq in a non-combat role provided a focal point for Japanese opponents of the war, who argued that this violated their constitution. 

We had no shortage of issues to consider as we studied the history of U.S. foreign relations with the Iraq War always in the background. Indeed, it reminded us of the stakes involved when force replaces international exchange programs and diplomacy.

Joseph Michael Henning – Fulbright to Japan 2002-03

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