Enemy, Views of the

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Enemy, Views of the. All cultures dehumanize their enemies to some degree. They do this by portraying them as aggressors or even devils, savages, torturers, rapists, or vermin. These attributes may be applied to the enemy's entire society or only to its ruler or ruling elite. Americans have typically applied this more focused view of the enemy to countries that mirror themselves racially, culturally, or ideologically. Peoples who seemed alien were more likely to be regarded all‐inclusively as the enemy.

Adversaries who have most nearly resembled Americans include the British during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the Germans of World War I and II, and of course the Northerners and Southerners of the Civil War. In each case, the true enemy was ordinarily identified as the opponent's leadership rather than population. Thus, revolutionaries fixed most of their hostility on the British king, George III, and his ministers, who were said to be pursuing a grand design aimed at the political enslavement of Americans. Parliament got less censure and the British public scarcely any at all. During the two world wars, the enemy was not so much the German people as “ Kaiser Bill,” the Prussian warlords, Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi Party. In each case, these entities were perceived as aggressive and tyrannical. Southerners reserved most of their anger for Abraham Lincoln, the “black Republicans,” and the abolitionists. Northerners considered the common people of the South the dupes of Jefferson Davis and the slaveholding aristocracy. The consistent common thread was a perceived threat to liberty, sometimes generalized into a threat to everything that was good, just, and holy.

This does not mean that Americans had no opinion of the soldiers who actually fought against them. In the Revolutionary era, the belief that the British government was trying to enslave them encouraged Americans to fix upon the fact that the British soldier was a professional who might receive pay but who otherwise resembled a degraded bondsman. “Hireling” was a common epithet. The fact that the British employed German mercenaries won particular opprobrium, and “hateful Hessian” was a phrase spat in anger for decades after the American Revolution. Southerners resurrected the image of the “hireling”—often extended to include the idea that Union soldiers were foreign immigrants—during the Civil War. Northerners sometimes viewed Southern soldiers as reluctant conscripts, forced into service by a planter oligarchy. German soldiers were called “Huns” or “Krauts” and were considered more prone to atrocity than Americans. In general, however, Americans tended to regard most of these enemy soldiers as honorable opponents, worthy of respect.

Much the same was true for the French, who were a major American opponent during the colonial period. One difference stemmed from the Catholicism of the French, which imparted overtones of a religious crusade to the struggle. Convinced that Catholicism represented a corruption of Christianity, many American Protestant clergymen decried the “Papists,” viewed the French presence in North America as a threat to sound religion, and urged their parishioners to participate in or support expeditions against French possessions. A somewhat stronger version of this image applied to the Catholic Spanish. Fired in part by the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty in South America and in part by perceptions of Spain as a civilization in decline, many Protestant Americans tended to view the Spanish as decadent and wicked. This imagery colored all American conflicts with Spain, from colonial contests to the Spanish‐American War. As an offshoot of Spain, Mexicans were seen in a similar light during both the Mexican War and the Punitive Expedition (1916). Many North American disdained the fact that Mexicans were often of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage.

Perhaps the single most dominant American image of the enemy was that of the Indian, partly because white Americans fought Native Americans for nearly four centuries, and partly because white imagery of Native Americans would prove an important influence on subsequent images of Asian adversaries. American views of Indians were complex. On the other hand, they saw Indians as savage, cruel, and treacherous; on the other hand, many Americans perceived a noble stoicism and simplicity about them. Americans thus viewed Indians with a mixture of revulsion and admiration.

The view of the Indian as noble savage was strongest in the East; that of the Indian as just plain savage was most pronounced in frontier districts. So easterners decried the plight of the Indians while westerners called for their extermination. Nineteenth‐century American Army officers often oscillated between both perspectives. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, for example, believed the only good Indian was a dead Indian, but also acknowledged that if he were an Indian, he would respond to the white invasion with violence, just as they did. Some officers even became involved with philanthropic projects, especially those aimed at educating Native Americans to assimilate into white society.

Most white Americans, whether animated by hatred toward Indians or a patronizing goodwill, united in the belief that Native Americans represented an inferior people. This belief grew especially pronounced in the first half of the nineteenth century, as white America became a self‐consciously racist society. This is one reason that most Americans reacted with such shock to the annihilation of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's command in 1876. It seemed impossible that Indians could utterly destroy even a heavily outnumbered force of white soldiers; some, indeed, credited rumors that the Indian battle leader had received training at West Point. The explicitly racist view of Indians extended to a heavy emphasis on sexual atrocity, something noticeably missing from earlier images of Native Americans. Although Indians had captured white women and children since colonial times, only in the nineteenth century did it become common for whites to assert that Indians raped captive females.

The dual attitude toward the Indian as a savage capable of the most wanton crimes and as an inferior human being in need of civilization was part of the dominant European attitude to nonwhite peoples during the Victorian era. It is best captured by Rudyard Kipling's poem “The White Man's Burden, which urged the reader to fight the “savage wars of peace” in order to impart by force education, technological improvement, and Western conceptions of law and order to the nonwhite peoples, “half‐devil and half‐child.” Kipling composed the poem specifically to encourage the United States to annex the Philippine Islands after the Spanish‐American War.

The American decision to annex the Philippines resulted in a prolonged pacification campaign from 1899 through 1902. Americans viewed the Filipino people as unready for self‐government and saw themselves as benevolent tutors who would prepare the country for eventual independence. When Filipinos reacted with violence to this program, the United States responded harshly to them as “goo goos,” an epithet that was the origin of the word gook of later Vietnam infamy. The degree to which American troops engaged in atrocities remains a hotly debated issue, but it is agreed that they regarded the Filipino insurgents as mere brigands and invoked the full severities available under the laws of war, including reprisals and summary executions.

Until the twentieth century, views of the enemy were disseminated principally through folklore, pamphlets, sermons, and newspapers. During World War I, however, the U.S. government played a major role in consciously shaping images and attitudes toward the enemy. The Committee of Public Information was the first governmental entity charged with this task; by World War II, propaganda was manufactured on a wide scale, using radio, film, and print media. Where the Germans were concerned, the principal emphasis was on the enemy leadership; but in the case of Japan, the entire Japanese people were characterized as inherently treacherous, vicious, and utterly in human. The most common image was one of vermin to be exterminated.

Implacable warfare was justified not only on the grounds that Japan deserved it for having begun the war with a “sneak” attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), but also because the Japanese were supposedly a barbaric people bent on conquest and with no regard for human life, including their own. The kamikaze (suicide) attacks of 1944–45 reinforced this view, as did the fact that Japanese soldiers seldom surrendered. It is likely that the widespread view of the Japanese as vermin made it easier to unleash nuclear destruction in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The wartime view of the Japanese proved readily adaptable to subsequent Asian adversaries, including the North Koreans, mainland Chinese, and North Vietnamese. The prevailing American image of the Vietnamese in particular mirrored aspects of previous U.S. encounters with nonwhite adversaries. As with the Indians and Filipinos, Americans believed they could improve the Vietnamese by fostering democratic, economic, and technological development. As with the Japanese, Americans reacted to the unexpected military prowess of this “backward” people during the Vietnam War by endowing “Charley Cong” with superhuman determination and skill.

After World War II, however, a reaction to Nazi racism had discredited portraying the enemy in explicitly racial terms. And indeed, American views of the Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese, as well as the Russians, were all primarily shaped by the fact that they were Communist adversaries. Propaganda and popular perspectives during the Cold War era portrayed the Communist adversary as faceless, godless, implacable—dedicated to nothing less than the utter destruction of the American way of life, even at the cost of unleashing an unprovoked, full‐scale nuclear strike. NSC‐68, the top‐secret American blueprint for military containment, portrayed the Cold War as a struggle between “the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.”

Paranoia played a major role in the American image of the Communist menace. It was widely seen as a monolithic whole, with Communists everywhere pursuing a master plan orchestrated from Moscow. This view had enormous consequences. It encouraged Americans to view all Communists as a threat, so that any struggle for national liberation, if it contained a Communist presence, was viewed as a direct threat to American interests. It also rendered it difficult to perceive conflicts and cleavages between Communist countries, so that U.S. policymakers were painfully slow to recognize the hostility between, for example, the Soviet Union and China and between China and North Vietnam. It also sustained a destructive search for home‐grown “Commies,” of which the House UnAmerican Activies Committee and the McCarthy Hearing are just two of the best‐known examples.

The 1970s ushered in yet another American enemy: the Islamic terrorist. Already angered by OPEC's threat to petroleum consumption, Americans reacted with fury to the taking of fifty‐eight American hostages by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. Islamic terrorists became the villain of choice in American films and television, and were generally portrayed as religious fanatics devoid of respect for human life. Yet the media avoided portraying the common people of the Islamic Middle East as anything much worse than backward and dirty. The U.S. government, well aware of critical economic and national security interests in the Middle East, carefully focused on specific terrorist groups or rogue dictators such as Libya's Muamar Gaddafi or Iraq's Saddam Hussein, famously characterized by President Bush during the prelude to the Persian Gulf War as resembling Hitler. Given a growing consciousness of cultural pluralism in the United States and an awareness of its economic interdependence on non‐European countries, it is likely that future enemies will be portrayed in as focused a fashion as possible.
[See also Film, War and the Military in: Feature Films; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Philippines, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Propaganda and Public Relations, Government; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in the Pacific.]


Robert K. Berkhofer, Jr. , The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, 1978.
Ronald T. Takaki , Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th‐Century America, 1979.
Richard Slotkin , The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890, 1985.
John W. Dower , War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, 1986.
Sam Keen , Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, 1986.
Richard Slotkin , Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth‐Century America, 1992.

Mark Grimsley