Tomorrow, December 7th, is the 79th anniversary of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. An attack that led to the U.S. entrance into World War II. A date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably described as one “which will live in infamy.”
Fewer and fewer people are alive who have personal memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor. My father and his sister — my Aunt Mary Dixie — were at Peabody College in Nashville listening to a performance of Messiah. When they came out, they learned about the attack at Pearl Harbor and their lives were changed forever. Both were WWII veterans. Both — like most in their generation — have passed. The Veteran’s Administration calculates that slightly more than 325,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2020.
But the memory of Pearl Harbor remains. On December 7, 2014, Tom Coffey, a staff editor in the New York Times sports department, suggested that fans skip that day’s football games and use the time to remember the importance of Pearl Harbor. I loved his last line:
“Sunday afternoon seems like a good time to think about the sacrifices made by the men and women who died that day, and to reflect upon the wisdom of a statement that originated with Marv Levy, the longtime Buffalo Bills coach, that is still uttered in the sports world, albeit far too infrequently: No game is a must-win. World War II was a must-win.“
Pearl Harbor remains both a place and a response that is fused in our collective national memories. As my friend and colleague Tom Mayes writes in Why Old Places Matter, “The sense of identity provided by memory is largely what defines us as individuals and as a society.” Memories are often tied to place. And memories and identities are often contested, Tom notes, but “the fact that these arguments occur highlights the importance of the place. Regardless of conflicting points of view, the place itself transcends a specific interpretation….The continued existence of the place permits the revision, reevaluation, and reinterpretation of memories over time.” As former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp has said, “The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”
Memory is also essential to hope, which is grounded in our knowledge of what has gone before. Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things — powerful things — can happen. Pearl Harbor is not just a place, but it is a reminder of a national response, when the nation and all its people became much more important than the tribe, political party, religious affiliation, or individual. When country, a caring for humanity, and a desire to defeat fascism and bigotry took precedence over personal achievement, power, and greed.
Today when 88% of the Republican members of Congress are either cowed by or purposely aligned with a weak and defeated bully, we need those memories of a strong and effective national response. When those members of Congress refuse to say that President-elect Joe Biden’s win — with 81.2 million individual votes, 306 electoral votes, more than 51% of the electorate, and a national lead of more than 7 million individual votes — was clear, decisive, and final, we need those memories of a strong and collective response to not only hope for a better future, but to give us the strength to work every day to make that future a reality.
We should never forget what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And the memory of that date, that place, and our response should support us in the difficult times ahead, through the shared work of the imagination. to remake our democracy.
More to come…
Image: The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by DJB