Today, December 7th, is the 80th 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.”
(An earlier version of this post originated on More to Come on December 6, 2020. I am reposting an updated version today to honor the 80th anniversary.)
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 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2021. That number was more than 325,000 just last year.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that those 16 million men and women looked like America.
America fought World War II to defend democracy from fascism. And while fascism preserved hierarchies in society, democracy called on all men as equals. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, more than 1.2 million were African American men and women, 500,000 were Latinos, and more than 550,000 Jews were part of the military. Among the many ethnic groups who fought, Native Americans served at a higher percentage than any other ethnic group—more than a third of able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 50 joined the service—and among those 25,000 soldiers were the men who developed the famous “Code Talk,” based in tribal languages, that codebreakers never cracked.
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 former 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 community’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.
Many things changed because of our involvement in World War II. For one, the members of the armed forces — of all races — returned to a country that still oppressed people of color. The pushback against the hypocrisy of fighting fascism abroad while maintaining a homegrown system of apartheid in much of the U.S. was such that over the next two decades, significant strides were made to grant full civil rights to all people. But as we know, that work is far from over.
Last year at this time I noted that 88% of the Republican members of Congress were either cowed by or purposely aligned with a weak and defeated bully. I spoke to the need for those memories of a strong and effective national 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. And the right’s turn to authoritarianism has only gotten worse over the past 12 months.
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…
Heather Cox Richardson has a powerful December 7th message in her Letters from an American that I highly recommend.
Image: U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, by DJB