“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
(Abraham Lincoln, from his first inaugural address)
I often reflect on The Great Emancipator’s words on days like today. The attack on Pearl Harbor has dwindled to insignificance for a large majority of Americans, most of whom were not alive that horrible day. The survivors who recall where they were and what they were doing 68 years ago are now in their 70’s and 80’s. Their numbers are falling with every passing remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day while those left behind have made it their cause to remind us of what it was really like to live in an America when our comfortable illusions about our safety and security were smashed so totally, and with a shocking finality.
The white hot anger that took a nation still in the depths of a deep depression and lifted them up in their “righteous might” to smite the Nazis and Japanese militarists is not felt by most of us, although remnants of it still live on in the breasts of those who remember first hand the gigantic betrayal of the Japanese and the evil of Hitler and his henchmen.
December 7, 1941 is one of those “hinges of history” that marks a divide between two eras in our historical consciousness. Before that date, America saw itself as too good to sully its hands by getting involved in the grubby power politics of Europe, or the endless colonial conflicts that afflicted much of Asia. Afterward, we realized that our security depended on building strong alliances and being prepared for war even in peace time.
Our isolationism was tied to traditionalism, in that the experiment of intervening in World War I was almost universally seen as a big mistake. Wilson’s efforts to re-order the world via the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations was viewed as an aberration by many Americans who took comfort in George Washington’s plea to steer clear of foreign entanglements. Some historians - Page Smith comes to mind - have argued that America wasn’t psychologically ready to assume a leadership role in the world following WW1 and that the rejection by the senate of Versailles as well as our snub of the League of Nations reflected that reality.
In truth, America was not very adept at this imperialist business. Our few colonial possessions served as little more than coaling stations for our merchant marine and navy (the Philippines being one of the only exceptions). And while as early as 1919, the navy developed “War Plan Orange” to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, the prospect of involving ourselves in trying to deflect Japanese imperialist ambitions in Asia were not taken seriously until the mid-1930’s.
Even in 1941, the thought was that war with Germany was much more likely. This was due to the “undeclared war” we were already fighting in the Atlantic. Our destroyers who were convoying supplies to Britain and Russia came under attack several times prior to December 7 - including the attack of October 31 on the USS Reuben James, sunk by a U-boat with the loss of 115 men.
The shock of December 7 wasn’t that we were at war so much as it was the shocking betrayal of the Japanese, who were negotiating with us right to the end. The historical record reveals that the Japanese had every intention of issuing an ultimatum - an hour before the attack. But snafus in decoding and translating the last message meant that the Japanese negotiators weren’t received by Secretary of State Cordell Hull until the attack was well underway.
Still, it is revealing how much we deluded ourselves to the last minute before the bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor that peace was possible with Japan. Not so much our government, who were fully aware that a huge Japanese naval task force was steaming into the Pacific, destination unknown. Thanks to our breaking the Japanese naval code, the government knew the blow was about to fall but were in the dark where. Roosevelt sent a personal missive to the Emperor pleading for peace just hours before the first planes appeared over Diamond Head.
But the American people were being told that there was still a chance to avoid war, which made the attack all the more shocking, while engendering rage at what seemed to be a stab in the back by Tokyo. Our false sense of security and childlike innocence about the world disappeared in the fire, smoke, and blood of Pearl Harbor, as did much of our Pacific fleet - vanishing beneath the waves along with our too optimistic and too arrogant worldview.
Where does Pearl Harbor fit into our historical consciousness today? We like to take “lessons” from history but in truth, this is nonsense. The currents and eddies underlying the historical tides on which we are but reluctant passengers are too complex, too obscure to glean what we might commonly refer to as “lessons” to be learned from historical events. In this respect, Pearl Harbor was the culmination of decades of history; the rise of Japan as a westernized imperial power went back to the turn of the century, for instance.And from the moment of the opening of Japan in the middle of the 19th century, the prospect of a collision between their imperialist ambitions, and our own commercial empire building in the Far East was virtually assured.
Nothing is ever as easy as it appears as far as history is concerned. And that’s why it is easy to fall into a “false” historical consciousness when it comes to events like 9/11 or even Pearl Harbor. Rather than history teaching us anything, it is far better to have it inform us, animate our spirit, and act as an undergird to our most closely held beliefs and values.
There can be no present or future without a past. Such might be seen as a banal truism except we seem to have forgotten it, as Wilfred McClay, currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center reminded us in this brilliant lecture at the Heritage Foundation in 1995:
Historical consciousness means learning to appropriate into our own moral imagination, and learning to be guided by, the distilled memories of others, the stories of things we never experienced firsthand. It means learning to make these things our own, learning to look out at the world we experience through their filter, learning to feel the living presence of the past inhering in the seeming inertness of the world as it is given to us. Of course, discernment between and among memories is of great importance. Not all are worth preserving, and not all are reliable. Here is where the practice of professional historians has been especially valuable, in preserving so much that would otherwise be lost and in ferreting out the evidence for certain propositions while uncovering the faulty basis for others. But the advocate of historical consciousness is likely to give preference to those memories whose importance and reliability have been established not merely by a select committee of the American Historical Association, but also by the passage of time. To repeat, historical knowledge and historical consciousness are different things, and the latter can never become the province of a historical priesthood.
The passage of time may have dimmed the immediacy of Pearl Harbor but its significance can never be diminished as long as we lovingly place it in the storehouse of our national memories. It is a part of us now, as surely as Yorktown, New Orleans, Chapultepec Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Argonne Forest, and all the other place names where American blood was spilled for a cause. Even after the last Pearl Harbor survivor breathes his final goodbye, the “date that will live in infamy” will continue to live in our collective consciousness as a recognized milepost, pointing us on our way to the future.
That is the promise we can make to the survivors today. This is the promise we can make to our children and grandchildren as we teach them to develop their own historical consciousness about America and the world.
That’s a legacy for which the Pearl Harbor generation can be proud.