December 7, 1951 v. September 11, 2011

Not every 10th anniversary of a horrible surprise attack has been treated the same.

In a comment to my post about the NFL and the 9/11 anniversary, Dave Schuler points to this interesting article about how the 10th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor differed from today’s remembrances of the September 11th attacks:

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, newspapers from Boston to Bakersfield, Calif., reached into the distant past to find the words to capture the moment for their front pages. One typical headline blared: “A New Day of Infamy.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had used the same word to describe the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy” — and invoking it for 9/11 is just one example of how many Americans drew parallels between the two attacks.

Now, as the nation prepares for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, a look at how Americans marked the same milestone for Pearl Harbor shows that the way people commemorate events sometimes says more about their own times than a bygone era.

“They may be looking back at an event that happened years or decades before, but the way people think about them is governed by what’s going on in their own historical context,” said Michael Slackman, who has written books about Pearl Harbor.

“Each generation will give different meaning to the same historical events based on the issues that they’re concerned about,” he said.

And in 1951, worries about the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany were six years in the past, there was a new threat to worry about:

In 1951, it was communism. Thousands of Americans were dying on the front lines of the Korean War, the U.S. was in the early years of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and cities were holding air raid drills to prepare for atomic attacks.

Pausing to remember Pearl Harbor didn’t dominate the news, nor, according to anecdotal newspaper accounts, was it at the forefront for many Americans.

Korea dominated the newspapers of the day, the article goes on to note, and even LIFE Magazine, one of the most widely read magazines of the day which had also provided many of the iconic images of World War II, didn’t note the anniversary in its issues for either the week before or the week after December 7th.

So why all the media attention today?

For one thing, it’s because we haven’t moved on from the conflict that started on September 11th and, to listen to some people, it is a conflict that can essentially never end because it involves a fundamental clash of civilizations (a view I do not agree with). If we were still fighting German or Japanese insurgents in 1951, perhaps the anniversary would’ve been marked differently. Instead, we were fighting communists in the cold climate of Korea and facing the Soviets across a calm, but hostile, European frontier.

Of course, the cynical side of me would argue that continually treating September 11th like an open wound is a convenient way for Washington to justify not only the War On Terror, but also the policies associated with it. It serves as something for them to point to and say “See this is why we need continue [insert name of policy here]”

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tano says:

    eeek! Doug! Fix the date in the headline!

  2. Why Tano? Look at the two days I’m talking about and you’ll see they’re both accurate.

  3. Tano says:

    Ooops sorry Doug,,,,,one too many cups of coffee this morn…

  4. I’ll forgive you for the moment of panic I had when I thought “Oh no, not a typo”

  5. Rick Geissal says:

    Very nice article. Thank for correcting me on Twitter re the date.

  6. Robert says:

    We all know Pearl Harbor is invoked regularly alongside 9/11. It is because it is a convenient example of a surprise attack that shocked the country and led it to enter WWII. Pearl Harbor was therefore, in context, a HUGE deal.

    That said, Pearl Harbor was also a military assault aimed at a military target (the U.S. Pacific Fleet). It was part also of a wider coordinated Japanese offensive throughout the Pacific. Moreover that same morning, as the Japanese planes off Oahu were rising from their carriers, in what was already an horrific global war, millions were at front lines fighting and dying in Africa, outside Moscow, in China, and in the North Atlantic.

    Shinto fanatics didn’t hijack planes on December 7, 1941 and launch suicide strikes on lower Manhattan and D.C. Meaning what happened September 11, 2001 was a non-state quasi-religious terror group attack of unprecedented scale and audacity in the American experience; and it was conducted mostly against civilians. It also took place on a tranquil weekday, stunning not just Americans but Europeans and others in a world that was NOT already involved in a global war.

    It was honestly traumatic for millions unused to such trauma in their lives, so media’s now focusing on 9/11’s 10 year anniversary should hardly be shocking. It was mostly ordinary Americans, and not soldiers, who, after all, had suffered in the thousands that day. Those civilians are those who also watch media and want the day remembered.

    That they do is not because they unreasonably resist “moving on”. It is more because, unlike soldiers discharged at a war’s end, civilians never really “move on” in the same way. For soldiers killing is a brutal “business” that ends when the uniform is removed; but civilians who’d been targeted for slaughter usually take the matter much more “personally”.

    Chester Nimitz became good friends later in life with Mitsuo Fuchida, who’d led the strike on Pearl Harbor. 9/11 American pain will fade with time; but it is also almost impossible to imagine ordinary American 9/11 survivors similarly breaking bread 20 years from now with former members of Al Qaeda – not even if Al Qaeda is totally defeated. Fundamentally 9/11 was a very different “event” compared to one military surprising another at Pearl Harbor.