Remember Pearl Harbor?

Yesterday was the seventy-sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For most Americans, though, it was just another day. That's only natural.

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Over at The Glittering Eye, Dave Schuler notes that he saw few mentions of yesterday seventy-sixth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which propelled the United States into World War Two and helped to change the course of history toward the world we live in today:

Did you notice how few articles there were about Pearl Harbor or, more broadly, World War II yesterday?

Dave’s experience was similar to my own. Other than brief mentions during the course of the day on one of the cable news networks and coverage of the event held at the White House at which President Trump addressed a small group of Pearl Harbor survivors and World War Two veterans, I didn’t notice much coverage of the day myself. There was more coverage of the anniversary on social media, especially for those of who follow the Twitter feed of historian Michael Beschloss, who posted iconic photographs and documents from the day and today made note of the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day Of Infamy” speech on December 8, 1941, which marked American entry into World War Two at least in the specific. It would be a few days later, of course, that Congress followed up its declaration of war against Japan with similar declarations against Germany and Italy in response to those nations declaring war on the United States. Outside of these examples, though, my experience yesterday was similar to Dave’s in that the anniversary of the “date which will live in infamy” passed mostly without significance and certainly without the same kind of coverage we still see regarding the September 11th attacks even sixteen years after the attacks took place.

Dave attributes a large part of the reason for this to the fact that the fact that the generation that fought the war, the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Given that this was the generation that fought World War Two, it’s no surprise that their passing would bring with it less significance being given to the anniversary of the attack itself. Another important factor, of course, is simply the fact that the events took place so far in the past now that there is only a relatively small handful of the population that was alive and old enough to have a living memory of that day and the years that followed. Even someone who was only in their childhood on December 7th, 1941 would be well over eighty years old today, and that portion of the total population of the United States is growing smaller by the day. For most of us, The events of that day are so far in the past that they’re really only something we learned about in school or during significant anniversaries that received a lot of media coverage. By the time I was born, for example, it had been twenty-seven years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and twenty-three years since the end of World War Two. For my generation, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the events of World War Two were largely something I learned about in school, although I did also hear stories from my parents, both of whom were children during World War Two. For today’s generation, the events of 1941-1945 are even harder to relate to, and largely something they’re most likely to learn about in history class. For the vast majority of the population of the United States today, these events are history rather than living memory, and that means there’s far less of an emotional attachment.

It’s worth noting that the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack isn’t the only event that has arguably begun to slip into the mists of history. It was just two weeks ago, that we marked the fifty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of President John F.. Kennedy in Dallas, which was arguably the most traumatic and iconic event in the lives of the Americans who were alive at that time.  I don’t recall seeing much significant media coverage of the day, and perhaps even less than there was of Pearl Harbor given that there wasn’t a White House event as there was yesterday. Part of the reason for the relatively quiet coverage of what used to be a significant anniversary may have been the fact that, this year, November 22nd was the day before Thanksgiving. To the extent the day was marked, it was in the Twitter feeds of Michael Beschloss and Clint Hill, one of the few surviving Secret Service agents who were at Dallas that day, both of whom recounted the events of the day in near-real time on their Twitter feeds. Notwithstanding the coincidence of the anniversary of JFK’s assassination and the Thanksgiving holiday, though, it seems clear that this event too is slipping into history for a large segment of the American public.

Earlier this year, as we marked the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I made note of the fact that the events of that day, which remain fresh in the minds of all of us who saw them unfold live on television, also seemed to be slipping into a different kind of memory, and also noted the significance between the nation remembered Pearl Harbor even when it was still a relatively recent event:

Six years ago, when the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I noted the fact that there was a marked difference between the way the media was covering that anniversary, and the way the nation dealt with the tenth anniversary of another national tragedy, the attack on Pearl Harbor. As I noted at the time, there was no national obsession with the anniversary in the way that we displayed over the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In part, of course, that was because the war that began on December 7, 1941 had been over for six years and the United States was at the start of what became a four-decade long standoff with the Soviet Union in which our former adversaries in Germany and Japan became close allies. In fact, in December 1951 American troops were fighting a Communist regime in North Korea and its Chinese protectors and Japan was both an ally in that war and a place where soldiers granted leave would visit for rest and recreation. Germany, meanwhile, had become the frontline in the European standoff with the Soviet Union, with West Berlin as the hot point of that standoff. By contrast, in both 2011 and today, the war that began on that bucolic September morning sixteen years ago is still going on, and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon. It’s because of that, in part, that I suspect “remembering” the attacks seems like far more of an opening wound considering that we’re now at the point where there are people in college and High School who have no living memory of the day and that they will soon be replaced by people who weren’t even alive when the attacks took place.

(…)

[T]here does come a time when it comes time to leave the mourning behind. As I noted, even the police officers and firefighters in New York City eventually took the black bands off their badges. It doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten what happened, it just means that there comes a time to move on. Perhaps we’ve reached that point now that we’re at the sixteenth anniversary of the attacks. No doubt, we’ll see expanded coverage when we reach years like 2021, 2026, and so forth. Eventually, though, there will come a time when the September 11th attacks are as far in the past as Pearl Harbor is today. At that point, there will be more people alive for whom the attacks are events in a history book than there will be people with a living memory of September 11th and it will likely be the case that the anniversary will be marked in different ways than we see today. That won’t be a bad thing it will just be reality.

Additionally, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I wrote this:

[F}or contemporary Americans, Pearl Harbor is as far distant in the past as the Indian Wars on the Great Plains were for people living in 1941. Were it not for the fact that the attack itself, and its aftermath, were captured on film, one wonders if the memory of that day would have endured as long or as sharp as it has. In some sense, then, it’s inevitable that the memory will fade to some degree as the people who were actually alive when it happened leave us.

Is that a bad thing? Well, on some level, its important that we remember the events of our history and provide proper respect for the men and women who served their country above and beyond the call of duty on that day, and the many dark days of war that followed. On the other hand, it strikes me that at some point there becomes a difference between obsessing over events in the past, and marking them with appropriate remembrance. For example, this years 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks were marked with wall-to-wall coverage of memorial services in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania by all the major broadcast and cable networks. Does anyone believe that we’ll see the same kind of coverage on September 11, 2071? Probably not. As I noted in one of the posts I wrote on September 11th this year, perpetual mourning is not the American way. That doesn’t mean we will forget what happened on December 7, 1941, but it does mean that we’re entering a phase of history where it will be much more of an historical event than a memory from the past.

All of this leads one to wonder how the September 11th attacks will be remembered by those who will be alive on September 11th, 2077. At that point, time will have advanced as far past the day of the attacks as we are today from the events of December 7, 1941. While it’s more likely that advances in health care will mean that the number of people alive who are old enough to remember the day will be larger than the segment of the population who have similar memories of the Pearl Harbor attack, the majority of the American public will be far too young to have any such living memory. Hopefully, many of them will be young enough that they will not have grown up and lived their lives at a point when the nation was still fighting the “War On Terror” that began on that day. Whatever the case in that regard is, it’s likely that for many Americans the day will pass like any other, and some future Dave Schuler will be asking a similar question about the coverage in whatever the popular media of the future will be of the events of September 11, 2001.

Update: This post was updated to include an excerpt from my post dated December 7, 2011.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    Given that we have forgotten the Great Depressionages who, can be surprised that we are now forgetting what came after.

    We have Nazis in America, and Nazi-adjacent folks in the White House, advising the President. We have an economy that serves only those at the top. We are slowly heading towards a nuclear war in fits and spurts. Why would we want to remember any of that?

  2. Electroman says:

    I certainly remembered it, but my family has a tradition of military service. My best friend was KIA in Iraq back in the day on December 8, and I remember that, too.

  3. the Q says:

    When I was growing up in the 30s, three things were a certainty to a young kid: FDR was always President, Joe Louis was always the champ and the Yankees would always win the pennant.

    Two other things were as constant as the north star: Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. That generation gave the Dems the house for 56 out of 60 years from 1932 to 1992 and the Senate for 48 out of 60 years.

    Finance capital was throttled, the marginal tax on millionaires and the “rich” was at 90%, anti trust acts were enforced. Minimum wages were raised every 18 months, the middle class doubled its wealth from 1948 -1973 and union members were 30% of the work force

    Forget about remembering Dec. 7, the neolibs have forgotten about the New Deal and the power to destroy the ruling class by bombing them with class warfare arguments.

    “The malefactors of great wealth… are united in their hatred for me and I welcome their hatred” FDR 1936

    Somehow, those words are like dinosaurs in the corporate dominated Dem Party of today.

    This week we lost the inheritance tax. Facebook, Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs will all make out like bandits and those are the so called “good” liberals. The donor class of the GOP and the Dems are the same people by and large. Who do you think is going to pay for Obama’s $100 million library? Big Pharma, big insurance, big Wall St. firms..you get the idea.

    Family income peaked in 1986 at 88k constant dollars. Last year it was 83k….meanwhile the top 400 fortune earners collectively are worth 10 times more now than in 1983 in constant dollars. Average workers have seen a decline of 6% in their real wages, the rich at the top have seen a 1,000% increase in their wealth during the same period.

    And you wonder why a Dem candidate getting paid $650 grand to speak to the malefactors of great wealth didn’t particularly go over well with me? Or the $160 million that couple made in 12 years of speech giving? And then to endure the neolib boomers on here giving me schite for my Clinton hatred? Go back and read my comments from years ago about Bill’s misogyny and total embarrassment as he chased pu$$y in the Oval office. He should have resigned and I was amazed at the denial by Dems as to his dysfunction and sex addiction. We all know who should be eating schite right now, eh boys? Lets hear about Monica’s “consensual” sex making it all OK.

    Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7 was THE most important day of the 20th Century. It changed America and it changed the world. Look at the globe. When I was born there were 74 countries. Today almost 200. We made most of these new states possible as we forced the colonial powers to abandon their empires and we freed the Russian satellites from their servitude to the USSR.

    I am apoplectic that the neolib Dems are so phucking out of touch with voters that they can’t admit the colossal voter rebuke of all things neolib at every elected level other than POTUS. And even that was lost last year as the wingnuts control EVERYTHING. The POTUS, Congress, SCOTUS, 37 state legislatures and 34 Governors.

    But at least we made it safe for Bruce Jenner to become Caitlan…thank you boomers, thank you.

    PS, Trump may very well be a god send to the Dems as he, and not the neolibs, will do the job of breaking and fracturing the wingnut party into warring factions.

    But, to quote Bill McKay in the Candidate, if the Dems do take back power. “what do we do now?”

  4. Slugger says:

    The Pearl Harbor attacks make me question the limits of human understanding and the faith we should place in our leaders in general. I have the great advantage of hindsight which I acknowledge. Pearl Harbor led to a brutal war with the death of many Japanese noncombatants. The leaders of Japan faced the problem of an oil embargo and decided to seize the oilfields of Brunei under the racist theory that Northern Europeans would fold after a powerful first blow. They ignored the long history of constant battle and warfare in Europe and the recent history of WW I where the leaders of Europe were willing to let millions die in the trenches. In fact, the English speakers are very dangerous opponents with little understanding of the word,”quit.” The Japanese people paid heavily for these mistakes.
    If you do not question the leaders of your country and believe their comforting stories about your nation’s superiority, you will find yourself being boiled to death in the Sumida river while your city is consumed in a fire-storm.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    That generation gave the Dems the house for 56 out of 60 years from 1932 to 1992 and the Senate for 48 out of 60 years.

    Indeed, and that was helped by a huge dollop of Dixiecrats….would you prefer a return to that?

    But at least we made it safe for Bruce Jenner to become Caitlan…thank you boomers, thank you.

    Once more the obsession with transsexual people…you should really get some help for that…

    PS, Trump may very well be a god send to the Dems as he, and not the neolibs, will do the job of breaking and fracturing the wingnut party into warring factions.

    The Democratic Party will turn out much better with the Orange Mange in the White House rather than Hillary…no doubt that Dems would have been completely slaughtered in next year’s elections if she was president right now…

    At the same time, with the totally disgusting Citizens United decision, how can any political party compete without gobs of cash? Certainly I’m not trying to justify the Dems cozying up to fat cats, but what would you have them do to compete with the GOP…

  6. Franklin says:

    Like September 11th, the 7th of December marks an unrelated but important occasion within my own family. I am of course aware of the association with the national catastrophes and it is therefore unlikely that I will ever forget either one.

    Besides, I thought it was the Germans who bombed Pearl Harbor?

  7. RG says:

    I was at Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial last month (small world, ran into a friend). I also went to a WWII Museum in Kaka’ako (Brewseum) that is seeing greatly decreased attendance (making your point, fading away). Most Americans have no idea of the Rape of Nanking; only Europeans can commit atrocities.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    @the Q: I guess I’m a bit younger than thee which condemns me to ‘boomer’ status (MEA CULPA!). So, Uncle Q, let me admit you are correct in many of your charmingly irascible comments. It’s certainly ugly that millions labor and try to live on the federal minimum wage while celebrities like Ms Jenner enjoy liberties that the world has never seen. Yup. You’re completely correct.

    But you seem to believe that the single event of the Great Depression and the FDR/NewDeal constituted a complete victory over the enemies of the Common People and but now a worthless generation has frittered away that victory.

    In some ways it’s an achievement of your generation that a following cohort would feel that the greatest barrier to their own liberty is, say, “the patriarchy”. Pretty great achievement to leave that level of freedom to even the richest part of an entire generation. Compare to the sense of social/cultural control that elites had during the decade of your birth – the 30s.

    There were lots of compromises. Why aren’t agricultural workers entitled to Social Security? Because Big Bill Tilden and many of his like were key to the Roosevelt governing coalition and the majority of agricultural workers were ‘Negroes’. Your generation confined the Nissei and never deflected from it’s course the disempowerment of native Americans.

    We have all sinned and come short of the Glory of God, dear Q.

    And just for the record – anyone who slings around poorly defined but accusatory terms like ‘Neo-Libs’ generally gets no respect or response from me. So try to tighten up your language in succeeding papers.

  9. On the one hand, I certainly find our general level of historical literacy to be wanting.

    On the other, I am not sure that commemoration is the same thing as knowing history, let alone is something that we shouldn’t expect to fade over time, Commemoration is, in many ways, about those with living connections to an event less than about understanding of the event.

    Human history is replete with major events–how many should be at the forefront of our minds? How many should we expect to commemorate?

  10. JohnMcC says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: At a time when Pearl Harbor and WW2 were much better ‘known’ it was common for someone to explain that Dec 7th 1941 was “when WW2 started”. My memory of the Attack is somewhat clouded by the many times I’ve felt like I had to add to such an explanation that WW2 began “for Americans” on that day.

    So a great big YES! to your remark about ‘knowing’ the day & date is not ‘knowing’ anything, really.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    I was born just about a year after VE Day. When I was a kid Pearl Harbor Day was a big deal. WWI, which had ended 28 years before I was born, was kind of vaguely remembered on Veterans Day. The Civil War, which had ended 81 years earlier, was a matter for history books, although there were still a few centenarian vets alive.
    Things change, it’s inevitable that memory of Pearl Harbor is fading. I’ve lost track of the wars, police actions, interventions, select your own euphemism we’ve fought since VJ day. Stuff happens, things change.
    Reading “The Conservative Mind” I was struck by how Russell Kirk blamed every change in the world he didn’t like on political liberals. Industrialization was going to happen no matter who held Parliament. Kirk seemed unable to grasp that the world changes.
    @the Q: I fear you’re at least partially committing the Russell Kirk Fallacy. Democrats didn’t force Jenner on a reluctant world, activists and social change made it happen. Democrats mostly stayed out of the way and tried to adapt. Remember how much flack Obama caught for NOT leading?
    Read Piketty. It took three decades of war and depression the last, and only, time we reined in the power of capital. It was war that provided a rationale for confiscatory taxes on the rich. We’re now reverting to the norm. All over the world, not just where there are Democrats. It’s hard to be the anti-plutocrat party. Look at Trump. The claim is that it suddenly dawned on the “white working class” that the country is run by and for plutocrats. And what did they do? They voted for a plutocrat and for the party of plutocrats. Jeez.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Recently read Jeffrey Record’s A War It Was Always Going to Lose, Why Japan Attacked America in 1941. They didn’t really have any plan they thought would work. They knew they had little chance against the US. They felt they were against a wall, and couldn’t recognize that their problem was unrealistic ambitions, and they could solve their problems nicely by being realistic. It’s also a lesson in short term political necessity trumping long term considerations.

  13. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The emphasis on anniversaries is overblown, except perhaps as a way of reminding us that, in time’s river, although we never encounter the same thing twice, we should remind ourselves of what distinguishes our world from the world of our parents and grandparents. We may or may not choose to act on the changes.

  14. the Q says:

    My point is the neolibs focus on the small issues and ignore the bigger issues.

    If LGBTD? is a bigger issue than income stratification, imposition of the new feudal era for workers, unmitigated mergers and acquisitions, complete societal restructuring to reward finance capital and the total domination by the corporate ruling class than have at it boomers and congratulate yourselves on winning this picayune battle while being throttled electorally at every level other than POTUS. Again, being a boomer means never having to admit your mistakes.

    The fact that some of you so vociferously attack the over arching and total failure of the boomers to impose economic democracy (think Tom Hayden) is not lost on some of New Deal Democrats, although there are only a few of us left.