Nearly eighty years ago, the United States suffered one of the most disastrous moments in its history when Japan decimated the naval and air fleet sitting in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As President Roosevelt told it to Congress the next day, the attack by hundreds of carrier-based planes was “a day which will live in infamy” due to what he called “an unprovoked and dastardly” attack that took 2,400 American lives.
In addition to Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt also listed other targets that Japan had attacked on the same day: Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, The Philippines, Wake, Midway. In declaring war, he noted that the U.S. was in “grave danger” but predicted eventual victory “so help us God.”
So why do we still commemorate this occasion, December 7, 1941, as nearly sacred as Thanksgiving or July 4? What’s so memorable about a disaster? What’s so great about “infamy”?
Unification of America
The immediate answer is “unification.” Despite the recent sociological emphasis on “diversity,” there is little virtue in a quarreling and separated populace, tolerable in peace but suicidal in war.
America has been, from the beginning, a separated people united only by the constitutional bond of liberty. Fort Sumter produced Civil War. The immediate impact of Pearl Harbor was to unify the public as never before – a unification that carried through to victory in the war and eventual “superpower” status after a subsequent victory in the Cold War.
Lack of unity today
Today, all that is eroded, and not even the 9/11 attacks have been able to unify the country. Since then, an endemic war against terrorism, “red-blue” political divisions, impeachment, and a series of divisive “isms” have continued to unhinge the public consensus.
But unification was a temporary phenomenon, lasting only so long as there was danger. After the last summit between them (of five), Premier Gorbachev told President Reagan that one of the effects of the end of the Cold War was that you (the U.S.) “have been deprived of an enemy” (as attributed).
Even if this is apocryphal, the lasting truth of the observation is self-evident. Left to themselves, a population becomes very susceptible to isolation, political division, and social envy, as the current American spectacle has witnessed.
Qualities brought forth from unification
But the greatest and more lasting effect of Pearl Harbor has been the revelation of the deep and lasting qualities that unification brought forth, all qualities dormant both before and now: tenacity, patriotism, cohesion, engineering, entrepreneurship, diligence, dedication, courage, sacrifice, plus the three great virtues, faith (in victory), hope (in the future) and charity (toward enemies).
In his classic text The American Pageant (1956), Thomas A. Bailey summarized the importance of the event on the American psyche: “The Japanese fanatics forgot that when one stabs a king, one must stab to kill. A wounded but still potent American giant pulled himself out of the mud of Pearl Harbor, grimly determined to avenge the bloody treachery.”
There are several metaphors in that summary which characterize Pearl Harbor as a lasting tribute: “stab,” “wounded,” “potent,” “giant,” “mud,” “determined,” “avenge.” These express a sense of spirit, energy, and dedication, which, in retrospect, seemed to arrive overnight. Such qualities do not happen overnight, but were both latent and potent.
In the last analysis, that is the true meaning of Pearl Harbor: it brought to the surface lasting qualities that were either overlooked or not required. There may not be an event in all history that produced such an emergence of a people’s true colors, virtues that seemingly appeared out-of-nowhere but were just below the surface all along.
Where are these virtues today?
But the question remains, where are those same virtues today? Have they disappeared or, as some profess, they were never there anyway?
The second answer can be thrown out: just ask Hitler, Tojo, or Gorbachev himself. Or read Tom Brokaw’s best-seller, The Greatest Generation (1998).
As to the first answer, we should distinguish between “disappear,” and “submerge.” The first means “cease,” or “dissolve,” the second “suppress” or “obscure.” There’s a big difference; there is no hope in “disappear.” Is today’s America “hopeless”?
Can a nation’s qualities be so tentative that they “disappear” forever, or can they “submerge” for the moment?
There is a big move on in the country to erase the past and replace it with symbolism more in accord with the current “culture.” The destruction of statues and place-names is one example. A more prominent example is the effort by the New York Times and allied media to replace July 4 with August 20, 1619 as the nation’s birthday (the date of the first slave ship). This move would make the spirit of Pearl Harbor actually “disappear.”
We do not want another Pearl Harbor to save ourselves from ourselves. But what do we want?
After the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what was made. “A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
Over two centuries later, long after Pearl Harbor, the question remains.