Today (December 7 in the USA) is the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the USA into World War 2. This anniversary brings us closer to the inevitable day in which the attack was before living memory, like so many other things we learn about only in books. That means it’s becoming increasingly important that people share their own memories, or those told to them.
My parents were a young engaged couple on the day of the attack: My mother was 24 and my dad was 25. My mother told me that on the day of the attack they were touring a toy factory. In the years since, I wondered how and when they found out—was someone at the factory playing a radio (probably unlikely), or did they find out later (more probable)? I never thought to ask.
Nowadays, of course, such news spreads instantly, faster even than it did on the attacks of September 11, 2001, a day often compared to the Pearl Harbor attack. Back in 2001, we had television to beam live pictures worldwide, but 60 years earlier, there was only radio. Now, there’s also social media, and all the unthinking, uncritical, reflexive responding and sharing that includes.
My parents, like a significant number of Americans, were convinced that “Roosevelt knew”, that he “allowed” the attack to happen in order to get the USA into the war. Even as a kid, I thought that sounded improbable, though I didn’t question it until years later when I was better informed. By the time I was a teenager, we had many interesting discussions about those times, and of the politics and policies of that era.
By the end of her life, my mother admitted she realised that FDR had been a far better president than my parents thought at the time, and it was an implicit admission that her own partisan viewpoint may not have been either accurate or justified. I don’t remember my father expressing much of an opinion about FDR in later years, but he was far more open-minded than his sometimes strongly opinionated pronouncements would have suggested to someone who didn’t know him.
My parents shared stories of the war years, and their lives during that time. Many of them sort of fleshed out what I read about the history, as personal history tends to do. This is another reason why talking with elders about the history they lived through is so valuable and important.
I think that commemorating the Pearl Harbor attacks is important. They remind us of the loss of war, that it’s not all gallant, victorious soldiers in celebratory parades with colourful banners and flags flying proudly. Sometimes horror and death and defeat are all there is. We do well to remember that whenever war is contemplated, rather than thinking only of celebratory parades.
The attack on Pearl Harbor really was a day that will live in infamy. There have been others before and since, and there will be more to come. Focusing on Pearl Harbor is a good way to do remember everything that war can be, and the terrible cost that comes with it. The people who died that day deserve that and so much more.