Accounts, comments and reminiscences of that terrible morning 68 years ago give dramatic emphasis to America’s need to commemorate Pearl Harbor. Dec. 7, 1941, was a colossal lapse and failure militarily and a tragic awakening to the realities of war and eventually to a new era in international relations.
Sixty-eight years later, it is remarkably easy for those who were there to remember the details of that Sunday morning. Flames, noise, diving planes, exploding magazines and smoke, men entombed in their ships — for the generation of World War II, it is a searing memory, an event that thrust America into global conflict. But the meaning and lessons of that historic catastrophe remain elusive.
Most Americans noting the observance in 2009 were not alive on the day of infamy, when Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes ravaged the battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. To remember Pearl Harbor, for the overwhelming majority of people on this anniversary, is to echo a rallying cry and to rediscover a focal point for war, a war very different from the one in Iraq.
Pearl Harbor has been taught in schools as an example of lack of vigilance and unpreparedness. America wasn’t ready. America was caught napping. Two thousand men had to die to remind a country that it should never let down its guard.
On reflection and after Sept. 11, 2001, it is apparent that Pearl Harbor also taught lessons, long in the learning, about isolationism, xenophobia, honesty and directness in international relationships and, most pointedly, about the ultimate folly of warfare and violence as a solution to political and economic problems.
Both sides of the long-ago attack have since practiced revisionist history. Japanese and American accounts of the war for children conveniently overlooked the period of imperialism — the subjugation of whole continents by British, Dutch, French and U.S. interests in pursuit of resources. Germany, but especially Japan, got into the game late. There was worldwide depression and anger. The stage was set for conflict. Nations that appeared aggressive grossly underestimated their adversaries and the terrible destruction their weapons would unleash upon all humanity.
Americans, nearly seven decades later, have lost the immediate threat of World War II and the gnawing threat of the Cold War that followed. Now terrorism is of such a concern that Washington has remade the government to prevent the nation from napping again. But the old problem of looking inward instead of outward remains. History repeats itself endlessly and is reason to remember Pearl Harbor.