SPEAKING to the American people after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese navy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7 "a day which will live in infamy." On the days that followed the terrorist attacks on America many used Roosevelt’s words to describe September 11, 2001. On the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is time to take a historical look at America and Americans in 1941 so that we can understand how and why we responded as we did.
Events have a habit of reoccurring and knowledge of the past can help unravel the mysteries of the present. Can we take an event that happened before most living Americans were born and use it to understand the horror of September 11 and give us insight into how we must react?
There are similarities. In both cases, Americans did not even consider that they were vulnerable to an attack on our shores. On September 11 as on December 7 internationally we were concerned with issues and geography far removed from where the attack originated. Both events were stealth attacks from an enemy that was intent upon our total destruction.
There are differences and they appear more significant than the similarities. In 1941, it was a nation that attacked us; the aggressor planes were plainly marked with the symbol of Japan, the Rising Sun. A war was already in progress in Europe between Nazi Germany and the remaining European nations. Americans were divided about the necessity of participating in that war. Charles Lindbergh was one of the more vocal opponents of going to war, while President Roosevelt wished to support Hitler’s opponents – especially England.
Lindbergh had arrived at his isolationist views because of his personal knowledge of Hitler’s technological capabilities. That view was based on knowledge of Nazi advances especially in the area of airplanes. Lindbergh believed that England and the United States were years behind German technological innovations, especially in the area of airplane and tank development. Yet, on the day after Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh disassociated himself from the isolationists and spent the next four years assisting in the war effort by training American pilots in the art of defeating the enemy in the air.
In 1941, we were a nation that lived frugally. The Great Depression was still ongoing even after a decade of government programs designed to get our country moving again. As a result we were very willing to give up nylon stockings, butter, meat, and the use of our automobiles in an effort to defeat our enemies. We were willing to sacrifice for our country.
Today our country is a very different place than it was in 1941. We were conditioned by another war, Vietnam, to question the use of war as a political and diplomatic necessity. We have just survived eight years of an administration that disparaged the military and used war-like tactics to divert attention from its immoral activity.
Our economic scene has been ten years of unlimited self-indulgence. The slogan of the last decade has been "just do it." We believed that the stock market would keep climbing and everyone had a credit card with no limits. The bedrocks of today’s economy are such "necessities" as tourism, entertainment, and high tech, while the 1941 economy was based on basic industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation.
The enemy’s goals and objectives are the same today as they were 50 years ago. Yet President Bush unlike President Roosevelt is finding that while Americans want to support the war against terrorism, they still desire their high standard of living. We willingly donate money, fly American flags, and stand in line to give blood, but are we willing to forego today’s necessities which were the luxuries that our ancestors gave up willingly after 1941?
Has the privilege of being an American at the beginning of the twenty-first century left us less enthusiastic about sacrificing for an unknown period of time? The answer to that question will determine whether we are the same type of Americans as the ones that answered their country’s call when the Japanese planes attacked us on that sunny Sunday morning in 1941. We can pay no greater tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice at Pearl Harbor than by emulating the manner in which their fellow Americans joined together in defeating both Japan and Germany.