It was a day that would live in infamy: the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II. Seventy-six years later, it no longer stands alone in infamy for many Americans. There have been other wars. There was 9/11.
But Dec. 7, 1941, should stand alone.
For starters, Americans did not stand alone after the attack. They rose to their feet and an isolationist nation came together to fight for freedom in two theaters of war. It was a long, hard struggle that only ended in the Pacific with the dropping of atomic bombs.
Accounts of Pearl Harbor are harrowing and inspiring. Men asleep awakened to explosions. There was confusion. Smoke. Blood. And the unforgiving water that would take the lives of many U.S. sailors. Those first-hand accounts can be found on the Internet and in museums that honor the war dead of that day. But sadly, the progress of time has dimmed the voices of the men who were on ships, who clamored to battle stations, who cried over lost comrades.
To most of us today, World War II in general, and Pearl Harbor in particular, is a historic event and not much more. Yet we need to recall that this was not just a historic event; it was our historic event, a seminal moment in U.S. history. Because if we do not remember Pearl Harbor, we cannot expect generations to come to remember 9/11. It is a responsibility borne by each new generation to recognize the sacrifice made by the previous ones.
We remember this 75th anniversary not just by moments of prayer and reflection, but by refocusing on being better Americans. There were dark moments during World War II for democracy within the United States. Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes and put into internment camps. It was wrong then and doing something similar today would be wrong as well.
The thing is, freedom is hard to defend in battle and most often harder to defend in peace. The Greatest Generation mourned a tremendous loss of human life in the days following Pearl Harbor. They rallied behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to arms and they did not look back. They could not look back. There was no time for that.
That is our part today, 75 years later – to look back with awe at ordinary people becoming extraordinary and to personally thank, if possible, that shrinking number of individuals who were there when death fell from the sky.
In his speech to Congress and the nation on Dec. 8, 1941, Roosevelt said: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
There was no equivocation in those words, despite the fact that much of the U.S. Navy had been destroyed because Roosevelt counted on the strength of the American people. There is much that divides us today – some of it is of consequence, and some of it is merely the result of too little generational sacrifice, a lack of understanding of what is and is not important.