In Our View: Anniversary Is Instructive

Dec. 7, 1941, not only lives in infamy, 
it has much to teach us about ourselves

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It is not one of the traditional milestones such as a 50th anniversary or 75th anniversary, but remembrances of Pearl Harbor resonate more than usual this year.

That is because the attack that killed more than 2,400 Americans led to a demonstration of the United States’ resilience, resolve, and power. It led to a demonstration of this nation’s greatness, hastening our involvement in World War II and resulting in perhaps America’s finest hour.

So, as we stumble through an era of divisiveness and discord, we look back upon the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath as an example of what Americans can achieve when they pull together for a common cause. And we recall such national commitment — which led to victory over despots and tyrants in Europe and Japan — as an illustration of the United States’ ability to be a revered and respected leader in an ever-changing world.

The attack at Pearl Harbor, 76 years ago today, is one of the seminal moments in world history. Forces from the Empire of Japan conducted a surprise Sunday morning air strike upon the U.S. naval base in Hawaii, sinking four battleships and two other ships while inflicting damage upon dozens of other vessels and hundreds of airplanes. To this day, the USS Arizona rests at the bottom of the harbor, with a memorial sitting on the water above it.

The day after the attack, during a speech before a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorably referred to Dec. 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Posterity records Roosevelt’s speech as lasting seven minutes and containing 520 words, short by presidential standards, but its impact remains profound to this day.

The horror, the loss, and the resolute strength that are reflected in the Pearl Harbor attack must not be lost to history. They remain essential examples of the American character, traits that have turned this nation into the world’s greatest economic and military power and that must be a centerpiece in any telling of U.S. history. Equally important is an examination of American efforts to rebuild both Europe and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, demonstrating a long-held belief that we can use our power to benefit the world and, in the process, develop strong and mutually beneficial alliances with former enemies.

While Roosevelt’s words about “a date which will live in infamy” are among the most memorable in American history, some additional words he delivered to Congress also remain profound: “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. … With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”

That righteous might and unbounding determination often seem lost these days, yet we retain faith in their existence and their eventual reemergence. Regardless of who has been elected to lead this nation, the will of her people remains her greatest strength, and it shall not be diminished.

Survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II veterans are declining in numbers, but the lessons they provided for this country continue to resonate. As we deal with seemingly increasing internal strife and debate the future of the nation, we are reminded of one of this country’s darkest hours — and of the remarkable strength that can be mustered when we find common cause.