December 7, 1941. The Empire of Japan attacks the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. The following day, with determined realism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the response. A date that lives in infamy.
“It was a most dramatic spectacle there in the chamber of the House of Representatives. On most of the President’s personal appearances before Congress, we found applause coming largely from one side—the Democratic side. But this day was different. The applause, the spirit of cooperation, came equally from both sides. … The new feeling of unity which suddenly welled up in the chamber on December 8, the common purpose behind the leadership of the President, the joint determination to see things through, were typical of what was taking place throughout the country.” – Judge Samuel Irving Rosenman.
It is a shame in our modern age of terrorism that this same sentiment cannot be found among our political leaders and their highly partisan constituents.
However, we oft-forget how divided the United States was back then, though and through fondly fictionalized nostalgia conveniently forget how easy it is to continue repeating history.
Since the closing years of the previous millennia and through the Second World War there was an ongoing internal struggle in the United States between the isolationists who distrusted not only foreign wars but foreign trade and those who saw the United States as a member of the global society who had a moral and ethical responsibility to participate. Those who were intolerant of immigration crafting laws like the Exclusions Acts of 1882 & 1892 plus the Barred Zone act of 1917, Quota Acts of 1921 & 1924, and countless other artificially restrictive laws and those who embraced the world culture in the melting pot of the United States. Those who were pro-capitalism and saw unfettered business, tycoons and robber-barons as the icon of the Americas and those who were pro-labor and fought for health and safety, equatable wages and the emergence of the middle class. Those who were pro-status quo and enjoyed the predominance of Male, White, Protestant leadership and those who were pro-equality, be it within the women’s suffrage movement, or among ethnic minorities and non-white races, or among those who were otherwise different. Those who wished to take away rights and enforce religious beliefs such as through the temperance movement and the enactment of national prohibition and those who stood up against such totalities on the side of liberty and freedom, even if it was garnished with more moderate restriction.
The rhetoric then, as it is today, is decisive. It pits citizen against citizen rather than uniting us in a common good. It makes fellow citizens the enemy rather than combining our common efforts to deal with the real enemy. It masks the actual steps we must take as human beings to wipe the scorge from humanity by distracting us with petty fights between one another.
It isn’t just the wantonly different reactions to recent killing sprees by zealots like Robert Lewis Dear or the coordinated attacks in Paris last month but the tone and rhetoric in general that divides us rather than unifying us against a common problem. It shouldn’t take another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to rally us but at the rate we’re proceeding on divergent paths it very well might.
And, that’s what’s truly sad as we look back at the events of the Pearl Harbor attack. It isn’t the loss of life. It isn’t the loss of innocence the nation faced. It is the fact that we have all but forgotten what it means to be united in such a way as what came in the aftermath of that terrible moment.
Granted, not everything that transpired in the aftermath of the attack was positive for the United States: The imprisonment of the Asian-American population in domestic concentration camps, the tolerance of hate crimes committed against German and Italian-Americans and continued anti-semitism, the Allied war crimes such as air raids targeting civilian Non-Combatants such as Dresden, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, the Rheinwiesenlager POWTE deaths, use of human shields, chemical and biological weapons, etc. And, those will continue to be marks against the humanity and civility of the United States in perpetuity.
However, as a generality, politicians bonded together beyond meaningless rhetoric to produce useful legislative actions together for the perceived common good of the nation in its time of need. Citizens put aside many of their previously held differences to rally as one in their actions and produce something beyond mere patriotic or nationalistic cliche like we too often experience today.
The event was an unfortunate rallying cry. Born from inexplicable pain, the results of Pearl Harbor challenged us to be the citizens our forefathers were trying to mold us to be. It provided a forum for us to revisit the most basic aspirations of our own post-Revolutionary period, of our own post-Civil War period and create in the modern era a moment in time that would define what the United States believed it wanted to be.
In the aftermath the United State’s citizenry in all it’s diversity took another step in becoming the nation we hold dear in the folklore of today. And yet, rather than aspiring to recapture the best moments that the mutual bonding in being Citizens represented from then we trample the great sacrifices born from than tragedy by emphasizing our differences, undermining our combine worth and blame our fellow citizens for the ills of the world rather than working with them to undo the apparent evils bearing down on us.
I don’t have any answers on how to fix this but as we reflect today on the infamy that was the attack on Pearl Harbor I can only hope enough of us are reconsidering the divisive and detrimental acts we each take part in every day and consider how we can be better citizens, not only of this nation but within the context of the global human condition.