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With 75 years of perspective, we can re-examine the legacy of Pearl Harbor even as we honor those who served

Raymond Sun, associate professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman. (Courtesy photo)
Raymond Sun, associate professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman. (Courtesy photo)
Raymond Sun

The living memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor is almost extinguished. It’s time to rethink how we want to remember Dec. 7, 1941, 75 years later – and beyond.

With the death of former USS Arizona sailor Raymond Haerry on Sept. 27, the number of Arizona survivors dwindled to five. The sunken remains of the battleship, where 1,177 sailors and Marines died, anchor the Pearl Harbor memorial complex. The passing of Arizona’s crew symbolizes the disappearance of Pearl Harbor survivors as a whole: A 2014 Washington Post report cited an estimate of 2,000 to 2,500. Two years later, that figure has drastically diminished. Soon, there will be no more survivors.

The passage of the World War II generation is certainly cause for reflection – sorrow mixed with appreciation for its remarkable accomplishments. At the same time, the loss of our living connection to the attack on Pearl Harbor provides an opportunity to revisit the lessons and legacies we draw from this defining event in United States, and indeed world, history. By doing so, we might become more aware of the selective remembrance and forgetfulness that have characterized our common memory of Pearl Harbor, and fashion a more complex, but also more honest and helpful, historical legacy to root and guide us in facing our challenging 21st Century world.

Pearl Harbor’s transformation into a sacred site of American memory began immediately, captured in President Franklin Roosevelt’s description of Dec. 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Throughout the war Americans were bombarded with exhortations to “Remember Pearl Harbor,” and images of military disaster were transformed into symbols of American resolve. Pearl Harbor was proof that this was indeed a morally unambiguous “Good War,” ending in redemptive triumph in the Japanese surrender on the deck of USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. Defeat thus became the prelude to victory, and the more than 2,400 American dead became martyrs whose sacrifice would be invoked as an inspiration for national strength and unity in times of crisis. Underscoring this heroic narrative, the Arizona Memorial is included in a larger network of historic sites that is collectively titled the “World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.”

Presidential addresses have perpetuated this familiar and affirming narrative. In 2011, President Barack Obama marked the 70th anniversary by saluting the “veterans and survivors of Pearl Harbor who inspire us still. Despite overwhelming odds, they fought back heroically, inspiring our nation and putting us on the path to victory.” Even more pointedly, in 2001 President George W. Bush made Pearl Harbor the symbol of American determination in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Speaking on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, Bush invoked the spirit of 1941: “On December the 8th, as the details became known, the nation’s grief turned to resolution. During four years of war, no one doubted the rightness of our cause, no one wavered in the quest of victory. As a result of the efforts and sacrifice of the (Pearl Harbor) veterans who are with us today and millions like them, the world was saved from tyranny.” Bush then equated the Pacific War and the 2001 war against al-Qaida, stating: “We’ve seen their kind before. The terrorists are the heirs to fascism. They have the same wield of power, the same disdain for the individual, the same mad global ambitions. And they will be dealt with in the same way. … Just as we were 60 years ago in a time of war, this great nation will be patient, will be determined and we will be relentless in the pursuit of freedom.”

Remembered in this way, Pearl Harbor represents an essential element in the national memory of World War II as “the Good War,” one that unified the country in a selfless struggle to defeat powers of darkness in the cause of freedom and democracy. Given the deeply divisive nature of subsequent conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, World War II serves in many ways as a defining, semi-mythological moment in American history, a paradigm for what we once were and can be again in times of trial. As such, World War II, especially the Pacific Theater, have long stood above close popular scrutiny, and attempts to bring a more complex, even critical perspective are fiercely attacked to this day. Think of the conservative reaction to President Obama’s August visit to Hiroshima, derided as part of an ongoing “apology tour,” or the political blowback that killed a planned exhibit about the use of the first atomic bombs at the National Air and Space Museum in 1995 due to its incorporation of historical scholarship that questioned the necessity of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and made graphically visible the human costs.

However, to “Remember Pearl Harbor” meaningfully 75 years after the event, we must muster the honesty and courage to confront what has long been neglected in our collective memory. The dominant, heroic memory of Pearl Harbor has no place for the ambiguous or dark attitudes and actions that resulted from the wartime fervor. Anniversary rhetoric forgets how, in an atmosphere of fear and overwhelming, inexplicable defeat, it was impossible to separate the call to remember from vicious, dehumanizing racial stereotypes that compared “Japs” to apes, rats and vermin. Such racialist imagery contributed to American policies that led to the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese – including many with U.S. citizenship – in camps scattered throughout desolate regions of the American West. It helped fuel racial hatreds that led to exterminationist combat across the Pacific islands and enabled the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, which choked and incinerated 100,000 inhabitants, mostly civilians, in a single night. And conventional memory still struggles to accommodate informed debate over the reasons for using the atomic bombs and their horrific consequences.

I believe that we can, and must, do better. To acknowledge the many negative effects that the memory of Pearl Harbor had on how Americans fought the Pacific War is not only intellectually and historically honest, but provides the moral integrity required to build a national memory that can guide us wisely in the present when facing severe challenges about race, religion, refugees, immigration and national security. This is neither to deny the honor due to the dead of Pearl Harbor, nor to displace the site from its central place in American memory.

What I am saying is that 75 years later, we have a great opportunity to craft a more mature, complex understanding of the multiple legacies of Pearl Harbor. It means to recognize that history is ambiguous, and that the past is more than a simple morality play. It means to see that the memory of Pearl Harbor was used to inspire Americans to be at once liberators and perpetrators, freedom fighters and party to attacks on the civil liberties and lives of entire populations deemed an existential threat, not only politically but racially. And it means recognizing that ultimately, we are responsible for making our own memories, for good or ill. This is a hard proposition. But it is also eminently doable – the Germans’ ongoing wrestling with their Nazi past stands as an excellent example. Seventy-five years later, are we grown up enough to embrace the same challenge?

Raymond Sun is an associate professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman. He is researching female rescuers in the Holocaust.

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