There are moments that are burned into the national psyche; moments we cannot and must not erase from our memory.
Dec. 7, 1941, is one of those moments, a date “which will live in infamy,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That was the day America was attacked by Japan.
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor sank six warships, killed 2,403 people (including 68 civilians) and wounded another 1,140. More ominously, it ushered America into a global conflagration that would not end for another four years.
It is difficult to comprehend the emotional effect of the attack. In California, many were just leaving church, turning on their car radios to hear the breathless reports of the horrific attack and destruction. There were no pictures, but what those words conjured were likely far more graphic.
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As the hours wore on, America learned that Japan had simultaneously struck Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, Malaya, Shanghai, Thailand and Midway.
With war already raging across Europe and Africa, it seemed the entire world was aflame. People feared for their lives, their safety and for their families.
That they were able to control that fear, to see beyond the crisis is the lesson we should take from that moment. It’s not that they were made of stronger stuff (though some would argue precisely that), but that they saw the immediate future as a common destiny; that drove them to act with a shared resolve.
President Roosevelt embodied that resolve as he went before the nation and promised an awful retribution. The “greatest generation” was afraid, but they did not cower. Debate did not paralyze them, politics was not allowed to divide them.
Some 76 years later, Japan is one of our most stalwart allies in the Pacific. The Japanese are partners in business, diplomacy and even sports. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor to pay tribute to those killed in the attack. A few months prior, President Barack Obama had visited Hiroshima, mourning the tens of thousands of civilians who died there and issuing a call for a “moral revolution” against the use of nuclear weapons.
If tensions are not diminished with North Korea, it is clear we will defend Japan and South Korea as if they were our homeland.
But what about the tensions between so many of us and our fellow Americans? It’s not clear that we would defend each other as we would ourselves.
Thursday there will be solemn ceremonies throughout our region, each is an appropriate way to mark a day seared into the hearts of so many. We should recall that for many at Pearl Harbor that day in 1941, this day is also engraved on the stones that mark their final resting places. We honor their memory.