Dec. 7, 1941 (and today)
80 years ago, today... December 7, 1941. “A date which will live in infamy...” I had just turned 10 years old.
I feel compelled to mark this day with all of you - not only because it moves me to reflection each year, but because it also provides a useful lens to which to view our own times.
I recognize I am part of a dying breed - those who are old enough to remember the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is, like your humble narrator, receding into a form of ancient history.
That is how the nature of life works. Big events happen and they mark the chapters in our lives. They unfold, in real time, and those of us who live through them do not know how the story will end.
And then time goes on, and new chapters are written. People pass away and new people are born. And with the circle of life a knowledge, the knowledge of personal experience, is lost forever.
There will be a time when people not-yet-born will look back at this pandemic or the previous administration and not understand the feelings that we have had living through these trying years. It will be something they read and note. They will think about it in a way we don’t. Unlike us, they will know what happened next. And that means they will never experience the pits of anxious anticipation that reside in so many of our stomachs.
To watch President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech from December 8, 1941 is to be transported back to those frightening times.
It is impossible to convey to people who did not live through Pearl Harbor what a complete shock it was, how news of the attack spread in an age before digital communication. Neighbors knocked on doors. The radios switched on and the breaking bulletins supplanted scheduled programming. The newspapers printed special editions. We were dazed. There was a rush to enlist in whatever effort would come, including from my father who would be deemed too old to serve.
The weeks that followed only added to the anxiety. People who lived through it will always remember a Christmas that felt like it could be the last before a cataclysmic fall. There was a very real belief that the world would succumb to the forces of fascism. Hitler was on the march in Europe and North Africa. And the Japanese were conquering East Asia and spreading across the Pacific. We expected them to steam through the Golden Gate and commence an attack on the U.S. mainland.
Even as American naval forces rallied in response to the decimating assault on Hawaii, the Japanese continued on the offensive. There were strings of victories, including the fall of the Philippines and the Battle of Savo Island, considered the worst naval defeat in American history.
My parents were brave, stoic people. But I could tell how precarious and fraught these months were. The look as my dad read the paper, the whisperings between he and my mother, the talk in the streets and with my gang of friends of what they were hearing at home. And the radio, almost always on - the syncopation of reports coming from around the globe transfixed me. I didn’t know it at the time, but they would also shape the rest of my life.
Perhaps it was living through those times, coming out of the Great Depression, and the knowledge of how dark a future can seem that has shaped my worldview. I often heard my dad calm my fears with his favorite words, “courage,” and “steady.” I try to remember what we had no choice but to face. I know how much pain ensued. I know that for many the war ended in death or dismemberment. I remember hearing of the concentration camps, the death marches, the fire bombings of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Victory and justice are never assured. We cannot always count on happy endings. But successes are possible. Perseverance is necessary. And even when the future seems bleak, we should not succumb to pessimism. I think those who were forged in the times of Pearl Harbor and were able to see the war to victory were forever shaped by a spirit that from the soils of anguish can bloom seeds of hope.
I call upon those memories many times to return me to equilibrium. Especially on this day. December 7. A day that not only lives in infamy, but a day that also spawned a repudiation of despair.