Forgetting Pearl Harbor

Is 12/7 or 9/11 the date that lives in infamy? The possibility that popular historical memories of the attack of 9/11 may be crowding out those of the Japan’s 1941 attack, making 9/11 the central infamous episode in recent U.S. history, raises larger questions about how and why nations, collectively, remember major events.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” loomed large in American popular memories for more than half a century. During World War II, the phrase helped to silence Americans who had opposed involvement in the war and to galvanize support for a massive war effort. Franklin Roosevelt’s initial “infamy speech” made the attack a central symbol of treachery committed by racial and religious others that needed to be remembered and avenged. The words “Pearl Harbor” came to provide an emotionally powerful answer to why Americans needed to fight. Songs, posters, and bond drives invoked the call to “remember Pearl Harbor.”  

After the war, advocates of military preparedness recalled the memory of Pearl Harbor when warning that, in the face of a new Cold War rival, the nation’s defenses needed to be ever-modernized and kept on ready alert. Pearl Harbor increasingly encapsulated a powerful national narrative about how a massive defense establishment and a vast intelligence apparatus were absolutely necessary. Even after the end of the Cold War, warnings about an “electronic Pearl Harbor” that might launch a new kind of cyberwar bolstered the argument for high-tech upgrade of U.S. systems of defense. The words Pearl Harbor thus intimately intertwined with the postwar rise of America’s gargantuan military power and covert capacities.

Remembering Pearl Harbor also became mobilized as a rhetorical resource by those resentful of the postwar rise of Japanese prosperity. Especially during the late 1980s, talk about an “economic Pearl Harbor” echoed through the U.S. media. Business and labor groups alike, predicting America’s decline in face of a new Japanese economic threat, complained about new forms of Japanese treachery – an unfair industrial policy and “free riding” on U.S. defense spending for security in the Pacific. During this era, proposals for various kinds of economic nationalism invoked reminders about Pearl Harbor.   

The extensive historical scholarship on the era before World War II suggests that the Pearl Harbor attack offered far more complicated lessons than those circulated in this common public memory of the need for preparedness and greater nationalism. George Kennan’s classic work American Diplomacy positioned Japan’s attack as the culmination of what he regarded as America’s misguided Far Eastern policy, one that tilted moralistically toward China instead of realistically toward Japan. Another classic work, William A. Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy, echoed Charles Beard’s earlier view: Japan’s hostility arose within the context of U.S. economic “open door” expansionism, a policy bound to create resentments and eventually spark U.S. military interventions around the world. Economic historians such as Charles Kindleberger stressed that the Great Depression impoverished nations such as Japan and turned them away from liberal internationalism, even as the United States mounted no serious effort to foster global economic stability. None of these diverse interpretations—and these are only three of many possible examples—saw the Pearl Harbor attack as primarily arising from a lack of American nationalism and military preparedness—in fact, quite the opposite.   

In public memories of Pearl Harbor, the complexities in historical scholarship remained nearly invisible. But why do certain narratives about the past become memorable and stay alive while others never catch hold or fall away? Memory researchers point out that prior familiarity shapes both social and personal memory. People generally fit new events into already familiar frames, distorting or forgetting whatever does not fit. “Memory activists” who seek to use history to buttress particular goals, of course, can contribute to molding events so that they will be understood in terms of already familiar, iconic forms.

In its most popularly promoted and remembered form, the Pearl Harbor attack updated verities that had been associated with two other “treacherous” attacks— that at the Alamo and at the Little Bighorn. Familiar stories about these two events, which circulated widely in early twentieth century American educational and popular media, helped to celebrate America’s special virtues and to justify violent retaliation: America had always been an innocent and a civilization-bringer. Attacks against it (especially successful ones) were irrational and deeply evil. Patriotic Americans would sometimes need to mobilize their full resources and fury against extremist foes that threatened civilization and morality.

Every generation, it seems, updates this powerful narrative of victimhood, evil, and reassurance, making it relevant to its own time and perceived enemy. Japan no longer seems a potential rival, and the World War II generation has mostly slipped away. Memorialization at places such as the Alamo, the Little Bighorn, and Pearl Harbor continue to honor those who died, but these memorials have reached out to new constituencies and developed more protean meanings consistent with international tourist sites. Thus, 9/11 now functions as a more recent, resonant, and unambiguously nationalistic tale of threat and virtue.  

As was the case with Pearl Harbor, historians who research and interpret the circumstances of 9/11 will reach more complex lessons dealing with the specificities of U.S. policies and Middle Eastern politics. In dominant popular memories, however, the familiar story that sees Americans as victims of evil forces will likely have more force and utility. This narrative helped justify an unrelated attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and continues in calls to expand an enormous global surveillance, intelligence gathering, and counterinsurgency apparatus. Just as popular memories of Pearl Harbor gradually substituted for those of the Alamo and Custer; 9/11 surely will bring a slow forgetting of Pearl Harbor.