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Forgetting Pearl Harbor?

December 7th, 2020 · 2 Comments · coronavirus

One advantage for senior citizens and their notions of history, is having already lived through a fair-size chunk of it.

I can tell you where I was when I heard President Kennedy had been shot. (Having lunch at the picnic tables at school. A kid named Curtis Taplin came outside, after a phone call with his mother, and announced it to everyone. Our teacher went inside and confirmed it.)

A disadvantage? Not always knowing what history is going to become important, going forward — and remain so.

Take, for instance, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor was a major event in U.S. history, both at the time and during subsequent decades.

It was instantly significant because American voters, until that Sunday morning in Hawaii, seemed to be leaning towards “isolationism” — a policy meant to keep the U.S. out of foreign wars, like the one then raging in Europe.

In the spring of 1940 the German blitzkrieg had knocked France out of the war, and left Britain teetering. Some Americans were keen to get involved, before Pearl Harbor, but the attack pretty much wiped out the isolationists. The U.S. declared war the next day.

What we did not know, after the war, was how the rush of events from 1946 forward would eventually leave many Americans uninformed and disinterested in something that happened in 1941 — especially when compared to D-Day (the invasion of Nazi-dominated Europe), in 1944, and later the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Seventy-one years later, Pearl Harbor seems to have become a second-tier historical event. Rather like the cry to “Remember the Maine!” Few do, in 2020.

Looking back over the past century, several events have eclipsed the “date that will live in infamy”, as President Roosevelt put it

To wit:.

–Before this year, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-19 seemed nearly forgotten, despite killing as many as 50 million people, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. As 2020 began, we were about to be reminded about that awful event by …

–The Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed 290,000 Americans this year, with a vaccine just now arriving. It is easy to anticipate that the pandemics, taken in tandem, will become perhaps the longest entry pertaining to U.S. encyclopedias of the near future.

–American history events of the past 100 years that have held on to their notoriety include World War II, World War I, the development (and use) of the atomic bomb, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001; the Cold War, sending men to the moon, the Kennedy assassination of 1963, and the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s.

The list could be significantly different in a few decades. The degradation of the environment may well be the No. 1 story the for the rest of this century.

Pearl Harbor will not be totally forgotten, but subsequent events, with more to come, have eclipsed it.


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Dec 8, 2020 at 7:37 PM

    I’ve been thinking the same thing for quite a few years as Pearl Harbor Day recedes into history. Today’s 18-year-olds weren’t even born when September 11 happened, let alone the other events you listed. They have no personal remembrance. The Vietnam War, a hot button issue for a couple of decades, is as remote as the French and Indian Wars to those under 40. Time marches on.

  • 2 Ben Bolch // Dec 8, 2020 at 9:27 PM

    Hate to nitpick but you haven’t live through a fair-size chunk of history; modern history, perhaps. I get the idea but the copy editor in me went a little berserk.

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