10-year Pearl Harbor anniversary reflects 1950s US
HONOLULU (AP) — After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, newspapers from Boston to Bakersfield, Calif., reached into the distant past to find the words to capture the moment for their front pages. One typical headline blared: "A New Day of Infamy."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had used the same word to describe the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — "Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy" — and invoking it for 9/11 is just one example of how many Americans drew parallels between the two attacks.
Now, as the nation prepares for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, a look at how Americans marked the same milestone for Pearl Harbor shows that the way people commemorate events sometimes says more about their own times than a bygone era.
"They may be looking back at an event that happened years or decades before, but the way people think about them is governed by what's going on in their own historical context," said Michael Slackman, who has written books about Pearl Harbor.
"Each generation will give different meaning to the same historical events based on the issues that they're concerned about," he said.
In 1951, it was communism. Thousands of Americans were dying on the front lines of the Korean War, the U.S. was in the early years of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and cities were holding air raid drills to prepare for atomic attacks.
Pausing to remember Pearl Harbor didn't dominate the news, nor, according to anecdotal newspaper accounts, was it at the forefront for many Americans.
On Dec. 7 of that year, the top headlines told of the latest news from Korea.
Many newspapers put the Pearl Harbor anniversary on their front pages, but they squeezed it in among the dozen or so stories commonly crammed on a page in those days. Many relegated it to the bottom of the front page.
LIFE, a weekly magazine that was among the most prominent publications of the time, made no mention of the anniversary in either its Dec. 3 or Dec. 10 editions, said Emily Rosenberg, a history professor at University of California, Irvine.
The only mention of Japan, Rosenberg said, came in a story about American servicemen from the Korean War seeking respite at Japanese baths attended to by "'plump Japanese girls in pale blue play skirts.'"
There were several ceremonies in Hawaii to remember the attack.
The one at Pearl Harbor was only for the Navy, which had recently installed a small platform and flagpole at the sunken wreck of the USS Arizona. Other memorials, including a Catholic mass at a cathedral and a ceremony at a national cemetery in Honolulu, remembered the Pearl Harbor dead alongside those killed in World War II and the Korean War.
Some even had trouble remembering Pearl Harbor at all.
A reporter for The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., found that only three of 23 people interviewed on the city's main street remembered why the day was significant. Even in Hawaii, some were unaware. A reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin found that six of 15 people polled on Dec. 7 didn't know it was the anniversary.
Rosenberg noted Pearl Harbor was the opening shot in a long war in which more than 400,000 Americans died. She said few in the early 1950s felt a need to elevate those who died on Dec. 7 when so many had been killed in World War II and the Korean War.
"It's only later on I think that it comes to have this singular status," said Rosenberg, whose book "A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory" examines how Americans have looked back on the attack over the years.
Editorials recalled how the day marked the beginning of World War II for the U.S., but they also cited Pearl Harbor as an example of the peril facing the nation from communism and the Soviet Union.
"We still — and without logical cause — are deluded into thinking that we can meet the Red menace without sacrificing any of the luxuries of peacetime living," said the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's Dec. 7 editorial. "If we persist in this delusion we are heading as surely as the sun rises in the morning toward another Pearl Harbor — and one from which it will be even more difficult to recover than it was 10 years ago."
There are obvious differences between the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. For one, Japan, a nation-state, aimed only at military targets during its bombing in 1941. Sixty years later, al-Qaida, a terrorist group, hijacked commercial airlines and flew them into civilian targets, as well as the Pentagon.
Some argue the comparison has caused the nation great harm.
John Dower, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Japan, argues in a 2010 book "Cultures of War" that "pervasive" use of the analogy helped Americans believe they could thwart the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks with "brute force" the way the U.S. and its allies had defeated Japan, Germany and Italy in World War II.
This contributed to America turning to fight al-Qaida with conventional military force, instead of primarily treating the terror network as a group of criminals, he wrote.
"More than undiscerning and counterproductive, this response was a disaster," he wrote.
But for New York City firefighters who visited the USS Arizona Memorial in August, the comparison was immediate and irresistible.
"In New York, we have monuments set up in all the boroughs with the names of the fallen — first responders and civilians," said John Carroll, a retired firefighter who was in Hawaii to promote a three-mile run honoring a fellow firefighter who died in the attacks. "So when you see the names on the memorial here, it brings back a lot of similarities and feelings of sadness."
"Everybody pulled together to make sure anybody that was injured or survived was helped, that people were taken care of," he said. "People were coming out of the woodwork to lend a helping hand and do whatever they could, just like what happened here back in 1941. Everybody just pulled together."