Seventy-eight years ago today, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor.
The toll was immense. About 2,400 service members were killed, and nearly 1,200 were wounded. As has been often told — but perhaps is less frequently said these days — that military action finally prompted the United States to enter the world war then engulfing the globe.
It’s difficult to imagine the Twentieth Century, or indeed our lives today, with the looming specter of World War II. The war literally changed the map of our world, reshaped the international order, and transformed the lives of a generation who took up arms to defend their country.
Those who can directly remember that fateful day — or as President Franklin Roosevelt memorably put it, “a date which will live in infamy” — are dwindling. Time plods inexorably on, and like those who earlier experienced World War I, those who went through the second global war are fewer and fewer in number.
That’s why it’s so important for all of us to remember Pearl Harbor, and remember how our country united then. We should also remember to thank and celebrate the remaining veterans of that conflict, as they are receptacles of an invaluable and irreplaceable living history. The term “Greatest Generation” has been used to the point of cliche, but it’s also not incorrect.
In this time of hyperpartisanship and polarization, the response of the United States to the Pearl Harbor attack must also be noted. While our role in the war had been debated earlier, with many declaring that the country was better on the sidelines, the direct attack instantly transformed the national debate. We were in World War II, and we were there to win it.
We spent immense reserves of blood and treasure to defeat our enemies in Europe and in the Pacific. We made the world safe for democracy. And the G.I. Bill and subsequent investments in the troops who returned home helped create a middle class that fueled immense economic growth. We all live in the world created by the Second World War, and by those who fought so bravely to win it.
The threats we face today are different. We must deal with faceless, nameless terrorist groups, some of them funded by foreign governments. We must deal with forces of inequity unleashed by our own economic growth. And we must deal with these threats as our shared agreement on truth and facts falters.
We can solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The response to Pearl Harbor proves that. Let’s look within ourselves to find that power once again.