The 80th Anniversary of “A Day That Will Live in Infamy” Slipped Right Past Me
Okay, granted I was only six years old at the time, but I remember the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that destroyed 80% of our Pacific Fleet. Franklin Roosevelt used that phrase in a speech to Congress and the American people.
The gravity of the moment was largely lost over the decades because we won in the long run, but that outcome was very much at risk in December of 1941. Although military officers still wore well-shined riding boots (including spurs), the technology of war had seen immense change.
Having wearied our way through to the conclusion of World War One, a trench-war fought and won largely on horse power a mere 23 years hence, who would have envisioned a mass air-attack from aircraft carriers or conceived of the submarine warfare already underway in Europe. Hitler’s blitzkrieg tank warfare, supported by airstrikes was rolling across the European continent.
Germany immediately declared war and the race was on.
So far as I can tell, WWII and the War of 1812 were the only times America was attacked in its 245 year history. As a nation, we were (and are) attackers, seldom the attacked. I’ve mentioned in other writing that in those 245 years, we have been at war all but 23 of them. I can’t lay my hands on that article at the moment, but it’s true. That’s an astounding achievement, of which I was blissfully unaware. I would guess you were equally uninformed.
The shock of the Japanese attack was magnified by what had been already going on in Europe for three years. Americans had that haunting feeling that we’d be back in Europe too soon again and, at that time, there were many who admired Hitler, Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford among them.
But Pearl Harbor ended the conversation.
WWII was the last war to unite rather than divide Americans.
The reasons for that are clear to me. America is the only country I know of that is entirely made up of immigrants and the preponderance of our forefathers are European. We had a connection to Europe that was lacking in the wars to come in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those nations were (and are) truly foreign to us. For those who could afford it the university graduation gift was a tour of Europe. We had kin there and a sense of belonging by grand-parentage that was not largely felt in Asia or the Middle East.
Every war we fought since was a political war and the importance of a ‘domino effect’ threatening the spread of communism is pretty abstract when you’re asked to send a son into combat. Wars are deeply unpopular, particularly when you can’t win the damned things.
You have to be pretty old to remember Korea or Vietnam.
But you have to be old as hell to remember World War Two. It was everyone’s battle. My dad was too old to enlist, but he went to the Douglas Aircraft Plant out near O’Hare Field to work in the woodshop, building interiors for DC-3s. Mom was home with two kids, but she rationed what food we had and saved bacon-grease in tin cans to donate for munitions. Everyone bought War Bonds and had Victory Gardens. Our family were staunch Republicans, but all that was put aside to support Franklin Roosevelt. His weekly radio ‘fireside chats’ were attentively listened to by Americans of both political stripes.
We won that war for Europe and the banner of freedom because we were united, from the troops all the way to Rosie the Riveter. Every war since then has divided Americans and made the world nervous about our apparent goal of expanding empire. The world has had its fill of empire and hungers to be left the hell alone.
Who knows? perhaps it’s time to deliver that gift in time for Christmas.