America Learned the Wrong Lessons From Pearl Harbor—And the World Is Still Living With the Consequences

Sailors, planes and a huge ball of fire and smoke at wreckage-strewn Naval Air Station, Hawaii, following one of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Credit - The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

On Tuesday, December 7, 2021, we will remember Pearl Harbor, the 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base on Oahu, Hawaii, for the eightieth time. It is a ritual remembrance that has much to reveal about Americans’ present-day understanding of themselves and their country’s role in the world, especially at a moment when we are also trying to understand the exit from Afghanistan. What happens on such anniversaries reveals the double edge of a nation’s memory, which offers a sense of strength and unity even as it tends to foreclose a certain kind of future.

We will remember Pearl Harbor in unsurprising ways: there will be the customary memorial parade in Hawaii (the theme of which is to be Valor, Sacrifice, and Peace); television networks will run World War II programming; newscasters will introduce segments of documentary footage and interviews with some of the dwindling number of World War II veterans. These remembrances will be both solemn and sentimental: they will awaken the nostalgia of a confused country for a period of supposed clarity, when good and evil could be readily discerned and disentangled, when the U.S. wielded its military might in the service of liberating the world from its oppressors, and when the exercise of violent force brought about a definitive resolution.

Americans were being taught how to remember the events of December 7, 1941, almost as soon as they happened. Hours after learning of the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dictated the first draft of his War Message to Congress. He would revise the initial language, “a date which will live in world history,” into what would ultimately become the speech’s most well-known phrase, “a date which will live in infamy.” Merriam-Webster notes that Roosevelt’s language is frequently misremembered as “day of infamy.” But it also reports a yearly spike in lookups of the word infamy. In other words, the core message of treachery summoning a righteous vengeance has not been lost even if our recollection is imperfect and even if Americans have to be reminded annually of what the word actually means.

Infamy—perfidy and surprise—and the compulsion to exact revenge for it shaped the narrative from the beginning. In Cultures of War, the historian John W. Dower called the word infamy a “code” that would teach Americans how to understand not only Pearl Harbor but also, ultimately, 9/11, after which the word again appeared in newspaper headlines and speeches, thus indelibly linking the two attacks.

1n 1941, organizing chaotic violence and suffering into a story with meaning, propaganda posters soon gave graphic representation to these concepts. Sometimes featuring a fist raised in defiance or a tattered flag, they enjoined the American public to “Avenge Pearl Harbor” by making bullets or ships, buying war bonds, or joining the navy or coast guard “NOW.” Americans were exhorted to do all of these things so that those who perished at Pearl Harbor would not have “died in vain.”

Relentless calls to “remember” served as a goad to revenge, and the propagandists’ message gave us a vocabulary still in use today for framing American violence. In a representative example, a postcard features a sailor remarking to two shipmates as they watch a Japanese ship they’ve just shelled sink: “Just a little something ‘to remember Pearl Harbor.’” A poster, which proclaims “Make him pay for that day,” depicts a knife plunged into a calendar open to December 7, while another, portraying a blind serviceman, demands, “He CAN’T forget Pearl Harbor—Can you?”

Just a week after the attack, Don Reid and Sammy Kaye produced the song “Remember Pearl Harbor,” which proclaimed to its listeners that all those who died on December 7 died “for liberty.” When the journalist Eric Sevareid, recently returned from Europe, heard it, he mocked the song for its “saccharine melody” and referred to it as “Remember-r-r Pearl Harbor-r-r.” He was also disgusted by the atmosphere of the New York night clubs in which people danced to it.

The spectacle seemed to Sevareid typical of America’s cynical response to a war they had only just joined. He saw not patriotic fervor but a kind of visceral excitement: there was “money to burn,” fashion had seized on the “military motif,” black marketeers thrived, jingoistic newspaper “headlines blared the good news every time that three Jap planes went down,” and billboards told consumers that Wrigley’s gum and Lucky Strikes “had gone to war.” Americans were persuaded that the country “could produce its way to victory,” but they ignored the political and social realities of a world in flames. “Little men sneered at the Four Freedoms,” Sevareid recalled, “and the great vision of the century of the common man was sneered at as ‘globaloney.’”

That’s not the way we remember it now. We imagine that everything changed overnight. But, as the historian Richard W. Steele carefully documented, by early 1942, only two months after the attack, members of the Roosevelt Administration were already worrying that the public had lost interest. On February 16, Time ran a story with the headline, “THE PEOPLE: Smug, Slothful, Asleep?” It catalogued a list of warnings expressed by everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to James Landis, the executive head of Civil Defense, to Edward R. Murrow that, as Murrow put it, Americans “do not fully appreciate the need for speed … do not quite understand that if we delay too long in winning the victory we will inherit nothing but a cold, starving embittered world… Already there are signs that we’re coming to accept slavery and suppression as part of the pattern of living in this year of disgrace.” General Johnson was more succinct: “The general public . . . simply does not seem to give a tinker’s dam.”

The further irony is that it is far less convenient to remember the Pacific Theater than it is the European. The brutality of the war against Japan, often racially motivated on both sides, as Dower chronicled in War Without Mercy, and its ready association with the internment camps at home, does not easily fit into the narrative of the Good War we prefer to remember today. While Pearl Harbor was the catalyst for our entrance into the conflict, we have ever since tended to overlook the Pacific in favor of the war against the Nazis.

The real and immediate consequences of the war we have chosen to remember—chiefly the liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny—offered then and still offers us the most attractive version of ourselves. Yet that liberation, together with the establishment of a new world order, gave us a false impression that the violent force we inflict on others would inevitably yield virtuous results. Our memory also omits certain compromising details: our reluctance to enter the war on behalf of liberating anyone, our callousness toward the fate of Europe’s Jews, our short-lived interest in denazification, our exportation of segregation to postwar Europe.

In recent years, we have become increasingly enthralled with the idea that when Americans die, they die for liberty, and thus we are repeatedly committed to sending more righteous liberators to die—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—so that others will not have died “in vain.” We seem also to have grown to love the idea of being hated for our freedom, for “our way of life,” and this leads quite naturally to an obsession with American greatness and goodness. We can find aggrieved, reductive versions of this exceptionalist belief on t-shirts or in the lyrics of a pop song like Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?”

But we can also discern an influence on national policy. The assumption that when Americans fight they fight for liberty has a long history, but that assumption, together with a confidence in the exceptional nature of American violence as a mode of deliverance, has been used since World War II to frame and to justify a series of dubious military actions. This is especially true of our most recent conflicts. It clearly undergirded President George W. Bush’s victory declaration in the War on Terror on the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003: “In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world,” he told the assembled sailors, “And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope, a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘To the captives, come out; and to those in darkness, be free.’” Such faith—or a cynical appeal to it—likewise inspires us to cling amid the ruins to our unintentional, impermanent liberation of women in Afghanistan.

Commemoration is a natural, normal, even necessary part of any culture. Remembrance can forge a sense of collectiveness otherwise elusive, especially in a fractured democracy like our own. But when memory is so tightly yoked to righteous indignation—as is the case with Pearl Harbor or 9/11—it risks becoming pathological by obstructing the growth essential to a nation’s progress.

World War II was an aberration in so many ways: the existential threat posed by fascism, the unequivocal necessity of our participation, and the decisiveness of Allied victory are only the most obvious. When we remember Pearl Harbor, we find ourselves in the position of Orpheus, suddenly mistrusting Hades’ bargain, compelled to look back, only to discover that Eurydice has vanished. Betrayed by the last twenty years, we grasp in vain to retrieve an elusive glory. Our tragic postwar mistake was in thinking that the consequences of World War II could be endlessly duplicated. Over the years we have somehow developed a capacity to be surprised when American military might doesn’t establish, as it once helped to do, a new world but instead, after twenty wasteful years of occupation, fitful nation-building, and unfounded confidence, are left right back where we started. There is a cruel and particular irony in the paradox that a country the imagination of which has always been knit so tightly to the future—to the seductive dream of beginning anew—now finds itself in the position of hoping that history will miraculously repeat itself.